History of the Dialogues
Six of them were written in the 90’s for the Greek-American magazine “Odyssey”. (They were to be found on this site for years). Another six were written on demand in the summer of 2013. Together all twelve formed the main body of a book published in German by Kunstmann Verlag, Munich, in 2014. Title: “The Germans are to blame for everything” (Deutsche sind an allem Schuld). The title refers mainly to additional essays written directly in German. Here you will find all twelve Dialogues in the new order.
1. AFTER TWENTY YEARS
The last time we met, the world was different.
We were twenty years younger!
We were optimists. The Berlin Wall had crumbled and new horizons were opening. Or so we thought. Everything seemed to bloom.
It did, didn’t it? But there were shadows. We talked about them.
I remember our discussion about “Diaspora” and the fate of our peoples. I wrote it down and so I remember every word..
A fate which has not changed for the better.
My guest was a French philosopher of Jewish origin. We had met twenty years ago and dined on fish in Tourkolimano. I had noted down our conversation in the dialogue “Diaspora” (p. xx). We had kept communicating over all those years. This was his second visit to Greece.
Yes, I have been reading all the reports about Greece in our newspapers. I have also been following the foreign press – especially the German one. Remember: I have studied in Germany.
So have I – but in a different university.
Yes, a conservative Catholic-Bavarian. That is why you ended up by being a Skeptic…
But Munich is a beautiful city!
Not more so than Heidelberg. But back to our subject: reading the Press did not explain to me the origins of your crisis. The German papers say it was entirely your fault. And then I have been reading reports that the prevailing opinion in Greece maintains it’s the fault of the Germans!
That is correct. There is a large anti-German party which blames the Germans for our woes.
How could the Germans create a financial crisis in Greece?
There are two answers to this question. The populistic and the scientific one.
Start with the first: it will probably be more colorful!
This goes back to two long standing traditions. The first is the anti-western one. From the time of the Schism (the separation of the Churches: Catholic and Orthodox) one thousand years ago, the West has been regarded in Greece as a source of Evil. This is mainly due to the propaganda of the Greek Orthodox Church the strongest ideological entity in Greece, then and now. This view has been aggravated by the sack and destruction of Constantinople by the Westerners during the fourth Crusade (1204) and the part-time occupation of Greece by western warlords in the following years. Southern Greece is full with medieval castles!
And the other tradition?
It is the tendency, followed by many small countries, to attribute all their problems to the Big Powers. Conspiracy Theories are always popular for two reasons: they simplify things, finding one single cause for everything and because they shift responsibility away from us.
So you mean that Greeks have decided that the Evil West is the source of all their problems?
Some Greeks – not all of them.
And this Evil West is now represented, more: embodied, by Germany?
Up to 2005 the bad guys for Greece were the Americans. Anti-Americanism was the dominant ideology: all evil came from the USA. The Germans, according to the opinion polls, were very popular, actually first in the popularity scale. According to a recent opinion research project in 2013 only 33.2% of Greeks had a positive opinion of Germans. In 2005 the same percentage was 78.4 – the highest among all nations! In opposition, the Americans climbed from 31 to 56.3%. And in the question which nations should Greece turn to, only 11.6 mention Germany and 40.7% opt for the USA. A full reversal. Greeks are volatile people. In a few years, anti-Americanism has turned to Anti-Germanism. Of course in the same context, non-European powers like Russia (48.2%) and China (45.9) come first.
Even if Vladimir Putin not only has never helped – a few days after the poll he also counseled Russians not to invest in Greece!
Well, this is a basic Greek trait. Tradition surpasses reality. The myth of the blond orthodox savior from the North, is long lived.
So Greece receives most of its help from Europe (and a substantial part from Germany) but it dreams of non-European alliances.
Don’t forget: for a large part of the population these sums are not really help – but a means to subjugate Greece even more.
But why would Germany conspire against Greece?
Not just Germany. That is the secret plan of the “New Order Powers”. It concerns not only Greece, but the whole European South. It aspires to impoverish the South, to steal all wealth from it, to exploit its resources (there are stories of mythical oil and gas reserves south of Crete) and finally to create a cheap working force, so that the multinationals will have their own China.
What in Heaven’s name is this New Order?
I can only guess. What the Left was once naming “imperialism” is now changing its name and form. Through Globalization, the international “New Elite” is taking over the world.
OK – that is the belief of some Greeks.
No, not just some. About one third of them subscribe to this view, albeit with variations and adjustments.
Be it so. But you told me there was another answer for the negative influence and the responsibility of the west. You called it scientific.
Well – more or less, since economics is not an exact science. This view, held by many financial experts, maintains that the cure prescribed for the Greek Crisis by the IMF, the EU and the European Bank, was worse than the illness. Like antique doctors that let blood out of terminal patients to cure them, so the lenders have weakened Greece by applying extreme frugality and so murdered its economy. Five consecutive years of deflation!
And what do you think?
There must be some truth in this – but I am not an expert in economics.
So you revert to the conspiracy theory?
Of course I do not accept that explanation. But also I reject the one proposed by the popular German press that Greeks are lazy spendthrifts that have squandered all their money, (plus the generous E.U. subsidies), hate work,
produce nothing and so have brought their own misery.
Yes, that seems also too simplified.
I suggest we go on with our meal. The subject is too complex and complicated as to be resolved in one sitting. We will resume this conversation tomorrow evening, in the same place.
I wholeheartedly agree. The food is excellent and the view, magical.
2. AFTER 20 YEARS - A DEEPER APPROACH
The food was really good last night, but the discussion incomplete. Coitus interruptus. I am still wondering how the Greek Crisis originated.
Well, I am not so sure myself. I can offer an explanation, but you must not take it for final or complete. I think these issues are so complicated that every interpretation is bound to be an over-simplification.
Please try. I am intrigued.
OK. We must start at the beginnings of the Modern Greek Nation. Because of its glorious past and its heritage, the other peoples tend to forget that this is an entity apart from the common European Tradition. It practically does not belong to Europe. The everyday use of Greek language proves that Greeks, in their innermost, do not feel European. Speaking of me, they say: “He has studied in Europe”, because I studied in Munich. Would a Frenchman say something like that?
Of course not! But then where is Greece situated?
In a no man’s land, a place in between geography and cultures. It belongs to a Balkan world, formed by over a thousand three hundred years of Byzantine and Ottoman tradition, that is neither eastern nor western. Of course Greece had a special treatment by other nations because of its antique past. I have written an essay in German, titled “The Germans are to blame for everything”. It explains how the projection of the “Greek Ideal”, practiced by Winckelman and his friends, contributed to create a false image of the modern Greeks. Incidentally, it helped them to get liberated from their Ottoman rulers, in 1827, but made life very difficult for them afterwards.
You mean that the other nations had false notions…
Definitively. They expected the modern Greeks to be worthy descendants of the ancients – meaning cultivated aesthetes – while, when liberated, they were to 98% illiterate. But even worse, they expected them to be at the same time (or to become very fast) modern Europeans. All this was too much for a new nation struggling to find its identity. Every one of the institutions in modern Greece was imported from the West. Laws, regulations, democracy, parliament, kings and parties. No wonder Greeks have never acknowledged them as their own.
Importing democracy in the land that invented it!
Well, two thousand three hundred years had gone by. And do not forget that Pericles was not a democrat in our sense – and the Athenian Citizens were a minority in their land. Women, slaves and metics did not have voting or speaking rights.
So what ensued from this process was a mixed society…
With a high degree of confusion and insecurity. None of the formative movements of European history had happened in Greece. No Renaissance, no Reformation, no Enlightenment. By the time it was freed, in 1830, Greece was still in a medieval, feudal situation. It had missed centuries of European history. No bourgeois class was ever formed, no civil society emerged. We were catapulted from feudalism to modernity.
“A great leap forward” as comrade Mao would have remarked.
The result an anarchic, fragmented society consisting of families, clans, interest groups, worker’s unions, parties. There was no common goal, no “summum bonum”. Everyone pursued his own interests or in the best case the aims of his clan. A few politicians tried to organize and rationalize this incoherent hodgepodge, but failed miserably.
So when this society was practically “thrown” into the European Union…
And even more in the Eurozone… it reacted like a child let loose in a candy store. It profited from cheap credits granted for Euroloans, from allowances, subsidies and gratuities, and got itself in debt up to the neck. Of course, the main responsibility lies with our politicians who encouraged and cultivated these trends. Clientelism – the practice where citizens are the clients of politicians and exchange favors with them (a vote for an office) is still a prevailing attitude in Greece.
Yes. In order not to harm the bloated public sector, whose existence was due to their continuous hiring (the number of public servants doubled in the years 2004-2009) politicians tried to cut down the public deficit by imposing extremely heavy taxes that annihilated the private sector. In order not to confront the different unions, all affiliated to their parties (from truck drivers to lawyers) they avoided reforms and rationalization. And they still persist in their foul tactics.
