Monday, May 21, 2012

This is (new) Greece…

For a few hours a day, I feel the need to escape. I turn off the TV, the laptop, my phones - I try to shut the world out. I go to the gym and for a few hours I don’t think about anything. I always walk through a large park on my way to the gym. The park is clean, well-maintained, is filled with shady trees and green grass, there are children laughing on the playground, people jogging, there is a small outdoor theater where various performances are held during the summer. For me, this park was always a kind of haven, and now more than ever, it has become a refuge for everyone seeking a break from reality. I often visit the park on Sundays, (when it is especially packed) and sit on the grass in the shade with my Sunday paper, enjoying the spring weather and the pleasant surroundings.  

Earlier in the year, when I joined the gym and met the staff, they asked me about my background. When I told them that I am Greek-American they only had one question for me: why are you still here? In a half-joking manner they commented that now when so many people are trying to get out of Greece and find opportunities in other countries, you remain here instead…

Almost 20 years ago, when I first came to Greece, Greeks would ask me many questions. Which country do you love better – Greece or America? Where do you prefer to live? Do you feel more Greek or more American? I knew what people wanted to hear – that I love Greece the most, that I can’t imagine living anywhere else, that I most identify with my Greek side. However, people were mostly puzzled by my replies (I love both countries, I feel like I live between two countries, I feel both Greek and American.) Many times people would persist and try to elicit the answers they wanted to hear. What they were really getting at was where does your allegiance lie? Perhaps they wanted me to say that I chose Greece over America, so as to reinforce or justify their own feelings about their own choices.

As Greek immigrants in America my parents were accepted, they were welcomed and respected; they worked hard and gained much. As the child of immigrants I too was accepted, was never made to feel like I did not belong; I had the same opportunities as everyone else. Being raised in a Greek home, I learned about our heritage and when I got older and started to visit Greece as a student, I studied Greek history, literature, and I even fell in love with Athens itself.

Perhaps being from two countries is like having two great loves - you can never forget either one, never give your heart to only one, you are always missing the one you are not with.

Throughout the years, my American friends saw my life in Greece as something to envy – with my weekend trips to the Greek islands, and my various jobs with interesting businesses and organizations… As much as I tried to explain that life sometimes becomes routine wherever you live, to them, I had an exciting, exotic Greek life.

And now, so many years later, Greeks are asking me very different questions, mainly: why are you still here? My American friends ask the same question: why are you still there? However, I don’t want to answer this question. I can’t answer this question.

After the gym one day, I walked through the park again on my way home. It was mid-afternoon, a very quiet time in the park, the playgrounds are empty and most of the joggers and walkers had gone home… I walked through the center of the almost-empty park, and was pleasantly surprised to see a small group of Pakistanis playing a game of cricket. This is not an unfamiliar sight in many downtown areas of Athens where empty lots are used for makeshift cricket fields. However, I had never seen cricket being played anywhere else, and it was the first time I was seeing it in this park. Cricket is similar to baseball and the kid inside me wanted to run and join the game, and have a turn at bat.

They looked like they were having so much fun – running, laughing and joking with one another – I couldn’t understand what they were saying but I didn’t need to understand their words to know how they felt at that moment. There was a small snack bar nearby and a few people sat there, lingering over their coffees, watching the cricket game with interest. To avoid walking through the cricket field, I walked off to the side, and as I passed the game, unfortunately my adult brain overtook the kid inside me and instead of joining the game, I just offered a shy smile and kept walking.

But before I left, I too turned to linger and watch as the batter swung and hit the ball, sending the others running after it. An elderly man approached the center of the field and when the players returned with the ball, the happy expressions on their faces suddenly changed. The laughing and joking stopped abruptly as they gathered around and the elderly man spoke to them, pointing and gesturing. I was too far away to hear what he was saying but I didn’t need to hear his words to understand what was going on. It was the first and last time I saw a cricket game in this park.

A few days ago, after returning from my ‘escape’ to the park and gym, I turned everything back on - the TV, the cell phone, the laptop. Back to reality. I read about Niko Ago, an Albanian journalist who has been living and working in Athens for 20 years. On Thursday, May 17, Greek authorities notified him that he faces deportation within 30 days because back in 2007-8, he did not work enough hours, which were required to renew his residence permit. However, at the time, his lack of working hours were due to a serious health problem.

