Thursday, 27 September 2012

Regionalist (Τοπικιστής)

Cretans possess a strong regional identity, as do many other regional Greeks, which distinguishes them from urban Athenians. This distinction is not limited to Cretans - most people around the world are influenced by the place where they live in such a way that the place can be 'seen' by others, in the way they talk or act in certain circumstances. Speech patterns are usually the most easily distinguishable feature of regionalism in a person's identity: Cretans may speak using their regional accent, with dialectal variants sprinkled into their Greek.

The olive tree symbolises much more than olive oil to the average Cretan.

But the greatest hint of regionalism is usually noticed when they talk about their homeland. We may be all Greek, but parts of Greece are very contrastive, so that one area does not resemble the other, not just in landscape, flora and fauna, but also in terms of culinary culture, and even with very different weather patterns. Greek diversity is exhibited in different ways, but there are also very firm aspects within that diversity that unite Greeks around the country.

When a Cretan finds themselves among a group of Athenians, their regionalism is particularly accentuated. In their turn, Athenians also have their own ideas about other parts of Greece; where it concerns Crete, they often think of it as a nice place for a holiday, with good food and a strong identity culture.

I thought this would have been the case for themselves too, as Athenians, that they could name what makes them proud to live there, with a good idea of the places to eat out or chill out. Among the 25 or so people attending a seminar where I was also present (held in the heart of Athens at Syntagma Square), I was surprised at the number of times I realised that the Athenians among us did not exhibit any particular loyalty to the place they call home.

the acropolis athens
The Acropolis - a firm landmark of Athens, and perhaps of Europe, as she seeks the identity of her own origins. 
During the seminar break, when a number of the participants introduced each other, I was surprised to see a dour face as the woman immediately after me said that she was 'from Athens, sadly' (after I had been warmly welcomed when I said I was from Hania). I was taken aback by her stance - I didn't expect such an emotional statement from a such a neutral question! The discussion of regionalism was heightened when one of the Athenian participants mentioned how difficult it was to to decide on what to show some of their Turkish visitors who were here attending an educational program. Athens may be a big city, much bigger than my own hometown of Hania, but I already have a good idea of what I would want to see and do there myself!

The participant mentioned the problem of deciding on a place to take their guests for dinner, the main problem being that they wanted to ensure that they were catering for different tastes in style and atmosphere: was a modern place too acultural, was an island theme too kitsch (!), was a rustic theme too common (!!) ? Eventually, he told us that they settled on a place in the Psyrri area of central Athens which is well known for its nightlife, giving their visitors a chance to combine food and entertainment. Another participant mentioned what a good choice Psyrri was as "the only thing we've got here in Athens is nightlife" (at this point, I felt dumbstruck).

Hania's landmark - the lighthouse at the Venetian harbour.
My contribution to this discussion was how easy it would have been for Cretans all over the island to decide where we would take our guests. In Hania, the Venetian port is an obvious first choice, the local culinary specialties are also well known to the locals and even to our guests, possibly through the global promotion of the origins of the Mediterranean diet, and the whole evening would be capped off with a display of traditional dancing. My idea was seconded by another participant from mainland Fokida, the prefecture of Greece that includes the ancient site of Delphi. This is all facilitated by the smaller size of each region compared to Athens: Crete's insular status marks her boundaries very clearly, while Fokida has a very clear focal point in Delphi. On the other hand, when we are touring capital cities, we don't usually stray beyond the boundaries of the city's historic centre, and there are of course central landmarks that are promoted in guidebooks and the cybersphere.

The discussion continued to flow along the lines of regionalism and regional loyalty, and I suppose it had a positive outcome in the sense that we were all aware of our origins, but you can imagine my horror when the same presenter made the flippant comment: "Well, what do we have in Athens to show off that we can all agree on?" I'm sure a good number of people living outside Greece would have been able to list a number of places that carry the notion of Athens very strongly, not least of all the ACROPOLIS!

From the Acropolis hill looking down onto the sprawling city of Athens, it might be easy to think: "Athens: big deal"...
The organiser of the seminar also made a slightly revealing statement about Cretans' loyalty to their homeland when she mentioned that Cretans seem to carry a very strong notion of τοπικισμό, they appear to be self-sufficient in many ways, and - make sure you are sitting down for this one - they can even make a claim for an independent state! The latter discussion stems from the notion that some people may have proposed in past times that Crete's status as part of the Greek state is due for review in 2013.

The whole discussion confirmed my belief that many of my Athenian compatriots suffer from an identity crisis and a lack of confidence about who they are and what they stand for. The economic crisis has made many of them lament at the closed/closing shops they are surrounded by, as if this is where Athens derives her personality. Perhaps my more regionalist thinking makes me less susceptible to the effects of the crisis. I've often stated throughout my blog that if you know your past, you can use it in the present time to help you move forward to the future. 

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