Friday, 10 December 2010

Stuck in the middle of misconceptions

Being a True Brit but living in Greece for more than two decades, I usually find myself having to fend off a flurry of misconceptions about one nation or the other. And it's not just from one side - I'm usually stuck in the middle of the mistaken ideas of the Greeks about the English, and England's equally misplaced concepts of the Greeks. Oh the joys of living the Life Bilingual.

Whenever I reconnect with an old friend through Facebook and they discover I now live in Athens, their automatic reaction always seems to be "Ooh, lucky you!" (or at least it was until the Greek economy went officially down the toilet).

In their minds, I was the lucky escapee from Colditz Britain, having fled my homeland's soggy shores for sunnier climes, probably living next to a beachside taverna, sipping ouzo and playing backgammon, surrounded by colourful locals grinning through their moustaches as they randomly yell "Opa!" and smash the crockery.

And of course, don't forget that after a heaving plate of midday souvlaki we all hit our beds for an afternoon nap before heading out for more food, drink and complicated dancing some time after midnight. (Yeah, right. A swift sarny at my laptop followed by a train ride home to a pile of ironing is closer to my reality - if I'm lucky.)

These are my same countrymen who might look on in terror whenever they witness a couple of Greeks who spot each other on the London Underground, convinced that their loud rapid-fire speech and bristling facial hair are a sure sign of blood about to be spilled. It's not, it's just the thrill of spotting a fellow Ellinas in a foreign land - and the conversation nearly always starts with an enthusiastic "Yeia sou, Patrioti!" (Rough translation: Hello! A fellow Greek - thanks to God!).

And they may be the same Brits who are shocked to find that Athens' Syntagma Square is miles from the beach, and there are no sunbeds around the Acropolis.

But, to be fair, the Greeks more than make up for those misplaced misconceptions with a huge mountain of scurrulous stereotypes about the Brits.

For a start, one of the first things you'll hear when they learn you're from the UK is always: "Well, of course, it rains constantly there, doesn't it?". True, as any Brit will tell you, we do get more than our fair share of the wet stuff but now and again the clouds do clear and a strange yellow round thing can be spotted in the sky.

My own beloved Ovver Arf, being Samos-born and Athens-bred, was convinced that he would go rusty or grow mould when visiting my family for the first time. It was November, and he was heading for England, he was bound to spend the entire six weeks in a state of constant sogginess, wasn't he? (As it turned out, it rained on just one day - my birthday - during that first visit in 1989.)

Then there is the idea that everything stops for tea in England - at 4 o'clock in the afternoon (mind you, the cucumber sandwiches cliche seems have to passed by most Greeks' radar - I'm consider a madwoman for suggesting anything between two slices of bread beyond the ubiquitous ham and cheese). Some Greeks still expect us drink our brew out of dainty porcelain cups, poured from a silver teapot polished by 'Our Man Jeeves', as we elegantly stick our little fingers out. (It must come as a horrible disappointment to them to see me plonk a Tesco's teabag in a mug and throw the resulting brew down my throat with all the poise of a hippo in a hurry.)

Then there is the idea that the Brits are cold fish who throw their young out into the cruel world the minute they recover from the first squeaks and spots of puberty. This must be the one misconception that REALLY gets to me. I don't know how typical I am, but my family is a tight-knit one, oozing with emotion. Passions run high and hearts are warm in our little clan, despite the frosty weather, and I'm probably the nearest thing to a cold fish of the lot of us (please someone, tell me it ain't so).

Yes, we generally do encourage our children to move out and make a life for themselves before they hit 30 (though that looks set to change in light of the latest news from the homeland). However, on the other hand, we do usually manage to acknowledge that our offspring are no longer infants before we are actually dribbling away in our dotage.

Not so in Greece - and believe me, I know. My mother-in-law still sometimes refers to my 44-year-old Ovver Arf as "to paidi" (the child). And at least you get to choose your own furniture when you're not still firmly tied to your mother's apron (and purse) strings.

I have to admit, however, that it's sometimes fun to play up to those misconceptions.

So, bear with me as I nibble on a digestive, drink a dainty cuppa (with pinky duly raised) and utter "Oh, I say" and "Bloody hell, Nigel!" in my best cut-glass Rodean accent (not bad for a graduate of Balcombe Road Comprehensive, eh?).


  1. I had the same kind of crap when I moved back to England from Canada - did I see "real" Indians? Could I say something in "Canadian"? Did I live in a teepee? Etc.

    (Answers being:
    1. yes
    2. you have got to be kidding me
    3. no)

  2. Great post. During the height of the recent healthcare debates here the misconceptions about the NHS would have been funny if everyone here had access to any healthcare at all. The UK system was constantly referred to as what would happen under Obama - a socialist, even Communist system which gives inadequate care and no one has any choice.

  3. Those misconceptions exist strangely in a world with so much instant information available to educate! So many people ask me strange questions when they know I am from Sri Lanka. I do know the war gave us bad, bad press for decades but we are not swinging from the trees!!! I always laugh it off!!!