Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Celebrating our differences (whilst banging my head against the wall)

I like the Greeks. I love their lust for life, their too loud voices, their sense of community, their connection with their past, their unashamed Mediterranean nature, their appetite for….well, pretty much everything.

Let’s face it, after 25 years here, I’d be a fool (or a masochist) if I didn’t.

I’d like to think that I’m pretty flexible and have assimilated with Greek society, without abandoning my innate Englishness (though my definition  of Englishness is probably very different from that of certain others I could mention – but that’s another story for another day).

But no matter how much well-meaning friends tell me “Ελληνίδα έχεις γίνει” - Translation: You’ve become Greek (I haven’t, just as Uncle Mitsos who’s been living in leafy Surrey for the past four decades hasn’t forgotten to yell “Opa!” and give us an impromptu sirtaki on the dance floor at the drop of a plate), there are some things I will never get used to. Even in those nearest and dearest (and therefore more annoying) to me.

Here are just a few of  the English/Greek differences that never the twain will meet, but which I have somehow had to learn to live with in order to stay sane…  and married.

Timing (or should that be ‘Ti Ming?’)
I am borderline anal-retentive when it comes to time. If I have a date with someone I will be like a frog on hot coals if I am prevented from setting off in good time to arrive at least quarter of an hour earlier than agreed. I have spent many an hour and additional Euros on that extra (solo) coffee whilst I wait for Greek friends to stroll up. It’s taken me more than two decades not to have my suitcase packed and waiting in the corner a full week before any planned travel (but I still have the contents sorted and folded in my head, ready for packing at the earliest point which will not invoke merciless mockery from the Beloved). And I insist on getting to the airport before the Check-In desk has even acknowledged the existence of my flight as a possible future event.
The love of my life is Greek. Actually, in this respect, he’s SuperGreek. His favourite word (and the one that drives me furthest up the walls) is “θα” stuck in front of any verb, indicated that things “will” get done at some vague point in the undefined future. He views my obsession with being ready or arriving early as an amusing foible from which he can derive even more entertainment value by delaying everything as much as possible.
For him, time is not to be managed, but to be filled with a multitude of piffling tasks: making coffee, smoking a fag, enjoying a full body stretch and scratch, staring out the window, smoking another cigarette, checking the weather forecast, phoning his mother, shouting at the television, looking for his lighter….   you get the picture. All the while keeping a sneaky eye on me squirming in the corner as I feel the seconds, the minutes, the hours of the day dripping away to be lost in the sea of time.
It’s not that he doesn’t get things done. He does. But it’s all at the last minute, with all the stress that entails. He’s the King of the Last Minute. And, as it turns out, I must have the constitution of an ox to have survived so far.

Birthdays vs Name Days
I have no Greek Name Day. My name was not handed down to me down the generations to honour my grandmother. It’s not taken from the Bible, or even from Greek mythology. It has a Latin root, and therefore does not feature in the gallery of Greek saints each of which have their own special day of the year.
I do, however, have a birthday. Unfortunately for me, it’s just days before the Other Half’s Name Day which inevitably means lots of well wishes in the first week of December – for him. Whilst I sit there smiling patiently and smiling indulgently, inwarding seething and waiting wanting to scream “Oi! Where’s my cake?” (The answer to which will probably be “You tell us” as it’s the one celebrating who’s supposed to provide the treats.)
Back in the days Before Parenthood, we used to throw a big party to mark my birthday/his Name Day, and I tried – believe me, I did – not to be bothered by the panoply of whisky bottles and other male appropriate gifts that piled up next to the paltry selection of packages from those close enough or thoughtful enough to think of me too.
Though birthdays have become more widely celebrated in the years since I’ve been in Greece, they still play second fiddle to the Name Day, and all too often are barely acknowledged. And if you’re expecting the fanfare, fuss and special cards that are showered on significant birthdays – 18, 21, 40, etc. – in the UK, forget it. And as for special birthday cards, well let’s just say it’s not one of Hallmark’s prime markets.
Oh, and another thing. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking it’s enough to wish your cousin-in-law “Many years!” on his Name Day. If you don’t want to experience a full-blown Greek mama cold shoulder, you’d better make sure you call her to extend your wishes to her too.

