Ομιλία στο American Hellenic Institute

Democracy was invented by Greeks because in our core, in our DNA, beyond any other value, we believe in the idea that people matter.

Before any ideology, religion, race or creed,
Before material goods and recipes, interest rates and spreads,
People come first.

Your Eminence,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would first like to thank the American Hellenic Institute and Mr. Nick Laringakis, in particular, for the invitation to speak here today.

It is a pleasure and a privilege.

It is also a pleasure and a privilege to invite all of you to the new Benaki Museum exhibit in New York in December.

A private showing will be held specially for AHI members.

On display will be one of the only surviving albums of photographs taken at the 1896 Olympics in Athens.

Very few pictures survived the first modern Olympics and the Benaki Museum is bringing them to New York for the first time ever.

Among them you will see:

the first hundred meter dash (an iconic picture in the world of sports photography),

legendary American athletes such as James Connolly and Thomas Curtis bearing both the Greek and American flag on his chest,

a beautiful picture of the Princeton team, and

of course, the famous picture of Spyros Louis, the legendary winner of the first modern Marathon.

Its worth a visit. Please bring your friends and please ask them to become members of the only museum in the world that covers Greek history from pre-historic times until today.

Talking about promoting Hellenism, Nick, this is one way.
Dear friends,

When Nick asked me to talk about Greece and promoting Hellenism I remembered a story:

One evening at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism we were tackling the question of how to promote Greek gastronomy.

Sure, Greek food is delicious.
Sure, it is based on superb ingredients and authentic recipes.
And sure it is healthy.

But what makes it different than the other delicious, healthy foods?

After working through the problem, one colleague said:

«Minister, we should not talk about Greek food. We should talk about the Greek table.”

«What do you mean?», I asked.

«We should not focus on the nutritional value of the food we eat.” she explained. “We should focus on the values we Greeks bring around the Greek table.»

Think about it.

When Greeks come to lunch or dinner it is always in numbers: family, friends, colleagues.

We rarely go out in two’s unless we are flirting. It is even less common to see someone eating alone.

Because the Greek table is more about people, less about food.

The experience is rarely a quiet one. We talk, we laugh, we celebrate and we mourn.
In my home island, Kefalonia, we sing.

We argue. Often vehemently.
One reasons is that we are rarely of one mind, one profession, one mentality or one age.

When the elders are present we show respect.
When the young ones are having fun and being rowdy we are tolerant. (Sometimes too tolerant.)

The experience is about people.

In Greece, it is common to see a lawyer sitting with an actor, sitting with a civil servant, sitting with a professor, sitting with a shop assistant.

Social hierarchies blend. Often, they disappear.

We also never order our own dish. We order “in the middle”.
Not one thing. Many different flavors.

Does this sound familiar?

The Greek table is where we share everything: food, stories, ideas, experiences, love for life.
The Greek table is where we come together. And where we bring out our best.

And yes, the food is delicious, and the ingredients are natural, and the recipes are authentic.
But our food is simple.

Think of the recipes of a French dish and think of a Greek one.
Simplicity, in our case, is not a lack of culture.
Simplicity is in the nature of our culture. For we are, first and foremost, there for each other.

But everyone’s favorite moment at a Greek table comes in the end. When the check arrives.

We don’t like to divide the bill. If we do, we do not argue if someone had a bit more of the expensive dish.

More commonly, we argue to the point of misunderstanding as to who will prove their generosity.

I would argue that from ancient times until today, we Greeks have spent more time and energy on how to be great hosts than how to be good cooks.

Because, like everything else we do well, hosting (φιλοξενία) is about people.
Ladies and Gentlemen,

President Obama delivered a great speech in Athens. Inspiring.
Extremely touching. Specially in the midst of this painful crisis.

We felt proud because we know full well that our value as people is not and should never be tied to the value of our debt.

But, apart from scatted words of Greek, President Obama could have delivered this great speech in any democracy in the world.
In any functioning parliament.

It did not have to be in Athens.
Because it was missing a key element.

“Why Greece?”
In my view, it failed to explain why of all places, why of all people, democracy was invented by Greeks.

Luck? No. Not if you know our culture.

Democracy was invented by Greeks because in our core, in our DNA, beyond any other value, we believe in the idea that people matter.

Before any ideology, religion, race or creed,
Before material goods and recipes, interest rates and spreads,
People come first.

Of course, you believe in freedom if you put people first.
Slavery and oppression? They do not put people first.

Of course, you invent democracy if you believe that people matter.

How can you pick a monarch, a tyrant, a dictator or an oligarch to rule when you believe deep in your heart that free people make better choices?

So when we think of promoting our culture this is what we should be thinking first: Sharing this one principle with the world.

In everything we do. In how we prioritize. In positions we hold. In stands we take.

In government, in business, in our struggles and our celebrations.

Think of Louis Tikas in the Ludlow Massacre or Archbishop Iakovos at Salma. The way we stood next to Jews in the Holocaust but also the way we have stood next to Palestinians when we felt they were wronged.

These are stands that claim: “People matter”

But also in the way we showcase our heritage.

