Sunday, 25 March 2012

Greece is that thing (Η Ελλάδα είναι αυτό το πράγμα)

Today is a significant celebration in Greece: since 1821, independence from the Ottoman yoke is celebrated on the day of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary. Because it's a Sunday, Greeks miss out on this public holiday (as they did last Christmas and New Year's Days) because such feast days are known as immovable feasts (unlike Easter-related feasts, which are moveable). NB: Greek holidays are NEVER moved to a more convenient date.  

On a recent Friday evening when most of the family was down with a cold or getting over one, we all sat together in the living room and turned on the TV. Most nights, I'm chasing after kids and their after-school activities, so I'm not in at the time the news programmes are being broadcast. Catching up with what has been and gone seems pointless to me. At any rate, most of the news I hear about on Greek TV is obtainable through website reporting. For this reason, it's not really necessary to watch the TV news; the pictures simply add another dimension to the stories.

We tuned in to the ALPHA news broadcast, which had just begun after a short commercial break: "Coming up: professional Greeks choose to stay in Greece". This sounded like a heroic act, coming at a time when the foreign press is bombarding the global news sites with propaganda of Greek tragedies, such as: "The best will emigrate, as they are doing already. The signs are everywhere of poverty, social break down, and homelessness."

ALPHA channel, 9pm news, 9/3/2011

Two Greek doctors with internationally recognised distinctions for their research work on resuscitation explained why they decided not to emigrate, turning down offers for university positions in eminent institutions abroad with salaries four times as much as what they are getting now. "I'm too Greek to do that," said Theodore Xanthos, "I believe that at this difficult time for Greece, everyone has to contribute to help the country get out of the abyss... I want my Greek research to come out of Greece, not another country." Xanthos also tells us that at the moment, Greece represents 8% of the research in cardiopulmonary resuscitation, while his colleague Athanasios Chalkias states that due to their work, the international community now understands how life continues to operate immediately after a heart attack.

It felt comforting to listen to my compatriots telling their own people that life is not just about money, fame or glory, it is not about living in ease and comfort, it is about living as a Greek with the spirit of a Greek. This is the reason why a Greek friend of mine (who wants to remain anonymous), born and raised in Canada, is working in a research institute in Athens. In his words: "it is much more interesting living in Greece than in boring and secure Vancouver." There are more people like him in Greece, but these are not the people that reporters seek when covering news: they don't provide the sensationalism that raises ratings and stirs the emotions of the international audience.

ODISEAS ELYTIS (Nobel Peace Prize in Literature, 1979): To be Greek is to feel the same way whether you are standing next to the Parthenon or next to a λυχνάρι (oil-lit lamp). 

Right after the doctors' story, a similar report followed (the newsreader explained that the doctors' story was the reason for the next news spot), where well-known Greek artists explained how they felt about the Greek identity, and what it means for them to be Greek. In the context of the crisis, the "more positive and enlightening side of Greece" is often forgotten, as is "the Greece of light and strength", which gives us hope for a much better future.

The reporter asked people in the Acropolis area what they thought of the concept of Greece: "Greece is in the coffee cups, the sun that blinds us, the blue and white flag that waves to us on the balconies. You live Greece with all your senses."

Both the scientists and the artists expressed my own desire to live and work in my own country, without feeling the pressure to run away to another one. I don't live in the oppressed times of my parents' youth, where there was no transparency and democracy was overshadowed by the need to survive. Migration is now a choice, not a necessity; we are a different generation all together from the Greeks that left Greece in the '60's or '70's.  We have a comfort cushion created by our parents' generation so that we can afford - not just in money terms - to stay in Greece through rough times. In their time, there was a need for foreign populations to increase the workforce in other countries. This is not quite the case any longer: the developed world has enough people populating it, but it does not have enough of the kind that are willing to do the hard/dirty work which the locals don't want to do, leaving them to other less fortunate souls, otherwise known as immigrants. "It is a sad feeling to be afraid of one's own native country," as the African-American slave Harriet Ann Jacobs wrote.
CALLIOPE KARVOUNIS: "Greece is inside us, Greece is nostalgia, culture, heritage, history, knowledge, light. On the other hand, Greece is darkness, sadness, pain, all that together. Greece is a big sun, she has enlightened all of humanity. But at this time, we tramp on her, and we have become ridiculous, mindless trivial people... We have forgotten where we have come from."

