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More Greek than the Greek (Πιο Έλληνες απ' τους

Posted Jan 07 2012 12:00am
Religion: such a touchy subject, even in our transparent world.

We recently got into an embarrassing spot of bother one Sunday morning before going to church. I should clarify: we weren't really going to church - we were going to attend a memorial service of a close relative; ie, we were going to a church. Memorial services are one of the main reasons why Greeks my age go to a Sunday church service these days. We put on our Sunday best (which for us means 'clean clothes that have been ironed') and set off for the village church where the memorial service was being held. Coming onto the main road, we decided to buy a local newspaper for yiayia. As my husband was driving, I checked the 'memorials' section of the classified ads (births, deaths and marriages are hardly ever announced in local Greek papers, as in the Western world - only memorials).

"Her name's not here," I informed him. The village church we were heading to was mentioned, but in connection with a memorial of a person we were not connected to. My husband pulled over and checked the newspaper himself. There was no mention of the person who we were supposed to be remembering, something almost impossible if one considers that memorial services have a set way of being organised. Sunday memorial services for loved ones instantly make them a public gathering, so there will be a large amount of koliva ordered from a koliva maker, who also handles the 'advertising' of the memorial in the local newspaper.

My husband then phoned the deceased's next-of-kin for more information. It took a while for his cousin to answer the phone; he was harvesting olives, so there was clearly no memorial service. We'd got the dates mixed up (it was scheduled for the following weekend - how embarrassing).

"OK, let's go home then," my husband said after he had hung up with his cousin.

IMAG0497Koliva - wheat berries served at church
"Aren't we going to eat koliva?" my children asked. They have already associated a Sunday church liturgy with the koliva sweet. We go to church as a family when there is a scheduled memorial service of a close friend or relative, and on major religious feast days, eg Easter. In essence, we aren't regular church-goers and neither do we belong to a church group. I felt that it was morally wrong to simply go back home, so I suggested that since we were already dollied up, so to speak, we should go to a church - any church - to attend the Sunday service and hear the sermon of the day. In other words, we should go to church for religious reasons, not out of a family duty. That wasn't as easy a task as it sounds.
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When I initially left NZ 20 odd years ago at the outset of my European travels, I tried to attend a Sunday service at a Greek Orthodox (GO) church wherever I was. From the middle of June, I visited a GO church on Sunday, somewhere in Europe, before arriving in Greece in mid-September. Despite not having internet in those days, I was incredibly well-informed of where there was a GO church in the many different European cities I visited. (I can't quite remember how I managed to do this in the non-internet world, but I must have been keeping careful notes.) I even had a black skirt in my backpack just for that purpose (as opposed to my travel shorts and T-shirts) - diaspora Greeks of the 1970s-80s never wore trousers to church. Sunday did not feel like Sunday if I did not go to church. During my travels, wherever I went, I looked like a tourist. Except when I went to church. There, I looked like a Greek.

monastery essex june 1991Tolleshunt Knights, Essex, UK
As a traveller, I didn't feel any real sense of culture shock. As a tourist, I expected everything to be different to what I was used to. It was indeed different, if you just stuck to the surface layer, which is all that most tourists see: the buildings, the people's dress sense, the languages, the food, the shops, the landscape - they were all quite different from one place to another. Only the GO churches that I visited did not seem different to me. This is because I entered them with the same expectations that I had of any other GO church. Despite their differences - mainly in the kind of building they were housed, which depended on the building style of the town or city they were located in - they were, generally speaking, the same. The service was mainly in ecclesiastical Greek, with some local language interspersed at the high points of the service, eg the Nicene Creed, Our Father, the call for Holy Communion.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, those church services were all similar to each other because they were all taking place in Greek disapora churches. I was mistaken in my belief that my attendance at a GO church service was due to a religious tenet. Subconsciously, I was attending the GO service because I wanted to express my Greek identity. If religion was my main aim, then I could have made do with a Russian Orthodox church (more commonly found in Western Europe), but I did not do that. Going to a GO church was one of the few times - both in New Zealand and in my travels - that I would be around other Greek people. Whether I knew or liked these people or not made little difference to my desire to be around them. They were like family. The mere fact that they were Greek was enough for me. I would only realise this when I arrived in Greece three months later. That signalled the beginning of the end of my diaspora Greekness. Almost overnight, I stopped needing to overtly express who I really was because I suddenly found myself at the source. You don't need to go to church on Sunday to express your Greekness in Greece - that part of your identity is taken for granted. What else are you doing there if you aren't Greek?

