My friend Jonas, who teaches Greek to foreigners at a cultural institute in Athens, is trying to get me to revive my idea of a series of podcasts on untranslatable Greek words. Words for which no good equivalent exists in English and reveal much about the way Greeks think and live and see the world, words like parea and meraki and filotimo, whose meaning can only be inferred through dialogues, anecdotes and stories. Amerikanaki is another one of those words. If I ever get around to writing and recording the pocasts with Jonas, I’ll start with that one.
The story could begin sometime in the 50’s in Pireas, the port city of Athens, with the arrival of a US naval destroyer. It’s an early summer evening as the ship docks, and the city has already woken up for the second time in the day. Businesses and shops have re-opened. A carpenter has already swung open the heavy wooden double-doors to his workshop—as much to display the tables, chairs, and dressers that stand in various stages of completion in his shop as to catch a bit of the evening breeze—and is varnishing a closet, his brushstrokes slow, methodical, careful, as if he were caressing the wood with his brush. Old men shuffle down to the cafeneion, where the staccato knock of backgammon pieces punctuates the polyphony—Greeks having a rather elastic concept of turn-taking—of men talking politics.
The ship soon disgorges its sailors, and the young Americans raucously make their way through the streets of the city, in search of what sailors throughout time have always searched for when alighting in a port after weeks at sea. In Pireas at the time, this in itself was neither unusual nor particularly deserving of comment. But still, as these brawny, testosterone-pumped boys of Iowa swagger past the cafeneion, the patrons will mutter, amerikanakia. Intoned without bitterness, devoid of anger, the word doesn’t sound like an insult. Amerikanaki. The gullible, all-too-trusting “little” American.
–aki is the workhorse of diminutives in Greek. There are lots more. The language, like Italian and Russian—and unlike English—is a language rich in diminutives, endings that denote something smaller in size or importance. In English we have to do with periphrasis. We say a small this, a little bit, smidgeon or tad of that. Oh, we have diminutives, but they’re almost always comical. Like kitchenette. But in Greek, diminutives have a considerable force of their own. They make real words to denote real things. A piataki is a small piato, or plate, to wit, a saucer. Mihani is a motorcycle, mihanaki is a scooter. But it’s not just a matter of size. The diminutive signifies Greeks’ relation to the world around them. It can connote endearment, affection, intimacy, nowhere more evident than in names. I knew I had cemented my relationship with M when he started calling me with a double diminutive—Stefanoulakis.
When a Greek orders a karafaki (small carafe) of ouzo, it not only means less volume but also reveals how Greeks drink: the ouzo is an occasion for the parea (group of friends) to talk, nibble on things like fried whitebait (maridaki) and fish-roe puree and tiny cumin-scented meatballs (keftedakia), and to enjoy each other’s company. To order a whole pitcher of ouzo would suggest that you’re really aiming to get drunk, which at least from my experience isn’t something Greeks do. I mean, the aiming part. They do get drunk.
When I first heard amerikanaki, I didn’t really understand what it meant. A lot of my Greek friends and acquaintances see Americans as naïve if good-humored, apolitical, uncritical. But this image of country-bumpkin gullibility didn’t jar (at first) with what my friend Nikos and many others would say about my country.
Nikos is the son of a carpenter much like the one in the story. He grew up in a working-class left-leaning family in a “distressed area”. He’s now an architect for the City of Athens. He votes Left but has more Gant and Nike and Timberland in his wardrobe than I ever had. He had an iPod before any of my other friends did. He likes American technology but he thinks of America as a country of immeasurable, almost sinister power that instigated coups, raised and deposed leaders, orchestrated wars, a country with no history and little culture and little dissent (Of course, I always thought he gave too much credit to the effectiveness of the CIA, given its record of bungled interventions). But he likes me, and he liked the Americans he met on his trip to the US, their openness, good-naturedness and enthusiasm.
I asked him about this apparent contradiction. “It’s exactly because Americans are so trusting,” he answered “I mean, look at your faith in progress and the gods of technology, how you believe that everything can be fixed!—that’s why you have the political leadership you have. If you were more pessimistic, more critical, things would be different… and the world much better off”. “You mean, more European,” I joked.
As time went on, I came to understand that amerikanaki has a trace of endearment to it. The way you’d feel about a burly young cousin from the provinces unschoooled in the ways of the city.