1. Your name
From the moment of your birth, your life begins to encompass all the Greekness it can. It first begins with your name. And lucky for your parents, because they only have four options! Yes, you heard me, only four! Out of all the million and bajillions of names, your parents only have four to choose from since it is Greek tradition to name your child after your parents. If you are a first-born and a boy, you’re shit out of luck—your name is your paternal grandfather’s! Even if the name is an ancient Greek mythological character, like Achilles, your name will be Achilles. Guess, that pretty cool? If you are girl, it usually goes to the maternal grandmother — unless it’s an ugly name, and your parents would like to spare you the pain and name you after the paternal grandmother. Because of this, strife erupts in the family since the paternal side is being favored. And, there begins your life as a Greek person—family chaos beginning at birth with your name.
2. Yiayia and Pappou
Yiayia and Pappou are your grandparents — who love you so much and want the best for you, and try to set you up with random men or women who are way too old for you at family gatherings. In their eyes, you are their shining star. And if you’re named after them you might become the favorite.
Yiayia and Pappou are pretty cool, but usually strict when it comes to Greek tradition. They expect you to go to church on Sundays, pray your sins away, remain chaste until marriage, and marry a nice Greek man or lady. Even though you might fight with your grandparents because of cultural differences, they are your biggest fans. Most likely, they weren’t afforded the opportunities that you might be — like going to college. They worked hard to have your parents succeed, and in turn for you to have the best life. So yea, Yiayia and Pappou—pretty cool people. Go see them more.
Your first friends are your cousins. In many cases, you and your cousins all have the same names, because you were named after your grandparents! So you basically have four Georges, two Michaels, five Elenis, and three Christos’. Then you get nicknames for each one because if you call one name, they all come, and who wants to deal with five Stellas at once? At family gatherings, your cousins are your party people. You hang out, eat food, usually sneak a couple beers to the basement and play stupid games. You have sleepovers and go shopping together or “nifi” [wife] hunting at the nearest Greek club. Your cousins feel like extended siblings. They are always there for you when you need them.
4. Greek School
You are five and just starting kindergarten. YAY! School during the day, and you can’t wait to play with blocks, or maybe learn some colors and numbers. Afternoon comes and all your friends go to Brownies or Boy Scouts. But you, you lucky little Greek person, get to go to Greek School! YAY! (Not really). After school, you get to spend two whole hours with an angry old Greek lady and some people who become your closest friends (or people you grow to despise). During these two hours, you learn to read, write, speak, and sing in Greek, all while hoping the angry Greek lady doesn’t spit on your forehead when you act up and she yells at you. You continue Greek school from kindergarten all the way up to sixth grade. Two hours, Monday and Wednesday. For seven years, you spend 840 hours hating your life, passing notes, faking sick, and escaping to the bathroom. During these 840 hours, you really despise your parents for sending you to the hell that is Greek school. But when you become an adult, you kind of thank your parents for forcing you to learn another language and engage in your culture.
5. Greek Dance
Not only do you get to go to Greek school, but you also have the option to learn traditional Greek dance. So while your friends are at ballet or hip-hop classes, you are spending your Friday afternoon holding sweaty boy hands and listening to some older guy tell you what to do. You begin at the ripe age of 5, just like Greek school, and usually continue until you finish high school. Practices typically run an hour, but on some days can feel like forever. A crazy parent usually runs Greek dance because who else wants to sit there and watch children butcher traditional dances that the village folks did. However, as you get older, you suddenly begin to love Greek dancing and the cultural connection it has. You begin to think, “Are my parents doing something right?” When you go to weddings, you get to dance and show off your skills, making your grandparents proud. You even get to attend crazy competitive Greek dance competitions and compete with dance troupes, from several states. It gets pretty intense. You might even find your secret Greek lover at the dance competitions. Trust me, watching a hot Greek man tear up the stage with his flips and expert dance moves, you want him. And as an adult, you love to Greek dance. It brings you joy, especially if alcohol is involved at these Greek dance festivities.
6. GOYA—Greek Orthodox Youth of America
When you enter seventh grade, you are lucky enough to join the elite Greek teens in GOYA, the ultimate youth group of America. In GOYA, you make lifelong friendships and fierce enemies. Each church has their own GOYA and once a month, all the GOYAs in the state get together for some sort of dance for the kids to mingle and basically grind up on that dance floor. You know it’s getting bad when parents have to go and break up the butt-to-pelvis dancing with “Leave room for the Holy Spirit” because we all want the Holy Spirit dancing with us. At these dances, you have to look your best because you might see your love, Steven, from that church. Also, you have the chance to show off your Greek dance talents when Greek music comes on. Only the best get to dance in front of the line, and you haven’t taken Greek dance lessons for nothing! Get your butt up in front so your hottie can notice you! Also, there are even sports competitions for you to participate in. Each church’s GOYA has their own volleyball team for the girls and basketball team for the boys. Every Sunday, you travel to various churches in your state and compete. Girls like to wear those spandex shorts so Theo can notice the Greek booty and the guys show off with their little to none basketball skills. It’s fun nonetheless because you get to make new friends at these games. GOYA literally takes over your life during your teen years but you wouldn’t have it any other way. You thank the lord for your ten friends all named Maria and three boyfriends who all happen to be Demetri. You wouldn’t change these years for nothing because these are the years you have grown attached to your Greekness through the incredible times you have shared with those in GOYA.
