My Hellenic Revival – From growing up Greek-American to learning what it means to be Greek in Greece today.
(This essay was written in April of 2014 and read at a gathering of Greek-American friends and family.)
Having now lived in contemporary Greece I often think of my youth as an ancient Greek myth. In an imagined Olympus, we judged ourselves a celestial sphere above the other inhabitants of the «barbaric» (1) American grounds. Our fathers and grandfathers defended their traditions, and thus the foregone glory of our far-away homeland was brought to life in our daily new world routine as a constant reminder of our privileged place in such a heavenly past. This exotic mythological realm within suburban USA was filled with odors, tastes and sounds of colossal intrigue. Sensory stimuli engulfed a childhood of dancing, drinking, and feasting, an almost-violent merriment and ever raging-love. The distinction between gods and heathens must have proved hazy to the all-American onlookers. However, we displaced Greeks — we the honorers of nostalgia, the demi-gods with feet in the mundane and heads stuck in Empyrean clouds — knew the art of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. We believe that black and white harmonize in gray, like cigarette-smoke trails turned sunday-morning incense at Orthodox-Church Bouzouki nights.
I grew up in the hellenic community of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
But despite the stereotypical cultural ingredients that stewed together in my Greek identity and sustained my place in America’s multicultural and puritan melting pot, I did not grow up speaking Greek and had very little contact with the halcyon homeland : Before my adult life, I had only visited my father’s birthplace once at the age of seven. The Americans considered me Greek, but for my family in Greece, I was as American as it got.
Not until I delved into foreign language study at school did I realize how important language is to a culture. Languages are more than letters formed into words that are then organized by grammatical systems and utilized, like tools, to communicate. Languages harbor the essence and cultural nuances of a people. They are the environment in which a culture breathes, grows, flourishes and thrives! Experiencing a culture without knowing the language is like a child visiting an aquarium instead of the sea. When pressing her little hands and nose against the glass tank, she’s only able to gaze upon the fish from afar, using her imagination to guess what the water may feel like against her skin. But if that same child were to take a trip to the shoreline, then you can be sure that she’d dive right in! And as quickly as her skin would tauten from the sudden contact with the water, she would find herself swimming freely amongst the marine life that for so long had been a thing of mystery, despite the closeness to home. Yes, language, culture and even our own thought-processes mutually influence each other. Their waters mingle and merge like the natural ebb and flow of the tide.
And so, at the age of 23, I decided to take the plunge and to see what the Greek culture was really about. In September of 2009, I left the U.S. to spend one year with my non English-speaking family in the North of Greece, in the small and picturesque town of Kavala, nestled neatly between the Pangaion Hills and the Aegean Sea. This very frustrating year was spent learning Greek with anyone who had the patience or the time to listen to my broken fragments of non-declined nouns and unconjugated verbs. (These are two grammatical notions non-existent or of little importance in English.) Grandmothers, housewives and children were my most loyal audience. Cartoons were my textbook of choice. By the end of this 12 month stay I managed to attain the linguistic competence of a 12 year old. I certainly couldn’t write a college dissertation, but at least I gained an authentic glimpse into what it means to be Greek today.
This lesson in Greek reality was taught, however, with much more cruelty than I had expected. No, not personal cruelty. My own passage in Greece was greeted with nothing less than filotimo (2) and respect. The savagery that I evoke refers to the now infamous Greek crisis. A sad side-effect of a global system in which greed holds the reigns, this modern day tragedy has turned the Greek society upside-down within four short and vicious years. From my initial experience in the homeland, to my present day contact with Greece, the ramifications of this crisis are evident and shocking.
Despite being the year of my hellenic revival, 2009/2010 was marked by events of much greater societal urgency. The one year anniversary of Alexis Grigoropoulos’ death, on December 6th, reignited the indignation of Athens’ youth. Rioting and more police brutality ensued. Shortly before, in November of 2009, George Andreas Papandreou –a Greek-American of a different color (3) – was elected prime minister. His campaign slogan ensured the masses that Greece does in fact have money (Lefta yparchoun) ; however, just before ringing in the new year he announced the fallacy of this trademark catchphrase. Greece’s 2009 public deficit was in fact far greater than had been previously reported : The numbers were finally revised upward to 15.4% of the GDP from the 3.7% misleading prediction earlier in the year (4)! Borrowing at exorbitant interest rates, strong-armed excessive purchases of arms (5) and other bribery between high-level officials and private institutions –a prime example of which is seen in the deep-rooted corruption between Greek government officials and the German company Siemens (6)–, and other such care-free-on-credit spending sprees were the causes of this mammoth debt in a country with little means of production, but with high geopolitical appeal. To make things worse, in comes Wall Street. With their economic tricks and traps, investment firms such as JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs guided turncoat Greek governments (PASOK and Nea Dimokratia) in their « decade-long effort to skirt European debt limits » (7) . In other words, Greece’s deficit took an out of control growth spurt and was hidden from European budget overseers. Finally, the subprime mortgage crisis and the collapse of US financial institutions in September of 2008 set the dominos in motion for a worldwide financial collapse. An economic crisis was triggered in Europe, and Greece just happened to be the weakest (scape)goat of the European herd.
