Sunday, 20 October 2013

Past experiences (Εμπειρίες από το παρελθόν)

In some people's minds, yesterday's post showed me up to be racist and prejudiced against Roma, which is, of course, not what I was trying to say in the first place, but that is what some may conclude after reading a one-A4-page summary of an episode in a stranger's life, which in actual fact lasted more than three years. The pictures of the girl were used to illustrate the post as a way to tie it in with international current affiars, as the Roma girl's plight has become a major European story at the moment. I would never have bothered to bring up the Roma episode in my own life through this blog had the girl's story not come up in the press in this way. But I'm glad it did, because these are the stories I want to make sure go down in my history. The stories I tell in this blog are not meant as sensational block-buster material for strangers' reading - they are real stories that my children may never learn about because when the time comes to learn about them, their parents might be dead, and they may never get the chance to hear these stories which will shed light on their own upbringing.

Through this blog, I have met a number of people who now regret that the only thing they knew about their ancestors was their name - and even that name had been changed when they migrated, so their offspring and grandchildren could not find any more information about them: all the information stopped at the Ellis Island records in New York, because it didn't match up with any records of the same people before they got to Ellis Island. We still see the same situation repeated by today's economic migrants, some of whom are dying in the earth's oceans, their undocumented status wiping out their traces. Even the magic tool of the millenium, the internet, still does not hold the stories that the moving people of the world grew up with, stories that may haunt or excite us, which would be interesting for later generations to know about if only they had the chance to discover them. 

I view this as especially important given that I live in a country where I was not born, and came at a late stage in my life, so that I do not have any connections with the local people (bar through blood ties, which is a different thing from friendships) through my young years, the time when people start forming freindships: primary school, high school, university. I did that elsewhere, and my connections with my previous homeland were severed after my mother's early death and my late father's departure from that country. Hence, my past is less tangible to my offspring than, say their father's past, which is all based in his present - and no doubt - future homeland.. 

Imagine moving around in an environment where no one knows you on the street: they can only judge you by what they see of you, not what they know about you, because few people actually know me in this town, and I like to keep things that way because it gives me the privilege to be able to hide away in my own little world and be a fly on the wall whenever I want. We learn so much more about ourselves from those flies on the wall, people who are not members of our own society and tell us things about ourselves that we never knew. We can choose to identify with what others say about us, or we can challenge their speculations. It is generally our choice what we do with this extra knowledge. But if we choose to take the easy option - to dismiss their descriptions of ourselves or our society - we will probably be missing out on a chance to understand ourselves better: 
"It is impossible to absorb a new or foreign reality unless you first comprehend well whatever is around you." (from an interview with the late Yannis Tsarouhis, whose life and works are being exhibited at the Benaki Museum in Athens)
The liberal world, as it has been shaped in modern times, has made us all feel aware of alternative lifestyles and opinions that we may not share. The ideal world is one where everyone is equal, but in the real world, this could never happen. There will always be rich and poor, educated and unedcated, black and white people. These divisions cause prejudices which the liberal world wants to try to wipe out - but they can never wipe out the divisions, which then raises the issue of being trapped in a vicious circle: on the one hand, everyone is equal, while at the same time equality doesn't exist. Rather than fight these forces, I prefer to live with the divisions. It's much easier for me to live with them, because I don't live in a country where people believe anyone can be Prime Minister (not in Greece at the moment, that's for sure).
But even though not everyone can be Prime Minister, I am pretty sure everyone can be who they want to be in this country, if only they knew who they want to be in the first place. We all tend to live with prejudices that we believe are formed by our experiences. I like to remind myself of this when I think of my cab driver husband. Not being a driver until my older age, I had been in a lot of cabs (but never his) before I met him. Most of my cab experiences were generally not good ones because I was always on my guard against being ripped off, as most people believe that Greek taxi drivers are rip-off artists. I also associated taxi drivers with smoking, because most cab drivers (used to) smoke in their car and do not ask the customer if this bothers them. And I rarely took a cab on my own at night, because my tidy dress style and accent always gave off an image to others that I was a well-to-do foreigner, which was bound to bring up a conversation about why I was in Greece, what I was doing here and if I am in a relationship. If a taxi driver is taking you home, that's the last thing you want to discuss, in case he decides to pass by your home regularly. 

Despite my prejudices against cabbies, I still married one, and am still happily married to one. My husband does not rip off customers, he does not smoke and he shares all his interesting daily stories in the cab with his whole family, be they stories of young girls who ask him if he has a condom to spare, priests who hold on to his knee for extra support, or stories that make him think about how he is raising his own family. 

Unfortunately though, we know plenty of cab drivers among us who rip customers off (our former co-driver was caught in the act, and received a hefty fine), do not take customers' preferences into account (while we travel abroad, the taxi reeks of smoke when we hire other drivers who do not take into account the fact that their filthy habits spoil it for many other people), and use the cab as a way to meet up with people they are having illicit affairs with, and I don't just mean romantic connections: we recently heard of a case where a cab driver - not a cab owner - was ferrying Pakistanis who were selling cigarettes ontained through illegal channels (the cab, which is now tied up at a police station, had been under surveillance for six months before the police pounced). 

"Egypt was charming... [Fielding] reembarked at Alexandria - bright blue sky, constant wind, clean low coastline, as against the intricacies of Bombay. Crete welcomed him next with the long snowy ridge of its mountains, and then came Venice... The buildings of Venice, like the mountains of Crete and the fileds of Egypt, stood in the right place... (A Passage to India, EM Forster, 1924)

I only very recently read A Passage to India, which describes the inherent racism of the English towards the Indians when they were governing them, how they swayed events to turn out the way they wanted without any justification, and how they ostracised their own kind when English people sided with Indians.  This story should remind us all that even though in theory we all want to be friends in our liberal world, we cannot always be, at least, not yet, to repeat the famous last lines of the book: 
'Why can't we be friends now?' said [Fielding, the Englishman]... 'It's what I want, it's what you want.' But the horses didn't want it - they swerved apart; the [Indian] earth didn't want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single-file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn't want it, they said in their hundred voices, 'No, not yet,' and the sky said, 'No, not there'. A Passage to India, EM Forster, 1924
It takes us a long time to get over unexplained prejudices, but even when we think we have got over them, one tiny episode in a sea of incidents can easily break the balance that we strove for. For this reason, I never bother these days to make myself think that 'WE' are not all like 'THEM'. Instead, I tell myself that most people are not like me. I find that thought much easier to live with, as well as much easier to explain to my kids, who will eventually realise one day that they were not being raised in an average Greek household, in a similar way to Dr Aziz in A Passage to India, who did not view himself as an average Indian, but he eventually admitted to himself that he had to show some loyalty for his motherland.

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