It was the photographer Calliope Karvounis' last words ("we have forgotten where we have come from") that made the greatest impact on me. In my opinion, to forget one's origins is the greatest crime against one's identity that a person can commit. If you don't know where you come from, you cannot know where you can go, what heights you can reach, and who you have to thank for this. We don't all come into this world equally, but we can all dream and hope, and most Greeks will at one point admit that they made their own choices in life, which is why they are where they are today.
DIMITRIS MITARAS: "If Greece were a painting, she would be an ancient statue, standing in front of a deep background. We have an enormous, vast culture backing us, a terrifying past, and we have become somewhat remote from it."

By way of contrast to those seeking a job - and therefore a conforming position - in a developed country, artists are non-conformists. They do not become famous by following regularised lines of mainstream thought. They break out of the shell that we are all born into, diverging and releasing themselves through their talent, which is often unique. They remind us that life is not just about conquering the world in monetary and status terms; it is also about the pleasure of existing peacefully yet vivaciously within our surroundings. 

YIANNIS MARKOPOULOS: "Our homeland is salty... We must all now realise that we have an immense responsibility to undertake, which is to transform all the nations of Europe...", "Greeks want a computer by their side for their daily needs, but at the same time, they want to plough their land. It's time for professionals and labourers to work together, to become friends and brothers."

I posted a copy of the TV news report on my facebook page. I received one comment, from a Greek born and living abroad who has no intention to visit Greece in the near future: "What's with all the patriotism?" he wrote. "Is this just an attempt to brainwash people and stop a civil war?" I was truly devastated. I deleted the comment, and then deleted the whole post, as I realised that there were many more people like this person, who could not understand what the Greek scientists or artists had to say about their identity. To reach the heights of a scientist or an artist, one must have a truly liberal mind, to be living quite out of this world, two things most of us do not have and do not do. Just like scientific theories need quite a developed and knowledgeable mind to be understood, so do artists' philosophies. They are not within easy reach of most mere mortals. Perhaps the topic was beyond the commentator's understanding: I had set my readers a task that was far off the scale of the average level of social media interaction.
ALEKOS FASIANOS: Greece is a concept that few people can understand - "Greece is a concept that we carry inside us, and that concept is constantly changing, it can't remain the same. We now wear jackets and trousers, but ancient Greeks wore tunics, but we continue to be Greeks. It's the environment ... that makes you Greek. Greece is that thing... Maybe if I hadn't been born in Greece and I wasn't here, I wouldn't draw like I do, I would be doing it differently if I were elsewhere."

It wasn't the commentator's fault for viewing Greekness in modern times to be some kind of curse, and not a blessing. Such people have never lived in Greece (they only come here for a holiday), nor have they felt the effect of those scientists' and artists' works on much more than a personal level, if at all - Greek immigrants' offspring usually knows little about the achievements of modern Greece, and more about the myths and legends of ancient Greece. They are simply left with a Greek name, and maybe some recipes from their mothers and grandmothers. They have no concept of modern Greece, nor do they fit in the modern Greek spectrum, and yet they are Greeks; they do not realise that they are hiding from themselves. Worst of all, they have not understood where they came from, hence they are on the verge of losing an integral part of their identity. When you lose any sense of your past, you are locked in the present, and when that crumbles, you have nowhere to turn.   

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I wonder what my commentator is up to today, on the 25th of March. No doubt, he will go to the Greek church in his region, after his first-generation relatives remind him of the importance of the day. He may even remember to say "Hronia Polla" to any Vagelis or Vagelia he meets up with (once again, after being reminded by an earlier generation that it is the done thing). But I doubt he'll be eating salt cod with beets and skorthalia for lunch. Fish is smelly, frying is unhealthy, beets stain your hands and clothes, and garlic dip causes stinky breath. These Greek culinary concepts were never a part of his identity in the first place but I forgive him for this: they could very well have not ended up being part of mine, either, which is the reason why it's hard for these kind of Greeks to be unable to recognise what Greece has actually given to the world - they can only see what she is not giving in the present time.

"Greece on a plate", by Demetra Lambros, a musically, artistically talented food lover

Spare a thought for the modern Greek artist, for s/he does not have it so easy these days. Artists usually thrive in large urban centres and capital cities. But the present state of the capital city of Greece, Athens, suffocates them. They have so far staunchly persisted to remain, but for how long will they be able to do so in a city that breeds prostitution, drug abuse, illegal immigration and crime?
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