language barrier

Καλώς ήρθατε! Welcome!

“Welcome to Aθens” shone bright over the the Athens International Airport facing the planes landing on the runway. This was the first sign of change for me: English. A lot more English than before. Finding English signs and translations in Greece (especially around tourist zones and during the summer) is not difficult, but there was just so much more of it this time around. To all my friends interested in traveling to Greece, put the phrasebook down. Everyone is bilingual in English.

At the airport, I met my sister, Daisy, and her boyfriend, Warren, and after some awful (yet typical) southern-Mediterranean-style missing baggage customer service (where the customer is never right and always lied to), we made our way to the metro that would take us directly to γιαγιά‘s (grandma’s) house.

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On the train platform to travel into central Athens. Photo credit: https://flic.kr/p/6bEvex

Despite total exhaustion, I forced myself to keep my eyes open and take in the scenery zipping by on the train. The sandy beiges and forest greens basking in the sunlight of the desert-like landscape completely contrasted against my last train ride from Kaohsiung to Taipei, filled with lush dark greens and heavy, metallic rain clouds. Then, the train dipped underground and it was only a few more stops until we reached our station, Εθνική άμυνα-National Defense.

My grandmother’s house is a short walk away from the station, but a short walk with luggage and in the blazing Greek afternoon sun with two other people in tow can be unnerving. I kept looking around to make sure that I was following the same route I remembered from 2008 (before the economic crash). And though everything looked familiar, so much was different. For one thing, the train station was so empty and the streets above, a central bus hub, were devoid of the crowds and migrant street vendors I remembered. As we turned the corner, following the brown-brick walls of the National Defense perimeter, I noticed that though all the buildings were the same, the businesses were not. In fact, many businesses were simply missing, leaving only ghostly storefront windows staring emptily at passersby. Luckily, the gas station that marked the next turn was still there and I knew immediately that I wasn’t leading the group astray.

We made it to the last turn, down a short alley to my grandmother’s apartment building, a four-storey white apartment building with Samos grape vines twisting up the building from my grandmother’s veranda on the ground floor and spreading across the side of the building and snaking across balconies like a monstrous hand trying to collapse the ediface. The grapes as well as the, now towering, lemon trees along the side of the house are the last living remnants of my grandfather. Decades ago, his family farmed grapes for wine (can my family be more cliché?) on the island of Samos, so when he married and moved into this building, he made sure to keep a piece of Samos with him.

The first peculiar thing I noticed was that the door was locked, which was unusual from what I remember of my grandmother; her door always open in the daytime to welcome neighbors and friends should they pass by. She was expecting us to arrive as well, so the door should have been open, but remembering a recent conversation with my mother about my grandmother’s advancing age and mental health made me realized that the door was locked because she probably taking a nap.

We waited quietly on the small veranda. I pressed the doorbell and heard the familiar, electric buzz. It should have been loud enough for anyone within earshot to stir from their siesta. After a minute there was still no sound from within. Bzzzzzt! As I pressed the doorbell again for half-a-second longer. “Γιαγιά, ήρθαμε!” My Greek, limited and clumsily returning, all I could remember was “We’ve come, grandma.” Finally, from inside, I could hear feet shuffling across the floor and approaching the door, moving rather quickly for her age. The door swung open with a mild groan and standing on the other side, eyes bright and at my chin-level, was my great-aunt Ioulia (Julia in English, but as I call her θεία Ιουλία).

“Ah-hoo! Φωτεινή, τα παιδιά ήρθαν!” She was smiling and yelling, full-blast Greek old-lady-style, toward the back of the apartment at my grandmother’s room, “Fotini, the kids are here!” And as she hugged me tight and kissed me three times, alternating cheeks, she let out a deafening yell into my ear “Καλώς ορίσατε τα παιδιά!” “Welcome, kids!” Ioulia is energetic and spry in spite of arthritis and her 82 years. She looked over my shoulder toward Daisy, but before I could reacquaint them, I could hear the slow shuffle of my grandmother approaching from her room.

**Note, all conversations are in Greek, and I will simplify some dialogues by writing exclusively in English.**

I was stunned when I saw my grandmother. In all my memories, she was small, elderly and cute, with salt-and-pepper, closely cropped hair that she probably dyed on and off. Standing before me, though, was a somehow even smaller, frailer γιαγιά with ashy-grey hair. She was at least 83 years-old, though no one is quite certain because in her time birth records were important, but not exact dates. Her smile was the same, though, and her eyes glistened when she saw us. I went through another bout of hugs and smooches, with my grandmother holding me tight “το Φωτεινακι μου!” “My little Fotini!” She pulled away to look at Daisy and Warren who were standing behind me, waiting for their turns to say hello.

