MY BIG FAT GREEK QUESTION: what does it mean to be 'Greek'?

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What's in a name? Hellas, Ellada, Greece, Hellene, Greek, even Romios. You've heard them before no doubt. Differing labels regarding identity can confound and perplex us since they set up an inquiry into the self which becomes a labyrinth without end. It's something Greeks excel in: excessive navel gazing on the question of origins (little wonder Greeks coined the word omphalos).

So what does it mean to be Greek? At one end of the spectrum was the Romantic poet Shelley who declared 'we are all Greeks'. I'm guessing he referred to the conceptual mapping and western intellectual consciousness that was forged from the Greek mind. You know the terms: democracy, tragedy, philosophy. Something to be proud in of course, but how have any of us furthered it I wonder?

At the other end of the spectrum is folkloric chic. When I recently viewed My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 on my flight out of Athens recently, I was expecting the worst. The usual cliches were trotted out (loud overbearing women, mama boys, oppressed daughters), yet its underlying message was one of inclusion and acceptance, a synthesis of Greek traditions taken root in the USA. Very American, with a feel good ending you won't find in any Greek tragedy.

Greek identity oscillates between these two poles of ancient splendour and modern kitsch. Closer to home Greek Cafes & Milk Bars of Australiabook is a culmination of a decade long project of photographing and archiving the cafes throughout Australia. It's a comprehensive testimony to Greek pioneers. Here you'll read of the first generation of migrants under the spell of longing born of exile ‘mavri xenitia’. Chain migration was a powerful pull factor to the land down under, with a depressed post war economy a push factor.

Like in America or Canada, Greeks stuck together. Group identity was forged in exile. Cafes like the Parthenon, the Niagara and the New York signified an opulence projected by the migrant, and readily accepted by the city or country dwellers of Australia. And yet few in Greece really know or understand this period in time. I was surprised at the derision aimed at Chicago or Melbourne Greek communities The schizophrenia Greeks in Greece have towards the Greeks abroad is worthy of a Ph. D or psychoanalyst session. The myth of the successful Greek abroad persists, where success is found in the DNA. But few Greeks rarely ask about the context: that the migrant who journeyed to America, Australia, Canada, found a place in a society at a time of peace and economic growth and was thus able to fulfill ambitions of the newcomer during 1945-1975, what the French regard as 'the 30 glorious years'. The migrant success story justifies the nationalism of the Greek yet has to be equally disparaged: it's the dishwasher syndrome ‘piatates’, of doing menial labour that upwardly mobile Greeks ditched when the bourgeoisie gained ascendance over rural Greece. Cafes, restaurants, food services, from Alaska to Alabama to even the Olympia cafe in Annandale, Sydney.

For every Onassis there were countless others for whom money, wealth, power was irrelevant or out of reach. So much for DNA. The migrant also tells fictions about themselves to consolidate their identity: hard work, thrift, and sacrifice were declared essential Greek values. Caught in an existential limbo they find themselves, hedonism becomes a trait to be despised rather than celebrated. Which is why as the Greek crisis continues, the migrant reverses the mirror: Greeks are viewed as lazy, corrupt and self-seeking which validates the sense of loss and the trauma of post war migration. So it's inevitable we end up with a notion of the Greeks abroad who become “more Greek than the Greeks”. It's a back-handed compliment that conceals a sense of loss at abandoned ethics, integrated communities, homogenous society.

In short the idea of identity, Greek or otherwise, needs to be constantly re-interpreted. Whether you are a Romantic poet, or Hollywood star or a humble archivist, the 'Greek' experience offers plenty. A panorama of perceptions in fact, which is another Greek word for all-encompassing.

Jorge Sotirios


Jorge Sotirios has travelled the globe as a travel journalist covering the Arts, Environment, Politics and Culture and has written for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian Literary Review. Part philosopher, part adventurer and always the clown, Sotirios has travelled to 30 countries working as a foreign correspondent. Lonesome George Cést Moi! is his first book and recounts his travels in South America. He is currently finishing his book on the Greek crisis: GRAFFITI OVER MARBLE, to be published in 2017. He has also joined GCT team as a regular columnist.

