As someone who grew up spending summers in Greece and who later moved outside of Athens as a teacher in a Greek language school, my life has been colored by scenes reminiscent of those in 2002’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The layered humor throughout this film proves that you can use comedy to pay tribute to a culture in tasteful, charming, and — most importantly — truthful ways.
1. Spitting to ward off the devil
Ian: Is she spitting on him?
Toula: Yeah. It’s for good luck. Keeps the devil away.
Spitting on someone is a very real occurrence in Greece, but luckily, it involves more noise (“Ftou, ftou, ftou”) and less spit. Widely cited reasons to spit include warding off evil (following a mention of death or misfortune), commenting on beauty or health, or when a child is baptized — indeed, the latter largely serves as the origin for this practice.
I was last spit on when a family friend was telling me of a local girl who had ended up marrying, in her eyes, a not-so-handsome or affable man. She spit on me, essentially wishing the opposite: that I would have good luck and marry a handsome and affable man. There are worse things, I suppose.
2. When (almost every) word is a Greek word
Gus: Give me a word — any word — and I’ll show you how the root of that word is Greek. Ok? How about arachnophobia? Arachna, that come from the Greek word for spider, and phobia is a phobia is means fear…so, fear of spider? There you go.
As part of my duties as a schoolteacher in Greece, I taught private lessons to students. One of my first students was 12-year-old Iliana, who was studying for entry-level proficiency. While running through a routine verbal examination, she began her opening argument with the word “microcosm.” I told her I was surprised she knew such a difficult word. “But Miss,” she told me, laughing, “this is the easiest of words. It is Greek.” After a quizzical look from her and an etymological look at the word, I realized she was right. Could there be a more literal translation from Greek to English?
micro = from the Greek “mikros,” meaning “small”
cosm = from the Greek word “kosmos,” meaning “world”
Over the next two years, encounters like this one became routine as I found my students and Greek friends ever eager to teach me what was, actually, Greek. As my ability in the Greek language grew, I began to see easily the patterns of which words had a Greek origin and which didn’t. Now? Give me a word, any word, and I’ll show you how the root of that word is Greek.
3. Eating, always
Maria: Ian, are you hungry?
Ian: Oh, no, I already ate.
Maria: Ok, I make you something.
Greece remains a country where eating, and the experience of eating together, is central to the culture. Weekly, my landlord’s elderly mother, clad in all black, would make her way up the steps to my apartment to deliver fresh spanakopita (spinach pie), fasolada (bean stew), and horta (boiled greens) she had picked from the mountains.
Where I lived, Athenians flocked to eat paithakia (lamb chops), skinned lambs hung in their air-conditioned glass cases on the street, and the setting of the sun was countered by the rising smell of slow-roasted meat on a spit, each and every evening. A typical dinner unfolded over the course of hours, and much like the scenes in the movie, I was told to eat more — or asked if I wanted more food, while being given some.
4. Kissing + greeting
Early on in her visit, a friend from Germany commented on Greek affection. “You know,” she said, “the thing I like about Greeks is that when they greet you, they actually kiss you.” Years, and perhaps thousands of kisses later, I won’t argue with that observation.
Much like Ian, John Corbett’s character in the movie, my appearance is very clearly that of a xenos — a foreigner — but I was welcomed into the fold and expected to kiss and be kissed everywhere I went. Kissing brides on their wedding day that I’d never met, but whose weddings I was a guest at. Kissing friends of friends. Kissing parents of my students. When I told my boss we had harassment laws in the US workplace, she laughed — and pulled me in to kiss me heartily on the cheek.
5. Where (almost) everyone has the same name
Gus: Over here, is my brother, Ted, and his wife Melissa, and their children Anita, Diane, and Nick. Over here, my brother Tommy, his wife Angie, and they (sic) children Anita, Diane, and Nick. My brother George, his wife Frieda, and they (sic) children, Anita, Diane, and Nick.
One of scenes from the movie that always gets the most laughs from my Greek friends is when the protagonist’s father is introducing his brothers and their children. He rattles off a series of names, all of them the same: Anita, Diane, and Nick.
Though a seemingly hyperbolic effort to achieve comedy is employed here, the writers were only being true to tradition. In Greece, children are typically named following a specific pattern: The first son is named after the paternal grandfather, the first daughter after the paternal grandmother, the second son after the maternal grandfather, and so on. Fathers’ names are given to the children as middle names in an attempt to avoid confusion, but confusion — initially, for me — abounded.
Case in point? A class of 19 consisted of three Marias, two Irenes, two Nicks, three Georges, and two Sophias.