Just as the swallows returning to Capistrano indicate that spring is right around the corner and the absence of the groundhog’s shadow indicates an end to winter, the annual Greek Festival assemblage of so many olive-skinned, black-haired and brown-eyed people can only mean one thing: Summer’s over. When Greeks gather to share food, music, dance and heritage during the four-day festival, two things happen along the Wasatch Front: Utahns not typically accustomed to acting normal in public put on their happy hats, and aspen trees—thankful they weren’t used as the heat source for the spit-fired lamb—extend their own appreciation by starting the process of changing their hues from green to the celebratory yellow and red. Fall is coming.
Throughout the Greek Festival grounds, one often hears people giving their opinion about what can be done better. Greeks are loud and political by nature, and, during the festival it’s not uncommon to come upon various groups shouting about this or that. It’s usually not personal. So when I saw two Greeks nearly coming to blows out by the gyro-preparation station, I had to listen in. My own grasp of the Greek language is ever-improving but is not yet to the point of full understanding, which will never occur, by the way. But judging from the exaggerated arm motions, the vain pleas to God and Mother Mary, and the occasional clenched fist, I recognized that this was not an average cat fight. It was like a hepped-up Miller Lite commercial. “Tastes great!” “Your mother’s a cow! Less filling!” “My chickens have more brains than you!” And so on.
The furor quickly subsided and soon the two were engaged in friendly banter as if nothing happened. Brothers are like that. Unless one of the participants in a Greek argument is a total knucklehead, most Greek arguments end similarly. My first inclination was to conclude that the quarrel started when one participant accused the other of rolling gyros from right to left instead of left to right. Or perhaps another serious Greek fight topic like, do you add sugar before the milk? As it turned out, their heated words centered on Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, not coffee condiments.
What got them riled wasn’t so much Palin, but what the two Greeks considered a misappropriation of original Greek humor. You may recall during the Republican convention that Palin validated John McCain’s bold assertion that the relative newcomer to national American politics is “ready to serve” by regaling an arena full of normally gloomy Republicans with a series of jokes and barbs aimed at the Democratic team of Barrack Obama and Joe Biden. Palin, a self-proclaimed hockey mom, cemented her exemplary leadership credentials with a joke that went, “What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?” Lipstick. Right then and there, the polls took an upward Republican bounce.
In Russia, equally cold as Alaska and also home to hockey moms, it’s said Russian President Vladimir Putin was not impressed by this picture of American toughness. Like the Greeks, Putin knows Palin got it wrong. In the Russian version of that joke, the answer to the question “What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?” is “A pit bull has more teeth.” And that’s what the two Greeks were arguing about. Greeks not only think all words have Greek origins—in any language—but all customs, food recipes and jokes do as well. One Greek was telling the other that the original version of the hockey-mom joke dates back to Minoan Crete while the other was claiming that it was on the island of Evia where the joke first took root.
Their argument ended when they came to several conclusions: The first, that when told in the original ancient Greek, the joke is far funnier than the Palin version. The second, when they agreed that even in the versions they first heard, the delivery and punch lines had changed somewhat from an even older version that went like this: “What’s the difference between a Spartan wrestler’s mother and lion?” To which an ancient Athenian orator would have delivered the agora zinger, “A Spartan wrestler’s mother has more facial hair.” Guffahs all around. Emboldened by the strength and unity derived of mocking an opponent, the next thing you know Athens is attacking Sparta.
Meanwhile in Sparta, its ever-serious leaders told their version: “What’s the difference between an Athenian wrestler’s mother and a lion?” To which every Spartan military boy knew the correct answer: “That’s not wrestling! They’re having sex!!” The war with Athens was on.
Finally, the two Greek combatants at the Greek Festival agreed that politics is a bunch of hooey. Even back then, even in their homeland. They noted (at about the same time one of them swiped a dolmatha from the dolmatha ladies) that our leaders spend more time getting us to like them than they spend on doing what they claim we are electing them to do. In the annals of Western culture, history remembers but a couple score of remarkable and extraordinary leaders. The rest just claimed to be, or so history would have us think. After all, few remember who built the cities, yet we all remember who destroyed them. History remembers the warriors most, especially the victors.
How will you and history remember George W. Bush who promised revenge on the terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center seven years ago this week? Maybe that depends on which terrorists you think masterminded the 9/11 attacks. The mainstream nominees for president and vice president know that telling a joke is better than telling the truth. So, why are you laughing?