And so, in what was said to have been an attempt to defer intervention by the tripartite entity dubbed the «Troïka» – the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Commission (EC) and the European Central Bank (ECB) -, the first measures of austerity were self-inflicted in February of 2010. In May of 2010, after protests turned into deadly riots (the Marfin bank tragedy), Greece agreed to the first bailout package, and thus to the first round of harsh externally-induced austerity measures.
But during all of this political and social turmoil, I was far away in the small town of Kavala with my family, engulfed in Greek Grammar books, listening exercises and conjugation charts. What was happening in the capital seemed a world away. What happens in Athens stays in Athens, we thought. We now know this to be wrong.
During my almost two years absence from Greece –I was studying in France to earn a master’s degree in French Language Education – FLE–, austerity, protests, and violence pursued. To complement the telephone updates I received from family and friends, I turned to independent news sources and blogs. Okeanews.fr (in French) and KeepTalkingGreece.com (in English) became my guides. And although well above my 12-year-old level of competence in the Greek language, the Pressproject.gr and Kostas Vaxevanis’ Hot Doc, with his daring publication of the Lagarde list in October of 2012 (8), excited my passion for social justice.
As small a contribution as it may seem to the unnamed war in which the citizens of Greece now find themselves fighting, I decided to tie my studies to this new passion by writing my master’s thesis on the crisis. And so I moved back to Greece, for 6 months this time, in order to research the effects of the crisis on foreign language education within the country.
The half year that I spent in Greece from March to August 2013 was filled with some of the most emotionally-intense moments of my life. In addition to completing my work for the university, I absorbed myself in the social fight against Austerity and Injustice by attending protests, public discussions and simply discussing the current state of affairs with anyone and everyone I came across. The poignant memories still stir my heart and I even find myself crying one year later as I’m writing these words! The experiences and chance encounters that I had this time last year will be forever imprinted on me, like living photographs in my mind. And thanks to the used and now abused camera that I bought just before hopping on the plane to Greece, I was able to capture some of these living moments in digital format. I wished to share my experiences with friends and family, and so decided to create an amateur blog in which I compiled my photos and mini-interviews. This blog embraces a panoramic view of Greece’s social context in the months of my stay in Greece.
From my arrival in Athens, with a pocket full of savings and big foolish dreams to make a difference, to my departure from Thessaloniki, penniless and disconcerted by the all too harsh realities of the crisis, what I personally gained from this experience far outweighs any frustration that I may have felt along the way. Chance encounters, new friends and my newfound social awareness were worth every penny spent on KTEL bus tickets and every night spent hunched over a computer, working till the crack of dawn. This blog–www.unplusun.info–is the humble result.
This blog displays experiences having primarily occurred amongst those actively engaged in the fight against austerity. Although Greeks are some of the most socially active peoples of Europe, and despite their tradition of resistance (9) , not all citizens of present-day Greece are on the streets protesting daily. And particularly after four years of this despicable situation, many have thrown their hands up in exhaustion or are simply occupied with their own daily struggle to survive. Some of those who may have been fighting have even taken the immigrant route, emigrating to other countries in hopes of building a better life, like many Greeks of previous generations who left a poverty-stricken country in the early 1900’s or who migrated for economic and political purposes after the destruction of WWII, amid the Greek Civil War of 1946-49, and during the Greek military dictatorship of the 60’s and 70’s.
Yes, many Greeks of yesteryear, and now of today, have emigrated – for better or worse – in hopes of building a more fruitful life elsewhere. This is what my father and many of his friends did when they came to the US so many years ago. And bravo, they did it! Although the road may have been hard and long with many uncertainties along the way, here we are! Displaced Greeks and demi-gods, honorable Greek-Americans and honorers of nostalgia, thriving and growing in an adopted country and culture, proudly raising Greek-American children in the United States, but never forgetting our past. I, for one, am grateful for my Greek-American upbringing, because the richness of knowing two contrasting cultures has allowed me to open my mind and accept others and their diverse ways of life and thought. Being Greek-American has helped me to become a better person, and I’m sure that many of my fellow bicultural compatriots feel the same way. Whether or not we speak the language, the culture is forever ingrained in our hearts.