Midday, Afternoon, Evening – it’s all relative
In the UK, we think of morning as being any time from when we get up up until 12:00 to be morning. Anything after that is afternoon, unless it’s after 6pm, by which time we’ve moved into evening. Simple,  right?
Think again.
In Greek, midday is usually considered to start at around 3pm and afternoon is probably until at least 8pm. The evening really only kicks off after 10pm.
(Come to think of it, that might be what’s at the root of my timing issues with my Greek friends.)

Coffee – commitment or quick pit stop?
You average Greek can make a coffee last at least forty minutes. I think my record (on a very good day, with extreme effort on my part) is 14. And I’m much better than I used to be, and streets ahead of visiting Brits.
Perhaps it’s because that it’s only in recent years that we Brits (or some of us) have actually learned to make and appreciate real coffee. Most of us chuck the brown stuff down our throats as fast as we can without fatally scalding our gullets.
Greeks make an art of savouring their coffee – especially the thick, rich, grainy Elliniko variety that simply cannot be rushed. Try downing that in a hurry and you’ll find yourself choking on the grinds that collect the bottom of the cup. Believe me, I know. From personal, public and highly embarrassing experience. The trick is to sip it with a slurp and a sigh of satisfaction, in between your animated discussion about politics, football or plans for world domination, or alternating with carefully considered moves in your game of tavli (backgammon to us Barbarians) or loud comments to whoever will listen on what’s written in your morning paper.
I’ll admit that the Greeks have probably got it right on this front – but I just can’t stretch out my cup to Hellenic time. And anyway, I’ll probably be too busy itching to get moving in order to be stupidly early for that appointment to savour the brew.

“You don’t eat no meat? No problem, I’ll make lamb”
It may be a line from “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” but I’ve lived it first hand.
Despite the cornucopia of fresh fruit and veg in their traditional cuisine, most Greeks don’t really consider a meal to be a “real” meal if it doesn’t involve meat in some form or another. I seem that flash of panic in the eyes of friends and family when told I don’t eat meat ahead of some festive gathering. Usually followed by a barrage of incredulous questions about why, how, what (“What? Not even chicken?”) and even puzzlement as they try to reconcile my dietary eccentricity with the fact that I’m built something like an East German shotputter circa 1974.
I always assure the hostess that no special effort needs to be made for me. The contents of the average Greek dinner table usually more than cover my needs – pies, cheeses, salads, and much more. But some take my vegginess as a challenge to their skills in the kitchen. One was a well-meaning aunt who presented me with a beautiful, golden brown, gently bubbling dish of to enjoy while the others tucked into their roast suckling pig. My very own…   ham soufflé.

Don’t bore us, get to the chorus
Greeks love to talk. And Greeks who have attained some position and sense of self-importance love to talk even more. That’s why, almost every public event – from the opening of the school year for a bunch of six-year-olds to a concert staged like the local pensioners’ choir – will have lengthy preludes and votes of thanks topping and tailing the action that you’ve come to see.
This is usually accompanied by me hiding somewhere in the wings or the back of the crowd rolling me eyes at hubby, hissing “Gerroff!” in the direction of the stage and making subtle wrist-slashing gestures, whilst my Other Half gently kicks me and shoots me warning looks that could kill whilst feigning his own show of respect and attention to those droning on and on…  and on.

The “Thank you” minefield
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a rude person. I’m quite polite, if a little impatient. I was brought up to say ‘please’, ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ like most middle-England children of my generation.  But even that can be a bit of an issue.
It took my father-in-law many years to stop getting offended every time I said ‘thank you’ for something. And, like most Brits, I say it a lot. I see it as simple courtesy, due to even to those closest to me. He saw it as a cold, formal acknowledgement of something which was taken for granted.
It’s to his credit that he managed to adapt to my habit faster than I managed to quit it.
To be honest, I still haven’t. And it’s not unheard of for me to apologise to a lamppost I’ve walked into.

But despite the differences, I have one big advantage. I’m foreign – and as such there are things I can get away with that my Greek girlfriends would never be forgiven for.

Just don’t tell the mother-in-law.


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