After all that happened!
Well, traditions are hard to discontinue, mentalities change slowly. You need generations to modernize a society.
So you tend to agree with the Germans that it is the fault of the Greeks?
Sorry to criticize you openly, but I find this approach very naïve. I also find primitive and insulting the comments of the German popular press on the Greek crisis. As I am trying to tell you the causes are many: historical, sociological, cultural, and political. And they are not to be found only on the one side. The Germans (and I will change this term with “the creditors” because the other side consists of many nations and institutions) are also to blame. Because they had not recognized the problem early enough. It was visible already at least three years before the crisis erupted. Former P. M. Kostas Simitis had described the situation in Parliament.
You mean the Europeans knew of the incoming Tsunami as they watched the Greek Olympic Games of 2004?
Ha – the Olympic Games! They also contributed to the disaster!
Because of the expenses?
They climbed to unheard heights, because of mismanagement and corruption. But to answer your previous question: Yes, at the time of the Games, some of the European and IMF officials, should have known the Greek financial situation, had they studied the statistics. An immense gap between exports and imports was filled by loans. Greece was flourishing on lends. With no perspectives of paying them back, since productivity and competitiveness were crumbling. But the creditors went on lending us money on very attractive terms.
Bad business! I suppose, because Greece is a small economy (no more than 2% of the total) investigators did not especially focus on the case.
How correct! They also did not focus on the situation earlier, in the year 2000, when they accepted Greece in the Eurozone. Greece was not ready for a hard currency like the Euro. This, to my opinion, was the “coup de grâce” as you Frenchmen say.
But they did it, on the basis of false Greek statistics!
Well, nobody examined them in depth. The E. U. had the means for collating and comparing numbers. They now confess that they did not.
So the E. U. could have prevented the crisis?
Prevented is a strong word – but, if it had been alerted in time, it could have alleviated it. And, as I stated before, when it started helping, it did it the wrong way.
By imposing inappropriate measures?
Well first of all by listening to the advice of the Greek politicians, who desperately tried to save their fiefs and protect their clients. We have now an unemployment rate of about 30% (60% for the young) and these are all people who worked in the private sector. Up to now, not one public servant has been dismissed. But it is the private sector that creates income and wealth. Burdened by high taxes and lack of business, hundreds of thousands of companies shut down and the economy went in the biggest slump, which now endures for six years! This is what I meant, saying that the medicine was worse than the disease.
Can you see a way out?
Not in the foreseeable future. And as I am nearing eighty, I do not think that I will see the end of the crisis.
I drink to your longevity and to the shortening of the crisis. So that in our next meeting, in another twenty years, we will be contemplating its end.
But in twenty years I will be ninety eight – if of course I am alive!
Science does wonders. The story continues in twenty years (like the title of the sequel to “Les Trois Mousquetaires” by Alexandre Dumas).
Yes! “Vingt ans après”. I read this as a child. Well, let us hope.
Speaking the other night about the Olympic Games, you mentioned corruption. Isn’t it one of the basic reasons for the crisis?
Well, corruption is an endemic disease in all states, especially in developing and under developed ones.
I see in the statistics of “Transparency International” that your country has a rather prominent position.
How could I deny that? It is an old tradition…
Do you have anything to say about the problem?
We are talking about Greeks, but I would like to start our dialogue with a quotation by a Roman.
Yes. Although Ancient Rome is not very popular in Greece, this Roman, an historian called Tacitus, has written a sentence that expresses very well the Greek situation. He said: “In a state where corruption abounds, laws must be very numerous”.
In Greece there are more laws than people. Parliament is a law-producing machine. It churns out laws, edicts and directives at high speed. It creates an unbelievable legal maze and many people get lost. That gives a God-sent opportunity for public servants to procrastinate and dither. To find your way you need help. To exercise your rights you need more than help – you have to pay. Even for something that is due to you.
I have heard of “grigorosimo”.
Meaning: the “fast stamp”. The price you pay for your problem to be solved faster – or at all.
I know you paid to get electricity in your home.
Well finally I did not pay, because I had the “right connections” (another important term). But this is a good example. The Public Electric Company is there in order to produce and sell electric power. It is not doing you a favor; you are its paying customer. But in those times it was a monopoly (practically, it still is). So you had nowhere else to go. Now the man responsible for connecting my home, wanted a bribe. He did not ask for it. But he contended there was no available electricity for new homes, until some new production facilities would be inaugurated, and that could take years. My neighbors, who knew the secret, (they had already paid!) whispered: “this will cost you so much – and you will be connected immediately”. Happily I happened to know the CEO of the company. I got my current and the man got unfavorably transferred…
Why not arrested?
He had not committed any crime – had not being caught in the act.
But all the others had succumbed to the blackmail!
Yes, but in Greece it is not popular to report corruption – you may get in trouble later. Suppose you denounce the boss of you tax office. You will have the whole Greek tax system on your heels, for the rest of your life!
So every day, thousands of Greeks submit to the same routine. You have to pay extra to get medical attention, a driving permit or a simple testimonial. E. g.: that you exist!
I spoke before about the “right connections”. This is also a form of bribery. If you know the right people you can have your work done in no time. You can get a good job, an appointment, a contract. So it is normal for people before they start a move to ask: “whom do we know, in that office?”
And that is why half of the Greeks believe that the other half has a better life because of the “meson” – the plug, the means, the acquaintance.
Not only that. They don’t accept that someone else succeeded because of his abilities, or his hard work. He had the connections – that is all! Life is not just!
I have noticed something else. Every time the E.U. or the creditors ask for a change in the economy, immediately the Government prepares a new law which goes quickly through Parliament.
And is never implemented in practice!
Why do you say that?
Greece is a cemetery of laws never applied. It is the easy way not to change or reform anything. You pass a law, so that you can demonstrate your good will, and then forget about it.
And corruption still reigns supreme…
In older times is was a way or redistributing income among the people. Every public servant had his regular salary, plus the extras. But sometimes the extras amounted to many times the salary.
And what about the very big deals…
You mean armaments and the rest. Well these are subject to corruption in almost any country. But in Greece also smaller affairs are subject to “oiling”.
What is that?
Lubrication. You have to pour some oil on to the cogs, so the machine can run… A German manufacturer confessed to me that he had being trying for years to sell his products to a big State-owned company. It was impossible. His products were good, better than the ones selected, his prices were reasonable. Then somebody told him the names of two executives who required “oiling”.
And everything went well, I suppose.
It did. And the Germans, in general, learned their lesson. The biggest corruption scandals in the last years concerned German companies. Very famous was the Siemens scandal (discovered by American lawyers) whereas the company was giving contributions to Greek parties and politicians in order to secure deals. But the top one concerned the three famous submarines (by EADS, ThyssenKrupp and Rheinmetall), for the Greek navy. The Greek State paid over 2,5 billion euros, the submarines were never delivered – excepting a faulty one that is toppling over – but the “grease” was regularly paid over ten years. Even in 2010, the second year of the crisis! Again this was discovered by the German justice authorities. The Greek system was so corrupt that it suppressed all that could be hidden. Only one minister was brought to justice – and that because of the German investigations.
But I have the impression that this is changing now.
Yes. One of the positive aspects of the crisis is a stronger trend to self-monitoring. All those people who were cashing the pensions of their dead relatives, or getting allowances for fake ailments, or subsidies for non-existent organizations, are found out, persecuted and brought to court. Greek justice is still slow, but at last it is active!
Who do you think is morally more responsible for corruption? The one who pays the bribe or the receiver?
I would say the second – especially if he is a public servant who has sworn an oath to serve his country in an honest way. The giver is just a salesman who wants to promote and sell…
But is corruption a trait only of the public sector?
Yes, mainly. And, to supplement Tacitus, in order to have a lot of corruption you do not only need many laws, but also a large public sector. And Greece has proportionally one of the largest in the world.
We had been eating fish, down at Tourkolimano. (I know, I should have written Mikrolimano - but I hate changing names I grew up with. They are history - my history).
My guest was a French philosopher. He was talking about Greece. Not the beaches, but the essence. I was listening carefully. As usual, foreigners have interesting things to say. You see, they reflect about us - we only react.
- There are two Diaspora peoples in the world, the Jews and the Greeks, he said. The problem with you Greeks was that you always had a country.
No exactly - I thought. During our Dark Ages, Greeks, decimated by barbarians and epidemics, had actually vanished from the mainland. They had to be reimported later. But I did not speak. The man has a theory, I said to myself - you only have an objection. Be un-Greek and let him speak.
- Two diaspora people, two chosen people - but only one with a fatherland, he continued.
