Greek Yalies consider heritage

Over 100 students and faculty turned out for a celebration of Greek Easter in the Ezra Stiles courtyard on Sunday.
Over 100 students and faculty turned out for a celebration of Greek Easter in the Ezra Stiles courtyard on Sunday. Photo by Stefano Gandolfo.

Last Sunday, approximately 120 students and faculty members lounged on the grass in the Ezra Stiles courtyard, eating from plates piled high with homemade spanakopita, baklava and souvlaki as they celebrated Greek Easter. A student wearing a blue Yale Hellenic Society T-shirt watched over a blackened lamb slowly turning over a simmering fire, a traditional component of the festivities.

The Hellenic society, which aims to “promote and disseminate Greek culture at Yale” and “provide a home on campus for Greek nationals, those of a Greek descent and others interested in Greece,” hosts several events throughout the year. But its Easter celebration is the largest, drawing both Greeks and non-Greeks in attendance.

Greek Easter falls on a different date than the non-Orthodox Easter each year because the Greek Orthodox Church adheres to the Julian calendar, rather than the Gregorian calendar. For both religious and cultural reasons, Easter is one of the most important holidays celebrated by Greeks, said Stefano Gandolfo ’13, president of the Hellenic Society.

As the familiar strains of “Zorba the Greek,” a song and associated dance popularized in the 1964 movie by the same name, came over the speakers, people leapt up to join the dance. They linked arms, rotating in an ever-growing circle.

“Everyone thinks they know the steps,” Gandolfo said with a laugh, “but really they just make it up.”

Eight Yalies from Greece interviewed said they are proud of their heritage and want to retain and promote it on campus. But as the country’s severe debt crisis continues to contribute to financial insecurity throughout Europe, they said that deciding whether to return home after graduation has become more difficult.

PRESERVING TRADITION

The Hellenic Society, founded in the 1980s, seeks to uphold and promote Greek culture, Gandolfo said. Twelve of the 19 Yalies who are Greek international students participate in the group’s activities, he added.

Gandolfo said the organization reaches out to include Greek Americans and the broader Yale campus in its activities, but remains a “tight-knit” community that tries to sustain Greek traditions.

“It’s very different when you come to Yale,” he said. “At home you did all these traditional things as a family, but when you come here, you have to organize or they won’t happen. In some ways we have to be more Greek than the Greeks!”

Throughout the year, the group organizes many events, beginning with a welcome banquet that introduces Greek and Greek-American students to the organization. Other programs include transportation to the local Orthodox church on Tower Lane, study breaks featuring traditional Greek food, and panels on contemporary issues affecting Greece, including the recent financial crisis. Gandolfo said 20 to 30 students participate in most of the smaller events, while larger cultural events attract more attendees.

Nikos Theodosakis MED ’16, a Greek-American and the Hellenic Society’s graduate liaison, said he thinks Greeks have a distinctively strong sense of cultural identity that they “go out of their way” to preserve in new environments.

“The native Greeks use [the Hellenic Society] to create their own pocket of home, and Greek-Americans use it to connect with their roots,” he said, adding that he was a member of the Hellenic society at the University of Virginia while he was an undergraduate.

Ted Papalexopoulos ’15 said he enjoys participating in the Hellenic Society’s Friday language table in the Calhoun dining hall — where both Greek students and students studying the Greek language meet to discuss various topics — because it reminds him of café conversations he has at home in Athens.

Papalexopolous added that he also sees the Hellenic society as a way to help show other non-Greek students his culture, which he thinks is especially important given the media’s recent attention on the country’s instability.

“I feel like it’s my responsibility as a Greek in the United States to temper the negative image that Greeks have acquired in recent years,” Papalexopoulos said. “The crisis has given rise to several stereotypes about Greeks — lazy, immoral, deceitful, to name a few — which are greatly exaggerated.”

RETURN TO GREECE?

Since 2009, Greece has undergone a series of financial crises that led to two Eurozone bailouts and fiscal austerity measures by the Greek government. Greece’s debt is currently over 120 percent of its GDP, and unemployment rates are over 20 percent. Sparked by discontent with the Greek government’s efforts to address the crisis, riots continue to plague the country.

Those interviewed said their homeland’s current economic and political struggles have complicated their post-graduation plans.

Niko Efstathiou ’14, who worked in his native Athens this past summer and returned again over winter break, said he is struck by the instability’s psychological toll on Greeks each time he went back.

“You could see people’s faces and know the crisis had really hit them,” Efstathiou said. “You wonder, ‘Should I stay or go back to my ivory tower and do what I have to do there?’”

Gandolfo, who is a philosophy and economics double major, said he does not see himself returning to Greece in the near future.

He added that Greeks pursuing careers in the sciences or academia have better opportunities abroad.

While an increasing number of students are leaving Greece for the educational and work options available, Haroula Gotsi ’14 said she hopes many will return and bring the education and skills they have acquired abroad back to their country.

“We all want to help our country and feel a sense of obligation to Greece,” she said. “I think everyone is hoping that they can help in some way, even if they physically remain in the U.S.”

Gotsi said that while Greek students at Yale may be geographically distant from their homelands, they stay “very connected.” She added that this link reinforces the sense that Greek students abroad have a duty to contribute to their country after graduation.

Both Papalexoupolus and Efstathiou said they will have to return to Greece after college to complete the nine months of military service mandated for all Greek men.

Efstathiou said he has an extension until 2019 that would allow him to remain in the States for work or graduate school. Though he said he does not know what his immediate future will hold, he added that he has always imagined himself returning to Greece eventually.

“Not only do I miss Greece, but I really care about it,” he said. “When I think of where I want to raise my kids, it’s Greece.”

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