Greek salad, spanakopita, lamb, tzatziki, “my big fat greek wedding” movie, OPA!, Joey Fatone from Nsync? These are among the things that came to mind by association if someone were to ask me about Greece two years ago. Don’t be insulted if you are Greek. This is just what I am exposed to. I knew that Greece was old. I knew about Athens, and the Greek islands and how beautiful they were. I knew about the Greek government debt crisis and recent economic hard times. An overview only, just what I had picked up from social media articles. I don’t have a Greek heritage, and so I only had a peak into some of the culture and Greek customs from friends or acquaintances living in Edmonton.
In high school Drama class they attempted to teach us about famous plays that are based on Greek mythology with names I could not understand or pronounce, and the themes of the plays were often tragedies. Twisted tragedies with heavy plot lines. Our professor Mr.Agrell-Smith was eccentric, with long white hair, and thick bushy eyebrows that curled up to his forhead. He was magnificent in his stage presence. He would bellow philosophical musings in the acoustic theatre to a classroom of hormone fueled students who I am sure were only there for the easy elective credit. It was entertaining, but I couldn’t quite wrap my head around Greek mythology then, and even to this day it puzzles me. Every new deity, and demagogue had a very specific backstory about how they came to be cursed, or killed and what powers they possessed and why. Now that I am older, I am definitely intrigued because I realize the power and intrigue of Greek mythology is that it paved the way for art for so many other places, especially western civilization, and so when I had 5 days to explore Athens there was no way in Hades hell I wasn’t going to pay attention.
Greek people are so friendly and welcoming. I learned this right out the gate, literally right out the gate of my flight I met a pilot named Alex who was coming back home from a two week stint at his job flying for Saudi Airlines. He was a bit tipsy from his lounge whiskies, but he wasn’t my pilot so I didn’t care. He asked where I was coming from and I said Canada. He had fond memories of taking his commercial pilots training in Toronto. He suggested some key tourist attractions and mainstays of the city, but being from the South part of Athens he usually didn’t venture into those areas as much. I felt a renewed sense of wanderlust and encouragement at this friendly encounter. Athens in general is a “museum”. It houses artifacts, and tales from centuries ago. It’s impossible not be left in awe as you stagger your way down cobblestone streets through the old town Plaka and take in the view of the acropolis for the first time.
I think the first time I had Greek food I was at a potluck and someone had brought home- made grilled meat on skewers with pita and a tangy savory yogurt dip and a big bowl of Greek salad with fresh tomatoes, cucumber, olives, red onion, olive oil and feta covered in spices. So I knew from then on that Greek food was for me, but I was missing out on so much more of the cuisine and by virture; the shared culinary past of the Mediterranean and middle eastern countries. Many dishes that I had heard of and just knew as “Greek” I learned are found in other places, and it becomes hard to know where exactly it originated. For example you find Moussaka in Turkey as well. A Loukoumi is a Greek version of a Turkish delight. Tzatzki has variations in Serbia, Bulgaria, Iran, and Turkey to name a few. I am getting hungry. Best Greek restaurant in Edmonton? So far it has to be Koutouki. Tell me your favorite Edmonton Greek restaurant in the comments below.
Athens was named after the Goddess Athena. Legend has it that the Gods of Olympus wanted to name the beautiful land which was then called Cecrops, and Zeus decided that the two rivals (Posiedon and Athena) would both produce a gift to the city Cecrops, and the King of Cecrops, who was half-man half-serpent (stay with me) would decide what the best gift to the city was, and name the island after that god. So Poseidon struck his trident against a rock and produced a spring of water. Athena planted a seed and from it grew a big olive tree, producing food, oil and firewood for the citiizens of the city. From that point on the city was named Athens after the Goddess, and buildings and structures honored their cities patron, including the most popular of them: the Parthenon.
How was Edmonton named? It is said that the land that is known as Edmonton has been inhabitated since 10,000 BC, not surprising since we have so many archeological finds here in Alberta. Edmonton is on treaty 6 territory and has been inhabitated for centuries by idigineous people but the first european settlement was 1795 when Fort Edmonton was founded, and it was named after a city in London where the Hudons Bay Company deputy governor was from. It was no God gifting war for naming rights, but Fort Edmonton is rich with history and stories from the trading posts, and many many more from before that time.
You cant avoid walking down an alleyway in Athens, much to my mothers chagrin. Walking down the streets of Plaka I wandered down alleyways and followed narrow pathways that were empty but irresistable, with overhanging trees, and balconies with colorful pots, and the art expressed on the walls. Painted over by one artist to make way for another, or just respectfully adding to work. This is not just a tag crew. This crew is alive only by their work. They respect one another. They make the streets a show.
It got me thinking what else can we experience of Greek history and culture (other than our high school drama class or classic history in University)? The Edmonton Hellenic society is a great starting point as it turns out until you can hop on a plane and get to Greece yourself. There is a listing of events on their facebook page that are open to the community members and the public including Greek traditional and modern entertainment, authentic dinners, galas, and language classes!
I find it works alot like when you buy a new car in a certain model. You start to notice things more when you have been exposed to it. You start seeing examples of it everywhere around you. I am paying attention now, and the next time Edmonton Fringe Festival comes around, best beleive I will be attending all the Greek plays!