Greek life

The end is near

Fifteen months went faster than a toupee in a hurricane. Reflecting back, we feel a bit like the radio stations in December summing up the top 100 songs or news stories and other top this-n-thats of the last year.

img_0226Our last days were spent doing a lot of logistical things: selling the car, the air conditioners, packing, bequeathing toys to friends, and returning the many things Papou has loaned us over these last months.  The car, naturally, was not without  paperwork/appointments/more paperwork chafe (“oh yes Mr. Fefes, I can see that they are paid but you have to go to the other office downtown to get the paper, I cannot give you that paper at this office…” “Oh no Mr. Fefes, you have to have your signature notarized by the police department so go there and then drive all the way back here…”).  Through this process, Demetri was told that he was in the country illegally because our visas have expired and that he should be arrested right then, and at the airport when we leave, we can expect to be detained, heavily fined and/or banned from coming back to the EU for 2 years.  Via email, the Greek consulate assured us that we are not in violation.  We’ll see what happens at the airport.  Greece is nothing without drama and friction.

Despite our potential pending arrest, we also spent our last days enjoying the beach, the sea, the square and Athens.  We had a couple of evenings together with Thodoris and Mina, who generous as always, brought the boys some new Fall duds.   Katerina made her famous spaghetti and an amazing leek pie for the whole family one night last week, and the kids got to play together one more time.

Happy gang of first and third graders

We also had a surprise visit from Aspen Academy friends, Natallia, Arthur and Edward this week from Denver by way of Russia and Italy.  We celebrated Arthur’s 8th birthday poolside at their lovely house with a day full of swimming, soccer, great food and wine.  In the taxi going home, a sleepy Peter proclaimed, “I had a blast today.” Michael concurred as enthusiastically as one can with half closed eyes.


We spent one last evening around the Acropolis, walking from Thiseio to Plaka. Demetri and the boys scampered up the rocks on the hill itself while Papou and I walked the boring way, past the Ancient Agora and up the hill.  It was a beautiful evening to be out; the humidity was low and the temperature was perfect. We had dinner at το Καφενειο, a traditional-with-a-twist taverna we really love. Oh, and it’s right next to Papou’s high school, another favorite Athens monuments.

Family, neighbors and friends are asking if we want to go home or if we want to stay.  What do we like better, the US or Greece? We’re not leaving because we don’t like it here.  Quite the opposite in fact: we’ve come to love much about Greece, Greeks and European life.  Leaving our beloved Papou is terribly difficult.  At the same time, Denver is home.  And home, is well, home.  This experience made us appreciate things we take for granted and learn a lot about what we think we ‘need.’

A friend of Demetri’s sent him this note that ended like this: “You that you did the smartest thing you could do for your family: teaching values, lifetime memories and perspectives outside the rat race.  I hope you don’t feel you missed any business opportunities. I’ve had older friends die recently and their millions meant nothing but their family and friends everything.  Unfortunately, they don’t get that until they hear their doctor say, “Sorry but you have a year to live.”

That first part — values, memories, perspectives outside home — sums it up. Thanks, Jack, for saying it better than we did.


Greek life

Reflections 2: Learning Greek

Of all the goals we had when we came to Greece, the biggest was to learn the language. I’ve written a lot about the kids and their command of Greek. Demetri and I held our own too, and that is all thanks to Omilo, an Athens-based language and culture school.  For almost six months, two days a week, Demetri and I commuted to Omilo’s office in Maroussi, a north suburb. Demetri found the school in 2016 and took two week-long intensive classes in 2016 and 2017.  That’s Omilo’s secret sauce: they attract students with a course on one of the beautiful Greek islands or in lovely Nafplio at Easter time.  How can you not love it?

We loved going to school and loved learning Greek. My little beginner group and our lessons were the highlight for me from October to April. Demetri was in a different class, as he’s been hearing Greek his whole life and had taken 40 hours of classes already.  The kids and I had to start with letter sounds. My class was five: Xion from South Korea, Barbara from Germany, Lucy from China, Diane from London and me.

