Let me set the scene. I am writing from the Hotel Andreotti in Rome, Italy where rooms are super high-tech and fake flowers are stylish. I didn’t want to bring my laptop with me on this trip because it was too heavy so I now find myself crammed between the back wall of the hotel and a see-through elevator shaft that resembles the elevator in Inception. Leo was dreaming that time. I have never been to Rome and I’m sure I will see/learn a lot, but that will be for another post. Now I want to tell you about Greece and its people.
Greek food is amazing. Staples include gyros (pronounced ‘huroes’; I settled the dispute), Kalamaki, Spinacopia, greek salad, etc. Basically if you have olive oil, parsley, fresh tomatoes, and feta chesese, you can fake being Greek for a while. To clear up a common misconception, you don’t need Windex to be Greek. In fact, Greeks prefer Ajax. Back to meals. Greek meals are similar to American meals in form and quantity. Everyone gets their own plate, which I appreciate, and desserts or appetizers are ordered for the table. Typically, Greeks grab a quick breakfast in the morning (usually from a local bakery) and eat a light lunch that involves sitting at a cafè drinking coffee for multiple hours. While meals may be similar to American meals, Greek meal times are way different. First off, common work hours are between 8am and 3pm. From 3-5pm, everyone in Greece stops working for what is called “siesta hours.” Only older Greeks take naps during this time, but the younger Greeks go hang at cafès. For hours. In reality, no matter what time of day, cafès are packed. This might be due to the 53% youth unemployment rate and 25% overall unemployment rate, but why then would people spend their precious Euros on coffee? Regardless, it is amazing to me how much time Greeks spend simply sitting and talking.
Greeks start dinner around 9pm and eat for about 3 hours. There is lots of laughter, eye contact and intentionality that sometimes spills over to adjacent tables. It is not uncommon for someone you have never met, sitting at a different table, to buy you a drink, dessert, or appetizer. While Greeks sit a lot, they don’t just stare at their phones, they engage people. Yesterday I bought a gyro from a local store called Pita and Grill. As a man behind the counter began making my gyro chipotle-style, I blindly stepped out in boldness and asked him his name, “Pos selène?” My Greek is rough at best, but the man’s face lit up. “Dimitri,” he responded. Dimitri went on to tell me how he migrated to Greece from India in search of work, how he works a few different jobs for 16+ hours of his day, and how he lost 50 kilos by cutting gyros out of his diet. He later paused a riveting game of hide and seek to introduce me to his daughter at my table. Dimitri was a cool guy not only because of his work ethic and warm smile, but also because he was the delivery guy and rode a motorcycle. He gave me my gyro for €2.
I’ve heard stories of students in my program who enter a bakery to buy bread and end up staying for an hour or more talking to an employee about the history of the store, arguing over Greek economic policy change, and exchanging life stories. These students leave with both bread and a friend.
So back to what we are all wondering. Why would someone willingly eat dinner for 3+ hours? I’m not really sure. I tried this with my friends two nights ago and had to use the bathroom three different times. Also, every part of my plastic cup was chewed. I guess I don’t enjoy sitting still for long.
Here’s another concept about Greek dining that I don’t understand: restaurants don’t take reservations. Why? Because servers have no way to know how long their tables will sit and make conversation. Servers never ask either, they just keep refilling your water. Even if you only order a €5 dessert at the busiest restaurant in Athens, you can stay at your table for the entire evening. It seems to me that Greek people are filled with a mix of whimsy and purpose that I was never told to develop as a kid. Greeks may have work the next morning, but eating late and enjoying company is a part of a shared cultural tendency. I was always told this kind of thing was irresponsibile and a poor stewardship of time. Maybe that’s why I chew plastic cups. As I spend more time in Greece and around its people, I see their intentionality and affection. They sit a lot, granted, but they love to ask probing questions even upon first meeting you, they love to speak their minds, and they love to care. Yesterday I went to the market for some Greek yoghurt (incredible) and accidentally backed into an older lady with my backpack. It was one of those situations where a half-hearted, “Excuse me,” would have made things right, but this lady was out for vengeance. The woman proceeded to tease me by yelling Greek in my face while making big hand gestures and encouraging a supermarket employee to laugh at me with her. Greeks love to engage people. They love to sit, wait, stand, and even tease so long as it involves conversation.
This was something Jesus did really well. No he didn’t make fun of people who ran into him at supermarkets, but he did intentionally seek out people to engage in conversation. Sometimes people even sought him out every once in a while, which was probably a good change of pace for him. Regardless of skin color, language, physical appearance, status, and religiosity, Jesus never turned anyone down in conversation. Now, Jesus did interact with different kinds of people in different kinds of ways, but only because he found it more suitable to his witness, i.e. his display of love and engagement. Paul said he became weak to win the weak. I think that’s pretty radical. Paul probably learned a bunch of different languages, cultural traditions and etiquettes, and geographical topographies simply because of his mission to engage and love people. It takes whimsy to have an hour long conversation with someone who you weren’t planning on passing through your store. If it comes from a desire to to love, engage, and share life, then this whimsy becomes woven with threads of purpose as seamlessly as Greeks change conversation topics. In short, I now seek to be bold in tacit, simple, and purposeful whimsy. Sometimes friends can be made and sometimes lives can be changed.