Topical anti-Greek jokes have been making unsurprising rounds of the Internet. The Economist references a joke currently in circulation in Bratislava in an article describing Slovak indignation towards what they perceive as Greek indolence.
“For 400 euros, you can adopt a Greek. He'll stay at your place, sleep late, drink coffee, have lunch and then take a nap, so you can go to work.”
To label an entire race lazy is undoubtedly unjust. However, it’s hard to deny that the Greeks are quirky and complicated. Patricia Storace, an American poet, captures this Greek mosaic in her first and only work of non-fiction in what turns out to be a charming and reflective travelogue. The book was published way back in the nineties but the acuity of Storace’s observations make them as relevant today as they were then, perhaps more so in light of the Greek crisis.
Storace sees the things others would miss. She is erudite but never pompous. Her erudition is tempered by her sense of humour and her nose for irony. The fact that she speaks Greek is perhaps her greatest strength because it allows her to reach out to a fair number of Yannis, Giannis and Kostas (average joes) with a healthy sprinkling of yia-yias (the indomitable black-clad Greek grandmother). It also permits her access to an intriguing language. “Greek makes no distinction between painting, drawing, and writing, so that a painter is a zographos, a writer of life, zoi, and a cartoonist is a writer of laughter.” A writer of life, what wonderful imagery! I have always been fascinated how words often transform in meaning when transferred to a new language but retain the soul of the original like the word metaphora which in Greece refers to a moving company. Storace too finds such nuggets, “I have some letters to mail, so we stop outside the post office, where the domestic and international boxes are marked, to my permanent pleasure, esoteric and exoterico.” At other times, the distinction is more facetious. Greek lacks the ‘h’ sound and as a result its speakers sigh by saying “ack, ack” and drops hs in foreign words – “I meet an actor appearing in a production of Hamlet, which conjures up unpredictable private images, since the Greeks pronounce it ‘Omlet’.”
Storace’s inferences are persuasive but I did sense a tendency to stereotype. The odd bit about her writing is that you enjoy her generalizations, (which by the way feel very perceptive) so much that you want to overlook them. One of my favourites is this following excerpt, which contrasts the Greek male attitude towards smiling with the American one.
“In the Greek vocabulary of the face, smiling does not include the nuance of power that it does in the United States. Roosevelt’s sunny optimistic smile had an air, for Americans, of invincibility, of mastery of both good and bad fortune, because to possess happiness is a kind of authority in America, barely comprehensible to Taki, who saw smiling as a kind of placation, a sign of submission, and in whose native tongue the verb “to laugh” also means “to deceive.” This different language of the face begins at passport control in each country. The Americans smile in their booths with an easy self-assurance that enjoyment cannot threaten; the Greeks scowl theatrically, implacably, since a smile is not considered an impressive facial expression, and a male face is meant above all to impress, not to charm.”
I love the bossiness, nosiness and parochialism that the Greeks are so prone to. Nothing demonstrates it better than this encounter between Storace and an unfamiliar neighbour. “The doorbell rings, and I answer it a little uncertainly, not knowing quite how cautious to be. Standing outside is a small, sturdy woman with carefully architected gray curls. She is holding a tray of some unrecognizable cookies, and is dressed in a flowered smock. The entire floor smells like a swimming pool, thanks to the heavily chlorinated cleansers popular in Greek households. “Welcome to Greece,” she says, “I am Kyria Maro. If you have any questions, knock at my door. I am a friend of your landlady’s, so if you cannot reach her for some reason you can come to me. Any questions at all. And,” she adds in grandmotherly tones, as if she were imparting some domestic golden rule about doing the dishes or the frugal use of electricity, “you know, Macedonia is Greek.”” This being around the time when Yugoslavia split up and one of its splinters dared to sully the pride of the Hellenes by appropriating the name Macedonia and all its Alexander the Great related trappings.
It is easy forget how old Greece is, although the Greeks never seem to tire of reminding outsiders. So, it’s not surprising that references to the classical world turn up in the most unexpected of places.
