A Greek American’s Greek Identity Crisis in Athens

It took one week in Greece to question 25 years of Greek pride and identity.

National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
Dec. 6, 2013, 12:05 a.m.

ATHENS, Greece — “Hello, my name is Matt Vasi­lo­gam­bros,” I say, in­tro­du­cing my­self to a busi­ness­man here. I put an em­phas­is on the “lo” in my five-syl­lable sur­name (VA-SI-LO-GAM-BROS), rolling through the end of my name with Medi­ter­ranean ease.

It’s a strong Greek last name mean­ing “The King Groom” or “Wil­li­am the Groom,” de­pend­ing on whom you ask. It’s the name of my im­mig­rant fath­er who came to the United States in 1966, leav­ing for the prom­ise of a new life and high­er edu­ca­tion.

“Are you Greek?” the man asks.

“Yes, my dad was raised in a vil­lage near Sparta,” I say con­fid­ently, think­ing he would em­brace me as the prod­ig­al son, re­turn­ing home after a long ab­sence. (I was last here when I was 6.)

I was wrong.

“You don’t speak Greek?” he says, con­cerned.

“I nev­er learned,” I say with my tail between my legs. Dis­ap­point­ment pours over this man’s face as freely as wine pours dur­ing late-even­ing din­ners here.

I’m proud of my her­it­age. My friends and col­leagues know this well. I’m proud of my dad every day for liv­ing up to the prom­ises of the Amer­ic­an Dream. And I love my Greek fam­ily. Thanks­giv­ing din­ners were al­ways ac­com­pan­ied by my yia yia’s spana­ko­pita, a rich pie made with spin­ach, feta, and filo. Gath­er­ings with the big­ger fam­ily tore a page right from the ob­nox­ious but dev­ast­at­ingly ac­cur­ate block­buster My Big Fat Greek Wed­ding. And my name was al­ways the weird­est on class rosters.

The Vasi­lo­gam­bros fam­ily in Greece. (Bill Vasi­lo­gam­bros)This pride was over­whelm­ing the first time I saw the Ac­ro­pol­is on Sunday even­ing, as I emerged from a park at the base of the an­cient strong­hold. Over 2,500 years of his­tory, beam­ing from the marble atop the hill. But I soon os­cil­lated between the pride of my her­it­age and a sense of de­tach­ment from it.

In the five days I’ve been in this beau­ti­ful city, three times as many people have ex­pressed con­cern that I don’t speak their nat­ive tongue. “How do you not speak it?” asked one wait­ress.

But what’s worse is that my self-iden­tity as a “Greek” might have been mis­placed all my life.

The Greek people that I grew up with are rel­ics of the days they left the home­land — at least, ac­cord­ing to one man I asked. They are Greek Amer­ic­ans. Not Greeks.

Fol­low­ing a Tues­day night speech from Prime Min­is­ter Ant­onis Samaras here, I turn to my Greek ta­blem­ate, John. He tells me he owns a car com­pany here whose busi­ness has struggled since the eco­nom­ic crisis. Ac­cord­ing to my new friend, Greek Amer­ic­ans are liv­ing in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the dec­ades they left Greece for the U.S. He says most people don’t cross them­selves at din­ner, Greek dan­cing isn’t com­mon­place at cel­eb­ra­tions, and the food is dif­fer­ent. My fam­ily is a pho­to­graph from 1966.

If I had any friend in this fight, it might be a fel­low Greek-Amer­ic­an. Luck­ily, I had ac­cess to a prom­in­ent one: Athens May­or Gior­gos Kaminis.

“I’m a Brook­lyn boy,” he told me on Wed­nes­day. “I am very proud of my Amer­ic­an cit­izen­ship.”

I ask him if Greeks and Greek-Amer­ic­ans are sim­il­ar.

“Greeks are people like Odys­seus — they can ad­opt them­selves in dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances,” he says pro­fess­or­i­ally. “So, Greeks, they go to oth­er coun­tries. They have this vir­tue of be­ing flex­ible. Greek Amer­ic­ans can say that we are very much alike, but that is not true.”

Maybe a store work­er on Thursday would give a dif­fer­ent an­swer. “I love them per­son­ally, but they’re com­pletely dif­fer­ent,” he told me. I laugh, real­iz­ing my hope that I could find sim­il­ar­it­ies was in fact hope­less.