No one does a wedding quite like the Greeks. There’s the ceremony which is a little long, but beautiful nonetheless. We do the “crowns,” which symbolizes the bride and groom becoming one. Then they take a stroll around the marriage table three times with the crowns on the head, and boom, you’re husband and wife! Then the best part comes— the reception. There is loud music, Greek dancing at first and then party bumping American music. By this time, an old Greek uncle is running around the reception with a handle of Tsipuro— Greek moonshine — and everyone is taking shots. Literally people of all ages. Even your Pappou! This really gets the party jumping. The dance floor is packed at all times. The music is blasting, shaking the cocktail glasses at the tables. The party never ends. If you haven’t gone to a Greek wedding, find yourself a Greek friend who is engaged, because trust me, you want to go.
8. Famous Greek People
As you grow up, your parents brainwash you into knowing all the Greek celebrities and their accomplishments. With this information, you begin to utilize it when you go out with friends. Here’s a situation, you go to the movies and Jennifer Aniston is in the film. The first thing you say when you sit down is “Did you know Jennifer Aniston is Greek?” instead of, “Wow. Can’t wait to see this movie!” It’s girls’ night in and the show “Golden Girls” is on. “Did you know Betty White is part Greek?” Your friend is going through a break-up so you jam out to angry Kelly Clarkson music, “Did you know she is Greek?” An old SNL episode is playing, “Oh my gosh Tina Fey! Funniest person ever, and she is Greek!” You’re watch re-runs of Law and Order: SVU and you watch the credits scroll as your eyes meticulously analyze the screen, searching for that one Greek name. It becomes a disease, it literally infects your life because you can’t watch movies, television, look at magazines, or listen to music without saying, “Hmm, that’s a Greek Person!” But honestly who cares because Greek people are cool and successful.
During Easter, you surround yourself with family, warmth, Yiayia’s smothering conversations, and food. Easter is by far your favorite holiday. Because Greeks like to do things their own way, they follow a different calendar, celebrating Easter on a different Sunday rather than the same Sunday that others do (except every four years it happens to line up). The reason Easter becomes your favorite holiday is because your family roasts a whole freaking delicious lamb, rotating in your backyard on a spit. The smell of lemon juice, olive oil, and oregano awake you on Sunday morning. Your nose lifts you out of bed so you can just look at this spectacle. As family comes over, your neighborhood is filled with tons of cars and your cousins are spilling out of every entrance in your home. Greek music is blasting in your backyard. Drunk uncle starts to dance and get others to join him and your aunt who has maybe a little to much to eat and drink tries to belly dance. Your cousin brought his non-Greek girlfriend and some are giving her stink eye, questioning her motives. Yiayia won’t stop pestering you about finidng a husband and Pappou’s sugar levels are going sky high because of the myriad of desserts he ate. SO MANY PEOPLE OVER YOUR HOUSE. But you don’t care because there is lamb and beer. What else could you want?
I bet reading the description of scrumptious Greek lamb made your mouth water, so let’s discuss food. Greek food is delicious, exotic, tangy and hearty. The main ingredients in most Greek dishes are super extra virgin oil (pressed from your olive groves in Greece), oregano (that your mom bought from the mountain man from your last visit to Greece), and lemon (from Shop Rite). With these three ingredients, a Greek chef can create a masterpiece and really can be added to anything! Let’s discuss some famous Greek dishes. Gyro. Pronounced “yero.” Yummy lamb meat, slowly cooked on a rotating skewer at which when it is done, you slice off a couple pieces and create a yummy sandwich with tzatziki sauce, tomatoes, lettuce, and onion—all wrapped in a pita. It’s typical Greek festival food. Some more hearty dishes would be moussaka. Not moose kaka. No, we don’t eat moose poop. Moussaka is a traditional eggplant dish with some other yummy stuff in it. Patsitio, one of my favorites, it’s similar to what Americans would think baked ziti is, but better. It’s Greek meat sauce, flavored with cinnamon and nutmeg, pasta, and topped with a creamy béchamel sauce. Is your mouth watering yet? A traditional winter staple would be Avgolemno, Greek soup. It is basically eggs, chicken broth, and lemon juice, infused together with either rice or orzo. On a cold winter’s day, this dish truly hits the spot.
Don’t think I forgot the Greek dessert. Greek desserts beat out any “Italian cookie” that you buy at the supermarket. Your Great Aunt Maria’s kourambedes are so good. Butter cookies topped with powder sugar, they basically melt in your mouth. But don’t breathe when you eat them because then you’ll choke on the sugar and cough out white stuff and think you have super powers, but you really don’t. Your mother’s baklava is a flaky pastry layered with filo dough and walnuts, topped with cinnamon syrup. It might be one of the most famous desserts, and to some the best. There is also Yiayia’s galaktobouriko, a filo dough rolled with a creamy custard inside, also topped with a syrup. Yummy, I know. Greek woman do it right with desserts.
Greek food is fabulous and your taste buds will only want more, so either go to a traditional Greek restaurant (not “Dancing Zorbas” down the street) or find a lovely Greek family and have dinner at their house.
This list captures the essence of “Growing up Greek.” If you could relate to at least ten of them, then congrats, you totally grew up Greek! And if you didn’t, congrats, now you know why your Greek friends are so awesome!