Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Diet Coke Connection

I pulled the Diet Coke out of the refrigerated unit that stood next to his tiny kiosk.  He was ensconced inside the small fixture, surrounded by the goods he sold there on the corner of Timiski and Komninon streets.  Chips, candy, magazines, plastic statues of the Olympian gods and goddesses.  There was just one small opening amongst the goods through which I could see him, the shop owner; I wanted to pay for my cold, bubbly refreshment.  Years lined his face.  Across his eyes sat heavy glasses.  Thick gray hair complimented his grizzled, yet somehow soft, features.

I waved the Diet Coke to get his attention.  "One Euro," came the reply, barely audible from the depths of his kiosk-cave.  I fumbled through my wallet.  I had just come into Thessaloniki that morning after 10 hours of flying.  After changing money in the airport I only had large bills.  To make matters worse, I was moving in jet-lag slow motion, barely able to complete the simplest of tasks.  That Diet Coke would take the edge off of my throbbing headache.

I uttered an apology as I handed him a 10 Euro note.  And my mind began to race.

It seemed a lifetime ago that I last traveled to a land where I was such a stranger.  As a young adult I did a bit of traveling (to Australia, the UK, Switzerland) and relished the notion of meeting new and different people, connecting with their culture, having the adventure of a conversation with a local.  But, for some reason, this aspect of my current trip has seemed daunting to me.  Have I really grown into that old, fuddy-duddy American who just wants to stick with the tour guide?

Just an hour before my thirst drove me to the kiosk on the corner, I was seated with my fellow Fulbright travelers in the American Consulate's office.  There we were greeted by the Consulate herself and various other Americans currently working in Thessaloniki, including a young Fulbright scholar doing post graduate work there.  The young woman's message to us was energetic and upbeat.  In fact, she literally commanded us to take hold of our experience here and be sure to get out of our comfort zone.  "Speak some Greek!"  she exhorted.  "Meet some locals!  It's fun and easy, and you will be greatly rewarded," she promised.

As I handed the shopkeeper the 10 Euro note, I stared down the edge of my own, personal box and took a step.  "Kalispera!"  I tried my hand at the phrase that means "Good evening!"  The shopkeeper's face brightened, and he babbled a long string of something completely incomprehensible to me.  Finally it dawned on me that he wanted to know my language, because he started speaking in French to me.  "No, no," I corrected him.  "English."

"Ah!" my new friend replied.  "American English, or English English?" Hand gestures went along with this question.  Along with "American English" he gave me a smile and a thumbs-up.  Along with "English English" he gave me a grimmace and a thumbs down.  My jet lagged mind wandered...did he just give me some insight to his political views towards the EU?

Who, exactly, is this man making change for a 10 Euro note for a can of Diet Coke?  That seems to be the question posed at the beginning of each lecture I have attended in the past two days.  What is the Greek identity?  The aura of stone statues and Olympic gods are imposed upon the people living, breathing and walking the streets here by the rest of us from around the world.  Greeks themselves actually embrace these ghosts of their glorious past.  But how have more recent events influenced the man in front of me making change?  Macedonia formally became a part of the Greek national state in 1912 when Turkish rule ended with the Ottoman event that transpired during the lifetime of this man's parents.  How about the massive Greco-Turkish population exchange of 1922, where Greek Muslims were sent to Turkey and Orthodox Christians living in Turkey were sent to Greece?  What effect did this important time in the history of the region have on this man's family?

The shopkeeper smiled broadly as I told him I was from America, more specifically Massachusetts.  His eyes sparkled even more, and he got very animated.  But it took me a few moments to decipher what he as saying.  "Michael Dukakis!  Michael Dukakis!"  he said with glee, practically waving the words like a banner.  "Yes!"  I chuckled.  "Michael Dukakis is from Massachusetts!"  As the shopkeeper launchds into another explosion of dialogue (this time about where, in Greece, Michael Dukakis comes from), I pocketed my change and popped the top of my Diet Coke.  I think we were both entirely satisfied.


  1. Katie,
    Keep it up! You are such a captivating writer!!!
    I don't need to tell you to ENJOY every minute of this experience. I will be closely following you.

  2. Katie,

    Thank you for taking us with you on this wonderful adventure! Your "armchair" companions are awaiting their next lesson ...


  3. So glad you made it safe and sound. We're hearing reports of troubles in Greece, so I hope your travels continue to be safe and inspiring. I'm loving your blog!