Making φίλοι (or friends), Despite My Best Intentions

25 Jan

A little while back I had been wandering the narrow paths of Plaka – a section of Athens filled with small shops, tavernas, and cafes that is impossible to navigate – minding my own business and doing a bit of Christmas shopping, when I stopped to admire a few pieces of art displayed in the street.  I should have known better.  I should have known that taking more than two seconds to observe anything on the street in Plaka would obviously cause a one-sided interaction with the shopkeeper.  Despite my best attempts, I am terrible at warding off these Greek parasites, and I usually end up awkwardly trying to get away while explaining in the most broken of beginner’s Greek that I am just looking.  They see right through me and advance, and I am left the sucker.  To compensate, I avoid eye contact and keep a brisk pace when walking through the maze of shops.  I maintain a strict 360º view of my surroundings, and at the slightest onset of a store owner, I am history.  So naturally, for the 2 seconds I forget my better judgment and eye a small painting, I am pounced upon and made prey of the 4’11” 70-something artist and owner of this particular shop.  Luckily, for what I lack in bargaining and business skills, I make up for in friendliness.  And this is how I make my newest friend, Rita.

As stated above, Rita saw me first, not the other way around.  I was completely unsuspecting as she sat comfortably at her post in her 2 x 6 (feet not meters…I’m American) wedge of a store.  And then I heard the enthusiastic “Yassas!”  Being the polite person I am, I responded with a smile and a meek “Yassas” in return.  And that’s where things got a little hairy.

“Ti kaneis?”  — How are you?

“Kala.”  — Good.

(A flurry of Greek words I could by no means decipher with my extremely limited knowledge of the language.)

A blank stare.

(More Greek nonsense that flew directly over my head like the pigeon that nailed me on the hand with his shit on my run two weeks ago.)

“Theh meelaow hellenica.”  — I don’t speak Greek.

This is where she stands up and waddles my way.

“OH!!!  You are not Greek?  I thought you were Greek!  You look Greek!  You don’t speak Greek?  I thought you were Greek!  Where are you from?  Tell me.”

This is a favorite phrase among Greeks.  Tell me.  They say it all the time.  Waiters, cashiers, teachers.  I haven’t sat through one class at work where the teacher has not uttered these two words.  It is the equivalent to their multi-faceted phrase “Ela”, which roughly translates to “come”, “come on”, “yes?”, and, of course, “tell me.”  Pay attention to a Greek person as he/she answers the phone.  I bet you 5 dollars the first thing out of that Greek’s mouth is “Ela”.  I, as well as most of the other fellows, have begun using this phrase unintentionally.  I can’t count the amount of times I have asked my students to “tell me”, but after each occasion of this word vomit a little flag undoubtedly goes up in my head as if to say, “what the fuck just came out of your mouth?”

Anyway, at her request, I told her.  She inquired as to why I was in Greece, how long I was to stay here, the ages of my students, where I was from, where I went to school, what I studied, what I wanted to be and where I wanted to go after Greece.  I began answering her onslaught of questions, but quickly discovered the conversation wouldn’t be that easy.  As soon as she learned I was here for a year and taking a beginner’s Greek course, Rita demanded I speak to her in Greek.  To aid my education, she spoke to me only in Greek.  Every time I showed her a blank and confused look, she responded with more Greek at a slower pace, sometimes accompanied with hand gestures.  Much to my delight, I (kind of) understood everything she asked me.  I gave it my all at responding in Greek, and whenever I used an English word, she taught me the Greek alternative, which I then had her repeat 5 to 7 times until I actually understood what was being said.  We talked for a while, and she genuinely seemed to love me, encouraging my Greek with hugs and hard candies and a discount on the painting she managed to get me to buy.  I didn’t mind though.  The painting was pretty and makes for a great story, and every time I look at it as it hangs on the wall of my future apartment back in the States, I’ll think of Rita and that chilly December day in Plaka.  And if I ever forget, all I have to do is turn it over and read the personal message and signature (all in Greek) she inscribed on the back.

I’m looking forward to visiting her again, and I hope she remembers me.  I have to brush up on my Greek and, besides, I could use a discount on the nicely painted clock I noticed in my 360º view of the shop before I let my guard down.


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