Saturday, 16 May 2009

Athens Portraits: The eternal martyr

When I first arrived in Greece 20 years ago, the cleaning lady at the office where I worked was a classic example of a breed I would come to know very well in the years to come.

Varvara (Barbara) was probably only in her early 50s, but she had the stoop, scowl and outlook of a bitterly disappointed and world-weary 80-year-old. In response to our cheery "Ti kaneis?" ("How are you?"), she would look up at you with the morbid eyes of a disillusioned camel and sigh "Ti na kanoume?" ("What can I do?").

With her wispy grey hair hastily gathered into a messy bun at the nape of her neck, baggy black garments covering every conceivable piece of desirable flesh, fierce scrubbing of every inch of surface she was charged with cleaning and an expression that could sour milk at ten paces, Varvara was my first experience of the eternal Greek martyr.

At the time, I thought that life had obviously been hard on Varvara (which, incidentally, was exactly what she wanted me to think). Surely, no-one can possibly be that miserable by nature?

Well, actually, I was right - or at least partly right. Indeed, she was not that way by nature, but by nurture. For Varvara had carefully nurtured a persona filled to the brim with woes, suffering and sorrow in order to become the perfect martyr. If my Greek had been good enough at the time, I would have no doubt been subjected to a daily liturgy paying homage to her list of ailments and the disappointments of a woman who had given everything to her ingrate family but received nothing back.

Little did I know, at the time, how lucky I was that my grasp of the language then extended to little beyond the basic everyday pleasantries and essentials like "Pou einai i toualeta?" ("Where's the toilet?").

Since then, I have come across her soul sisters in many shapes and forms in every corner of the country I've visited. They're not all cleaners, they're not all old, they're not all scruffy – but they're all martyrs on a mission to make sure the world knows about it. Without exception, they feel life has dealt them indignities and injustice that no-one but the most evil deserve – though of course, being extremely pious church-goers, they are definitely not evil. And, indeed, most of them ARE good women with a heart of gold buried beneath their pile of complaints.


Without exception, they endure a long list of ailments (real or imagined) that they recite at the drop of a hat.Without exception, they have given their all for their children, who simply refuse to respond in kind.Without fail, they share their woes with the world.

And when a gaggle of them get together, you'd better watch out! The competitive edge really comes to the fore as they jostle verbally to prove who is the most hard-done-by, the most unfortunate, suffers the most agony and is least appreciated by the world.

I've tried reasoning with them, appealing to them to look at the good things in their life rather than focusing on disappointments. But to no avail. And as the years have passed, I've realised that I can't change them, any more than I can understand their chosen take on life - or vice versa, for that matter.

But I do have a theory.I think it has something to do with the melancholy faces of the Orthodox saints and martyrs in the icons that adorn most Greek homes and the ornate images the faithful kiss as they enter their church. Those long-suffering eyes and doleful expressions form part of the fabric of the society that created these ladies. A society that has seen its fair share of suffering – even in living memory Greece has experienced war, occupation, starvation, civil war, a military junta and more. Those icons and that history tell a story of suffering as the way to salvation, so I guess that's why the self-appointed eternal martyrs of Greek life have chosen that as their road to redemption.

And anyway, a sob story is a great way to grab the attention and sympathy of a soft-hearted listener, isn't it?

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