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Language

Amerikanakia

 

My friend Jonas, who teaches Greek to foreigners at a cultural institute in Athens, is trying to get me to revive my idea of a series of podcasts on untranslatable Greek words. Words for which no good equivalent exists in English and reveal much about the way Greeks think and live and see the world, words like parea and meraki and filotimo, whose meaning can only be inferred through dialogues, anecdotes and stories.  Amerikanaki is another one of those words. If I ever get around to writing and recording the pocasts with Jonas, I’ll start with that one.

The story could begin sometime in the 50’s in Pireas, the port city of Athens, with the arrival of a US naval destroyer. It’s an early summer evening as the ship docks, and the city has already woken up for the second time in the day. Businesses and shops have re-opened. A carpenter has already swung open the heavy wooden double-doors to his workshop—as much to display the tables, chairs, and dressers that stand in various stages of completion in his shop as to catch a bit of the evening breeze—and is varnishing a closet, his brushstrokes slow, methodical, careful, as if he were caressing the wood with his brush. Old men shuffle down to the cafeneion, where the staccato knock of backgammon pieces punctuates the polyphony—Greeks having a rather elastic concept of turn-taking—of men talking politics.

The ship soon disgorges its sailors, and the young Americans raucously make their way through the streets of the city, in search of what sailors throughout time have always searched for when alighting in a port after weeks at sea. In Pireas at the time, this in itself was neither unusual nor particularly deserving of comment. But still, as these brawny, testosterone-pumped boys of Iowa swagger past the cafeneion, the patrons will mutter, amerikanakia. Intoned without bitterness, devoid of anger, the word doesn’t sound like an insult.  Amerikanaki.  The gullible, all-too-trusting  “little” American.

–aki is the workhorse of diminutives in Greek. There are lots more. The language, like Italian and Russian—and unlike English—is a language rich in diminutives, endings that denote something smaller in size or importance. In English we have to do with periphrasis. We say a small this, a little bit, smidgeon or tad of that. Oh, we have diminutives, but they’re almost always comical. Like  kitchenette. But in Greek, diminutives have a considerable force of their own. They make real words to denote real things. A piataki is a small piato, or plate, to wit, a saucer. Mihani is a motorcycle, mihanaki is a scooter. But it’s not just a matter of size. The diminutive signifies Greeks’ relation to the world around them. It can connote endearment, affection, intimacy, nowhere more evident than in names.  I knew I had cemented my relationship with M when he started calling me with a double diminutive—Stefanoulakis.

When a Greek orders a karafaki (small carafe) of ouzo, it not only means less volume but also reveals how Greeks drink: the ouzo is an occasion for the parea (group of friends) to talk, nibble on things like fried whitebait (maridaki) and fish-roe puree and tiny cumin-scented meatballs (keftedakia), and to enjoy each other’s company. To order a whole pitcher of ouzo would suggest that you’re really aiming to get drunk, which at least from my experience isn’t something Greeks do. I mean, the aiming part. They do get drunk.

When I first heard amerikanaki, I didn’t really understand what it meant.  A lot of my Greek friends and acquaintances see Americans as naïve if good-humored, apolitical, uncritical.  But this image of country-bumpkin gullibility didn’t jar (at first) with what my friend Nikos and many others would say about my country.

Nikos is the son of a carpenter much like the one in the story. He grew up in a working-class left-leaning family in a “distressed area”.  He’s now an architect for the City of Athens.  He votes Left but has more Gant and Nike and Timberland in his wardrobe than I ever had. He had an iPod before any of my other friends did. He likes American technology but he thinks of America as a country of immeasurable, almost sinister power that instigated coups, raised and deposed leaders, orchestrated wars, a country with no history and little culture and little dissent (Of course, I always thought he gave too much credit to the effectiveness of the CIA, given its record of bungled interventions). But he likes me, and he liked the Americans he met on his trip to the US, their openness, good-naturedness and enthusiasm.

I asked him about this apparent contradiction.  “It’s exactly because Americans are so trusting,” he answered “I mean, look at your faith in progress and the gods of technology, how you believe that everything can be fixed!—that’s why you have the political leadership you have. If you were more pessimistic, more critical, things would be different… and the world much better off”.  “You mean, more European,” I joked.

As time went on, I came to understand that amerikanaki has a trace of endearment to it. The  way you’d feel about a burly young cousin from the provinces unschoooled in the ways of the city.

Discussion

6 responses to ‘Amerikanakia

  1. “I mean, look at your faith in progress and the gods of technology, how you believe that everything can be fixed!—that’s why you have the political leadership you have. If you were more pessimistic, more critical, things would be different… and the world much better off”. “You mean, more European,” I joked.

    America, like Europe in the sixteenth century, is still barbaric (a description, not a moral judgment). Its culture is unformed. Its will is powerful. Its emotions drive it in different and contradictory directions.

    Cultures live in one of three states. The first state is barbarism. Barbarians believe that the customs of their village are the laws of nature and that anyone who doesn’t live the way they live is beneath contempt and requiring redemption or destruction. The third state is decadence. Decadents cynically believe that nothing is better than anything else. If they hold anyone in contempt, it is those who believe in anything. Nothing is worth fighting for.

