On the first morning I’ve woken up in Greece, I’m standing in the middle of an aisle at Lidl. I don’t have a cart yet because I’m deciding whether this is the right place to shop for the essentials I need to restock the family apartment that has been unoccupied for eight months. Also, I didn’t have a Euro coin which is needed to click into a slot on the shopping cart to release it from the lock.
Pallets of cans, jars and complexly folded waxpaper cartons are stacked on metal shelves separated by bins filled with jumbles of house slippers, underwear and children’s toys. It is essentially tiny K-Mart but everything is labeled in Greek, which must look like hieroglyphics to the surprising number of European tourists shopping here. (Incidentally, if a Greek can’t decipher something he doesn’t, of course, say “It’s Greek to me” but rather “Looks like Chinese.”)
I poke around seeking bed sheets and realize that even though I can read Greek, I don’t read metrics. Are the 120 centimeter ones adequate? But before I can ask a European to stretch their hands apart to demonstrate the length, there is an intercom announcement: “Please place all your items on the conveyer belt. The store will close in a few minutes and will reopen at one o’clock.” Wait, what? It is 10:45 on a Friday morning. The store closes for two hours in the middle of the day? Welcome to a different set of rules.
Abandoning Lidl, I decide a local store will be better. The woman at the counter is pleasant enough but openly chuckles at my first inquiry about the sheets. She corrects my Greek and comments that all Greek-speakers from America speak with the same odd accent. Now this is something that I’ve always known. Despite being fluent, I speak with a “prophora” – an accent. Even though my first words were in Greek and I was sent home from kindergarten with a note pinned to my shirt with instructions that more English should be spoken at home.
The woman admitted she had never travelled abroad and did not speak any other language herself. So, maybe instead of being petty, she really just didn’t have much experience. She didn’t realize that, for example, most native English speakers can identify someone for whom English is a second language and even determine by their accent whether they were Italian, French, or just from Brooklyn for that matter.
Thankfully most Greeks are much more open-minded. Later, that same day the young mechanic changing my car tires soberly explained the brand he would use. When I told him that instead I wanted a set of Pirelli supersofts, he laughed and joked “What are you Lewis Hamilton?” I’d found a connection with a reference to Formula One racing that would have been lost on almost any American, even an auto mechanic.
I was also curious enough to attend my first Greek condo association meeting for our building after seeing the notice posted on the elevator door (photo above). The gathering was in the lobby, an area just bigger than a London phone booth. There are nearly thirty units in the building but only about five owners, all men, showed up and we moved to the outdoor vestibule to take advantage of the evening air. I was warmly greeted and asked if I needed any help during my stay this summer. There was a genuine interest in me as a person and what I liked to do and what my plans were. No one commented on my accent.
The only order of business was to elect a new treasurer who is responsible for collecting the association fees and paying the vendors that maintain the building. Themios, the current treasurer was feed up with the task and constant complaints. Meetings like this in the U.S. can get contentious and even ugly. And while there were voluble speakers with outsized gesticulations, there was a decency in the interactions with each other. It was clear after a while that no one wanted to take on the role, so I offered my nomination. This was first met with blank stares until they realized that I was making a joke. Smiles and laughs all around. In the end, there wasn’t any decision other than to reschedule the meeting for the next day. The Greek government is run pretty much the same way. Themios and I made plans to get together for coffee.
At some point each of us is either the odd-one-out or among those in-the-know. If you are unfamiliar with the rules or feel like everyone else is in on a joke that you don’t get, roll with it. Revel in it. Find the humor in the situation and laugh at yourself a bit. You just may learn something about yourself and grow.
If you are one of the tribe and see an outsider, reach out to her. Just because she has an accent or doesn’t know how to properly order at Starbucks, doesn’t tell you anything about her intelligence or personality. Find some common ground. Build bridges instead of digging moats.
And if you don’t want your feet sticking out in the air, go with the 160 cm sheets.
I have a variety of interests and enjoy sharing my reflections on them here.