I am a Greek woman, a label that for most of my life I did not appreciate. As a people we are known as noisy, lively and a bit lazy. I assume most foreigners think that Greeks spend our lives drinking ouzo, eating souvlaki and dancing to bouzouki, while the rest of the European Union pays for our fun.
That is, of course, far from being the case. But there is truth to the stereotype that Greeks enjoy dancing, listening to loud music and try to display their feelings as openly as possible. I would like to offer my lived experience and explain why we are that way.
Modern Greek culture is, in a large part, a culture that focuses on music. Depending on where you were born (or grew up) there is a different tradition of songs and dances that you learn to embrace as your own. Our music is like a mosaic, each and every part Greek but also distinctly different to the rest. Our songs rarely talk of fantasies, far away worlds or politics. Instead they focus on daily life and its myriad problems, the joys and curses of meeting others, our emotions. Especially love.
“Why won’t you let me, with two kisses to take the black clouds off your blurry eyes?” (1)
“The singing cowing, life’s a tragedy, the cobbled streets an endless longing.” (2)
“Word after word, we got cared away,
pain took us and the night reached us.
Clean the tears with your handkerchief
To Drink the sun through your lips.” (3)
Classic Greek films of the 20th Century contain multiple songs meant to describe how the characters feel, what they desire, what their next move will be. The songs are a declaration, to the audience and the world at large, of what will follow. Be it the adventure of a rich lady pretending to be a man to escape her family, the sorrow of a man who experienced betrayal by his love or the pain of coming back home after decades, the music is what makes the character’s story real, relatable.
I remember watching those movies alongside my grandmother, a young blonde who could not sit still for a second. We spent countless afternoons in our hut next to the Aegean Sea, our still wet feet covered in sand, listening to the radio. I remember her proudly standing on top of tables, dancing, throwing plates down the ground, yelling “opa opa!” to her friends. I would respond in the same way. “Opa yiayia*, opa!” I loved and admired the woman, but I could not follow her proud attitude.
For a variety of reasons, I have had difficulty with movement since I was a kid. Even a few steps, let alone anything more intense like dancing, can trigger self-deprecating emotions. Despite practice, such feelings are difficult to control, so I try to avoid any sort of movement and, very often, even things that can create in me the desire to move. In this struggle I tried to forget the songs I grew up with. For many years I explored every other music genre out there to find something new to relate to. Something that would allow me to close my eyes and travel to worlds where the ugliness I go through daily is absent.
Recently though things have started to turn around. I am living a more fulfilling life and I have managed to grow stronger against my self-loathing. I finally feel ready to explore my heritage again. I have started listening and appreciating its beauty. But I can no longer get up on a table and dance with my grandma. She is no longer as strong as she used to be. We cannot share intimate moments beside the sea because I am no longer the little kid she loved but an adult. And adults have walls separating their hearts.
Through this illustration I am trying to share my experience with you. The glorious past that is fading, the woman that I so admired, a proud blonde from Crete dancing, the sorrow that surrounds her life now. I wish to show how beautiful she was. The sun is fading, its beauty soon to disappear. But I am no longer running away. I am here to reclaim this memory, both its bright and gloomy parts. The radio still plays. Perhaps I can try, for one more time, to sit beside her. We will not fight. We will not open our mouths. The melodies that will do the talking.
1: Τι σου ‘κανα και πίνεις – Πόλυ Πάνου
2: Το Καλντερίμι – Πόλυ Πάνου
3: Μην Ρωτάς τον Ουρανό – Μαίρη Λω
*: Yiayia is the Greek word for grandma.