14 September 2011: We should sink or swim together

We should sink or swim together

Four years ago was the 500th anniversary of the settlement at Jamestown, which, if we agree to identify as the first permanent settlement of America and thus our birth, makes us a mere toddler in terms of Greece, a land with thousands of islands, that traces its roots to 3000 BCE—before the common era—and beyond. That is like comparing the life experiences of a 4 year old to a 50 year old.

At the time of this writing, I’ve been in Greece for less than a week, which hardly qualifies me as an authority. Still, first impressions can offer insights that surely are tempered by the realization that hindsight might prove them somewhat to way off base.

Arriving by flight to an ancient land itself offers symbolic contrast. In the case of Greece, the written language with its alphabet compared to what is called “Greeklish,” strikes a visitor immediately with directional signs written both in the ancient script and with Roman—western—letters.

Once one learns idiosyncrasies such as the Greek character for the western R is the same as our P along, it becomes less of a challenge to read the sign indicating the Acropolis is a few kilometers away. I’d try to write Acropolis in traditional lettering but because the modern keyboard is composed of Roman letters, that’s not possible

With a strong blend of traditional dishes, food serves too as a reminder of the complexity of a country with ancient roots in a post-modern world.

Tzatziki, yogurt with cucumber, garlic, parsley, can be used as a dip or stuffing for gyros; Greek salad consists of tomato, cucumber, green pepper, red onion, olives, and feta cheese; moussaka is made with boiled potatoes, eggplant, a staple of Greek food long before Plato, ground pork, beef or lamb, and custard; and kontosouvli is pork or lamb on a kabob.

But then there are recent additions including hamburger and French fries.

The Greek Orthodox Church remains the official religion, much like the Church of England serves there, and is on the public dole. It retains considerable wealth, but seems to be declining in terms of allegiance, out of touch especially among youth.

Ancient Greece was disunited with each city-state fiercely defending its autonomy, much like fledgling America under the Articles of Confederation. While a feel-good condition during peace, it proved to be an impediment during crises, especially invasion.

Modern Greece is struggling mightily. Friends, when telling them I would be journeying there, offered a common comment: “They can use the money.”

Can’t we all, but it’s particularly difficult to witness that happening in the country that not only is considered the birth place of Western Civilization but also since the times of the Persian invasion in the fifth century BCE has served as the portal—“illegal immigration” is as powerful an issue in Greece as it is in the United States—and consequently border between East and West.

Critics point to the nation’s socialistic past and present structure and perhaps there is some—let me emphasize some—merit to that argument. Like any system in which freedom and the opportunity to create is stifled by government or corporate control, so it is in Greece with an unemployment rate at 17 percent that is considerably higher among youth.

Being a member of the European Union, Greece finds itself at the mercy of both the EU, especially economic super powers Germany and France, and the IMF, the International Monetary Fund.

Should Greece declare bankruptcy? The debate rages across the nation, some seeing it as potentially catastrophic while others taking a fatalistic it-can’t-be-any-worse perspective.

How many Americans can identify with that dilemma?

One of our hosts talked about a newer Greek practice similar to family-style way of eating: Ordering plates of foods to be shared among all participants, rather than each ordering his/her own.

It serves practically as a grand method to teach non-natives of what the various dishes are made, but it also adds to the communal aspect of eating.

Perhaps that can serve as a metaphor about how we can move forward in this economic and social crisis as it does get at the age-old philosophical debate about the role of the individual within the community.

In the West, the individual holds primacy, a philosophy evolved in ancient Greece. Hence, the rise of the democratic tradition.

As the great English poet John Donne writes in Meditation XVII, “No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.

“If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind.

“And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Sink or swim together.

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