Ares Kalogeropoulos is a successful musician and photographer currently living in Germany and is mostly known for his project Meet The World In Greece, an unofficial campaign he recently started running on Facebook about Greece. We initially contacted him to tell us about the project but when two Greeks start talking its more than natural to end up discussing about everything from politics to life in Germany. Enjoy our discussion!
-What led you to the creation of Meet the World in Greece?
-Our country has been officially running tourist campaigns for the past 50-60 years and I’d long been thinking that there is a huge communication gap between the real picture of Greece and the stereotypes that these campaigns themselves have created about Greece not only internationally but also nationally.
I’ve been living in Germany for 3 years now and noticed that when talking with people who had travelled to Greece either during the 70s-80s or more recently and even people who had never visited my country, they all shared the same view on what Greece is and that view was strongly influenced by the stereotypes I just mentioned. Thinking of Greece they all thought of tiny whitewashed houses with blue windows, exactly the way Greece has been promoted through those official campaigns; a picture that as I know and you sure know as well, is not totally true. It is a picture of Greece that only shows one of the hundreds or even better one of the innumerable aspects of our country-so many that even Greeks ourselves will never be able to discover. White houses with blue windows picture only the Cyclades not even all inhabited islands and we are talking about thousands of islands. The Pindus, The Olympus, The Parnassus, Metsovo were some kind of a taboo for official campaigns and it sounds almost unbelievable how they were put aside. I don’t want to be taken wrong, ̇I love the Cyclades and being Greek means they are much more to me than white houses, they are the beginning of the Greek and European civilization.
However, Greek campaigns sort of blacklisted stone houses, mountains, snow covered areas, rivers, canoeing, mountain biking. Everything but the small table with a glass of ouzo and a cup of coffee overlooking the Aegean was hidden and to me this cannot go on! We need to redefine/reconsider what tourism means. Even Athens functions as a tourist centre of 250.000 inhabitants the most, leaving the rest of Attica completely out of tourists’ reach. Through meet the World in Greece I wanted to change those taboos in a creative way.
-You’re saying then, that one cannot keep selling the same product using the same slogan forever even if that product has a uniqueness of its own, aren’t you?
-Exactly! You just used the word “uniqueness” and we have to ask ourselves who is this whole thing unique for? Is it unique for us or the visitor? To “sell” anything to the visitor who has never had any experience of what you experience here in Greece it doesn’t need to be unique for you. You should be able to sell your “product” in a way that’s unique for him. Germans, Swedish, French, Americans visiting your country have never tasted “koulouri Thessalonikis” (round-shaped chewy bread sticks with sesame, a typical snack found in bakeries and street stalls) but to you that may sound like too simple a food to offer them. You want to take them to the best seaside restaurant with the most modern island décor. They do not need that! You need that to impress them. They, who have never tasted “koulouri Thessalonikis”, want to try it because it is a new experience. We don’t always have to think of what we like but of what visitors are going to like as a new experience and visitors to Greece are also interested in our rivers and ski centres. I hear many Greeks saying “Why on earth would an Austrian like to go skiing in Greece?” The answer is simple, because he won’t be hearing German around him, he won’t be eating German food or be surrounded by what he sees in his everyday life. Skiing in Greece is a whole new experience! He won’t have seen these mountains or people before, won’t have tasted these foods, won’t have been treated in a different way to the one he is back home and what is more when he skis down, let’s say the Parnassus, will miraculously find himself at a beach. To be just, the official campaigns are not the only ones to blame. Travel agencies also have their share in all this. When everywhere around the world you as a travel agent have been mainly promoting the ship wreck in Zakynthos for the past 40 years, you may not have the right to complain about the whole situation. I just materialized this whole thing and tried to show there is another way to it through Meet the World in Greece which I think is in some way similar to what you are trying to do with La Grèce J’aime!
-That’s true! La Grèce J’aime was born through a similar feeling. We wanted to show that besides bouzouki, chlamys and pillars there is so much more going on here. There are modern people here. Besides the gloom that is being reproduced worldwide about Greece right now and is of course real to a point, we wanted to tell the world “Yes, our lives have drastically changed but this does not mean we have stopped dreaming and creating!” We thought, “We have to put a halt to this! Enough! There are things born in Greece even today that our lives are not what they used to be” and we made it our goal to promote all beautiful things taking place and which we felt the urge to show not only internationally but nationally as well.
