Every summer when I’d visit Greece growing up in the 8os and 90s, we’d play out the typical Greek American vs. Greek Greek competition with my Greeky Greek cousins who stayed behind. “Kala,” they’d say, “Greece is better than America. We enjoy the life here. You are slaves to the capitalism.” My aunts, those know-it-alls, would chime in, “Kai bebai, you are the robotakia, with your gravatakia and balistakia going to work every day. No freedom, you are economic slaves.”
We’d argue back, “Ta chalia sas echete.” How can you be proud of a country that takes two years to fulfill a request for a new phone, where you can’t be sure you can get to work because you never know which union of which mode of public transportation will strike (they have a website dedicated to letting you know who, where and how long will be holding an apergia now called apergia.gr). You can’t build a country when no one works or tries to work but still wants a BMW, Diesel jeans, and Nikes, and Ray Bans to boot. “You guys, the Greeks, are the Arabs of Europe,” one cousin remarked. “No, they’re the Puerto Ricans of Europe,” said another.
As an “Amerikanaki” I was made to feel like some sort of foolish ant that slaves all summer long while my carefree cousins, the grasshoppers, fiddled and sang and drank their cares away on the Cycladic islands. I had a feeling that that derogatory term they had for us, “ta Amerikanakia,” hid an underlying envy for us who came from the dominant culture they were trying to emulate but also honestly expressed their Greek arrogance, the playing it “manga”. The Greek way was always about getting something for nothing, or at least the minimum you had to put in. It was about enjoying the day, taking it easy, making time for what was really important–a good meal, a pleasant chat with a friend, having “kefi.” Having kefi for living did not involve having a stressful career, just a sure and steady paycheck to live decently. The ideal career was in civil service–great benefits, security, and less stress. This was not a bad way to go.
They would look down upon the poor suffering fools their cousins in America; they had heard stories of our starting work young at age 14 or younger if our parents owned a food establishment. How we had to go to school and then work till 10 without much time for hanging out. They heard about our regimented lives and how we cherished the trips to Greece because of all the fun we had been deprived of. It was as if our Greek cousins were rubbing it in our face; like we were fools to work so hard and not enjoy ourselves. As if we had chosen the wrong way to live our life. “Pity them the poor slaves” was the message.
But now, 30 years later, the proverbial winter has set in. The grasshopper is starving and going around begging to his more responsible, albeit less exciting cousin, the ant. The truth is our Greek cousins had been living in a bubble for several decades, but now it has burst. You cannot get something for nothing. Your days in the sun cannot go on indefinitely if no one is working to pay the taxes that pay for the clean up of the beaches, the ferries to and fro. While we do overwork ourselves to the point of depression to the point of disconnect with other fellow family and friends in the US, thanks to the ingrained Protestant work ethic, we cannot be ridiculed for doing the right thing. That piccaro philosophy that glorifies cheating if you can get away with it is not something we adhere to in America. Honest hard work pays off here and we look up to those who accomplish their goals the right way–by working hard and rising through the ranks from bus boy to franchise owner, from store clerk to CEO. With the crisis ever looming in Greece, where so many of our cousins have had to flee for food and a paycheck, it seems as if we, “the Amerikanakia”, have made the better choice.
The difference in the fable is the end: in answer to the starving grasshopper, the ant says,”You sang all summer long, now dance” and left him to starve. We do not let our cousins starve, but invite them into our storehouses so they can eat because it’s better to have a beach dance party when everyone in the family is fed and happy.