Wednesday, December 24, 2008

History, politics, despair and tango... Greece

While travelling in Greece by train you realize a lot of things… There are those places where the landscape is so diverse and unpredictable that pores into the people’s minds and souls intense feelings and attitudes. For example, standing at the statue of Christo Retendor in Rio de Janeiro and gazing at the steep rocky formations blending with the wide sandy beaches, you realize that Rio would never be a boring place. Similarly, Greece is a country stretching along pieces of lands scattered all over from intense volcanic and tectonic action. Thousands of islands, uneven, steep landscapes, such an intense mix of sea and mountains, dry land and alpine forests all in such a small small territory. No surprise that Greek people are totally unpredictable, extrovert, impulsive and emotional.

Being Greek myself and visiting my country after a year, it is impossible to write a ‘tango post’ like for example I did for France or Geneva. Especially now that the country is ‘on fire’... Going around by bus you read the messages on the walls: ‘3 bullets for one Alexi[1]’, ‘Watch out for the blood spilled on your couches..’. You see several businesses shut down, burned shops or cars. The economy is receding and the people are sank into pessimism and discontent. The two dominant parties are deep into corruption and there is no hope for a new political movement, neither any ‘space’ for new ideas or approaches. The country is sinking and is slowly killing itself.

Under this ambience dancing tango is not straightforward with all this negative energy everywhere, with the people being blocked by their problems and feeling limited, bonded in a reality that leads nowhere. I strongly believe that inside tango you can find everything, as tango is life! And by going to the milongas these days I felt exactly all this negative ambience, I could tell that things are by far not ok. So this post may be one of the most ‘loaded’ ones, as I have to write (my thoughts) about Greece and then link with tango, in the meantime trying to avoid reaching 200 pages... The present situation is the following of a series of historical events and most of the present problems have their roots in the past and are deeply ingrained in the Greek society. As a result, it is impossible to avoid reference to political and historical beliefs that other people will not share, even though I try to be as pragmatist as possible and take distance from the events.

The Greeks comprise an historical nation with the roots coming from the ancient times, followed by the Hellenistic and Roman periods. These great civilizations were followed by the Byzantine Empire, which erased a lot of cultural elements of the ‘Golden’ ancient era, to establish the more mystic and ‘Eastern’ Orthodox Christian religion (meaning that they closed libraries, stopped the Olympic Games, etc). After 400 years of Othoman dominance the progressive spirit of ancient Greece had almost disappeared and what remained was the beautiful and extremely rich Greek language, the identity of an old nation (even though in terms of blood there has been a lot of mixing since the ancient times) and still a progressive spirit, however judging on the standards of the ‘troubled’ Balkan area. The Greek people were always open, travellers, merchants, trying to find ways of prosperity, even though they found themselves in an area with huge political problems and constant military conflicts which are still impeding progress. This concludes the first part of my ‘fast forward historical overview’…

The modern Greek country was established in 1829 after the Greek revolution against the 400 years Ottoman rule. After that first recognition there was constant war for the independence of the remaining territories with Greek majority and the map of Greece was constantly changing until the 1940s. The revolution was followed by the Balkan wars (1912-1913), the First World War (1914-1918), leading to the Greco-Turkish wars (1919-1922) and finally the Second World War (1939-1945). Through all these hard times, the Greek nation became very mixed as Italian, French, Turks, Slabs, and in general people from several ethnic groups started to use the Greek language and practice the Orthodox Christian religion, which now defined the modern Greek identity. Even though the Orthodox church was much more discrete and didn’t intervene to the political life as the Vatican did, Greek people still sympathize the church, as it united the people during all those difficult times.

During the Nazi occupation in the 40s living conditions were really harsh with famine, diseases and massive deaths taking place everywhere, while in the meantime some people made enormous profits and lived comfortable lives by collaborating with the Germans. The above resulted in the creation of military units with such Greek people (along with others desperate from starvation) to fight against the resistance and in general support the Nazi regime. The Greek resistance on the other hand was mostly organized around left sympathizing groups, creating fertile ground for communist regimes like the ones in Bulgaria, Albania, etc.

In the meantime, the country was under the sphere of British influence which would never allow a communist government, a fact that finally lead to a civil war: on one side was the left-sympathizing Greeks (independent groups which continued to fight against the British after the Germans), fighting against the right wing Greeks, aided by the well organized British army, with the latter winning of the conflict. Most of the leaders of the left were forced to migrate to the Soviet Union, with some being eradicated after by the Stalin purges and others finding shelter to Europe.

