Sharon Blomfield: Greek kindness

A plate of loukoumades

At Christmas, the season of giving just past, my thoughts quite naturally turned to my Greek friends, both those on the island of Sifnos and those in the rest of the country and far beyond. Many travellers to that country have said that there’s something special about Greeks and the hospitality they offer, and count me in agreement on that.

At the heart of the matter, I believe, is the concept of philoxenia, the obligation in the Greek culture to treat strangers as honoured guests. This obligation is so ancient that its origins are thought to lie in the belief that, you never know, these strangers that you’ve just met could well be gods. Zeus or Hermes, perhaps, disguised as ordinary human travellers. So ingrained is philoxenia in the Greek psyche that, to my mind, it has become who they are. Innately kind, generous beyond belief, and people who live every day by the philosophy that whatever you give away to someone enriches you both.

Travellers to Greece are often astonished by the spontaneous generosity they meet, I once read in a guide book, and astonished I’ve been. I’ve received endless offers of coffee or ouzo. Wine pitchers topped up with a wink. A lime once tucked into my hand by the grocer after I’d paid for my iced teas. A basket of Sifnos eggs to cook for my breakfast the next day. A home-made goat’s cheese. Sweet treats from taverna owners to end many meals – cakes, cookies, or yogurt with fruits. Or as in the photo above, fresh-made loukoumades, drizzled with sesame, cinnamon and warm honey from the hives near the house. On occasion in more than one taverna, a meal that I’m not allowed to pay for  … well, just because. That’s the other thing with Greeks. They express their love with their food.

I have learned so much in the time I’ve been going to Sifnos, and every time that I’m there, I find my reserved Canadian heart pried open a bit farther. That is in fact, I believe, why I feel such a strong compulsion to go back and so often. If I can distill into a few words what its people have taught me, it’s this: in the list of human virtues, it’s kindness that belongs at the top. Kindness to friends and to family, of course, and equal amounts to those whose paths merely brush against ours.

Imagine, I often think and especially these days, a world that lives by philoxenia. Smiles offered freely to strangers passing by, no matter how different they look. A compliment or words of encouragement to someone you’ve just met, someone who, you never know, may need it more than you can imagine right now. An understanding that we’re all humans in this life together and that whenever and whatever we share, we’ll each come away with much more. A world awash in kindness.

The ancient Greeks can teach us still. The modern ones, too.

Sharon Blomfield is Canadian a writer and traveller. She is the author of The Sifnos Chronicles: tales from a greek isle, and she writes a blog about Sifnos. You can find out more about Sharon’s work on her personal website, and you can also follow Sharon on Twitter.

Marjory McGinn’s big fat Greek odyssey

Marjory and Wallace

Marjory McGinn is a Scottish-born journalist and author, who has had a long connection with Greece, starting with a youthful work/travel year in Athens in the seventies. More recently, in 2010, she set off on a mid-life odyssey to the southern Peloponnese with her partner Jim and their crazy Jack Russell dog, Wallace. What was planned as a year’s adventure turned into four, living first on a hillside village in the Mani, and later in the Messinian peninsula. The adventure inspired her three travel memoirs, starting with Things Can Only Get Feta. She also writes a blog with a Greek theme and can be found on on Facebook and Twitter.

As a taster of her writing about Greece, Marjory has kindly allowed Philhellenes to reprint the following piece, which first appeared on her own blog. Writing after the controversial July 2015 Greek referendum on the EU’s proposed bailout terms, which caused another fiscal upheaval in Greece, Marjory suggests that the EU’s handling of the crisis has displayed a lack of understanding of Greek culture and history.


Why the EU must embrace the Zorba philosophy

Marjory McGinn

Still from Zorba the Greek
Anthony Quinn as Zorba, with Alan Bates, dancing the sirtaki in the 1964 movie

THE events of the last few weeks, as Greece has fought for a new bailout deal, have left us all in shock. They have shown us how oppressive and vindictive the EU can be and, in contrast, how spirited and stoical the Greeks are when under attack and fighting for their lives.

I don’t want to add any more to the voluminous public discussions. Greater minds than mine have debated all the political/economic issues of the crisis. As someone who loves Greece, I can only pray there will be a good outcome for the country, despite more austerity piling up against it.