-You left Greece 3 years ago. Seeing the work you’re doing with Meet the World in Greece you sure love this place and I can’t really understand why you decided to migrate. I suppose it has nothing to do with the ongoing recession since you left right before it all started, does it?
-No, it has nothing to do with it. Actually, when I decided to leave I was at my best as far as my career is concerned with many of my friends calling me crazy for migrating as nobody not even me could foresee what was coming and that’s why my leaving had nothing to do with the recession. What made me leave had to do with mentalities and not with financial difficulties. I found myself at a dead end not being able to communicate, promote my work and show my talents without being passed over by marketing managers. I suggested changes that were enthusiastically welcomed by people of my field with long discussions taking place that never led anywhere because a marketing manager or advertiser popped out and imposed his way of thinking. Unfortunately, many people in Greece care about what your name is applauding more than often the most famous “name” as opposed to the best work. I also had constant difficulty in my everyday contact with state institutions and I thus felt the need to make changes in my life. I suppose we’ve all felt like this at some point of our life.
-Have you regretted making that decision?
-I haven’t regretted taking that decision back then but I have to confess that it really hurts me that when I decided to come back to Greece my country was not what it used to be. I was asked by a fun of Meet the World in Greece if I am one of the people Greece “lost” because of the migration wave. My answer was that I am one of those who can’t come back because my country does not allow me to feel at home anymore and this is probably worse than leaving. I had the choice to stay or go but do not have the choice of coming back.
-What you are saying then, is that, though migrating was a conscious decision you would like to come back. Why is that?
-Because when I left, I believed I had more in common with what you could call the average European.
-Isn’t that true?
-No. I found out that the average European I had in mind does not exist. There are very nice Germans, French, Greeks but not the average I had in mind.
-What was the picture you had in mind?
-I thought that people like you and me, friends and acquaintances of mine who were more cultivated and we had a lot to talk about with an open mind and vision belonged in the category of the average European. I believed that the person I just described to you is the average European. However, I found out that I am related to that Greek person not that European. The citizen of central, west or north Europe is far from the way we see things and he may be on the right track and we on the wrong one but there is no way I can judge that.
-So you actually didn’t manage to fit in. Would it have been easier if you were younger and not formed a personality yet?
-Definitely! I could have, if I were 15 years old. Germans don’t notice or mind that I’m Greek and do not treat me as being different but I see a huge gap between us. I am the kind of person who’s going to invite you home for a cup of coffee, a German will never do that. To go out for a coffee with their friends they need to jot it down in their personal organizer. I don’t keep my friends in an organizer; I keep them in my heart. Surprise has been taken away from their everyday life. Everything runs smoothly in their country and there is nothing unpredictable which is tiring, exhausting I’d say. They know it too, but can’t change it because they have also formed a personality. They understand and admire the philosophy of the more easygoing Mediterranean way of living but cannot live in the same way and even if they decided to change, society would alienate them because they then wouldn’t be part of the ‘club’. There are clubs here for everything and you have to belong to one of them, the football club, the riding club, etc.
-So, that sounds like a kind of “grouping” people. Is then the great freedom we consider that exists in those countries fake somehow?
-I believe it is. If you don’t belong to a club, you are not part of the society. Being free and autonomous, which is a Greek word meaning independent, is defined in Germany as being a dropout leading a marginal life. They can’t imagine a different way of living in which things are not always so tightly organized.
-Wow! I generally believe that children in Greece are too bonded to their family and never become totally independent so what you just said means that I’m probably wrong. I mean, if you are to live in a society in which you break bonds with your family as part of your evolution to adultery but have to be part of a club it’s probably the same and even worse because at least in your family’s “club” members are all related and really care for each other.
-Do you know what this club thing has created? The misperception that even family and friends are some kind of a club which has led to loss of human touch. Here in Germany two people who know each other meet in the street, talk for an hour standing under their umbrellas in heavy rain and none of them will invite the other to go sit in a café and talk. There are so many differences between us and we surely have to learn a lot from the way their country and state institutions work just like they have to learn a lot from us as far as human relationships are concerned.
