In terms of geography, Greece is a small country, about the size and population of Illinois. In terms of history, culture, and complexity, Greece is vast, a continent really. It is therefore difficult to write any sort of holistic treatment of Greece. For a Classical allusion, it is a Herculean, if not a Sisyphean, labor.
Jorge Sotirios’ book Graffiti over Marble falls is an episodic and selective sketch of Greece in the crisis. This is not economic history, nor is it a travelogue. Like graffiti, it is a form of expression, a commentary in situ, an annotation, a lesson, and at times, a protest.
The author is an Australian of Greek background, removed from Greece by one generation; the passions and traumas of migration are familiar to him. His relationship with Greece is visceral and familial, his voyages not of discovery but of revelation. He loves Greece, but to paraphrase the British writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, Sotirios’ love for Greece has not made him blind. This is the greatest value of the book, and why it should be required carry-on for any Diaspora Greek climbing into the steerage of modern airplanes.
While Delphi was the Ancients’ navel of the earth, for Sotirios, it seems to his relatives’ home in Amfiali, a western Athenian suburb well off the beaten path of tourists or most Diaspora visitors. Amfiali, like many an Athenian suburb, is haphazard mélange, a scene of the massive ingathering of Greeks onto the Athenian basin, whether refugees from Asia Minor or the post-World War Two generation fleeing poverty in the islands or villages to work in shipping, services, or in the manufacturing of what was a rapidly industrializing Greece. This suburb lacks the posh bragging rights of “Nouveau Riche,” seaside Glyfada, with its German Bierstube, or the various locales with antiquities or boutiques favored by a global Instagram crowd. Sotirios’ people are middle class Athenians, welders, small businesspeople, sailors, and their offspring both better educated, and, in the grips of 2010s austerity, facing progressively downward expectations.
Sotirios’ cousin Mina is the author’s muse and, perhaps Greece personified. With the panache and curves recalling Sofia Loren’s Hydriot siren Phaedra in the film Boy on a Dolphin, she accompanies her Aussie cousin “Tzortz” to her ancestral homeland of Hydra. Here, we see a Hydra different from the global playground and haunt of artists like the crooner Leonard Cohen, it is rather reminders of an era in the recent past where Hydriots were poor fishermen or indentured to a life at sea, even as a series of bohemian celebs from the Anglosphere lived it up for cheap, but with resources the locals could only envy. I knew that Hydra as a child going to our summer home each summer. The side by side global rich and famous, the locals upwardly mobile via tourism or the merchant marine, but still poor, and then guys like Sotirios and I, recent Diaspora, neither fish nor fowl. “Who cares for Cohen?” Sotirios’ foil Mina exclaims, recalling the sacrifices of her people in their quest for agency, which by 2013 was once again under full assault.
The reader is treated to several other Greek excursions, all of them refreshingly off the beaten path of the typical Greek tour. There is Neapolis, where Sotirios (and I) have family, a sleepy town in the lower part of Lakonia. Here, relatives recall those family members who emigrated abroad and a steadily declining economy, where doors are locked to prevent theft, probably by any number of foreigners, the old are forced to prop up the unemployed young with their receding pensions, and nearby Elafonisos suddenly becomes chic and for sale under austerity mandated and corrupted fire-sales.
They head north to Distomo, not far from chic Arahova and Delphi, to pay respects to a village massacred by the Germans in World War Two. Not for the first time in the book, the issues of World War Two and Germany as the renewed hegemon of Europe come up, even as Mina’s boyfriend, an engineer owed over EUR 20,000 in back pay, is studying German to land a steady job there. Mina and Jorge venture north to Thessaloniki, which impresses him as somehow more elegant and sophisticated than Athens, with elegant salons and high-ceilinged halls and the old Turkish style houses of the Upper Town. Their unlikely guide is a Ghanian immigrant who is starting a family with a Greek lady and integrating into a society struggling to come to grips with a multicultural future. In Thessaloniki the sense of economic collapse is made more palpable by its distance from an indifferent Athens, and here too, the borders with onetime enemy Bulgaria and continuing nemesis Turkey are ever so nearby.
They continue eastward toward Xanthi and Komotini, where suddenly minarets appear on the horizon as they speed by on the Egnatia Odos, an EU-financed autobahn which recalls the name of the Roman Via Egnatia running on roughly the same route. Sotirios takes us to the edge, literally, of Greece and shows that things are not necessarily as they seem in these little visited portions of the vast, yet diminutive country called Greece.
While the excursions to ancestral lands or borderlands are a must read for their interesting revelations, it is the timeless yet urgent set of issues Sotirios covers that merit attention. “Greece is changing hands” a Greek American friend told me over annual visits over several years. The bazaar-like small businesses, staffed by colorful manges in Monastiraki, Hydra, or the last village in Greek Thrace, have given way to ruthless global franchises who treat workers like dispensable cogs. It is Chinese both taking over key infrastructure, including Sotirios’ beloved Pireaus port, where generations of his—and my people—worked becoming upwardly mobile in the merchant marine, or emigrated abroad, as well as the retail trade, with plenty of Chinese goods disembarking in the deindustrialized port facilities for sale in Greece and points north, to the heart of Europe. It is German-mandated austerity decapitating the social infrastructure, ushering in World War Two parallels, even as plenty of Greeks up anchor to work there.
Sotirios’ work leaves the reader after several years of visits with his parea scattered to the four winds, and the Greeks’ agency—political and economic—both national and personal, as frayed as ever. The graffiti which can be art or protest is now all too often on buildings no longer owned by Greeks. Yet still the Greeks soldier on, Mina remains comic and brash, yet more empathetic from all of her trials. She might have said, in a raspy voice recalling Melina Mercouri in Never on a Sunday, that Greece “still is,” despite all of its graffiti, “the greatest country in the world.” Resistance, and the quest for agency, remain, timelessly Greek.
Find the book, among other places, at www.inhousebookstore.com.au.