George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Tuesday 8 May 2007
The Real Greek
Owen Powell - 8th May 2007
Tom was the first of my ‘Londonpaperers’, the first person I had met who had read our article and responded enthusiastically. Like many of our responders, he couldn’t believe we hadn’t yet found someone of his nationality (“I was surprised to see you don't have anyone from Greece, as we Greeks tend to be everywhere,” he said in one email), and in fact had first suggested it to a Slovakian colleague before realising the Greek slot was still open.
We met in a quiet pub on Commercial Street, just off Brick Lane where Tom works as a computer programmer. Soon in the conversation we realised we had been Londoners for exactly the same length of time, both moving here in the first week of September 2001. By that stage, he had been in the UK for a year already, having moved to Edinburgh in August 2000 to join a friend who was already there. He arrived during the festival, and was hit by an amazing sense of freedom and excitement. (Had he felt the urge, he could have caught my Fringe acting debut, in ‘Memoirs of a Dead Man’, or Alex’s stand-up debut in the slightly more cheerily-titled ‘How To Avoid Huge Ships’.) The excitement perhaps waned as the Scottish winter approached, and Tom says he “spent a lot of time indoors, it was a bit bleak.” He got involved in musical theatre as a way of lightening the gloom, and this lead to a successful application to start a Masters in Performance Studies at Goldsmiths.
Tom found London quite intimidating at first, arriving with only two boxes of possessions and feeling a bit lost. After a time in student lodgings in Edgware Road, he settled in Peckham and began to enjoy the course. Goldsmith’s has a great reputation for artistic and cultural disciplines, but Tom also found he was learning a lot about himself. “Everything was quite collaborative,” he says. “I’d describe it more as a ‘Theatre-making’ course rather than just ‘Performance’ – we worked on devising plays in groups, it was quite creative.”
I ask if he took any inspiration from the classical Greek dramatists, and how much of ancient Greek literature is studied in school. He nods. “Of course, you are always aware of it. In primary school, you mainly study modern writers, modern poets, but you move on to the more famous texts later on. I read the Odyssey, but mostly in modern Greek translation. There is some difference between the ancient and modern languages, but sometimes you can recognise things. For example, one of my favourite classical writers is Isocrates –”
“Ah, Socrates,” I say, pen scratching messily across notepad.
“Yes, like Socrates, but with an ‘I’ in front. Isocrates. He is a different writer.”
I nod, and subtly sneak an “I’ onto my pad and vow to Wikipedia him later.
“He writes this famous line, one of my favourite lines of ancient Greek where he says – it is difficult in English – but something like, ‘Just as the bee sits on every flower and takes the best from each, so should we try everything and collect knowledge from everywhere.’ It’s a good motto to live your life by, I think. But if you read this line in ancient Greek, there are lots of words you recognise in today’s language – bee, sitting, flower. It’s not impossible to understand it.”
We go on to discuss some of the most famous classical Greeks in London, the Parthenon Marbles in the British Museum (alternatively known as the Elgin Marbles, these were rescued/stolen from Athens in the early 19th century, then sold to the Museum). Tom has been to see them in their current location, and feels they are a very important part of Greek culture and heritage, but can see both sides of the argument about restoring them to their original home. “The problem is, the British assume they gained them lawfully as they had the permission of the rulers of Greece at the time, but this was the Ottomans, not Greeks, who said they could be taken. Part of me thinks that Greece should have them back, but I don’t think it will happen. I am stoic about it.”
What does he miss most about Greece, I wonder. “Oh, the usual. The sun, the weather, the food, my friends. It’s funny, I listen to Greek music more now I am here than I did in Greece – I have Greek radio on the internet. I try to cook Greek food as well – there are no restaurants that can quite get the food right.” What about the ‘Real Greek’ chain, I wonder? “Oh. Yes. That is the real Greek experience, alright. Overpriced small portions.”
“It’s funny, really. I never really felt part of my country. I was born in Canada.” Tom notices me stop taking notes. “No, it’s ok – I am Greek, my parents are Greek, I moved back to Greece when I was five, I have a Greek passport.” I think he has protested his Greekness enough, but we can’t be too careful with this project – one false move and the whole idea is blown out of the water. “I even forgot all my English. I had to learn it again at secondary school, then learn it again properly to speak it when I came here.” By now, I’m convinced. He speaks English very well, but there is a trace of a Greek accent, and definitely no Canadian. “That’s interesting,” he says. “Some of my friends think my accent has gone Welsh in the last few years. I play along with it – sometimes I watch Little Britain and try to copy Matt Lucas just to make it even stronger.”
And how does he find London now, after nearly six years here? “Now, I enjoy it. At the start, I said I would try to stay five years – if I moved away before that, then London would have won. Of course, sometimes there is too much traffic, sometimes people have bad manners on the tube, but in general, it’s going well. I think most people don’t want to stay in London forever, but there are two types of people that come here: some go to extremes, they party too much, take drugs, and others try harder, they try to make a life here. The first lot, they don’t last. But even some of the others, they find it hard as well. A lot of the foreigners in London come here from disadvantaged backgrounds, and they make a real effort to make a better future for themselves here, but when they see how the wealthy people are living they get angry that they can’t catch up. But that’s not just London. I had a friend in Greece who always said he wanted to live in Switzerland because everyone is rich there. But moving there won’t make him rich, he didn’t quite understand that.”
After our drink, Tom ran for his his bus back to Wood Green (where he now lives) and I unlocked my bike and checked my diary. Flicking through the pages, I calculated that Tom was the first of thirteen people I’d be meeting in eleven days – a hit-rate that would simultaneously help to get the project back on track, and necessitate me drinking an astonishing amount of coffee. I was ready. But was the world? I put my helmet on and cycled home.