An American in Athens, or In Ambelokipi, I Pretend I’m Greek

I have bought my postage stamps and mailed my postcards home. Now I will try to forget I am an American. It doesn’t matter that I can’t speak anything but English. I will be Greek. Not so much like the olive-skinned, roman-nosed Athenians, with their hennaed hair, who rush pass me to the bus stop or the Metro. I’ll pass for a northern Greek with my dark eyes and hair, fair complexion, and pointed nose. A Greek from somewhere else.

Kiffisias Avenue is four lanes of whizzing cars, coaches, motorcycles, and scooters. I wait for the traffic cop to give the signal for pedestrians to cross, make my gait purposeful and try to look like I’m used to the city’s commotion. I’ve been this way before, past a shoe store, up a few blocks to an art supply shop, and here, just across from the post office, there’s a fabric store I discovered the other day.

I have returned to see if the piece of embroidered chiffon is still in the window display. I approach the shop tentatively and see the fabric is draped over the mannequin in warm, rich brown folds, like coffee being poured after siesta. I am a dressmaker on a mission. The placard in the display shows 60€ crossed out, dropped to 15€ a meter. It’s a good deal.

I push open the door of the shop, leaving the bright morning behind me, and am embraced by the warmth of cigarette smoke as I enter the shadows. I can’t see, but I finger several pieces of suiting that are wound on bolts and spread on the center table. Gradually, as I regain my vision, I cast a glance around a room lined with shelves and bolts of fabric that stand upright. I’m like a schoolgirl, pretending not to notice the boy who’s caught my eye. The shopkeeper bustles toward me, a woman in her fifties, short, robust with olive skin and peppery hair.

Oriste? Can she help me?

I smile. I speak. In that brief instant, I’m Greek. Dhen milao elinika. Milate anglika?The words I speak betray my ignorance: I don’t speak Greek. Do you speak English?

Ohi, she says, tipping back her head in a gesture that seems almost non-committal. It must have something to do with the warm climate. She motions for me to follow her.

We exit the shop and go next door to the snack bar. I can’t tell what the woman is doing, but I know she’s telling the shopkeeper about me, the American. Soon we’re joined by a friendly middle-aged man with frizzy hair and thick-lensed glasses. You are from America? he asks.

Nai, nai, I reply, tucking in my chin. It sounds negative, but it means yes. I’m an American, no denying it, but let me make my confession in Greek. Then I will proceed to explain my mission. In English. Very slowly, as if I am speaking my mother tongue as a second language. I tell him that I want to see the piece of fabric in the window.

We step back into the sunlight and then into the dark of the fabric store. The three of us. Do I want to see the black fabric or the brown? I motion toward the brown. The woman firing her questions at me in Greek. The man, interpreting. She wants to know, he says, she wants to know why are you are in Athens? The woman is undraping the mannequin in the front left window display. Do you like it? The question refers, I think, to Greece, but I’m being handed the fabric now.

Nai, nai. Para poli.Yes, yes. Very much. And I mean both the fabric and the place.

She says you should come back to Greece. Greece is good!

Poli kala, smiling. Very good.

You want it? waving at the fabric.

Parakalo, smiling. Please.

About the author

Rebecca Newton has been a writer from a very young age. Her earliest attempts with the pen appeared in her grandparents' mailbox in the…

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Issue 06 · August 2009

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