I also read about a 78-year-old retired Dutch man who has been living near Monemvasia (in the southern Peloponnese) for almost 20 years. According to a police statement, on Tuesday, May 15 police arrested two local men who are suspected of attacking the 78-year-old man as he walked his dog along the beach. The two men drove up and asked the Dutch man if he was German and when he told them he was Dutch, they physically attacked him, breaking his jaw. They shouted “this is Greece” during the attack.

My cell phone started ringing; the voices from the talking heads on TV got louder as all the speakers begin to shout over each other; outside a gypsy truck drove past and the driver announces through his crackling loudspeaker that he collects all kinds of junk… and I am again lost in a cacophonous world… a new reality, a new Greece.


John Ridgway said...

It seems Greeks are accepted all over the world and given all the opportunity's possible. Yet the Greeks in Greece do not except anybody else, and no opportunity's are given to outsiders.

Very sad situation don't you think?

Unknown said...

Very nice article...

Btw, how do you know the cricket players were Pakistani? It would be hard if not impossible to tell if they were Pakistanis or Indians. Or are all South Asians regarded as Pakistanis?

Anonymous said...

It is really sad to read such an article. No offence but if you are really trying to write a libel, at least spare us the melodramaticism.

Yes racism exist in Greece as it exist in any other country. Discrimination is one of the major issues both in US and in Europe and societies have to do their best to erradicate it. But racism is not the norm... I understand that your intention was not to compare the US to Greece but your starting point is exactly that.

Your parents were accepted in the US and were given the same opportunities as any other Americans because they were legal immigrants. They got into a country and respected its system. The same thing happens to Greece. If you are a legal immigrant you have nothing to fear. Tell me how many opportunities illegal immigrants have in the US? Well I guess the answer to that is "as many as in any other country".

The vast majority of the immigrants living in Greece today is illegal. Well you can say that our system is not the best. You can say that we have a lot of bureaucracy and that it is not easy to get a working visa but that is our system. I mean how different is it in US? How easy is it to go there and stay?

An old guy went on the park and destroyed the beautiful mood by senting everybody away. Even though you didn't hear what he told them you assume that he sent them away because they were immigrants. You assume it is an act of racism. Sorry but there is too much assumption here.

Then again desperately trying to prove how xenophobic the Greeks are, you cite what that you read about an attack against a Dutch guy. Solid facts, I also read about it. As solid however as the fact that those people were arrested and are going to face the consequences of their actions.

It is useles trying to argue with you about how people feel in a country that is "sinking" into chaos. People are scared and desperate. What everybody is looking for, is a way to survive and not lose everything. Yes people are asking "what the hell are you doing in Greece" and that is not a contradiction as you think. People are not less proud of their history, their colture or the beauty of their land. People are disappointed because they cannot have what you can have in the US. Stability and prosperity.

If you cannot understand that about people, you will not be able to understand nor the Greeks neither yourself.

matia14 said...

Thank you for reading my blog and for your reply. It's nice to see that I sparked various opinions and discussion.

"It is useless trying to argue with you" - No one is arguing here, my intention is not to argue. (I think perhaps you are arguing with yourself.)

I want people to read what I write and draw their own conclusions. If you think my article is melodramatic, that's ok; I simply write about what I see and experience and it is up to the reader to decide for himself/herself and believe whatever they want.

No one is attacking Greece, no one is saying we are "less proud" of our culture and history. No one is trying to take our proud past and history away from us. No one can ever take that away from us.

I am also bitterly disappointed that I cannot have stability and prosperity here, a country which I chose to live in and make a life in - a country I've invested in, a country where I've been working and paying taxes for almost 20 years... It pains me when my American friends ask me why I'm still here - in their eyes Greece has become a place that one should leave... Did you ever think our country would become like this? I didn't. And it's killing me, it's killing all of us.

People are certainly scared and desperate and it is exactly in situations like this that people's actions are derived from fear and desperation - not from logical thinking.

As far as "legal immigrants in Greece having nothing to fear" perhaps this is an issue that is better addressed to legal immigrants in Greece - I would like to hear from them about how they feel - I can't make assumptions. That Dutch man was a legal foreigner in Greece. I wonder how he feels now. Niko Ago is a legal immigrant in Greece. I wonder how he feels now, too.

