In the haunting poem , "O γυρισμός του ξενιτεμένου" (The return of the Migrant,) George Seferis movingly describes the confusion and anguish experienced by a person returning to his home after having spent time abroad, in the form of dialogue between him and one of his friends. The friend asks him: "Old friend, what are you looking for? You have returned after so many years of nurturing your own visions, under foreign skies, far from your own place?" The returning migrant then relates his confusion in noticing that the dimensions of everything have changed: they seem smaller, different and what is more, they appear to be sinking into the ground. Just before his oldest friend in subsumed into the ground himself, he offers the following advice: "Consider old friend, in time you will get used to this. Your nostalgia has created a non-existent land, with laws that have nothing to do with the earth and its peoples." The response of the migrant, is not to admit that the mystical place of his homecoming, nurtured over many years of pain does not exist. Rather, it is to allude to the fact that he is probably in the wrong place and that here his dreams run the risk of being run down: "I can't hear anything anymore. Even my last friend has sunk. It is strange how everything is foreshortened every so often. Here, thousands of scythed chariots pass and reap."
It is not surprising that a homeland like Greece can evoke such passionate longings among those that have left it. Homesickness is after all a universal affliction. What is surprising is that it exists among persons that have never had Greece as their homeland and indeed in many cases, have never even seen Greece. For some reason, the conglomeration of elements and events that coalesce around a consciousness of identity seem to sustain and differentiate people of Greek background from the society and the people that live around them and this has been the case from the foundation of the first Greek colonies around the Mediterranean, (though in that instance, these colonies, being autonomous and in the large part not subject to the rule of other nations, were 'Greece' forming part of the Hellenic world) to the present day.
Preservation of links, whether physical, or emotional, with the Ur-heimat, is not always a pursuit of self-indulgence. Historically, it is a pursuit that has been fraught with danger for many of those partaking in it. I remember meeting a school-teacher in Cheimarra, Northern Epirus, who spent years being harassed by the Communist regime because of her courageous decision to teach her students in Greek (this was at a time when according to the regime, there were no Greeks in Cheimarra), and even more bravely, given that after 1967, Albania called itself the first Atheist state and unleashed a wave of persecution against all forms and manifestations of religion, she openly proclaimed her belief in the Orthodox faith. Many of her colleagues, who did the same, endured twenty year sentences in gruelling labour camps. I was most moved also to listen to her story of how she would organise clandestine 25 March celebrations, banned not only for their nationalist but also 'imperialist' connotations.
In Russia, those Greeks who have chosen to cling to their traditions, rather than becoming Russified endured persecution and harassment during the Stalinist era, culminating in the mass deportation of Pontian Greeks from their traditional homeland around the Black Sea region and their relocation to Central Asia. Even there, the Greeks managed to cling to their traditions and maintain a love for their indentity. They established schools, clubs, theatrical groups and even sent each other cards at Easter featuring the Parthenon. In the surviving ephemera they produced, one can see the Ur-heimat they constructed for themselves - a place where ancient glory abounds, people are rational and cultured and where one will not be considered a foreigner anymore. As an aside it would be interesting to see how the perceptions of a host culture about one's culture influence the way one sees one's own culture (for example Russians tend to hold Greek culture in high esteem and thus there is real incentive there for Greeks to see value in retaining it, whereas Anglo-Saxon culture tends to be disparaging about Modern Greek culture, creating a complex among some descendants of migrants) and this is something that bears further examination.
Considering the manner in which such Greeks have clung to their culture despite privations, and most often than not, totally alone and unaided by the Greek state, one would think that it is incumbent upon the Greek State and/or better of Greek communities in the diaspora to protect, assist them and ensure easy access to the Greek metropolis. However, this is not always the case. Two years ago, I stood witness to the harassment of Vasilis Bolanos, the heroic mayor of Cheimarra, who has endured imprisonment for his assertion of the Greek identity of his town, by ignorant Greek border guards who would not allow him into Greece. That was an administrative and genuine mistake on their part. What was not a mistake was the contemptuous and aggressive manner in which he was treated, because they considered him, as a foreigner and thus inferior - at least until their superior was called, whereupon they magically transformed into fawning and obsequious peons.
The recent cases, featured on Athens radio program "Sto Kokkino" of the disturbing way in which the Greeks of Marioupolis - a region that houses a significant Greek population in the Ukraine, are treated by the Greek State in general and their current Greek Consul is also thought provoking. In particular, a 73 year old woman who was dreaming of going to see Greece all her life, had bought a passport and a return ticket, was denied a visa for no reason whatever. "Go and apply after ninety days," was the official response to her agonised question of "Giati? Giati?" She then proceeded to tear up her passport in front of them because there was nowhere else that she wished to travel. The aggrieved lady had always wanted to see the Greece that neither her parents nor her grandparents ever had the chance to see but had always dreamed about.
Despite the fact that most latter generation apodimoi are NQR Greeks who do not speak the language, or comprehend the manifold nuances of modern hybrid Greek culture, they have a love for their Ur-heimat that it as all-encompassing and unconditional as it is unreasonable. If the Greek state is serious about harnessing the diverse skills, life-experiences and fervour of Greeks abroad, it could start, by making them feel part of the same entity, members of the heimat, rather, than treating them variously as foreigners, yokels, sources of exploitation or burdens. Facilitating access to the homeland rather than restricting it would be a logical consequence of this.
There is undoubtedly a hysteria within the Greek psyche that causes a need for differentiation, a need to both be foreign and exclude the foreigner that has not been studied adequately. If we are to be considered foreigners, not only by the denizens of our Ur-heimat, (for to all intents and purposes, the Greeks of Greece do not accept us their own people) but also by their head franchisors, then we deserve to be told. It would be refreshing to finally accept that we remain Greeks, away from Greece, not for any altruistic purposes or for the glory or benefit of the Greek state but rather, for ourselves alone.