Stereotypes & Culture. My Big Fat Greek Family

Twenty years ago, in 2002, the Greek-Canadian actress, Nia Vardalos, became famous with her movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. As both actress and writer, Vardalos won many awards for this romantic comedy, which she based on her own experience of being Greek. Although the movie is full of extravagant Greek stereotypes as an expression of the Greek culture, being in a similar situation myself, I can only say Vardalos was able to capture the actual experience of being with a Greek. Keep reading to find out why!

The movie

My Big Fat Greek Wedding tells the story of (Fo)Toula Portokalos, which translates into the orange light of God. Toula is a thirty-year-old member of a large Greek family living in the U.S. Against her family’s will, she leaves her father’s restaurant and starts college. With her independence comes self-esteem and a new look. Then, she meets Ian, the American man she starts dating. Secretly at first, but as their relationship progresses, the Greek family gets increasingly involved.

This is where the fun part of the movie starts. The differences between the American and Greek families create hilarious scenes. As the Greeks are with too many, too loud, and stuck in their own beliefs and traditions. Real Greeks.

Watch it in Greece

Until I went to Greece to meet my boyfriend’s family, I had never watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding. However, when I was there and expressed my family-based cultural shock to friends and cousins, they all told me the same thing. Watch that movie!

During my third week in Greece, I decided it was time to do so. Surrounded by my boyfriend’s relatives, I watched the movie. And the only thing I could say was: Shit! I live in this movie!

Stereotypical Greeks

The movie is full of well-chosen Greek stereotypes that express the culture. The women are over-emotional, the men overly-stubborn, and the whole family, in general, over-involved. Dinners are with too many. There is always too much food. And the family cheers so many times you are happy when you only get tipsy at the end of a night.

Observing all these stereotypical Greek habits, it is clear that Vardalos is, herself, raised by a Real Greek family. Or at least a family very similar to the Greek ones I know. The funny thing about the movie is that for non-Greeks, it seems just a comedy with exaggerated stereotypes. The Real Greeks, however, know that there is a truth in this exaggeration.

I believe the best thing about the movie is how Vardalos captures what a Greek family feels like for a non-Greek. With just the right amount of exaggeration, she is able to reveal the experience of a cultural shock.

My cultural shock. The more I started getting used to my boyfriend’s family, the less the movie resembled my idea of a Greek family. However, when I met them for the first time, it showed exactly how I felt.

My first week in Greece

During my first week with the Greek family, I encountered almost every aspect of the movie. We had family dinners with over 20 family members who all shared a similar name and called the same woman yiayia, grandmother. The family covered all the stereotypes of the Greek culture. And their volume: Loud and Louder. Just like in the movie.

Food was the most important thing. Everyone wanted me to eat continuously, even when I was not hungry. Not eating was me being shy and could not have had anything to do with the three full plates I already finished. 

The women of the family were the first ones to accept me. Part of this meant me being hugged, kissed, held, and stroked. But on the other hand, being a part of them meant that I was supposed to listen to them complaining. That is what Greek women do when they are together. Complain about everything they are tired of, but continue either way because it makes them happy. 

Then there were the men of the family. They all worked in the family business, but their most important job was to educate me about the history of the Greeks. How happy I should be to be with a Real Greek, a member of the greatest civilization in this world. And they all wanted to know if I was a good girl, the most important question to ask a person.

Appreciate the differences

My Big Fat Greek Wedding starts as being quite negative about the Greek way of life. Toula is tired of her over-involved and controlling Greek parents. She wants to be less Greek and more normal. She starts with summing up all the stereotypes of the Greek culture. However, as the movie, and her relationship, progresses, she gets more respect for the Greek way. 

A similar change is visible with her parents. First, they are against Toula’s relationship with Ian. He is a xeno, a foreigner, and should not be allowed to date their Greek daughter. But as he is willing to change to fit into their family, they learn to accept him.

For me, this change feels real. At first, I felt overwhelmed every time I was with my boyfriend’s family. But the more I got to know them, the more I understood them and started to see the beauty in their way of life. My initial cultural shock evolved into an appreciation of Greek culture. And today, I even miss the Greeks when I spend too much time in my own country.

