I look to my right and see a Greek man flipping worry beads, kombouloi. In Greece, they're mostly used by older men to while the time away. He drops each bead one by one onto the end of the cord, then swings the entire cord around in his hand like a zoot-suiter twirling a pocket watch. The beads knock against each other with a satisfying clack, and he begins the ritual anew. The beader in me is attracted to the stones, and the religious studies minor in me sees echoes of Roman Catholic rosaries and Buddhist prayer beads in his bored meditation.
Standing around at the gate, I'm observed as least as much as I am observing. I've read about this in the culture books - they will look at you. If you're remotely pretty, they'll downright stare at you. But they won't smile. I get the Greek "steely eye" at every turn. Greek people are warm, hospitable, and so kind that nothing you need is out of the question, but only if you're "in." And you're "in" if you're related, even very distantly, or perhaps if your can discover a connection between your relations and theirs in the same village. You can't blame them. They have a cellular memory of thousands of years of invasions, conquerings, occupations, wars, and starvation to make them wary of the outsider. What can I do to get "in"? I find myself wanting black curly hair and a thick gold cross to be one of them.
At last we board the plane. I'm very pleased to discover that there's no one assigned to sit beside me, and that I'm close enough to the bathroom not to have to weave my hips between a gauntlet of protruding elbows. Thanks to the jet stream, what I thought was going to be a ten-hour flight was scheduled to be only eight. The economy-class seats have more legroom than I've ever seen, and a little footrest swings down. This is a Very Big Plane. Alleluia for all these little blessings!
I heave my rolly bag into the overhead bin, and suddenly an older couple is shouting rapid Greek at me. My first test. My brain goes blank in panic, but miraculously "Den milw Ellenika" manages to fall out of my mouth... "I don't speak Greek." The husband switches to English to explain helpfully that I need to put my bag lengthwise into the next bin. Victory! This was the first time I've ever spoken Greek to anyone, and they understood.
My relief at passing the first language test is short lived. The flight attendant with the bracelet made of blue evil eye beads asks me in Greek what I'd like to drink (or at least, that's what I imagine she's saying as she has the refreshment cart in front of her). I'm proud that I can answer "nero" (water), but then she asks me another question and I just blink at her blankly, unable to catch one word. She raises her voice when she switches into English, "Ice. You want ice?" Oh geesh. I haven't learned the word for ice yet. This is a brand new experience for me, the terror of not being able to speak the language, especially when you know someone's talking directly to you and expecting an answer. The stripping away of my old self has begun. Identity predicated on intelligence? Great, we'll drop you in a gigantic tin can where you're the only one around who doesn't speak Greek. Now you're the dumbest person in the room! Yeay! My heart squeezes with renewed empathy for all the international students who've ever sat in my classroom. Takahiro, I get it now.
Telling people about this trip, their second question (see blog entry 3 for the first question) is usually, "Oh, are you excited?" The truthful answer was no. Not yet. I was petrified. I was overwhelmed. I was focused. But not excited. I finally felt it today when I walked to the departure gate at the New York airport and overheard three white-haired couples speaking Greek to each other. We're flying Olympic Airways directly into Athens, so it seems that nearly everyone else at the gate is nationally and/or ethnically Greek. I don't understand their conversation. I'm only catching every tenth word - "me," "why," "Greece," "Friday." But encountering people actually speaking Greek makes it real and thrilling for the first time.