Vignettes from the Reverse Culture Shock Files

The differences between Greece and America hit spontaneously, and hit hard.

There was more international food in the Philadelphia airport than in all of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city and home to about a million. Greeks don’t really do anything but Greek food. However, at the airport, within the phenomenon known as a “food court,” Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Greek (in the form of the tragic bastardization known as the “Philly Cheese Steak & Gyro Co.”), and classic American (whatever that means) were all nestled in right next to one another. Without leaving the airport, in a single day, I had Mexican for breakfast and Japanese for lunch. It blew my mind.

I can now flush my toilet paper. In Greece, the pipes are so old and small that everyone must throw their used toilet paper away, instead of flushing it down the toilet. Though you get used to it eventually, it is every bit as unpleasant as it sounds.

While trying to buy a coffee in the Philadelphia Airport, the menu was like a freakin’ novel. And once I had finally made my choice, I realized I could have it with whole milk, skim milk, decaf, half-caf, or even the wholly bizarre idea of sugar-free syrup… in about twenty different flavors. I could have had my drink iced or hot, tall, grande or “venti”, to go or to stay, with whipped cream or without. Gone are the days of choosing between Greek coffee, filter coffee, frappe and freddocino, and ordering them with a mere specification of how much sugar I’d like.

Everyone asks me how it’s going, and expects some variation on the theme of “good.”

Back in my hometown of Bozeman, Montana, I can throw on a skort, sport sandals, and a cute t-shirt and fit right in doing everything from playing tennis to going out for a night on the town. In Greece, I felt under-dressed every day I wasn’t teaching. Here, I feel over-dressed when I put on one of the scarves I came to rely on in attempting to look semi-European.

Greek Kate on a night out.

American Kate on a night in (surrounded by pie, as usual).

I realized today that the Wal-Mart in my town is the size of a Greek village, with more products for sale and cars in the parking lot than you’d find in a dozen villages combined.

The dogs I see on a daily basis (and more, being that Bozeman is a total dog town) are all trained and have homes with (over?)loving families. They all have names and can do tricks. One of my favorite culture shock moments from being in Greece was telling a Balkan friend that my dog could sit, lay down, play dead, jump up to get a treat, and shake hands. Having never heard of dogs being trained to do tricks, he exclaimed, “That’s AMAZING!

Living in a small university town, I see only one or two beggars per day, standing beside the highway and holding signs. I saw at least one per block on the main streets of Thessaloniki.

You may think you know soccer fans in America. You have no idea.

On top of simply having access to a television at all, there are hundreds and hundreds of channels in English and without subtitles.

Though coffee menu options are now wholly overwhelming for me, coffee shop culture is something I missed dearly. In Greece, you go to a cafe to order a coffee and spend the next hour or more drinking it and talking with friends. But right now, I am sitting in a cafe alone, updating my blog; in a bit, I’ll pick up where I left off with my summer reading for grad school. The idea of taking work to a coffee shop in order to get it done is one that I like very much, but would most likely be done only in the Starbuckses in Thessaloniki.

When you go to a restaurant in America, the norm is for everyone to choose one dish and perhaps share bites; in Greece, everyone orders a large selection of small dishes and shares them all, serving themselves from the same plates. I must say that after ten months, I prefer the Greek way. It creates a sense of togetherness and promotes discourse about food, both of which I thoroughly enjoy.

My first dinner in Greece, and a great example of what the spread might look like when sharing dishes with others.

All in all, my world has largely been turned upside down. There are so many wonderful things about my home in the US, and so many wonderful things about my Greek life too. What disturbs me most of all is how distant it all seems already. After just one week, my Greek world seems like a dream.

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of human existence is the transiency of all experiences. This transiency is so all-powerful, so universal and so acute that I cannot help but think of it as beautiful in and of itself. Though I am continuing with my Greek language lessons, giggling over my friends’ newly learned arsenal of Greek obscenities, and blasting Elli Kokkinou down the Main Street of Bozeman, Montana, it would seem that those little things are all I can do to cling to Greece. Though this realization breaks my heart, I will do them fiercely. We must all create and shape our own lifestyles; and I am in the process of figuring out how to shape mine all over again, with Greece in mind.

Στην υγειά σας,

Kate

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About wrap me in phyllo dough

travel addict. greece-obsessed. grad student. bottomless pit.
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4 Responses to Vignettes from the Reverse Culture Shock Files

  1. Oh god, the tp thing…. On the other hand one good cuisine is better that half a dozen bad ones! Although, I don’t think I could live without Mexican or Italian very long. That first meal looks wonderful.

  2. Sugarenia says:

    “and blasting Elli Kokkinou down the Main Street of Bozeman, Montana”

    I have to say, that got me giggling at the mental images 😛

  3. AJ says:

    I’m down with food sharing. The closest you’ll get around here is Over the Tapas, unless we wanted to do our own re-creation. Also, KP, you are ROCKIN’ those high heeled booties in Greece.

  4. You have experienced something not a whole lot of other people share in this (US) culture – you LIVED abroad. I bet that has changed you forever (for the better). It also gave you insights into how life can be lived, or must be lived (ha! the TP)… and now you can choose what to keep for yourself and what to abandon. Kudos to you for your insights!
    Γειά σου, Μιχαέλα

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