A reverse shock of culture
“A nap? But it’s the middle of the day!”
I adamantly refused my aunt’s suggestion for an afternoon respite.
“I’m going out for a walk.”
I trudged through the empty streets alone, past all the closed shops: A foolish tourist out walking in a 40-degree heat wave.
I dragged my wilted self back to my aunt’s house and fidgeted impatiently until my relatives emerged refreshed from their siesta.
“How was your walk?” asked my aunt.
Several weeks later I succumbed to the oppressive heat and lack of suitable afternoon entertainment; I had my first siesta. It was the Greek summer of 1988.
At first, I lay in bed reading, dozing on and off for short periods.
I still found it ridiculously odd to have a nap while the sun blared outside, despite all window shutters being tightly closed. That’s what babies did.
But there was nothing else to do in the middle of a blisteringly humid summer, when my relatives (and practically the entire nation) retired for the afternoon.
By the end of that first year in Greece, I had acclimatized to the summer ritual and continued this practice over the past 23 years, much to the intrigue and amusement of friends in Australia.
“Please hold all my calls,” I once told a manager, “I’m just going to have a lie down in that empty office.”
“What for?” she asked.
“It’s siesta time. I really need a nap.”
“Yeah, right. Just get back to work,” she insisted.
“No, you don’t understand. It’s that time of the afternoon…”
“Let’s meet for coffee later,” said my Greek cousins.
“Sure, what time?”
“Err, you mean 9pm? Isn’t that rather late?”
I was still a blatantly ignorant tourist in my own country of birth.
“Of course not! We can then go for dinner afterwards.”
Our afternoon coffee meetings involved sitting in the local town square for two hours, casually sipping on a frappe (ice coffee) while watching the promenading crowd.
I was bored within 10 minutes.
“Can we go now? I’m hungry.”
“I've left a plate of dinner for you,” my aunt offered when I returned home late from social outings with relatives.
“I’ve already eaten.”
“That was a while ago. You must be hungry now.”
“No, really. I’m full.”
“But I made it for you.”
“I couldn’t eat another thing. Besides, it’s almost midnight and I’m going to bed.”
“How about a snack, then?”
Greek aunts just don’t understand the meaning of “no”.
Image: Hari Kotrotsios
Repeat after me
“Koo,” I repeated.
“Pi,” I responded.
“Now say it altogether.”
“That’s better,” said my eight-year-old Greek niece, “Now I understand you.”
“Mama, why does Hari speak like that?”
“Well, she lives in Australia and they speak English there,” my cousin explained. “She doesn’t speak Greek every day like we do.”
“But she’s speaking Greek now,” my niece pointed out, looking at me quizzically. “It’s just different.”
The discussion began when my niece asked me to help her with homework one afternoon.
“Err, I can probably help with maths…” I said, “But you’ll have to ask your mama for grammar or history.”
“Because I don’t read Greek very well.”
My niece remained skeptical, despite my lengthy explanation about growing up in Australia.
I had a similarly difficult task convincing my five and six-year-old nephews that Santa wore board shorts when he visited Australia at Christmas.
“But he’ll get cold.”
“No, he won’t. It’s summer when we have Christmas.”
“No it’s not,” they insisted. “It’s winter.”
“Well, when it’s winter here, it’s summer in Australia. And when it’s summer in Greece, it’s winter in Australia.”
They were far from convinced.
Every year since then, I’ve been sending them Aussie Christmas cards showing Santa surfing at the beach or playing cricket with koalas and kangaroos.
I think I may have finally convinced them.
Trust me, I’m Greek
My accent, heavily influenced by English and a large dose of Japanese, not only confused my young nieces and nephews, it also intrigued taxi drivers.
As soon as I got into the taxi, their first question was: “Where are you from?”
“Larisa,” I responded. It’s my home town.
Despite living in Greece for another two years from 1994-96, my accent still gave away my dubious origins and the taxi drivers weren’t convinced.
“Where’s your dad from?” they asked, followed by, “Where’s your mum from?”
My Australian passport also perplexed Greek bank tellers. While filling out a withdrawal form, they always hesitated at the field marked: Place of issue.
I sighed, yet again. “Yes, it was issued in Tokyo.”
“Why were you in Japan?”
Another heavy sigh. Greeks always complicated the simplest of transactions.
Once I obtained a cash card, and eventually a Greek ID card, I didn’t have to deal directly with bank tellers. I was able to speedily withdraw cash from the ATM machine without being interrogated.
YAWN... I'd love to chat some more, but it’s time for a siesta. See you for coffee at nine…. PM, that is.
23/8/2011 12:49:45 pm
Love this Hari, your best post yet?
23/8/2011 12:59:25 pm
Hari, this has refreshed my memory about why I counted down the days to get out of Spain. All that coming alive at 9pm did my head in, not to mention my body. Not being able to get to sleep before midnight was more than I could stand. Having a Greek heritage obviously goes a long way with adapting to bizarre rituals.
23/8/2011 01:04:58 pm
Annabel, it's interesting what habits you take on when you've been living in another country for a while, ie squatting. It becomes second nature, doesn't it? And you make do with what's available.
23/8/2011 01:08:10 pm
Therese, I'm generally a night owl and prefer the late nights, though it took a while to get used to eating lunch at 4pm and dinner at 10pm!
25/8/2011 10:59:04 am
Reading your life is a great pleasure and brings back memories of my own travel moments....thanks Hari RosieH
25/8/2011 11:32:40 am
Thanks Rosie, it's great to share memories and experiences with others and enjoy hearing about their adventures.
26/8/2011 11:55:57 pm
Hahahaha, very funny. I laughed all the way through. Although I do remember being invited to someone's place in Australia for a social get together at 10pm (and they were Australian.) I thought "Gawwwwd, I'm asleep by then!" Didn't go! Great story.
27/8/2011 07:03:25 am
Robyn, I'm still awake at 10pm! I have a natural aversion to early mornings and work better later in the day. I do endeavour to eat dinner early, though.
27/8/2011 02:34:20 pm
No wonder you & Helene get on well, afternoon napping in common!
29/8/2011 03:55:55 pm
Sue, I highly recommend afternoon napping!
7/9/2011 11:25:55 am
Your story reminded me of when our son James was an Exchange Student in Brazil. We were quite astonished when he told us that he went out with his host parents at 11.00pm .
7/9/2011 03:32:40 pm
Coral, it seems that South Americans share the same late night pursuits as southern Europeans. Summer, siestas and daylight savings contribute to an outdoor lifestyle.
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I acknowledge the traditional Custodians of the land on which I work and live, the Gubbi Gubbi / Kabi Kabi and Joondoburri people, and recognise their continuing connection to land, the waters and sky. I pay my respect to them and their cultures; and to Elders past, present and emerging.