Friday, 19 April 2013

From Athens to Papakura by Nikos Petousis

There was a documentary recently broadcast on Greek TV, which presented a snapshot of the Greeks currently residing in NZ. I hesitate to say that it presented the Greek communities of NZ, because it was a rather disjointed programme. All in all, very interesting, as I saw some familiar faces, and heard some stories from the newcomers of Greek immigrants to NZ. It's not easy to go to NZ as a Greek, as some desperate people believe - you need to know the criteria very well for entry.

Because the programme did not present the Greek community as I knew it, I did not feel much nostalgia as I watched it (so far, it has been broadcast in two parts: you can see them here (for Part 1) and here (for Part 2) even though I had been born, raised and educated among this community. Only towards the end of the second part of the documentary was I moved in any way by the feelings expressed in the show, when Mr Nikos Petousis was interviewed.

Born in 1936 (only 1-3 years younger than my parents), he came to NZ in 1956. Greek immigrants at this time were often poorly educated, unskilled and often from rural backgrounds, making Mr Petousis an oddity for his time (the 1950s), as he explained in the documentary:
"I had just obtained my engineer's licence... I was ready to embrace the earth, the world, a 19-year old youth, with a diploma which I regarded as having a very important value, and my good luck finally brought me here, finally I had left Greece. And that is the thing: with a passion and the utter need to leave Athens, where would you go? No one really knew, a young person doesn't know where he's going to go, all the world feels like it belongs to him..."
Mr Petousis had expressed a higher need in Maslow's hierarchy of needs that he was looking to fulfil in his desire to leave Greece. This is not the same need that my parents had felt when they decided to migrate. My parents came to NZ to work in the jobs that New Zealanders didn't want to do (cleaning, factory work, cooking), whereas Mr Petousis was a trained professional looking to work in his field. It is this factor that differentiates Mr Petousis from most other migrants: he sought a new place to build a new life as a professional away from the grinding poverty of an urban warzone, whereas my parents left a rural environment as unskilled labourers to seek paid urban employment opportunities.

A quick internet search revealed that Mr Petousis had recently published his memoirs. I decided to read his story (it is available as an e-book - it's cheaper on than on You never know what you will read in a memoir: perhaps a glorified account of a simple life, a pompous narration of ordinary events told by someone with an inflated ego. My verdict is that Mr Petousis' story is so unique and his descriptions of grinding poverty and hunger so gut-wrenching and nothing like the way poverty and hunger is perceived in crisis-ridden Greece today, that everyone should read it this book to put a few things into perspective. Above all, it is the story of a man with a very strong Greek identity, who did not want to live in Greece, and he had decided this from a very early stage in his life. A Greek man who did not fit into Greek society, a Greek soul and spirit who knew he had no place in the land of his ancestors; I recall the words of Harriet Ann Jacobs: "It is a sad feeling to be afraid of one's native country."

Mr Petousis' harrowing experiences as a young child caught up in the Nazi crossfire of Athens (and the subsequent Greek civil war with its devastating consequences in Athens and Northern/Mainland Greece) do not make light reading. But he has a way of downplaying the severity of the conditions under which he grew up: he tells his story as one of survival, as someone who was determined to come through this destruction alive. No matter how much I would like to think of my parents' life as difficult when they were young children in Crete during WW2, I cannot equate the fear of losing one's life with a subsistence lifestyle. My father never had to sell cigarettes at brothels, while my mother never ate filthy orange peels lying in the gutter to stave off hunger. While Mr Petousis was sailing to NZ, he abhorred queuing for his self-service economy class meals: it reminded him too much of the last time he queued for food - in some cases, the food would run out and he wouldn't get any.

Despite his origins, Mr Petousis had a taste for finer things in life. He knew they existed because he had viewed them from up close in Athens - but he never experienced them. Take ice-cream for example. As an engineering graduate, he came across some American soldiers guarding a building. Although he didn't know English, with the help of some imaginative gestures, he understood that they wanted him to go buy them a couple of ice-creams. They gave him the money, and he brought them the cones, as well as the change. They began to lick their ice-creams as he watched them, but they never gave him any, nor did they give him a tip. At that moment, Mr Petousis battled with his conscience - wouldn't it have been just as righteous to take the money and never return to those soldiers? This dilemma plagued him for many years after the incident occurred.

On arriving to the town where he would be hosted by a New Zealand WW2 veteran, he came off the train, where he saw a sign on what looked like a chicken coop, stating that he had arrived in a place called Papakura. His image of Papakura was not the one he was now looking at. He thought he was coming to the land of his dreams, but on seeing where he arrived, he realised that he was not the country of his dreams: eventually, he came to understand that he had arrived in a country where he could build the life of his dreams, if only he wanted to.

Mr Petousis was an avid fan of classical music, and he came to love theatre and opera, hardly a pasttime of the average Greek migrant of the time. He knew the history of his country very well, and made a concerted effort to connect his modern life with the ancient world of his ancestors, despite the glaring differences between the two societies. He kept clear of any religious groups, as he had seen the destructive power that the church had over his own family. Despite acting as honorary consul for Greece in the Auckland region, he purposely kept himself away from any kind of Greek migrant community as he felt that he had nothing in common with them. They had come to NZ to continue living like Greeks, never fully grasping the opportunities that lay before them in a country that could let them be who they wanted to be.

As he later states in the documentary, gone are the days when an unskilled migrant can pack up and leave with just the clothes on his back, to work in manual labour in another country; the world economy has little need for them in our days All Greeks migrating now are highly educated, with skills and qualifications obtained not just in Greek universities but also in foreign countries. He has this to say about them:
"Inside me, I grieve for these people, they were the ones living a wonderful life in Greece, and now they have felt the need to leave, to go - go where? To New Zealand! If you go a little further than that, you fall into the ocean, the Antartctic, it's so far away, we are at the end of the world."
In a sense, this illustrates the desperation felt among Greeks as they leave their country. The difficulties are not immediately apparent to them; this knowledge sinks in much later. It is not easy to return home, even for a short period, a brief holiday, even in modern times. In a sense, the journey is a one-way trip.

I never met Mr Petousis during my years in NZ, so I am honoured to have met him so many years later, electronically through his book. Unlike him, however, I have chosen to live in Greece, but I am lucky in one major respect. I have come to a country that has been completely reshaped since the crisis. Forget the post-war period, forget EU entry - the crisis is the defining moment that Greece had to change.

We generally cannot go back to the past: only last night, the Greek PM Andonis Samaras said that "Yesterday doesn't fit in our tomorrow". Greek people need to be constantly reminded of the truth in this statement. I feel that these days, with the internet and so much more global connection, we can be who we want to be. Even in crisis-ridden Greece, we really can do this. Imagine a Greek telling the world publicly over the WWW not to buy Greek strawberries like I did in yesterday's post. I fear to think what would have happened in the cushy state-imposed past when a person spoke her mind.

We don't have to accept anything; we can express our anger in a way that we never could, and more importantly, we have support for this, whereas we never did before. I truly believe that the future holds good promise for Greece, because Greece has no other choice but to move forward. It is hard for most people to see this now. But Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither will Athens be.

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