Take the recent exhibit in DC. The Greeks.
Is it about the rare and unique artifacts? Sure it is. But there is whole lot more to it.

Its about a people discovering their freedom for the first time. More importantly, the rights and responsibilities pertaining thereto.

And the release of endless creativity that accompanies the freedom of each of us to choose our own future.

People matter. So freedom matters.

Same with «Heaven and Earth», a Byzantine exhibit brought to the US some years ago.

Of course it was a great opportunity to showcase our faith and our brilliant icons.

But it was more than that. It was about being between East and West and feeling comfortable in that role.

Not as the proud guardian of a wall.
Not as the culture that defends one people from another.
But as the culture that brings them together. That bridges the gap.

Because to Greeks, people matter across cultures.

Only when you realize this do you understand why in the middle of our worse crisis, we stood by refugees from the East when most European countries shamelessly turned their back to them.

I was with a Spaniard two weeks ago.
He said to me: «Our Mayor in Madrid put a big sign on the Municipality saying ‘Refugees welcome’ but when it came down to it they were not. You Greeks put us to shame.»

Greeks know what it means to be a refugee, an immigrant, to have suffered and to fight for a better future.

And we know how grateful one is to those who lend a helping hand.

In this room, you know best that people matter.
And what about the Olympic exhibit you will have a chance to see in a fortnight?

Loaded with the values.

The kind of values that Spiros Gianniotis exemplifies.

Gianniotis won silver in the 10.000m open water swimming in Rio, the 2016 Olympics.

He tied for the first place and the Greek federation was ready to challenge the officials for him to share the gold.

But Gianniotis stopped the challenge. “This silver” he said, “is like gold to me”.

Because to Gianniotis it was not about the gold. It was about the race, the struggle to get there and his conduct towards his peers.

Fair play. Ευγενής άμιλλα. People first.

Now, there are two things that happened in our recent history that we need to keep in mind.

Two things that have left us with deep scars and a deep sense of loss.

20 years ago, if you asked a cab driver why he or she were working late, they would answer that they have a child studying abroad they have to care for.

If you do the same today, he or she will say that they have debts to pay.

In 20 years we went from a nation that invested in our children’s future (mostly in education and housing) to a nation that borrowed against our children’s (much of it in consumer loans).

We are, only recently, coming to terms with the negative effects this the new culture of consumerism and materialism imposed on our traditional culture of humanism.

We are recovering slowly.

The second shock to our culture is the crisis itself.

For the first time since the Second World War my generation will leave to our children less than our parents left to us. At least this is what it looks like now.

This is not something any Greek can take lightly.
Our pride is to leave to our children more that our parents left us and the shock to our pride cannot be underestimated.

This is where you come in.

As we try to recover from the nightmare of the crisis we are looking back to better times to understand what we did well and what we did badly.

Everywhere I go, finger pointing is turning into retrospection.

And although there is plenty of blame to go around, specially to those of us who held positions of authority in this twenty-year period, most of us are wondering:

«What can I do differently?»

And the more we look, the more we return to our values. Solid, traditional Greek values.

Values our parents and grandparents held.

Values that have remained intact among Greeks who did not get swayed by the bubble nor hurt by the crisis:

Greeks like you.
Greeks in every corner of the world that have remained true to tradition.

As we look into the future we will need your help. Because we can look to you and learn a lot about ourselves.

A polling company is currently running a huge survey for the Hellenic chair at Harvard University. About Hellenism, our habits, our traditions and our values. A sample of thousands of Greeks from all over the world.

It is important work. Personally, I cannot wait for the results.

I am sure in those answers we will all rediscover the things we truly value, the values we need to pass on to our children and promote as the core of Hellenism: our faith in people.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me close by bringing it home.
A few years ago a movie you all know came out: My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

I went to see it and when I came out of the theater I was perplexed as many Greeks and Greek Americans were.

I was amused and I was touched. It was full of all those values that we bring around the Greek table.

But I was also a little bothered by the grotesques exaggeration of the idiosyncrasies of our culture.
I did not know what to make of it or what others would think of it.
Or us.

And then I started hearing my American friends being ecstatic about the movie.
I heard them say:
It should be called
My Big Fat Black Wedding
My Big Fat Jewish Wedding
My Big Fat Puerto Rican or Cuban Wedding
My Big Fat Korean Wedding

And then I realized how brilliantly Nia Vardalos touched on the most important aspect of Greek values: They are universal. They cut across cultures.

Because at the core of every human lies the aspiration of what we Greeks had the courage and the wisdom to voice first: that people matter.

So as America looks to its future,
reviewing the way the government works and the way democracy is exercised,
reviewing the role of minorities and the responsibilities of majorities,
reviewing political correctness, how you challenge the establishment and how you strengthen leadership
it will have to consider what made America great in the first place:

The Greek idea that people matter.

And here too you can stand firm and be a beacon of hope.

Whether Republican or Democrat, whether you supported Trump or Clinton, your best bet is to help your country by reminding those in power that it is about people.

About putting people first.

That any decision is a good decision if it puts people first.

And that the world will be brighter not only when we exercise our right to vote but when everything we do screams: “People matter”.

Thank you.