Fear of a Vlach planet

By: | Post date: May 28, 2023 | Comments: 2 Comments
Posted in categories: Culture, Greece

It’s an interesting thing, to interrogate one’s petty prejudices. Especially when you think yourself above petty prejudices.

Your correspondent aspires to cosmopolitanism and objectivity, and whenever he runs into the siren song of Greek nationalism, he will spell Greek words with a <c> instead. But bias seeps under your skin all the more when you think it can’t. This is a simple, daft, instance, but enough of one to do penance for.

The official narrative of Greek nationalism praises the kilt-wearing warriors of the Greek mainland, who fought the War of Greek Independence. The Greek White Pages number is 11821 (1821 being the year the war started): the phone service has traded on Greek nationalism, and so did the ad for it, delivered with accent to match:

Don’t think from that ad that the mountain man accent featured, all reduced vowel system and sloppy sibilants, is revered. It’s held in as cartoonish contempt as the cartoon itself hints at. Hillbilly. Unsophisticated. Stinking of the sheep pen.

The depiction of the malaproping northerner familiar from Grecollywood in the 60s, as done by Kostas Hatzichristos, was on the affectionate side:

(He won’t sell “villager” souvlaki, no sir, he’s too close to the village himself to be seduced by any urban nostalgia for the sheep pen. He’s selling a “European” souvlaki! And of course he’s going to mangle it as “Agro-pean”. That’s what northerner hillbillies do, you see. Αμ πώς!)

Hatzichristos may represent the benign side of the prejudice, but the prejudice is there, and it doesn’t stop at the accent. And it is something I know I’ve soaked in from my environment growing up.

The Cretan accent, on the other hand, is revered. For the most part, anyway. There was some mocking portrayal of Cretans as naive in Grecollywood, mostly by Giorgos Papazisis.

(I was very ready to fulminate at this point at Papazisis not even being from Crete, and mangling the accent. But then, I doubt Hatzichristos, of Istanbul descent, was a scrupulous dialectician himself.)

But Cretan parochialism, and Cretan investment in their macho image, has asserted itself right back. (Kaliarda, the queer cant of Greece up to the 60s, had no kind epithet for anybody, but its speakers were keen observers. Their epithet for Crete was musandopalikaru. “Mother of fake braves.” They could tell braggarts a mile off.)

And as a result, Cretan is the only dialect that still turns up in the mass media. It turns up in soapies with the same repeated plot—feuds destroying families, and indeed entire villages; but the toxicity of Cretan masculinity is celebrated rather than critiqued. And it is certainly not ridiculed, the way gentle big lug Manolios was, as portrayed by Papazisis. (Or for that matter his literary precedent, Pantelis Prevelakis‘ naive hero Patouchas “Bigfoot”.) The heroes of Cretan feud soapies are too tragic to be offered up for mockery, though their notions of manhood are more ludicrous. And in any case, Papazisis’ mockery was still gentler than Hatzichristos’.

That’s not to say that Cretan dialect isn’t retreating in the face of constant attack from the urban standard, and that so is much of the traditional culture that goes with it: of course it is. But there is no voice out of Athens heard so far south as Sitia, telling people there that it is ridiculous to be Cretan. Cretans have kept their parochial pride, and the mainstream has not refuted it. Crete assimilates those who have settled there from elsewhere, be they Asia Minor refugees, Albanian migrants, or African soccer players: their grammar may be Standard Greek, but they all end up with heavy Cretan accents, with its melodramatically swooping intonation. And they happily keep that accent up, when they go off to work in the neighbouring islands.

In fact, I wondered while in Kasos, where I heard far more of the Cretan than Dodecanesian accent, whether Crete was the US to the Dodecanese’s Canada: the boorish neighbour, drowning them out in its own oblivious loudness. When Pallini Music School performed a Cretan fantasia in the heart of Old Rhodes Town, I wondered that even more. (Though the Rhodes shopkeepers at least keep their accent up strongly. Making a stash in Rhodes is also something to maintain local pride in.)

