Being greek is a lot like being bipolar without a formal diagnosis. Now after a season of living in the epicenter of global Greek culture, Athens, I have become even more bipolar than when I started. The benefit of living in two worlds, I have always affirmed, lies in the ability to see them half objectively. I know this post might seem redundant, as if we are covering the same ground, over and over, making the same claims, falling into the same generalizations, but here is the scoop once more. I have and always will have a love/hate relationship with my Greek culture.
Reasons to Love Greek Culture
Philotimo: the Greek value of seeking to accomplish good for the sake of good. This value is so integral to Greek culture that other cultures need a seminar to understand it. A Hellene with philotimo will literally take the shirt off her back, give the food off her own table to give to you. The startling examples of hospitality, kindness, and generosity–to absolute strangers–has brought me to tears. Speaking from personal experience, I have been offered shelter, warmth and a hot cup of tea in the middle of the night with a family who picked me up off the side of the Ethniki highway. Who would do this in America? To utter strangers.
That deep-rooted sense of honour keeps my neighbour from accepting money that is due for common charges because she sensed I was having trouble with finances. In my daughter’s elementary school, when the other children in the class noticed one or two of their classmates not eating lunch (their parents suffering through the crisis could not even afford to pack them more than a fruit for lunch), the entire class pitched in to bring in extra food so they would not go hungry.
The list of example of philotimo go on an on. I am sure you can think of more poignant examples.
Independence and a Fighting Spirit
Hellenes are a proud independent race. They have proved the underdog champion on more than one history lesson. From antiquity to the present day, heroes have fought like Greeks. They will not back down or cower even in the face of probable total annihilation. In more than one armed combat, they have shown bravery in the face of immanent death. I believe this spirit is tied to philotimo as honour and the sense of doing the right thing at all costs fuel the courage to go on fighting. No wonder one of the most ancient war dances called the Pyrrhic, pyrikos, was more a celebration of life than death and with its quick tempo and agile footing prepared the soldier about to go into battle with the frenzied zest for life even when facing death.
And this sense of independence and fighting spirit is not just limited to the battle field. In other realms of life, Greeks are known to be resistant at best and stubborn at worst. They will not give up until their needs are met (witness the constant protests with regards to the austerity measures.) You can rest assured that a Greek will go down fighting, till the death.
Ingenuity and Intelligence
Greeks are children of the mind. They always have been. I don’t need to harp on this point. The greatest ideas, structures, and inventions have come out of this small group of people. So intelligent is the Greek mind that science has only come full circle to recognize that the Greeks had it right all along, be it the cosmos, biochemistry, the polis.
Reasons to Hate Greek Culture
Just as much as I love my culture, there are times when I curse the day I am a part of this race. Here are reasons to hate Greeks, generally speaking, of course.
In case you haven’t taken a ride on the Metro yet, or lived in Greece for more than a week, you must understand that Grreks are rude, pushy obnoxious with incredibly nasty attitudes. Just this morning I had a lady, a nicely attired professional working woman, literally push my back into the standing crowd just because I was pushing on her gloved hand to steady myself. Another morning I heard the worse curse words aimed at the Virgin Mary, her son, and the entire family of an unwitting commuter who had bumped into a young blood because he had refused to get out of the way.
It has occurred more than once to walk into a business establishment looking for service to have the attendant treat me with utter contempt. Gia stasou, re file, we are in the middle of a crisis, but yet, “tee” the flick of the tongue and the rolling of the eyes, the attendant acts as if I am bothering him by bringing him my business. I had a fast food grill me with a look of death when I politely ask for a glass of water to go with the extra hot noodles. “How dare you ask me for a glass of water?” his look said. “Can’t you see how busy I am here?”
I went into a real estate office looking to buy properties. I am an Amerikanaki so the general consensus is I must have money, but instead of helping me out the agent was playing solitaire on the computer. I kid you not. I tried to hint to her that I would like to see their web page to take a look at surrounding houses for sale, but she had her eyes glued on the screen literally playing in front of my eyes. Is it rudeness, unprofessionalism or just plain stupidity? I can’t tell.
There is no common courtesy in the streets of Athens. “Malaka, malaka,” is every passerby’s middle name. I went livid when standing on a long line to pay for groceries a lady without faking ignorance cuts in front of me without any apology. Or I love the other trick, when waiting with a numbered piece of paper to get service, a grey-haired nasty old man butts into the window ”mono mia erotisi” just one question. Do we look like we are asses waiting in line civilly to get our business taken care of? The jamming of people in lines, the pushing without offering a sorry, it is absolutely infuriating and disgusting. Where did etiquette go?
Conceit and Pride
While it is true that ancient Greece gave a lot to the world, many modern Greeks are still riding on the ancient laurels. But these are dried and withered by now. Since the Second World War, tell me what has the modern state of Greece done to be proud of itself? Corruption? Unrestricted greed?
So full of pride you cannot tell a Greek the truth that at the present day and time, he is a lazy, no-good, philandering do-nothing. In contrast to the value of philotimo, you have the opposite–the hubris, extended pride and “atimia” or “lack of honor.” Greeks can be the biggest con-artists, swindlers and deceivers. Not to stereotype one culture for another but they have been termed the “Arabs of Europe.” Their excessive nationalism makes them kick back their heels on a chair in a kafenio sipping a frappe and twirling a koboloi letting other “secondary citizens” (i.e Albanians, Pakistanis, and other third-worlders) do the grunt work while they admire themselves for having been born Greek, the best nation in the universe. They do much to pat each other on the back and say “Bravo! What a great man you are!” without lifting a damn finger, except of course to light another cig. They can talk and talk and talk, but never accomplish much. They don’t really want to. It is too much work. Why should they work? They are the crowned kings of the universe. Working is below them. For the masses.
Envy/petty jealousy/ and Self-destruction
Like many other Mediterranean cultures, Greeks are highly envious of each other’s success. It is no wonder so many superstitions about the evil eye abound. Greeks act like they want you to get ahead but in reality they simmer with envy. They want you to fail because if you succeed, it makes them feel like a failure. I have seen countless of ruthless practices, especially in business, to cut out rivals by any means necessary. If they want to know what you are doing, it’s because they are comparing your good fortune with theirs. There is no worse enemy for a Greek than another Greek. They thrive on mutual destruction and are prone to cut throat rivalry. They will steal your ideas and designs, spread malicious rumors, and sometimes completely ostracize you. Just one quick example. I overheard a consular employee complain to a friend how he had asked his colleague about applying to a post in another city. His colleague had given him exaggerated information about the post, how it was horrible and dangerous, on purpose so that he would not put in his application as his colleague wanted it for himself.
So, love it or hate it, it is what it is. The culture you were born in.