1 Comment
  1. Kalimera from Surrey

    Jorge, firstly it feels awkward discussing this in English, as -let’s face it- being Greek (whatever that is) has been intrinsically connected with use of the Greek language (primarily through passing down Homer’s works). This has been the common denominator, however in the past centruries it has been sometimes replaced, other times complemented by the religious status (Greek orthodox).

    I totally agree with your observation that Greek identity is dynamic -and I should add multifaceted-. With regards to how we project ourselves to others, unfortunately we tend to stick to a bad taste folklore of yesteryear, which does not even exist back home…zorba, bouzouki (with drum machine and modern keyboard), mousaka, Greek salad, souvlaki, foustanella, you name it…and all this with a continuous effort to homogenise it into a single uniform facet.
    But we are much more complex and diverse than that. As I keep explaining to my non Greek friends, each single region of Greece has its own music, cuisine, dialect(s) (hey, some of us do not even speak Greek…in Greece…), customs etc etc. There is a central spine, things we have in common which hold together these patches into something like a “national identity”, as is the case with all nations. I think that a good way forward is to start projecting (TO OURSELVES FIRST) these different facets and try breaking these chains of uniformity. It is happening in Greece with the younger generations (the few that are still left there….), let’s try working it in the new lands where we all live now.

    This should be done -I believe- with an open mind, with the overcoming of national myths and with the breaking of this bizarre superiority/inferiority complex that we have. We need to come to terms that we belong equally to the balkans, the mediterranean, the near east, the orient and south Europe. Somehow there has been pressure that Greeks are only Europeans (with the definition of N and W Europeans), while everything else is bad. No acceptance of who we are, with all the negatives and positives that come with the geographical/cultural facets that I listed above. Also, we need to go past this possesive approach to culture (“this is ours, its Greek and Greek only”). Well, once you start mingling with neighbours…you see how much we share (and it’s not producive claiming that something is ours only).

    With regards to the Greek diaspora’s assertion that hard work distinguishes it from others, I must say it is a bit of a self afflicted falacy, but so be it, all other diasporas and communities think the same of themselves. We are definitely not the only ones who can claim this. But I would add here that -despite the self doubt that many feel- Greek communities tend to be more inclusive and open than most others. This is not due to the fact that we are some superior race or direct descendants of Socrates. Nope. Unlike many other communities and nations, emigration, trade and living scattered in communities initially across the orient, north africa, the mediterranean and Europe and then further afield (Americas, Australia, SA, ex USSR) has created a blueprint (it was brought by suvival enstinct, not a superior national trait). In other words…we have been used to it for over 28 centuries, it is part even of the Greek identity of the homeland.

    I find very interesting how the new wave of Greek migrants feels totally allienated and uneasy with how things work in the diaspora communities. Whilst the way they function worked for the migrants of yesteryar, it does not apply to the new ones, as now there is a higher educational level, religion has definitely much less importance (if any at all) and…well we left behind a Greece of 2000+ not of the 50’s and the 60’s…(but we come abroad to find the latter again…)

    I think I know enough of our history (especially of the past 2 centuries with the creation of the Greek protectorate state) to understand the reasons behind these phenomena. And there is no right or wrong. History and life are objective and…relentless. I think Greeks (whatever and whoever they are) are now at a big turning point and not a good one. I think that in the light of the current situation we need to redefine our identity and culture, accepting its complexity and diversity, whilst striking a balance between maintaining our core traits (and particularly language and local cultures), whilst remaining inclusive and willing to bring as many as we can to our shrinking fold. We need to go bast the uniform, kitch folklore we have been selling to ourselves and others for 60 years now, accept that there is no single definition of Hellenism and go back to the basics…

    take care