(Editor’s note: This intro post is Pt. 1 of a two-part primer to help expats integrate into Greek society. You can jump to Pt. 2 here.)
I will never forget my college roommate from Maryland visiting me here in Greece one summer. She had never been abroad before and my local friends and I were eager to show her everything we possibly could about Greek society, but also felt the need to mess with her head a bit, as college kids are apt to do.
She was uncharacteristically reserved in what to her was completely unfamiliar territory – new language, new foods, new attitudes, new people and new places – so she was a somewhat easy target. As she was normally the one playing jokes and ruthlessly teasing others, it was a bit odd to see her out of sorts and not her usual outspoken and confident self, at least at the beginning of her stay here.
Looking back, I realize that my friend was just feeling a bit out of sorts eager to blend in and not look silly or offend anyone.
However, my 19-year-old self didn’t ponder it too much and decided it would be amusing to teach her a bunch of wrong things to do and say.
My friend didn’t question much of anything because a). we didn’t have internet access, so she couldn’t easily research the validity of our outlandish pronouncements and b). she wanted to be super-respectful of the new culture in which she had landed.
She narrowed her eyes skeptically a few times but, ultimately, eager not to offend, she pretty easily accepted our random claims. For instance, her eyes widened in some horror but she didn’t question me when I told her that the juicy hamburger she had just bitten into was actually made from baby goat meat (not true) and that every time you order a drink in a bar you have to do a special (and very peculiar) dance (again, not true).
Thankfully, she forgave me for this and other nonsense and we are still friends today.
Adjusting to everything being completely different
We did all the stuff college young adults do on summer break do here in Greece – went out dancing till 5 a.m (grunge, not techno, parakalo – that’s ‘please’ in Greek), ate gyros and tzatziki (garlic-cucumber yoghurt sauce) and caught a black smoke spewing ferry to an island, drinking cheap canned beer under the shade of the faded emergency life rafts, sitting perilously next to the insanely low railings around the deck as we made the nine-hour journey to Santorini.
(The ’90s were a simpler time, especially here in Greece, with much cheaper ferry tickets, and hardly any boat safety rules. Plus, Instagram didn’t exist yet, so one could still visit fabled Santorini without booking in advance and feeling like a sardine!)
So, for my friend – let’s call her Nicole – almost everything was different than where she was from and where we went to university in the United States.
Greek facial expressions, hand gestures, tones of voice and the language itself are unique and not easily decipherable (much like the Greek alphabet). Many a newcomer has felt frustrated and confused here in Greece for longer than newcomers in other countries, which have more recognizable alphabets, gestures, speaking styles and so on.
This is why many advise expats to start learning at least the basics of conversational Greek and the alphabet before arriving. I highly recommend sweet and smart Demetra as a teacher who will help you learn the foundations of modern Greek without realizing you are learning.
While English is widely spoken here, especially among people 50 and under, knowing some of the basics is important for getting around as well as getting in the good graces of your corner market cashier and the barista at your favorite neighborhood coffee shop.
Most people in most countries certainly appreciate a visitor making an effort to speak the language, but here in Greece where national pride reigns supreme, it is a necessary way to show your respect for the land and its people and history.
Read more about Greece here in Dispatches’ archives.