The above events constitute the darkest pages of modern Greek history with a lot of violence, hatred, segregation, and have deeply hurt the country’s integrity. Both sides indulged in very harsh atrocities and most families lost members often without knowing in which side they were fighting. (people fighting on the ‘official’ Greek army were favouring the left guerrillas and were either secretly helping them, or even joined them). The most negative outcome of the above is that several traitors and people of lower ethics found themselves in positions of power, while several patriots lost their lives. All the above resulted in a poor, exhausted, deeply religious and not united post war Greece.

After the British, the Americans took over the situation, driving the country’s history, according to their (famous world wide) ‘strategic plans’ and they would always find helping hands in this corrupt and exhausted country. The results are known; the military regime of 1967-1975[2], peaking at the Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus, started by the desperate junta who wanted to annex Cyprus to Greece, only in an effort to win some popularity, while the people were already on the streets.

The following left governments didn’t have the virtue, talent or force, to exploit the people’s trust and to change this entire situation; after 20 years of government the country was again into economic recession and corruption. The current right government is expressing the regressive spirit of conservatism of the past decades, ruling without any serious political, economic or social plan and supporting populism, far right ideas, xenophobia, religion and even (secretely) monarchy and totalitarianism. In fact, the surnames of the members of the parliament are exactly the same like in the 60s, guarantying that the same failed and historically proved corrupted cast will be in power of this country. The political situation in Greece is a deadend situation with no signs of hope…

In the meantime, the people lack the spirit and mentality to change their fates. The 400 years Ottoman influence, made the Greek society miss all the developments in economy, politics and philosophy taking place in the west and instead brought eastern, more mystic and backward looking mentality and practices. People are very emotional and very easily manipulated, as they were at the same time poor and without social consciousness, from the constant lack of unity. Thus they let Greek politics taken over by people which in their majority are corrupt, pursuing only their own personal motifs for wealth and power, building the country on the same basis. The political parties only express different aesthetic approaches… Even though one would disagree with my historical beliefs, I think that few people wouldn’t share the opinion that the degree of corruption in Greece is higher compared the any other European country. The structures according to which people find jobs, gain access to wealth or power are absolutely unjust and are based on a ‘sick’ mentality of knowing the ‘right people’. All these exist everywhere, but even more in Greece

Making a pause to the historical analysis and going back to tango it is obvious that under these conditions, the Greek people feel weak, constrained and suspicious about the others. Nothing is simple and good motives are by far not the default. The situation cannot change easily and the result of all the above is that when you try to dance with somebody the first time it is very likely that the dance will be a ‘struggle to win your partner’s confidence’. Instead of saying ‘why not’ you may find people in the ‘why yes’ mode and it will need something from more you to ‘turn the tide’. On top of that due to the Orthodox conservatism (only on the surface though), women in general need more time to feel relaxed, comparing to the Northern countries. But after the first ‘adaptation period’ things improve radically!

All the above regime of corruption, suspiciousness and constant ‘deceleration’ of every human effort had a very interesting positive side effect on the people. Similarly to many of the ex-communist countries the luck of any solid legal structure, the difficulty to express thoughts, desires and in every aspect of life in general, has resulted in an elevated average intelligence and in intensified virtue by some. This is even stronger since ‘traditional’ lifestyles and attitudes (which often simplify roles) have been surpassed and society wears ‘modern clothes’, while on the other hand the help and support usually present in such western countries are absent. Without any ‘map’ for life, any ‘real’ laws, or social care and by the fact that history was so turbid, the people were forced to find the way on their own, they had to use their judgement every moment, just to achieve the basic things. And they got ‘better’ through that (learn-the-hard-way) training, something you can see in tango! Tango is communication and even amateur tangeras ‘feel’ a lot, understand and follow very well. Once the line is crossed you find yourself on the other side…

Going to back to my thoughts about Greece I have to refer to what Plato said: ‘the real moral principles of a person, are the ones he would follow if he was invisible..’. The conditions I describe are almost as close to invisibility as they can be, as Greek people are very impulsive and unconstrained; there is no ‘savoir vivre’ in this country! This means that you can directly spot the naturally polite people, or the ones with the open spirit; you can see talent where it exists, as education is weaker or at least less ‘elaborate’ compared to average western Europe countries. The people who have a drive for something will pursue it anyway, like nobody stopped Da Vinci open corpses or Jean d’Arc fight battles in the 15th century. But in a country ideal to disorientate its people only few may find the way, while the majority struggle in ignorance. What is encouraging is that the talent is there and that even without any practical motivation or reward a lot of people finally choose to do the ‘right thing’, the follow moral paths. The problem is that as majority they still vote for immoral leaders, which implies something about the ethics of the whole society.

Another historical aspect is that Greek people had traditionally dominated the commerce in the area, even under Ottoman dominance. They have this historical memory and pride of an old civilization, with the heritage of the sea and as a result the tendency to find solutions and ways of survival. As a result, they produced wealth enough to always have access to education and thus broaden their spirit, more than the living conditions favour. All the above mean that when you dance tango in Greece it may take a while to win the others confidence, but as soon as you do it you’ll find a lot of extra potential. There is broad spirit, talent, feeling and talking about women, I would say that they are very feminine, passionate, adaptable and flexible.