What I have gathered from watching recent events unfold – the June referendum and then EU leaders, particularly Germany, acting like schoolyard bullies – is this: most Europeans don’t really understand Greeks, or their culture. It’s as if few of them have ever been to Greece.

What EU leaders have tried to do is shoehorn the Greek character into a northern European template. It won’t go; it never will go. It’s ham-fisted and almost laughable. Greeks have a different story, a different history and cultural influences. Greece is still the least European country in Europe, still leaning gently towards its old Levantine influences, which makes it the exotic, appealing, often chaotic and, sometimes, maddeningly different place that it is. But we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Greeks will never be cool-headed, flinty, northern European clock-watchers, which is why generations of foreigners have flocked to Greece for respite. Apart from its physical beauty, Greece still has the human touch, which is something that has been lost in many parts of Europe, and the UK as well, to a degree.

Greeks have not been blameless in the way they have handled their economy, but I believe that it’s basically because they are different from their northern partners, their character has come in for a battering. They have been labelled as lazy, work-shy and corrupt, and these clichés have been echoed unfairly throughout much of the international media.

There is corruption, of course, as there is in every country, and there are complex reasons for it, but I believe that due to a weaker and not very independent media, the corruption and excesses of past governments have not been exposed as they might have been in western countries. Only now are we seeing more transparency in Greece, and the internet and social media has helped to expose wrongdoing where some of the press has not.

We forget that Greece has only recently emerged from a devastating series of occupations and political upheavals: 400 years of Turkish occupation; the punitive German occupation of the Second World War and the Greek civil war it spawned, and a disastrous military takeover in 1967 with a regime that lasted until 1974.

foteini on donkey
Greeks are bred tough like Foteini, a ‘traditional woman’ from the Mani

Four decades of relative calm since the 1970s is but a drop in the ocean for a country to re-invent itself. Until recent weeks, at least, the economic crisis was just another upheaval that Greeks have had to cope with.

During my time in Greece, I have found Greeks are among the hardest working people in Europe. In the last five years I met countless people, especially in the restaurant trade, who work more than 12 hours a day, seven days a week from May to October and in many areas like the Peloponnese will then do a long olive harvest in the winter.

Foteini, one of my farming friends in the Mani, who features prominently in both my books, is an unforgettable character and the toughest woman (a pensioner!) I’ve ever met anywhere. She harvests olives from her 200 trees, alone, every year, without fail, and rears a few goats to supplement her paltry farmer’s pension of 300 euros a month, which has been cut back since 2011. No pensioner in the UK would live like Foteini.

Not only have the Eurocrats tried to reinvent the Greek personality but they have also asked for the impossible, for a country to change its system overnight.

Andreas, one of our Greek friends in the Mani, who I wrote about in my second memoir Homer’s Where The Heart Is, put it this way during a discussion about the crisis in 2012, and I quote from the book (chapter 20): “The Troika moans at us… they say we don’t make changes fast enough in the government, and with taxes… but they want us to change centuries of customs and business in a few months. We cannot do it! Impossible!”

The recent events have proved him right. Impossible, and heartbreaking!

photo of Artemis
A favourite old friend, Artemios, from Santorini typifies the Greek character: generous, maverick and an expert at skinning prickly pears

After a lifetime of visiting Greece and after four years living in the southern Peloponnese, most recently Koroni, in Messinia, I do not recognise many of the criticisms and cliches levelled at the Greeks. And nor do I feel they deserve the excruciating contempt and hatred that has been slung at them during the crisis.

Perhaps the main fault of ordinary Greeks (and not the dynastic elites or the shipping magnates) is not just making a mess of their fiscal spreadsheets, but in not putting money first in the way that other societies in the west do. In my opinion, this is a country that has put life to the fore, and people, with a belief in leventia (generosity of heart), parea (company), kefi (high spirits) filotimo (sense of honour).

I have found Greeks to be the kindest people I have ever met. When we lived in Koroni for a year, we befriended a couple who had a small holding (with a few goats and chickens) near to where we lived. Tasos and Eleni are warm-hearted and interesting people, whom we saw regularly and became fond of, along with their lovely family.

