I wish I could call the language barrier of writing stories in Thessaloniki an “unexpected surprise,” but the truth is that I’ve been anticipating (aka: doing my best to delay stressing about) the uniquely absurd challenge of reporting by pantomime since January.

And though I’ve lucked out with the most major interview I’ve conducted to date (a two-and-half-hour coffee date with a reformed (?) neo-Nazi, whose English was as impeccable as his political views were alarming), our time in Thessaloniki has been punctuated by all kinds of communication mishaps.

There was the server in a restaurant who, confused by my admittedly less than fluent attempt to order food in Greek, instead decided I’d probably ordered nothing at all and left me waiting for 45 minutes. On our first night out, we encountered a trio of taxi drivers all with very geographically distinct ideas of where the Hotel Kastoria was located. And, most entertaining of all, there was the time me and Luke ended up wandering the streets of Thessaloniki around 3 a.m., having bungled our home address and then endeavored (against all sense of reason) to make our way home on foot. We ended up about a mile away from the dorms before realizing our error – on about 3% phone battery.

And yet, as our time in Thessaloniki draws to a close (next up: Athens!), I’m finally beginning to internalize basic vocabulary. My greatest triumph in Greek thus far came just this morning, when I headed down to La Fratzoli Bakery solo, determined to purchase a latte without a word of English. Pausing outside my room to conduct some informative Google searches, I made my way there feeling bizarrely nervous for the underworld-low stakes of the encounter.

“Gia sas!” I began. Yes, excellent. You’re basically fluent.  

“Gia sas!” The server, whose stupefying resemblance to Adele Exarchopoulos was almost enough to derail the entire conversation, replied, all smiles. Oh boy. 

Adele Exarchopoulos eating pasta. What I had to deal with while remembering the Greek word for “thanks.” GIF credit “Blue is the Warmest Color.”

Here we go. “Enan kafé, parakalo!!” My voice comes out far too loud. Shit. 

She nods, clearly understanding that I’m making an effort and perhaps appreciating it as she attempts to hold back laughter. “Frappe?” No, no – latte. What’s the word for latte?

“Uh.” You can save this. Keep going. “Ókhi.”

She waits, one eyebrow raised. A family with two children, both shrieking unintelligibly, enters the store. She gamely waits for me to finish stumbling through this encounter, but still seems more content to deal with one polite moron than two screaming kids. For now.

Meanwhile, my weak American brain essentially breaks.

A real image of my brain. GIF: MakeAGif.com.

Screw it. “Latte?” I ask, hopefully.

She gets it and nods, smiling, praying for the end. “Do you want sugar?”

She’s switched to English. This does not bode well. I play my ace in the hole.

“… Sketo.”

She nods again, less than impressed. It’s okay – at least I’m proud of me.

Adele disappears to make the coffee and leaves me to think about what I’ve done. To anyone watching this sorry situation unfold, what has occurred is wholly unremarkable. An inept American walks into a coffee shop, and the person working the register is forced to deal with him. Classic. But I’ll learn from this, probably.

I’m handed the latte, and smile broadly, passing over the 1.50 Euro before she has to ask.

“Efharisto!” I say, summoning one last vocab word.

To my great shock, she breaks into the broadest smile I’ve yet seen from her. It seems genuine. “Parakalo!” The warmth in her voice is more than I deserve for my sorry efforts, but I leave the bakery with an even bigger smile on my face.

A thought passes through my head. “How do you say ‘same time tomorrow?’ in Greek?” I ask Google. No service. Oh well.