When My Big Fat Greek Wedding first came out in August of 2002, I was 10 years old and not exactly among its target audience. Mainly because, well, I was 10, but more so because I was in no way thinking about marriage. I also come from a very small family, versus the gargantuan Greek commune that the movie depicts. Oh, and I'm not even Greek. But, despite all of this, there was something so familiar and comforting about Nia Vardalos' movie that struck a chord with me even as a young kid. I found myself deeply relating to her portrayal of dealing with her fictionalized family's myriad quirks and eccentricities. I watched it on every road trip, using the VHS player in our minivan, and every subsequent family movie night we had. This went on for a good decade. I quoted the movie with my parents and younger sister to no end. "Don't eat NO MEAT?" was a personal favorite I used in response to just about any query. Another was the scene in which Toula's (Vardalos) mother, Maria Portokalos (Lainie Kazan), can't pronounce the word "bundt" when she is given one such cake. "Ba-ba-bun? But?" I would say this about random menu items, pretending to be unable to pronounce them. Now, 14 years later, with the long-awaited sequel My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 coming to theaters March 25, I got to revisit the movie that helped me embrace my own cultural heritage.
I grew up in Georgia, just north of Atlanta, in a nice suburb. It was very suburban. Most families in town were from the area, or at least the South. While my mother was from Florida, my father was from a bit farther east. Eastern Europe, in fact. Romania. Specifically, Sibiu. Also known as No. 8 on Forbes' list of "Europe's Most Idyllic Places to Live" in 2008. We didn't have the Romanian flag painted on our garage door, but it did come up. My elementary school had an annual "Flag Walk," when each kindergartener got to walk around the school holding a flag from his or her family's country of origin. I was proudly the only girl holding the blue, yellow, and red striped Romanian flag. I was also one of the very few first-generation American kids. I knew it was hard to pronounce my own father's name, and even more difficult to spell it. I remember his disappointed face when I told him I thought the first letter of his name was a "Q." (His name is Crinu— pronounced Cree-Nu, no Q.) After that, he liked to help with all of my homework assignments by telling me the Latin roots of each word, so I wouldn't make mistakes like that again.
Anyone who has parents, or a parent, who has immigrated to the United States knows that there are pieces of their previous lives that are forever intertwined in what they do, and thus, as their child, in what you do. Whether you like it or not. From slight disparities in pronunciation (I feel this one so hard — the most basic words I struggle with are milk, poem, and pillow) to affinities for strange foods (Romanian pancakes, anyone?) to questionable homeopathic remedies for everyday ailments (more on this in a moment), each slight variation is a pointed reminder of where your family came from. My grandmother Vitza — pronounced just like "pizza" — came to America in the early 1980s, and my father arrived a few years later. They ended up in Detroit, Michigan. An idyllic place to live? At the time, not exactly. But an American place to live? Absolutely. They lived around Romanian relatives, constantly surrounded by the same foods, language, and social nuances as they had back in their home country. Now they just faced a few funny looks when they conversed in a language that's not immediately recognizable like Spanish or French. Or if they asked for sugar with their pasta dishes (noodles were a dessert dish for my father growing up).
My father spoke English perfectly, albeit with a heavy Romanian accent that was pronounced enough to prompt everyone he encountered to play a game of, "Let me guess where you are from!" Which quickly led to my father having to explain, "Yes, Romania is a country. Yes, we have our own language. No, the real Dracula was nothing like that movie you saw."
But as much as my father, grandmother, and more distant relatives clung to their past privately, talking about their cultural roots made them proud. I saw a funnier, and more dramatic, version of their Old European ways in the antics of the Portokalos family. Like her family, we ate too much meat, talked too loudly, and were always there for each other. But, the most notable similarity my own family shared with the film was that my father, like Toula's father, Gus Portokalos (Michael Constantine), had his own medical obsession. In the movie, it's Windex. All of Toula's life, Gus has been spraying Windex on everything, believing that "every ailment from psoriasis to poison ivy can be cured with Windex," as she says in the opening credits. Later in the movie, when Ian Miller (John Corbett) gets a zit on their wedding day, Toula asks him how he got rid of it so quickly. "I put some Windex on it," he replies. Even in the sequel, Gus still has an affection for using Windex for every affliction under the sun. My father, however, went a more organic route. For him, it was ice. He believed ice was God's cure to any bodily imbalance, whether it was a cut, bruise, sore muscle, fever, or headache. If friends came over and fell down outside — ice! If my mother had to go to work and my dad was stuck at home watching me with the flu — a washcloth-wrapped ice pack would be handed over for me to lay on my burning head and achey limbs. Our freezer was like the Portokalos' Windex-filled pantry, except it was brimming with ice packs.
Fortunately, it only took me a few years to realize that my father and grandmother's Romanian quirks were something to be intrigued and inspired by, not embarrassed by. My fondness for the movie wasn't about Toula having glasses, overly frizzy hair, and eating moussaka, although, yes, I have glasses, humidity-induced frizzy hair, and often eat a Romanian dish called mămăligă. Instead, it was about Toula being grossed out and driven nuts by her own family, before realizing that everyone (even natural blondes) has a crazy family, and that a strong heritage is definitely something to be proud of. The movie taught me the importance of patience and acceptance when it comes to having a "weird" family, and that it's cool to be different. But not as cool as icing your sore feet after a long day.