My skin is now tanned. My eyes carry a sadness around the corners, and I have the distinct feeling that I have trapped a breath in my chest, that I can’t seem to be able to breath out.
Last week, i had to visit my home country, as I needed to attend two funerals. I am Greek. I grew up in the hot, buzzing streets of Athens. People around me walked slow, talked fast, argued loudly and laughed louder. They gathered in the squares, with tea lights roped on the trees over them, the pavement cooling down under the night sky, children talking to each other, adults talking about each other, traditional music in the background for the older ones and foreign music in the foreground for the younger ones. Later we would go to the open-air cinema, eating a cheese-pie and coca cola from the can, reading the subtitles under the well groomed Hollywood faces.
I felt the sun kissing my face in the long summers, I run in the olive fields and dived in the crystal blue seas. I had this constant smell of sunscreen, and my skin was always salty, my hair always wet and my bathing suit always on. I would pick figs from the neighbour’s tree, and eat them under its shade. I smelt feta cheese roasting in the oven, fresh bread on the bakery windows, cheese and spinach pies resting on the kitchen counter.
Before mobile phones made me instantly available, my parents knew they could always find me in the city centre. I spent hours in Eleftheroudakis bookshop, walking down the isles, touching the spine of every book, eyes widening at the sight of unusual images, interesting titles, exotic covers. I would then make my way down to Metropolis, a CD and later DVD shop, and make countless wish-lists. I would walk down Monastiraki, Sintagma, Ermou, stopping in front of the shop windows, looking at the things in the shop, the people in the shop, the exchange of money for objects of desired happiness.
I don’t want to give an idea of false perfection. All of the above always happened behind a smoke screen, kindly provided by the 20pack of cigarettes of the person next to you. Compulsive smoking, innate judgement, and an unjustifiably rigid sense of morality. Anything that deviated from the norm has to be hidden; if not hidden, punished; and if not punished, at least humiliated. Men can (and often are encouraged to) cheat, personally and professionally, as long as they are white heterosexuals with an embedded sense of entitlement. Homosexuality is ridiculed and hidden, represented as a thinly tolerated anomaly that should be buried away from public view, varying from a moustache to a full blown wife and children.
The military is mandatory, meaning that you have to give a year of your life to stay in a camp in the far end corner of the country – unless your family has political connection, and can secure you an office position three blocks away from your semi-detached house. Indeed, family connections are everything: it is the only way to get a job, progress in it, make any kind of money and then hide it from the tax office. Tax evasion is a skin cell of the Greek epidermis; why do something right, when you can do it quick? What is the greater good if it’s not good for you?
The younger generation is sitting in the squares, having coffee and complaining about life. A small percentage will stay on the complains, and will not move into action. If you can stay at your parents home, file a few papers in their work place and have enough pocket money to pay you club entry, then why skip the sports pages for the Job classifieds? However, a big percentage is looking for jobs in their chosen field, with degrees from Greek and foreign Universities gathering dust in their bedroom drawers as they are knocking on doors that are locked and bolted. without a strong connection, a diploma is just worth as much as the paper that it is printed on. And then, if your parents can not really support you, what?
There is a small tinge of racism, especially towards Albanians, Pakistanis and Nigerians, economic refugees that are accused for stealing jobs from the Greeks; jobs that a lot of Greeks would consider beneath them, or too badly paid. Even so, extreme left parties have gained momentum, with a range of accusations against them.
All of these viewpoints are not shared by every Greek; but unfortunately, the overwhelming majority would nod acceptingly with most of the above, if not all. I don’t. I loved growing up in Greece, but once I did, I was unsure about how I felt in it. I did not really fit in all of the times, in most ways. Even though I was a piece of the puzzle, my edges seemed slightly different. I did not fit the profile, the macho tough bike-loving, sports-playing, cigarette in one hand and coffee on the other kind of person. And on top of that, I was not ashamed of who I was, of how different I was. I always smiled when people told me I needed to fit in; why be happy, when you can be normal?
And all that said, I still feel Greece as a beloved part of me. My home is London now, and I moved away physically and emotionally as well. My feelings for Greece is a bittersweet traditional desert, served in a crowded square, under tea lights and smoking bystanders.
So, every time that I tell someone I am Greek, I am telling him all of this in a simple statement of origin. I am telling him of my pride and my shame, of my good and bad memories, of the ups and lows. In the past couple of years, every time I tell a person I am Greek, I get a canned response that is bound to include the word crisis in it, when all i do is just state my origin.
Greece and Greeks are not just the poster boys of a country in a dire economic state. It is a nation that live its good as intensely as its bad, its happiness as tragically as its sadness, smiling at the face of danger, raising a glass to what was instead of what will be. Most of the places I described in my good memories are now closed, bankrupt and covered in angry graffitis. Most of the negative attitudes I mentioned are changing, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worst. I walked in the city centre, and it was empty. The stores closed. Someone wrote on the window of a vacant store: a city that is burning; a flower that is blooming.
My tan will fade away, but I am not sure if my sadness for my country will. All I can do is hope, for change, for light, for the younger generation to have something more that a tanned skin to remember their country by.