How to explain a complex culture to those who only want to see its post card version.
One of the things I could never quite grasp is the degree of separation between living, growing up and being an Athenian Greek, and the idea of what Greeks are to the majority of the American public. Most will only get to see Greece in the summer, on a all catered vacation or on a cruise, but for me and for most of my fellow countrymen and women, we are inexplicably burdened with the idea others have of us and the deep everyday sadness of being a Greek. To most we are a tourist destination, broken down into easy to digest pieces, for those not really interested in getting the see the full picture of what it means to live in, love, leave, long to return to, and navigate this crazy wonderful and deeply infuriating land. One thing is for certain, we’re far more than just a destination wedding, all expenses paid vacation spot. We are not just Greek Yogurt and Feta and breaking plates and sunsets off a glitzy resort hotel. We don’t use Windex and we don’t all live next to our families. These are stereotypes I’ve often had to fight against and have had some pretty crazy discussions over. Seeing a caricature version of our culture for entertainment; being the only thing most Americans can think to ask me about when I speak to them about Greece really drives me bonkers. I loath My Big Fat Greek Wedding (there I said it)
Being born and raised in Greece, and having grown up in the United States for most of my teenage years; I have been given a unique perspective, and license to sit on the outside looking in. When I was in my 20’s I returned to Athens, determined to reclaim my “Greekness”, because one thing Greeks have always been touchy about is how Greek you really are. I never wanted to feel like an outsider even thought in retrospect I’ve always been one. Instead of being stigmatized by it, I chose to use this outsider status to my advantage, because being on the outside looking in, gave me a competitive advantage to speak about my country through the eyes of a Greek who loves America and an American who will always and forever be in love with every morsel of Greece.
The burden we carry can never be understood by anyone other than a fellow Greek, or in the case of many expat Americans I grew up with (first and foremost my mother) a philhellene. Moving to Greece as a foreigner takes commitment, and a touch of crazy. Who the hell would want to leave their highly organized public service, guaranteed pensions, proper public transport, and clean roads to come life in Athens? Most of the foreign born Greeks I know would never tolerate such a madhouse, but the Americans, Germans, British, Egyptians, Nigerians, Turks, Albanians, French, Italians, Iranians, Lebanese, Israelis I know gave their whole heart to Greece, and quite simply fell in love forever. We know, they know, we don’t have to explain. This deeply routed pain of separation that we feel and the inexplicable frustration with the politics, the ingrained “backwardness”, the disorganization, the instability; that will never change, and quite frankly is something we can’t do without. We are bipolar. Anarchists and anti establishment, at heart with a longing for everything to work just like it does in Europe or the States, and all those countries where Greeks immigrated to from the beginning of time till now. We are also deeply proud, deeply wounded by our identity because it is the same thing that pushes us away and the exact same feeling, like a magnetic force calls us back, no matter how many years we’ve been away.
We crave discord and passion and messiness because life is messy and disorganized. Nothing can be too perfect, because perfect is simply not real. The mainframe of every Greek comes with a fatal flaw, an Achilles heal if you will. Every Greek is equal parts ashamed and equal parts fanatical about our heritage and our nationality. I for one hate the idea of Greek transplants recreating a life outside of Greece that can in no way be as authentic or real, and at the same time dream of the smell of the sea shore near the Saronic Golf and the view from the Temple of Poseidon on a moonlit night. But those things are not in your every day guidebooks and travel blogs because tourists aren’t interested in them. My secret Athens, Mykonos, Santorini, Thessaloniki, Crete, Naxos, Paros, Folegandros, Astypalaia, Chios, Mytilene, Serres, Konitsa, Meteora, Gavdos, Rodos, Chania, Rethymno, Hydra, Spetses, Patmos and the list goes on is in the everyday and uneventful but most importantly in the feeling that when you stop and listen, those places have something to tell you, a unique and heartbreaking story.
To be continued…