Demetri, witty in both English and Greek,  jokes that we speak two languages: English and American. I was humbled by my classmates who were all learning their fourth or fifth language IN a foreign language.   Sometimes I found myself listening to them ask a question in English and wondering how their minds could so easily think and switch between their native language and these other languages. They made it look so easy.

Our teacher was the immensely talented, ever patient Konstantinos, who has a great sense of humor, fantastic sound effects and spot-on sign language. He taught in a way that made it fun, even when it was difficult.  The Omilo ‘method’ is terrific: lots of interactive talking where we learned, and repeated and built from the base, reading and learning from the textbook chapters, homework that was fun, and flash cards to give us the visuals of what we were talking about.  Everything Omilo teaches from start to finish is incredibly useful for everyday life: clothes, food, transportation, shopping, travel, and directions.  We also read short stories about different parts of Greece and studied the map. It was in class that I learned about Meteora.

Our beloved Kyria Soula and Kyrie Aleko on the last day of school.

I can say with some confidence that my Greek is now good enough to be ‘transactional,’ though the more I learned the more difficult it was and the more I realized how much there is still to go.  After 6-8 weeks in school, I felt comfortable talking to someone supermarket, the bakery and asking a basic question of Kyria Soula or Kyrie Aleko (school bus; see photo) about something for school.  I didn’t always understand the answer. One  morning over breakfast, Peter made me practice and repeat what he wanted me to say to Kyria Soula. One day in March, the girls from class (Xion left in December) met near Syntagma for coffee and language practice when some Indian tourists asked if we knew where the tourist police was. We had just had the lesson about directions that week, so I was able to ask the staff of the nearby deli … and to my delight I understood what they said and helped the folks outside.

One March day, though, was the icing on the cake for my studies. Shortly after we started the lessons for future tense, I went to school to pay the remainder of the boys’ basketball bill.  I walked in, greeted the very kind Kyria Vagia at the front desk and said, «Θα ηθηλα να πληρωσω το λογαριασμο για τον μπασκετ, παρακαλο.»  The school staff had always been gracious and patient with my English, but on this day, Kyria Xenia, the Δημοτικο secretary hugged me and said I spoke Greek so well and how last summer I knew NOTHING. NOTHING! NOTHING! (Yep, three times. It was so funny). And then she took me into the accounting office and told Kyria Chrysanthi, the accountant, the same thing and asked me to repeat my payment request.  I felt ten feet tall and it was all because of Konstantinos. They wanted to know where I had studied the language and learned so fast and I was only happy to sing the praises of Omilo.

Barbara, Lucy, Diane and me practicing Greek over coffee

I am already plotting my next Greek lessons, because I’m just dying to learn the past tense of verbs. As Diane so aptly put it:  we (humans) really spent more time talking about what we have done rather than what we’re going to do.  Past tense enables conversation.  But until we can be Omilo students again, Demetri and I will avidly read the Omilo newsletter and blog, published in Greek and English.

Greek life

Reflections, part 1

The wind is in from Africa; last night I couldn’t sleep.  It sure is hard to leave you, but it’s really not my home.

This Joni Mitchell line sums it up this week. The Meltemi winds have arrived, sleep eludes me, and as our time in Greece comes to an end, we’re all feeling excited to go home, but also sad to leave.

We’ve been reflecting a lot on the last 14 months.  A year ago now, we were on the island of Rhodes and getting ready to embark on our fantastic central European tour, though I don’t think we had it totally planned out.  We had registered for school, but I had put that out of my head with six more weeks of summer and on account of being terrified of a local upon receiving my first email not recognizing a single word. Gulp.

