Mediterranean (Social) Life is Good For you.

Mediterranean lifestyle recommendations are ubiquitous these days. One can argue this NYT article about a small island in Greece where people lived very long started the craze. The article talked about the island’s community who followed what is commonly referred these days as a Mediterranean diet (a lot of vegetables, greens, little meat and no processed food – a glass of wine here and there – there is a cookbook if you want the food of the island that is pretty good). They also were active and had vibrant social lives(walking everywhere in their small village, gathering in common social spaces, sharing resources).  This lifestyle went more mainstream when doctors started recommending it as a model for healthy living. Recently, after a surgery, my father’s doctor told him to follow the Mediterranean diet. People of the Mediterranean are asked these days to learn or remember their own lifestyles.

I want to live long (if I can) and have been thinking about this lifestyle. Being from a country that has a long Mediterranean coastline, I find myself left with more questions than a quick desire to adjust to this lifestyle. Below I share these concerns:

(1) Is it really from the Mediterranean? 

Calling a diet/lifestyle Mediterranean is like calling someone Middle-eastern. Naming does not accomplish much.  The diet outlined in the NYT is very specific to this particular Greek island. As it is with any other country, there is a variety of eating styles within Greece and also within all the nations bordering the Mediterranean sea. My native Turkey’s diet is much more meat heavy. That is also true for some parts of Greece and surrounding region (for instance see the famed kleftiko from Cyprus (thank you Michael)  – a stew of lamb and potatoes).

There are indeed commonalities amongst the eating habits of some countries with Mediterranean coastlines. Some of these commonalities are; an emphasis on vegetable small plates, also an emphasis on seasonal produce usually acquired from local bazaars.

We visited Karpathos island (in between Rhodes and Crete) this summer. The diet in this island is pretty different than it is in Ikaria. Featured here are their amazing local pasta dish with fried onions.

Carb and meat intake varies from country to country . Culture around drinking is also varied.

I heard people of this region to refer to a common temperament that is named after the region. Being Mediterranean in this sense connotes (based on the examples I heard mostly in Turkey and Greece) a sense of heightened passion – a love of life and experiences – keyif as it is called in my native Turkey.  (same temperament is often the justification of difference of south europeans see for instance this)

The term overall connotes an ideal and sometimes a feeling.  It seems to be not a reflection of the lifestyles or food of the entirety of all the countries with Mediterranean coastlines.

(2) How to attain the worry-free state in the Mediterranean (or elsewhere)? 

Are people in the “Mediterranean” worry-free?

Greek islands are doing pretty well despite the general economic downturn in their country.  These are also some of the very same place that Syrian refugees were trying to reach by boats  – many loosing their lives along the way.

Three friends here discuss how they attain a worry-free state only when they are visiting a Greek island. They are in Rhodes in this photo. Two are from the US and one from Turkey.

It is also important to note that Syria also has a Mediterranean coastline and in this country the concern is not so much about health and lifestyle but more about sustaining life itself. Turkey, Palestine, Lebanon, Libya, Israel, and Egypt are a few other countries near this sea. Frequent economic and political problems makes attaining a healthy lifestyle secondary concern.

(3) How to afford a Mediterranean lifestyle? 

It is cheaper to go to the local weekly bazaar and shop, for instance in a country like Turkey, where fruit and vegetable vendors sell fresh and in season produce. However, in the US, organic and/or fresh foods still cost more than the packaged alternatives.

There are movements to make fresh food cheaper in the US but a weekly visit to the farmer’s market in the US is not equivalent to a visit to such a market in some countries that have a coastline to the Mediterranean. What is quotidian in these countries is an item of luxury in the US. Add to that the hours necessary to prepare foods that are freshly purchased.

Greek socialist government structure (with shared benefits for citizens) may have caused a financial disarray for the country. The same system may be the very reason of the lifestyle that we globally aspire. Co-operative systems that offer resources for citizens may indeed lead to their longevity and also to the creation of a balanced, rich in nutrition and social lifestyle otherwise unattainable in other systems.

(4) How to be social when being social is not the norm? 

People in the Greek island of Ikaria eat healthy foods. They are also very social. The type of sociability described in this place, which supposedly leads to longevity, is one of spontaneous and frequent nature. Walking around leads to random encounters with relatives and friends. Meals are shared with many. When something goes wrong, it is a common wrong – perhaps, I imagine this part, over a long meal, people share a bite and their worries  – and solve conflicts together.

Indeed a sense of sociability may be common in the countries that have a Mediterranean coast. I find this aspect to be the hardest to replicate elsewhere – particularly in the US. Can this fad influencing the types of foods people prepare, more farmer market purchased – less processed, also alter the way people socialize and come together?

About this aspect I remain to be a skeptic. In cities of the US where busy lives lead to a Google calendar based socializing, spontaneity is seldom.  Coming together of any kind is pre-ordained – it is facilitated through a Facebook event, an Evite or an email/text at the very least. (That may also partly be due to paucity of vacation weeks or a drive that equates time with utility).

When in Turkey, a country  where people also work very long hours (in fact according to this list published earlier this year Greeks and Turks have longer working hours than fellow working folks in the US or even in Germany!!!!), we frequently hear unplanned knocks on my parents’ door. Sometimes we welcome the unexpected guest with open arms – other times it is a bit annoying as it interrupts what we may have planned for the day. Regardless of our feelings for the guest, we are being Mediterranean at that very moment, embracing life and people as they come and as we give a little bit of ourselves to that person as they sprinkle spontaneous sociability in our lives.

I jumped in worry a couple months ago when my door in Seattle knocked at an hour where I anticipated no one.  A friend stopped by to say hi on her way home back from work. It was a very pleasant surprise but a surprise nonetheless – not the structure of sociability that I am used to in the US (and my friend is from the US and I am from Turkey to add a twist to this anecdote).


We may be ready to act like this very ambiguous thing called “Mediterranean” (did you know that there is a Mediterranean Studies Association?) but the systems or values that define us (particularly in North America) may not be as ready as we are.


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