What a big, fat Greek wedding taught me about the euro crisis

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Livadochori is a small town in Greece that is emblematic of the country’s complex cultural history.
Livadochori is a small town in Greece that is emblematic of the country’s complex cultural history.
Image: Nathan Hegedus

The Greek government has announced painful budget cuts, leading to more protests and questions over whether the euro zone can keep bailing it out. More than just its inclusion in the currency is at stake. 

Greece was too quiet. As my family and I drove through central Macedonia last spring, I expected riots and death and fury; it was the day after May Day, after all. And already then, the drama in Greece felt like it had built to an untenable climax—the millions out of work, the humiliation from northern Europe, the looming decades of stagnation at best and at worst a crash into what sociologist Manuel Castells calls the “black holes of informational capitalism.”

Instead, it was bucolic quiet: a Greek wedding with homemade sweets and dancing in the streets and not a single word about the economic crisis. But under that quiet was something far more interesting. As we waded through the cross-currents of the last century of Greek history, we discovered a Greece more fractured yet more subtle than either the Greece of the tourist brochures or of the nightly news and the Euro crisis. We caught a glimpse of a land that has known little but turmoil for a century but also a place that might stitch together a future out of the scraps of its ripped past.

Livadochori is a village of about 500 people about 16 miles outside the city of Serres in central Macedonia near both the Bulgarian and Macedonian borders. Just a century ago, all of these vineyards and lush mountains baking under a very Los Angeles-like heat were still ruled from Istanbul, though not peacefully. Macedonia was a tortured four-way battleground between Greek, Serb, Bulgarian and Turk, complete with ethnic cleansing, Ottoman reprisals, and massacres all-around.

The Bulgarians actually took Serres from the Turks first, in 1912. Then the Greeks. Then the Bulgarians. Then the Greeks. Then came the refugees, millions of ethnic Greeks forced out of Turkey by war and population exchange, boosting Greece’s population by a third in only a few short years.

And thousands upon thousands of these Greeks who were not from Greece landed in disputed, wrecked and now much emptier Macedonia.

My brother-in-law speaks Turkish, among other languages, and I think it was fair to wonder how the older Greeks would react to him. Would they blame him for history, as often happens in the Balkans?

No. For at least a couple of residents were the children and grandchildren of those Anatolian refugees, and while they had been Christian, they had spoken Turkish at home, even after they came to Greece. So, in Greece, my Turkish-speaking brother-in-law became our translator, when the older Greek women let him up from the table, as they swapped tales of home villages near Istanbul and told him how wistful they were as Turkish faded out of their assimilated families.

This was not the only linguistic oddity. Walking around the village, we overheard locals speaking another foreign tongue, not just to visitors but in their yards to each other. And others we met apologized profusely for not speaking this lingua franca of Livadochori, which was Swedish.

In the 1960s and 1970s, thousands of Greeks—including many whose families had fled Turkey just decades before—immigrated to places like Sweden and Switzerland to take jobs at booming postwar factories. Many have now returned, for good or just for summers, and with their Scandinavian earnings have renovated the family homesteads, filling the yards with lush gardens of fruit and flowers. And in this village they all speak Swedish, making Livadochori maybe the only place outside Finland where Swedish outranks English as a second language.

Even with the Greek entrance to the EU in 1981 and the boom times before the euro crisis, the emigrants seem to have done better—financially, at least—than those who stayed. All their outside money gives the village a sheen of wealth, one laid over a friendly but scruffy core, with broken playgrounds, a few kids on bikes and a few more old men riding rusty tractors out to their fields. I covered the Athens Olympics in 2004, and that was a great party, if clearly paid for on bad credit. The capital city had felt European, and the islands in the Mediterranean had too, with their Western tourist dollars. But in many ways, the soul of Greece remains in these communities that have known little continuity or safety for generations.

How have the Greek people been able to endure the pain of the euro fiasco? Maybe it’s a historic stoicism, born from centuries of oppression and now a century of upheaval. Or maybe it’s rooted in an aspirational fever, to do anything to be European, to not be thrown back into the very real chaos that came from the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.

This has given both the Greek political class and European leaders unexpected time to find a way out of the Euro crisis, though the patience of the humiliated Greek public may finally be running out, even though Angela Merkel’s heart bleeds for them.

Of course, the real mistake was letting Greece into the eurozone, not because Greeks are cheats, or because German banks are predatory, but because huge swathes of Greece share deeper economic and cultural roots with Albania and Syria than with Flanders and the Alsace

Yet the wedding of a Swede to a Greek Swede, in Greece, hinted at a rich and cosmopolitan identity that might be developing out of a century of rootlessness. Maybe Greece can truly embrace its shared history with Turkey and Bulgaria. Maybe it can build on its more recent cultural connection to northern Europe. Maybe it can be Europe’s ambassador to the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East, not just a backwater.

I think there is a significant, if subtle, cultural goodwill towards Greeks in Europe (though not towards the Greek government or its pension rules). I overheard one conversation at the wedding among a couple Swedes. They were talking about how the Greek population in their city in Sweden was falling, as Greek immigrants died or returned to Greece, while their children assimilated. And one of them said, with admiration, “We needed them. We never could have done it (referring to the post-war Swedish economic miracle) without them.”

Whether Greece conforms to the stern ways of Germany and the EU or finds its own way between the Balkans, Russia, Turkey and the Middle East, its future is going to be painful. It’s not just a question of remaking the Greek economy but the entire Greek society for the digital age, and hoping that the fierce winds that have blown across Macedonia finally quiet into a gentle breeze.