Thursday, September 10, 2009

Pangrati- Bohemian commune?


"...It's funny that you mention "America has all the food, and it's ours, only ours, and only belongs to the owners" (well said, by the way). Because it's something I really took note of while observing Athens. One of the first things the program director told us in his orientation speech is to avoid the "curse of comparison" between Greece and the US and he then proceeded to tell us to adopt the Greek lifestyle. The second part I understand and agree with but he didn't really elaborate on the first and I'm not sure I've followed his advice because almost all I've done is compare, not in a "better or worse" way- which is perhaps what he meant- but in an almost anthropological way. When I first came to the city (not that I've been here so long that reminiscing on my initial impressions is warranted), it was almost culture shock- everything seemed so strange and so, shall I say, foreign (haha) but slowly the differences, the big ones but especially the small, have belied the completely different value-set, which I suppose I expected but I didn't really anticipate what form it would take.

For example, there are stray cats and dogs everywhere and they don't go around begging for food or following humans- they have adopted a lifestyle completely suited to their environment. But they are fed. I find upended cans of dog/cat food in the less busy areas of the the neighborhood (particularly on the stairs leading to the top of the Marble stadium- one of the arenas from the 2004 Athens Olympics that's right next to my apartment) and when they are sick, people take them to the vet. In this way it's very communal and it is in many aspects. But in the US it's not "a sick dog," it's "my sick dog." Likewise, children are embraced by the entire community- obviously not to the same extent, but children are precious things to be cared for before they are my precious things I must care for. These things are simply understood. The sense of private property is more fluid, as you were saying- not to the extent of village life in maybe Africa or South America; It is still a city and it is still more or less Western. I'm not sure if this mentality reflects the Middle East influences, the age of the civilization, or the idea that Athens is in some ways very much an urban village that I mentioned before. But this seemingly universal understanding that things will be cared for and it is not so much the responsibility of an individual but the only way things can and must be manifests itself in other ways too. Traffic laws are really more traffic suggestions (they are ALL maniac drivers) and there is no drinking age. It is simply understood that the drivers will take care of what needs to be taken care of and that drinking will go according to custom- in moderation and always socially (public intoxication is taboo). It's as if they all simply agree on the way things are generally done and the details are really no one's business but your own. Maybe the US needs to be so strongly regulated in comparison because it can't rely on this relatively homogeneous population and this strongly rooted common value set or maybe it's a question of efficiency. It may be novelty to me and more pleasurable and easy going way of life that places a stronger emphasis on quality of life but I can see also how in the larger sense of a structured society it is impractical how Greeks always double park, park on sidewalks, drive on sidewalks, drive the wrong way down one ways streets, and ignore red lights. I always assumed practicality and efficiency is what determine things like traffic and commerce. I never really thought of it as a new idea that could is only easily implemented in a relatively new country (ie the US) without strong customs or perhaps just in a more Western society in general.

But it so refreshing (and much more enjoyable to me, so far, at least) to see a country based on people's inclinations rather than efficiency- I could really get used to coffee shops open at all hours simply because people like to hang out in these plazas late into the night. And I could really get used to siesta (almost everything is closed between 2-6pm). The Puritan ethic is so deeply ingrained in me that I marvel at how businesses can operate based on anything other than maximizing profit (because profit is clearly a secondary consideration here). Obviously, these observations are based only on a survey of Athens and it'll probably become more nuanced and less exaggerated as I get to know the people and culture well enough to appreciate the commonalities as well as the differences, but even with this cursory glance, I think I'm getting a better perspective on what American culture is. Not even in just the "capitalistic society" way, but other things that I appreciate and will probably miss eventually.

Like Michigan, for example. I've always just thought of it as a relatively beautiful, spacious place for Chicagoans to enjoy on vacation but now when you talk about going up there I appreciate it more as a beautiful place in it's own right. I think I think about it more as the coordinates 45°0′54″N 85°44′11″W (and yes, I did just look that up on Wikipedia- although it would be awesome if I just knew coordinates like that) and less as 'seven hours from Chicago', if that makes sense. I don't think I've really become all that much more worldly, but I think I have a better understanding of what it is to be worldly. I get tired so much more quickly here because everything lends itself to analysis, which worries me a little. I worry if the small things I'm observing really a window into the essence of Greek life or only incidental, Things like notebooks and pens are much more expensive here and things come in much smaller packages (eg it cost me 16 euro for three notebooks (and they don't have college-ruled) and six pens and they sell hot dogs in packages of 3 as opposed to 8). Does this show a society that doesn't place the same value on education, that writes less and thinks more (or just writes less), that places a stronger emphasis on oral communication, or is it simply that it costs more to import- or maybe I'm just being ripped off cause I'm an American? Likewise with the hot dogs- is it because they shop more but for less at a time (which is true), because they don't like hot dogs as much (which is also probably true) or because they don't manufacture them in the country? It may be something of a combination of all these things to different degrees or none of the above or maybe it is, again, just incidental and I'm overanalyzing it. And as fun as it is to constantly try to understand the culture as a whole, I feel like I'm not simply "living it" as much as I should. Perhaps that will come with time.

Don't even get me started on the scenery. I started writing in my travel journal last night (I would've started earlier but I actually couldn't find a pen for three days. Shameful, right?) and I limited myself to just a half hour of writing (because it was 2am and I had a class at 8:30) and all I wrote about were how the directions of the streets and the facade of the buildings told me innumerable things about the culture. To tell you the truth, writing in a travel journal is much more difficult than just writing...) But, to be a little more economical in my descriptions- all the buildings are almost identical in every way but color. They are all relatively tall cement buildings painted bright colors and every building is completely decked out with balconies. And usually the balconies are filled with plants. Everything is crowded in on itself and over the street so that sidewalks are unreliable and of varying sizes (I guess city planning/zoning laws are as lax here as anything else). I was thinking about how because of the narrow zigzag streets and the tall, crowded buildings, hills, and overwhelming plant life you can never see farther than a block ahead of you (if that) and wondering how this frames the Athenian psyche.

Then again, the rest of Athens may be very different. I actually haven't been outside the Pangrati/Kolonaki neighborhoods yet, which I'm not too worried about since- for now- this area has been overwhelming enough and I don't want to try to get in all of Athens in a week. I have time. All the CYA students live in either Pangrati or Kolonaki. Kolonaki is the richest neighborhood in Athens and it's where you'd find all of the Michigan Avenue stores (and the prices! don't get me started) but Pangrati is a very middle class neighborhood, all small stores and low prices (very few stores are much bigger than my room and they're all super-specialized; ie one store only sells socks and underwear and not even lingerie or fancy underwear- just practical stuff. This makes trying to find something specific quickly a great ordeal). I live in Pangrati (only three minutes away from the CYA academic buildings). Some students were complaining about living in Pangrati as opposed to the more posh neighborhood but I much prefer it both for the cheaper cost of living and for the exposure to the more common elements of Greek life. The distance doesn't hurt either (the further apartments in Kolonaki are at least thirty minutes away) My roommates and I leave for class almost as the class begins."

No comments:

Post a Comment