And somehow, I don’t think it’s the same elsewhere in Greece. In other parts of Greece, the local accent is not celebrated as charming and/or macho—to say nothing of the horror that encounters any non-Hellenic language. In other parts of Greece, local peculiarities don’t turn up on soaps in Athenian TV. The White Pages mascot with the kilt and the sloppy sibilants isn’t admired or feared in mass culture, the way the Cretan is, a dagger stashed in the belt of his breeches. He’s held up to ridicule by the city folk of Athens. Him and his dress and his customs and his sheep.

And the good people of the north and the Greek mainland hear Athens mocking northerners, loud and clear.

The thing is: so do the good people of the south. And the Greek islands.

And Crete.

My friend Evangelos Lolos, from whom I have learned so much about my culture, was not born in Thessaly in order to challenge my biases. But when I was drawing up my itinerary, and I realised that I wanted to meet him, I also realised that I had a bias instilled in me, that discouraged me from visiting him in Thessaly. I hesitated to detour away from Salonica, to venture out into the actual North.

(Yes, in many ways Salonica is the capital of the North, the counterweight to Athens. In a few critical ways, it is as cut off from the regional North, as Athens is from the regional South. And the Greek mainstream, that supplies so many “ew, Northern” cliches about the north, has a different set of cliches about Salonica. Patronising, rather than ridiculing.)

I did not even dare articulate to myself the biases driving me away from Larisa, I just recognised that they were there, and they needed not to be there: they were cheating me of visiting a fairly large chunk of the country. This was the trip for me to see bits of Greece I had not seen before. This was the trip to expose myself to new experiences, and work towards surpassing those petty fears that had kept me locked into the past. Yes, damn it, I was going to do a side trip to Larisa, precisely because I was reluctant to.

And having now been there, I can dare articulate those biases to myself, accumulated over dozens of movies and jokes and a few classic novels, and toss them for the nonsense they always were.

Why exactly would being Cretan be inherently superior to being Thessalian? To the extent of making me reluctant to set foot in Thessaly? What curious notions were beneath it?

  • “They talk funny.” They don’t in Crete? I’m not going to seriously argue that /x/ > [ɕ] is charming, but /s/ > [ʃ] is inherently ugly, am I?
  • “They’re culturally conservative.” Again, they aren’t in Crete? At least they don’t have feuds in Thessaly.
  • “They’re pastoralists.” Yeah, and you think your pastoralist second cousin George is pretty awesome.
  • “They were serfs.” As was every Orthodox villager in Crete under Venice.
  • “They’re lowlanders.” Blessed with rich fertile plains that feed the country. HOW VERY DARE THEY.
  • “There’s Vlachs here.” Ok, so you get to eat a bit more cheese if you’re lucky. That’s not even mainstream Greek prejudice—the most bigoted Greek nationalist embraces Vlachs as loyal Greeks. That’s the heavily monolingual past of Crete at work on me.

I mean, come on. Are these the reasons to fear that people are going to be irretrievably different to you, and you won’t be able to make any sense of them?

Of course not. This is the same level of cultural bias by osmosis that tells you that everything in the American South is evil, and that consumers very far from the US’ ongoing cultural immolations replicate unthinkingly. (And with far less pretext.) No, there is such a thing as good country music. No, mint juleps are not the drink of the devil. No, I trust that Faulkner is worth reading.

And yes, Larisa was indeed worth visiting. Why the hell wouldn’t it be? In fact, I was grinning the entire time I was there: I found its cityscape delightful, to an extent that puzzled the locals I met. (That wasn’t overcompensation, although I know that was a risk; that was just happiness at seeing a well laid-out city full of people lounging in outdoor cafes.)

Evangelos was curious what exactly I thought I was going to find, when I was reluctant to come to Larisa. I didn’t even dare formulate what exactly I thought I was going to find, because I already knew it was going to be stupid. But it was probably some Thessalian Gothic scene straight out of Karkavitsas ca. 1895, with the urbane 160k people of the fifth largest city of Greece reduced down to a flock of goats and a couple of kilt-wearing Thessalians, snarling at each other in Aromanian, and looking at southron arrivals menacingly.

Told you it was stupid. But Karkavitsas’ Beggar really is that powerful a novel. Especially if you read it at the age of 10…


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