Not knowing the language when you’re travelling through Greece can make for some interesting conversations, not to mention interesting approaches, to make one’s self understood. This goes for the Greeks as well.
Here are a few I came across on my recent trip.
The ‘In Your Face’ Approach
The ‘In Your Face’ approach doesn’t work so well with the Greeks, confidence is alright but not aggression, although it can get you served before everyone else in a Gyros bar. The most striking example of this approach was coming off the boat in Santorini and encountering mass confusion as people tried to sort out which bus to catch. A bus driver was talking to a Greek woman when an Asian girl marched up to him interrupting their conversation and shouted loudly in his face “This bus? Fira?” Suffice to say the man was a bit taken aback, and didn’t reply straightaway. The girl said it again, even more loudly. To give the bus driver credit he handled the situation quite well, he slowly raised an index finger asking her to wait, continued his conversation with the other woman and then slowly nodded at the girl when he was ready.
The ‘I Want It Like This’ Approach
This also doesn’t work too well with the Greeks. They’ve done their best to cater to tourist whims but some of the finer points of how Westerners like their cuisine can be lost in translation. At a fast-food stand I overheard an American guy ordering a hotdog. He wanted to know if the sausage was ‘crispy’. Not understanding, the vendor mimed the length of the hotdog. The American guy insisted on knowing if the sausage would be ‘crispy’. The vendor looked blank. I wondered how the guy was going to mime ‘crispy’ but he gave up and settled for ‘no mustard’ instead. I hope the sausage he got was satisfactory in the end.
This reminded me of a snippet of conversation I’d heard the day before between a couple, also American, who were sitting behind me on the local bus. The husband was obviously displeased about something that had happened. Unfortunately I don’t know what exactly but he said “I hesitate to say the trip has been ruined, but it has been diminished”. Perhaps he also didn’t get “crispy” sausages?
The “You Didn’t Ask” Answer
Whether you end up lost or didn’t get what you ordered, quite often the standard Greek response is “You Didn’t Ask!” This also tends to be the answer if you don’t do things in the way they should be done. This happened to me in the post office when I mixed up the “to” and “from” addresses on a package I was sending overseas as there was no indication which address lines were for which. The woman therefore, thought I was sending the package to Greece and didn’t charge me enough. When I pointed out the mistake she huffed at me and I said “How was I to know? I am not Greek”. “Yes, but you didn’t ask!” she replied stonily. This stumped me. It was true, but I hadn’t asked because I didn’t know I was doing it wrong.
A variation on this can be “I did ask you!” this was used on me when I said I didn’t drink coffee and the waitress brought me coffee.
Although communicating in Greece can be frustrating at times, you’ll get what you want (or a variation of it) and also get where you need to go eventually if you’re patient and polite. It helps to learn a few Greek words as well, like “yiassas” (hello), “parakaló” (please) and “efkharistó” (thank you) and “signómi (excuse me). Being courteous may not work in every situation, believe me there will be times when you lose your cool, but most Greek people will respond pleasantly if you’re pleasant to them.