I recently finished a book titled Aegean Dream. The book chronicled the year-long attempt of Dario and his wife to become Greeks. The attempt was a failure. The book describing the events chronicled their time in Greece.
The book begins with a Greek official telling Dario that Skopelos is a jewel of Greece. And in my mind’s eye, I could see him turning to a co-worker and saying – There is this insane American, who wants to go live in Skopelos.
Their explanation for their failure is that the Greek state got in their way. They had all the right intentions, and yet the state didn’t give them what they needed to legally reside and run a business in Greece.
The real explanation instead of the superficial explanation that the author clings to for their failure is more complex. The reality is that to immigrate to another country, to abandon your previous identity and embrace your new identity, there has to be nothing to go back to. If going back is an option, then you will never make it across.
Without knowing the author in detail, the best explanation I can give is that to be white in the USA is to have the power of the state be your ally. The government exists to serve. The cops to protect. To be non-white, the power of the state is more ambiguous. For some, it’s threatening.
To be Greek in Greece is to be like an illegal immigrant where the state tries and exploits you without ever mercifully kicking you out. The best explanation is in the book: When you start a business, the state will not come after you. As your business grows, the state will come after you. First it will be the local official, then an official further out, and then an official from Athens. And every time you will have to pay.
To be Greek is to understand this reality.
Throughout the book, the author is caught up in the silly games of the state. The last and most endearing occurs at their departure. His wife did not get a permanent visa to stay in Greece. There were lawyers and government officials who got in her way. When they leave the law requires them to pay a substantial fine. To avoid the fine, they write a letter explaining all of the details of their misadventures. The soldier at the border looks at the paperwork, realizes that this would take a lot of time and effort and waves her on. The essence of being Greek is to understand that the laws are absurd and so good judgement is required.
And the book is at times funny. Funny because as a Greek, I see the absurdities of the state. Watching Dario navigate the Greek state is like watching a rich man sit in a poor man’s house and wonder where the butler is.
Unfortunately, the book is also very, very, mean. The author spends too much time explaining the “why not” of being Greek, and too little of the “why yes”. In many ways, I think the author arrived in Greece with an image of what it is to be Greek with no understanding of what it meant to be Greek. Like so many philhellenes of the past, he didn’t understand the hard, brutal reality of living in a poor country with a rapacious state. Like many philhellenes, he imagines a Greece that doesn’t exist. And when reality finally shatters his dream, his false dream, all that remains is his bitterness.
And so the book, ultimately is a mean book that chronicles all the ills of Greece without emphasis on what is good.