To me, being a better person means fighting both symbolically (in our thoughts) and in practice (through our actions) for what is just and true. And if we are not faced today with explicit and armed combat against blatant and open fascism, like the Greeks of the 1940’s, and if we are not directly called to bear arms, then at least we can resist in our own little, individual and unique ways: use our minds and our hearts as weapons; stay informed in order to make autonomous decisions, in order to take control of our own lives; talk to friends and family about the truths of our societies; lead our lives as closely aligned with these truths as possible; uphold values of justice and peace in our own small circles of influence; come together in solidarity to laugh, cry and share our love! You see, resistance does not confine itself to storybooks and political demonstrations, faraway lands and civilian uprisings, times past and history-changing revolutions. Resistance is the way we lead our daily lives. It’s here, now, today. It’s you and me. It’s us.
Greece is caught in an unnamed war. Call it a Crisis, call it what you will. The only way to bring forth peace is to refrain from violence. Corporate and fascist social destruction are forms of violence. Excessive nationalism and extreme anarchism are violence too. They say knowledge is power. And isn’t it true? Aren’t our minds the most powerful weapons in the end ?
I call on all Greek-Americans, on all Greeks, on all citizens of our global society to dig deeper into our minds and hearts so that we never forget the lessons of our past, and so that we can open our eyes to the truths of the present. It is only in this way that we will be able to ensure a sustainable future for all. This future should not be a reality dictated by a privileged few, but a creative effort in which we all participate.
1 The word «barbaric» in ancient Greece was used to describe anyone who was not Greek. It later took it’s present-day meaning of «uncivilized». It’s use here is purely for humorous purposes.
2 Lacking an adequate English translation for this first notion, filotimo can be paraphrased as a sort of honoring of your friends.
3 I make reference here to the idiomatic English expression : “a horse of a different color,” which means that something is unrelated or only incidentally related, with a distinctly different significance. I attempt here to set a distance between honorable Greek-Americans and George A. Papandreou (now satirically nicknamed GAP by the Greek people in order to highlight his loyalty to foreign interests). On the cutting room floor of an interview that was broadcasted on French television station Canal + on April 10th 2011, the former head of the IMF (International Monetary Fund), Dominique Strauss-Kahn, revealed that the Greek government had wanted IMF intervention for several months before addressing the formal demand in May of 2010. However, GAP, having called Strauss-Kahn as early as November 2009, did not divulge this information to the Greek people «for political reasons». source : http://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/carnet/2011-05-09-La-dette-les-peuples-et-DSK
4 In comparison, and without consideration to individual states’ budgets, the federal public deficit of the United States in 2009, reached 10% — an unprecedented level. cf. «America’s fiscal deficit, stemming the tide.», November 2009, http://www.economist.com/node/14903024.
5 cf. 1. «Samaras : Greece spends 6% of its budget on defense», Dec. 2013, http://news247.gr/eidiseis/politiki/samaras_h_ellada_dapana_6_toy_proypologismou_sthn_amyna.2560365.html. ; 2. «German ‘hypocrisy’ over Greek military spending has critics up in arms», April 2012, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/apr/19/greece-military-spending-debt-crisis. ; 3. «More Arrests: Greece makes progress on arms deal corruption», January 2014, http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/greece-arrests-two-suspects-in-submarine-bribery-case-a-944446.html
6 cf. «Forgiving Siemens: Unraveling a tangled tale of German corruption in Greece.», June 2012, http://www.corpwatch.org/article.php?id=15740 ; «So many bribes, a Greek official can’t recall them all», February 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/08/world/europe/so-many-bribes-a-greek-official-cant-recall-all.html
7 cf. «Wall St. Helped to Mask Debt Fueling Europe’s Crisis», http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/14/business/global/14debt.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.
8 The «Lagarde List» is the list of some 2,000 affluent tax evaders in Greece that was transmitted in October of 2010 on an unlabelled CD to Greek government officials by Christine Lagarde, former French finance minister and current managing director of the International Monetary Fund. Her intent was that the ruling-class of Greece use this document to combat off-shore accounts and tax evasion. However, seeing as how those with the power to do so are also, in large part, many of those on the «Lagarde List», the CD went mysteriously missing. On October 28th 2012, investigative reporter Kostas Vaxevanis announced that he was in possession of the «Lagarde List» and published it in it’s entirety in his magazine Hot Doc. He was subsequently arrested for breaching privacy laws, but later found not guilty.
9 The modern Greek tradition of resistance can be traced to the fight to gain independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1821 and reflected in the daring October 28th, 1940 proclamation of «NO» in response to the grim ultimatum given by Italian dictator and ally of Hitler, Benito Amilcare Andrea Mussolini, demanding entry of Axis forces into strategic locations in the Greek territories. This «NO!» (oxi) marked Greece’s brave entry into WWII.
post-script note : the July 5th 2015 referendum vote of «NO!» (oxi) rejects the third bailout offer and new austerity measures set to be enforced by the Troika, and can be added as a historical example of Greek popular resistance against injustice.