I had a vague recollection of having heard that theory before. But the sun was just right and there is an authentic Zephyr blowing from the Saronic Gulf in May. I had no intention of trying to remember when and where.
- So the Jews went on and created things - thought, art, science - in every single country they lived, from Arabic Spain, to early twentieth century Vienna. They contributed to the local civilisation, in the local style and language. You, on the other hand, torn between homesickness and the sickness of home, create your culture in other countries.
- I didn't get that about the sickness...
- Excuse me - it was a bad pun. What I meant was that Greeks are sick of their country, when they live in it (they kill you with their “grinia”) becoming terribly homesick when they leave it. It is a strange dialectic - when they are in, they want out and vice versa. One half of the total population lives abroad (and would like to return, some day) the other half lives in Greece and dreams of emigrating.
- What did you mean with “creating our culture in foreign countries”?
- Well, I am not an expert in your culture - but let us take the names every Greek is proud of. Callas and Mitropoulos, Kazantzakis and Kavafis - why, every Greek who brought it to something, either lived abroad, or was recognized abroad. How many people had heard of George Seferis in Greece, before he was awarded the Nobel prize? His last volume of verse had sold less than a hundred copies in seven years! Your greatest abstract painter was Iannis Spyropoulos. Foreigners honored him with the UNESCO and Herder prizes. He was shown at the Guggenheim, the Documenta, the Biennale. Greeks first heard about him when he died. You import your own culture - in the same way you re-imported your ancient culture after the Turkish occupation.
A woman tried to sell us “original Greek lace” (probably made in Taiwan).
- Have you noticed, he continued, that not one of your great poets was born in the Greek mainland? Solomos and Kalvos were not even Greek citizens - and their mother tongue was Italian. Sikelianos also came from the Ionian islands, Elytis was born in Crete - his family originating from Lesbos - and Kavafis (also not a Greek subject) lived in Alexandria. Your only two philosophers of any importance in the twentieth century, Castoriadis and Axelos, were French citizens and wrote in my language - and so was your most avant-garde musician, Iannis Xenakis.
- Well, I broke in - I can remember, when I was at school, I had to read the novels of Kazantzakis in English or French, because they had not been published in Greek. Imagine, the original appearing only after the translation became an international best-seller!
- Axelos once said in a lecture, that it is impossible to be a philosopher in modern Greece. I would broaden that statement to include all kinds of intellectual and creative activity.
- Don't you think you are going too far? After all, there is a lot of things happening around!
- Yes, but the important ones are either created outside Greece, or in Greece with foreign influence (or money) and for a foreign public. Your great painter Yiannis Tsarouhis worked for a foreign art dealer. (I can remember him conceiving his vision of pure new Greek art, in Paris!) Look at the movies of Theo Angelopoulos! The sculpture of Takis!
- Nobody is a prophet in his own country!
- If this is true in most cases, it is much truer in Greece, said my guest. There is something in this country that kills creativity. I think it is the proliferation of genius. You are a singularly gifted race - again like the Jews. But too much genius, in a small country, is bad for the nerves. There is no breathing space. There is no public. A brilliant small minority and a totally indifferent majority. The minority suffocates. All transmitters, no receivers. A very frustrating situation for talented people. So, as long as they remain in Greece, they use all their talent to trip up the next guy.
- Emigration is the answer?
- Yes, and not only for the artist or the intellectual. It is the same with the big businessman. He too is a creator. Why are the richest Greeks to be found outside Greece? Think of your ship-owners!
- So according to you, the best of Greece is to be found abroad?
- Also the worst. When I meet Greeks in other countries, I usually have the feeling you are exporting all your extremes. But the most interesting thing for me, as a non-Greek, is that strange, love-hate relationship you have with your country. You simultaneously despise and glorify it. You denigrate it, speaking among yourselves - and you praise it to the stars, when talking to foreigners. You cannot create within its boundaries, but you cannot survive without it. My people had a different problem. You know, I am a Jew.
- I want to see what happens to the Jews, now that they have a country of their own, I said. And they will stop propping up all the cultures that hosted them.
- It will take time, until they realize the fact. Decades, maybe centuries. And who knows, they may then find themselves in your position. Ah, my friend, it is not easy to be the “chosen people”. You know what I mean - Greeks also feel that way about themselves.
It was late. I paid the bill, drove my philosopher to his hotel and bade him farewell. On the way home I remembered a small satirical poem I had found in an anthology of light verse:
How odd of God to create so complex beings - with so many illusions, so many conflicts, so many problems - lasting lifetimes, centuries, millenniums! Genius and pettiness, chauvinism and escapism, guilt and glory, insecurity and aggressiveness, myths and deceptions. Diaspora, melancholy, nostalgia. All very Greek words.
Depression. I tried reaction by versification:
to choose us.
O yes! It is hard to be the “chosen people”. Especially, if you have not chosen yourself.
5. THE GLORY THAT WAS GREECE
- I wish statesmen were poets, said Ion.
- Because Poets always loved Greece! They had a weakness for this country. They were ready to forgive our mistakes, to understand our problems, to help in times of need. Remember Byron? Now nobody cares for us...
In the rays of the setting sun, eighteen-year old Ion looked like an ancient statue of Antinoos.
- Why is it that you Greeks want so much to be loved? You have an overwhelming need for warmth and care. You divide all foreigners into friends and foes -- Philellenes and Misellenes, Greek-lovers and Greek-haters. Has it never dawned upon you that most people are neutral and indifferent?
That was Robert the Scot, speaking. He was sipping at his ouzo. (Unlike Greeks, he hates scotch whisky.)
- This is the Greek way to look at history and politics, I said. Dramatic, not to say melodramatic. Our philosophy of history explains everything after the pattern set by the presocratic philosopher Empedocles. Two powers shaped the cosmos -- strife (νείκος) and love (φιλία). It is a very old theory...
- Ah -- here come the ancestors, again. Everything is filtered through the past.
- They had a word for you, Rob: cynic!
- OK. They discovered everything. But what about you? Aren't you tired to live in their shade -- and at their expense? Furthermore I do not think you can identify yourselves with the ancient Greeks by right of inheritance. You have to earn that distinction.
- Are you a disciple of Jakob Fallmerayer -- the German historian who maintained that the modern Greeks had nothing in common with the ancient ones?
- Yes, and no. Biologically and genetically you know that any theory of continuity over two thousand years is nonsense. Not to say that any contention about Greek blood and purity of the race smacks of Nazi-Aryan racism. So if the idea is that you are the direct descendants -- forget it!
- But the language, Rob? It has subsisted over two thousand years!
- That is not enough. Language can be learned or transmitted. My associate, a Nigerian, speaks perfect Greek. Australians and Canadians, Americans and West Indians, speak English. Does that make them the grandsons of King Arthur? All Latin Americans speak Spanish without claiming to be Spaniards -- and Italians do not declare they are Romans, although their language is as close to Latin as yours to Ancient Greek.
- Rob, you like Greece! You left your “bonny banks and braes” to live in this country. What makes you so anti-Greek? You sound like the worst Greek-haters!
- It is because I like Greece and Greeks that I speak in this way. I think you have a problem of identity. Its roots are to be found mainly in your distorted relationship to your forefathers. Mind you, it is also our fault..
- Yours? Whom do you mean?
- Ours, West- Europeans, Non-Greeks. We taught you to pose as modern versions of Pericles. The late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries imitated and idealized antiquity -- we inoculated you with this romantic fallacy. Just think of the Bavarians of Ludwig and Otho -- their neo-classic ideals and buildings. To us you were not a new nation in its own right -- just a sequel. A neo-classic country with a neo-classic language, as phony as the buildings. The famous "catharevousa"!
- But, Rob, we feel Greek!
- Now that, is something else. Something I respect -- for you cannot question a person's inner truth. Only beware: it is not enough to feel -- you must prove it.
- You mean: prove worthy of the Ancients?
- Yes, in a way. Remember Isocrates' definition? “Anyone is a Greek if he partakes of our culture”. An Oxford don, studying the classics, may be (in a timeless sense) more Greek than you are. Not of course in real terms -- he will still have a British passport.
- I admit that the West did a lot to study, cultivate and revive our ancient culture. The French dug up Delphi and the Germans Olympia. Even we Greeks study our classics in foreign editions -- Oxford, Loeb, Teubner or Budé. But on the other hand the very same West has had a rather negative influence on our life, our subsistence as a nation...
- I will not contest this. It is in the nature of things. All small nations have -- at one time or another -- fallen victims to the Great Powers. Although I do not think that you have been treated so badly. You are the only nation in the area that has been constantly growing over the last hundred years. What I mainly wanted to say, is something else: that probably, the worst evil we Westerners inflicted upon you, was the result not of hate or indifference, but of love.
- Are you kidding?