When I first came here, (as a Greek citizen) my Greek wasn't perfect in the beginning and when I was trying to rent apartments (I moved many times...) I'd go see an apt and many owners (without knowing anything about me besides my first name) - would tell me the apt was already rented. Only when I told them I was Greek and showed them my Greek passport would they say "ohhh, ok, you're Greek! I thought you might be Albanian and I don't want to rent the apt to an Albanian" - I'm not making any assumptions/comparisons or making blanket statements, I'm just telling the truth (some people didn't care what I was, as long as I could pay the rent) but this was my experience with quite a few owners back in the 1990's...
Yes, racism does exist in every country, but in our country a neo-Nazi party won 6.97% of the votes in the May 6 election. And that says something about Greece whether we want to admit it or not... And I don't like what this says about the country I live in...

Anonymous said...

Again, I believe that you are making the same mistake. You are generalizing. Seriously what does it say that a far right wing party has taken 7% in the last elections? Do you wanna call them Neo Nazis? Cool no problem with me. Even so would you go to an extent of calling every voter of theirs a Neo Nazi too?

Yes far right wing parties are on the rise all around Europe. France, Italy, Austria, Finland, Holland etc. All of these countries have far right wing parties represented in their parliaments. Some would go one step further and call the Republicans a far right wing party. What does this say for the American people?

You have personal experiences. No objection to that but you are not the only one. I studied in Italy for 2 years and I really have stories to tell.. I have experienced racism and I detest it, that doesn't mean however that I cannot see past it. That doesn't mean that I cannot understand that racism "manifests It self" when people feel that they run out of options in managing their own society.

Now I live in Germany. People here seem to be more sensitive in matters such as these. The discrimination however still exists. What if it is not about your nationality but about your financial status. The feeling and the attitude is just the same. I explain myself. To rent an appartement here you need to prove that you have an income that rises above a certain limit. If you can't then you are doomed to live in the ghetto part of the city. What should I start saying about the Germans?

Back to the point. What people do, reflects simply the social and political status of a country at a certain moment. Back in the '90s the first wave of albanian immigration to Greece (we never had such a massive wave of immigrants before), was led by ex convicts who had just been released out of jail after the fall of the former Yugoslavia. That is a fact. The actions of these people created a deep fear and therefore biases in the Greek society. Today most Albanians are pretty much intergraded. They have families they have acquired properties they run businesses. That is how it is done everywhere. Check out the history of the irish immigrants in the US for example. The "funniest" of all? Now it is the Albanians who say "The foreigners take our jobs" (meaning the Pakistani and the Afghan people).

Today the situation dictates that this country is ether going to find it's orientation or it is going to perish. Everyone thinks that knows the right way but nobody has the integrity to admit that we are all guessing. Here comes the "logical thinking" that you mentioned above. Unfortunately in Greece nobody knows how it is done, we just have to invent it... Again.

matia14 said...

Generalizing? "the first wave of albanian immigration to Greece was led by ex convicts" -
Financial discrimination? So if I want to rent an apt in Ekali and I can't prove to the owner that I can afford the rent, then I am being financially discriminated against and forced to live in the slums? Seriously?
Telos panton - let's hope we can all find our orientation and make Greece a better place otherwise we all lose...

Anonymous said...

Some amazingly unconstructive comments here.

Thanks for sharing your perspective.

Anonymous said...

I am what you could call an immigrant here in Greece, I am British, been here a few years.

I speak only a little Greek, still learning. Renting a flat is no problem, he even lowered the rent and did not require a deposit, he told me in broken English that English men are gentlemen. so no problems.

Do I feel safe in Athens - Yes I do, but I am dark skinned and I am often mistaken for a Greek person.

On the other hand my wife is a Filipina, she feels safe most of the time when she is by herself, when with me she has no fear at all.

My business died 18 months ago, so only my wife working part time, there is no work for me, mainly due to my lack of Greek speaking skills.

Golden dawn do worry me, they are violent fascists, they do course trouble and beat up coloured immigrants. and they want all immigrants out, legal and illegal.

But there ratings have dropped in the polls, that is a good thing.

Greece can be frustrating as hell sometimes, but it is a wonderful place to live, yes it is struggling, I struggle with the Greeks, they know and appreciate that.

So like you I have not given up, just carry on.