My life in Greece, a permanent hangover

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The author takes a trip back down memory lane and relives how she absorbed the culture of an ancient civilisation caught in the currents of the modern world.

Greeks may be a loud bunch, but the air in Greece is tinged with the sort of quietude that lets its memories linger through the years. | Mallika Menon

There was no turning back once I gave my mind free rein to reminisce about my life of 30 years in Greece, an experience I had taken for granted for a while. When I let the smells, sounds and sights to invade my senses, the curtain rose and I saw, heard and tasted what I had denied myself the first few days after landing in Greece.

I picked up the sound of Tavli chips [a game sort of like backgammon] while observing older men sitting around tables, playing with full concentration. I inhaled the smell of Raki and Ouzo mingled with cigarette smoke. I got my first taste of the local wines, virgin olive oil and fresh salads with Feta cheese and I never let go of it. I heard the thrash of waves against the shore, my eyes scanned the blue of the sea. I let the taste and smell and sounds linger and make room in my senses and blend in as I savoured this unique new feeling.

 

 

I went to Greece in 1982 and lived there for over three decades. After the short-lived initial homesickness and the more long-standing euphoria of being in a country like this, I went into the lull of raising a family, taking part in my children’s school-activities, making friends, going for outings, dinner parties, having squabbles, illnesses and just going into the general ‘coping’ mode, which one goes into wherever one may be.

In spite of all that, I can honestly say that very often I have stopped in my tracks and thought, “Wow, look at where I am! In God’s own country!” I thought, “So there is actually such a place as heaven on earth.” I felt I simply must sustain this thought… and keep extending this feeling of wonder and gratitude. The more I gave length to that feeling, the more blissful I became of being there and then.

It wasn’t always like that though. The vagaries of life threatened to distract me from my determination to be grateful no matter what.

Looking back, oh yes, I have been more happy than unhappy. This country has been a tremendous gift to me. I have been asked whether I felt like I was on a perpetual holiday. Well, there is this element of celebration in the Mediterranean culture that you can’t help but soak up. Greeks take their leisure and relaxation as seriously as their work. You get influenced by it to a certain extent.

Earlier I hadn’t been keenly aware of the flora and fauna of Greece or anywhere, unless it was in my face or it was so unusual that I had to look and appreciate. There’s not so much fauna to speak of in Greece. Cats and dogs and birds, yes — like everywhere else. Occasional foxes in the leafy suburbs. And  donkeys. They were the regular mode of transport in Greece in the olden days, what with its uneven terrain, especially in the islands and villages. We still see them lugging goods in the remote parts of some villages and islands.

The flowers, they take your breath away! The colours, the shapes and the variety of Mediterranean flowers are just too special. Spring is beautiful in these parts. The fruits and vegetables are utterly succulent. Peaches, cherries, strawberries, apricots, grapes and many more.

Oranges, figs, olives and chestnuts grow on the sides of the streets. I am not exaggerating when I say that as we step on the fallen fruits while walking, their aroma is released, filling your nostril and intoxicating your mind.

How best can I describe the Mediterranean Sea there? The incredible bluest-of-blue water, its sandy and pebbly beaches are a sight from paradise as you might believe it to be. The mountains lush with pine forests and the islands — one more distinct and unique than the other.

We just had to drive for an hour or so from our residence and we were at the sea side. A few more hours on the road, a ferry across the water and we reached the closest of islands like Hydra, Spetses, Poros, or Aegina. A few more hours on the road and many more on water, and we were at the farthest ones like Rhodos, Corfu, or Limnos. Of course, you can also fly to most of the islands, but then you’d totally forgo the coastal zephyrs.

 

Then there are the ancient ruins from 400 BC and thereabouts. It may not look like much to some. There are hardly any erect structures except for some stadiums and amphitheatres. But just looking at the massive pillars and stones and imagining those times is enough to be awed.

So, yes, I have loved living in Greece. Did I have a culture shock? I am not sure. Let me see.

I was so eager to go to Greece. I had heard and read so much about Greece that I just couldn’t wait to get there. I remembered the Greek plays I did in college and the mythology I read in school. All of that had fascinated me and I thought, well, every other person is going to the Gulf, to the UK and to the States or Canada or Australia, and here I am getting a unique opportunity to be somewhere where no one I knew had gone. So there was a lot of excitement.

When I went there, the early few days were lovely. It was also the first flush of my marriage. I reveled in all the caring and love showered on me. But it didn’t take me long to pine for India. I missed the crowds, the sounds, the liveliness, the clothes, the colour and the food and also the songs, dances and movies and the general camaraderie of relatives and friends.

 

Greeks are deservedly proud of their heritage, ancient culture and language. But there is a perilously thin line between pride and arrogance. Often, there is that danger of spilling over to the other side. They keep to their traditions. Family ties are very important. They like to keep their children close.

In that sense there was some culture shock. Comparatively it was too quiet for me in Athens — traffic sounds were not the same, no blaring of horns, no vendors shouting at the top of their lungs, no children playing in the streets. Instead, I got quieter streets but voluble, gesticulating, expressive people sitting in cafés for hours discussing politics and personal affairs.