One day, after their long olive harvest, they arrived at our house with a big basket full of gifts from their farm: olive oil, olives, capers, goat cheese, herbs, and a bottle of their homemade wine. They simply wanted to show us hospitality, filoxenia, and make our stay more pleasant. We were overwhelmed by this gesture of friendship. It’s not the first time I’ve experienced this in Greece. Whether Greeks are in crisis or not, they never lose this generosity, or their indomitable spirit. The Zorba factor.

I believe it’s not Greeks who need to change radically, it’s the ‘other’ Europeans. They need to thaw and become more like the Greeks; get in touch with their inner Zorba. Perhaps then they’ll understand Greeks a bit better, offer a more reasonable fiscal blueprint for the future. And create a more compassionate EU.

As Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Zorba the Greek, wrote: “A man needs a little madness in his life!”

The Eurocrats need to kick off their shoes, find a beach and dance on it. Opa!

© Marjory McGinn 2015


book cover
One of Marjory's three books about Greece

For details of Marjory’s books about Greece, see her Amazon webpage.

John Kittmer's Thirty Great Things About Greece

Photo of John Kittmer

John Kittmer is a British diplomat, who served as Ambassador to Greece from January 2013 to to December 2016. A passionate philhellene, John marked the end of his term of office with a series of tweets celebrating thirty great things about Greece, and he has very kindly given me permission to reproduce them here. Click on the link below to see the first ten.

Read John’s Foreign Office blog and follow John on Twitter.

Image: John Kittmer on the cover of VIMAagazino.

#30

#29

#28

#27

#26

#25

#24

#23

#22

#21

#20

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#18

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#16

#15

#14

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#12

#11


#10

#9

#8

#7

#6

#5

#4

#3

#2

#1 (in English)

#1 (in Greek)

Anne Cooke: Every winter, I dream of Halki


Anne Cooke is a Principal Lecturer in the Department of Applied Psychology at Christ Church Canterbury University. Anne’s webpage. Follow Anne on twitter.

Keith Frankish and Maria Kasmirli: A Greek perspective on austerity psychology

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As a philosopher of cognitive science, I take a strong interest in work in psychology and have many friends working in the field. Living in Greece, I have been sharply aware of the pressures the current crisis is placing on psychologists, both academics and clinicians, and I recently co-authored a short piece on the topic, collaborating with my partner Maria Kasmilri, who is also a philosopher. The article was a contribution to a feature on austerity in The Psychologist magazine, and I republish it here with the kind permission of the editor.

‘I have the feeling that we are in a war period’

Over the past few years no country in Europe has experienced more extreme austerity than Greece. With unsustainably high levels of national debt, the country has been forced to rely on loans from the ‘troika’ of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These lenders required the government to implement austerity measures to reduce the deficit, and the consequent tax rises and spending cuts have sent the economy into a deep recession, now in its sixth year. Unemployment has risen to 27.4 per cent (60 per cent among young people); hundreds of thousands of businesses have closed, and there has been widespread social unrest. This has been a harsh climate for Greek psychologists, both academics and clinicians.1

Psychology has only recently established itself as an independent academic discipline in Greece (the first department was established in 1987), and psychology departments are small and vulnerable. For the last three years, no new staff have been recruited, retiring staff have not been replaced, and even formally appointed staff have not been allowed to assume their posts. Meanwhile the Ministry of Education has admitted more students (undergraduate admissions are centrally controlled), reduced completion times, and increased the number of exam periods (turning universities into ‘mass processing exam centres’ as one academic puts it). With budget cuts, departmental mergers and closures, and competition from the private sector, many academics feel stressed and dispirited. Some talk of the ‘slow death’ of small departments, such as those of psychology, and many younger academics have left to seek posts overseas.

Research has also been hit. University research budgets have been cut and can support only small projects, and outside funding is scarce (there are European Union grants, but competition for them is fierce). Even basic support is lacking; researchers often have to self-fund attendance at conferences, and institutional subscriptions to online academic journals have lapsed. As salaries have been slashed and payments delayed, this raises the prospect that only those with independent means will be able to remain active researchers.

