MY BIG FAT GREEK QUESTION: what does it mean to be ‘Greek’?
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 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 Australia book 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 fulfil 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 Greeks 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 fiction 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. This 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.