- No. Like the parents who force their child into a profession of their liking, we tried to impose upon you a role of our choice. At the time of your liberation, we ignored your real personality and gave you a new glorious one. The Neo-Ancient Greeks. Mind you, you accepted the role willingly...
- With enthusiasm! Who would not like to be Achilles! The problems came later. This identification made us feel superior -- while, on the other hand, we saw that this superiority did not apply to our present position in the world. So we aquired, simultaneously, a superiority complex and an inferiority one.
- And there is nothing worse than a person who feels superior to find himself in such a situation. I don't blame you -- I blame us. You were a young nation, innocent and pure. It was natural for you to succumb to delusions of grandeur. Everybody wants to be somebody -- especially if he does not have to work for it. You fled into a splendid past. As for the present and the future...
- Probably it is what we are experiencing now. The disenchantment...
-It was forseeable: You were spoiled. Some of us, great admirers of your ancestors, gave you the impression you were something unique, a chosen people, the salt of the earth. Your own demagogues did the rest. They exploited your feelings and cast you often in the role "the supermen as underdogs."
- You mean "we, the special people, always wronged, etc."
- Exactly. Now, when you constantly complain that you are not loved -- as our friend Ion maintained -- you actually voice the disillusionment of a favorite child. Every time you react like spoiled brats, I feel it is to a great extend our fault.
- Three thousand year old kids! You mean we have never grown up?
- No, thank God. As in the times of Plato, you are “eternal children." This is your charm -- but also your nemesis.
- And so we always count on special treatment. We complain if everybody does not automatically accept our point of view (even if, as in the case of Macedonia, we have never stated it clearly). We demand priority in all issues...
- Of course! And you expect everybody to treasure and admire you. Every time a political leader or a journalist proves indifferent to your charm, there comes the label: ανθέλλην, anti-Greek!
- But we Greeks, we are something special, aren’t we, said Ion. We are not like everybody else!
- Ion, if I did not know you well, I would call you a racist. You are not. You are a child -- and like every child you have been taught how important and unique you are. The same is true of (almost) all your compatriots.
- So, then, just like everybody else? There was disappointment in Ion's voice.
- You start like everybody else -- and you are what you become. It is up to you to mature into something special. You are not born that way. And you cannot inherit greatness. The son of a Nobel laureate is no more worth than the kid next door. I admit that it is very important to live in the same country and speak (almost) the same language as Plato and Aristotle. But just as a starting point, not as an achievement.
- A starting point, said I, towards a new form of culture, incorporating vital elements of the past but actual and modern, that would be something different, original and genuinely our own.
- There are wonderful people and wonderful things in this country (Rob sipped a long draught of ouzo) really worth living for. But sometimes I think you appreciate the wrong items. You stick to shades of yesteryear, phantoms of glory, names, words, ideas -- and forget the essence. In times of crisis you should remember the wisdom of wily Odysseus -- not the boisterousness of Ajax. This is an excellent ouzo!
6 . UNDER FOREIGN FLAGS
- Forty three years ago, I started my career in Greece. This made me locate and observe Greeks in all the countries I have served. I must say, I never stop being amazed with your compatriots...
Sir Adrian (a nickname) is now a retired senior diplomat. He is spending a lot of time in Greece, having a beautiful house on an island.
- What is it that amazes you? I asked.
- Greeks abroad are so different! Living outside Greece brings out the best or the worst in them. Usually the best. But the basic thing is that they act and react as if they belonged to another nation.
- So much for national character!
- Well, you know, I never gave much attention to stereotypes. But have you seen a Greek driving in Germany?
- Very disciplined!
- I couldn't believe my eyes! Correct like a German. Never stayed in the left lane -- unless he wanted to overtake. While here -- he either goes slowly and blocks the traffic or he charges wildly never giving a hoot about priority and burns all the red lights.
- He probably understands that he cannot get away with such things in Germany. The other drivers will reduce him to mincemeat!
- Well, that is one thing I have noticed. Greeks abroad are able to conform to the rules of their new environment. They only revert to their original Greek self when they meet with their fellow countrymen -- in the kafeneion. Suddenly you feel as if Aladdin's Jinni had transferred the whole building on Greek soil.
- You remind me of some fellow students in Germany. They gave me the impression that they had never left Greece. They ate in the Greek restaurants, spend most of their time in the Greek coffee house and departed after some years never having learned the language, met any German (except, possibly, a few girls) or even visited the sights.
- And of course without a diploma! I know. This is what I meant by worse. The other extreme. Either the Greek harmonizes perfectly with his surroundings, or he sits very unhappy in the corner, refuses to cooperate and accuses everybody of conspiring against him.
- Isn't this the exception? We have so many success stories!
- Nobody will be able to give us sound statistics. We only hear about success. Failure remains obscure and anonymous. Let us focus on success. I want to ask you this: We have heard of many Greeks who became famous after leaving their country. Have you ever heard any success story with an inverse plot?
- You mean: Greeks who never made it abroad and succeeded in their own country? I don't know. I cannot think of any such case. But then we are all influenced by cliches.
- But if it happened, it would make the headlines. It would be news! You know, "man bites dog" situation.
- So it probably hasn't happened...
- The disheartening thing about platitudes is that they are usually true. It seems that the typical success story: "frustrated Greek leaves the country and earns recognition, fame and money elsewhere" is true. Even if it is so hackneyed it wouldn't work in a Greek television serial.
- I will not contest it. But let us dig a little deeper. Let us search for the reason why. This recurrent pattern of success could mean one of two things: Either Greeks "show their better selves" as you stated -- or they show their usual selves, but foreigners are more willing to recognize them.
- Why not both? Sir Adrian observed.
- While studying in Germany I observed an attitude which I would call "double racism". The German used to either undervalue or overvalue the merit of foreigners. If a foreign student was below average he was dismissed as completely worthless. If he was just good, he was acclaimed as a genius.
- The second reaction is even more racist than the first. It implies the idea: "although he is a Greek (or a Negro) he can manage!" Applause for the trained monkey.
- Come on! you go too far! I do not know if this holds true of other nations but Germans were very eager to promote a talented foreigner. He had more chances than a local.
- Whereas the non-talented could only be good for chores. Ok - I am a little cynical today. It happens to retired diplomats. Nevertheless you are right: not only the opportunities in foreign countries are more abundant - people are also less antagonistic. In Greece you constantly undermine each other. But let us go back to our main subject -- Greeks abroad. Should one sum up their achievements, they are really amazing.
- Not only that: I would argue that much of what is now thought to be the essence of Modern Greek culture came from Greeks living in foreign countries. Why -- three of our major poets did not even speak perfect Greek: Solomos, Kalvos and Kavafis. Seferis remarked that.
- Seferis, my colleague! I met him once, as a young attaché. He himself was born in Smyrna - and spent most of his life roaming all over the world.
- The most prosperous and creative Greeks, during the last three centuries, did not live in mainland Greece. They were to be found in Alexandria and Constantinople, the Ionian Islands, Smyrna, Syros and Trieste, Bucarest and Paris, Odessa and London. That is where the Greek Independence War originated. Rigas preached there, Corais taught, Kapodistria managed foreign affairs, the big benefactors (Averoff, Syggros, Zappas) assembled their fortunes.
- The flowering of the small and ephemeral Greek bourgeoisie. You have written a book about it -- maintaining that there was never a middle class in mainland Greece.
- You are always well informed! Yes -- we missed a class and all it meant for the West: Renaissance, Reformation, Industrial Revolution, Enlightenment, French Revolution. But the Greeks living abroad got all the messages -- and acted as a catalyst...
- You know Greek history much better than I do. When I think of Greeks abroad, my mind goes to more recent situations: Dimitri Mitropoulos, Maria Callas, Aristotle Onassis, the Greek shipowners in London and New York...
- And there is still another category. Greeks who lived in Greece but were accepted and acclaimed in other countries. I remember reading Kazantzakis' novels in English -- the Greek originals did not yet exist in Greece.
- He is not the only one to be re-imported in his own country. You mentioned Seferis. I think most Greeks discovered him after the Nobel price.
- To judge by the sales of his books -- definitively.
- There again you have your usual Greek dichotomy. One the one hand Greeks hate living in foreign countries -- so many old songs complain about the woes of "xenitiá"-- on the other hand they seem to thrive there and prosper much more than in their own nation.
- They may prosper -- but are they happy?
- Are they happy in Greece? Your compatriots do nothing but complain. Living here they dream of emigrating -- and when they do emigrate, they become home-sick.
- Still it is interesting to note that almost one third of the total Greek community lives under foreign flags: Australia, the States, Germany, Cyprus...
- Cyprus – still affluent -- after all that happened! I just returned from a visit there.
- Which confirms your theory. Greeks need a strong challenge to show their vigor. A foreign environment seems to provide such a challenge. That is why Greeks abroad are more successful.
