‘I’m a little Greek…’ It’s a line from the lips of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra that accidentally resonates with me. As the daughter of Greek Cypriot immigrants, who grew up in quintessentially English South-west London, and hangs out with mainly British and international friends, I’m slightly Greek too. There was a time when I was more Greek, as a truly bilingual child, who went to Greek school and holidayed in Cyprus. But then when my maternal grandmother, a lady who nurtured any Hellenism I had, died, I immersed myself in other languages and cultures. In them, I sought freedom, the chance to be someone other than who my family had in mind. Nationalism- Greek, Cypriot, English, I found rather naff. Why would you want to be a flag-flying Aristotle or Shakespeare-quoting loony by default when y0u could choose to adopt the teachings of Seneca or Anais Nin? If anything, I saw my identity as European: multi-lingual, versatile, open, but post-Brexit, I wonder if that’s still valid with my British passport.
Still, probably because I’m not a true Greek, I find real Greeks, (the ones who quote Plato, smoke cigarettes and listen to London Greek Radio), fascinating, especially how they behave in public. Though my Greek has stagnated at the level of a lisping child’s my ears are still fine-tuned for the lingo. And do you know what? Greeks are always discussing the scene in front of them; they’re looking at me, scrutinising you. You can’t help but be drawn in.On the train, a girl asks her boyfriend whether he finds you attractive. After staring a while, he responds diplomatically for a Greek, by diverting the question: ‘Why is she eating chocolate? Is it necessary?’ ‘She’s on her period!’ (This actually loses something in translation, because in Greek it’s a one-word explanation) To this day, I wonder if my blush at being thus spot-lit,revealed that I understood. I wonder if they would have even cared… I was probably one of many curiosities in their day.
Yesterday, when I had an hour to myself in an Austrian café in Angel, my thoughts were diverted from strudel by the arrival of a hipstery looking bunch. They hovered outside the café a while, warming up the scene all cigarettes, denim, leather, hair gel and orange-red lipstick (gender dependent) . The swagger; the dynamic gesticulations; the brillantine gloss on their brand of hip : what other nationality could they be?* True to form, their conversation turned to the café: the food, the atmosphere and most of all the clientele. Who were they? What were they doing? Were they worth anyone’s attention? They noticed the trendy couple on the blind date, the homelier ladies who tea, me as I sat doodling in my battered blue notebook. The girl said she’d like one like that, to write down her thoughts. The guy wondered what I was writing about so furiously. I blushed again, signalling that I had understood, but this time sat up straight, produced elaborate flourishes on my gs and ys, draw intricate marine-life inside a greetings card.If I was being so openly watched, I would be part of the spectacle, play up to the role of ponytailed Sunday scribbler. I think how these people know, to misquote Audrey Hepburn’s Sabrina, how to ‘be in the café , and of the café’; to treat it as a glamorous watch point, and not a convenience or escape.
As I mentioned at the beginning, I’m a little Greek, so I too observe, analyse, eavesdrop, but more quietly. I write about the all-seeing Greeks, the tea-going brigade who point to a gooseberry tart behind glass, claiming that ‘with all that cream’ it resembles birthday cakes in Poland, before retiring to a table, plunging out of the present and laying into a much-hated, absent colleague. Most of all, my attention is caught by the couple to my right on the blind date, their imbalance of vitality.** On one side of the metaphorical see-saw is a pulpy female in tropical brights; on the other, a stoic, pallid male with Buddy Holly glasses, immaculate khaki shorts and white socks. Her enthusiasm could power a merry-go-round; I imagine that she’d balance a spoon on the tip of her nose to impress him. He’s stringent, unyielding as the elastic in his perfect ankle socks. He has a dry American accent and asks her if she’s read anything by Ian McEwan.She answers saucily- one book was okay; another, disturbing. He shuffles slightly. Does he want to get the bill, she asks. He must have work to do. He does want to get the bill, he’s meeting friends. Her face drops to her phone screen though her tone continues to be breezy. I’m saddened, concerned that her bubble has burst, that she’s been rebuffed because she’s not his type. I imagine that he thinks his type is sullen, lank-haired and probably French because he prides himself on being a romantic.
*Cutting la bella figura is important to Greeks. And beautiful is tightly laced and manicured. Whenever I go to Cyprus, my cousins lament that I’m too grungy. My hair is un-straightened and un-curled. I’ve only brought a Boho-Brits-abroad suitcase of shorts, jeans and faded floaty dresses. When we’re getting ready to go out for a drink in town (in a casualish bar mind, I don’t own anything flashy enough for a Nicosia nightclub) everything is scrutinised, rejected and eventually something is accepted so that I don’t have to go naked.
**Once upon a time there was a café in Covent Garden called Notes or 1001 Blind Dates as my friends and I thought of it. Providing a chic, understated experience of wine, candlelight and vintage James Bond, Notes was the meeting of many a Tinderella and her Prince Smarmy. This crossing of expectation and reality, that provided hours of entertainment for everyone involved, has now been replaced with a Korean fast-food joint. Due to rising rents I think…