We knew that from high school Greek mythology and we confirmed it at a recent visit weeks before the nation slapped its international creditors with the “oxi” vote, rejecting the extended bail-out programs they were imposing on the fiscally beleaguered Mediterranean nation.
Greeks, we found out for ourselves, are much like Filipinos. They’re adventurous and hospitable, they love to eat – anything and everything -- and have a profound belief system that steels them through the most challenging times.
Politically they lag behind the Philippines, having their first woman prime minister just last month when the country’s president appointed 65-year-old Vassiliki Thassos as “caretaker.” The interim premier is actually the president – their title for their chief justice -- of the Greek Supreme Court. She led until her predecessor Alex Tsipras was elected anew in the September 20 election.
Early this spring we landed in the city named after Athene, my favorite character in Greek mythology. The only one of Zeus’ children to spring to life fully grown and in battle regalia from her father’s head, the goddess of wisdom, arts and war is represented by an owl and serpents, figures replicated in every form throughout the capital city.
Don’t go to Athens, our travel planner had warned: Greece was dangerous, not the ideal place to visit particularly with demonstrations against the austerity programs attached to the bailout proposal. The Greeks are restless and they are not in a welcoming mood, she insisted.
Her caveat reminded me of how we worry about Manila when political rallies mount or natural calamities strike. We burn the wires to check in on loved ones. Meanwhile, most Manilans carry on as usual, crowding malls and partying because, they sure know it, life goes on.
That’s what we discovered too about Greece, or Hellas, as they call their country. The Hellenes are passionate about their rights and choices, brimming with optimism and national pride even as they stare back at bankruptcy, their economy pulling them away from the eurozone.
Greeks know they will survive this adversity because have they not done just that through millennia while other ancient civilizations have crumbled into history?
And so we watched with fascination as they conducted their lives as if fate indeed rested on the fabled Mount Olympus.
They were relaxed, sipping ouzo or frappe, munching souvlaki or dining on oktopodi in restaurants where, by law, menus must state if ingredients were procured fresh or frozen.
Tavernas post hawkers to entice visitors -- Europeans but mostly selfie-stick toting Chinese from Asia. Tourism and shipping are the nation’s top income-generators, along with service and agriculture.
The landscape is as much an eyeful as it is bountiful.
We dare not debate that this is the world’s largest producer of “green gold” as we behold thousand-year-old olive trees carpeting the Peloponnese Peninsula. Every family has its own homegrown supply, says our tour director, Dmitris Panos. Those in stores? Only for tourists, he demurs.
Like wine, olive oil exudes the qualities of its terroir -- the natural conditions where the tree grows. It may be grassy, fruity, spicy, or sweet-ish. Unlike the nectar of the gods, however, olive oil is best consumed fresh. Use it within a year from harvest, we hear at the all-organic farm-to-fork project we visited in Olympia near the site of the alleged first Games in 776 BC. Do not subject it to high heat, because its beneficial compounds degrade at smoke point and form unhealthy matter.
Best treatment for the precious liquid? Drizzle at room temp over young greens and fresh bread and holler “Yamas!” as Greeks punctuate their toasts. It’s the counterpart of “Mabuhay!” as the 6,681 Filipinos registered with the Philippine Embassy presumably exclaim when they click glasses.
Athens is one major European city where we found no Filipino or Asian store, at least not in the Plaka, the tourist stretch in the shadow of the Acropolis. Perhaps the Syntagma (Constitution) area -- their civic center -- hid Filipino treasures, but we did not have time check it out as Corinth, Nafplion, Olympia, Delphi, Meteora and Kalambaka beckoned.
Three days pass before we encounter folks who speak our birth language.
Of the PH embassy states: "11,560 are land-based, 50,000 are sea-based and the rest are Filipinos married to Greeks and their children.”
"Job opportunities in the domestic service sector" attracted the first Filipinos to the islands, says our envoy source who requests anonymity.
Filipinos here are blessed with our famed resiliency. They thrive despite social barriers nonexistent with their counterparts in France, Italy and Spain.
"Greece imposes a restrictive policy on hiring professionals from non-EU countries; thus employment opportunities for migrant workers in Greece are generally limited to domestic service, agriculture and fishing with very few openings for white collar jobs," explains our source. "Greek laws also limit the hiring of skilled workers only for companies covered by the so-called Law 89 or off-shore shipping based in Greece."
