On April 2nd I was made 18 wishes. It wasn’t my birthday and I hadn’t gotten a promotion, though considering the situation here, one more week that goes by without an announcement of a cut in pay is grounds enough for celebration. It was a day like any other, except it was Monday, and that’s the start of the week, so a couple of people wished me a ‘good week’ (kali evdomada). Eighteen wishes, and that’s not counting the good mornings I was wished by the barrista where I pick up my pre-workout espresso, the receptionist at work and a dozen colleagues I met on my way to my office.
English doesn’t have a large stock of wishes. Good morning, good night and good luck. The happy and merry holidays. The happy birthdays and anniversaries. But that’s about it. We don’t even have our own words for seeing someone off on a trip or starting a meal together, but instead need to borrow from the French ! And some of the few we do have now sound hopelessly archaic (Good day!) or are confined to more formal and impersonal settings (When was the last time you said “Good evening” without saying in the same breath, “ladies and gentlemen)? Perhaps our optative penury explains why our wishes often sound like instructions: Get well! Enjoy yourself! Have fun! Sleep tight! It may also explain the growing popularity of the ultimate one-size-fits-all generic non-wish: “Have a good one!”
Greek, on the other hand, has wishes for a bewildering array of occasions: for the start of Lent and the break of day, for the fisherman’s catch and the windsurfer’s tack.
Perhaps this continuous stream of well-wishing began as a way to ward off the evil eye or mischievous wights or just bad luck, a kind of talisman in words. And an agrarian society would have had more than its share of unexpected misfortune: flash floods and marauding bandits, the visitations of blight, wilt and scorch.
Some of these wishes are imprinted with the signs of a culture that have since disappeared, semantic fossils that reveal another, simpler and pre-industrial way of life. Mesimeri, literally “the middle of the day”, refers to a span of time that stretches from 2:30 to 5:30 – the hours of common quiet, as the law calls them, when the shops used to close. But kalo mesimeri, spoken when taking leave and never used as a greeting, has very little to do with time per se. The wish for a good midday is more the wish for a good midday meal, or rather, what was once the midday meal, the main repast of the day that one would eat, often at home with family, and that one would follow with a siesta before returning to work for the rest of the afternoon (in Greek, literally, ‘after the meal’). A wish for a restful and restorative break in the day.
Though often among the first words a new learner of a language is exposed to, these greetings, which are in essence disguised wishes, are among the most problematic. The day is not demarcated into clear bands of time but is instead a continuum of modulation. Morning segues quietly into midday, afternoon seeps into evening.
Theoretically I could understand how it could be both afternoon and evening at the same time. Dusk is a problematic time in any language, and I soon realized that Greeks had an especially elastic view of time. And now that globalization has all but eradicated the midday break, evening can start at 3. But that the same person—our receptionist at work, for example—would use good afternoon and good evening more or less interchangeably at the same time (or so I thought) was perplexing. I mean, why couldn’t he make up his mind? Eventually it dawned on me (no pun intended) that he was saying good afternoon to colleagues who were leaving work and good evening to those arriving for an evening concert or poetry reading. One was a farewell, the other a greeting. One said, we spent time together, and that was good, and now that you’re leaving, I hope you enjoy the hours ahead. The other said, ‘welcome’.
I began to learn which wishes are said upon greeting, and which upon taking leave, and which, like the wish for ‘good descendants’ are said only in Church and then only to certain people.
I also began to realize that some wishes came in pairs, great parentheses that, like lexical hugs, embraced the span of a meal, a day, a journey, a season. There is the wish for a good day and a good night, of course, the words with which you begin and end your day. There’s a wish you say when a friend takes on a new project (kalo xekinima), and another when she’s battling deadlines for the end (kala xeberdemata, more or less the equivalent of I hope you manage to tie up all the loose ends and come out of this unscathed, or in short, good riddance).
And then there are pairs for which we in English have only half the dyad, and it’s only until you hear the other half do you realize, yes, we reallyshould have a phrase for this. You walk by a colleague’s office and see her opening her Tupperware container of leftover stir-fry, so you might want to say kali orexi (bon appétit). The next day you walk into her office as she’s polishing off the last remains of a take-away sandwich and you say… what? Kali honepsi, of course (literally “good digestion”)! Some even come in triplets. My friends at the gym wish each other a ‘good workout’ before and ‘good relaxation’ after. But you would also wish a workout partner who continues the workout as you finish up yours a ‘good continuation’ (kali sinehia). This also comes in handy when taking leave of colleagues who are stuck at work for a few more hours while you’re off to meet friends for a coffee.
There’s a wish for the start of a trip (the good voyage we borrow from the French) but also for the end of one (kali epistrofi). One for the beginning of summer and one for the end; the latter, used when greeting someone who’s returned from August vacation is the one I found the hardest to get used to: how can you even think of winter, however good it might be, as you’re sweltering in the only slightly less oppressive summer heat of September? But of course it’s not exactly a good winter that’s being wished, but the remaining year ahead. It is a way to mark a transition, one of those wishes that are signposts of change not only in the seasons and the work of the land—the wish for good harvests and good crops—but also in identity and social role. I learned what you say to the conscript who is about to finish his military service (‘good private citizen’), and to a pregnant friend about to deliver her baby (predictably enough, kali leftheria, or ‘good freedom’).
It costs nothing to utter these two-word dabs of well-wishing, except perhaps a slightly heightened sense of compassion (in the sense of imagining oneself in the other’s position), but how well they lubricate social relationships. Because it is relatively easy to detect a wish that is made begrudgingly or insincerely, they are a litmus test of feeling and intent. Maybe it’s the tone of voice or body language but you really can tell whether your interlocutor cares if the results of your blood test are good (yes, there’s a wish for ‘good results’). Wishing isn’t small talk, even if—or perhaps precisely because—it’s just a few words.And these few words, generously sprinkled through the day like so many hidden treats, are a testimony to a quintessentially Mediterranean genius of making even the smaller events of ordinary life an occasion for bonding—and celebration.
Image: Dimitris Harissiadis, Athens Coffeehouse during the 1956 Parliamentary Elections