Or just basic facts. Or as Guatemalan singer Ricardo Arjona says: “Le sobran opiniones y le faltan argumentos.” “He suffers from an excess of opinions and a lack of arguments.” Which Greeks might want to put on their flag in gold embroidery across one of the horizontal white bars.
I write on May 19th: “…how I’ve been wasting my time engaged in a running war with everyone in Athens to prove basic things like the fact that Albanians are a tall, extremely attractive people.”
And a reader writes back:
“I know, why is that? I had the same experience in Greece. I worked for an NGO in Kosovo for a year and then hitchhiked through Albania to Greece and found Albanians in both places to be very good-looking I thought. When I would say that in Greece people would laugh at me. I guess politics just gets in the way.”
No, they’re just idiots.
And I have to apologize to readers if this blog has taken on an increasingly polemic or nasty tone in regards to certain issues. But I wrote in an early post: “In the 1990′s, when Albanians flooded Greece and Greeks were faced with the horrifying realization that their northern border hadn’t really been with Austria all that time, many of them predictably behaved like racist jerks…” and nothing has changed, that’s all, and my trip to several Balkan countries has opened this toxic can of worms from all sides that I should probably just ignore, but can’t. Whenever almost anyone has asked me where I’ve been — if they know enough to ask about these places, their neighbors — the question always has that snickering Athenian sub-tone, that smart-ass “ξέρω εγώ…” half-grin that expects tales of backwardsness or καφροσίνη or just unspoken baseline disbelief that I went and that I found it fascinating and I can’t abide it. Others are just angry. Because…like…why should you go there? Aren’t they the enemy?
It’s not politics. If anything it’s purer socio-economics and what that does to perceptions of the Other in a monocultural world, or rather one where the Other is just invisible. And I mean social economics on two levels: one, where you really don’t see, because you’re not trained to see or to care, the real effects that economic conditions have on the physical body of a human being — Hoxha’s Albania was the only country in late twentieth-century Europe, where, like the Kims’ North Korea till this day, people suffered from literal, physical, stunting malnutriton — and two, that once that perception or non-perception is established, it becomes frozen.
How many people in New York, especially people like me who have worked in the restaurant industry a lot and get chummy with owners and managers, have not had this experience? You’re sitting at the bar and through the kitchen door you can see a young Mexican kid who’s just started. And the poor kid looks like hell. He’s probably new here, so he’s probably just risked his life several times to get to New York in ways in which we would not consider risking ours even once. He works at least six days a week for probably over twelve hours and for shit money. He lives in a studio that’s an hour-and-a-half subway ride from where he works, with three or four other guys like him, and to escape both the claustrophobia and loneliness of his life he probably goes out a few nights a week and, with whatever money he doesn’t send home to his family, gets drunk, so lots of days he comes in hungover. But he always does his job anyway, not only diligently and efficiently, but with a certain perverse pride that he probably needs to maintain to keep himself from feeling like an animal. He rarely speaks and if for any reason he needs to it’s always with unfailing courtesy and politeness.
“Γλυκοχαράζουν τα βουνά, και οι όμορφες κοιμούνται, τα παλληκάρια τα καλά στα ξένα τυρανιούντε. Tους τρώει η λέρα το κορμί και η ψείρα το κεφάλι. Ανάθεμά σε ξενιτιά, κ’εσύ και τα καλά σου.”
“Dawn breaks along the peaks, with the young beauties still asleep, and our best boys are off suffering in a stranger’s land. Their bodies covered in filth, their heads full of lice. May you be damned foreign lands, you and all your riches.”
– an Epirotiko folk song
But he’s smart, this Mexican kid, like our grandparents were before him. And he watches and he asks questions and he learns about the restaurant’s wines and foods and about New Yorkers and their often insufferable particularities, and what they like and what they don’t like. And the owner notices and makes him a busboy, and then a runner, and then a waiter. And he gets a few days off. AND HE GETS TO SLEEP. And he’s making a little bit more money, so he buys himself some clothes and can afford to take a girl out on his night off. And he’s completely transformed. And one night you say to the owner: “Who’s that hot Mexican kid you put out on the floor?”
Κι’έτσι προκόβουν τα ‘παλληκάρια τα καλά’ της Πουέμπλας και της Çoλούλας…
This is not a possible scenario in Greece. Or one that the average Athenian is capable of noticing. For one, Greeks have forgotten that just until two generations ago hundreds of thousands of their own went off to live initially hellish lives in other parts of the world like this Mexican kid does — or the Albanian equivalent does. Two, the Greek is not trained to watch others or care, the way every New Yorker is an amateur anthropologist. So the change occurs right before his eyes and he doesn’t even see it. Because other than the parts of the world that can confer some kind of ersatz glamour on him — Europe or certain limited aspects and places of the United States — the rest of the planet is just not on the average Neo-Greek’s radar. I can’t put it any clearer than that. To know the reputation that we, Greeks, have as an ethnic group in New York: that we’re open, friendly, curious, eager to learn about others and their countries, learn at least some pidgin form of others’ languages faster than they can learn English, are willing to try any food or any drink, will invite their Mexican waiter to their kids’ christenings — and then to come to Greece and see this completely shut-off from the world society, is startling.
When I came to Greece in 2010 I hadn’t been there in eight years and the gruff middle-aged waiters or relatives of the owners that served in most places had been replaced by these nice-looking polite kids and I asked who they were since it seemed strange to me that usually cossetted Athenians kids had suddenly condescended to wait tables. And I was told: “Oh, they’re Albanians.” These same people now laugh if I say anything positive about those same Albanians. Even my own people, relatives, Greeks in Albania, said to me on several occasions: “ Όχι, είναι ωραίος λαός…“ “They’re a good-looking people.” Like, let’s tell the truth where we should. And then come to Athens and have people stare at you incredulously…
I don’t know why this particular issue has ticked me off so badly.
A lot of Americans once thought that all Blacks were ugly too. I guess I’ll leave it at that.
And Philopomeon adds:
“We always need to put ourselves in a status-race with others… we can’t be as good as the Frangoi, but surely we are more advanced/richer/better looking/more cultured than the Alvanoi.
“To add to that, as you know, the Albanians were noted as “poor dressers” when they crossed the border in the 90′s. They had to take hand-me downs from charity, hence the Greek insult to a poor dresser ” You look Albanian.”
“But I agree, in general, Albanians are good-looking folk. Especially Kosovar girls.. hehe.”
Kosovaroi — of both genders — were real stunners, P., you’re right. They have even gently nudged Afghans out of their first place position for me — no mean accomplishment. I really couldn’t believe it when I was there; you didn’t know where to proto-look. (click)
And what I should’ve done from the beginning is put these pictures together with all the pictures of the young Derviçiotes I have in photos and videos and asked a random group of thirty-something Athenian Concrete-Cave-dwellers to tell me which ones are the Greeks and which the “ugly” Albanians. And see the results…