It’s probably telling that, as I wandered around a Greek festival this weekend, the thought that kept popping into my head was, “So many Greek people!” I don’t know what I was expecting. But in the two hours I spent there, I learned a lot about what an ignorant asshole I am.
First of all, I realized that, if it weren’t for the fact that I knew I was at a Greek festival, I would have thought a lot of the traditional clothing and music was something else. Turkish or Albanian or Egyptian or something like that. As I sat listening to an all-black-clad, accessorized, slick-haired young man sing in Greek (and watching the keyboardist, who looked a lot like Chris Christie, make faces that seemed to say, “Seriously with this guy?”), I realized there was probably an excusable reason for that: it’s all Mediterranean.
Then I looked up a map of the Mediterranean region. It’s big, guys. I’m ashamed that I didn’t realize it was more inclusive than I thought. I had it in my head as southern Italy, Morocco, Egypt, Turkey and Greece. What was I thinking? Had I never seen a map before? Apparently I had forgotten about Spain, southern France, Croatia, Syria, Lebanon and Israel. Not to mention Libya and Tunisia, Cyprus (duh), Albania, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Malta, Montenegro and Slovenia.
Most of the people I saw were undeniably Greek, to my sensibilities. There are real characteristics of Greek facial features, and I find it fascinating. I feel lucky that I can look at people and often pin down their heritage. And then I realize that might not be lucky so much as presumptuous.
I could, however, immediately identify the three guys who sat down in front of me who most definitely were not Greek.
I mean, I’m Irish and German, and the friend I was with is, too, so it’s not like we thought everyone who was going to be there had to be Greek as a price of admission. But you know when you’re looking at someone who’s not Greek. Is what I’m saying.
I wrestled with the stereotypes. I mean, sure, the food is freaking awesome. I had to limit myself to chicken souvlaki and a baklava sundae (I know). And I was disappointed in the tzatziki. Well… did that mean all the tzatziki I had ever had (including from the Greek restaurants) was inauthentic? Or had they just forgotten the garlic when they made the batch I ate from?
Here were the stereotypes I found to match:
The men are hairy.
There are distinct noses.
The complexion and coloring is consistently olive and dark.
Thick, curly hair is dominant.
The dances all look the same to an outsider.
But really, how many of those can be claimed as strictly Greek? Any Mediterranean heritage can be included in that. I watched a young dancer, who looked not at all excited to be there, and joked to my friend that she must be thinking, “I’m not even Greek. I’m Albanian. Eff this.”
Maybe I was right.
I’m not much for Greek or otherwise Mediterranean music. I find it charming for a song or two and then rather relentlessly overly Baroque (and I’m not a fan of Baroque). So that wasn’t going to be my favorite experience of the night. But if I put the food aside, what I liked most about the festival was that there is such a collective pride in this heritage. I watched the non-Greek spouses and wondered what it was like for them to join these families – as if it’s not hard to join anyone’s family culture (my Irish side being legendary). What I liked least was how the cheapest elements of stereotypes got equal representation – the gaudy and low-class trinkets and tchotchkes. (What’s Greek for “tchotchke?” Do I have to switch it if Israel is also Mediterranean?) I lingered over the authentic organic food products for sale at one of the tents because it seemed so lovely in comparison. If I’d had the cash on me, I probably would have bought an item or two because I believed the quality was there, as opposed to mocking the foot-tall metal representations of Greek gods and goddesses that I joked I would put in the front window of my house – except for the one of Icarus and his chariot, which can’t get too close to the sun. (He sat, anecdotally, just down the street from a great restaurant named for him.)
I do wish I’d gotten some tiropita, though.