- They are also more patriotic!
- Well, that can be explained: Home-sickness. And, to add a cynic note myself, it is always easier to love your country when you are far away...
7. A GENUINE GREEK
- I am completely lost, said Johannes. I follow closely the Greek press, read all the relevant books, talk to many learned citizens of your country and still I cannot answer the question.
- What question, Johannes?
- Who is a genuine Greek?
- A silly question!
- But you are wrong! Every now and then I stumble across a text - an article, a polemic, a libel, maintaining that Mr Y. (or Mr X. or Mr. Z.) is not a REAL Greek. Then comes the answer, contending that the author of the first text is not an authentic Greek. Then come miles of copy investigating the essence of “Greekness”. I have seldom met a nation so preoccupied with itself!
Now - when Johannes says something, it should be taken seriously. He is a student of Modern Greek History, speaks fluent Greek and is as methodical and efficient as only a German can be.
- I have met so often with such cases - I have come to the conclusion that the two things every Greek is proud of, will be contested at least once in his lifetime.
- And what are these two things?
- Well - his virility and his Greekness. Every Greek will sometime be accused of being a homosexual or a traitor of his country.
- Now, now, you are exaggerating!
- Maybe I am becoming Greek, after all. But seriously, I would like to have your opinion. Why are Greeks so concerned with their national identity? Why is it that the dissenting Greek is immediately accused of being anti-Greek or even a betrayer?
- Now, let us be systematic about it: when someone questions your “Greekness”, it can mean one of two things. A) that you are not a “biologically pure Greek” and B) that your mentality and beliefs do not conform to the Greek “norms”.
- After 3000 years, who would be a “biologically pure” Greek? An Ionian, a Dorian, or a Macedonian? Hundreds of tribes and nations have intermingled in this country over the years. This expression stinks of Nazi “Aryan” ideology.
- OK let us drop it. But who is an authentic Greek in his mentality?
- Well first of all he should adhere to the Orthodox faith. Greeks are not excessively religious, very few follow strictly the teachings of Jesus, but they regard the Orthodox Church as a basic pillar of their national identity. A Greek Muslim or a Greek Jew is a priori suspect, even if his family has lived for ages in this country. Even a non-Orthodox Christian (there are thousands of Catholics living for centuries in the Cycladic Islands) is a second class citizen. A few years ago non-Orthodox Christians were not allowed to serve in a public office.
- Is that a fact?
- Unfortunately, yes.
- So, a real Greek is an Orthodox. What else?
- He is a patriot – not to say a nationalist. He puts his country on top. For decades Greek communists were despised because, according to the classical Marxist formula, they were internationalists. (“Proletarians of all the world unite!”) Finally, after 1990, Greek communists became ardent nationalists and the problem was solved.
- Any other characteristics?
- If he is a man, he is a MAN! Virile, strong, and macho.
- So I was right saying that every Greek will be contested once in his life about his Greekness or his virility – which seem to be identical.
- All this is a sign of insecurity. Greeks do not feel well in their skin. They are not sure in their identity. So it is natural that they question the identity of others…
There is one and only one Greek passion, sighed Elaine.
Games? I volunteered.
Of course games, clearly games, but not football nor basketball. Neither is it lottery, Lotto, Proto or Xysto. Not even poker or "Thanasis"-- favorite card game of all the Greek provinces. No, it is another game with more disastrous effects.
Gossip? I proposed. "Koutsombolio"?
That is bad enough -- but what I have in mind is the electoral game.
You call elections a game? I protested. The pinnacle of democracy?
Not elections in general -- Greek elections.
What makes them different?
The essence of a game is that it is an end in itself. It does not fulfill any purpose, it does not produce anything -- it is played for the pleasure of playing. I do not think that Greeks see elections as a means for changing or improving things. They give me the impression that they indulge in all this activity in the same way they play a game of backgammon. Just for the contest - the thrill of winning or the experience of losing.
As far as improving things through elections, you may be right. The last ten elections did not bring much progress.
You can say that again! How is that Greek saying: Last year, best year...
Elaine is a journalist. She was, for years, the Athens correspondent of a British newspaper group -- and does not forsake old friends. This time, on the way to a Middle East assignment, she found time for an Athens stopover. Having lived in Greece a long time, she knows Greeks well -- but never ceases being amazed at Greek ways.
What mostly surprises me is the fact that your life is governed by an election syndrome. You exist either in a pre- or in a post- electoral period. Hardly have you finished discussing and analyzing the electoral results of the national election -- you start the prognostics for the euro-election. And barely have you finished deliberating about their results, the discussion groups in Omonoia and Zappeion already start debating the odds for the municipal elections. Not to say that one year in advance people are already pondering over the possible presidential balloting.
I tend to agree with you. Greeks are positively fascinated by elections.
Yes, but not by the essence -- I think it is the game that fascinates them. A kind of super cup, much more thrilling than a football final between Panathinaïkos and Olympiakos. The fact that their fortunes are at stake, does not seem to play an important part. And then the ritual...
You mean the big rallies...
Yes, and the flags, the banners, the streamers, the music all over the country. Why in England you don't even notice there is an election coming.
Don't tell me. I was in London during the last election. It took place on a Thursday, everybody was working, I did not notice anything special. I found out only the next day, reading the papers. Now for Greece that would be impossible. Nobody would ever conceive of such a mute election!
I have beenasking myself -- why do Greeks need elections so much? They seem to be real election addicts. They have to have one in their sights -- even if it is a year away. Thank God, there exist now four types of elections, so one will always be around the corner. If it is not, the Greek media start creating one. The process begins with ifs and rumors and probabilities and soon, out of nothing, you have a voting fantasy going. Opinion polls come to the rescue (darling little quasi-elections) and everybody is happy even in mid-election term.
But you have not answered your own question: why do you think Greeks need elections so much? Or don't you have an answer?
I suppose it is the need for a thrill... The fact that it combines their favorite occupation -- politics -- with the excitement of a game.
I am not sure. I do not suppose it is only that. Do you think Greeks believe in elections -- or in politics for that matter?
What do you mean by believe?
Believe that elections play an important role in their lives, that they can change things, that parties and politicians strive for the common good -- etc., etc.
You have answered your question yourself -- with "etc. etc". As I see it, Greeks have become very cynical in the last years. Opinion polls show that most of them do not give credence to in any of the things you have mentioned -- parties, politicians, voting... I supposed the last time Greeks really believed in the possibility of a political transformation was October 1981- the time they voted for the new PASOK. Since then they have been voting more against -- then for a party.
What the political scientists call "negative" voting.
There is an essay by the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre: "Élections piège a cons" (Elections -- a trap for the idiots) where he demonstrates that voting not only does not mean I wield political power -- but that I abdicate the power of the individual and relegate it to the parties. Of course Sartre is against representative government and in favor of some (nebulous) form of direct democracy. He as summed up his position by writing: "Elections leave me totally cold. I will go and vote in the same way I pay my electricity bill." If, as you maintain, Greeks are disillusioned with politics -- why do they not adopt this attitude of indifference?
Are you sure they do not express the same disappointment in another way? Sometimes I think their attitude could be an ironical one: "We don't expect anything important -- at least let us enjoy the show!"
But they create the show -- they are a basic part of it! They are not just the passive audience. They go to the rallies, drive around with flags, shout themselves hoarse...
So you think they do take elections seriously...
Unquestionably yes. Although logically they do not anticipate much -- I think that subconsciously they look forward to something. Probably a wonder. To me this attitude suggests other expectations. It is as if elections were a magic ceremony or even a kind of religious substitute. It is a hope sacrament. Greeks need hope.
Your hypothesis would explain the ritual part. So your idea is that this constant preoccupation with elections is not only a game but also a rite: a secret invocation of benign powers. I remain skeptical. I'd rather stick with my explanation. It is the Roman tradition: "circenses". The public wants to watch political gladiators confront each other in the arena.
Still, look at the people after an electoral victory: they inwardly feel tomorrow everything will be different. Even if they logically doubt it.
The sun was setting. Elaine took a deep sip of ouzo and remarked:
How does your theory correlate with the fact that Greeks are very passive citizens? Each one looks mostly at his own interests, wants to have a good time, is not willing to sacrifice anything for the common good. (Except in periods of war.) He thinks laws and regulations are made for others, taxes should be paid by others. According to your explication, he has transferred all his civic responsibilities to some ritual acts. Elections being the most important one.
Yes. He always anticipates a solution from above.
