The culture of Greece is something new to me. Before embarking on this journey, I thought I had an idea of what Greeks were like, and how the country is run. I sort of don’t remember what exactly that idea was, but I have a different idea now.
Greece is all about trust. About social connections, and a between-friends mentality. The place is run by people who enjoy going out to a taverna with friends and drinking and listening to music and dancing. I’m positive this can be overstated in its importance, but the phenomenon of relaxing through life exists here in a big way. And that’s different. That’s cool.
A lot of my insights into the culture of this place I gained by talking to Theo or Maria or Kristina or Kostis or whomever Greek person was nearby (huge shout-outs to every one of them). And I think this culture is special. Not the most suited towards running an efficient and accountable economy perhaps, but extremely good for the people within the community. There’s always an exception to the rule. There’s usually something you can do. You just have to know someone.
And that is corruption in its purist form. Having a rule that can be broken at will by the watchers is undeniably hypocritical. But on the other hand, if corruption is the rule, then how can you be offended at corruption? It so often works that it’s just part of the society. People don’t have to pretend to not care about things which they might not care about.
It’s a different mentality, and I don’t think that this system is all that bad. It means that to have success in business or life or whatever work might be desired, one simply has to ask, in just the right way, to just the right person. And suddenly life is easy.
It sounds like I’m hyping up corruption and nepotism, and to an extent I am. It did work for the Greeks for a long time to operate in this way. It was only after they became a part of the European Union and became only a part of a larger game run by financial wizards in Germany and France that everything went to hell.
But everything did go to hell, that’s the thing. After the government books fell apart in 2008, the economy hasn’t recovered. Only around now is there any hope of major economic growth for Greece for the near future. For perspective, most people have lost a little less than half their income from when the crisis started.
But it’s not so visible as I expected. Carlene, our teacher and editor, she sent me and a couple others out on a story to capture the protest culture in Thessaloniki. She said something about writing about the drumbeat, and the constant schedule of protest and how its alive and well in this city, and to be honest that description didn’t ring true. Sure, there is a constant schedule of protests, but nobody in the streets every day is seriously expecting change because they’re out there stopping traffic for two minutes and yelling things. No, they’re hoping to make their cause or organization or party a little more visible and attract attention. This is not a bad thing, but it doesn’t call to mind any one drumbeat.
Rather a more festive type of drumming came when the whole of Thessaloniki went on strike on a Wednesday. The only people working were a couple cops, the street musicians and the food service people, but this too didn’t seem quite right to me. I mean I’ve seen protest before. People would gather and march in the streets of Ferguson in north county within the St. Louis area when I was in high school. Highways would be stopped by protestors and I’d turn on the television to see people throwing tear gas capsules back at the police. With Ferguson there was some chaos to be sure, but there was also focus. An expectation, a need for some sort of change, some response.
I just don’t see that here. Mostly the strike on Wednesday seemed like a citywide celebration or a parade. People chanted in Greek, which I don’t understand, and obviously, the vibe of the marches depended on who you were walking alongside, but they were marching in solidarity mostly. To be fair, I was by the communists, and a big thing with them is solidarity within social classes. But the teacher’s union felt the same way, and even the dogs running in the street looked excited.
The story that we ended up turning in is one that I’m happy with, and I think it accurately represents the protests as they are. But honestly, I’ve come to appreciate the street art much more than the protests in this place. That’s what’s truly interesting to me—what people write on walls, and how common and quality it is.
I’m getting off track. Here’s a new train of thought.
A visit to Greece is usually made nicer by friendly people who happen to make a lot of their money off tourism. It’s no accident that they specifically are friendly to strangers, perhaps more than the average citizen, but Greeks are also just friendly. It reminds me of the Midwest more than I expected. When I buy souvlaki from the Kantina truck, I get smiles. When I go to the Municipal Library I see people studying, so maybe not that expressive, but the receptionist is nice, even without knowing too much English. My experience here is not like Boston, where people are cold and there’s a huge difference between strangers and friends. Greece, or at least Thessaloniki, is warm and personal.
While gathering background info from people in Thessaloniki I’ve heard from a random assortment of voices. A North African man from Ghana named Ferris who makes a living half-selling (giving and then asking for money) colored wristbands to tourists (he had a lot to say about the experience of the refugees or migrants who don’t have papers from back home, yet still live in Greece). I talked to two motorcyclists from Turkey who were stopping by in Thessaloniki and happened to grab some tea at the same place I was at (they commented on the Greek view of the Turkish and the similarities of the cultures). I met and made friends with this journalism student named Kostis who has his own radio show on a volunteer internet radio station (Radio Nowhere). I saw a cool old dude smirking at a passing protest and interviewed him, and it turned out he is an anarchist himself, but from an Italian school of thought more based in peacefulness and words. I even met two Greek Jehovah’s Witnesses who helped me with my Turkey story by mentioning the sporting and television rivalries between Greece and Turkey.
Those people are the people I want to talk about when I talk about Greek culture. They weren’t busy, or maybe they were, but they didn’t seem worried about it. They took the time to tell stories and fill me in, and that is very Greek.
In talking with Kristina, until recently my RA and now a friend, I’ve gotten a bit of a feel for what young people are interested in here. They aren’t concerned necessarily with politics. They go about their business and worry about their lives and their studies and leave it at that. Obviously everyone has knowledge and keeps in the loop with current events somewhat, but the political activism of the Greek people can be overstated.
Mostly, Greeks seem to want to chat, relax and drink (coffee or ouzo, either way). They find pride in being Greek, sometimes more so than is historically accurate, but not so much that they can’t admit to a little nationalistic silliness.
And that historical tick comes as no surprise, what with all the random ancient buildings everywhere, sticking out from under roads and in the middle of squares. There’s clearly so much to call back to; it’s no surprise that referring to history to affirm oneself is popular here. You don’t need to look that hard for evidence of past glory.
And that’s as close to an ending as I can come up with. The past is on display here, but it’s also visibly sticking out from under roads. There’s too much of it to comprehend, let alone put in one piece. But having too much material to write about it is what I refer to as a good problem.
To good problems