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Commencement Address to Anatolia College   June 29, 2002

The Journey of Being Greek
By George Veras

My thanks to the entire Anatolia community for inviting me to speak to you on your day of recognition. There is a spirit of optimism that surrounds us because of your achievements and there is a degree of anticipation as you wonder what lies ahead in your future. Actually, those two feelings, achievement and anticipation, are a wonderful combination. My grandfather once told me that 90% of the joy of the actual achievement of life was the anticipation. You are now in that moment as you are about to receive your diplomas and embark on your life's journey.

You have gone to school in a culture that is famous for its journeys, from the Iliad and the Odyssey to the seafarers of the Aegean, to today, where more Greeks live outside of Greece than live in their native land.

This physical departure that has gone on for centuries has created a Diaspora that has made being Greek really being a citizen of the world- isn't that part of what being Greek is all about?

What is it to be Greek and why do we work so hard at being Greek? Having interviewed over 300 Greeks in America for two documentaries and having worked with Greeks here in Europe and Asia on a variety of television shows, I can offer to you several insights from these interactions. I believe that there remain remarkable threads of consistency in what they believe to be their "Greekness" and why they choose to maintain it.

The most prevailing and constant answer that I have received from all these interviews when I ask the question "What does it mean to you to be Greek" is a "zest of life" or "living life to the fullest". I believe that this comes under the doctrine of "Philotimo", a code of conduct that includes demanding respect for oneself and one's family, defending one's honor and doing one's duty. It doesn't matter who the person is who gives the answer. It could be the most famous like George Stephanapoulos or the musician Yanni or an iconographer in his wood shop or the man selling souvlakia on a street corner. They are not only unequivocal in the way they answer the question with the same words, but with the same high degree of passion in their voices, the glint of hunger and enthusiasm in their eyes, which tells you that they know the answer and that they are willing to share it with you, to teach you that this is the way in life. It is almost as if they had the blood of Socrates in them saying "Search out and follow one thing alone: learn and discern between good and evil." Greeks love living life and studying. To bring this concept up to date, let me take an example of a recent popular movie called "City Slickers". It was about some men who turned 40 years old and they took a rodeo trip out to the American West to find out about life. They ran into a tough, old rancher named Curly, who seemed to have an answer for everything. When they asked him what was the secret to his ability to know life's secret, he had a simple answer. He held up one finger and said, "You've got to know the thing". "The thing said the group", "What is that". Curly just laughed and said, "That's your problem, just believe in life then you will find the thing" That is what the Greeks have been doing for 4,000 years. They have made living and studying life an art form, and they have the confidence that it still works for them and it can work for you.

The way they realize this goal is actually fascinating to examine. It is not a matter of your material capability. Rather, it has to do with engagement. Always engaging yourself in life's processes- joy, sorrow, eating, dancing, loving, learning, discussing, challenging. Being Greek is being a people person, never sitting still. I just finished interviewing an 86-year old man from Egion, who was one of a family of 18. He came to the United States when he was 17. He got a job in an ice cream factory sweeping floors. He never got past the fourth grade in Greece. He worked at this ice cream factory for 14 years before starting his own business, making frozen ices in cups with different flavors. He always was fixing something in his factory, with a screwdriver in one hand and a pair of pliers in another hand. He looked the same to me last week in 2002 as he did when I last saw him in the l960's. He still was coming to the office at 5AM. He has built three churches in Egion, he is feeding poor people every day on the streets of New York and he insists that he starts every day by saying to himself, "It is not what you get, it is what you give and if you give in America, there is nothing you can't get back." This sounds very Periclean to me, what the ancient sage said to his fellow Athens in regard to love for his city. If you told my 86 year old subject that he sounded like an Ancient Greek philosopher, he would just nod back to you, in that all-knowing Greek way as if to say "Of course I sound like Pericles, didn't I descend from him." The thirst for life's experiences as an enrichment is a divine right of passage for the Greek culture.

Those of us on the outside, especially in America, recognize that this aspect of our culture is worth fighting for. That not to have it will leave an empty void in our lives. That is probably why we exaggerate the aspects of our culture. The church experience is more formal the debate over the continuance of language hot and heated, the emphasis on showing the rest of America who we are is over the top. It is probably why Greek-Americans are the number one educated group and the number one income group in the United States. Combine these with the lowest crime rate of any group and a group that abounds with success stories at every level and strong family ties, and you can realize why the United States DIASPORA takes such a pride in being Greek.

There is a new movie out called, "My Big Fat Greek Wedding". In the movie, the father says to his family, "There are two types of people in this world. Those who are Greek and those who want to be Greek". On the surface, this statement is ridiculous. I mean, in a population of 260 million Americans, there are only 1.2 million Greek-Americans. That is one half of one percent. Yet, we believe that the other 99.5% should want to be us. How Greek is that?

Now, if you are asking me do I believe that we have special qualities or gifts that others don't. I can make a case for it- analyze the evolution of human art from the cycladic period, the development of a structured civilization that revered, for the first time in history, the individual, and the fact that we have strongly maintained our culture in the world's view even though we are less than one quarter of one percent of the world's population, and I would say there is something special and unique about us. What is also interesting is the number of Pan Hellenes, those outside who love that physical beauty of the country and admire the persona of its people and their past.

When I produced a television show with Yanni at the Taj Mahal in India, we were treated with a respect because of the way Greeks in India, from the time of Alexander the Great, treated the Indian culture with an equal respect. Same in China. And what was really culturally shattering was to see GREEKS still living and flourishing in these cultures today. I am constantly amazed by the Greeks' ability to adapt, whether they are slaves to the Romans or subjects of the Ottoman Empire. This is a little off of the point, but is a recent story that I stumbled upon. I did a music television special on American Black Music. I was talking to the show's writer about how comfortable I have felt in their black culture for many years and asked whether that related to my Greek culture. He told me the story of a famous rhythm and blues musician named Johnny Otis. He grew up poor in California, married a black woman, became successful with his music and, eventually, became a Baptist minister for the black community and was accepted as black by that community. But he wasn't and isn't black. His real name is Yanni Veliotis, and he just decided he likes the black culture and wanted to make it part of this life. When I asked him how this relates to his Greek culture, he said, "Well, I will always be Greek and part of that is trying other cultures".

What does this all mean? I guess that what I am saying is that you have a huge leg up by being part of this culture, that we are part of 4000 years of preservation, and that, in and of itself, is unique. Of course, we all have to prove ourselves every day, as you will learn when you leave Anatolia, and as I learned when I was the only Greek in a high school of 1400 in the Midwest when I graduated in l968, but you have a great base to work with. The uniqueness of Anatolia has enhanced this for you. You have Greeks, Diaspora and Pan-Hellenes. You're a mini united nations. This has fueled in you a zest for always trying, always engaging. I saw it here first hand when I interviewed a dozen of your colleagues from Anatolia and the American College of Thessaloniki last month for a third documentary. I feel it around me today. I know that I don't have to tell you not to waste a minute of your life. I can sense your Hellenism. As Zorba said, "What is a man if he does not lead and live his life to the fullest every day?" God Bless you. Go out and enjoy. For this is it; you are now beginning the moment of your life.


    
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