His Greek was really good. But judging by his accent, he did not learn it in Greece or Cyprus. “What nationality are you?” I asked. “Greek,” he replied, “from Romania.”
And then the story emerged.
His grandfather was sent to Bucharest by the Metaxa government, apparently on some secret mission. And that’s where he stayed. Years later this Romanian Greek grandson returned to his homeland. Struggling to find a job in a country in crisis, he moved on to Cyprus, and that’s how he found his position in a Japanese restaurant in Limassol.
Or how about this.
The taxi rank at Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. And this taxi driver speaks to me in Spanish.
“How come you speak Spanish and not English?”, I asked. “Because I am Greek.” And I asked myself “what kind of crazy Jewish Greek answer is this? I speak Spanish because I am Greek …”
And then another story emerged. Zakynthos in 1943. When the Germans tried to round up the island’s Jewish population and failed. Well, this little kid (he must have been three at the time) took refuge in Israel with his family. They spoke Ladino in Greece. So he speaks Spanish in Israel.
Greeks are full of stories. Like my grandmother who left Turkey in 1922 and headed straight to South Africa. Not Athens. Not even New York. South Africa! With no internet to check the weather. And no one to call to find out whether lions really ate people on the streets of Johannesburg.
Last weekend I met Victoria Hislop. She tells stories as though she has heard them from her Greek grandmother. In fact, as though she has heard them from every Greek’s grandmother. Except that she has no Greek grandmother. She is English. And to prove it she speaks the most soft spoken Greek I have ever heard – with an English accent.
Victoria is the author of The Island, an international bestselling novel which went on to become Greece’s most popular TV series. Ever.
Now, whilst we are full of stories, we are lacking history, that common narrative that provides the glue that holds nations together. Think about the strongest elements in the Greek narrative. There is classical Greece. Strong. Comprehensive. Epic. A history with a huge global element. Now let’s fast forward ….
The sixties. Onassis. Maria Callas. Jackie O. Mykonos. Theodorakis, Hadjidakis. Melina Mercouri, Jules Dassin. All culminating in Anthony Quinn (a Mexican) in his portrayal of Zorba the Greek. “Teach me to dance!”
Then the junta, Andreas Papandreou and Pasok. That’s when i came to Greece and thought that the country’s national colour was green and not blue. And then the Olympic Games with the best narrative I have ever seen. Dimitri Papaioannou’s brilliant opening ceremony. The story of a modern country steeped in history and poised for the future. Past. Present. Future. The future came soon after – in the shape of one of the worst crises that any modern nation has ever experienced.
This is not a financial crisis. It’s a crisis of values. A crisis of belief. A crisis of confidence. A “how I feel about myself” crisis.
We need a narrative. And this is where Victoria Hislop comes in. She fills in the pieces by weaving every grandmother’s story into a comprehensive whole. She describes a Greece that many of us are not aware of and that others of us have turned our backs on.
It’s a Greece that we need to discover in order to find the narrative that will lead us back to the future. Thank you Victoria.