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Monday, 20 October 2008

The real Greek lives in London (Ο γνήσιος 'Ελληνας ζει στο Λονδίνο)

Stavros recently posted some photographs of a Greek festival that took place in his part of the world, Maine, USA, where people living far away from Greece are maintaining customs and traditions that their parents passed on to them when they first emigrated from poverty-stricken Greece. Hermes from Australia thought the whole idea of staging a Greek festival in Maine was more like an American's nostalgisised attempt to hold on to an ancient culture whose language he can't speak.

Up until I was five years old, I didn't know I was a Greek. I thought I was just a diminutive form of the people who I was surrounded by: my parents, aunts and uncles, neighbours, the landlord, our friends. Everyone spoke the same language, went to the same church, had similar names (Kosta, Nikos, Yiannis, George for men and Maria, Toula, Soula, Voula for women), and ate roughly the same kind of food. All this was taking place in 1960s Wellington, in the suburb of Mount Victoria where many of those people lived at the time. This was the only world I knew up until 1970.

clyde quay school 1978
(7 of the 12 12-years-olds in this photo are of Greek origin;
Clyde Quay School, 1978, Wellington, NZ)

Then I started school, and that's when I realised that there were people who spoke my home language, and people who didn't. The people who spoke Greek were usually the same people as the ones I came across at church, while everyone else was some kind of 'inglezos' - English - or 'xenos' - foreigner. Greeks never considered themselves to be part of the 'xenos' category. I only realised I was the xenos when I was first labeled 'Greek', in the same way that I (and others) labelled people form other cultures, for example, Chinese or Indian. The only exception to this category was 'Maori'; they weren't 'inglezos', and they couldn't be 'xenos' because they were the indigenous people of New Zealand. They were 'maouri', as my parents' dialect called them.

My MA thesis (1991) centred around Greek language use in the Greek community of Wellington. One of the conclusions was that the Greek language was being maintained in the home, mainly by people who had direct contact with immigrant Greeks. When there are no immigrants in the home environment, maintaining the language through the generations becomes very difficult. This happens across all immigrant communities whose direct contact with the country the language is spoken in has been lost, due to permanent settlement away from the lingusitic environment. The Greek communities should be one of the first to suffer, in any case; only Cyprus uses Greek as a main language. In contrast, the Chinese language will continue to spread, because there is a constant influx of Chinese immigrants to countries all over the world. Greek migration has pretty much stopped; Greece is no longer a country of fleeing emigres.

So what happens to those people who called themselves Greek, then lost their language through the generations? Do they stop calling themselves Greek? During the course of my interviewing Greek people from all walk of life (I had to interview at least 100 people, and ensure that I had a good range of ages and generaitons), I also came across people who didn't speak the language very well, or whose children did not speak it at all. They still called themselves Greek, and they insisted that that's what they told people who asked them about their strange-sounding names: "I'm Greek," they all insisted.

The feeling a person has of his/her Greekness has never centred around the Greek language. There are many other factors involved. If the Greek language was one of the main defining factors in "engagement with Hellenism" as Hermes insists, surely the Greek communities of the disapora would have died out one by one, instead of flourishing, as they are still doing, judging by Stavros' and Laurie's reports of Greek festivals in Maine and Alaska, respectively. Clearly, religious choice is a more defining factor in the expression of Greekness than language - and if there were no Greek Orthodox church organising a Greek festival, there would be no festival.

Hermes, when your veins run Greek blood through your body, you cannot but be a Greek. Eventually it will become evident somewhere somehow, evn if you have tried to ignore it in your life, and that's when you will be caught by surprise, when you realise that you are a Greek and can no longer hide it.

I will never forget a visit by a Greek politician to New Zealand in 1990, because he made one of the most condescending remarks I had ever heard made towards a Greek born outside Greece (up until then, that is, as I heard many more after I came to live permanently in Greece). He had just been given a guided tour round the Greek community halls of Wellington when he chanced upon a meeting being held by the young people of the Greek community. "Κοίτα να δεις, μιλάνε Ελληνικά", he said, ("oh, look, they're speaking Greek") gawking at us like we were aliens. It was one of my closest encounters with a Greek politician. Once I came to Greece, I realised that there were also many other people like him who did not regard us as Greeks equal to himself. Maybe we weren't Greeks just like him, because we had better manners, in any case.

Every non-Greece-born Greek will probably have asked themselves this question at some time in their life: what is it that makes them say they are Greek, when in fact that they were born in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, or any other place in the world, except Greece? I think I just answered the $64,000,000 question (which has drastically depreciated in value just recently) of who is the real Greek:

the real greek
(Souvlaki chain restaurant found in the UK; this branch is located across the river Thames, on Southwark Bridge Road, London).

Who would have thought that a souvlatzidiko in the 'xeniteia' (the word Greeks use to mean a place away from their own homeland) would have provided the answer? What an elitist group we are.

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