The old device of the tragic poets: Deus ex machina -- or as your ancestors put it: "απόμηχανήςθεός." To my knowledge, a Greek never feels responsible for what is happening to his country (it is always the "foreign powers" that conspire and dictate its destiny). In the same way he also does not accept his own responsibility for everyday happenings. ("Am I the one who will reform the Romeïko!" goes a well-known Greek saying.) He expects parties and politicians to solve problems in a magical way (and without his contribution). He casts his vote in a festive mood -- and then continues living his own good life. Should something misfire, he goes to his politician and exclaims: "But we voted for you!" as if this is all he was supposed to do as a civic duty.
So in a way you do see Greek elections as an art of voodoo ceremonial...
Or a rainmaker rite. Well, I am only following your lead. I am not sure. From the moment I started reflecting on the question -- I grow more and more confused. I cannot find any satisfactory answer to this antinomy: a) Greeks make such a fuss over elections and b) that, as you pointed, they do not really trust their politicians and do not expect much from them. These two facts are contradictory -- almost a contradiction in terms.
Poor Elaine, with your Western rational thinking! Is it the first contradiction you discover in Greeks?
No -- and, in fact, this is one of the reasons I find them so endearing.
That is why it is called Babel, because the Lord there made a babble of the language of all the world.
THE NEW ENGLISH BIBLE, Gen. 11.9
We had not seen each other for over thirty years -- the last time was in the Doktoranden Seminar, a few days before leaving Munich and the University. But when he called, in 1996, it seemed like yesterday.
"I am in Athens," he said. "Do you still hate Hegel?"
"More than ever," I replied.
The first hour of our meeting was taken by "remember this..." and "remember that..." Then we came to talk of politics. Knud was now a diplomat with the EEC -- and had many questions:
"What is happening to you people? You seem to retrograde -- to regress. All the colleagues in Brussels have the same problem: They are unable to understand the Greeks. You seem to have forgotten that you once discovered logic and rational thinking. You act and react like obstinate children."
"Don't continue. I am following closely the German, French and English-speaking press - I am tired of reading about our 'chauvinist hysteria' etc. etc."
"Well, how do you explain all that?"
I was prepared for the topic. In the last two years, most of the foreign friends and acquaintances whom I met, in Greece or abroad, had voiced similar remarks. I almost had ready made answers. But Knud the Dane, was a difficult case. Trained as a philosopher before going into international law, he was not going to be satisfied with general statements. I would have to dig a little deeper.
"You are talking of the Macedonian Problem, I suppose?"
"Not only - not exclusively. Of course, your resurging nationalism is the first issue. But also your attitude in all international questions. You seem to be swimming alone against the current. Siding up with Milosevic -- or for that matter, with Saddam Hussein! Giving standing ovations to Karacic - a man hated and despised in the whole Western world. And not only do you seem to endorse people who violate human rights abroad. You also ignore these rights in your own country. What about freedom of speech? People are condemned here, just because they express different opinions. That poor high school student got one year in prison because he wrote that Alexander the Great was an imperialist. What about religious freedom? You are discriminating against Greek citizens, only because they belong to a different religious denomination. 'Only an orthodox Greek is a genuine Greek' this was written by officials of your own Secret Services."
"You seem to have a fine hearing in Brussels. The Greek government tried to suppress this report."
"It may not be representative - but it is indicative. You seem to be reverting to a closed society, fanatical and intolerant, with a strong isolationist attitude permeating all your thoughts".
"Did you come here to pass judgment on us?"
"Another problem - you are unable to endure criticism. Any article which does not support or praise you, is labeled as anti-Greek and seen as a token of a world-wide anti-Greek conspiracy."
"Is that all?"
"OK, I admit having been too harsh. But I am trying to provoke you. I want answers, explanations, interpretations. I desperately need to understand you."
"'Ay, there's the rub'. Remember Babel?"
"The Biblical one?"
"Yes, and how the Tower was never finished because God 'confused their speech'. We speak different languages".
"But you still speak perfect German!"
"Come on, you know what I mean. Greece and the West have been talking in different idioms for the last years. I am not saying you are wrong, or we are right. I am only ascertaining a fact. Incomprehensibility. We don't understand you - you do not understand us. And, as time goes by, we drift more and more apart. It is now really very difficult - almost impossible - to communicate."
"When did this start?"
"Well maybe nine and a half centuries ago - with the Schism. Or perhaps eight hundred years ago - when the Crusaders sacked Constantinople. It was a mistake, they meant to liberate Jerusalem. Well yes, I am exaggerating. But the fact is that the roots of our misunderstandings go far back in time. You Westerners think -"
"But you are also Westerners - members of the EC. You have put the foundations for the Western civilization. And you, personally..."
"I will play the role, I used to play in the Seminar – “advocatus diabolic”. I am trying to explain to you how Greeks react - even if I do not agree with them. I was saying that you Westerners, never managed to understand Greeks. You thought that the descendants of Aristoteles should be Aristotelians (in the way you, in your medieval scholasticism, had interpreted the Magister). Well no - we are not only the children of the rational Aristoteles, but also of the mystical Plato and the more mystical Plotinus. Of the Eleusinian mysteries. Of Dionysos. Of Byzantium. Of Anatolian sages. Our branches extend to the West, but our roots start far away in the East. We are so complex, we have a lot of trouble trying to understand ourselves. And there you come and say we are not rational. Of course we are not rational!
"You seem to be proud of the fact!"
"Not at all. But I am indignant. It is easy to be cool and rational when your history is a linear ascent into Enlightenment and Progress. But it is very difficult to be rational when your history is a series of traumata caused mainly by the people who exhort you to be rational."
"Don't tell me that you also ascribe to the theory 'its all the fault of the West'."
"Definitely not. But a lot of things happened to this country because of Western interventions. And anyway, we are not trying to find out who is at fault - but why it is so difficult for us to understand each other."
"So, let us look at the problems themselves."
"Before going into any rational argument, let us try to understand why Greeks react in this way. You always assume Greece belongs to the West. It does - and it does not. There has been a strong anti-western current in Greece for centuries. It has religious, national and ideological roots. Grouped inside this current you will nowadays meet an amazing mixture of characters: leftists (for whom western means capitalist or imperialist), extreme right ultranationalists, fanatical orthodox believers (neo- and old) and intellectuals. But mainly you will find populist politicians, cultivating the conspiracy theory of history, plus their victim: the simple man in the street who assumes an underdog mentality towards the 'Great Powers'. (The great alibi. 'They' are responsible for everything). So Greeks never felt they really belonged to the West. (They all say: I studied in Europe, I will travel to Europe - as if Greece was located in Asia). Our relationship to the West was always a love-hate affair, expressed wonderfully in two Greek words: Xenophobia and Xenomania. Phobia and mania are emotions - and therefore: when we talk to the West (or about the West) our language is emotional. It not easy for us to think rationally on this issue. Or for that matter, on any issue - we are very emotive. Mediterraneans, with a long history, loaded with pathos and agony. (Greek words again!) Enthusiastic, excitable, warm, friendly, insecure and short tempered. Especially if national or personal issues are concerned."
"Whereas we stand there detached, cool and rational..."
"Exactly. You talk the language of reason - we shout our heads off in demonstrations and rallies. Babel. No communication possible."
"Mind you, I do not agree with this way of reacting. I think it has done us only harm. In modern Greek history, the politicians and the parties that cultivated emotions have always set us back. The modernizers were rationalists: Capodistrias, Tricoupis, Venizelos, Caramanlis (Sr.). Even personally I cannot follow this trend. Maybe I am spoiled, having spend many years in Western universities. But that does not mean I cannot understand it."
"And you think we should understand it too."
"At least take it into consideration. You know - when I talk to Greeks, I try to make them understand you. I tell them that you cannot base a foreign policy on phobias, enthusiasms, suspicions, and feelings. For us Macedonia is not simply a geographical area, it is a symbol. The Serbs are 'brothers'. We identify with them because they are orthodox, and because they fight Muslims (meaning Turks) and Catholics (meaning 'Papists'). All these things are rooted in the national unconscious id and would require many years on an analyst's couch - should there ever be one for nations..."
"You fancy yourself as a therapist?"
"For God's sake no. Some times as an interpreter - since I can understand both languages. Not that anyone listens to me. Never envy the fate of mediators. Let's have a beer!
10. WORDS, WORDS, WORDS
A necessary preface:
The “Macedonia problem” has been prominent in Greece since 1989. The Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, bordering Greece, existed for decades as an independent federal state within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the liberalization of all previous state entities of Eastern Europe, the Republic of Macedonia decided to become an independent state using that name.
Greeks had serious objections. Since ancient times Macedonia was seen as a part of Greek territory and history. Given also that some extreme nationalistic parties in the new state had irredentist tendencies and were propagating the “Macedonia of the Aegean” (meaning that they would like to extend their territory all the way down to Thessaloniki and the Aegean Sea) there were also fears of a land dispute.