Another interesting characteristic of Greece is that while the country is poor, there is a lot of wealth concentrated in the hands of the people and exchanged in ‘corrupt’ ways which cannot be tracked by any economic indexes. Most people don’t pay the taxes they should, and this results in a country without incomplete and ‘spontaneous’ social care (only Greek people can understand this phrase!). In the meantime the past generations have deposited their small fortunes and they will do their best to support their children, by providing them everything. Cars, fancy clothes, education… But what they cannot do is find them jobs!

All the above have resulted in the Greek nightlife which is of unprecedented scale and intensity for any European country (even Spain is comparatively weak). I have been around a lot and I am sure that there is no other country where so much time, energy and money are devoted to going out and partying. Even in cities of 50000 people you can dine at midnight, party until minimum 3 o clock, find the streets flooded with people every day. The ample variety of bars and clubs makes selection of the ‘place’ and the dressing a form of expression which reaches levels of professionalism or even art. The people show who they are by choosing the place and their clothes and they are evaluated according to that. They will find (almost every night) the people with shared taste of music and even attitude for life in their favourite place.

This huge amount of young people on the streets, looking for ways of entertainment results in a very youth and dynamic ambience in the ‘tango world’, far more to most of the other places I’ve been. The average age is around 30 and there are many people around 20 starting to dance which makes Greek tango really fresh and pleasant. On the other hand, some of these ‘new entries’, just coming from the fancy clubs introduces a ‘show off’ approach on tango, leading to less modest and more demonstrative dancing styles. Tango in Greece is mostly Nuevo and not always good one… If you are a woman and you cannot lead the dance you may spend some time with guys pulling your arms to do the fancy soltada or ganco. If you are a man and you dance stylo milongero, you will encounter some more gancos, but anyway… it will not hurt!

In general I would say that you can dance very good tango in Greece, but you have to be ready to adapt to some strange attitudes! I believe that people are hot in general and they can emit a lot of emotions. There is emotional intelligence, feeling and understanding, as well as drive for passion and for adaptation of the leader-follower roles, necessary for good tango. Anyway, it’s a fact that almost everywhere I’ve been in Europe there are Greek people deeply involved in the community, organizing milongas, djs, good dancers, etc, which implies something.

I have just got in the train on my way to Athens. A young man (around 18) is sitting next to me, looking quite cool and ‘free’, dressed in modern clothes and smelling tobacco. His mother is sitting outside, in front of the window nodding at him. It’s the first time he is travelling and she is afraid. He has 2 motorbikes and he wants to buy a third one to do enduro. He goes to the football game every Sunday and sometimes he likes to get into fights with the hooligans. Still his mother will wait for him until the train will leave, nodding, protecting and showing her love and affection. Greece is a country who always wanted to be in the west, but has been educated in eastern schools… The spirit of innovation and progress lives strongly in the minds of some people, but most of the Greeks are confined in just wearing Calvin Klein and Prada and cannot support true change or innovation (like in everywhere but here contrasts are maybe more intense). At least, the hearts are beating hard and they are still flooded with emotions, good or bad, while the minds work hard to find solutions in an almost chaotic and desperate reality. In the meantime, they go out almost every night trying to find themselves, love, friendship, but most of all ways to forget and release the tension. The same huge amount of tension that became visible with the long wave of violence of the last weeks. I don’t think this is a good image of a society, but at least could be a good background to dance tango….


Thessaloniki is known in the country for the very beautiful women, dressed in fancy clothes even during daytime and the city is known for having a mentality of show off. So it is not surprising that tango is full of people who try to do fancy stuff without having the necessary basis in terms of technique. Unfortunately the people who started teaching in this place didn’t do a good job. Women are really interesting to dance with though; after having sorted out the things I describe above.

Athens is the capital of the country a big metropolis of 5 million people, famous for the professionalism, but also for the fast pace of life and the overall inhuman living conditions. As a result, the people who dance there (and they are many) usually dance well. In general the average dancers are more open and spontaneous (in such a big city you don’t have time for questions…) and you will feel a more free and dynamic ambience. However, you may find some people really tense, or even snob, especially some of the very good dancers, something which is common for big cities (I believe that Paris is the capital of tango snob elite..)

Small tango groups exist in other places as well and some of them are really worth to try. For example in Lesbos there are few dancers that I consider good for any place.

[1] Alexis was the name of the 15 old kid killed by a policeman this December, triggering all the extreme violence and demonstrations all over the country

[2] The recently open CIA files proved that the regime was supported and organized by the American government.