Thank God theyâ€™re here in Keene in such numbers. Last weekendâ€™s Greek Festival at St. George Church on West Street was a sight to behold. Beautiful music, festive dancing, great food.
Thereâ€™s an old joke about what do you get when you put two Irish people together? Answer: a fight. What do you get when you put two Greeks together? Answer: a restaurant. Yeah, yeah, in this day of political correctness itâ€™s not appropriate to be stereotyping people, but thereâ€™s a lot of lessons to be learned by watching the Greeks celebrate their culture, history and religion.
First, Greeks in Keene wield an influence way beyond their simple numbers. Why? Because theyâ€™re extremely hard workers, entrepreneurial, and they stick together.
And why is that? Answer: Because itâ€™s all about family. And therein lies the lesson for all of the United States.
At the festival, if one kept an eye open, the importance of family was all-pervasive. The old people, those in wheelchairs or walkers, were carefully tended to by family members who almost carried them around on pillows. Thatâ€™s called respect for your elders. Remember that? Young kids were carefully watched and if they got out of line were tenderly corrected. Remember that?
Family members hugged one another and that spread to the non-Greeks at the festival. Greek dancing is generally communal in nature, with arms wrapped shoulder to shoulder in solidarity, a metaphor for their strong family culture, the belief that one relies solely on the family. And family isnâ€™t just brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers; it is also aunts and uncles and cousins, and friends and business associates â€” the entire community. In Keene, which is a close, intimate place, the Greeks are as solid as the best-built rock wall in New England.
There were other signs, too, that all is well with the Greeks. There was no litter â€” none, everyone carefully discarded cups and plates and other trash into the proper bins; everyone behaved themselves and had a good time, there was no drunkenness or rowdiness, and no cops were required to watch over things. They take care of their own.
Now, the Greeks are an old culture, surely, dating back thousands of years. After all, didnâ€™t we base all of our Western culture on the Greeks? What you saw at that festival was those centuries of solidarity through thick and thin, the good years and the bad years. Itâ€™s family that lasts, nothing else.
One question that has to be asked is why is the nation of Greece in such perennial financial straits when the Greeks in the United States are so prosperous? Itâ€™s because of our national belief that hard work combined with initiative will result in a better life for the next generation. That may be pooh-poohed by cynics today who claim itâ€™s all just a Norman Rockwell myth foisted upon us by those evil capitalists. Tell that to the Greeks. Itâ€™s why we have so many immigrants who will go to extraordinary lengths to get to our shores. The Syrians, Iraqis, Mexicans and all the other cultures that come here prosper because they are allowed to. In their native nations there is no will or opportunity to flourish because so many are ruled by dictators and stifling traditions and a confiscatory tax system that punishes free enterprise. Here in this country the slate is wiped clean for families to start over, and build, and prosper.
But the real lesson is still family. For the past half-century the slow disintegration of extended families has eaten like acid into our culture, ever so slowly, and weâ€™ve seen the result. The logical progression of that philosophy is on display downtown every day, parents who arenâ€™t paying attention, rootlessness, dependence on the government rather than the family, a lone-wolf culture thatâ€™s weirdly disconnected. This disintegration of the family has slowly leeched the mortar from our bricks, and we are paying the consequences in so many ways.
Will it keep progressing this way? Maybe. Maybe not, if immigrant cultures retain their will to keep families strong, and all of us learn from them.
Beware of Greeks bearing gifts, the old saying goes. Actually, weâ€™re damn lucky they brought to us the gift of their families.
John McGauley writes from Keene.