Published on the National Geographic Glimpse website, June 14, 2010
"Don’t say anything about the Turks,” I prep my family. “And don’t say anything about the Macedonians or Albanians. Actually, just don’t talk about any of the neighboring countries at all. Whenever you want to talk about international relations, talk about feta cheese instead.”
We’re on a family vacation, headed to dinner with a Greek friend of mine in his native village. It’s our first trip all together abroad. Growing up, I was the kid whose family hopped in the car and drove 12 hours to Michigan for vacation. Other kids came back to school with suntans and stories about exotic beaches and foreign countries. My brother and I came back with tales of squeezable butter at Motel 8.
As we pull around a bend, narrowly avoiding a collision with a flock of sheep, I’m not sure that this dinner is such a good idea. My friend Lefteris is the only one in his family who speaks English and my family speaks no Greek. What are we going to talk about? What are they going to think of my family? What is my family going to think of them?
I’ve been in Greece for five months now, teaching English at a private school in Athens. Lefteris and I met through a mutual friend, Jean, who was leaving Greece just as I arrived. As I sat at her farewell dinner, I marveled at the number of Greek friends she’d made. They were all laughing and toasting to her health with round after round of Greek wine. I thought to myself, This is what I want my last day in Greece to be like. Now, thanks to Jean, I have my first invitation to dinner in a Greek home.
We pull up to Lefteris’ house, located in a tiny village straight out of a Greek postcard. Whitewashed church, café in the town square, cobblestone paths between the houses and olive trees in the backyards. Lefteris opens the door with his arms open wide. “Hello Christo! Welcome,” he grins through his scruffy black beard.
The first thing I notice when we walk inside are the physical differences between our families. My dad’s six-foot-four frame barely fits inside the door. Standing next to Lefteris’ barely five-foot father, he looks even taller than usual.
“Sit down, sit down,” says Lefteris. He pulls chairs out from under a table already covered with food. His mother has already prepared every Greek dish I’ve ever seen on a menu and she’s furiously working away at the stove to make more.
Lefteris’ father walks suspiciously around the table. It’s the first time he’s ever met Americans, he tells me in Greek.
I tell Lefteris and his family how much we’re enjoying Crete. “You live in such a beautiful place.”
Lefteris’ father nods. “Yes,” he says. I wait for him to elaborate on his answer. No elaboration comes. An awkward silence follows while everyone shifts uncomfortably in their chairs.
My father decides to break the ice. In an attempt at small talk, he says, “I hear Greece is going to go bankrupt.”
Against my better judgment, I translate Dad’s comment and it sets off an inferno of rapid-fire Greek from the entire family that I can barely keep up with, much less understand. I know that many of the words aren’t taught in a polite Modern Greek classroom, though I’m pretty sure I hear the phrase “American thieves” from Lefteris’ father. As he says it, his eyes bulge out and his thick brows furrows intensely.
Luckily, at that moment, Lefteris’ mother lays the last dishes on the table and dinner begins. I have let my family know ahead of time that it’s important they eat as much as possible—at bare minimum, they have to taste everything. Greeks appreciate a healthy appetite. Unfortunately, my brother’s stomach has been a bit off from the traveling and he confides in me that he’s feeling rather queasy.
Our plates are loaded high with lamb, spinach pie, olives, salad, and feta cheese. When my brother doesn’t even make it through his first plateful, Lefteris’ father gives a look of alarm. He points a meaty finger in my brother’s direction. “Why aren’t you eating? Why do you hate our food?”
I think Lefteris’ father is just trying to be polite, but I’m not sure. In Greece it’s customary to insist that your guests continue eating to show that they are free to eat as much as they like. Lefteris’ father then proceeds to stand up, take a fork in one hand, walk over to my brother’s plate, and try to physically insert a forkful of cheese and sausage pie into my brother’s mouth. My brother’s face goes white and his eyes open wide as he jerks his head to avoid the incoming cuisine. As Lefteris grabs his father, holding him back away from the table, he gives me an apologetic look. I’m certain that our fledgling friendship is doomed.
After things calm down, my mom tries to fill the ensuing awkward silence to announce that she loves Greek olive oil and would like to buy some while she’s here. “What’s the best kind? What should I buy?” I translate for her. Mom’s hoping for an inside tip, like, “There’s an olive press just up the road. He makes the best in the country.” Or, “We have friends with an olive grove, we can hook you up.”
Instead, Lefteris’ family informs my mom that she should buy “Extra-Virgin” olive oil. Silence prevails yet again, and in my head, I begin hatching our escape plan.
Lefteris’ mother gets up and leaves the room. Great, I think. We’ve offended them so much that my friend’s mother literally cannot take any more. How could this get any worse?
But then, something unexpected happens. Lefteris’ mother returns with a giant jug full of olive oil. “This is a present. For you,” she says in English.
My family is taken aback. “Thank you,” we stammer. And then we laugh. Everyone around the table raises their glass. “Yia mas!” To our health.
We continue to toast, and a hearty red blush begins spreading on everyone’s faces. Lefteris’ father steadies himself by resting a hand on my brother shoulder. “Good boy,” he says. “You are a good boy.” My mother giggles as she brings out a box of American sweets that we’ve brought as a gift.
The next thing I know, my father and Lefteris’ father are comparing notes on state pensions and asking us to translate complaints about how expensive it is to support college-age boys. Lefteris’ mother is showing my mom a tablecloth she knit and explaining the recipe for some traditional Greek cookies. Lefteris and I eye each other, pleasantly surprised. The conversation “takes fire” as the Greeks say and the next time we check the clock it’s past midnight.
“You should stay here tonight.” Lefteris’ father offers. “We will sleep on the floor and you can sleep in our bed.”
When we politely decline his offer, he gets up and shakes his fist at us. “Why don’t you want to sleep in our bed? Why do you hate our house?” But this time, I catch the faintest hint of a smile.