This must be the feel­ing that many Amer­ic­ans with close im­mig­rants roots get when they vis­it the moth­er­land. You’ve been de­tached from the cul­ture, with few friends and only lim­ited fam­ily still there. Their so­ci­ety pro­gresses and you’re left be­hind, with just a slight sense of re­gret re­main­ing.

On one of the last tours of this me­dia trip or­gan­ized by the Amer­ic­an-Hel­len­ic Cham­ber of Com­merce, show­ing im­prove­ments and signs for hope in the Greek eco­nomy, we vis­it a com­pany that pro­cesses meat with olive oil in­stead of an­im­al fat. As I leave, the press as­sist­ant stops me.

“Your name is very weird.”

Puzzled, I re­spond, “But it’s Greek.”

“Yes, but it’s not com­mon,” the Greek wo­man says in hes­it­ant Eng­lish. “I’ve nev­er seen it be­fore.”

“Oh,” I say, now pathet­ic­ally grasp­ing for what re­mains of my Greek iden­tity.

She smiles and rubs my arm. “You look Greek, so it’s OK.”

Well, at least I have that.

“Yas­sas,” I say de­part­ing, us­ing what little Greek I know.

“Good bye,” she says in Eng­lish.

What We're Following See More »
TAKING A LONG VIEW TO SOUTHERN STATES
In Dropout Speech, Santorum Endorses Rubio
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

As expected after earlier reports on Wednesday, Rick Santorum ended his presidential bid. But less expected: he threw his support to Marco Rubio. After noting he spoke with Rubio the day before for an hour, he said, “Someone who has a real understanding of the threat of ISIS, real understanding of the threat of fundamentalist Islam, and has experience, one of the things I wanted was someone who has experience in this area, and that’s why we decided to support Marco Rubio.” It doesn’t figure to help Rubio much in New Hampshire, but the Santorum nod could pay dividends down the road in southern states.

Source:
‘PITTING PEOPLE AGAINST EACH OTHER’
Rubio, Trump Question Obama’s Mosque Visit
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

President Obama’s decision to visit a mosque in Baltimore today was never going to be completely uncontroversial. And Donald Trump and Marco Rubio proved it. “Maybe he feels comfortable there,” Trump told interviewer Greta van Susteren on Fox News. “There are a lot of places he can go, and he chose a mosque.” And in New Hampshire, Rubio said of Obama, “Always pitting people against each other. Always. Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims.”

Source:
THE TIME IS NOW, TED
Cruz Must Max Out on Evangelical Support through Early March
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

For Ted Cruz, a strong showing in New Hampshire would be nice, but not necessary. That’s because evangelical voters only make up 21% of the Granite State’s population. “But from the February 20 South Carolina primary through March 15, there are nine states (South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Carolina) with an estimated white-Evangelical percentage of the GOP electorate over 60 percent, and another four (Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri) that come in over 50 percent.” But after that, he better be in the catbird’s seat, because only four smaller states remain with evangelical voter majorities.

Source:
CHRISTIE, BUSH TRYING TO TAKE HIM DOWN
Rubio Now Winning the ‘Endorsement Primary’
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Since his strong third-place finish in Iowa, Marco Rubio has won endorsement by two sitting senators and two congressmen, putting him in the lead for the first time of FiveThirtyEight‘s Endorsement Tracker. “Some politicians had put early support behind Jeb Bush — he had led [their] list since August — but since January the only new endorsement he has received was from former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham.” Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that fueled by resentment, “members of the Bush and Christie campaigns have communicated about their mutual desire to halt … Rubio’s rise in the polls.”

Source:
ARE YOU THE GATEKEEPER?
Sanders: Obama Is a Progressive
1 days ago
THE LATEST

“Do I think President Obama is a progressive? Yeah, I do,” said Bernie Sanders, in response to a direct question in tonight’s debate. “I think they’ve done a great job.” But Hillary Clinton wasn’t content to sit out the latest chapter in the great debate over the definition of progressivism. “In your definition, with you being the gatekeeper of progressivism, I don’t think anyone else fits that definition,” she told Sanders.

×