Some cool headed people, from both sides, maintained that this is a pseudo-problem. The word Macedonia, after the end of the ancient Macedonian Empire, (about 150 b. C.) was just a geographical term. The people inhabiting this region were so mixed, that they gave their name to mixed culinary dishes. (“Salade Macédoine” in French and “Macedonia di Frutti”, in Italian). At the end of the 19th century you found there Greeks, Turks, Jews, Bulgarians, Serbs and Albanians. The largest city, Thessaloniki was populated mainly by Jews (52%).During the Balkan wars (1912-14) the area was finally distributed in three: The largest part went to Greece, a smaller to Bulgaria (the area of Pirin) and a substantial one to Serbia. Out of this last one originated the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (FYROM, the official name accepted by the United Nations).In the meantime most nations in the world have recognized FYROM by the name “Democracy of Macedonia”.
The problem is still haunting Greece – although now other matters are more important. But during the nineties there was a lot of fighting and demonstrating. So much, that the ancient Athenian, Socrates, came back from the Elysian Fields to meditate on the meaning of a name.
- Hail to you Socrates! Where on earth have you been?
- Here in Athens, friend. You know I hate travel...
- But then, something must have kept you away. Suddenly the Agora was not the same anymore. Have you been ill?
- No, my health is always excellent.
- Was it ...Xanthippe, your wife?
- I was pondering over a problem. It absorbed me so much that I spend days and nights in meditation, forgetting to eat, drink and sleep.
- Now that you mention eating -- you do look a bit slimmer. But why didn’t you bring your problem to the Agora? You use to say that discussion is the only means of tackling and solving problems.
- Tackling, yes. Solving, no. No serious problem can be solved, it can only be stated, investigated and illuminated. This is a process that will be repeated unlimited times by unlimited people.
- All right -- I have listened to your inconclusive dialogues. What was so different this time?
- Well, it was not that I could not solve this problem -- since I do not believe in final solutions. It was mainly that I failed to grasp it, to state it clearly, to understand it.
- Well, then it was not a real problem...
- Real enough to have people want to fight and die for it!
- If you cannot state it -- can you describe it?
- I will try. Suppose someone comes to me and says: Now Socrates, son of Sophroniscos, I will use your name. I will call myself Socrates too. What shall I do?
- But there are many people in Athens called Socrates. I don’t understand...
- O.K. this was a bad example. Suppose the Thebans decide they will call themselves Leontians -- after one of the ten Athenian tribes. What should the original Leontians do?
- Well, I don’t know. Is it so bad?
- That is my question. Some people say: “our name is our soul!” They would fight to keep the exclusive rights to it. Others maintain “what’s in a name?” and claim the issue is purely academic.
- How did you ever come to this question?
- It came to me in a dream. Oneiros brought it to me. It was a dream of a strange world. Imagine: Athens and Sparta were not enemies -- not even rivals. There were no fights among Corinthians, Thebans and Aetolians. But somebody had usurped a name, and the issue was very important.
- Now, the first thing that comes to my mind is that if someone takes my name, it will confuse everybody. We use names to design people or objects. If I say “Nicodemus”, this is me. As there are others who bear that first name, one would have to add my father’s name and maybe my occupation. If another person uses the same combination, I will have to do something to keep us apart.
- Would you kill him?
- No -- for Zeus’s sake! I would try to explain to him that it was not convenient and would create problems for all of us.
- Suppose he would insist. Suppose that the reason he took your name was to profit from your reputation. You are a well-known person, you belong to an illustrious family, you are rich, and you have influence... He could exploit all this!
- Oh no, he couldn’t! People know me and my history. They would smile at him and say: Come on -- you’re not that Nicodemus!
- And if he met people who know you only from hearsay?
- You mean he would pose for me -- as an impostor! Well then I would sue him and bring him to court!
- So, you see, there is a problem.
- Not if somebody just uses a name -- but if he tries to swindle and deceive people. If he only wants to call himself Nicodemus -- he is welcome!
- Isn’t the use of a foreign name by itself a deception?
- Depends on the name. First names are common to many people. Now, if we are talking about Leontians or Thebans -- that is different. These names are exclusive. On the other side, the use of such a name does not lead to confusion or fraud. I do not see any harm if one takes the name of another tribe -- or another city for that...
- You mean the Corinthians could call themselves Athenians?
- Why should they?
- To partake in the glory of Athens.
-They would make themselves the laughing-stock of the Greeks! Transvestites!
- Do you believe a name is something holy -- that it holds a meaning of its own?
- A name is just a word -- what can be holy about it?
- Doesn’t the name Zeus imply holiness?
- It is the god who is holy, not the name. If you called the supreme God Osiris, as the Egyptians do, it would not change anything.
- Ah, but I think you are looking at the matter superficially. You know my concern with definitions. I am constantly trying to find out: if two people are just, what do they have in common? A property that can be called justice? I am looking for the single and essential form common to all things of the same kind.
- I know Socrates - I was a witness to most of your discussions -- on virtue, beauty, valor, goodness. But here we have the opposite situation. We are talking about proper names -- and they are not general.
- No, we are also talking about generic names: Athenians, Thebans, Spartans. We can use the same questions and the same method. We can ask: what do Athenians have in common that other people do not?
- They all speak the Attic dialect.
- It is also spoken in other cities. And what if a foreigner learns the language perfectly -- does that make him an Athenian?
- It will never make him an Athenian citizen!
- I admit, it is difficult, but it has been done. I still try to find a property which is unique and specific. Being born in Athens is not enough -- many immigrants are -- and many Athenians come to the world in other places.
- What about feeling Athenian? A sense of belonging...
- That could also exist in an alien. I know a Milesian who feels more Athenian than I do.
- But where are you aiming at?
- I want to find out if a name is an essential part of a man's being. If it is so important that one should risk his life to defend it.
- You once said that one's country is more important than father, mother and all ancestors...
- I was speaking about Reason and Laws -- not about names... That is my problem. To fight for liberty, for justice or even merely to defend your land, your property -- that I understand. To fight for a name...
- But it is not merely a name -- it is a symbol. It stands for everything you have mentioned: freedom, justice, honor...
- A symbol... I thought of that too. But I am wary of symbols. They are usually tainted with feeling. I do not trust emotions. Reason has never killed anybody, but passion, zealotry and fanaticism are disastrous. Emotions are bad counselors. People should follow their critical judgment.
- And why do you follow your demon?
- My “daimonion” is a rational one -- it speaks with the voice of logic. And I always examine logically its suggestions.
- Sometimes, Socrates, I think you are a cogitating machine.
- A machine would never be willing to die for its beliefs. But for a name...
- If you believe in it?
- What exactly do you believe in? I fear that sometimes the symbol becomes an end in itself. People forget the essence and fight for empty forms. Words, words, words. The politicians and the demagogues are filling the world with words.
- Plato, your brightest pupil, is in love with words. He has elevated concepts to archetypes -- the Ideas.
- It is getting late. I feel extremely tired. I need sleep. I think I am going home now...
11. THE METAPHYSICS OF "GRINIA"
- I have been living in Greece for over ten years, said Bret, I cannot still yet used to it. Every time I meet somebody I know, it starts again: “Yeia sou!” I say. “Ti kaneis? How do you do?”
An Englishman would answer curtly: “Well, thank you - and how are you?” A Frenchman would probably add a short comment to the “ça va?”. But a Greek! He can deliver a lecture or a rhapsody. Always in a minor key.
Yesterday I met Petros. He is not a close friend - just an acquaintance. My question was just formal - but his answer could fill pages:
- Ah! my friend, he said, I have a serious problem with my back. I cannot lift any weight. I cannot stoop down. I even cannot tie my shoelaces. And my stomach - oh! Who me - I used to eat a small lamb in one sitting! And my wife had an hysterectomy and she going through a very difficult phase.
- But the children - they are all right?
- I don’t like my son’s friends. Bad company! As for my daughter...
He went on an on. Business was terrible, almost nobody visited his store, profits were down, the whole country was in a mess... I was in a hurry. With great difficulty I managed to extract myself and move on.
I have known Petros for many years - I have never heard a positive word from his mouth. If his financial grumbling was correct, he would have been bankrupt years ago. If his health declarations were accurate, he wouldn’t be alive any more. As far as I hear he is doing very well, he has a profitable small business, charming kids and a loyal wife. He also has an infinite “grinia” potential!
And he is not an exception. Never will a Greek, if asked about his situation, give you an cheerful account. I am sick and tired of this eternal complaint. Even before the Crisis, when all went well – the nagging was always there!
- Look Bret, I admit you have a point. Greeks are not merry and light-hearted. And they seldom give a positive picture of their situation. It is something like a superstition. They are deeply afraid that any optimistic statement will incur the wrath of the Gods.
