Greeks and the world

This week has seen what many - both on the left and on the right in Greece – have termed a humiliating surrender to the combined force of the fiscal hawks in Northern Europe. But the debt crisis apart, how do ordinary Greeks view the outside world? Spanish.

Emma Hooper
16 July 2015

Mount Parnassus from Galaxidi. Emma Hooper, 2015. All rights reserved.

The Greeks are a proud people. This week has seen what many - both on the left and on the right in Greece – have termed a humiliating surrender to the combined force of the fiscal hawks in Northern Europe. A “destruction of national sovereignty” (Paul Krugman) “extensive mental water boarding” (an EU official).....extreme terms for an extreme situation. But the debt crisis apart, how do ordinary Greeks view the outside world? One word best sums it up: ambivalence.

On the one hand, Greeks have a long maritime and trading history of close interaction with, and emigration to, the rest of the world: Africa, the US, Australia, the UK. Many Greeks living in Greece today have relatives living abroad.  Greece is a country where both the US and the UK have long represented political interference in national affairs – but are both countries which Greeks admire, respect and enjoy – and live in. There is therefore an inherent sense of connectedness with “the world beyond”.  For Greeks, their country is regarded as the birthplace of “Ev̱ró̱pi̱” – Europe, a word of Greek origin. In particular, modern Europe is seen as a civilisation that Greeks consider themselves a fundamental part of, and most definitely want to belong to.

However, on the other hand, modern Greece is a relatively recent phenomenon.  One has also to remember that Greece as a modern nation has only been in existence since the mid-nineteenth century. Four hundred years of Ottoman occupation, which ended in 1920, the long and bitter civil war of 1944-49, the Axis occupation of Greece during the Second World War, the vicious intercommunal fighting on Cyprus in the mid-50s till 1964, and the legacy of the military junta (1967-74) have all also left their marks on the Greek world view. To complicate things further, both the US and the UK have long represented political interference in Greece´s national affairs – but yet are both countries which Greeks admire, respect and enjoy – and live in.

Perhaps these ambivalent attitudes can partly be explained by the Greek love of conspiracy theories and their famously  long memories, a characteristic shared with much of the Balkans, where historical events of centuries ago are viewed as though they happened yesterday. Suspicions of capitalism, anti-Greek conspiracies by international capitalists, US imperialism and paranoia about Turkey still abound.

Greece is a border country, both literally and conceptually. And attitudes reflect this, defining both self-perceptions and those of the outside world. In counterpoint to their Ottoman past, Greeks very much see themselves as western, even though many of their habits and cultural constructs in fact remain very oriental.  Geopolitically, this translates into aligning with countries like the US, whilst simultaneously demonstrating periodic aggressivity towards the outside world and what some have termed a sense of  “dependency - even neediness”.

The negative side of this ambivalence towards the rest of the world has become more explicit during the crisis. An elderly man in a mountain village near Delphi, during Greek Easter celebrations in April this year, commented that “the EU and the euro have destroyed life in Greece, because no one can even afford the Easter lamb any more”: (traditionally all Greeks who can afford it eat roast lamb on Easter Sunday, with the leftovers given to the poor – of whom there are an increasing number).  Another old gentlemen riposted: “Why don´t we give the euro to the Turks, and let (the Eurozone) starve them out instead of us?” Black humour indeed.

On the positive side, it can translate into strong nationalism and pride – not only at what ancient Greece has given the world, but the pride from simply being Greek.  Thus, Greeks often inherently feel that “ours is a more advanced civilisation” – what one might term the “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” syndrome (referencing the film that made all the Greeks seeing it shake their heads ruefully at how spot-on, albeit comedically exaggerated, were the portrayals of the superiority of Greek culture over all others).  Indeed, Greeks will jump at the chance to show how much more civilised they are than other Europeans: for example, the appalling behaviour of drunken British louts in Rhodes, or in parts of Corfu, are both looked down on incomprehensively (Greeks don´t drink just to get drunk) and held up as examples of uncivilised behaviour.

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Easter near Delphi. Emma Hooper. 2015There are of course generational and rural-urban splits in perceptions, as in any country. The Greece of seventy years ago (in common with much of Europe) had much stricter social norms and behavioural codes, largely thrown off by the “cultural revolution” of the late 1960s in Europe, though in Greece, as in Spain, they took longer to cast off.  Young middle class urban Greeks today, like their counterparts in say London, Paris, or Madrid, are cosmopolitan in their music tastes, in their sense of connectivity through being able to choose from, and share in, contemporary cultures across the world. They are “thirsty for the outside world” as one Greek put it to me recently.  Urban young Greeks certainly feel modern, which they are. But they also feel that modern Greece is looked down upon and not taken seriously enough by the rest of the world. Outsiders portraying Greeks as lazy, work-shy, souvlaki-eating bouzouki players (a common stereotype) are analogous to portraying today´s Spain as being all bikinis and bullfights, (the selective stereotypes of the country promoted under Franco).  Both are roundly rejected by modern Greeks and Spaniards. In Greece, therefore, there are contradictory feelings: of responsibility as being the birthplace of Europe; yet shame at being on the receiving end of patronising “Orientalist” treatment (never more so than at present) by Northern Europe.  

Greeks are famously hospitable to foreigners. Yet, some feel that Greeks “want the outside world, but just not to have it here”.  This translates into a strong sense of nationalism and of the sense of being Greek (by birth, and not possible – till recently – by acquisition).  However this can also result in suspicion of, and hostility to, newly-arrived population groups. It has to be remembered that in-migration to Greece is a recent phenomenon: indeed, Greece used to be a place of emigration, but is now playing reluctant host to increasing numbers of immigrants. The outside world can therefore be seen by those “inside” as somewhat threatening. Placing the blame on “outsiders” for anything that goes wrong, from crime to crony capitalism by the wealthy managers of the IMF and foreign banks, is a common pastime across generations. These feelings tend to stem from Greeks´ ties to their national identity. The formation of modern Greece required a bringing together of disparate population groups (including Greeks expelled from modern-day Turkey), on the basis of language, blood and the Orthodox religion. Anything threatening these is thus seen as a threat to national identity. In northern Greece, new borders defining Greece encapsulate this: the crisis over Macedonia is because “Greece” as a concept, is seen by many to go beyond its actual physical borders.  The ability of Greek society to absorb and integrate incomers, yet give them space to hold onto their differences, is still limited and is difficult for many Greeks to deal with.

The world beyond Greece is therefore both embraced and rejected by Greeks – often simultaneously.  But in today´s globally-connected world, over time, and given the advent of improved financial and economic security, that embrace will surely trump rejection.

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