The sky of Milan was still showing off some rays of sunshine on the day Dimitrios Papachristou, a third-year BIEM student, described his homeland – as if to testify of the similarities between sunny Greece and Italy.
Having lived most of his childhood in France, Hungary and Russia, Dimitrios has only spent six years in his native country – yet those were more than enough to instill in him a great love and a sense of pride for his Greek origins. He notes that having spent all these years abroad is exactly what allows him to « see Greece objectively, while always considering it [his] home. »
And to him, this home is perfectly captured in one of the most famous Greek songs: Zorbas. He says: « All the images pop back into my head when I listen to greek music – not the modern one, but rather the traditional music that my parents and grandparents would play, because to me going back to one’s country means going back to its history. Sometimes I’ll even dance, and that’s when I really feel back home. »
Dimitrios can also resort to food, an equally efficient remedy for homesickness. He will go to one of the places in Milan, such as Vero Sapore Greco, that serve giros and tzatziki: « Just the smell of those is enough to bring me back home when it seems too far away. »
Another element which inevitably conjures up Dimitrios’ childhood memories, no matter where he might be, is the unique smell of sea water. He associates it with local food – feta cheese, grilled fish, olive oil, greek salad… – « because Greeks cannot go to the sea without eating first! » But it also takes him back to his mother’s hometown, the island of Crete, where he spends every summer vacation running on the beach with his dog, or diving off huge cliffs with his friends, or gathering with them every night outside his grandparents’ house.
Dimitrios explains that both summer and Easter time are very important to him, since it is often crucial for Greeks to return to their roots on vacation. « We live a lot with our traditions, and our parents made sure we stayed connected with our family past and our grandparents. It allows us to see how they grew up and how we ended up here. Once you know your past, you can really appreciate who you are. »
And Crete is only one of the three places Dimitrios can call home, along with Athens (where his family is based) and Vioteia, his father’s hometown. The latter is the scenery in which Dimitrios’ family celebrates Easter, with the sound of traditional music echoing through the spring air and the smell of roasting meat being cooked by his grandfather. The area is surrounded by scenic landscapes including Parnassus, a famous mountain ideal for hiking.
Both Crete and Vioteia are quite different from Athens, described by Dimitrios as « high-paced, diverse but with no consensus nor coherence, with chaotic neighbourhoods in the vicinity of beautiful ones, and everything moving on different wavelengths », but also as « energetic, friendly and fascinating ». Based on architecture, museums, art, theatres, and monuments, it is « a city in which you can get lost in discovery and exploration », and a window to the country’s History. And since Greek culture is also based on food – a way to connect with others -, restaurants abound in the capital. Athens can also be defined as an “outdoor city”, built accordingly to its favourable weather and diverse landscape: a curious traveler could easily explore both the sea and the mountain.
And in case you are this curious traveler, Dimitrios offers a piece of advice: « Be ready to appreciate traditions such as music and dancing (because you’ll be integrated and immersed in it) as well as to try lots of meals and drinks. Greeks are going to see it as disrespectful if you refuse the food they’re offering! Pick Athens if you’re interested in History, and the islands if you’re looking to have fun and admire beautiful landscapes. All in all, go to Greece with an open mind and a willingness to have fun and relax. The sunny weather will help a lot. And obviously, don’t forget your swimsuit! »
All this advice brought us to discuss stereotypes. Dimitrios believes some to be accurate, like Greeks’ reputation for eating, dancing, and easily connecting with people: « It helps us stay positive no matter what, but unfortunately has one downside – we don’t really face reality when something bad is bound to happen ». As for the habit of smashing plates at celebrations, it is not so frequent anymore and only applies to when people are « drinking and dancing… often to the song Zorbas ». However, songs like the latter, along with movies or impressions we might have gotten from the financial crisis, have created a stereotype which Dimitrios refutes: laziness. He explains: « Greeks do like to have fun. But if they put something in their mind, they will work day and night and go through anything to achieve it – our whole culture is based on that. »
After having discussed the Greek lifestyle, it seemed interesting to enquire about the aspects of Milan that Dimitrios found startling. « I was definitely surprised by how dense it is compared to Athens, and by the proximity of buildings even in small, narrow streets. This is a little stressful when you’re used to always breathing fresh air and seeing the blue sky like in Athens, where the roads are very open and the buildings are far apart ».
Aside from that, Dimitrios could find no striking difference between the Greek and Italian cultures; this similarity is one of the reasons why he chose Milan. « The people are very much alike. Both are kind, friendly and welcoming; they enjoy dancing, eating, talking (often loudly), and going out to the mountain or the sea… »
Italy, which resembles Dimitrios’ homeland in many aspects, is the fifth country where he has lived. And despite that, he admits: « I once listened to a speech about globalisation, in which the speaker stated that, after having lived in five different countries, he never really felt home in one place. It’s interesting because we’ve both had the same experience, yet I couldn’t relate at all. Every time I step in the airport, Greece always feels like home. It showed me how special a culture can be, how connected Greeks are to theirs, and how proud of it they are. I honestly feel honoured to be Greek. Through all of the rough things such as wars and crisis, the ability of Greek people to connect with their identity is beautiful. Of course, you’re going to criticise your country at some point. But at the end of the day, I love mine. I’d answer this question with three yes-es before even thinking about it. »