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
Add to Briefcase
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 »
CFPB Decision May Reverberate to Other Agencies
2 hours ago

"A federal appeals court's decision that declared the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau an arm of the White House relies on a novel interpretation of the constitution's separation of powers clause that could have broader effects on how other regulators" like the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the Federal Housing Finance Agency.

Morning Consult Poll: Clinton Decisively Won Debate
3 hours ago

"According to a new POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, the first national post-debate survey, 43 percent of registered voters said the Democratic candidate won, compared with 26 percent who opted for the Republican Party’s standard bearer. Her 6-point lead over Trump among likely voters is unchanged from our previous survey: Clinton still leads Trump 42 percent to 36 percent in the race for the White House, with Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson taking 9 percent of the vote."

Twitter Bots Dominated First Debate
4 hours ago

Twitter bots, "automated social media accounts that interact with other users," accounted for a large part of the online discussion during the first presidential debate. Bots made up 22 percent of conversation about Hillary Clinton on the social media platform, and a whopping one third of Twitter conversation about Donald Trump.

Center for Public Integrity to Spin Off Journalism Arm
4 hours ago

The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, the nonprofit that published the Panama Papers earlier this year, is being spun off from its parent organization, the Center for Public Integrity. According to a statement, "CPI’s Board of Directors has decided that enabling the ICIJ to chart its own course will help both journalistic teams build on the massive impact they have had as one organization."

EPA Didn’t Warn Flint Residents Soon Enough
4 hours ago

According to a new report, the Environmental Protection Agency waited too long before informing the residents of Flint, Mich. that their water was contaminated with lead. Written by the EPA's inspector general, it places blame squarely at the foot of the agency itself, saying it had enough information by June 2015 to issue an emergency order. However, the order wasn't issued until the end of January 2016.


Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.