Greek Flavor

I am the sore thumb that walks the streets of Athens. Even with my hair dyed darker and while wearing my coolest pair of sunglasses, I still stick out. No matter how I try to go incognito, employing chameleon-like efforts to blend into the local look, everything about me screams American. Thus, you can imagine my delighted surprise upon discovering, while out for a frappé the other afternoon, that I somehow knew every note to the Greek pop song blaring from the café’s sound system. I didn’t really know the words, but I was able to hum the tune perfectly. As my cheeks glowed with pride, I gave myself a few figurative pats on the back for my smooth and natural assimilation into the local culture.

But after about five minutes of silently applauding myself, a horrifying realization dawned upon me: the song that had made its way onto tonight’s playlist was Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me.” I had been smugly humming along to a classic American song. Not too clever. In my defense, a clear soprano had replaced Chad Kroeger’s deep raspy voice, the tune was the same, but the instrumentals were completely different, and the language was Greek.

Greece has a way of taking things in their initial form, swallowing them whole, and then spitting them out in a configuration that’s nearly unrecognizable from its original. Whether this phenomenon results from the cultural mentality, the physical climate, or the deep-rooted history that lurks just about everywhere, the city of Athens bathes everything non-Greek in a new and unique light. Athens is not a homogenizing melting pot like many American cities, but a pungent cauldron that turns everything Greek.

Order a glass of Belvedere vodka at a posh Athenian bar, and you’ll see what I mean. You will be incensed and insulted to find that, though you can see the bottle roosting on the shelf directly behind him, the bartender has turned you down with that disconcerting flick of the chin. The trick is ordering Belvedere like a Greek: be sure to roll that “r” and to pronounce that silent “e.” He wasn’t rebuffing you; he really just had no idea what you were asking for.

Belvedere is among the countless other non-Greek words that have made their way into the Greek vocabulary and baptized themselves as Greek. There are the obvious ones, like piano (πιάνο) and computer (κομπούτερ), and the less obvious ones, like pantofla (παντόφλα) and valitsa (βαλίτσα), which simply come from the French words for slipper and suitcase: pantoufle and valise.

I often find myself staring at Greek DVDs for extended periods of time, painstakingly sounding out “Scarlett Johansson” or “Jake Gyllenhaal” in Greek graphemes. I’ve had similar experiences while perusing Greek bookstores. Startled first by the familiarity of a book cover, I’m soon humored to find myself sounding out something like “Huckleberry Finn” in Greek.

Generally, the Greeks do not dub American films and TV shows; they instead keep the original soundtrack intact and simply include subtitles. Athens has several new state-of-the-art movie theater complexes, but it would be criminal to see a movie in one of these when you have the summertime option of experiencing the outdoor movie theater. In fact, outdoor cinema just might be my favorite thing about summers in Greece, surpassing even the beautiful beaches for first place.

Though the summer sun can be blinding and oppressive, once the sun sets and the breeze picks up, there is no better place to enjoy the cool evening than an outdoor cinema. You can find them in neighborhood squares and green parks, or on the rooftops above shops, with breath-taking views of the Lykavittos and the Acropolis. I saw Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 over the summer, but was still able to feel that I was basking in the local culture. As I watched Hogwarts prepare for battle, and Harry seek out You-Know-Who, I sipped on my Fix beer and listened to the cicadas chirping in their cypress trees.

Side note. While tourists look to sample local beers like Fix and Alpha, you will rarely find a Greek with such a beverage. The unofficial beer of Greece is Heineken. Controlling 72 percent of the Greek beer market, Heineken can be found at any taverna, supermarket, or kiosk. Greeks will simply ask for a prasini (πράσινι), Greek for “green,” thereby taking an obvious import and making it seem like a local product.

This happens with a lot of non-Greek brands. Aside from the mastic-flavored toothpastes you will find at tourist traps, Greek toothpaste virtually does not exist. Instead, supermarkets and convenience stores sell your usual American varieties: Colgate, Crest, and Aquafresh. But the products still seem so Greek. For example, the tube of Colgate perched on my bathroom sink right now bears no resemblance to the products you will find at CVS. For starters, it is a quaint 75ml tube that is exponentially more adorable than the family-sized monstrosities I buy back home. It does not scream “EXTRA WHITENING” or “MINTY FRESH BREATH!” but instead has a darling lemon depicted above the solitary word “Herbal.” Beside the lemon, there’s a lovely bouquet of herbs, tied together neatly with a bow.

Greece’s version of the Big Mac, the Greek Mac, is something else so American that Athens has rendered so Greek. The only thing it has in common with its American counterpart is the two burger patties. Tzatziki (τζατζίκι)- that luscious yoghurt-cucumber spread- replaces the American cheese, while tomato slices sub in for the pickles. Then, a warm pita stands in for the usual three-part sesame seed bun. I’m worried the cashier might shout “Opa!” as he hands me my Greek Mac. And this is only the beginning of the non-Greek food products that Greece has transmogrified.

Nearly every block has its very own crêperie, whether it be a simple stall or a more elaborate takeaway restaurant. The Greek restaurant scene has taken Parisian crêpes and turned them into krepes (κρέπες), a quick street food that has spread like wildfire. Many entrepreneurial gyro places have simply expanded to include a few circular flat plates with which to make crêpes. Hence, a Greek crêpe will not involve ratatouille or asparagus, but could certainly include shaved chicken or pork, directly from the rotating gyro spit. You could even have it with tzatziki or the mustard-mayonnaise sauce (so creatively called σως, or sauce) that the Greeks love with their souvlaki. Another crowd pleaser are the crêpes filled with tomatoes and tirokeftedes (τυροκεφτέδες), or fried balls of traditional kasairi (κασαίρι) cheese.

