CULTURE

Haris Alexiou: The voice of our wounds

Haris Alexiou is proud of her homegrown olives, even more so because on the day they were handpicked, her house was filled with the joyful voices of friends who had come round to help. Her eyes sparkled as she talked about that day, as well as of the vegetables she grows in her small garden, which remind her of her childhood years. ??¨

As the conversation with the Greek vocalist evolved around a second round of concerts alongside fellow veteran Dimitra Galani at the Pallas Theater in Athens (to be followed by appearances in Thessaloniki and then a series of summer shows around the country), it became clear that Alexiou is bound to local audiences by the kind of love which grows stronger over time.

Perhaps this is because fame didn’t go to her head, as it did for some of her contemporaries, but instead she shared her agonies and insecurities and opened up about her own feelings. ??¨

?Our voice has a memory; it carries our wounds,? she said, as she calmly traced her life. ?The kind of life I?ve had reflects the vast majority of Greeks. The way I grew up, the fact that I was born in the countryside, my mother?s Asia Minor heritage, my father?s Arvanitic roots. I know who I am. I was never a city kid, I know what it means to work in the fields even though I lived in Thebes until the age of 8. I know what it?s like having a mother who got up at four in the morning to work as a cleaning woman and who later on ran a grocery store in Athens and did absolutely everything and anything to raise her children. I know what it means to do well, to have your own money, to fight and not change neighborhood because the rent is 10 drachmas higher. No matter how far I go, no matter how much money I make, I have seen it all.?

??¨The kind of hardships she endured as a child and a teenager taught Alexiou how to cope.??¨?I remember my mother had moved to a small house she had built in Palaio Faliro in 1964. It was of the illegal kind, the kind of place erected overnight, before the elections. There were no windows, just a stove. Talk to me about a homeless man living in the cold and I have the scene in front of my eyes — I know. I remember my cheeks freezing if I didn?t wear a cap, socks and gloves to go to sleep. But I also know that true happiness comes from very little,? she said.

??¨Back in those days, when the neighborhood was her microcosm and comfort zone, Alexiou shared everyone?s problems and joys.??¨ ?You shared your life. As the buildings grew taller, people split up. We forgot about our own lives and kept talking about the lives of others,? she said.

??¨Meanwhile, crises, they say, reduce distances.??¨ ?The crisis has caused an unbelievable amount of justifiable panic. There is anger toward those governing our lives; no one trusts our politicians anymore,? she said before swiftly pointing out that the lower middle classes have managed to maintain some sort of safety net. ?They are used to getting help from their parents, but when that money disappears, no one knows what will come next. Let?s hope something will happen. No one has the right to send an entire nation to the firing squad overnight.?

Yes, but are we, maybe, going a bit too far???¨

Northerners don?t understand our mentality. I was on Paros with a group of foreign friends who seemed surprised: ?Are Greeks still going on vacation?? they asked. Greeks are proud people. They no longer go away on vacation for 20 days, but on the four days they will be away they will be dignified. They will not get by on just a salad and a sandwich per day. It?s hard for foreigners to grasp the idea of offering to pay for someone?s meal, and they will never race you to pay the bill first. If an uninvited guest came round, our parents would have shared their meal with them. A Greek friend living in Paris called for a plumber. When he came round she asked him if he?d like a cup of coffee or tea — he was speechless.

??¨How do you feel when visiting downtown Athens???¨

I feel guilty that there?s an entire world out there which has nothing, as well as a world you don?t know anymore. Sometimes, when I go to the theater in a poor area, I see a world that I have no contact with living in suburbia. Television has taken over this world, and in return this world has surrendered to TV. They follow the private lives of models, who gets married, who gives birth, they know everything about celebrities, people who have no role to play in real life, they follow the fashion police. TV channels finance shows on those walking in heels while the country is full of homeless people.

??¨At one point at the Pallas Theater you mention solitude. How does a woman come to appreciate her solitude? ??¨

I can handle my solitude, now. That?s the only thing that has changed in my life; the fact that I don?t have a companion. I do have friends, however. We don?t hang out with our children, yet their energy, no matter how much they grow up or how far away they go, binds us to life.

You are in good company on the stage of the Pallas Theater.

With Dimitra [Galani] I feel safe. We have an honest relationship. I trust her to rearrange my songs, because she is a tough, deeply knowledgeable musician, with good taste and courage. We both know who we are; we have nothing to prove. When you?re young you?re dying to prove yourself. Now the only thing you want is to enjoy yourself. People want to be moved; I can feel that.

A few years ago you were diagnosed with breast cancer. How did this affect your stance toward life in general?

Breast cancer has become almost fashionable. I was lucky in that it was detected early in my annual mammogram and so prevention saved me. What you get out of this experience is humiliation, because you never believed it would happen to you. I remember the harsh words used by my psychologist, because that?s when I sought help. It was very shocking when she said: ?Are you aware that you have something from which you could die soon? Do you know that cancer may lead you to the grave?? And when I replied, ?Yes, absolutely,? she carried on and asked me what I would like to do with my life given the time left. I covered it up, for instance by postponing her opening night by a week. I said to myself, ?I will teach you,? because I was always taught to get on with it. Nevertheless, when you don?t allow yourself time to grieve for your loss you are not doing yourself a service. Grief is amazing therapy. Swallowing your tears is like swallowing death. This slap across the face led me to some important decisions: not to compromise and to take risks. Believe me, this dimension of my illness became one of the greatest gifts that life has given me.

With national elections around the corner, do you feel that there is a chance for change?

I hate to think about the actual moment when I will have to vote. Ideologies are now out of the picture and we have become accountants. I get shivers down my spine when I say this, but I catch myself wishing for a disaster. As if I wish for something absolute to happen, something real. I don?t want any more patchworks, collaborations, all this moving around. Political alliances are like cooking with leftovers. Fresh food is something very different. Everyone has to work with the same directives coming from abroad which don?t stem from Greek people?s needs, character, production or religion. It?s not a case of one-policy-fits-all. We are very different from the Norwegians and the Danes, for instance. They are now forcing us to become more practical.