And now, I watch the kids talk to other kids on the beach, playing waboba ball with them or showing off a live sea star that my snorkeling champ Michael has pulled from 8 feet down.  I see them swim so (too) far out in the sea … all the way to the buoys that mark the boat lines. I see how close they have gotten to each other and how their imaginary games work in things they’ve learned from our travels in Europe to 8 different countries: bull fights, free build F1 lego cars, playing knights or Roman soldiers, choosing their outfits for the day based national team soccer players (“Does Harry Kane ever wear all red?” “I HAVE to wear this. Ronaldo wears long sleeves!”  “I’m in all blue so I’m Griezmann today.”)

There’s a lot we’ll miss here.  We’ve met such wonderful families at school.  Our school and they way they ‘handled’ us was just excellent.  Our neighbors are so great.  Greeks are such good-natured people.  For all their emotion and passion and risky driving habits, they are generous, kind, patient, understanding and fun. Learning the language and the expressions and a lot of Greek history really explains them as a culture.  And they all — ALL — love kids.  Nowhere else have I seen so many complete strangers (I’m talking adults) rub the boys’ heads, ask them a question, insert themselves into their mini-soccer game, or high five them for wearing the ‘right’ soccer jersey. One day in the Supermarket, a man saw Peter’s jersey, asked his name, and congratulated him on rooting for Olympiacos.  On the flip side, last week in Monasteraki, a waiter snatched Peter’s red and white komboloi, saying ‘this taverna only allows Panithainiakos’ paraphernalia.  Of course he was kidding and Peter knew it — both giggled.  In our plateia, the taverna staff will kick the ball with the kids, or go fetch them when the food arrives, carry them to me and bring ice when they fall, and one server even gifted them a basketball.

img_0092We watch Peter, who has changed and grown so much, with his big English vocabulary and his perfect Greek accent.  He’s learned the language so well and so fast, he doesn’t even have to think about Greek anymore.  It just comes straight out.  His English teacher told me that when kids didn’t understand things in English class, he explained it to them in Greek.  He’s always singing or humming a Greek song.  This summer I saw only Peter’s feet sticking out of the water; he must do 50 water hand stands a day.  And Michael, whose quiet confidence and leadership skills have increased tenfold.  He did his schoolwork faithfully and without complaint, and he’s got Greek grammar rules down cold. He brought soccer cards to school every day to play with anyone who wanted to and his classmates all drew him goodbye pictures. And when we go to the beach he grabs his mask, snorkel and fins at a speed like he’s in the transition area in a triathlon and is in the water faster than I can chase him with the sunscreen.  He emerges 20 minutes later with some treasure in his hand — a clam, the aforementioned sea stars, a hermit crab.  Yesterday, Demetri saw a sea turtle on his swim. Total thrill. img_0189

At this moment, what everyone says they’ll miss is the obvious things: Papou of course.  Greek food.  Our cousins and how close we’ve gotten to them.  Living a block from the sea and watching the marine traffic pass all day — sailboats, yachts, ferries, cargo boats.  The plateia.  The laiki, especially in summer with peaches priced at €1.50/kilo and figs for even less.  Watermelon. But these are the things in our immediate reach; in our everyday lives.  It will be interesting to see in a month or six what we miss that will be more significant to our souls.

I wasn’t familiar with the acronym FOMO until recently. Inversely, over the last year we enjoyed JOMO — the joy of missing out.  Part of it was because we were fairly insulated — we didn’t watch the news because we couldn’t understand it; we didn’t hang around school to absorb any gossip, and again, not sure we would have understood it. We didn’t have jobs so didn’t get enmeshed in office or local politics.  We also didn’t feel like we missed much at home; we didn’t wish to have been there more than we wanted to be here.  And what this experience did for our family is something that we (the parents) wouldn’t change for the world. We are closer to each other as a foursome, our marriage is stronger, we understand each other better, we admire the bravery in each other for different things we took on this year and we learned that we don’t need stuff to be happy.  We just need each other.

Will we do it again? Θα δουμε. Quite possibly.