Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Ελλαδισ-τοωn: Sρεακιng Grεεκ αbroαd ιn ρυblιc

One of my most awkward Greek-identity moments occurred in London, this past Christmas, while on a train with my family. We'd just arrived at Gatwick airport and were on our way into central London. We entered the train not-so-quietly, but as least 'Greekly' as possible: when we spoke Greek to each other, we spoke in low voices, so as not to make spectacles of ourselves, and we tried not to speak too much Greek. As the Greek saying goes: δεν είσαι στο χωριό σου.

At the same time, sitting next to us on the other side of the aisle were a bunch of young Greeks who babbled away in their mother tongue, without any inhibitions whatsoever. Most likely they were arriving back to their workplace after visiting family in the homeland for Christmas holidays, and since they all got off together at Purley Station, they probably all lived close by to each other, but not necessarily flatting together. What surprised me most was not so much that they were speaking within earshot of people around them who did not know them or understand their language, but that they were speaking loudly enough (and passionately, gesticulating where necessary) for us to hear them, even though they knew we were Greek, keeping very little of their conversation private. Even my family thought they were 'overdoing' it a bit. For all intents and purposes, they may as well have been in their own village.

Twelve years ago when we started travelling regularly to London, whenever we heard people speaking Greek in public places, we would often say hello to them, as an acknowledgement of our common identity ('hey there! you are not alone!'). We would often come across Greeks in London. I don't mean bumping into Greeks in specifically Greek London enclaves (a Greek restaurant or other kind of Greek business, a Greek Orthodox church). I mean in the tourist areas, clothes shops, markets, etc. They were doing pretty much what we were doing (they were also tourists). In the early days we would also make the fatal mistake to ask them which part of Greece they came from: many of the Greek speakers we bumped into were in fact Cypriot Greeks. But this did us a lot of good: as 'Greek' Greeks, we learnt early on in life that we were not 'unique' due to the language we speak.

But those times seem to be long gone. Hearing Greek being spoken in public in London has become quite common in recent times. And for the last 4-5 years, I notice an 'indifference' among Greek speakers who chance upon each other in and around London to connect with each other, in that spontaneous way we used to do when 'the gypsy found his people and his heart raced excitedly' (as the Greek saying goes: 'βρήκε ο γύφτος τη γενιά του κι αναγάλλιασε η καρδιά του'). More often than not, someone speaking in public in Greek will ignore another Greek speaking in public (unless the two sides are known to each other).

Most people may be wondering what concerns me here: strangers don't just strike up a conversation just because they speak a common language. They don't now, at any rate. But they used to; as Greeks, we all remember a time when they did. The lady walking up and down Ladywell Station talking in Greek on her cellphone didn't bat an eyelid as she passed us. Neither did the man standing right in front of us in the queue at the Natural History Museum, as he read aloud from his Greek museum guide. Nor did the Greek mom calling out to the Greek dad to help her put the toddler in the baby stroller. And nor am I alone in noticing how unlikely it is that London Greeks will acknowledge the other Greeks around them, as I recently discovered in a Greeks-abroad forum, where a member writes:
"... when I come across a group of people on the road speaking Greek among themselves, if I too am speaking Greek as I approach them, maybe talking in Greek on the phone or with friends, they go silent."
What has caused us to become so dismissive of each other?

I myself would have put it down quite simply to numbers: in the UK - and London in particular - where once we were few, we are now many. So one can reasonably assume that in a smaller place, where there are fewer Greeks, on hearing a stranger speaking Greek, their compatriot would quite possibly want to connect with them, even if they don't know them: it's nice to acknowledge a compatriot; it may help to combat loneliness; it makes you feel you aren't alone in an ever-increasingly lonely world; it's a human instinct to want to be close to your own people; and it may even be a way of making new friends in a new town. And even though it doesn't mean we will end up becoming friends, we just might end up doing this in fact.

All the above assumes that Greeks seek Greek companionship and they want to be with other Greeks in a foreign country. Given that the online forum where this discussion appeared is a very popular one for Greeks in the UK - bringing them together in a similar way to a kafeneio without the kafè - it certainly makes sense to say that Greeks like being around other Greeks. But that would assume that they will also want to speak with other Greeks when they hear Greek being spoken on the street, in a shop, in a queue. So why, then, are they ignoring each other?

Maybe it's because they don't feel so alone after all. Greeks are very cliquey, and they are bound to have already made some friends in their new homeland - and those friends are bound to be Greeks. Yes, Greeks do prefer each other's company for socialising (according to online surveys, discussion sites and by their own admittance). Moreover, a clique is private, and its members are usually part of an 'in' group, all known to each other, with common interests and purposes. Do you really want to invite a stranger to join you? Probably not - we choose who we speak to.

