Part 1 in a series, studying the culture and chaos that play out in a Greek family, through the eyes of a non-Greek, who stumbled into it all by marriage, unaware of the customs, protocols, and traditions.
Allow me to quickly describe just how “non” I am: 6ft 5, blue eyes, Irish-German, mostly Irish, pale faced, garlic-hating, Catholic.
Take all the opposites of these adjectives, and name her Ekaterina, and you have my wife. (She has 4 first names and 2 birthdays but we talk about that in part 2 of this series)
This overview can be printed and wrapped as a gift for anyone you may know who is about to marry into a Greek family. Trust me; it will be the proverbial gift that keeps on giving.
Being married to a Greek is an odyssey.
And since Katrina’s father has been translating words for me since I met him 20 years ago, just like the windex-spraying father in the documentary “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” , I might as well translate the word “odyssey”.
It is derived from the Greek hero Odysseus, the protagonist in Homer’s 8th century B.C. story by the same name. Odyssey has come to refer to an “epic voyage”, according to Wikipedia.
I intend to write Websters , and Wiki, and petition them to add a little something to the definition, just a pinch, for flavor: Odyssey: the epic voyage, as inevitable derivative of marrying into a Greek family.
Boat ride aside, allow me to highlight some Greek superstitions (redundant term) , and Greek drama (also redundant), that will play out in the kitchen, and dinner table, so as to better equip you to survive.
First of all….relax….take a breath….but, most importantly, EAT.
Say “yes” to all offers of food.
Rice and meat wrapped in grape leaves?
More garlic and olive paste?
I do NOT care how full you are. Irrelevant! Eat!
Never ever ever say: “I’m not hungry, we grabbed a bite on the drive over”….a hush will come over the room….the quiet will leak out into the other rooms, filling the house with a silence that is hard to describe. Even the crying baby will get quiet.
So, DON’T “grab a bite” anywhere other than from your father-in-law’s carving plate or your mother-in-law’s kitchen.
Don’t pay any attention to the rapid-fire Greek ricocheting across the table….(you’ll want to describe the discussion as a screaming match, truth of the matter is the Greeks lower their voices when they’re really angry.) As the tempo increases and there’s 6 people talking in fast-Greek all at the same time, they’ll start to let your name slip….. they reach a point where they no longer care that you know they are arguing about you.
This is when you need to act natural. Dip some pita into the bowl of tan colored goop and eat it eagerly. Clank your knife as you butter your bread…..as if you don’t even notice that your mother-in-law is giving you the evil eye. (how would I know you don’t give a Greek woman a pearl ring? Apparently it symbolizes tears, or car accidents, I can’t remember).
If they are arguing and you don’t hear your name? Listen for the word that sounds like “eftos”….that means “he”. Just smile at your girlfriend, fiance, wife…and don’t be stupid and say: “what did they say?” Hello? She’ll tell you later. If it was good and funny and harmless she would have already told you.
Now, remember this: There are typically two reasons that the table has erupted into Greek (jewelry error aside):
#1. You didn’t take seconds of Yaya’s pastitsio. (do NOT call it lasagna, or Greek lasagna!)
True story: I’m at my first meal at my wife’s house on the south side of Chicago and after I taste the lasagna (oops, I mean pastitsio) my mother-in-law is on me like white on rice: “so, Jeff, whose Pastitsio is better? Katerrrrina’s? Or mine?”
Wow! I was stuck and as I reached for a sip of room temperature water, I was “saved”…..Nick (Kat’s brother Nick, not cousin Nick, or Uncle Niko) whispers through his napkin:
“The Lagen women sure are great cooks!”
“THE LAGEN WOMEN SURE ARE GREAT COOKS YAYA”
……such a close call…….(Kat told me later that Nick had let her previous boyfriends squirm and suffer on that question, “he must really like you”)
Or, #2: You put salt on the avgolemono after tasting it. Oh My God! Are you an idiot? Here’s what you just said to your mother-in-law who is watching you even when she isn’t facing you. ‘Your soup is awful. You’re a bad cook”.
Until you have put in 100 hours at the dinner table you have not yet earned your salt. Just eat and say “mmmmm” after each bite.
If you DO make the salt error? Just relax, sip your 7-Up from the fancy drinking glass with all the designs and motifs and inlaid gold leaf on it, and realize that you’ll need to start your clock all over again, no matter how many hours of table time you have at that point.
#3, ok, there’s more than two.
They are mad that you just described Easter as “Greek Easter”. (there is no such thing as “Greek” Easter, even though it typically falls on a different Sunday from your Easter….it’s just Easter)
#4 They are furious with your wife, who just insulted the family by poking fun at the wrought iron railings throughout the INSIDE of the house, or the 6 statues in the front yard.
My advice is to NOT break into the maelstrom; just sit back and smile sheepishly….which reminds me: eat more sheep. Whenever it becomes awkward at the table, and they start speaking Greek, reach for the lamb. There’s a 50% chance that simple act will reduce the tension…..if it doesn’t, try looking down and blessing yourself 3 times…going right to left, not left to right. do it really fast where it’s almost impossible to notice that your hand stopped anywhere.
Since they know they’re guilty of trash talking you, they’ll now wonder if you’re praying for their souls, which will compel them to quickly break into prayer, asking for forgiveness. Emerge from your meditation rejuvenated and upbeat…..you have survived!
Pass the tzatziki please.
Standby for part 2 in our series.
“My Big Fat Greek Wedding: comedy? Or documentary?”