Souvlaki, ‘Kostas’ and Mamma Mia; ask any American youth what comes to mind when they think of ‘Greece’, and it is likely that one of these three images will be referenced. I am no exception to this; I shamelessly admit that these shallow conceptions, coupled with my sort-of-relevant philosophy major, made Athens a no-brainer for my study abroad destination. I envisioned myself jumping off of cliffs into idyllic blue waters and swimming to the shore, where my Greek boyfriend Kostas would then carry me to his father’s souvlaki shop.
Now, by contrast, ask any reputable media publication what comes to mind when they think of Greece, and they will undoubtedly use the adjectives “crumbling”, “dangerous” and “hopeless” in their descriptions. I became aware of this phenomenon as my departure date approached, when I looked into the more “realistic” living conditions of Greece through a simple Google search. Rather than pictures of peaceful waters and tanned bodies, the search displayed photographs of smoky riot scenes and scary black-hooded men, which were always accompanied by dismissive headlines. I later learned in my economics class that this media condemnation was/ is international; from the UK-based Economist calling Greece “Europe’s Achilles Heel”, to Germany’s Focus magazine featuring a Greek statue giving the middle finger, Greece’s reputation in European media was/is equally negative. Indeed, it was based on this overwhelmingly discouraging portrayal that family members, friends, and even my “educated” professors began to question my choice in Greece; why would I want to go to a “crumbling”, “dangerous” and “hopeless” crisis zone?
Certainly I had known about Greece’s financial crisis, but I had no idea that this situation would exclusively occupy both the media’s image and the “informed” public opinion of Greece. After all, it was only a couple of years ago that we Americans experienced a “financial crisis”, yet there was no fear of apocalyptic “crumbling”; in fact,our day-to-day lives remained relatively unchanged during this economic situation … why should I assume that the lives of Greeks would be any different?
Regardless, I began to wonder which mindset I should enter Athens with; do I trust these reputable media publications, or should I naively imagine Greece to be a land of souvlaki and sunshine?
After living here for three months, I can attest that neither the media’s portrayal, nor were my shallow expectation, accurate characterizations of Greece. In fact, it is in spite of these stereotypes that I have come to appreciate Greece for what it truly is, which is nothing short of what Socrates would call, “The Good Life.”
I say this first based on the “little things” that I have witnessed/or experienced in Greece: The colorful orange trees that whimsically line the streets. That first bite into a piping-hot Tiropita.. The “fruit stand lady” who always throws a few extra tangerines into my bag. The co-existence of traditional rembetico, 1960s’ rock, and catchy pop music in the clubs. The smiling old men who sit in Plateias and puff on their cigars as they jauntily holler “Ya sas” at passing pedestrians.
I could go on and on with listing these little things, but they are merely symptoms of the “big things”, the moments and feelings that have made living in Greece a life-changing experience. Indeed, it was not witnessing the beautiful Santorini sunset, but rather experiencing the sunset’s subsequent and unanimous applause, that I have come to appreciate the act of appreciation. It was not the delicious Greek indulgences themselves, but rather the slow and thoughtful manner in which they are consumed, that has made me rethink my former rushed and anxiety-prone habits. It was not the breathtaking sight of the Acropolis, of Mount Olympus or of the Temple of Poseidon, but rather the awe-induced silence that accompanied these wonders, that I have connected with the powerful spirit of history. And finally, it is not the day-to-day experience of living in this country, but rather the carefree and loving spirit that Greece brings out in people, that has made me passionate about reforming its widely held misconceptions.
This is not to say that there aren’t questionable aspects of living here; to this day, I cannot identify (nor do I want to identify) the odd, mushroom smell that pervades Athens National Garden, I cannot understand why giving a cashier a 50-euro bill is some sort of unwritten sin, and I cannot fathom the system through which Greeks apparently “wait in line.” Yet it is these little quirks that have made me love this country for what it truly is, not a postcard-perfect, whitewashed village, but a real, functional nation, that just so happens to boast a variety of delicious indulgences, a plethora of natural wonders, and several millennia of history.
It also just so happens to be that Greece is experiencing a period of political turmoil and economic difficulty. Yet this situation should not dominate media attention and international opinion as it currently does, because for every corrupt government official taking a taxpayer euro, there is a local Greek baker giving away their last loaf of bread; for every frustrated youth destroying a piece of public property, there is a rising entrepreneur contributing their ideas to rebuild Greek society, and for every discouraging news report that damages Greece’s public image, there is a story of ingenuity that helps to rebuild Greece’s international reputation.
Perhaps Greece should say “lipon”, and turn a blind eye to the negative international image that the media and public have manifested. After all, it was Greece’s own Aristotle who advocated that we detach ourselves from the “opinion of others”, and that we focus on attaining personal virtue over public honor. Yet when considering Greece’s economy, specifically their population’s’ reliance on exports and dependency on tourism, how can this inaccurate portrayal go uncontested? This situation is analogous to taking care of a tree; how can we expect the tree to grow if we block its sunshine and deprive it of water? Similarly, how can we expect Greece’s economy to shape up if we simultaneously put down the very prospects on which it relies? Especially for nations within the European Union (to which Greece bears inextricable political links), this bullying is counterproductive to both Greece and Europe’s desired outcome.
I suppose you could argue that Greece deserves this criticism; the Greeks got themselves in to their economic crisis through their former luxurious, tax-evading ways, and now they are paying price with both their wallets and their egos. Yet this label of laziness and deceit should not apply to the collective Greek population, no more than the “beer-chugging, rifle-toting, ‘jorts’-wearing” stereotype should apply to all Americans. Furthermore, the difference is that Americans can simply laugh off their negative international image while Greeks continue to suffer from it; every fear-mongering photograph and pessimistic headline that the media produces is another batch of tourists and prospective buyers that the country loses.
Another relevant Aristotelian value is that of “truth”; thus, kind of like The Lorax spoke for the trees, I speak for Greece, whose reputation is being “chopped” as fast as [the media] pleases. Whether you've personally experienced the life-changing ways of Greece, or you're simply an American who reads the news, I hope that you join me in letting [Greece] grow.