I wasn’t sure when or how to share the story of my trip to Greece. Thursday, I woke up to a text from a good friend, and I knew that I needed to share it, now.
Greece changed the way that I see the world and the way that I travel it.
This story starts as they usually do, by me messing up a travel reservation. I had just moved back to France for the second time and by a very fortunate coincidence, was overlapping my time in Europe with my friend Marianthi, who was visiting the land of her people, Greece. We had the discussion time and time again that I needed to visit her while she was there and then all of the sudden, the flight was booked and I was preparing to spend one of my first weekends back in Europe in Kryoneri, Greece. In fact, it was my first weekend back in Europe. Except that I had told Marianthi that it would be the following weekend; which is why, when she texted me on Wednesday asking what I would like to do when I came to see her in a week and a half, she was pretty thrown when I said… oh… uh…my flight is in 2 days?
Her family had other plans for the actual weekend that I had booked to visit and I immediately started on with a thousand texts about how I could cancel my booking, and how I didn’t want to be an inconvenience, etc. and she just kept responding with, “no, I asked my mom, you’re coming, it will be wonderful.” So Friday evening, I got on a plane bound for Athens. After a charming 5 hour “overnight-nap” next to a snoring pile of coats in the Athens airport, I was the only blonde boarding a plane for Thessaloniki. Marianthi picked me up at 8 am from the airport and immediately got me a hot coffee and some sort of pastry and meat type food before driving me to her ancestral village of Kryoneri, which means ‘cold water’ in English.
Driving through the winding hills was unlike anything I had ever seen. Signs were written in Greek, some of which I recognized, but none of it legible to the point of comprehension and mostly I just felt glad to be away from the snoring pile of coats and the awkward stares that my very paleness was attracting. When we arrived at her house, I was struck with how cute it was. They had fruit trees in their yards that were growing real, edible fruit. I saw tobacco drying in someone’s back yard. I saw all the old men in the village (all of whom were occupied with staring at the very pale and blonde foreigner who was photographing their village on her iPhone) sitting outside the cafes. I had never seen all of that before. I met her Yiayia and her cousins, aunts, uncles, and her mom.
At a certain point on that first day, we went walking into different homes of her family members looking for her cousin. In each house, as a guest, I was offered something to drink (boozy) and something to eat (chocolatey). After a few houses, I absolutely loved Greece and couldn’t feel my face. Later, we sat near her Yiayia’s bed and I listened to her and her grandmother chatting animatedly back and forth in Greek and I was struck by how language divides all the people of our world but that we are fundamentally the same. Deep thoughts fueled by Greek booze and my inability to converse with anyone.
I was graciously invited to a family lunch/dinner and given more booze upon arrival. I sat at a lovely table and ate SO MUCH AMAZING FOOD, you guys. When I couldn’t possibly take seconds, the host worriedly asked if she could make me something else, fearing that I didn’t want seconds because I didn’t like anything. I thought that was so wonderfully kind.
We then went and sat on the gorgeous porch and had a lengthy discussion about politics, life, and the state of the world. I was very thoughtfully included by Marianthi’s uncle and mother, who translated the Greek for me. I don’t know if you’ve ever sat near someone and listened to them speak in a completely different language that you don’t even remotely understand, but this was my first time doing that. I think your brain searches for something to understand so you pick up on things about them from their energy, their body language, and their facial expressions; things you might not notice if they were just standing by you. What I picked up from these people was absolute passion for life and a genuineness that I often find lacking in others. I picked up kindness and laughter; I picked up love and also a bit of sass. For some reason, the lasting picture I have in my head of that afternoon is the sun setting and of Marianthi’s mom laughing.
After the dinner, we went back to Marianthi’s house because the cousins wanted to take us out. Her 15-year-old cousins. Wanted to take us to the village bar. And we were going. I just kept feeling like I had absolutely no business going to have cocktails with them. But I did. It was kind of like the set-up of a joke: the only blonde for miles walks into a village bar. No one but the group of girls we were with spoke to me, because it was pretty obvious that I did not speak Greek. The only thing as white as me in the whole bar was another girl’s white shirt. There I was: pale, old, and moderately confused – but these girls were chattering to me about all sorts of stuff and eventually they taught me a greek word.
The love that you show to strangers. That word became my whole understanding of Greece. It explained the “please come visit anyway, despite our family plans and obligations,” it explained the girl cousins wanting to take me out and making an effort to speak to me, it explained the amazing family dinner that I was unquestionably invited to, it explained the second plate I was offered, it explained the booze and chocolate, it explained Marianthi’s cousin coming over the next day to make us delicious coffee and sharing wonderful conversations and bakery treats, it explained us getting an upgrade at our hotel in the city on Sunday night so that we could see the ocean from our room, it explained us getting a table right next to the ocean for dinner that Sunday night, it explained Marianthi’s mom translating entire conversations for me so that I could be a part of them and hugging me goodbye like I was her own child, and it explained Marianthi’s Yiayia holding my hand and telling me things in Greek that I absolutely did not understand but that I knew were important and kind, because that’s how Yiayias are.
The second I heard that word, philoxenia, I knew that THAT was how the world is meant to work.
This blog post is long and “what happens in Thessaloniki stays in Thessaloniki” (laying by the pool + drinking on a pirate ship) so I will leave out the details of Sunday into Monday morning, but ultimately, where I’d like to go with this post is this: Greece taught me that travel is not all about seeing landmarks and taking pictures of cool stuff to post on Instagram. It can be a third about that, or else, this blog would be boring. But travel should be two-thirds about meeting native people and seeing how they really live. It should be about other people’s stories and their homes and accidentally getting a little boozy because you’re meeting so many genuinely nice people who want to welcome you. I don’t think I can thank Marianthi’s family enough for the kindness of the weekend and the gift that they gave me being such wonderful hosts, but I would do anything to try.
I don’t have a picture of the Parthenon or Mount Olympus, maybe I’ll get one someday. But what I do have is a new Greek word and a new philosophy about love in the world, and that’s definitely way more valuable.