The first international airport I ever landed in was Athens Hellinikon. I was 18, desperate to hear, touch, taste, smell, and see life outside my middle-class, Christian, white, American bubble. I went with my university, traveling through Athens, the Peloponnese, and 3 Aegean islands for the month of January, studying classics in the ruined settings of ancient texts. It was cloudy and cold the entire month. We walked through countless museums. I love the sun and I hate museums. But I never stopped smiling.
That was 15 years ago.
So many things have changed in that time that it’s difficult to reconcile the public face of Greece today with the one that carries a special place in my inexperienced traveler’s heart. The country is recognized – or ridiculed – by the outside world as suffering economic collapse. It’s plagued by political corruption and hindered by European dependency. Though people are suffering from austerity, it may be that measures haven’t been harsh enough, that the response hasn’t been drastic enough. Nevertheless, it has felt drastic to the people. In Greece the desire for anarchy or some form of communism or socialism is palpable. There is graffiti on every building in Athens and on the trains traveling around town…when they aren’t crippled by protests or strikes. There is little faith in the entrenched system and little hope things will improve.
I went back to Athens last week, flying into Eleftherios Venizelos, the newer airport outside of town. I was visiting friends, and it was only after I purchased my ticket that I realized the trip would mark 15 years since traveling to the country that provided the first stamp on my virgin passport. Upon making this realization, I wouldn’t shut up about it. As my friends reflected on their compatriots’ inflated sense of international importance, I realized that I held it too. I’m proud that Greece was my first country. I have my own inflated sense of connection to the place. I’m incapable of seeing it the way proper outsiders do. Or maybe I just don’t want to.
The second time I visited Greece I spent Christmas with a good friend whom I had met only four months earlier, just after moving to England. Her parents hosted me warmly, simply because I was their daughter’s guest. I met many of her friends, her brother, aunts, uncles, and cousins, and both grandmothers. Everyone welcomed me as if I were a long-lost but cherished relative. This last trip I stayed with another friend’s family. Again I was welcomed generously, introduced to her friends and family.
The Greek sense of hospitality and close family connection are striking to me, a form of collectivism that I deeply respect but that may also have an insidious underbelly. While friends and family are treated as an extension of the self, there is little appreciable respect for strangers.
Psychological research shows that people from collectivist cultures – cultures where individuals are defined in part by their connection to others – tend to be more helpful – so long as the person in need of help is an associate. People from collectivist cultures are less likely to help people they don’t know. My friends and I wondered whether this was part of the reason Greeks feel comfortable smoking everywhere, even though it’s illegal – they don’t care about other guests in the establishment, only those at their table. And perhaps it’s why people feel comfortable graffiti-ing others’ houses – if it isn’t a loved-one’s property, it has no value. It may even be why Greece has such an atrocious record in its treatment of migrants and asylum seekers; they are not members of the immediate clan. These social ills may result directly from a beautiful cultural system and may help explain why individual citizens have difficulty sacrificing for the good of the country as a whole.
Foreigners can find fault in every country, perhaps in part because no matter how hard we try, we can’t fully understand the history and culture of the place; perhaps – more simply – because every country is imperfect. As with people, I don’t think loving a place means ignoring its problems. Instead I think it means embracing those problems as part of its complex character. Despite social challenges and economic hardships, I love Greece. I love the people, I love the juxtaposition of ancient and modern, I love the ridiculously blue sky and sea. It was by falling in love with these things, a new alphabet, new food, and new (old) architecture that I fell in love with travel. I guess I owe a large part of my adult lifestyle to the country. While it isn’t perfect, it has consistently been hospitable to me. I’ll embrace its faults even as I hope that it turns things around, for the citizens, for the migrants, and for the proud history, geography, and culture itself.