Psychologists working in applied settings (hospitals, clinics, community mental health centres, and educational environments) have faced heavier demands and tougher working conditions. The crisis has brought a huge rise in depression, suicidality, anxiety disorders, drug abuse, domestic violence, social exclusion, and other mental health issues, and the services of medical psychologists are needed more than ever, especially in the public sector, to which patients have increasingly turned. Yet public provision has shrunk. Many institutions have been closed, had funding withdrawn or staff cut. This has created long waiting lists at the remaining institutions and left many vulnerable patients with nowhere to go: one practitioner told us that in many cases child victims of domestic abuse have to be kept in hospital. Meanwhile, fewer staff (from a small base) have increased workloads, while suffering exhaustion and insecurity themselves. ‘Sometimes, I have the feeling that we are in a war period,’ says Corina Hatzinikolaou, a developmental psychologist at the Institute of Child Health in Athens. ‘In many public health structures, psychologists have to act quickly and attend to as many people as they can, not necessarily providing the best service, but attending to the most urgent needs.’ There is a similarly bleak picture in the private sector, where psychologists have seen their practices shrink, while having to treat patients with more serious problems.

Yet, despite the huge stresses they are under, psychologists have responded positively to the situation. Many professionals volunteer their services, working with humanitarian organisations and churches to provide counselling and therapy services to the poor, immigrants, homeless, and addicts; and many self-employed practitioners work with public organisations for reduced fees or none at all. Many young unemployed psychologists are involved in voluntary work – selflessly, since such activities are not considered part of their practice.

Academics have also recognised the importance of addressing the new situation. Sofia Triliva of the University of Crete talks of an ‘ethical imperative’ to study the impact of the economic crisis on people’s lives, and has herself focused on the effects on young people and on the rise of racism, ethnocentrism and fascism, especially in schools. Maria Platsidou of the University of Macedonia notes that positive psychology is now appreciated more than ever, and that there is increased interest in topics such as subjective well-being, resilience and practical ways of helping people cope. More generally, the erosion of social structures has vividly illustrated the social dimension of psychological well-being. As Triliva puts it, ‘The bases of the person’s insecurities and problems are social, economic, and political, so how can s/he confront these problems as a disconnected individual or entity?’

Have there been any positive aspects to the crisis? It is hard to find any, but some of those we talked to pointed to an increase sense of solidarity and social responsibility, and to the challenges of developing new research partnerships and working together for social change. Perhaps we can mention also the opportunities for developing international collaborations. For one thing is certain: anyone interested in the effects of austerity, on individuals, society and the profession of psychology itself, can learn much from their colleagues in Greece.

Note
1. It is not easy to find hard figures on the numbers of businesses that have closed since the crisis started, but it is probably correct to say that it is more than 200,000. (110,000 businesses are reported to have closed in 2011 alone.) For more details, see the following press reports: ‘Shopkeepers shutter shops as crisis bites’, ‘Dramatic drop in budget revenues’, and ‘Greek Small Businesses Face Further Gloom, Fear 55,000 Closures in 2013’.

Maria Kasmirli and Keith Frankish are philosophers with strong research interests in psychology. Maria is a PhD student in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield. Keith is a Senior Visiting Research Fellow in the Department of Philosophy at the Open University and an Adjunct Professor with the Brain and Mind Programme at the University of Crete. The authors wish to thank all those who have advised them on this article, mentioning in particular Corina Hatzinikolaou, Irini Kranias, Giannis Kugiumutzakis, Maria Platsidou, Zaira Papaligoura, Lili Roussou and Sofia Triliva.

Image credit: ‘hopeless’ by aesthetics of crisis

Giorgos Vitsaropoulos: Photographing the Acropolis museum

The photographer Giorgos Vitsaropoulos has kindly given me permission to reproduce one of his photographs of the new Acropolis Museum in Athens. It is an evocative image, which beautifully contrasts the permanence of the ancient statuary with the fleeting human visitors — a contrast mirrored in the clouds passing across the deep blue sky above.

Photo of the New Acropolis Museum by Giorgos Vitsaropoulos

[Click on the image to view at a larger size.]

