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A tale of two cultures

Easter links Christendom as do few other events. The slow and painful death of Christ on the cross, and the miraculous story of the resurrection afterward, is about as central a tenet to the Christian faith as they come. It is celebrated in spring, another timely reminder that life springs eternal. Yet any Westerner in Greece during Megali Evdomada (Holy Week) needs no reminding that Easter also accentuates the dissimilarities between the Occidental and Orthodox Christian worlds. In Greece, even in 2002, you really feel it, feel the quiet heaviness, hear the slow tolling of the bells, see the normally disinclined flock to church daily, sense the absence of lighthearted activities. All this peaks this evening, Good Friday, with the mournful carrying of the Epitapheios around town and city neighborhoods, followed by the faithful bearing candles. Just as Britain and America are separated by an ocean and a language, so too does the Orthodox Easter Week contrast with the brief, chocolate-rabbit-and-jelly-bean-based one in the West. The two Easters are separated by differences in customs but a gulf in meaning and scale, if not exactly on the scale of Samuel Huntington’s «Clash of Civilizations.» And this year’s five-week gap between the two has merely underscored this reality. Late March is still late winter; by early May it’s practically summertime. Easter is scarcely the Olympics, and, in fact, offers a welcome break from preparing for (and reading about) Games over two years away. But Easter’s dual role as both a bridge and a divider between the two worlds offers a lesson for understanding the continuing hesitancy by many Greeks to embrace the coming Games with abandon. This theme was taken up a few weeks ago; now I’ll resurrect it again, hard as it is to try to look into a nation’s soul and then express what you see (though somebody’s got to do the dirty work). Natural skepticism Skepticism may be the most useful description for a large segment of Greek opinion – a term which, building on this theme of duality, itself has a dual meaning. In English, «skeptical» means dubious or doubtful of any received wisdom, but its Greek equivalent is closer to investigation or thought, learning by means of questioning, assuming the absence of absolute knowledge (skeptikos = thoughtful, pensive). And the word even has quasi-Olympic connections. A Skeptic was a member of the eponymous school of ancient Greek thought – associated with Pyrrho of Elis, who lived in the 4th-3rd centuries BC. Elis was the province in the northeastern Peloponnese where ancient Olympia was located. By accident of geography if nothing else, the ancient Olympians were skeptics of the purest kind, it seems. In a fitting link across the centuries, their modern descendants, scattered around this ancient land but concentrated to an excessive degree in the Attic basin, have been reluctant to embrace the Games that will increasingly dominate public life until late 2004. Undoubtedly, many are just fed up with the practicalities of preparing: the ever-present construction sites, dust, traffic, squabbling politicians, and heavy costs. Even so, something else is at work too; despite the strenuous efforts made by Athens 2004 and undeniable progress in recent months, and in spite of what’s involved, many who aren’t opposed are yawning. Why? Much of the reason is likely abstract or metaphysical as opposed to something specific or concrete. In terms of the Olympics, at least, Greeks are Platonists at heart, not Aristotelians; they are true believers who question others’ interpretations, and their belief (but also skepticism) is deeply rooted and fundamental, not just based on relativist logic. Their concern also relates to what the Olympics themselves mean. It works something like this. The Olympics were born here and helped delineate the ancient Greek world for nearly a millennium in a locational, religious/pilgrimage, architectural, and even war-and-peace kind of way that long predated their athletic component. Classical education’s decline means that fewer and fewer Greeks (not to mention others) know the details of their ancient culture, but that doesn’t matter at all in this context. In fact, the sloughing-off of the detail merely reinforces the Olympics’ value as a generalized ideal. They are central to the national treasury and national psyche, much more (because of their great duration) than even pivotal events for countries in the West, where names like Hastings, Valley Forge, and Bastille have achieved near-universal, quasi-mythical recognition in people’s minds and hearts. In 1896, the Olympics were revived out of this mix of fact and legend, developed in an age of nationalism, and expanded further in a postwar world of dizzying economic growth and the blending of commercial with political life. The contemporary Olympics movement is part of the globalization phenomenon itself, with its blizzard of images, money, drugs, commercialism, offbeat sports, and word inflation. The Olympics of today have matured, but they are also unwieldy, like an errant child. The family analogy is indeed useful. The Olympics are Greece’s metaphorical baby which was lured away and fed by others less committed to the original; not just adopted but co-opted, snatched, and gradually adulterated and doctored, like an overzealous plastic surgeon, so that the end result bears scant resemblance to the original version. Now the long-lost child is heading back home. But the child, hazily remembered as a cute, unspoiled, shy little boy, is returning as a brash, spiky-haired late teen with an attitude. The returnee – same genes, but now in (torn) jeans – is somehow familiar, yet has changed and grown beyond all recognition. The parents don’t know quite what to make of him, yet have little choice but to put on a brave face and put up with him as long as required. Love of a sort is still there; but things have changed, and suspicion and dubiety rather than unquestioned acceptance become the operative emotions. Mixed emotions The result is a mixed bag of unfocused but very real emotion in the host nation. There is no longer the sense of haughty entitlement that left the bid for the 1996 Golden Olympics in tears. Rather, there is a sense of the pressure of it, as if Greece not only has to host competent Games but also must somehow do justice to the ancient version – even while its congested capital city tries to compete with the Sydneys and Atlantas and Beijings of the modern world. There is a sense of acute inconvenience, as long-delayed infrastructure works are raced into place and new roadworks give massive headaches to the capital’s long-suffering commuters (however crucial for the future). There is a sense of outrage over modern (drug, commercial) excesses. And there is a sense of annoyance over foreigners moving in to tell the Greeks – the keepers of the flame – how to run an updated version of their own ancient festival. Parents never, ever like to be told how to raise their child, no matter if he’s been away for years and is practically unrecognizable. In other words, there is an abiding sense for Greeks of the purity or nobility of the Olympics ideal. This element may not be logical but it is real enough when considering Games whose size has ballooned but whose high principles have seemingly shrivelled. Above all, perhaps, Greece’s hosting of the Games represents a necessary or inevitable discharging of a long-borne and heavy obligation. And with 2,700 years of history on their collective shoulders, not to mention the practical problems involved, many Greeks understandably find it difficult to throw their arms up in joy about the whole enterprise. The reaction to last month’s unveiling of the Olympics mascots, Phevos and Athena, was typical; most criticism seemed to center around the fact that they reminded one of «The Simpsons» TV characters rather than whether they were attractive or marketable. I think there will be plenty of joy around when the Games come around, but not yet. Overcritical foreigners need to cut Greece some slack when it comes to the Olympic Games. And Greeks, for their part, may need to lighten up just a little. We can’t even go back to the world before September 11, much less to the ancient Games, and what matters now is doing what needs to be done while making these Games Greece’s own celebration. It doesn’t have to be like loving your tormentor; it can be more like learning to love your fate – amour fati – which can be a great comfort in life. That’s not such a bad recognition here at (Orthodox) Easter.