-Do the Germans believe that the Modern Greek is lazy and if so how much has this influenced your relationships there?
-Yes, they believe that but only for the Greeks residing in Greece so this has not affected me at all and I guess that’s true for the majority of Greeks living here. The Greek that the Germans get in touch with here is either a restaurant owner (there are 5500 Greek restaurants in Germany), a fellow student at university, a teacher or a university lecturer. You don’t see many Greeks in the labour class.
-How about those coming to Germany now?
-Since they do not speak the language, they mostly work in Greek restaurants.
-The next question on my list is about the differences between the Greeks and the Germans but I guess you already told me about that.
-No, please ask me because there are many more. Living here means I have given up many things for a better standard of living that doesn’t mean I am enjoying a more quality life. To me quality life means drinking my coffee on my house balcony together with my father, standard of living means feeling secure because state institutions work. The first thing one notices when coming to Sweden, Norway, or Germany is that the quality of life as perceived in Greece does not exist here. Can you imagine there is the word freizetstress here which means free time stress? People are stressed because they do not know what to do with their free time. They finish work and instead of having fun with a friend, drinking a coffee or simply doing nothing at all they, take pills to take that stress away because they constantly feel the need to be productive.
-I thought this only happened in Japan!
-No, it’s a common situation here as well.
-I guess Greeks are far from conceiving this.
-Yes, to us Greeks it is probably one of those one-word jokes. If you think about it for a while, you are going to realise that this term exists in western and northern societies because ever since a child becomes a student they are bombarded with the meaning of employment and of vocational training without taking into account the human element. Not everything can be done in this way because that child grows to be an adult suffering from free time stress, finishes work and feels like a machine that’s been turned off and therefore unproductive since it’s seized operating. This is not human and can’t be normal. It’s as if these societies are producing figures and GNP.
-What you are sharing with us could help more people stay in Greece and fight for a better future.
-What I want is to help the ones staying realise why they did so. I don’t want them to stay and keep thinking “I should have left”. I want them to see the other side of the coin too and understand what they won by staying. In every case you lose some you win some. My parents, friends, sister, two best friends are all in Greece. The people I’ve met through my work, my routine and most cherished memories are still there. I’ve sacrificed all of them for a better standard of living that is going to help me get by until my country stands on its own feet and understands that institutions need to work better for me to find my role in society. I don’t mean that I want my country to become a financial paradise for me to come back. I don’t need money to be happy. I have money here but this is not the point.
-Are you optimistic for the future of Greece and its people?
-Historically there has never been any period of recession that was not followed by recovery. Right now there is political, cultural and moral decline but this cannot go on forever and increase will be impossible to avoid. I don’t know when and how this change is going to happen but it will. One can never know when this circle is going to break and what this is going to entail but a wick is enough to activate a volcano and a volcano that is sleeping is not necessarily a deactivated one. All this may not have to do with Greece alone but Europe as well.
-You told us what you don’t like about Greece how about what you love about it?
La Grèce J’aime is the one I experienced as a kid when I was still not able to grasp the meaning of deceit. La Grèce J’aime is that moment when I would take my head out of my car’s window and smell the fresh cut grass. The shadow of olive trees. Swimming at night and bonfires at the beach. Looking at Athens’ lights from my balcony in the company of friends. The element of unpredictable and the feeling that everything can change from one moment to the other which gives life a meaning. Visionary people. One might think there are people with a vision everywhere Greeks however, exhibit a unique passion and a strong-minded inclination to believe in whatever they’ve set to accomplish which some may mistake for naivety. One more thing that I will never find anywhere abroad is the myth that runs through Greece like a code installed in a programme. A stone anywhere in the world is a stone, a stone in Greece may be the one Aristotle had stepped on and it thus gets a new meaning. Of course there have taken place significant historical events and there existed important people elsewhere in the world but not to such an extent that they have influenced and affected the globe’s culture so deeply in time. Myth and history are really running silently in the background of the programme called Greece and this myth is nowhere to be found abroad because every time you lay your eyes to a cetain spot in Greece, ther, where you are looking, something important has happened and therefore it has something important to tell you.