I met up last Sunday with my Greek-American friend, Evi. She, like myself is from the US, but has now made Athens her home. Fresh from her two-month trip to Boston, I was looking forward to hearing some new perspectives from New England. I haven’t been back to the US in a year, and after my surreal 3-month army experience at Kalamata Military Base and the Defense Ministry in Athens this summer, I am getting a small dose of Greek cabin-fever.
I barely let her take a sip of her coffee before I started with a barrage of questions: “So, what is the vibe like in the US right now? Did you want to stay more or are you glad you’re back in Athens?” I asked her, like my one-year stretch in Greece had given me amnesia to thirty years of living in America.
“Yeah, I’m glad to be back here. But it’s really good over there too. You know; everything works. Everything is easy. Customer service is good. You do things online. You run errands in like fifteen minutes. It’s not like here, where you spend a half-day, running from office to office, paying bills in-person, getting signatures, asking for sealed-stamped certificates, like we’re still living in a 1970’s cult TV comedy series.”
“I took my mom to General Mass Hospital to get an x-ray on her wrist. When I asked the nurse when we should come back to get the diagnosis, you know what she said?” My lower lip quivered and I raised my eyebrows in anticipated fear, not so much for the results of her mother’s x-ray, but preparing myself to be flabbergasted by American efficiency. “She said by the time you drive home, you can check your mom’s online medical profile and read the doctor’s notes.”
If you said that to an Athenian who recently visited a public hospital, they might give you an empty stare, take a deep breath, laugh delusionally and then weep quietly that their mothers gave birth to them in the cradle of democracy. A friend of mine stubbed her toe and fractured it during her summer vacation and wanted to get it checked-out. She walked into a hospital a few days later, but soon left because she didn’t have the energy to wait in lines and go through the ‘whole process’.
“There’s a trade-off wherever you live. In the US, my friends seem to have more stable lives, they’re ‘building careers,’ their kids go to good schools, they’re saving money for the future. But whenever anyone comes to visit me in Athens, they can’t believe we have this outside our doorstep.” She pointed her hand out to this -the lively, bustling neighborhood square filled with outdoor cafes-bakeries-tavernas- which on a Sunday evening, pushing 11PM, it was still full and animated with families out for late night-snacks, young couples cuddled up on outdoor patio couches at the tastefully-designed cafes, teenagers somewhat respectfully loitering around and flirting with other adolescents, old folks sitting back on benches, and the solitary, out on their evening ‘peripato’ – nightly stroll.
Greek culture has something embedded in its social fiber, in its cultural DNA. It’s not a numerical, quality of life that is going to give Greece a higher ranking in the Monocle and Mercer ratings of best places in the world to live in, by crunching hard-data on public transportation, health care, education and safety. It’s a humane touch that you observe discreetly and experience subconsciously, in the 24-hr daily lifestyle of peoples’ behavior: the details, little intricacies, what they prioritize, what they consider necessary.
“You know what was kind of a pain-in the ass in Boston? Trying to meet some of my friends for a coffee or lunch was almost like scheduling an appointment with my dentist. It’s not like here, when you’re passing by someone’s office after work or you happen to be in their neighborhood and you say, ‘hey you want to meet for a coffee, now, like in thirty minutes and you do. I played phone-tag with a couple good friends of mine, all summer back home, we-rescheduled a few times and then I just stopped trying and we never ended up meeting.”
The Greek impromptu social gatherings are one of my favorite occurrences when you happen to stumble into one of them: its like a game of social musical-chairs playing out throughout neighborhood piazzas all over Greece. On the weekends they tend to last longer and can be all-day affairs, at the neighborhood taverna/café; and on the weekdays, they still happen after work or later in the evening at a more rapid-fire pace: friends drop-in, others drop-out, on their way to a gym class or strolling out of the office. Calling a friend out-of-the-blue because ‘I thought maybe you might be around here’ is not a rare occurrence in Greek social life.
I remember last year, a NY Times article, circulated widely online, about Greeks who live to the age of a hundred on the island of Ikaria. Besides a healthy diet and some of the obvious traits to staying fit, most of the people in these communities also had stress-free lifestyles: (1) waking up late and taking naps (2) lax attitude to meetings and appointments (3) Greek coffee didn’t seem to hurt either.
We chatted a bit more about Boston, how some of the old neighborhoods have changed, and some common friends. But I didn’t feel like I was walking away with a new striking revelation in my comparisons of laid back Mediterranean life and efficient, meritocratic Americana. As we got ready to leave Evi added, “It’s a love-hate relationship. It makes sense to go back to the US, to work in a professional environment where you will be rewarded, to take classes, to learn new things. But at the same time, I can’t picture my life without Greece.”
I felt somewhat similarly. I am missing the cultural and intellectual stimulation of NYC. I don’t know if I’ll stay in Greece another year, or longer or perhaps it will become a base to a professional, 21st century nomadic lifestyle. But there is a real-life charm here, no matter how low the country sinks on the financial data and econ statistics, the lifestyle is very alluring and very humane.