English was barely spoken in Greece in those days. I did not understand anything anyone said. Neighbours either stared or nodded politely or smiled tentatively. TV had mostly Greek programmes. It sounded like a harsh language to me. I remember asking my husband whether they were always fighting. He did not know that much better than me, except for a smattering of the usual formal and casual exchanges. Common saying is that one learns the expletives there rather quickly because the Greeks use them generously in conversation. Colourful language is spewed forth with gusto at the slightest provocation.

The Greeks are a volatile lot, quick to anger. Loudness is in their genes. They like to argue and assert themselves. They love talking and will go to any extent to express themselves fully, elaborately and eloquently with lots of hand gestures. I was fascinated by this from day one and must have embarrassed many people by just standing and staring.

I let my sense of wonder override my homesickness, started venturing out on my own to the shops, bravely used sign language and mostly saw appreciation on the faces of the people. My willingness to learn their language and culture, and just being polite, help me make inroads with people. I smiled and smiled till my face ached, having cultivated the theory that when you give a smile, you get one in return. I did not always get the response I expected. There was — and still is — some xenophobia. But I didn’t encounter any blatant racism. I met with more ignorance than anything else. They automatically assumed that coming from India, you are poor and have gone there for a better life because of the horrible life you may have lead in the back of beyond. Not knowing the language frustrated me. I wanted to defend my country and myself. I was young and not as philosophical as I am now where I let matters be.

I tend to look at life through rose-tinted glasses. Now I mostly remember the people who were good, events that I enjoyed and those who helped and extended their hands in friendship. The Greek friends and other international friends that I made in those days [25-30 years back] are still my friends. I ignored the odd taxi driver who would ask say to me, “It must be hard in your country. Is that why you are here?” Or the friendly butcher who didn’t understand what Hinduism was; he asked me “So which section of Christianity is that?” He thought it’s like being Protestant or Catholic. Greeks are Orthodox Christians. I have often been asked whether I was baptised.

Greeks are deservedly proud of their heritage, ancient culture and language. But there is a perilously thin line between pride and arrogance. Often, there is that danger of spilling over to the other side.

They keep to their traditions. Family ties are very important. They like to keep their children close. The young are provided for from the moment they are born. Buying property and making houses for their children soon after they come into this world is common practice. They continue to be there as grannies and grandpas, babysitting and looking after the grandchildren and, if possible, providing for them as well. The flip side is that they interfere in each other’s lives and have a say in everything. Telling each other off is common practice. It’s interesting to watch all this from the outside. In some ways, they are so much like us back home in India. This trait also goes along with warmth, hospitality and inherent kindness.

Now I can speak Greek much more fluently. It’s a very rich language. I can manage to express myself better than before. But there are too many nuances to master it fully. My grammar is completely haywire. My vocabulary is not as good as I would like it to be. But I can make myself understood. These days a lot more people speak English, especially the young lot. Thankfully, they don’t always expect you to learn and speak their language. They won’t pretend that they do not know English if they know it, unlike in some other countries. They like to show off their knowledge in any extra language they know. I made Greek friends who are fluent in English, having studied or lived abroad. I am afraid I took the easy way out. I came to revel in all things good there and discard the bad, like I would do anywhere I lived.

The ruins of Greece stand tall even as they are humbled by time. | Mallika Menon

There were some Indians there — expatriates like us, I mean — at the time I went to Greece in 1982. We registered ourselves in the Indian Embassy so that we would be invited to all their functions. Even though we were a small group of about 10 families or so and a few families from the Indian Embassy, we managed to do some stuff together. We celebrated Diwali, Holi, went for picnics, gathered for National days, etc. My children got some exposure to the Indian culture that way and also from the yearly trips we made to India.

I have a confession to make. Even before I went to Greece, I had decided that I would not cling to the Indian community if there was one. I did not have such a need. I did not think that there was any danger to my so called Indian identity if I also made friends from other countries. I wanted to know the Greeks and people from different parts of the world. This was an opportunity that I didn’t want to miss. I wanted to broaden my horizons. My culture was embedded deep in me anyway. I was proud of it and I knew it wasn’t going to go away. The deep-rooted values would always be there and I could tap into it whenever I needed to. But I knew there was so much out there that I did not know. Time to expand. I did not and still do not feel anchor-less or insecure if I am not surrounded by my fellow countrymen and women all the time. So when the Indian expat community dwindled, when people left and other people came and went, it coincided with me having made friends from outside the community. I welcomed the room it gave me to manoeuvre myself.

There were hardly a handful of Indian expats left. Many more farm hands came from North India to work in the Greek farms. A lot of illegal immigrants filtered in to work in construction and the gardens of rich people. And many came to do domestic work from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Now it’s a common sight to see a lot of them standing at traffic lights trying to sell their wares or just plain begging. This was an unusual sight before but is a common sight now. I feel so very sorry for these immigrants who have come with the hope of seeking a better life. Not a good time for them to be there. Now with the crisis, many Greeks have come into hard times and they do not always appreciate foreigners coming to seek work there and taking away their jobs.

Having said that, we also see the kindness that Greeks are showing towards the asylum-seekers coming from war-torn areas in spite of the difficulty that the country is going through. I have some wonderful Greek and International friends who have enveloped me in their warmth. I am grateful for the experience and pray for this lovely country to recover soon to its former glory.

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