Arriving in Greece is like arriving on the face of the moon. You feel that you have been transported the 200,000 miles closer to the sun, as you fumble desperately for your sunglasses. Photographers often make the assertion that the light in Greece is unlike anywhere else in the world. Everything is bathed in a blinding gold. It is easy to imagine this sublime landscape as the turf upon which the legendary warriors, barefoot nymphs, and Olympian gods once tread.
But then your cab from the airport takes you past IKEA and other outlet stores, and then the Holiday Inn, gingerly introducing you to the polluted, industrial city of Athens. The tourist’s first impression is usually something like, “No wait, we must have taken a wrong turn somewhere.” By the time you and your suitcase have been deposited on the sidewalk in front of your hotel, your dreams and expectations of a city worthy of Athena have been shattered. Only the Acropolis- though the Parthenon might be largely hidden by smog and scaffolding- reminds you that you have in fact made it to Athens.
Every time I arrive in Athens that is generally how it goes: first I am astounded, then I am disappointed. But slowly, as the days pass by and I gradually penetrate the city’s outside surface, my amazement returns. No, none of the city’s blue dumpsters are used exclusively for recycling. Yes, emaciated dogs still wander the streets. Yes, you must cling to your wallet for all you are worth. But, my God, there are so many magnificent elements to this city and its culture that you will never find anywhere else.
Take the tomato, for instance. You will never find a tomato like the ones that grow in Greece. When ripe and juicy, they are beyond perfect. In their divine regality, they strip the American fruit that calls itself a tomato of its dignity, leaving it humbled and humiliated.
Accordingly, you will never find a cheese that goes better with a tomato than the feta brought to you by the Greek countryside. I have learned that cheese in Greece can be consumed in more ways than almost any other product. It can be baked or fried, or served fresh and untouched. It can be eaten at any meal and consumed in combination with almost any other product. For example, the tyropita, a cheese pie made with phyllo, functions as both a very common breakfast and the perfect on-the-go snack. Fried cheese, or saganaki, makes for a delicious appetizer. A slab of feta completes almost any meal, as it can be broken apart and sprinkled atop any dish- whether it may be a salad, a meat dish, or a pasta dish. And, of course, cheese with fruit, typically melon or berries, makes for a finger-licking dessert.
The only Greek food product that is perhaps more multifaceted than cheese, is the olive oil. Renowned worldwide for its high quality, Greek olive oil is drizzled over salads, used for frying vegetables and meats, and used in virtually every baked dish. Of course, tomatoes, feta, and olive oil makes for the ultimate trifecta. As I soak my bread in the leftover salad slosh- a truly heavenly slosh that these three ingredients leave behind- I am reminded that there is nowhere on the globe like Greece. Due to the high consumption of fruits and vegetables, combined with the high ratio of monounsaturates (olive oil) over saturated lipids (butter, lard), Greek cuisine consistently ranks as the world’s healthiest cuisine. As I will be living in Greece for the year, I find that fact to be quite comforting.
The widespread prevalence of farmer’s markets is a concept unique to Greece. Every neighborhood in Athens has its very own weekly laiki, or outdoor market, comprised of rows of stalls brimming with fresh produce. Though I have spent many summers in Greece, I have never witnessed the abundance of grapes and figs that characterizes the September laiki. Each and every locally grown product is unlike anything I have seen in the States, but strawberries exemplify the case in point. Cultivated without chemicals, additives, or pesticides, the average Greek strawberry is a third of the size of the blubbery, misshapen American strawberry and, as a result, much redder, tastier, and more satisfying.
In fact, the idea of things being much smaller than they are in the States is a common theme here in Greece. With a much smaller hood and effectively no trunk, your typical Greek car is comically smaller than its American counterpart. SUVs are nowhere to be found. The American “soccer mom car” does not have a Greek equivalent. Instead, Greek cars can be crammed into imagined parking spaces on the sidewalks, or maneuvered down one-way streets with vehicles double-parked on both sides. With gas prices sky-rocketing and Athens being a city comprised of nook and crannies, microcars, aka bubblecars, are the way to go.
Correspondingly, the people that fit into these cars are also of the smaller variety. While perusing a Greek shopping mall, the American is horrified to find that he or she has moved up a clothing size. What is considered “Small” in the States, is considered “Medium” in Greece. Seats on the metro, in the hair salons, and in the restaurants- and yes, even their toilet seats- are considerably downsized. The sidewalks are narrower, and here and there you will find trees planted directly in the middle of the sidewalk, directly in your path of walking. As you squeeze between the tree and the curb, careful not to set off any car alarms, you wonder how Americans came to so closely resemble their bloated strawberries.
Perhaps it is because the Greek volta, the traditional after-dinner stroll, does not have an American analog. Or perhaps it is simply because Greek portions are noticeably smaller than those in the States. A venti iced coffee at a Greek Starbucks is about an inch shorter than its American original. Appetizers are emphasized over entrées and they are meant to be shared by the table, not scarfed down individually. Fast food places like Wendy’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken flopped shortly after their introduction into the Athens restaurant scene. McDonald’s has survived the cultural hostility to fast food, but you will never find out-the-door lines like you might in the States.
Even so, the American obsession with counting calories has not penetrated the cultural atmosphere of Greece. Perhaps keeping track of calories just seems pointless and unnecessary, given that Greek cuisine is so widely esteemed as nutritious and healthy. In fact, the idea of a menu complete with estimated calorie content would seem laughable to a taverna owner, especially because many tavernas plan their menus on a day-by-day basis depending upon the availability of seasonal products.
It seems to me that the Greeks have dodged the global wave of obesity primarily because of their unwavering emphasis on moderation. It is unusual to find skim milk, reduced-fat feta, or sugarless baklava in the Greek kitchen. Greeks eat the real things- the good things- in small quantities. There is no Greek equivalent to Costco, or Sam’s Club, or BJ’s. Lacking the American urge to stock up, Greek families shop at local grocery stores every couple of days. The shopping carts are smaller and there is no use for a bag boy.
Perhaps this reflects a unique emphasis on the present that Americans have somehow lost within their fast-paced world. In a society that is so future-oriented, we somehow lose sight of the present tense. Although the current economic crisis in Greece has exposed a fatal flaw in the Greek mentality- the country’s inability to plan for the long-term, to rise above individual interest and grasp a greater good- there is an underlying exquisiteness beneath it all.
The current economic crisis denotes that, within this globalizing age of modernity, the Greeks refused to lose focus on the here-and-now. They chose to seize the day, to appreciate and live the present for what it was worth, and face the consequences later on. Now, as the country turns to face these consequences, struggling with harsh austerity measures and wading through international condemnation, we will see just how resilient and enduring this culture really is. But then again, as you exit the metro and stumble upon yet another ancient excavation site, or meander through the stalls of the Monastiraki that are nestled neatly amidst the ruins, the resilience and endurance of this culture seems unmistakable.