When Americans Walk the Streets of Athens…

When Americans arrive in Athens, there are a variety of typical reactions. My, what tiny cars you have! No toilet paper in the toilets- you’re kidding, right? My, I’ve never smelt more strongly of cigarette smoke! What do you mean, you don’t believe in recycling? What do you mean, ten points for the pedestrian?

When Greek-Americans arrive in Athens, there are also a variety of typical reactions. Holy moly, bamies can be delicious! You mean you don’t Greek folk dance in Greece? You mean only the yiayiathes and pappouthes go to church here? Wait, no coffee and donuts afterwards- are you serious?

It is easy to guess at the reactions of those who step off the plane with cameras and maps, whether American or Greek-American. It is easy to conjecture what they’re thinking as they scratch their heads and survey the scenery. The country is replete with social norms that the average American would find appalling (e.g. no need to recycle! feel free to smoke everywhere!), but I must say the redeeming aspects beneath the rough surface never seem to disappoint. I don’t think the good necessarily outweighs the bad, but I do think that the two extremes balance each other out in a way that makes things interesting. Surmising how the Greeks will react to the Americans they encounter is close to impossible. The spectrum is exceedingly broad.

There is a woman that lives around the corner from me and cooks food for me like I am a starving orphan. On the first day we met, she presented me with a monstrous tray of her moussaka, along with a Tupperware overflowing with koulourakia. You might be able to call the Greeks the Swindlers of the European Economy, but they are without a doubt the most generous and hospitable people in this world. This woman is the friend of my brother’s godmother’s father’s sister, and I am not even making that up. Our literal relationship is comically vague, but whenever we see each other she pulls me into a bear hug like I am her long lost daughter.

She is one of the Greeks who will speak to you slowly and kindly all evening, even though she knows you cannot understand a word. She is one of those Greeks whose eyes well up with tears of pride when she hears you struggling to produce some Greek, even if it is just some utterance that sounds vaguely Mediterranean. But then again, I don’t know if she is your typical Greek. I have found myself in quite a few unfortunate experiences due to my limited Greek, one of which unfolded during my search for marshmallows.

Dead set on making s’mores, that sublime combination of graham cracker, chocolate, and marshmallow, I committed myself to finding marshmallows somewhere within the jungle of Athens.  However, they apparently do not exist anywhere in this city. I tried easily eight different supermarkets, each of which got a rendition of my marshmallow description in broken Greek: “You know, they’re small and fluffy and chewy. Like candy. White and sugary. Very sweet.” The usual response was either a confused look or an apologetic smile with those raised eyebrows gesturing “nope.” In the ninth supermarket, I tried this spiel on a lady busy stacking the shelves. She turned to me with a steely gaze and said in Greek, “When you learn to speak Greek, ask me.” As my brain slowly worked its way around that swift onslaught of words, the tears that cascaded in response were embarrassingly delayed.

Greeks have a variety of reactions to Americans in their country. Sometimes they are honored; they will “oohh” and “aahhh” when I tell them I’m from New York, and then tell me it was pretty silly of me to have moved here during an economic crisis. Everyone is trying to get out, they’ll explain. When I went to open a Greek bank account, the teller held my American passport in his hands like it was gold, recounting for me how he and his wife had considered “jumping ship” during their honeymoon in Manhattan.

Other times, people will just shake their heads when I tell them I am from the States, usually muttering a string of obscenities under their breath. Pretty soon, the Iraq War will make its way into the conversation, with our involvement in Afghanistan right at its heels. I have learned that it is hopeless to partake in a conversation like this. It is impossible to reason with an angry Greek, and America will somehow always be the cause of any and every one of the world’s problems. I have learned to nod my head and pick at my nails.

There is the trite stereotype of the Ugly American- the arrogant, boorish man in the Hawaiian shirt, loudly making ignorant remarks as he belittles local culture- and then there is the Meek American- the sweet older lady, handing out twenties to the cripple, while gypsy children reach into her back pocket. Today, Americans abroad seek to counteract the Ugly American stereotype but allow themselves to be taken advantage of in the process. Combine the Meek American with the Greek scam artist, and you have a very sad situation.

Over the summer, I had a friend who epitomized the Meek American. She moved into a one-room basement apartment and was told to pay four months rent upon arrival. She was only staying for three months, but the landlady insisted that she pay the first two months rent, along with another two months as a security deposit. The apartment was in disrepair, with a busted washing machine, a refrigerator on the fritz, and moldy ceilings, but the landlady promised to have everything fixed up within the week. Hoping to derail an unpleasant argument, my friend gave the landlady the benefit of the doubt and ponied up the money.

Come August, the apartment was still barely habitable. The landlady had avoided phone calls and emails for two months, but she magically materialized at the beginning of August to collect the rent without blinking an eye. My friend tried to protest, explaining that everything was still inoperative and reminding the landlady that she had not only already paid the three months, but also a fourth. The landlady went ballistic and called her lawyer, and my friend called me. The lawyer and I sat in disbelief, as the landlady screamed at the girl for well over an hour, calling her every name in the book. I quickly found that opening my mouth in my friend’s defense only antagonized the landlady, further fueling her rampage. She eventually stormed out of the apartment, slammed the door, and shrieked at us from the road. Neighbors came out onto their balconies to survey the spectacle.

After some time, the lawyer coaxed her into returning to the apartment, and the screaming recommenced amidst the must and the mold. The Meek American just sat there and cried, in the end coughing up the money to stop the screaming. As soon as she had handed over the rent, the landlady decided to start screaming about utilities. The girl collapsed in a sobbing heap on the couch, as the landlady paraded around the apartment still bellowing. Meanwhile, the lawyer sat there playing Angry Birds on his phone. Eventually, the girl shelled out money for the utilities as well. Remarking “give it to my lawyer” and refusing to even look at her, the landlady left with her nose in the air.

More than a month has passed and my friend has yet to see any of her supposed security deposit. There are the Greeks that love Americans, eager to practice their English and discuss the NBA, and then there are the Greeks that look to exploit the Meek American. They prey on the American desire to counter the Ugly American stereotype, the desire to be respectful, understanding and flexible. In the interest of counteracting perceived American arrogance, the Meek American will never speak out and rise to his own defense. In short, the Greeks have realized that the Meek American is the perfect person of whom to take advantage.

But then again, the country offers up so much in atonement. There is the cheerful fruit vendor at the laiki who will weigh my order, give me the price, and then stick a couple more peaches into my bag because she is so humored by the Greek phrases I will come up with. As I was walking back from my Modern Greek class the other day, an older lady in high heels flagged down a motorcycle driver to ask for a ride, explaining that her feet were hurting her. The driver beckoned for her to hop on the back, and off they went together.

My Greek-American uncle came to visit Athens over the summer and somehow dropped a wad of cash on his way off of the tour bus on the last day of his trip. Stumbling upon it later in the evening, the bus driver recognized the clip that held the bills together to be the clip my uncle had pulled out of his jacket pocket when he had tipped the driver earlier that day. My uncle was quite pleasantly surprised the next morning to find that his money had been dropped off at the concierge’s desk late in the evening.

There are the complimentary desserts that appear on the table at the end of almost any taverna dinner. There are the girls on the metro who will remind me to always be on my guard, motioning that I should pull my bag closer to my body. There are the people leaving the metro station that hand off metro tickets that haven’t run out of time yet, so that others can make use of the remaining time without spending money on a new ticket.

Greek beaches are notorious for their sea urchins. Most of the time, the soft sand embraces your feet, welcoming you to Greece and encouraging you to stay. But, every so often, you will be unlucky enough to stumble upon a sea urchin. Don’t let it spoil the beach.