- How do you translate “grinia” in English? My dictionary proposes: whining, whimpering, complaining, nagging, sniveling, grumbling, fretting. Somehow none of these words seems to me the exact counterpart of the Greek term. But then such affective denominations are untranslatable.
- It is not even a Greek word (it comes from the Italian ‘grignia’) - but it sums up one of the most essential Greek characteristics: complaining. For a Greek it is equivalent with living. One could alter Descartes famous word: “I complain therefore I exist”. Look at the popular Greek songs - the traditional ones, the dimotika and the more recent ones the rebetika. They both speak about pain, homesickness, bereavement, death, unrequited love. Not even five per cent of them are joyful.
- But why? I admit, the history of Greece is not that cheerful, but other nations have also had their part of suffering. As you rightly said most of the Greeks songs are in one way or another ‘moirologia’ - dirges
- A Greek writer of the nineteenth century has written an essay claiming that the modern Greek word for song “τραγουδώ” (tragoudo) comes from the ancient term tragic. To sing is to lament.
- You have still not answered my question: why?
- Well, I have a theory. Greeks are passionate people. They adore life. They really enjoy living. But, as the wise Buddha said, the more you are attached to this world, the more you suffer. Greek pessimism is not the result of a negative approach to existence - just the opposite. It originates in a very deep thirst for living, which can never be quenched. From the times of Homer the complaint is the same: life is wonderful, but so short! Never have the Greeks found real consolations in thoughts of an afterlife. It is too abstract and distant. They want everything and they want it now. No wonder they constantly feel frustrated!
- So, according to you, Greeks moan because they want more of life. Don’t they realize that because of their constant grumbling they actually get less?
- Well, this is the typical self fulfilling prophecy - and another reason to protest. The more you ask for, the less you get.
- And what about the “Zorba image”? The jovial reveler, the untiring roisterer, who rejoices and carouses twenty four hours a day?
- This is, of course, a creation of travel agents. The original Zorba, the hero of Kazantzakis’s novel, was a passionate but not a jovial person. In his depth you can find a lot of despair. His merry-making was tinged with a strong taste of regret. You can hear this in the old ‘classic rebetica’ songs. You can feel it in the deep, serious expression of a zeibekiko dancer. He is not having fun. He is expressing the beauty and agony of living.
- You sound poetic!
- Well, is it by chance that Greeks produce more and better poetry than any nation I know of?
- You probably are right. The pro capita poetry production on Greeks is overwhelming.
- And so is the quality. You know I am not a chauvinist - just the opposite! But I must say that I am constantly amazed at the poetic wonders of this nation.
- And you mean there is a relationship between poetry and “grinia”?
- Isn’t poetry the most noble form of complaint?
- Astonishing! I never thought that the bothersome whimpering of Petros (and many others) I experience every day has the same roots with the poetry of Elytis!
- Poetry comes from feeling. Greeks are an emotive people. Somewhere there I feel a correlation. The same pathos, depending on the person, its background, talent and culture, can be expressed in different forms.
- Well, now, every time somebody bores me with his grinia I will try to think of the other forms. Of Seferis and Kavafis, of Dimoula and Karouzos...
12. THE DARK SIDE OF THE SUN
- Hey! we missed you. Where on earth have you been?
- I am not sure I was somewhere on earth. I had a summons from Charon, the perennial ferryman. He wanted to carry me over to the other side of the Acheron. I just managed to escape.
- You were ill?
- I'd rather not talk about my experience. At least not in medical terms. But having walked in the dark, I am now in a position to talk about the light.
- You speak like a mystic.
- Oh no. It is much simpler. There was this vision that kept coming back. A long whitewashed wall under the midday sun. A dark blue sky overhead. Almost blue-black. Irregular shadows on the wall - they never align stones so evenly in the Cyclades. Strong light. The contrast was so hard, you had to squint.
- You probably remembered a street in Myconos or Hydra...
- No, this was not a real place. The wall went on for miles and miles - and it became whiter and brighter. I knew there was a door at the end. A dark wooden door, like in old monasteries. I did not want to reach that door.
- Because, behind the wall, where the sky became darker, there - I felt - would be the reverse side of the Greek sun - what our poets have called "black light".
- Seferis: "Light, angelic and black". I remember his famous sentence: "In principle, I am a matter of light".
- Elytis too: "Light and history in Greece are one and the same... down to that void which is black." But the list could go further back - to grandfather Homer. He never uses the word "alive" without explaining it in terms of light. His cliche sentence is: "living, and seeing the light of the sun".
- I know your thesis about Greeks being "the children of light".
- It is not mine. The poets again. Seferis, searching for our identity has written: "I wonder - is it the climate or the race? I think it is the light. There is something in the light that makes us what we are." And Elytis: "To be Greek... is a function immediately related to the drama of light and darkness".
- But you have elaborated this into a whole theory!
- No, just a commentary on what Elytis called: the "metaphysics of the sun". I added an analysis and a series of photographs demonstrating how Greek light transcending itself turns abruptly into total darkness.
- The "extreme" light, that goes all the way until it reverts into its opposite.
- I call this light "absolute". It is for me the only absolute thing a human being can experience during its stay on earth. This absolute light illuminates a non absolute world, giving it a semblance of eternity.
- This is why all the Greek poets and philosophers glorified light?
- Parmenides said light is Being, Plato identified it with Truth, and, of course, the Byzantine mystics with God.
- But then you write something about our light being addictive.
- Yes. Just like a drug: its presence makes you euphoric - its absence depresses. You see, all addicts are after totality - all addicts chase the absolute. No wonder Greeks were always obsessed by light - and could never get enough of it.
- Ajax, in the Iliad. He fought in a dark cloud and protested to the Gods: if you want to kill us - do it in the light! He asked for light in order to enter darkness!
- Darkness... It is so interesting that Greeks never elaborated a theory about the meaning of death, never worked out a coherent account of afterlife. For them it was only the absence of life (and light). Something utterly negative.
- Achilles to Odysseus, visiting in Hades: "I wish I were a slave on earth - rather than a King of the Dead".
- You know your Homer by heart!
- I usually read a rhapsody before going to sleep. But we have talked too much about the ancients. What about your vision?
- My vision, I think, was a condensation of all the luminous experiences in my life. They embodied themselves in this long Cycladic wall to shield me against Darkness.
- Which, according to your theory is the other side of light.
- Not even the other side - it is the continuation, the culmination, the climax. Should you look directly at the sun, you will earn a black dot on your retina. "If you stretch white, you reach black" to quote Elytis.
- Isn't that just a poetic allusion?
- No. Think of it that way: Greeks were - and still are - light addicts and life addicts. The nemesis of addicts is the overdose. Greeks exaggerate. They want more and more and want it now. The result is 'hybris' which leads to...
- ... I know. Tragedy. The tragic hero exceeds his limits, confronts destiny and sinks into darkness.
- An overdose of white leads to black. An overdose of life leads to doom. It is not accidental that Greeks invented tragedy. Tragedy is the exaggeration, the extravagance of life.
- What I find interesting is that some of your conclusions apply not only to philosophers and poets but also to the Greek in the street. He constantly exaggerates; he has a tragic sense of life - and deep down a secret panic before Darkness.
- Yes. For a Greek (even a modern one) death is a non-fact. His only reaction: he tries to ignore it. So many cultures have been built around the event of dying, the mythology of afterlife. Think of the Egyptians or the Aztecs. But in Greek art there is no picture of Hades.
- Still, although Greeks are life-maniacs, they do not seem happy, nor are they optimists. Most of the time they grumble and complain.
- Greeks have been pessimists from the times of Homer. Only their pessimism does not proceed from a denial of life but from a passion for life. The Sages of the Orient - think of Buddha - believe that life is suffering, pain and distress. They try to negate life, to kill desire, to annihilate the Self. Christianity speaks of the Kingdom of Heaven, promises Paradise in afterlife. Not so the Greek. He finds life wonderful - but too short. His Paradise is here. That is why he dreads darkness. His is the anxiety of the rich man - who has much to lose.
- The way you describe it - he has everything to lose and nothing to gain. I don't know... I find your whole theory very poetic - but isn'it after all a construction? Most people in history have worshipped the Sun and the light, not only the Greeks...
- But only Greeks have reached the extremes of tragedy. Look - I have lived for many years under the sun, in other countries. I have never seen the dark, black abysmal shadows which you can find in the Greek summer. There is the difference: in the contrast, the clash and the crash.
- Well, what to me is important is that you managed to stay on the sunny side of the wall. "Living and seeing the light of the sun". Welcome back, friend! One more summer, glorious Greek summer, for all of us.
 Data from a poll by Kapa Research, published in the Sunday paper “To Vima”, August 18, 2013.
Μέτοικοι: free longtime residents, but not Athenian citizens.
The reference is to "Light of the Greeks" a photographic essay by N. Dimou, (1984).