Tag Archives: Greece


Ε – Epsilon is for Europe

Never mind what you learned in school, Europe isn’t really a continent, it’s just the westernmost part of the landmass of Eurasia. It’s above all an idea that has been in flux since the time of Herodotus. 60 years ago, Europe became an Economic Community, joined by Greece in 1981, and later, in 1993, it became the European Union with broader purposes. It pioneeered the euro currency in 1999, which Greece adopted in 2001.

The EU is a bold experiment, and overall I would say it’s been successful, especially compared to the disaster of the first half of the European 20th century. The EU is now made up of 28 countries (many of them former adversaries at one time or another), with 23 different official languages, with different national histories, but with enough of a common cultural past to induce member states to give up some of their sovereignty in order, for one thing, to stand up to the other economic heavyweights of the world – and also not to fight each other any more. Former French president Giscard d’Estaing spoke of the “Dream of Europe. Let us imagine a continent at peace, freed of its barriers and obstacles, where history and geography are finally reconciled.”

Economic and political union hasn’t been easy, and it may not last (witness Brexit), but (with the exception of a contained fire in the Balkans in the 1990s), the center has held. Greece, dangling down there in the SE corner, is both at the periphery (the strategic periphery) and – thanks to ancient Athens – also at the center of the Europe. As we in this country know so well, e pluribus unum is forever a work in progress. The majority of Greeks want to remain in the EU. Whether they’ll retain the common currency is another matter.



Δ – Delta is for Diaspora

It’s a Greek word meaning dispersion, literally, the scattering of seed in sowing, and it’s applied metaphorically (but not altogether) to human populations. You may have seen references to the Greek Diaspora, the emigration of Greeks from their homelands to start new lives in North and South America, Egypt, Australia, and Europe beginning in the 1890s – when prices for currants plunged in the Peloponnesian peninsula – and continuing into the early 20th century, when one in four young men left the country, with a second wave after World War Two, including to countries in Europe such as Germany and to Astoria in Queens, New York. And there is a third wave going on right now, a brain drain, unfortunately, as many of the educated leave the country in search of jobs in Europe, the Arab states, Australia, and to a modest degree the US.

OK, but let’s take the long view. Here’s a picture of Greece and its colonies in the 7th century BC.You can see how dispersed they were, from Marseille to the fringes of the Black Sea. Individual Greek city states had colonies or stations, and this dispersion was the result of economic activity based on maritime trade. There was no Greece as such, but there was a more or less common culture. The city states consulted the same oracles and sent athletes to the Olympic Games, founded in 776 BC in Olympia. And they could mostly understand each other’s dialects of Greek. Many of those Greek settlements lasted into the 20th century.

Here’s another diaspora. It’s now the 4th century BC, Philip of Macedon has conquered the other Greek mainland city states and his son Alexander has conquered everything in his path eastward all the way to the Hydaspes River in India. This territory becomes the Hellenic world, a series of Macedonian colonies where Greek became the common language. This was the world into which Christianity emerged and why the New Testament was written in Greek.

So dispersion is part of Greek cultural DNA from way back. It was economic opportunity that that induced a man named Panagiotis Panagiotopoulos — Peter Panos as he or an immigration officer at Ellis Island shortened it — to join his elder brother George in America in 1910. He was only 12 years old. He came over with his grandmother, and he brought with him his mandolin. After a stay in Schenectady, NY, the brothers moved to North Bennington, where they were the only Greeks in what had become a mostly Catholic village, the result of 19th century European immigration to the area, where factories were then thriving and in need of laborers. Peter and George did not wish to work in a factory, however, and like so many other Greeks, they set up an eating establishment.

They must have prospered, because they soon expanded to new quarters in the heart of the little Main Street commercial district. They made candy, sold cigars, had a soda fountain and served ice cream, did some short order cooking, had at one time a pool hall and some pinball machines – Norman Rockwell’s world, but with Greeks behind the counter. George moved to Bennington, but Pete stayed where he was and, with his new Greek wife had three daughters and a son, Louis. But the son had no taste for serving ice cream. He wanted to become a musician (in fact, all the children became musicians, and one played in the Boston Symphony). He and his North Bennington friend Laurie Hyman, son of Shirley Jackson and Stanley Edgar Hyman, formed a jazz band (I believe it was called the Root-toot-tooters) and toured in Europe at one point.

Louis served in the Air Force during the Korean War and then studied Music at Bennington College on the GI Bill. He married a Greek girl from Athens named Eleni and became a teacher, and when their elder daughter Ourania was 16 years old I got a call from Eleni requesting that she be admitted to the summer program (the July Program) I was directing at Bennington College. The program was already full, but I couldn’t resist the story and found a place for her. Ourania flourished at the program, especially in Alba de Leon’s painting class. Here is a painting she executed as the program drew to a close. I was so impressed that I purchased it for the College’s collection. It now hangs in the Visual and Performing Arts Center, and I doubt few suspect that it was painted by a 16-year-old.

