Over this previous weekend, I traveled to Athens in Greece. This adventure was one I embarked on alone, with nothing but the backpack I had on and the beautiful GPS tool on my cell phone. The culture shocks that were to come were some of the most impactful parts of this Mediterranean trip to date.
As I emerged from the airport, I was immediately aware of my language barriers. The stations that I knew to go to were translated to English in Malta. However, here I was staring blankly at the Greek letters showing me where to go. They were of absolutely no help to me, so I fearfully chased down the nearest train and crossed my fingers. After the vastly nervous hour on this train, I was glad to hear “Syntagma” over the intercom, signaling that I was at the right location.
This was only the first night and I was already second guessing my decision to travel alone. Was I unprepared? Was I way in over my head?! I couldn’t turn back at this point, so I ventured on with false confidence. This my friends, can get you farther than you may have thought.
The next day I was faced with social language issues. Shop owners and even a waiter didn’t speak English, only slowing down my ability to get what I needed. I learned quickly that about half of the population of Greece can fluently speak English. This of course, being my only language, put me at a disadvantage with half of the people. By day three, I was much better with learning to talk with my hands. A finger pointing and a smile can get you nearly anywhere.
I craved a truly authentic Greek meal, free from tourists. That is exactly what I would receive when I traveled to Piraeus, south of Athens. With my language barrier, I couldn’t even pronounce the name of the restaurant, which signaled to me that it was a typical Greek restaurant. They had menus that were not in English and the two workers were unable to speak my same language. They did, however, understand the word “fish” so I ordered that.
After my salad of mostly root vegetables smothered in olive oil, I was awestruck by the fish on the platter. Scales, fins, eyeballs, mouth and all, these small fish were deep fried to a good crisp and delivered to me. I thought I was being pranked, but to the Greek, this is a delicious meal. Caught fresh that week, these little fish were not as bad as I had originally thought. I could not get myself to eat their heads, but their eyeballs were another story. Crunchy spines and warm meat, this may have been the most interesting meal of my life. I regretted absolutely nothing.
Among other traditionally-thought-of Greek foods, of course I tried the gyros and saganaki, but nothing will stick in my memory like this fish. It’s the moments of surprise and shock that stay with us forever.
As lost as I felt at times, I treasured the time that I spent by myself in Greece. I tried new foods and even learned a handful of Greek words. Though I should have learned them earlier, like I said, a pointing finger and a smile can get you nearly anywhere. I would even recommend the fish.
Στην υγειά μας! (Cheers)