Before it became ‘on trend’ for Greeks to liberally season their sentences with English words and phrases, the most commonly asked question I heard since moving to Athens was “apo pou eisai?” (where are you from?).
A simple enough question. But also often loaded with a complex amalgam of the questioner’s preconceptions, ideas, expectations, social psychology, self-esteem, and intent. So there I’d go (again) – doing what I gradually started to realise triggered in me an emotional undercurrent of discomfort, resentment, and apprehension. Explaining myself.
I could not answer where I was from, as a Greek from abroad, without also answering why. Why I had that funny foreign accent. Why I couldn’t speak my own language very well. Why I had been born and raised abroad, where my dad worked as Press Councillor at the Greek Embassy (I felt compelled to add info about his position because it better established me as a true Greek whose father was loyal to his country’s wellbeing). Why my mother, the daughter of a former Albanian Ambassador and an Athenian from one of the oldest Byzantine families, had grown up in the United States. Why my parents lived abroad for many years, and why I grew up in Rome and Cairo. Why I went to only English schools and universities. Why I had that foreign accent. Why I was different.
When I was in my teens, living in the suburb Kifissia, I would sometimes escape the international bubble of my school (Campion, A British-system institution) where my friends came from everywhere as far and wide as Palestine and Israel, Australia, Canada, France, and Uganda, and hang out with the “cool”, slightly older crowd at the then popular Musi Cafe. Around 200 people would gather there every Saturday night, standing around bored (and mostly newly rich, swinging Mercedes car keys around like a komboloi) and small-talking before zooming off to the clubs in Glyfada. That was my first contact with the regular, and often derogatorily-asked “apo pou eisai?”. But it continued and still goes on until this day, in any and every scenario when I come into contact with what I call “Greek-Greeks”.
And the fascinating thing is how much I have learned about myself, and about my country, and its people by being asked and answering that very question.
Back in the late ‘80s and ‘90s Greeks were far more conservative and closed off from the outer world, in the sense of actually travelling abroad, living abroad and exploring different cultures on a wider, deeper level. Americano fashion (501 jeans, Timberland boots, MTV and more) were already a la mode and Greeks were starting to study in the UK, but it didn’t go much further than that. So as a Greek-International I felt detached from the Greek mentality.
When I returned after four years of university studies in England, where I was thrilled to have made so many foreign friends who never commented on my English accent except in complimentary terms (although there were a few cases of British folks suddenly starting to speak to me loud, slow and clear upon discovering I was Greek!), I decided to try harder to connect to my country as a local. But my work for English language magazines and newspapers like The Athens News meant that I again became part of a Greek-something/international family that I worked and socialised within English, in yet another non-Greek bubble. Then I also met the man I eventually married, another Greek-International who was born and raised in London and with whom I spoke English.
Are these all excuses? To some degree, definitely. I could have made more of an effort, but the truth is that I felt so safe in my undefined, accepting world that I didn’t really bother.
When you are born and raised abroad or half-something you are essentially somewhat rootless, and can float like a feather from country to country, never feeling the need to settle. At the same time, you feel a gap somewhere, because you feel that you don’t quite belong anywhere. You are generally more open-minded to other cultures and religions, often multi-lingual, and a little more flexible in your ideology and free-spirited; those who have never left their city seem somewhat mysterious, if not unfortunate to you. You feel you can never truly understand them and they can never truly understand you. And as I wrote earlier, you start to feel resentful at having to explain, if not justify yourself for being who you are.
There used to be a high-voltage charge of suspiciousness in the voice of some people when they asked me “apo pou eisai?”. This sense of thorny inquisition only got worse when Greece began being flooded by refugees from the eastern European and Balkan states and later Asia and Africa. I sometimes felt as if I was being asked whether I deserved to be here and call myself Greek, and if so, why couldn’t I pronounce or express that correctly in Greek? The fact was that I never took a single lesson of Greek in my life and often struggled to express myself to locals, but I persisted with reading and especially listening, and one day in a taxi everything changed when I managed to give my own take during an intense discourse in a perfectly satisfactory, fluently Greek way.
Today things have changed dramatically, and I see that because of how people ask me that question now. Today, a grand majority of Greeks are completely different in their approach to foreigners, Diaspora Greeks and anyone with an accent. Many Greeks have been travelling far and wide for decades, living abroad because of the financial crisis and returning with a fresh awareness of what “foreign” and “international” means, even in relation to their own personal identity. Greeks have increasingly embraced global cultures in all its realms – from Indian yoga and Colombian street food to Argentinian Tango dancing and alternative British music. It’s seeped under the skin and is here to stay. Whether Greeks like it or not, their country has become multinational on many levels, and far-right extremists might still be a force to be reckoned with, but cannot wipe out the new vision and respect that many Greeks have discovered towards the outer world.
Because of my accent I have been called a “Russian prostitute” by an old man I simply asked street directions from (I was dressed in a long coat and trainers not a pole dancing outfit), I have been asked whether I’m sure I’m Greek (honestly, this one has happened several times believe it or not), and my opinions or ideas have been dismissed in debates because “you’re not truly Greek”.
All these incidents made me frightened, sad and bitter, but I overcame all those feelings and have never looked back since the day a friend opened my eyes to a completely different way of seeing the “apo pou eisai?” question: “Most people are just intrigued,” she said. “They are just interested to know your story. They want to know about the places you’ve lived in. Yes, some are suspicious, judgemental and weird. But who cares about them?” Ever since my friend said that I smile when I am asked (Ok, sometimes, but rarely I still cringe), and try to answer as briefly and honestly as possible. I just say: “I am Greek”.