When I was a boy, my father, an immigrant from Greece, spoke often and fondly of the homeland. He talked of the sun, the sea; the ancient lands of Homer, Achilles, Agamemnon. Just as often, he spoke of a childhood eating morsels of bread served in bowls of powdered milk, and of days with his five older brothers toiling under the same sun the tourists bathed beneath, working with concrete, brick and dirt.
According to my mother, my maternal grandfather, uttered similar dichotomies: He spoke of his beautiful home, his beloved donkey, and of rampant poverty–a world he adored but had to escape.
I recently had dinner with my next-door neighbors–an elderly Greek couple I’ve known since childhood–and over a delicious meal of traditional fisherman’s soup, I heard stories of the German occupation of their village in Crete. These tales were simultaneously playful and melancholy: joyous games of soccer amid hardscrabble terrain on one hand. And on the other, necessity prompting one to pry candy from the palm of a child killed by Nazi soldiers.
These stories, though slightly different, are united in their dual threads of pain and love; they illustrate that Greeks continue on in the face of poverty, in the face of sorrow, in the face of death.
You can only push a proud people so far until they push back. In resounding refusal of further bullying by the IMF and EU, after five years of swallowing austerity measures that failed to resurrect an economy riddled with debt, Greek voters responded to the Prime Minister, Alexi Tsipras’, call for a referendum with a loud and clear NO! vote. Effectively this means that the people of Greece, in the footsteps of their ancient forefathers who created democracy, stood up and said they will no longer be punished for the actions of past government regimes who got them into this financial mess. Nor will they bow down any further to the banks and lenders who irresponsibly lent the country money in the first place.
Contrary to popular belief, the results of yesterday’s referendum do not automatically spell an immediate exit of Greece from the European Union; nor does it equal a swift return to the drachma. The country could still ultimately remain in the EU while abandoning the Euro, and the IMF will probably return to the negotiating table in effort to reach a compromise with Greece’s government to kept the country’s economy afloat. The long term forecast, is that Greece will eventually leave the Union, and that’s probably for the best.
An exit from the fundamentally flawed concept that is the EU will result in some very tough times for my Greeks, who are already far from living at Olympian heights. However, amid the chaos, I’m reminded of an ancient Greek saying: “Better to live a single day free than forty years a slave.” This sentiment has carried through the generations; and the Greeks are nothing if not resilient, maintaining our culture and history through years of invasion, war, and 400 years under occupation of the Ottoman Turks. The Greeks will rise, as we always have, to keep on thriving and prosper.
That’s not to say there aren’t lessons to be gleaned from this modern tragedy. Should Greece build again from the ground up, it will have to make some fundamental societal changes. As an example, Greek business practices have historically been so mired in bureaucracy that it’s tremendously difficult to succeed as a small business owner, so this is one thing that will have to change.
On the other hand, the lifestyles and mentalities of Southern Europeans compared to their Northern counterparts are also historically different. Greece should not be expected–nor should Italy, Spain, or Portugal–to be Germany, Belgium or England. Greeks have a history of shouting “No!” to outside regimes, “No!” to humiliation. The EU’s so-called Bailout did little but save the banks and corporations from exposure to the same debt it forced on Greece. The actual populace –such as my cousins, aunts, uncles, and father, like thousands of fellow citizens–saw little relief.
July 5th, 2015 may go down in history as OXI (NO!) Day: The Sequel. The original OXI Day, a national holiday in Greece celebrated in October, marks the day in 1940 when Mussolini invaded Greece and demanded that the outnumbered Greeks surrender their weapons and become subservient to his regime. The Greeks, under the leadership of Ioannis Metaxas, responded with a loud and clear cry of “OXI!” Back then Greece, as it did yesterday, effectively insured its place as a sovereign nation in the face of tremendous adversity.
Greece and its people are imperfect, as people are everywhere else. But I’m proud of the resilience shown by the Greeks yesterday. Difficulty lies ahead, but the Greek people–like Odysseus on his long, treacherous journey back to Ithaca–will see a brighter day.
I’m proud of this stance of resistance… proud to be Greek