That’s “good morning” in Greek. I heard it from the chef the following morning when I went to the mezzanine for breakfast. She said it as she was coming in the room from the kitchen to place a loaf of sliced bread on the table. The swiftness, ease and kindness with which she said it, instantly communicated to me that this must be a form of greeting. And although I didn’t know what it meant, I smoothly smiled back and butchered the word “kaliméra” the best way that I didn’t know how.
After all, over 50% of communication is still nonverbal; and it’s not what you say, but how you say. So, I quickly understood that she was greeting me, and I reciprocally greeted her.
I had to go to Greece for one-week training and orientation at my company’s Headquarters. So, I moved to NY from Florida and within a few days I was on another plane. This time I was thousands of feet high over the North Atlantic Ocean heading to Athens, Greece.
In 2008 I traveled to Europe, visiting Amsterdam, Belgium, France and London; but this was my first time going to Greece. I attempted to read a thing or two on Greek culture, traditions and the likes but between countless traveling between Miami, Jacksonville, Haiti and moving into a new apartment in NY, I couldn’t find time.
All throughout my life, basketball and breakdancing have been my closest friends and relaxations. After I checked into my hotel in Greece, I went for a walk around the neighborhood and unexpectedly, I came across a basketball court. On one side, children and family were playing, and on the other, a young man probably in his late twenties. Again, most of communication is nonverbal. A quick smile exchanged and before you know it, we were playing basketball like old friends reunited. It turns out that he is friends with and went to school with the 7-feet 1-inch tall Portland Trail Blazers center basketball player, Georgio Papagiannis. He also brought to my attention that Nigerian Milwaukee Bucks forward, Giannis Antetokounmpo was Greek born, hence his nickname “Greek freak.”
This happened on Sunday, the same day I landed. After playing basketball, we grabbed a bite to eat, exchanged contact info and went our separate ways. It was about 8 p.m. local time in Greece on a Sunday, and my body just reminded me that I had been up since the day prior. Here comes the jet lag, I thought. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay up to fix the lag (adjust with the local time) or collapse on the bed, which would keep me on the jet lag when I awake. I fell asleep. Evidently, I woke up around 2:00 am and was restless. I went for a second walk around the neighborhood. This time, I found a little restaurant called “Everest.” It’s like the equivalent of the Subway franchise. The next day at work, I also found that Everest is walking distance from the office. I was already establishing a sense of familiarity in the new country.
While I took a cab to work in the morning, I decided to hop on public transportation so I could get lost and learn, ask people for direction in the hopes of meeting people, and finding my way around Athens. And this much I found out… Unlike Americans, the Greeks do not regularly smile hello at strangers in the street. They just went about their day. In the morning you would occasionally hear the chorus “kaliméra” exchanged as people hopped on and off the bus. It was afternoon and I didn’t hear the afternoon equivalent of “kaliméra” exchanged much. Perhaps the eight hours of the day got the most of them. However, if I approached anyone for help/directions, I discovered two things: one, all the Greeks speak English, and two, they were all indistinctively the most open to conversations and patient in giving directions.
A particular person stayed engraved in my memory after I got lost on my way to work. It was Wednesday morning and I had just got off the subway. Unsure which direction to go, I asked a young lady I spotted just as I was walking off the escalator.
“Kaliméra,” I said, pretending to speak Greek fluently.
“Kaliméra,” she responded.
“English?” I continued.
“Of course,” she smiled as she answered.
That’s when I realized nearly all Greeks speak English. At least conversationally or enough to give you reliable directions. After she directed me to the right bus route and all, I thanked her before I walked out. “Efcharisto,” thank you in Greek. Once again, she smiled, “you’re welcome.” This time, she reminded me of Rosanna Arquette (Paulette) from Woody Allen’s New York Stories Life Lessons. But I was almost late for work, so I couldn’t make her my assistant nor my lover and I just went about my day.
Between people’s fluency in English and having the time to chat while they give directions, it didn’t take long for me to feel comfortable in Greece.
Wednesday night, I had dinner at the Galaxy, where I was introduced – by sight – to the Acropolis. Galaxy is a rooftop restaurant at the nearby Hilton hotel. From there you’ll have an amazingly scenic view of the capital and the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Acropolis. It is an ancient citadel atop the highest point in Athens with classical architecture rich in the history of Athens. I visited the Acropolis Sunday morning the day of my return to NY. It felt like Mireiile Mathieu may have dedicated her song Acropolis Adieu to me as I have well loved the city but it was time to bid my farewell. Like the song, Athens indeed will remain a happiness [and regret] in my memory.
Walking distance and next to Acropolis is Plaka, a narrow-street village filled with numerous shops selling jewelry, souvenirs memorabilia and more. The narrow streets of Plaka reminds you of scenes from Mama Mia! Plaka is probably the heart and soul of Athens. This neighborhood combines ancient history, art, modernity and graffiti painting like no other. Each of these elements were represented in Plaka with spray painted walls, small souvenir shops, Mama Mia-like corridors and various American retail stores.
I’m on the plane heading back to the US writing this as I look forward to fixing this soon to be jet lagged, preparing for client meeting with the CEO and my work-soul-friend.
Jaury Jean- Enard is the former Assistant Research Director at the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau. He is also the Creative Director and Founder of the African Wardrobe Festival. Jean-Enard holds a Master of Science degree in Mass Communication with a concentration in Global Strategic Communication from Florida International University. Jean-Enard is a frequent contributor to various newspapers on the topics of arts & culture, religion, marketing and communication.