Ποιά είναι αυτή;” she asked looking at Daisy. “γιαγιά,” I answered, “this is Daisy, remember?” and Daisy smiled and went in for her round of hugs and kisses. “Η Daisy; Po-pohh!!! κούκλα είναι!” Kούκλα means “doll” in Greek, and is one of the most endearing words grandmothers and other family members use to describe their younger female relatives.

Είναι και οι δύο κούκλες,” “They’re both dolls!” Shouted Ioulia. “Daisy has grown so much! I remember when she was so small,” and Ioulia held her hand out flat at hip-level. For Daisy, it had been almost ten years and five different shades of hair color since she had last visited Athens at 11 years-old. “Και ποιος είναι αυτός;” “And whose he?” My grandmother asked, almost in a retort, at Warren. Standing taller than all of us with long brown hair with a full beard to match, Warren stood out among us with his sharp Northern-European features and septum piercing. “Grandma, this is Daisy’s boyfriend, Warren,” I answered enthusiastically.

Γειά σου!” Warren said with a big smile. I couldn’t wait for her reaction. “Whose boyfriend?” Γιαγιά looked at me quizzically and mildly surprised, “Yours?”

“No, no, Daisy’s boyfriend, Warren.” I emphasized.

“Waarr-ey?” My grandmother stumbled over his name, “Warrrr-ey?” She tried again.

“Warren.”

“Warrrr-eyy-n?” Our sweet grannies both croaked over his name and failed again and again to pronounce it. We all laughed, and I looked at Daisy and Warren, “I guess there’s no ‘W-A-R’ sounds in Greek.” Ioulia tried one more time and I conceded. “Yes, you got it.” But she didn’t. Still, Warren, got his round of hugs and kisses, too. The first phase of our welcome was complete. Now, onto phase two, THE FEEDING. Which would continue over the course of the next week and the total three weeks we would spend in Athens. If you have ever seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding, then you know Greek families love their children and grandchildren through food. This is why without fail, kids visiting Greek grandparents for the summer return to school in September as roly-poly as ever.

Τι θα φάτε;” “What are you going to eat?” Γιαγιά asked us as we all followed her into the kitchen. Again the excitement of explaining something foreign, like Warren’s presence, tickled me with anticipation. “Γιαγιά, Daisy and Warren are vegetarians.”

Actually, Daisy and Warren are vegan, but I had no idea if there was a Greek word for vegan.

“What?” She asked/shouted in the tiny kitchen that from my childhood always seemed so big. Ioulia interjected loudly, “Your mother already told us. No meat!”

“對–I mean–Yes, and no cheese, milk, fish, or eggs.” Habitually answering in Chinese, correcting myself in English, and then translating slowly into Greek was the first struggle of being back in Athens. I made the mistake of speaking Chinese to Ioulia and my grandmother often enough to illicit confused stares from Daisy, who had never heard me speak Chinese before. The brain can be funny sometimes.

“WHAT?” Ioulia now had a reason to shout because who doesn’t eat eggs, dairy, and fish? Also, I was beginning to notice that “what?” and repetitive rapid-fire questions I could barely keep up with after seven years of no exposure to the language was going to be an on-going theme of this vacation.

“Daisy and Warren don’t eat meat, milk, fish, or eggs.”

“Neither meat NOR milk NOR eggs?”

“對–I mean–Yes.

“Nor fish? What about cheese?”

“No cheese.”

“Yogurt?”

“No yogurt.”

“NOT EVEN YOGURT?! Τι μαλακίες είναι αυτό;” “What bullshit is this?”

And i just laughed and laughed while Ioulia continued.

“So what do they eat? BEANS?”

“Yes, a lot of beans.”

Καλά,” she cast her eyes toward the stove dismissively but defeated, “I guess you’re going to eat beans.”

And yet, when the beans, pasta, and salad were served to the table outside, an ENORMOUS plate of feta cheese was set in front of Daisy and Warren. We all made eye contact and I grabbed a hunk of bread and pulled the plate closer to me, “Well, I guess she forgot.” But maybe she didn’t, and was just testing to make sure that I was telling the truth. Anyway, we ate even though we only wanted sleep because in Greece that is how you show your elders that you love them back. When the language barrier is so high, and you are forced to live so far apart most of your lives, you can make the sacrifice of little desires and needs in order to show that despite any obstacle there is still love. With my family, no matter where you end up or how much time passes, there will always be love and food.

To be continued.

**Featured image from Vasilis Porgiazis**

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