Likewise, the Greeks have taken the French fry and endowed it with a variety of new functions. Unless you tell them otherwise, all gyro places assume that you would like French fries tucked into your gyro pita, completing the salty pork with some more salt. Ask for French fries with your sandwich from the Greek restaurant chain Everest and they will put the fries in your sandwich. Amongst the pizza varieties offered in the display case at your local pizza parlor, you will see slices topped with French fries. In fact, pizza in Greece usually takes on a uniquely Greek form. Order a plain old pizza at a taverna and it will most likely arrive at your table topped with olives, onions, green peppers, and feta. But be sure to try it before you consider sending it back.

Perhaps the most hilarious thing that the American will come across while traversing Athens is the new-and-improved Pizza Hut. I don’t know about you, but the Pizza Hut in my home town included an elaborate arcade. My mother would order our slices from the self-service counter, while my brothers and I would fight each other for use of the pin ball machines. Our table was almost always situated directly beside the air hockey table. In Athens, the tables in Pizza Hut have white tablecloths with rose-bouquet centerpieces. You will find sharply dressed waiters, soft jazz music, and dim lighting.

While Pizza Hut might don a classy facade here in Athens, basketball takes a turn for the worst. As you might have heard when Greece beat America in the 2006 Fiba World Championship, basketball has made quite a splash in Greece. Every high school, university, and neighborhood has a few competitive basketball teams to its name. Whereas you must reach deep into your pockets to attend a professional basketball game in the States, you can see the pros play for cheap here. During my freshman year at Boston College, Tyrese Rice, our starting point guard, used to sell out our arena. Ticket resale could often put admission to his games well over $100. When I studied in Athens as a junior, Rice was playing in Athens for the professional club Panionios, and of course I had to go see him play. The cost of a ticket was one euro. I wish I were kidding.

Basketball in Greece has been tainted with the thrill and bellicosity of most European sporting events. Only fans of the home team are permitted to attend home games, as assaults on fans of the opposing team are an inevitability. Despite this law, opposing fans still show up camouflaged in home-team paraphernalia and, predictably, fights here-and-there are still part of the experience. Fans compose catchy chants largely by stringing together obscenities and shout them continuously throughout the game. Such chants will be accompanied by drums and the heavy stamping of feet against bleachers. As confirmed by the skull-and-crossbone flags that blanket the stadium, along with the smoke bombs, the Greeks are preparing for war.

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It is unusual to find a girl at a Greek sporting event. Perhaps this is because attendants often light things on fire. Or perhaps this is because games are frequently paused because too many random objects have been hurled onto the particular playing ground, or terminated because too many fans have rushed into the game. One basketball game, fans rushed the court just to hug the players after an especially nice play.

From basketball to Colgate toothpaste to Nickelback songs, Greece can endow non-Greek entities with a uniquely Greek flavor- some sweet, others tart. When I recognize an American concept cloaked in this new Greek veneer, my feelings range. Sometimes I’m slightly frustrated with the distortions and contortions. Other times, I’m very humored (case in point: Pizza Hut). Or, when jogging through a park and watching kids play knock out on the basketball court, I’m sometimes a little homesick.

But most of the time, I’m just downright proud to see a piece of home.

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12 Comments

Filed under Melanie Graf

12 responses to “Greek Flavor

  1. Melanie, I loved reading this. I don’t know your current story (like what you’re doing there…school, business, pleasure, not sure) but I know that you must be having the time of your life. I, too, love the not-Greek Greek things about the motherland. Like the toothpaste, and the πράσινες and the gum! Soak it up 🙂

  2. Cleo Marantis

    I was very impressed by your analysis and comparison of American vs Greek venues. Now I’d be interested to know of how other countries fare in comparison. Great job Melanie.
    Love Cleo

  3. Cleo Marantis

    Melanie,
    Your ability to describe mundane Greek products and events in a spirited and amusing manner is brilliant. Keep up this outstanding entertaining while explaining and describing daily Greek products and events.
    Pappou Zachary

  4. Gail

    Love this, Mela!! Your writing and poignant observations make for great entertainment. Well done. Makes me want to travel to Greece again soon!

  5. Melanie, I love it! I’m going to share it with my friends and family on my blog. I’ve definitely started to notice things like this too!

  6. M. P.

    You’re right, Melanie! Everything is derived from the Greeks (as Gus Portokalos informs us many times in My Big Fat Greek Wedding), but if, by chance, something isn’t, then the Greeks will make it Greek!

  7. Katerina

    What an entertaining blog! Thank you, Melanie. Enjoy the uniqueness that is Greece!

  8. Demetrios

    Um, which mother was ordering pizza at which pizza hut? And which child’s head served as the air hockey puck?

  9. DE

    Melanie,
    You have a delightfully funny style. The stories make me laugh. At this stressful and depressing time in Greece we need more of your attitude and take on life. Keep it up.

  10. Cousin Karen

    Wow, Melanie….I thought I wrote well! I loved everything about your article and was quite entertained! Hoping to send my baby over this summer for camp. This is convincing me more and more to do so….and of course, I’ll have to make sure I’m nearby. Can’t wait to keep reading! Excellent job!

  11. Melanie,
    Very humorous and entertaining – I can picture you verbally describing your observations and laughing at the same time! You know how many times I’ve been to Greece and yet I’ve never noticed many of these things. Greece certainly is a unique place. Keep up the writing – I’ll be looking for your next story!

  12. Chappy Graf

    Loved it Melanie! Will be checking in to read more! Have sent the blog address to the Strafford Grafs for reading!
    love, aunt Chappy

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