    Civilization is the second and most rare state. Cultures pass through barbarism to civilization and then to decadence. Obviously all cultures contain people who are barbaric, civilized, or decadent, but each culture is dominated at different times by one principle.

    Europe was barbaric in the sixteenth century, as the self-certainty of Christianity fueled the first conquests. Europe passed into civilization in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and then collapsed into decadence in the course of the twentieth century. The United States is just beginning its cultural and historical journey.

    –George Friedman, The Next 100 Years

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    • Thanks for the comment! An interesting take on American exceptionalism. Though curiously enough, his statement that barbarians “believe that the customs of their village are the laws of nature and that anyone who doesn’t live the way they live is beneath contempt and requiring redemption or destruction” seems to describe very well a lot of the public discourse in Germany today regarding the “Greek problem”. In fact, this particular ‘barbarian’ world view seems an occupational hazard of any great power (and not only). As Obama said, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” 🙂

      Seriously, I think Friedman’s schema runs into problems in the details, or rather, at the edges, where one stage presumably segues into the other. I find it hard to accept that Europe left behind its barbaric village Weltanschauung as it “passed into civilization” in the 18th and 19thcentury, a time par excellence of empire-building, missionaries and taking up “the White Man’s Burden”. And Victorian Britain is perhaps no less striking an example of a country and a century marked by “self-certainty” than mid-century America or 16th-century Europe.

      But I’d agree that many in the US still hold on to their sense that “the customs of their village are the laws of nature”. Now what you actually do with this is another matter, and US foreign policy has been governed over the last two centuries by different and competing strands of exceptionalism: isolationism versus manifest destiny, or, the new Jerusalem (an example to be emulated… at a distance) versus the “new world order”.

      I’m not sure where the current President , stands on this divide, though it’s probably close to what Adam Serwer has termed a Spiderman view of American exceptionalism (“with great power comes great responsibility”), a “challenge, not a birthright”, tempered by an awareness that intervention, even for the sake of liberation, is always intermixed with the purposeful pursuit of the country’s own interests. Which may be just a wee bit less barbaric.

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      • Friedman’s book is on geopolitics, hence his focus on foreign policy and conflicts between states.

        What he calls “barbarism” is a phase characterized by overwhelming faith in one’s own culture and optimism.

        The “civilized” phase is characterized by an (unstable, therefore ephemeral) balance between faith in one’s own culture and skepticism.

        The third phase –”decadence”– is overwhelmed by skepticism and pessimism.

        The merry Αμερικανάκια strongly believe
        1) “in progress and the gods of technology,” and
        2) “that everything can be fixed!”, i.e.,
        1) they have an overwhelming faith in their culture (a culture of technology and unrelenting innovation), and
        2) they are incurably optimistic (hence “everything can be fixed”),
        in strong contract to the Greeks, who have been in the decadent phase for no less than two thousand years, seeing neither progress as an improvement, nor technology as a panacea.

        (To be continued.)

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      • Are the Greeks “barbarians” in Friedman’s sense? Certainly not. The are deep pessimists, they have no faith in their own institutions and capabilities, they certainly don’t want to spread their form of state to the whole world, instead of having a solution to every problem they find a problem in every solution, they don’t believe that the reforms suggested by the Troika and the few Greek reformists would make a difference.

        Concerning Europe: in the 16th century they were “barbarians” and in 1918 already “decadent”. Has there been a “civilized” phase in-between? Your arguments against pretty convincing but let me argue in favour of Friedman’s theory: in the 18th and 19th centuries Europe set off to study other cultures instead of merely destroying them as the Spaniards did back in the 16th century. This change speaks in favour of a “civilized” Europe, or, at least of a Europe advancing towards “civilization”. Maybe the First World War came a bit too early…

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      • I’d agree that in this particular sense of barbarism—“an overwhelming faith in one’s own culture and optimism”— America is ‘barbaric’. And I’d also agree with you about the deep pessimism, skepticism and lack of faith in their own institutions that you attribute to Greeks… and so aptly phrase it: “instead of having a solution to every problem they find a problem in every solution” (!) I find this one of the most troubling aspects of the crisis, the widespread belief in the (supposed) inherent intractability of the problems besetting the Greek economy, such as tax evasion (“nobody wants to catch them and even if they did, we don’t have and won’t find ways of doing it”)
        And apropos Europe, yes, there was certainly an element of genuine interest in the indigenous cultures that the colonial powers were subjugating, part of the growing popular fascination with science and the exotica it brought to light (scientific endeavor, it must be said, that was often in the service of, or at least entangled in, the interests of Empire). But 19th century Britain seems also to have been a time of tremendous national self-confidence, nowhere better expressed (for me) than in the Crystal Palace of the Great Exhibition, and of a deeply held belief in progress (witness the extremely rapid pace of reform legislation at the time). Both of which came to an end, as you point out, in World War I.
        But not having read Friednman’s book, I realize I’m on slippery turf here and am probably misunderstanding or oversimplifying things. A good enough reason to read the book, I suppose. S./

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      • Let us agree that Europe’s civilized phase was rather a failure. 🙂

        Mutual understanding between the different cultures that form today’s world is a prerequisite for a better future.

        I can only recommend Friedman’s books and articles. The passage quoted has been heavily abbreviated by me.

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