More of Giorgos’ work, including further images of the Acropolis Museum and shots for the Greek Tourism Organisation, can be found on his website.

Howard Wettstein: The best vacation of our lives

Howard Wettstein and his wife took a vacation in Greece in 2008, and he has kindly sent me some photos from that trip. He writes, “Here are a few from the best vacation of our lives, in Athens, Milos, and Sifnos, in 2008. The power of Athens, for one who has studied philosophy, goes without saying. But the islands were wondrous. It’s painful even to think about the crises that are affecting Greece and the Greek people at the present time. Here’s hoping that it’s short lived.”

[Click on the images to view as a slide show at larger size.]

Howard Wettstein is Professor of Philosophy at the University of California, Riverside. His research interests lie in the areas of philosophy of language and philosophy of religion, and his many publications include the books Has Semantics Rested On a Mistake?, and Other Essays (1991), The Magic Prism: An Essay in the Philosophy of Language (2004), and The Significance of Religious Experience, and Other Essays (2012).

Istvan Aranyosi: A Greek geek

Photo of Istvan Aranyosi in Rethymno Crete.

Istvan Aranyosi writes:

“As a kid, in the 1980s, I was known to my parents’ entourage as a Greek geek, having read and reread the legends of Mount Olympus, then a bunch of books the local librarian was happy to provide me, all connected to Greek culture and civilization.

“Lately, I have been more connected to Greek culture as part of my teaching and research in philosophy. However, I was most impressed in 2008, during my first visit to Greece, when what I saw was straightforward, outgoing, and freedom-loving people, with good sense of humour and good sense of business. One night in Rethymno, Crete, a sea food restaurant owner spotted me among a large crowd walking by, exclaiming: ‘You are my customer!’ – a couple of days before, I had eaten in his restaurant the best sea food ever since.

“The picture shows me shopping for some saffron in Rethymno.”

István Aranyosi is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey. His research interests lie in the areas of philosophy of mind and metaphysics, and his publications include the books The Peripheral Mind and God, Mind, and Logical Space (both 2013). 

Jenny Saul: A young philhellene

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Jenny Saul writes: “My son Theo was buried in the sand for the first (and surely not the last!) time in Crete. Theo continues to love Greek culture. For Halloween, he was Odysseus. He decided I should be a siren, and that his Dad should be the pile of bones on which the siren sits. How could we resist?”

Jenny Saul is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield.

Diana Probst: Sketching the gods

Diana Probst is a professional artist based in Cambridge, UK. Diana has kindly given me permission to reproduce some of her sketches of ancient Greek scultures. Below the images, Diana adds some remarks on her choice of subject and the influence of Greek culture on her work. First is a sketch of Nike, the Greek goddess of victory.

Nike

Diana writes: ‘I could never be the artist I am without the influence of Greek culture. The development of statuary from the stylised Egyptian traditions to the fluid, lifelike stone work of the city states created work that I love to look at today. This is one of my earliest sketches, the lines solidified to allow me to recreate it in ink with no tonal work. To get there, I had to sit in a cast museum, surrounded by images that were two thousand years old. The Aphrodite of Knidos was not just ground-breaking, but also heart-breaking.
‘I chose a Nike as my subject because the drapery appealed, but I was surrounded by hundreds of examples of beauty and drama, made by the urge to create those things in stone. I love the results of this work, and they are firmly within all the work I do. I owe my style to Praxiteles and Phidias, via the Renaissance and the blurred eyes of archaeologists.’

Next, a study of Laocoön

Laocoon by Diana Probst

Diana writes: ‘I drew Laocoön on a busy afternoon, with at least a dozen groups of people coming through the Cast Museum. The most interesting was the group of young teens in school uniform who stopped to talk about what I was drawing. One insisted on me sketching her, so she has gone down for posterity next to the priest who insisted the wooden horse should not come into Troy. On the whole, I prefer the statue, but the school children were refreshing in their approach.’

Finally, a study of a young warrior

Warrior by Diana Probst

Diania notes, ‘The warrior is an unidentified young man, but the statue is a good one. He would have had a shield, but that did not survive.’

More examples of Diana’s work, some of which are available for purchase, can be seen on her website.