The year is 2005. I am on Sophocles Street, in Omonia, the one neighborhood in Athens I have been told to stay out of. I am behind the counter of the Helping Hands soup kitchen, serving soup, two-handed, clumsy. I serve men and women (mostly men) from all over the world (mostly Eastern Europe and the Middle East). They come from cities I can’t pronounce and hardships I can’t imagine. They’re refugees. Some are homeless. Others are trying desperately to support a wife and kids.
I didn’t make the soup. I just showed up, prayed a prayer with everyone, got ready to dish up and smile. I come on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The rest of the time I study Greek, eat, visit ruins, enjoy myself. I’m ridiculously lucky to be here, graced with dozens of scholarships, including a $5,000 one that paid for food and plane fare. The semester’s almost over, and soon I’ll be home.
I hand someone a bowl of soup. He meets my eyes. (Not everyone does. Many avoid eye contact, presumably out of politeness or piety.) “Eucharisto,” he says. The Greek word for thank you, one of those that hasn’t changed since ancient times. It’s a beautiful word, and one I don’t get to use very often. Greeks are informal. I’m told I’ll fit in better if I’m less polite. My teachers tell me to say “thelo” (I want) instead of “tha ethela” (I would like) when ordering food, for example. It’s hard for me to do it. I keep wanting to smile at people I pass on the streets of Athens, even though I get no response from stranger after hardened stranger.
My Greek friend, Anna, is behind the counter with me. She’s decided my rotten Greek, after 3 months, is still good enough to show I’m trying. Anna doesn’t fit in in Greece either; she’s from an evangelical Christian family, while almost all Greeks are Orthodox. A big reason why we’re friends is because I get that. Of course, she doesn’t get the degree to which I feel like an outsider. We can’t talk about anything too deep, since her English is hardly better than my Greek. But somehow she sensed my sympathy, and we use our broken words to play at friendship in English and Greek, walking in the park, getting coffee together.
Having a Greek friend is a gift, too. My teachers are shocked that I’ve managed to befriend a Greek woman – they apparently tend to see American girls as rivals for Greek men. And as you might guess, the culture in general is hard to break into. The only other Greeks who ever talk to me are my teachers, random yiayias who take pity on me as I wander around Pangrati, obviously lost, and that old man at a bus station who ranted to me about American politics (as I gathered, barely).
Back to the man with the soup, with a young face lined by suffering, whose dark eyes are looking into mine. Since my Greek is not so good and I’ve been discouraged from practicing niceties, I don’t know “you’re welcome.” I try to think of a reply for this man. What comes out is an echo: “Eucharisto.” He smiles, takes his bowl, the sad eyes lightening for a second. It feels good in my mouth. I keep on saying it. The refugees don’t notice it’s a strange response because their Greek is not so good either. Clearly they are just glad to hear a kind word, whatever it is.
After a few repetitions of this, Anna turns to me, ready to help with my Greek yet again. “You don’t have to say thank you to them,” she tells me pointedly. “They are thanking you.”
“I know.” My hands are full with a bowl of soup. My heart is full with gifts. My mouth is full with a strange, beautiful language. How can I explain this to her, how full I feel just being here, receiving a smile from this stranger? The gifts unfold outward in my mind: soup, smile, eyes, friend, Sophocles Street, Omonia, Athens, plane ticket, life, hope, Christ.
“I just want to,” is all I can say. I turn back to handing out bowls, not even able to comprehend how blessed I am to be there. How did it happen? All the gifts are just that. I don’t deserve all this. Anyone can serve soup.
Years later, I have forgotten most of the modern Greek I learned, but the word “eucharisto” is still my favorite. It’s common there, like pennies on the sidewalk, used every day, the word that holds the word that speaks the sacrifice that saved me. And even that word, as Ann Voskamp pointed out, holds the words for “grace” and “joy.” “I am full of grace” is what it means. As a Christian, I say grace, give thanks, before meals to remember that all is gift and all is given to be shared, to remember Jesus as we do what he did: thank God for gifts and hold them out to those around us, and remember that those around us are a gift to us too.
May my stumbling tongue always know this beautiful and humble word. May it be tattooed on my heart, the palms of my hands. I say it to you too, for reading these words. Eucharisto.