Give it time

Being with someone from a different culture can be difficult at first. Maybe you manage to find a life beyond your own culture together. But as soon as family gets involved, cultural differences become painfully clear. Often you will be far away from home, your family, and your daily life when you meet them. Your partner’s family will not put a filter on their culture, and you will be with them 24/7. Of course, this can be extremely confronting.

But don’t let this first encounter scare you. The cultural shock can be hard at first, but it will pass. Remember that your partner was raised in this family but still turned out to be the man or woman you have fallen in love with. It might be that a part of this strange culture is what made you love your partner in the first place. But it takes time to reach this level of understanding.

We’re all just people

In the end, we’re all just people. We might have been raised with different beliefs about family, work, and love. But these ways do not have to be limited to one country or culture. 

As a Dutch, I learned to be private and organized. However, I also have ADHD, which goes completely against those two things. The Greek culture taught me that I do not have to try to fit into my own culture if that is not who I am. I can be myself, and as a person, I do fit in somewhere. 

Every culture might have a shocking stereotype like the Greek culture in the movie. But there is a truth in this stereotype for everyone. Maybe you are not Greek but very stubborn, part of a huge family, eating too much, or cheering too often. There is a part of the Greeks in all of us. And every Greek has a part that can belong in any other culture. We are all just people. Culture is not more than what surrounded us when we grew up. And as adults, we can choose our own culture.

Did this article trigger your curiosity about the Greek culture? Leave your email below and discover the Real Greeks!

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Traveling with the Greeks means chaos

This story is for all the non-Greeks that are about to meet their Greek in-laws. As well as the Greeks that have a non-Greek family member. But also for everyone else. Because traveling with the Greek family through the eyes of an outsider makes a funny story.

The first time I went to Greece to meet my Greek family, my parents-in-law proposed to go on a family vacation. Nice right? Yes. But where my history of family trips consisted of just four people on a relaxing vacation. The Greeks count slightly more people as a part of their close family. At least 12 people is the rule for my Greek family. Be prepared for absolute chaos when traveling with the Greeks.

Step 1: Packing

The mess that is traveling with the Greeks starts even before you leave. While the Greeks prefer to pack light, they want to bring a lot of stuff. They take the smallest suitcase they have but since not everything fits, they bring around 30 plastic bags to carry all the other things. One bag for each pair of shoes they take, one bag for the briki they need to make coffee, one bag for the towels, one bag for the shampoo bottles, one bag for the fruits, and one bag for the coffee cups… Many, many bags.

As a result, packing the car before leaving takes ages. One by one the bags go in the car only to discover that they won’t fit. The bags are taken out again and put in differently. Over and over, until every free square centimeter of the car is filled with at least one plastic bag. Funny as well is that the Greeks always take their smallest car on a trip, due to parking reasons. If they would either take the big car or the big suitcase, things would be so much easier.

Step 2: Driving

Then, everyone jumps in his or her car and they start driving because they are late now. But they don’t rush for long. Since the Greeks don’t plan ahead and discuss their route, they stop at every crossing. The men get out of their car and start an endless argument about the pros and cons of each possible route, even if they are in their own city. They will never just agree with each other because a Greek that is not stubborn is not Greek.

When the route is set after multiple discussions, they all start driving at their own pace. When one will drive 150 km/h on the highway, the other will enjoy the scenery around going with just 90. As a result, everyone is basically driving alone. The fact that they could have saved at least half an hour by just getting on the highway by themselves does not even occur to them.

And to make things worse, discussion on the highway does not stop. You might be far apart from the rest of the family, but taking your own route to get to your destination is still not allowed. Be prepared for a phone to ring, at least once every 15 minutes. What basically happens is that the car in front decides what to do and wants to update the others on the route he takes. When he calls your car about this, an argument starts and a new plan is created. But then, they have the call the other car(s) to inform them about the plan. But of course, they won’t agree, creating a continuous loop of discussion. Maybe stopping at every crossing wasn’t so bad?

Step 3: Never use the navigation

You might wonder why the Greeks don’t just use their navigation to prevent endless discussion. Well, they will not, and even when they do, they will not listen to it. Who knows the Greek land better than the Greeks themselves? Google certainly doesn’t. Greeks are stubborn and proud, they will never admit when they are wrong, nor that they don’t know something. They literally prefer making a two hours detour over using their navigation.

