Ode on a Grecian Life: A Look Back at My Big Fat Greek Wedding

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Ode on a Grecian Life: A Look Back at My Big Fat Greek Wedding

When My Big Fat Greek Wedding came out in 2002, I didn’t want to watch it. I was a senior in high school, and I thought it was going to be cheesy. As a teenager, I found my Greek relatives embarrassing and annoying enough—why would I want to watch a movie about them? My aversion lasted until, when visiting my Papadopoulos cousins in Boston, I got dragged to it.

I spent most of the screening laughing so hard I was worried I’d end up in the ER.

Watching little Toula in the opening of the film, I instantly connected with her. Part of the reason I resented my Greek culture so much as a kid was because its idiosyncrasies stood out in a way other, more assimilated cultures did not. My mother isn’t Greek—she’s from another faraway land known as Italy. And though Greece and Italy have very similar Mediterranean cultures, there’s a big difference in how they’re perceived in the States, especially in cities that aren’t as culturally mixed as New York or Chicago. Americans have a reference point for Italy, even if it as misappropriated as The Olive Garden. In New Orleans, whenever we’d have American pride days, the kids would point out that I wasn’t really American. In Italy, my cousins would declare, “You’re American, not Italian.” But in Greece? The Greeks never hesitated to claim me. “No, you’re Greek,” they insisted. “Just Greek.” I tried to explain I was a little of each culture, but they would shake their heads as if I was saying the world was flat. To them, the Greek genes dominated all the others.

As for the movie, well, I suppose that’s where the adage, “it’s funny because it’s true,” comes from. The Greek’s obsessive pride with their language? Near infinite. In New Orleans, where I grew up, there was Greek School on Saturdays. But my Greek father snubbed it, saying that the level of Greek was too low. Instead, we would sit for an hour daily after school reading Greek myths, learning about the glory that was Greece. From time to time, I would point out that the glorious Greeks of these particular tales reigned long ago, and that the current inhabitants are a little more country than their mighty forefathers. (My father was less amused by this insight than I was.)

The national pride exhibited in My Big Fat Greek Wedding went beyond language, and that played out in the Papadopoulos household, as well. We may not have a Greek flag painted on our New Orleans house—the house is a typical, wooden, New Orleans home—but the main beams are as blue as the Mediterranean Sea and the side panels painted white like clouds. And in our house, as in every Greek home, you’ll find one or two small replicas of ancient statues. (We have a collection of mini-Parthenons.) Yet in this same vein, My Big Fat Greek Wedding whiffed pretty strongly on one subject: Greeks consider education to be of the utmost importance. Even parents who don’t have higher degrees find school and career for both men and women to be incredibly important. So amidst the mirth, Toula’s dad resisting her desire to go to school rang false, even as I allowed for Hollywood license. It would have been much more realistic had she been trying to do something impractical, like being a writer for example, with her father trying to convince her to be a doctor or a lawyer (though he would still want her to have a bunch of kids).

While there were a few other quibbles—Greeks wear wedding bands on their right hands and non-Greek spouses-to-be don’t have to convert—it was the more outlandish traits spotlighted by the film that actually rang truest. The spitting? That’s true. As a tot, I didn’t speak that strange sounding language that is Greek. I’d show up to my Yiayia’s house in the suburbs of Athens, and she and all her old sisters would kiss me, compliment me, and spit on me. Now, they didn’t actually hock a loogie, they just make the spitting sound and simulated the act. Seeing all these old ladies that I didn’t understand crowding around me, ftu, ftu, ftu-ing at me as they hugged me, was still pretty terrifying. But they did it out of love, which I suppose makes up for it. The idea is that if someone gives you a compliment, they’ve alerted the evil eye to something good you have. Now that the devil is aware, he might take it from you. So they spit on your good qualities to hide them. Make sense? Not really, but it does to the spitters.

And then there’s the Windex. Granted, not every Greek dad uses Windex, but they all tend to have their one thing that will magically fix everything. With my dad, it’s Vitamin B-12, specifically in liquid form. He carries the drops in the front pocket of his blue-and-white striped shirts. Got a pimple? Vitamin B-12. Depressed? Vitamin B-12. Have a test you need to focus for? Vitamin B-12. Sex life not brimming? Vitamin B-12. You name it, Vitamin B-12 will solve it.

Had My Big Fat Greek Wedding just hit half the notes it did, it would probably have earned my lasting affection. (Beyond the Windex and the spitting, there were plenty of smaller touches, such as “Meet my cousins, Nick, Nick and Nick.”—we have four Dimitris among our cousins.) But now, a mere14 years later, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 has hit theaters. Part of me is pretty skeptical—it’s hard to imagine the sequel will be able to mine my culture for another batch of strange-but-true artifacts. This won’t be for lack of resources—like any culture with ancient roots, there is plenty to mine. But rather, I expect Nia Vardalos’ sequel will feel obligated to strike many of the same chords that resonated the first go-around. But then again, maybe not. One thing’s certain—it won’t take my Boston cousins to get me to the theater this time around.

Madina Papadopoulos is a New York-based freelance writer, author, and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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