The Magazine


Sep 11, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 48 • By MATTHEW REES
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My wife and I are in Athens, and all we want to eat is the Greek equivalent of a hamburger, a luscious lamb gyro. Without realizing it, we've selected a hopelessly American-themed restaurant, called "Jackson," and when I ask our waitress whether they serve gyros -- carefully pronouncing it the Greek way, yero -- she looks at me puzzled and says no. We order two Coronas instead -- no Greek beer to be had here, thank you.

A while later a Greek-American waitress from Oregon comes over and asks us what it was we'd wanted. A yero I tell her. "Oh, you mean a gyro," she says, pronouncing it the American way (jy-row, rhymes with Cairo). It turns out the U.S. pronunciation has caught on here, and our first waitress was baffled when she thought we'd asked for euros, the currency of the European Union.

It was a rare disappointment of our recent stay in Greece. To be sure, my expectations were low. When I'd visited ten years ago, the place had a Third World feel: sweaty crowds everywhere and poor to non-existent budget lodging -- my friends and I had to sleep on the beach in Mykonos. During a white-knuckle ferry ride to Santorini, I was convinced our boat would capsize in the turbulent seas.

What I missed on that trip but discovered on this one is Greece's split personality: part Balkan, part Western European; torn over whether to obsess about the past or shed it. The Greek mind, I learned, is restless with ancient grievances and modern ambitions.

This time, I was traveling with journalists, and we met with bureaucrats, think-tank types, and politicians lined up by the American Journalism Foundation. Our meetings usually began with an offer of fresh orange juice. Then our hosts, representatives of the forward-looking Greece, would make soothing noises about their country's traditional enemy. Greece and Turkey, they assured us, engage in joint military exercises and help each other out after natural disasters. This was the European Greece, enlightened and resentment-free.

But it doesn't take long to discover the limits of this goodwill. "Turkey is never far from our minds," noted the centrist Athens daily Kathimerini during our visit. And how could it be otherwise? The Turks controlled Greece for centuries. Only in 1830 did the country gain its independence from the Ottoman Empire. Now, for every announcement of a new dawn in Greek-Turkish relations, you hear the fall of Constantinople to the Turks invoked at least once: Every Greek knows the fateful moment -- 11:25 A.M. on Tuesday, May 29, 1453. To this day, Greeks consider Tuesdays unlucky and disdain to use the modern name for Constantinople, Istanbul.

The modernizers notwithstanding, the Greek perspective on the world remains shaped by the past. There's even a word for this syndrome, pro-gonoplexia, which can be translated roughly as "ancestoritis." One result is that Greeks are considerably chattier when talking about long-ago events than events of our own time.

When I lived in Brussels five years ago, I ate lunch occasionally with a Greek diplomat. Our conversations were dull when the subject was contemporary Greece. But that changed as soon as I asked him to explain, say, why Greece vehemently insists that its northern neighbor be referred to by any name but "Macedonia" (leading to that country's hideous new appellation, "FYROM," for Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). Our would pour an impassioned tutorial starting with Philip of Macedon, father of Alexander the Great, and culminating in a detailed comparison of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, lubricated by generously flowing wine and illustrated with maps of the Balkans sketched on placemats.

But unless you're a journalist or happen to be in Greece at a time of massive protests (like those last year over NATO's bombing of Belgrade), it's easy to miss this living history. A stroll through the Kolonaki neighborhood of Athens, with its whiff of Paris, or up the winding stone streets of Oia, on sun-drenched Santorini, is more likely to show the visitor the other, 21st-century Greece: cell phones and Internet cafes, the sound of English ubiquitous (Frenchmen beware), and everywhere women dressed in Erin Brockovich-style miniskirts and halter tops. On TV, there's even a Greek Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

Absent more Balkan wars -- admittedly an iffy proposition -- this lust for all things modern is bound to grow. Yet the potential for reviving the old obsessions is ever-present, and there will always be internal struggles over how fiercely to cling to tradition. During our stay, a fight was brewing over whether the identity cards that all Greeks carry should continue to state their religion.