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.

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