He adds: "For the sea-based sector, foreign workers can be employed as seafarers and crew members of vessels flying (sic) international waters and private motor yacht. However, this is being used as a means to hire land-based workers through the connivance of shipping/manning agencies who act as recruitment agents for workers destined as domestic helpers."
A PH Assistance to Nationals officer helps sort out those issues.
“The Embassy also opens its doors to the Filcom (Filipino community) every second Sunday of the month for consular services and conducts consular outreach services regularly to the islands,” says the diplomat. “The Embassy ensures that close cooperation and coordination with the Filipino community in Greece is maintained through the Embassy’s monthly (every second Saturday) meetings with FilCom. The Ambassador and Embassy officials and staff strive to attend majority of FilCom events in Greece as guest of honor, speaker or inducting officer, such as the yearly Independence Day celebrations, festivals, anniversaries, inauguration and oath-taking ceremonies, sports and awarding events, commencement exercises, and talent contests, among others.”
Some overseas Filipinos are unaware of the community activities. Many are simply focused on earning a living, saving to send back to their loved ones. While Filipinos may respond immediately to a call for help from the homeland as they did in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, they do not engage in Greek politics or “empowerment,” a common sport among Filipino Americans.
Asked to name some prominent Filipinos in Greece, our source turns up zip. Integration ranks low on Filipinos’ priorities here.
We are heading back to the hotel after communing with the deities (posing by the statues is prohibited) at the Acropolis Museum when the familiar intonation trails behind a pair on their way to the subterranean train station. Our broad smiles and eager greeting earn a brief but warm exchange.
Co-workers Lilibeth Calago, 40, and Leo Ranoco, 32, are on their way home from work at the residence of a wealthy young Greek couple. Calago, who hails from Pangasinan, cooks and cleans. Ranoco, originally from Tanay, Rizal, helps out a bit at the apartment when not on their employers' yacht.
They consider themselves fortunate, facing a bright future despite their host country’s fiscal dilemma. They do not envision becoming naturalized Greeks (a difficult process, says Calago).
Calago began her odyssey over 20 years ago and has brought in her husband and children to the capital. Ranoco arrived eight years ago and recently fell in love with a Filipina colleague.
The sunswept islands where they work remind them of the Philippines.
The Greek language, on the other hand, challenges their cultural competence. Besides a few local terms, English is the medium of communication at their work, as it is between Greeks and non, they says.
Greeks can tell which part of the Cyclades or the Greek islands compatriot hail from by their accent, says our tour director, demonstrating how folks from Crete can hiss but not shush.
Our local guides, however, ably pronounce “shh” as they trace the steps of St. Paul (in Corinth), question the identity of the owner of the solid gold mask often attributed to Agamemnon (in Atraeus), urge us to do laps in the pioneer track (in Olympia), describe a black boulder as the seat of the Oracle (in Delphi) and praise Leonidas for his valiant if failed defense of Sparta against frequent invader Persia (in Thermopylae).
Inspired by the King of Sparta, the Baby Boomers in our tour group bravely clamber up the slopes of Mount Parnassos past surviving columns of the Temple of Apollo to the site of the Pythian Games then held every four years to honor the god of the sun and the arts. In that mountaintop stadium, hierarchy clearly ruled as a long bench with a backrest for the monarchs of the period survives smack dab in the center of general admission seats.
Our journey through the Peloponnese juxtaposes ancient and contemporary life. Diminutive Greek Orthodox shrines ranging from simple structures to elaborate works of art containing depictions of the saints dot roadsides in residential and commercial areas.
While the miniature shrines amuse, the monasteries astound. In Meteora, six of these sanctuaries skim the sky atop sandstone rocks, reinforcing our perception of the Greeks as iconoclasts way ahead of their time; which profoundly impressed Rome, whose empire hid little of its Greek-envy by replicating Hellenic art, culture and mythology to this day.
Nurtured by the earth and sustained by the sea, Greece endures. So have those who seek refuge on its sunny shores.
Cherie M. Querol Moreno founded and directs ALLICE Alliance for Community Empowerment, an all-volunteer nonprofit dedicated to preventing family abuse through education. Visit www.allicekumares.com. For crisis intervention or information in the U.S., call National DV Hotline: 1-800-799-7233.
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