Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Power of the Giagia (i.e., Grandma)

I will now say a few words about the "giagia" (pronounced yeh-YAH), the all important figure of the Greek household. Know that the family is all important in Greece. Extended family may live with you in the same household, but even if they don't their involvement in your life is just the same. Family members lend rides to each other to go to church, children are just as close with their grandparents and aunts and uncles as they are with their biological parents, and the role of the godparent is accentuated greatly.

Giagia is "grandmother" in Greek. Stereotypically she is short, plump, and wrinkly. Nine times out of ten she wears plain black shoes, flesh-colored or dark tights, a knee-length skirt, several layers of dark, plain shirts or cardigans, and the always-present babushka. Sh
e comes in two categories:
  • Smiling
  • Cranky
The former type is obvious because she responds to you in the most melancholy of tones when you say hi. The latter is obvious because she does not simply respond. She reacts. Her face shrivels up to add to the already terrifying effect of her scowl. She's ready to beat you up with the little purse she carries on her shoulder.

In all fairness I feel that it is only appropriate to give you a quick background of Athenians. The vast majority of contemporary Athenians are not actually from Athens, or even Attica. It is not uncommon here to ask where someone is from, and to get a reply saying that they are from an island, or the Peloponnese, or the north. It was only until the last three decades that at least 50% of Greece's population came to live in an urban environment, which means that most people, especially those who are middle-aged and older, abandoned their villages in the mountains, on the plains, or by the seas, to take up residence in this complex web of concrete metropolis. Urban living is fairly new for most Greeks, most of whom also had a hard life. If living rurally, with its well-known discipline of physical labor and rugged independence, and the culture-shock of relocating to the city are not enough, then also add to this cluster several military-coups, a dictatorship, two Balkan Wars, a Nazi occupation, a civil war, a junta, and a politically and emotionally charged relationship with Turkey all within 100 years. So while the younger generation of Athenians knows a relatively stable democracy, all who are older are anything but naive. Particularly for the grandparents, including the yiayias of the world, they know the word "hardship."

Given this background information and my personal experience with yiayias, I would like to share with you a couple of amusing moments I've encountered:

1) I stepped off the metro onto a long escalator going up. A few steps in front of me was a young couple, a guy and a girl both in their late teens or early twenties. They were hugging, romantically nudging, to the point where their affection for each other was displayed as everything except for making out in public. Rather distasteful if you ask me. Meanwhile, the parallel escalator was mov
ing downward in the other direction. In the distance on this parallel escalator, high above where I was standing and moving slowly upward, was a little yiayia, dressed in her usual outfit, though all in black, with the little babushka tied tightly around her face. On her step, she was descending closer to my position where we would meet in a few moments. She was glancing around when her eyes finally locked onto the couple in front of me. Her expression transformed in an instant: her face curled into many wrinkles similar to the appearance of a raisin, and her mouth snapped tight into a frown of disapproval. Her fiery eyes did not move from the couple, so that on her way down, when she met this sappy couple on its way up, she barked at them. She growled something angrily in a Greek I didn't know, coupled with several mean animal-like gestures of disappointment. The couple stopped awkwardly, slapped their hands straight at their sides, turned away ashamed, and suffered their slow ascent into embarrassment. People stopped and stared. It seemed that at this moment, the escalators in their constant speed could not move any more slowly. I struggled to disguise my laughter. What I witnessed demonstrated most provocatively the clash between traditional values and those of the contemporary, younger generation.

2) Witness the cat-lady. Not only are there numerous stray dogs in Athens, but the cats are just as noticeable. Some are cute, some are mean, and their meow-ing in the black of night energetically grows into roars so vociferous that they wake you up in your bed several stories above street level (true story). It is this little yiayia that helps maintain their robust population (see picture below):

Though this photograph was taken a number of weeks ago, I saw her again today in the same red outfit. I don't know if this yiayia is the smiling or cranky type, but at least she cares for her flock well.


  1. your posts are so insightful! i love reading them and hearing about your life in Ελλάδα.

    thinking about you lots, and cant wait for you to return home! let me know as soon as you hear something about your trip this summer!

  2. Have you foung a Giagia for stray dogs? Maybe I should move to Greece and make that my new vocation.