The complete chaos and endless discussions while traveling with the Greeks, will not stop when you reach your holiday destination. It will continue throughout the whole trip. Every beach, mountain, landmark or restaurant you will visit, will create countless arguments that will at least double your travel time.

Step 4: Don’t rest

During my first time traveling with the Greeks, I got very excited seeing the hotel we stayed in after 6 hours of the Greek chaos. Peace I thought, finally. But no, not with a Greek family. Whenever the Greeks go to “rest” at their hotel, they will basically not stop interacting with each other. They call you about how your room is, knock on your door to bring a cup of coffee, or just continue the conversation over the balcony. Maybe you get five minutes without the family, but never more.

Besides, there is no time for rest in a hotel! Resting is what you do at home, a holiday is there to get you tired. The Greeks don’t often take holidays, so when they do, they want to get the most out of them. They might do everything slowly and they’re far from efficient but they make up for it by leaving out the time to settle in and relax. They just keep moving.

Step 5: Do everything together

So after no more than 15 minutes in the hotel, it is time to continue traveling with the Greeks, a.k.a the journey of chaos. It is absolutely forbidden to split up the family so everyone can do what he or she likes. Instead, the discussion starts about what to do next and since they will again not agree, you’ll end up just having to do everything quickly.

Imagine you all want to spend an afternoon at the beach, easy right? Nope. Everyone in the family will know the most beautiful beach to visit in the area, and of course, they all believe this beach is a different one. Instead of listening to one person or opening up to a new experience, they will be stubborn. As a result, you will not spend your afternoon relaxing on one beach. No. You will rush around from beach to beach, barely having enough time to swim or order a cocktail. And since they will still lose their way all the time, you end up spending most of your time in a car.

Step 6: Eat everything

Tired of the early morning, long drive, and rush to visit all the beaches, it is now time for dinner. Again, you will have dinner with everyone meaning again there will be a discussion about where to go. But once this is settled and you sit down on an uncomfortable tavern chair, how many more cultural differences can you be confronted with?

Turns out there are many. Firstly, you will never see a menu at a tavern. Instead, Father will give you three choices, beer, wine, or ouzo. While Mother will order a long list of dishes she expects the tavern to have. You will not be in charge of what you eat and you will not have a plate for yourself. Instead you will probably end up tasting a little bit of all the dishes this restaurant prepares. Delicious!

But when the food comes on the table, you have to be quick. The Greeks might be extremely slow when it comes to drinking coffee, they are the complete opposite when it is time for dinner. They eat fast and way too much and they expect you to do the same. Don’t be shy or polite and wait for the rest of the family to serve themselves first. The food will be completely finished before you can even take one bite.

On the other hand, a good Greek family will keep putting food on your plate whenever it is empty. Even when you say you are full, and even when you say you don’t like the food that it on the table. No matter how much you eat, it will never be enough for the Greeks when they see an empty plate.

Step 7: Shout & Cheers

During this feast, food is not the only cause of chaos. Everyone at the table will basically have a conversation with everyone else, at the same time. There will not be one topic to talk about. Each person on the table will have his or her own subject that he or she wants to share with everyone while at the same time responding to the things everyone else is saying. It is quite impressive how many different conversation a Greek can follow at the same time. But since they are far apart from each other what they do is closer to shouting than talking.

Everything is already loud but then they will also shout Yia mas! about every 10 minutes. Yia mas comes from stin ygia mas, to our healt. It is the Greek way to say cheerse. But when the Greeks get excited, they will cheer all the time and everyone has to join and drink when it happens. The chaos is complete.

Step 8: Enjoy

Although I might sound sceptic about holidays with the Greek family, I absolutely love them. Traveling with the Greeks is tiring, full of cultural differences, without privacy, and far from efficient, but so exciting at the same time. Anything can happen, there is always someone to talk to and they have so much fun. Traveling with the Greeks is the ultimate experience of Greek culture. Let go of expectations and plans and just enjoy every moment!

Did this article trigger your curiosity about the Greek culture? Leave your email below and discover the Real Greeks!

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