““Perhaps it takes an old soul to feel it, but there you can feel the presence of Alexander as nowhere else, not even in Macedonia, which after all was only the country of his boyhood, not of his manhood. But Alexandria was a city that came to him in a dream, when he was given the omen that he had chosen the right site, through certain verses of Homer’s that were quoted by a white-haired man in the dream. And it was in Egypt that it was confirmed that Alexander was a god and the true son of Zeus. Oh, yes, there are proofs of it in his life story. You know, for instance, about the sign that occurred just before Alexander fought the Persian king Darius at the battle of Gaugamela? Alexander was addressing the troops, and inspiring them to victory over the barbarians. He raised his right hand and prayed that if he were the true son of Zeus the Greeks should be protected and should win this battle. There had been some debate about the right moment to attack the enemy, but at that instant an eagle, the bird of Zeus, flew down and hovered over Alexander’s head, then the bird itself led the Greek troops into the battle, which they won. You don’t believe this? There were eyewitnesses.” It is the first time that I have been told a story out of Plutarch while my hair is being blow-dried. He seems a person who would enjoy the small erudition of knowing the source, so I guess, since he hasn’t mentioned it, that he may not know it is from Plutarch—or that it is a story.”
The “he” in question is the hairdresser in case you hadn't caught on.
But, back to language which I think reveals far more about the psyche of a nation than one would imagine. On the wall of a school, Storace reads, “You are all masturbators”. She interprets this as meaning that the subject of epigraph is “so low in the world (that he) can’t afford either a prostitute, a schoolboy, or a wife.” The misogyny Storace finds in Greece is overwhelming, coincidentally the benefactor of the word. Women are constantly getting slapped on Greek television and perhaps in reality as well. As one of her acquaintances poignantly remarks “I am not aware of anything in our criminal code that defines beating or any kind of physical violence to women as a criminal offense. But for the mutilation or any physical damage done to statues, the penalties are very severe.” Incongruent behaviour for a nation that adulates a goddess – panagia mou -my holy little virgin.
I found it fascinating the Greek identity (whether they want it or not) is quite disparate from the Western one. The Greeks themselves don’t want to identified with the east, especially the Turks if not anyone else. They see themselves as the originators of Western civilization. But, they skipped the entire Renaissance because their nation was then an Ottoman colony. The dichotomy of Greece and the West is a dominant theme in Dinner with Persephone and pops up in all sorts of places including the theatre.
“It is another lesson in the different quality of the Greek school of acting. Aura’s husband, a Dutch cinematographer, tells me he is constantly aware of the peculiarity I perceive. There is a sense less of communicating individual personality than of revealing a concealed divinity; the player doesn’t seem to develop a character through time from the interaction of event and personality, but instead to incarnate, to be the vehicle for the presence of something timeless. I think back to the Feast of the Metamorphosis in August. For us, heirs of the western Romans, the idea of metamorphosis comes through Ovid, and conjures up change, permeability, transformation. But the Greek image is in the repeated icons of the metamorphosis of the human Jesus, revealed as eternal god—perhaps the model for this acting style, the ultimate feat of theatre.”
I enjoyed this witty and intelligent book immensely. However, I was let down by this apologetic comment attributing Islamic fanaticism to the West, “... the anecdotes she (Persephone Delta, an early 20th century Greek writer) tells of her father beating their gardener for an imagined presumption, and of a British officer slashing an Arab’s face with a whip, provoke the thought that the roots of Islamic fundamentalism may not lie in the Koran, but in Europe.” Ironic then that Storace’s attempt to be politically correct about Islam (before it was fashionable to do so) takes a drubbing when she lands on the coast of Turkey in a town that spoke Greek less than a century ago.
“The women shopping wear their long overcoats and scarves; some are fully veiled in black, some in Turkish trousers in electric color combinations, topped with blouses in flaming colors covered with sequins, these last unveiled. Although most of the women in the market are lumpen with coverings, in many of the shop windows you see posters of belly dancers, marking a hopeless sexual polarity. On the one hand, there are the women in sequins and flames, jeweled bras and pubic coverings, the stuff of sexual fairy tale; on the other, women covered like people guilty of a great crime, or hideously disfigured, objects as much of fear and loathing as of desire. These women can have no reality on either side of the veil. And the veil posits in an ugly way that men’s sexual relations with women are fundamentally rapes, enactments of uncontrollable lust and violence; but the veil is itself a violation, a woman who wears it has already been raped.”
I can't deny, however, that Storace is anything but a brilliant writer. I have quoted far more than I intended to but I want to end with one more where the writer berates and celebrates her lack of photographic skills.
“Any picture I take would fossilize these trees, while in my memory they will be growing. My looking at them is my attempt to record them, these wellsprings of flowers so inexhaustible that the bright pink blossoms dropped on the green grass are mere overflow, not loss at all. I look at them as you listen to the talk of someone you love, watch his face, the infinite unphotographable range of his expressions.”