(Estimated reading time is 6 minutes)
My husband is a man of many talents, but the one I admire the most is his ability to talk to new people and connect. For many years, I considered this type of skill to be my greatest weakness. Getting too stuck inside my own head over the right things to say that I’d say nothing at all. Eventually, this got better with the years, but I still find myself jealously admiring the ease at which he does it.
Another difference between my smooth-talking partner and I, is that I (over) analyse everything. Also why I got such a kick out of my brief stint as an ‘Analyst’ and then, ‘Senior Analyst’. But since I enjoyed the title a lot more than the job, that chapter came to an end. I suppose it comes from the quiet, “observer” role that I used to play while growing up. As we hopped from country to country, school to school, I could never shake the feeling that I was always on the outside looking in. Still, I continue to enjoy (over) analysing life and, in particular, the man who vowed to subject himself to this acute analysis for the rest of his.
One morning in March, husband and I, the odd pair that we are, found ourselves sitting across from a bank clerk in Greece, up on the second floor where the ‘high net worth’ clients enjoy a little more privacy compared to the main room. And by high net worth, they’re not measuring us by some kind of wealth threshold but rather that we both have jobs thus allowing us to take out a mortgage. When on this day, what was supposed to be an in and out visit to update my passport details turned into a full hour long appointment. And so, as comes natural to my lovely husband, he started making conversation.
Typically, he likes to open with some sort of ice-breaker. But not the usual, ‘if you were an animal…’ type. No, he prefers to select a topic that he thinks is going to be, let’s just call it what it is, controversial. Topics that he knows the person is going to have an opinion on, and one that, if he assumed correctly, is going to be the polar opposite of his. Because where’s the fun if you just agree.
And somehow, this cringe-worthy technique works. I mean seriously works. It is his bizarre secret to making friends. It’s a bit like the concept of ‘negging’ which, in case you don’t know, is when you point out a potential flaw to a beautiful woman as a way of picking her up. And 9 times out of 10, that works too. It’s all part of social engineering, of which my dear husband is an expert. Of course in this instance, the goal here isn’t to take the lady home, but simply to convince the other person of your point of view.
For almost a year now, ever since he started his new job in Greece, one of his favourite ice-breakers is to talk about the culture shock he experienced while returning home. If that sounds strange, it’s probably because we need a little more backstory to explain.
Husband, as you might have guessed, is Greek. Born and raised. He first left the country when he was in his early twenties to study in Vienna, and for the past decade or so, has been undergoing some kind of secret metamorphosis into a Brit. As for me, I am from… Well, let’s see. I am half Norwegian and half Portuguese, although people often ask me whether I’m more one than the other. “But how do you feel?” It’s a strangely common question. So I’ll answer it. Sometimes I feel like both, and at other times, neither. I was born in Holland and have spent more time living outside of Norway and Portugal than within. Home to me is both nowhere and everywhere.
Going back to that morning at the bank, sitting across from us was a Greek woman who has always lived in Greece. She informed us that never before did she have a client request to update their passport from one nationality to another, and was concerned that the update could adversely affect our mortgage application. So that is why what we expected to be a simple photocopy and completion of 6 form fields turned into an hour-long wait for her manager to confirm the next steps.
Over the background noise of being on hold, my husband started telling her about his culture shock. Referring to the difference between working for a major global company compared to working within a small Greek microcosm. Contrary to what you might think, the working hours in Greece are abnormally long, and the systems aren’t just old, they’re ancient. Paper and pen still rules over software, and getting yelled at by a client for suggesting they work during the sacred beach months of July and August is just another day at the office.
But he didn’t get the chance to explain all that. Some ears only hear what they want. Still holding both my passports in her hands, she heard him clearly but – taking the bait – made the assumption that he must mean my culture shock. Turning towards me she asked, “What is it like being married to someone” and she didn’t say “from another culture” she said, “from a culture that is not your own.”
In such situations, usually when I feel put on the spot, there is never one clear answer that comes to my mind. But rather, a flood of all the different possible answers that I could give. For example, how intimately I feel about Greek culture, how I was baptised Greek Orthodox, that I speak intermediate Greek. Or how I’m a third culture kid, a term conceived by a sociologist to describe those children who grow up in cultures outside of their own. But to avoid the silence that grows exponentially more awkward with each passing second, I quickly picked one at random.
“I don’t have a culture.” I replied, stupid. I do but I don’t, you understand? So I tried to explain myself better. “I grew up around the world, so, living among other cultures is my life.” But I don’t think she got it.
“My wife was baptised Greek Orthodox,” Husband chimes in. “That’s right,” I say, “I’m basically Greek now.” Tongue-in-cheek. She looks confused, and to the disappointment of my husband, changes the subject. Pointing towards my bump she asks, “How far along?”
“Four months.” I say.
“Congratulations!” She says, now turning back to my husband, “How do you say in English, me yeia?” A common Greek phrase used for anything good that happens in someone’s life.
“There is no translation.” My husband replies. A typical Greek answer. All it means is, “with health”. And as a polyglot writer let me tell you, there is always a translation. Those who would disagree are simply confusing translating the actual meaning with translating word for word.
The clerk then tells me about her little girl, so I tell her about my little boy. “Really?” she says, opening up my passport again to check my date of birth. “But you’re so young! Let me see now, you’re four years younger than me! Looking at you I thought this was your first baby.”
“We’re not young!” I laugh it off. In London I was considered old to be having children. But not in Greece. Things are a little different here.
“And you work?” She continues, suddenly intrigued. “Yes, of course.” I respond. “So you do it all!” she exclaims, with a hint of spite. And I feel the conversation taking a strange turn from the usual friendly banter my husband incites. “So what brings you to Greece?” Now it’s an inquisition.
Unsure how to proceed, I keep it vague. “Oh well you know, it’s not the same in London when you start a family,” I say. “In London we were on our own, far from our families, and also childcare and things are a lot more expensive. So we came here for a better quality of life and to be near the grandparents.”
“It’s expensive here too.” She replies. “I make 1,020 euros a month and work until 6 but the public schools finish at 1 and I have no one but my mother to help with my child. There are private schools that finish at 3 or 4 but they cost half my salary.”
And there it is. My culture shock. While certainly not used to someone sharing their salary just like that, I don’t complain about the same things as my husband. I’m not shocked by the loud voices or the lack of diversity or the chaos on the roads or the fact that they don’t have pavements and the bureaucracy is a minefield and no one pays their taxes. I know I can forget about any of the big city services that Londoners are so used to, like Amazon Prime, things in English, and shops open on Sundays. And I’m already used to the dinners after 10 and the smoking everywhere, all the strange superstitions and outrageously expensive coffee… None of those things shock me. They are just some of the negatives that come with the territory, of which every country has their fair share.
What shocks me since moving here is the level of inequality. The lack of a living wage for the majority. How banks and businesses pay their staff in peanuts, while shareholders live like shipowners. And while that’s not unique to Greece, it’s a part of the everyday social fabric. It’s why the buildings aren’t painted and the roads have holes. Why so many 30 and 40 year olds never get the chance to leave home and why there are demonstrations and strikes and everything happens so slow. And how things can’t change because of the corrupt interests vested in keeping the status quo.
For the average local, Greece is not cheap. And when you brush shoulders with Greeks on holiday in Santorini or Mykonos, London or New York, these are not your average Greeks. Take off the rose-tinted holiday sunglasses and you start to see a different picture. For the average Greek, their wealth is measured not in stocks and euros but in turquoise waters and summer sweat, in ancient ruins and bouzouki lullabies, and in seaside tavernas and family values that bond and unite this ancient civilisation and declining population of 10 million Ellines.