There's also that element of privacy associated with speaking a 'foriegn' language in multi-culti places with English as the official language. In a big city like London, where the official language is English and English is also the lingua franca, you generally tend to assume that people don't understand what you are saying when speaking in your own native language. And what you are saying in such moments is often private. So when you realise that someone is understanding what you are saying, an automatic reflex is to shut yourself up or to shut others out. At the same time, you don't feel it's your business to intrude in other people's conversations, even if you do speak their language. People don't feel there is any need to butt in and we should mind our own business: haven't we got better things to do? Time is precious (I've got a train to catch!) and we can't be wasting it on striking up conversations with strangers about nothing of interest, and listening to other people's nonsense. So you just pretend you're Chinese, and you don't understand them, even though you do actually, and the things they are saying make you want to laugh out loud, as loudly as you have never laughed in London before - but you stoically show no recognition, maintaining the emotionless stiff upper lip, as you continue to eavesdrop: so this is what it feels like to be English.

Maybe there is also a bit of logic to the dilemma of why we ignore each other. We are strangers to each other; speaking to strangers is 'weird'; we don't speak to everyone on the street in Athens, so we don't have to do it here; and anyway, would the English do it? (And whether the English live in London in the first place is a matter for a different discussion.) It feels silly, a little awkward, feeling that need to have to talk to someone just because you heard them speaking the language of your private thoughts. And anyway, it's the UK, remember? You're not in Greece! You're here for work, not to make friends with other Greeks, as if you're still hanging onto some kind of lost Atlantis. There are other ways to strike up a conversation with a Greek, aren't there? (You can find them on facebook.) This isn't KTEL after all, where for some unknown reason, you feel you should talk to the person sitting next to you on the bus, eventually concluding that you may even be related to them. Get real: it's 2018!

But there's also that niggling feeling that you're underestimating your race. It's one thing to strike up a conversation out of the blue, and quite another to give some help. If someone looks like they need some help, wouldn't it be only right to try to help them? Surely we would help someone in our own country, and this act wouldn't be linguistically based. Surely some people wish others would do this more often, for their own sanity. It's really quite nice every now and then to talk about insignificant things. There's nothing wrong with chit-chat. Shop workers just love it. Plus, it makes you smile more when speaking your mother tongue.

Maybe we just want to avoid being spoken to, because we want to protect ourselves from the ills of our own race. We can be snobs, we are jealous, two-timing gossipers, with a superiority complex, and we see each other competitively, dominated by 'simferon': whoever wants help will just take it and then disappear afterwards without acknowledging anyone. We know our own race! And our race is rude! It doesn’t take much effort to be polite, but we are more likely to speak to the English (speakers) than we are to speak to our own kind. We've lost our sense of community (unlike the early immigrant Greek communities in Australia and America, for example). But we have never actually been collectivists - Greeks are individualists by nature.

We may also suffer from some form of subconscious 'grecophobia': we don't always like ourselves. We find the 'foreign' more attractive. We are more likely to share personal details with strangers than Greeks. We don't always trust our own kind, and we fear opening a discussion out of the blue, in case we end up feeling we have to become friends with them. What if this stranger turns out to be an Ελληναράς? The Greek riff-raff has now entered London, whereas pre-crisis, it was only the 'good' ones! Maybe they aren't even Greek! Albanians speak Greek too - because many were born and raised here! And if they want to be Greeks - like the Bulgarians, perhaps?! - well, you're just egging them on! (But if the Albanians stop speaking Greek when they realise you're listening, you think they fear being discovered due to their accent.) Τι σκατοφάρα που γίναμε! There are times when we are just so ashamed being Greeks. Virgil knew something when he wrote: Aeneas Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.

"It is an extreme act of luck to be born Greek, and also to die as a Greek. 
The in-between stage, however, is a great misfortune." Arkas

Μας έφαγε η φιγούρα! We are no longer those Greeks that we once were! We have lost our filotimo! What has happened to us? Maybe, just maybe, we have become eugenised. As my US friend mentioned to me recently:
"There's a big gap between the old immigrants and the new immigrants. The old ones don’t want to feel obligated to take on the burden of the new immigrants. But the anonymity of life is such a huge factor in big cities. One feels closer to a clerk in the grocery store than to neighbors!"
UPDATE: Check out the comments for more good discussion.

(Thanks to the facebook group Greek Professionals in London, which inspired this post.) 

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