My first Sunday service in Greece confused me considerably. Even my grandmother thought it was odd that I would want to go to church, just because it was a Sunday morning. After entering and going through the motions (drop coins onto tray, take candle, light candle by main icon, kiss main icon, make sign of cross, take seat in women's quarters on left hand side), even I realised that I looked odd. To begin with, the village girls were wearing jeans (Greek-Kiwi women and girls NEVER wore jeans to church in the 70s and 80s). They were clustered around a disabled girl in a wheelchair. Standing in an almost symmetrical position opposite to the girl was a mentally retarded man staring vacantly in front of him at the altar. There was a more dominant presence of women than men in the church, and they were all somewhat old. Nearly all of them were wearing black.

Whatever it was that those people were in church for, it wasn't the same reason I was there. It was quite apparent to me at that moment that my church experiences from now on would take on a different meaning. It was even more obvious that if I continued to go to church in the way that I used to in the past, I would be seen as a θεούσα (the-OU-sa, commonly used to describe an 'overly-religious woman'). It was about this time that I also first heard the idea that " Οι Έλληνες στο εξωτερικό είναι πιο Έλληνες από τους Έλληνες στην Ελλάδα, " a belief often expressed by the diaspora communities, clearly lamenting the state of the Greek identity (bear in mind that this was way before the crisis), misguided by the thought that the Greek-something's expression of the Greek identity is somehow more intact, more genuine than the Greek Greek's. This is still often heard in connection with the (now global, not just Greek) crisis: Greeks need to start behaving like Greeks ...
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Unlike in the Greek diaspora, where there is usually one GO church that most Greeks living in a city attend, Greece is full of churches - every suburb of every town has a church, every village has one or two churches, there are even churches in fields and hilltops. We had to choose a church quickly, because it was past 9am and the service would be over by 10.30am at the latest (in NZ, the GO service would start and finish at more 'logical' hours for a restful Sunday morning). The village church was out - the locals would cotton on to the fact that we had mixed up the date for the memorial service. The local church was also out - we only went there for Easter. We finally decided on the main cathedral in the town centre, close to the picturesque touristy Venetian harbour of Hania, because an urban church would not make us feel out of place. The town attracts both locals and strangers - visitors are always welcome, and they never look conspicuous.

IMAG0502
Hania Cathedral - on the day we visited, there was a bit of fanfare, because a special doxology was being held for the armed forces.
We were not attending a memorial service - we were simply there for the religious experience. I can tell you that it wasn't much different from my first one in Greece. A few disabled people, lots of old women, most of them wearing dark (not necessarily black) clothes. There were also a couple of tourists 'taking part' in the experience. (There was a sign in English at the candle stand, reminding people to 'insert coins in the slot'; most tourists still think of Greek churches as free museums.) The sermon was just like any other sermon I'd heard in my previous church-going experiences: be good Christians, the material world doesn't count, there's a better world waiting for you somewhere else, live your life with the aim of going there. That's exactly the kind of sermon I used to hear when I used to be a regular follower of the GO church in NZ. I wasn't disappointed. I got what I expected. I needn't fear that my kids will have any huge gaps in their religious upbringing despite not being raised as regular church-goers.

However, my children's relationship with the GO church is already quite different from my own. They have associated it with family duties - and koliva, which they were pleased to see being dished out at the end of the liturgy because there was in fact a memorial service being held there too (Greeks remember their dead through memorial services for at least a year after the death of a loved one). What would they say, as Greek-born Greeks, to the idea that the Greeks abroad are more Greek than the Greeks in Greece? This notion is bound to be perpetuated by my fellow compatriots, especially the nouveau-emigres. I haven't talked to them about this issue, but I expect that they will hear someone say this to them at some point in their lives. They will probably think the speaker is nuts.

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