Tradition and history fuse into the present
To know about and promote Greek folk tradition may now be recognized as a sophisticated trend, but this was far from the case up until the recent past when folk tradition had not yet entered the world of lifestyle and was only appreciated by a handful of odd enthusiasts. Varvara Terzaki was one of those early supporters and was already working toward the preservation of Cretan tradition when she moved to Athens from her homeland in Rethymnon in the mid-1970s. Motivated by a deep reverence for the people and culture of Crete, she became head of the Women’s Cretan Association in Athens and initiated projects that aimed at preserving the distinct qualities of Cretan tradition. Almost three decades since then, Terzaki is still fighting for the same cause in the belief that knowledge of one’s tradition can enhance one’s cultural identity as well as community ties and act as a form of resistance against the homogenizing aspects of contemporary life. The idea is not actually to revive tradition but to educate people in matters concerning their cultural heritage, and, in the long term, help improve the quality of their lives through that knowledge. It is toward this objective that, a few years ago, Terzaki helped found the so-called Historical and Folk Society of Mylopotamos, an area which is located at the foot of Mount Psiloritis in Rethymnon. Part of the society is the smaller, more specialized Institute of Music and Letters, which collaborates with the University of Crete and academics in the field toward the study of Cretan music, literature, language and local dialects. Another project that the Historical and Folk Society has undertaken involves the opening of a museum on the history and tradition of the region. The museum, which will open in the near future in collaboration with the Greek Ministry of Culture and the local municipality, includes rare items and documents, many of them acquired by Terzaki herself over the years. In some ways, her projects capture a fine balance between the past and the present, between old-time values and the dynamic of contemporary reality. Terzaki herself, her personality, demeanor and very distinctive manner of speech, in which old proverbs and a knowledge of her subject often come up, personifies this balance. An elegant woman with an acute sense of urban sophistication, Terzaki is nonetheless committed to her homeland’s traditional customs. A woman of her times with a strong social presence in Athens, where for the past 20 years she has run a public relations office (an office focusing on communication is what she prefers to call it) specializing in cultural projects, Terzaki may seem extroverted at first appearance, but is really more introverted and discriminating. Uncompromising and at times assertive, she also shows an unusual sensitivity toward issues of life, culture and people. Something of an idealist yet grounded in reality, Terzaki expresses the values of another time, yet in practice, is an active politician who ran for election as a Socialist party parliamentary deputy during the recent polls. As with the rest of her projects, Terzaki’s plans as a politician revolved around the use of history, tradition and education as a way of improving life, particularly in the area of Mylopotamos in Rethymnon (the prefecture where she ran as a candidate), where extended cultivation of hashish is gradually disrupting community ties and social coherence. Driven by an inexhaustible love for her homeland, Terzaki wishes to reinstate this social coherence and believes that, if correctly educated and exposed to the richness of their cultural background, people in the area may recover their community ties and turn away from easy profit and consumption to life’s more fundamental values. To listen to Terzaki talk at length about the distinct qualities of Cretan culture, one senses that, in some general way, these values still survive among the island’s people. «In Crete, tradition is still alive, not in the sense of a folklore attraction, but as a part of everyday life. For example, many Cretans will listen to the Cretan lyre every day or will dance Cretan dances, not just in ceremonies or festivals,» says Terzaki. On the other hand, life in Crete is also becoming more vulnerable to outside influences, something which Terzaki ascribes to a lack of proper education. «Just like anywhere else in the world, Cretans want to have everything handed to them on a plate; they will not strive toward a goal… There is also a great sense of self-focus, something which I feel can be dangerous,» says Terzaki. Education – which, as with the notions of culture or tradition, Terzaki conceives of in a broad sense of values rather than merely in the sense of schooling – may help instill a more meaningful appreciation of life. So does a vibrant community life. This is why Terzaki believes that schools in small towns should be kept open, even when there are only a few students that attend them. But can life in the Greek provinces, in small isolated villages, be kept alive? Terzaki believes that it can, if people who live in these isolated areas are given the right support and know-how. «The Greek government or the various European Union programs may give people the funds to start a new business or develop their existing enterprises, but they will not give them the guidelines to create the infrastructure and professional opportunities for people. The Ministry of Agriculture, for example, will train farmers but will not oversee their work after that. I feel that this is necessary, not in the sense of patrolling them but guiding them through the various stages,» says Terzaki. The lack of professional opportunities coupled with easy profit brought in either by the money given by the government and then wasted because of the lack of training or gained through the cultivation of illegal crops, are, according to Terzaki, driving young people away from their local towns or villages. «Young people are increasingly dropping out of school while other parts of the population are leaving their local towns for the big cities because there are no jobs to keep them busy at home,» says Terzaki. Anxious to see that situation change and driven by a special feeling for her homeland’s tradition, Terzaki has tried to motivate the local population of the Rethymnon area and to make locals realize that their own culture and traditions can offer the resources for an enriching lifestyle. Her initiative in creating a cultural nexus right in the heart of Crete expresses this vision. So is her parallel environmental project of preserving Crete’s nature, especially in the area of Mount Psiloritis. In a way, it is a something of a utopian vision, uncompromising and long-term in its scope. It relies on inculcating values in people, on a certain «life wisdom,» on realizing the importance of community ties and human relationships. «The utopia of the present is the reality of the future,» says Terzaki, in one of her typically insightful aphorisms. Committed to her objectives and the values that she acquired in her homeland in Crete, Terzaki keeps revisiting the villages in the area of Mylopotamos in Rethymnon, listening to the locals and trying to bring them into closer contact with their own traditions and cultural values. It is these traditions that she strives to keep alive and in tune with contemporary life, hoping that future generations will have something of their own to see the world through.