By Katie Mercer
It was 8:00pm when my friends and I left the Athinais Hotel on Leoforos Vasilissis Sofias Street in search of dinner. Despite being famished and exhausted after a trek up to the iconic Acropolis earlier that day, the air around us was buzzing with excitement as the hot Athens sun began to set. Our first full day in Greece was coming to a conclusion and this was our first night on the town all by ourselves. We were tentative but curious, peering at all of the sights and sounds of Dorylaiou Street, an alley bustling with activity located two blocks away from our hotel. Cigarette smoke wafted through the warm evening air, the intermittent honking of taxis that weaved up and down the road in a hurry to this place or that, and the various neon signs written in a beautiful language that we had not even begun to understand—it was all Greek to us.
We navigated our way between the motorcycles that lined the narrow, cracked sidewalk and came upon a swanky looking restaurant with an edgy and modern front patio. Its glass walls were framed by hardwoods with lush, green ivy vines crawling up toward the sky. A bartender stood behind the empty bar in the corner of the patio, smoking a cigarette while he poured himself a glass. How different. The restaurant was nearly deserted at a time we would expect it to be full—we had been told that Greek culture celebrated a vibrant nightlife. Surely an eclectic eatery like this would be buzzing with patrons by this time of night?
Thinking that this would be a unique restaurant to experience, we entered cautiously, our dusty sneakers squeaking against the polished mahogany floors. We assumed the restaurant would likely drive a high price, but we asked a waiter for a menu anyway. Though we spoke in English, to our surprise, he understood perfectly what we needed. We thumbed through the fancy black and gold menu that listed appetizers, main dishes and spirits, and discovered that the restaurant’s name is Sah. We were shocked at how inexpensive the options on the menu actually were. Used to fancy exteriors equating to pricey American dinners, we were pleasantly surprised. We agreed to give it a shot, so we approached the waiter again to ask for a table. I informed him, “we have a party of nine.” This interaction did not go as smoothly as did the request for a menu. Appearing confused, the waiter retrieved the manager of the restaurant. Again, I explained, “we have a party of nine.” The restaurant manager replied, chuckling, in a heavy Greek accent, “this is not a party, it is a political speech.” I was confused. Did he think that I wanted to make a political speech? Was something that I had said politically charged or offensive? I laughed that nervous laughter. Remembering that the restaurant was nearly vacant, I clarified, “are you open?” The manager explained that they were open for dinner, but only on the front patio because the rest of the restaurant had been reserved to watch the political speeches. He told us that there were elections this weekend.
This is not a party; it is a political speech. It was at this moment that I realized the complexity of language, and how even though someone might be able to speak and understand certain words in a language, meaning can still be lost if the person is unfamiliar with the cultural expressions used in everyday speech. Sah’s manager had likely thought that when I said “party of nine” that I was looking to host a party, or attend his event, or something along those lines, when really, I was simply asking for a table that could sit nine people. Understanding our miscommunication, I quickly changed my phrase: “we have a group of nine people for dinner.” The manager instantly understood and warmly guided us to his front patio, pushing tables together to accommodate us.
This experience was an interesting reminder of how interconnected language is with culture, and how phrases used everyday in the United States of America are not commonly understood to carry the same meaning in foreign countries, even when it appears as if someone in a foreign country speaks perfect English. Though 840 million people on this planet speak English (according to Quora.com), the English spoken in the United States differs from the English of Canada, the United Kingdom, South Africa, and, clearly, Greece—and all other countries in the world that speak English. Just like how no culture is universal, no language is either, even though they may use the same alphabet, pronunciations, and vocabulary. Even when we speak the same language, we must be open and patient to avoid miscommunication.