Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The Greeks: The Land and People Since the War by James Pettifer

Before October 2009, Greece was a small and insignificant country; since then, she has managed to destabilise the Eurozone, distract the attendees of the Cannes G20 2011 summit meeting and throw the global economy into complete disarray.  So just who are 'those Greeks', and what is that country they call Ελλάδα all about?

That's a difficult, not to say a dangerous topic to get into. It's a controversial action to lump a group of people together and speak of them as of the same ilk, without taking into account their individuality. On the surface though, the Greeks seem like a homogeneous group, with their common language and religion, as well as a recognisable cuisine, all of which are shared among the Greeks living in Greece as well as the diaspora Greeks around the world. Throughout my blog writings, I've painted quite a different picture of 'the Greeks': a people divided between two camps, living under one roof, nudging each other for space. 

The Greeks: A Land and People Since the WarThe topic of 'the Greeks' is quite a hot one at the moment: books written on 'them' in the past, which until recently were out of print, have suddenly resurfaced and are now being prepared for publications as e-books. The topic of Greek identity is also a very complex one, which can be seen from the many different topics that various authors select to write about it. Even books written in Greek about 'them' are now being translated into English and German (some as old as 40 years), which shows a clear interest in things Greek by the non-Greek world. I recently dug up one of those out-of-print books from my own library. The Greeks: The Land and People Since the War by James Pettifer was published in 1993 by Penguin. It has been sitting on my bookshelves since it first came out, one of the few books I bought in Greece, before I realised that I was paying far too much for a book of the kind that I'd borrow instead from a library in New Zealand. Having fanatically embraced the rise of e-books, I searched the title and found, not at all to my surprise, that this book is being made ready for e-publishing next month. As the book was published nearly 20 years ago, and great changes have taken place in Greece since then, how true the new revised version will remain to the original will be interesting to see.

The title of Pettifer's book hints at a separation of the country from the inhabitants, which is a very wise idea; it reminds me of something I have often heard said by many of my compatriots: "I have no problem with Greece, it's the Greeks that annoy me."Although a university professor, Pettifer does not use footnotes or other common forms of academic annotation to provide evidence for anything he writes in his 239-page book; he seems to be writing in a descriptive manner, almost like a travelogue form the golden age of the Grand Tour days, using his experiences and opinions to base his writings. An outsider, Pettifer manages to hold his own in this respect, showing a deep personal interest in his subject, backed by verifiable historical references. Despite the lack of a bibliography, which I personally found disconcerting given the writer's academic background, this glaring omission is made up for by the inclusion of maps, quotes from other sources, photographs and a very thorough index, covering topics such as 'Elgin', 'Macedonia', 'bank accounts for the rich', 'yoghurt', corruption', among others, which all remain quite topical in the present time.

ακούει κανείς;
FYR Macedonia has been wrongly labelled in this translated children's book.

When I arrived in Greece, I knew very little about the country of Greece, despite being of Greek origin, a Greek speaker, a regular follower of the Greek church and eating mainly Greek food. Pettifer's book helped me to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge. He writes about timeless issues of Greek identity and heritage which still hold true, although a shift may have taken place over time; but the actual topics he discusses are still important ones today, despite the change they have undergone. What is even more revealing are the predictions he makes at the end of each chapter, giving an idea of which direction these topics were heading towards in the mid-90s, which shows that the Greek identity is/was in a constant state of transition. Pettifer was writing what he saw and understood at the time: "Any volume of this kind is bound to be out of date as soon as it is written" he states in the introduction. But his predictions have a ring of truth about them two decades on, despite the economic crisis causing fundamental changes which have shaken the whole system and overturned many previous tenets. Throughout the book, Pettifer makes references to an economic crisis in the country; hence, the present economic crisis should come as absolutely no surprise.

The book is divided into three parts: From Civil War to Democracy, Contemporary Perceptions, and Neighbours and Minorities, each one containing some of the 19 chapters of the book, not including the introduction. One of those chapters is devoted to Food, Drink and Material Life, where he mentions that:
"The gap between the world of the Mountain and the City can be seen clearly here."
 An apartment dweller will not have easy access to fresh food; the supermarket culture makes everything seasonal now. 
The urban/rural divide is very noticeable in many aspects of daily life, and food is no exception. Although nearly everything is widely available at the supermarkets in almost all parts of Greece, the rural dweller is far more likely to stick predominantly to a more traditional diet, even nowadays:
"... the Greek peasant's diet has changed little from antiquity, with its staples of beans, lentils and maize bread, cheese as the main protein source, plenty of fruit and vegetables in season, fish for coast and island-dwellers, and meat for special occasions, usually festivals in the Orthodox Church calendar."
Note his use of the word 'peasant': I do not understand it condescendingly; rather, he is simply trying to describe the rural Greek of the time. (It is perhaps true that there are fewer peasants now in Greece than there were in the early '90s - there are now more 'provincials'.) Although he diesn't specifically mention this, I find that his references to 'the Greeks' describe those of us with regional loyalties, where the present urban lifestyle has not globalised our thinking very much:
"Economics matter a good deal. Greeks love to eat out and do so more often than most Europeans... But to afford to do so, a certain amount of simplicity is important, for the labour involved in some French cuisine would make prices prohibitive... Although Greeks know about haute cuisine, there is an inborn tendency to prepare their food in a few straightforward, well-known ways. Greeks understand that there are no short cuts with food, especially as far as freshness is concerned. This means that there is an enormous emphasis on food being eaten in season. This can involve a degree of monotony as those who have tired of Greek salad in the summer months well appreciate. But it does mean that the cuisine of the winter is quite different from that of summer."
a simple greek meal of tomato salad, tzatziki and bread - all you need to complement the scene is a green mountain or mediterranean blue seashore
 Eating a simple meal like this one at a taverna was very affordable only a year ago. In September 2011, extra tax was levied on all prepared food sold at cafes and tavernas, bringing about a serious crisis in the dining-out industry and culture.

Nowadays, of course, this has changed with the convenience food culture that Greece has embraced, but the economic crisis again makes Greeks turn back to old habits, for economic reasons. I would argue that rural Greeks ate and still eat in the way that Pettifer described in 1993. Between then and now, they were living in a fantasy world - the economic crisis has directed them back to their original sense. 

Towards the end of the chapter, he makes two predictions:
"What will not change is the Greek sense of food and drink as part of their sacred process of hospitality, ultimately a religious obligation, and the charm and dignity of that ritual."
Despite the crisis, the television news reports that come out before a feast day always mention what is happening at the food markets; this is just as much true now as it was two decades ago. Greek food has always had a special place in Greek society, and this will probably continue. But it is doubtful, in the present harsh economic times, if:
"... [in] every Greek home today... on Easter Sunday, when the Orthodox believers break the Lenten fast, it is with mayeiritsa, made with the intestines of the milk-fed lamb that the family will roast the following morning."
A few corners were cut last Easter. That doesn't mean that those Greeks who were used to eating mayeiritsa at midnight on Easter Sunday will now refrain from this custom (it's not actually a Cretan one): they're simply biding their time until things get better and they can afford their mayeiritsa once again.

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