Thursday, 1 November 2012

End of an era (Τέλος εποχής)

While studying in New Zealand, I had to face the fact that there really wasn't much I would be able to do there with a Master's in sociolinguitics. I could teach English or one of the foreign languages I had learnt, I could do translation work, and I could get involved in more research. New Zealand was restructuring her economy at the time, so most of the above choices were not really feasible, as I had seen from my contemporaries, who were also facing similar problems in finding such jobs. The language-teacher market was saturated, even though a lot of Asians were coming to settle permanently in the country, while translation work in the classcial foreign languages of the time (French, German, Italian and Spanish) was minimal in a country like NZ. At the age of 24, I was not interested in continuing my studies, especially when I knew deep down inside me that my highly specialised research work did not have much passing in a generally monolingual country like NZ. I had to admit to myself that being a sociolinguist in NZ was not really an economically viable option.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in NZ was also downsizing its activities around the globe for this particular reason (certain operations were not economically viable), which meant the closure of the NZ embassy in Greece in 1991. At first, this seemed a great insult to Greeks, because Greece was still maintaining a Greek consulate in NZ (in Wellington), which had been opened relatively recently; before Greece joined the EU, Greece was represented in NZ by an honorary member of the Greek community of NZ, in Wellington, where most people of Greek origin lived. Steps were taken to raise the NZ Greek consulate to embassy level, which had no effect on the NZ government, who had made up their mind: there was no need for a NZ embassy/consulate in Greece. Passports could be issued in Rome or London, a bilateral agreement between NZ and Greece existed for the purposes of repatriating Greeks so that they could receive their NZ pension in Greece, and exchange visits by dignitaries could still be made when necessary, eg during the commemoration of the Battle of Crete. Investment opportunities were not viewed as of interest to either side. It was not a diplomatic issue to close down the embassy: it was purely economic.

While NZ was in recession in 1991, Greece was enjoying economic wealth. With foresight, NZ stalled the recession by changing tact, despite the political cost it may have had to incur (and in the case of the NZ embassy's closure in Greece, nothing was really lost). It was a bit too early for Greek authorities to do the same, since the Greek consulate in NZ had only just opened a few years before that. Instead of keeping the status quo (which had lower running costs), plans were made to turn the consulate into an embassy (which happened in 1999). The decision to close the Greek embassy in NZ came 13 years later, in the middle of a recession that seems to have no end: operations in NZ will cease as of 31 March 2013.

This decision will also entail the closure of other state-paid activities outside Greece. The Greek school teacher comes to mind. For more than three decades (it all started with entry to the EU), the Greek state has been paying Greek school teachers to go abroad as representatives of the country, in order to teach and maintain within the Greek diaspora Greek language and culture. At this difficult economic time in Greece, paying such people to go to other countries to support 3rd-4th generation Greek immigrants should be viewed as a luxury, something that was stated in no uncertain terms by a representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Greece as recently as 17th October 2012. During a special parliamentary committe meeting set up to discuss issues raised by the World Council of Hellenes Abroad (which was televised on Greek state TV on 27th October), it was mentioned that Greek language and cultural education should be promoted abroad, but it should be the job of the permanent residents of the Greek communities abroad, not something that the Greek government should provide and pay for because Greek school teachers go abroad for 'other' reasons, which were not discussed in the meeting. The only comment the representative made about this issue was "ας μην κρυβόμαστε πίσω από την πλάτη μας" (let's not hide behind our backs). The perks of such jobs are too numerous to mention, not least of which is being able to travel around some of the most interesting places in the world, all on a state salary.

So, the end of an era has come. Of course it will be sad to see the Greek embassy leave New Zealand, with the ensuing problems of issuing Greek passports to the local Greek community members who have not (yet) become New Zealand citizens (and would therefore have dual citizenship in this way). But the end was nigh, and preparations had to be made for it; all good things come to an end - with new things born to replace them. This will be evident from the new Greek migrants aborad, most of whom are educated to the level required to realise what is feasible and what isn't, without the need to have it explained to them. We don't like to state the obvious - most of the time, it is too hurtful.

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