The other day I finished a book that my sweet friend Katerina in Athens had taken great pain to find for me. It was the English translation of a Greek author, in this case Ilias Venezis. A wonderful book to boot. But it made me thoughtful why, besides the great classics like Homer, Aristotle, Plato, or Sokrates, the only modern Greek author known to me was Nikos Kazantzakis. Katerina let me know that there are hardly any translations of Greek literature into English, and I know it can’t be the Greek letters that are the obstacle. After all, we face a similar issue with Russian literature.
It struck me only then how much Greek culture has been shaping me all my life. As a child I read Gustav Schwab’s German translation of the antique Greek legends and was totally fascinated by them. In my hometown Stuttgart’s State Gallery, I loved paintings depicting scenes from them especially well. As we didn’t have television for a long time in my family, I didn’t watch any of those Hollywood movies taking up the themes. Nor did I know anything about “Zorba, the Greek”.
As a teenager, I had my first gyros at the Stuttgart fall beer fest. It was served with Tzatziki over some marinated white cabbage. Simple and incredibly flavorful, it has stuck in my memory ever since. So have the costumes the Greek owners of the stall wore. It was probably the most frequented little food stall of the entire fest; Greek food was little known, and if so, it was because some adventurous travelers had actually traveled to Greece. In a school camp, my German and geography teacher had taken it upon her to teach anybody who wanted to learn international dances. One was a Sirtaki. I still didn’t make the connection to “Zorba, the Greek”. But if you would like to see what it looks like, here is a link.
Quite complex and elegant, isn’t it?! And in eleventh grade I took a year of ancient Greek as an extra-curriculum; at least its alphabet is not all Greek to me now, though that is contradictory.
Eating Greek food in authentic Greek restaurants became almost a fashion over the years. Germans became familiar with the Akropolis in Athens and the white houses and blue window frames and doors of Santorini in decorative pictures in those restaurants. At university, I befriended some Greek students. They always sat separately from the Turkish students in our cafeteria. I knew there was a historical rift between the two peoples. I had had no clue until much later how deep it runs. But me and my friends managed to get both groups to sit at the same table. It must have been an immense effort for both sides to reach out to each other. But they did.
Years later – I already worked as a journalist – I traveled to Crete to see the cradle of European history for myself. It was mind-blowing to see all the Minoan treasures, to walk paved roads that had been walked by other people thousands of years ago, to explore all the colorful harbor towns, to hike to historical sites. A few years later, I traveled to the island of Corfu in the Ionian Sea. What a difference in culture! Though also linked to the Peloponnesian Wars, there certainly also was a deep flavor left behind by former Venetian and British occupiers. Taking a boat trip to the mainland, I walked through an old stadium, saw the Speaking Oak of Dodoni (an oracle), and found traces of Muslim settlement in the city of Ioannina, where I also visited an Orthodox monastery on an island in Greece’s highest located lake.
Philosophy, democracy, theology are concepts that have always had impact on me and my life; their sources are deeply Greek. And thanks to my friend Katerina I have been learning a lot about Greece in the past years. Greek cuisine has become a household staple. Greek literature has made me curious about modern Greek history. Actually, once we will be able to travel again, Greece is definitely on our agenda. Even though we will never grasp the whole picture of this multi-facetted, incredibly hospitable nation. I might even want to learn more than the few words that I know to speak. Efcharisto, Katerina! As a German-American I feel cosmopolitically connected even more now.