In any case, I got to know the family, and when Bennington College blew up in the mid-90s, my wife and I thought that a break would do us good. The Panoses provided the tip that sent us and our two children off for a three-year adventure at an American-founded school in Greece.

Now, how did that school get to be there? There’s another local connection and another diaspora. In 1806 a group of devout young Williams College students went for a walk in the fields near the College. A thunderstorm struck, and they took refuge under the eaves of a haystack. By the time the thunder had finished speaking to them, the young men had decided to bring the Gospel to every corner of the world. Their movement, the American Protestant missionary movement, later based in Boston, was a kind of global American diaspora of liberally educated men of the cloth. One of their targets was the Ottoman Empire.

They failed to convert the Muslims, but they were welcomed by the Christian minorities of what is now Turkey, that is, by the Armenians and the Greeks, to whom they provided a general American-style education in schools and colleges and from whose population they recruited and trained native Protestant priests. The schools flourished, but things didn’t end happily: in the early 20th century Anatolia College was witness to the Armenian genocide and the genocide of the Greeks of the Pontus region in Turkey, near which the College was located. American schools and missions were expelled from that part of Turkey in 1922,  but Anatolia re-established itself in Thessaloniki as a wholly secular institution. Seventy-some years later, my family and I arrived there as one small result of all the diasporas I’ve mentioned.

It’s (not) all Greek…

Γ – Gamma is for Greek

Any visitor to Greece will immediately observe that the Greeks don’t use the Roman alphabet. No problem: airport signs, road signs, street signs are also in English. If you can’t read the leading Greek newspaper in Greek, there’s a shorter daily English version. But if you want to tell flour from sugar in a supermarket, it helps to know what αλέυρι and ζάχαρη mean. There’s probably an app for that now; there wasn’t 20 years ago. And what do the Greeks say for “It’s all Greek to me?” Kinezika einai– to them it’s all Chinese. Most Greeks speak basic English and some excellent English, even if they’ve never lived abroad. Language schools are as common with them as donut shops are with us.

As for Greek names, I remember calling the roll for my first class. The names were mercifully printed in English characters for me, but there was no mistaking their Greekness. Themistocles, Achilleas (Achilles), Aristotle, Athena, Dimitra, Eleni, Agapi (that’s Love), Areti (Virtue), and a young man named Byron – gods, saints, heroes, philosophers, abstract ideas, and an English poet. It made for interesting group work: “Menelaus, could you work with Paris and Helen today?” (That’s Homeric humor).

As a written language, Greek is more than 3000 years old, and although it has changed through the years, there is a high degree of linguistic continuity, especially in vocabulary. Modern Greeks can’t curl up with Sophocles or Plato, but they do study ancient Greek in school, and they can understand the Greek of the New Testament, which is what the Orthodox Church still uses (more or less) in its liturgy. The modern language is a combination of ancient Greek, Byzantine Greek, and popular or demotic Greek, based on the spoken language, which incorporates quite a few loan words from Turkish, French, and increasingly, English. Surfaro to internet. Na paroume delivery.

Gamma is also for Ge, as in geology. The spine of Greece is the southern extension the Balkan mountain range. Greece is also at the junction of the African and European tectonic plates, which makes it seismically and occasionally volcanically active. A 6.3 earthquake hit Lesvos ten days ago and there have been six other quakes in the 4 and 5 range in the past week, which is more than usual. I felt a few of those myself while living there. Istanbul and Athens got hit in 1999 in quakes less than a month apart; the countries helped each other out, producing a thaw in bilateral relations. The last big earthquake to hit Thessaloniki struck in 1978. The city is due for another…

Byzantium lives

B is for Byzantine

When our air-freighted household goods arrived I had to go to the airport to pick them up, and take them through customs. They were just clothes and books and things, plus a used computer, on which I had to pay an import tax. To pay that tax and to clear my goods required me, and my handler from the school, to visit at least a dozen more or less adjoining offices, and sometimes to return to ones we’d visited before. At each one, papers were examined and stamped. And I thought to myself, “this is all so byzantine.” And then it hit me. I was standing in Thessalonika in the middle of the former Byzantine empire, what did I expect?

The Roman empire, then the Byzantine, then the Ottoman (and Thessaloniki had been part of that empire from 1430 to 1912), they had bestowed the habits of two millennia of imperial administration on the present. Add to that a bloated modern public sector and what you get is a lot of stamping.  

At the Aliens Police, where we had to go to register, I saw red tape for the first time, I mean the actual crimson tape itself, used to tie up the file folders that lined the walls. The romance of Byzantium wore thin at times, but at other times it transported me through its art and culture, about which I had known so little before arriving in northern Greece.


It’s odd, but the most prominent Byzantine presence in American culture is… Andy Warhol. The story starts, in fact, in Thessaloniki in the 9th century (or in Bethlehem or with St. Paul’s missionary journeys, if you prefer). In Thessaloniki were born the men whom we know as Cyril and Methodius, who became missionaires themselves and brought Christianity to the Slavs. They got as far as what is now Slovakia, where a community of Byzantine Catholics was formed. A millennium later, two members of that community emigrated with some of their compatriots to Pittsburgh in the US of A. In 1928 they had the son who would be baptized Andrew in the church (still standing) that the immigrants had built and decorated in the Byzantine style. Andy Warhol’s artistic baptism also took place there. A sickly child, he also enjoyed reading movie magazines in bed during the week. The combination of Byzantium and Hollywood produced our foremost American icon painter.

Byzantium, which is the city that became Constantinopole in 330 AD and Istanbul in 1453, Byzantium also lives on for those Greeks, and Greek Americans, whose dream of restoring the empire has not died, even after the catastrophe (as is is known in Greece) of 1922, when Greece invaded what was about to become modern Turkey and lost badly. You can contribute to a fund to bring back the empire — but I don’t advise it.

My Big Fat Greek Presentation

I gave an illustrated talk a few weeks ago at the Green Mountain Academy, an adult education institute based in Manchester, Vermont. My subject was “Greece Α to Ω.¨ I greeted my audience in Greek: Καλησπέρα, και καλώς ορίσατε στην ακαδημία πράσινων βουνών. There being no Greek-speakers present, no one knew what I was saying, and if I alarmed then into momentarily thinking that my lecture was going to be delivered in Greek, so much the better. I asked if anyone had understood a single word. Someone bit (and I didn’t have to murmur “Anyone, anyone?” either): she recognized “academy.”

I explained that the word goes back to the original academy, which was Plato’s, located not in Athens proper but outside the city walls in an olive grove sacred to Athena, goddess of wisdom. My point was that Plato’s school was located in a green world, like the academy at which I was speaking. The original groves of academe lasted from Plato’s time until 86 BC, when the Roman general Sulla made war on Athens and hacked them down in order to build siege engines. A single olive tree did survive, however, and olives can live 3000 years, like this one in Crete (at Vouves). 

The Academy’s olive survived being crashed into by a bus in 1976, but one cold night in January, four years ago, when the Greek government had raised the tax on heating oil by some shocking percentage…






I was assuming that, among other things, my American audience wanted to know (as I put it to them) how ancient Greece, the font of democracy, science, and arts, came to be modern Greece, a country that seems to be in a perpetual state of crisis and dysfunction. I also figured (correctly) that many in the audience (mostly made up of boomers like me) had been to Greece as tourists and had had a wonderful time, and I promised to remind them why.      

I ventured the opinion that above all Greece matters to Americans as the birthplace of democracy. The idea of government by consent of the governed, of equality before the law, of the dignity of the individual irrespective of wealth or birth, these ideas can be traced back to ancient Athens. “We are all Greeks,” said the poet Shelley in 1821, at the start of the Greek Revolution. His fellow Englishman and American patriot Thomas Paine saw the future of America in terms of a rebirth of Greek ideals. “What Athens was in miniature,” he wrote, “America shall be in magnitude.”

I reminded them that, as in Tom Paine’s America, democracy in ancient Greece did not extend to everyone, not to women or to slaves, and that the Golden Age of Athens did not last very long, and that our democracy has its troubles too, bigly, but the achievements of Periclean Athens are what still make Greece so symbolically important to us. Those Athenian ideals were in fact brought back to Greece – where there had been no democracy or freedom since Philip of Macedon defeated Athens and its allies in 338 BC – in the late 18th century from Western Europe, where their memory had been kept alive through the written word. It didn’t seem right to the thinkers of the Enlightenment that the Greeks should be in a state of bondage to the Ottoman Turks. They wanted to make Greece great again. “I dream’d that Greece might still be free,” wrote Lord Byron, who was to become a martyr to the Greek cause. And it did become free, or at least it became a kind of protectorate of the so-called Great Powers, England, France, and Russia, in 1830. For the Greeks themselves, ancient Greece has been, since that time, both a source of pride and a stick with which they have often been beaten for not measuring up.

That was my prologue. Then I came to “A” – which I will post tomorrow.