form The Furies (The Athens News)

Speaking The Mind

SINCE Socrates, the spoken word in Greek culture has been a force to be reckoned with. Considering it superior to the power of the written word, Plato elevated dialogue to an art, and Socrates, his teacher, was so invested in the purity of speech that he left no written record of his own. Perhaps this is the genius behind the Greeks' penchant for argument, their almost celebratory appetite for verbal sparring whether it be in the Greek Parliament or Athenian traffic jams.
As the municipality in my neighbourhood put an end to parking on the sidewalks along the tasteful bars that line the edges of the streets, I watched bemused as several people stopped and took the time in the middle of, their walking, or driving, to variously curse or shout phrases like "where are we going to put our cars now" It was a real question, and one which might be left unarticulated
The Japanese writer Natsuki Ikezawa, invited by the ministry of culture to attend a symposium called "The Greek Experience" held in Delphi in February 2004, articulated how his experiences in Greece had liberated him from the conditioned obedience he had been brought up with in Japan. He called what he witnessed "extreme individualism" and described a quarrel in the post-office where he watched a person argue with the teller about a rise in the price of stamps as "opera". "I so admired that," he said with genuine good feeling. "I admired the man's stubbornness
and refusal to accept what we in Japan would never have argued against in public."
He continued to discuss the passion and determination by which the Greeks had historically dealt with defeat: "They aren't afraid to fight by themselves, " he went on.
I thought ofthe reverberations of what this continues to mean; to be "individualist" as opposed to merely individual, a term Janet Sarbanes coined to describe the Rebetes of Asia Minor and the Rembetika music culture. Individualist behavior means one makes one's presence felt, despite the odds, or because of them.
Individualists insist on having their say, no matter the context.
After dropping off my daughter at school one morning, I made my way to a crossroad when I became aware of a car edging up on my right. The road narrows - before the light. It was yellow and I was slowing down as the car on my right was speeding up. The driver expected ine to slow down and move left' to let her cut in front; I refused. She had to slip in behind me if I didn't move left. She did neither.
The light turned red; we were stopped at the cross section, her car on part of the pavement next to me. I glanced her way and shook my head. She immediately rolled down her window. "Three cars could fit across here," she yelled my way. "Why not four," I answered. "Unless you got your license at some correspondence school you would see there's space," she continued. "I'm in my lane," I yelled back as the light turned green and I kept to my lane without budging. She had to either fall
behind or run into me. She let me go, yelling, "If you were civilized you would have made room for me!" All the way home I kept wondering why doesn't she get it: two lane roads are two lane roads.
It later occurred to me that from the moment she found the space to squeeze her car in next to mine, she assumed, wrongly, that I would respect the fact that she was there. It wasn't about rules; it was about their insufficiency and inability to bring equal order to unequal circumstances. It was about the assumption that authority was fickle and fallible, that"if you didn't take the rules
into your own individualist hands, the individual would be literally squeezed off the road. Of course these individualist recipes for affirming individuality could become extreme; while dialogue didn't always create solutions, it enacted Socrates' admonishment that the unexamined life was not worth living.
A policewoman stopped me for not wearing my seat belt. As she matter-of- factly wrote out a ticket for sixty euros, I was talking to her in a full stream beginning with the fact that I was sorry, that I was in a rush, that we had just returned from the island where we spent Easter, that I wasn't used to the-traffic lights (since there were none on the island). "These aren't reasons for not wearing your seat belt," she said. I went on, irrationally, "I don't see many people wearing their seat belts. And I really can't afford this ticket." "Do I tell you how to do your job?" she answered, still clam.
"I'm not telling you how to do anything," I continued, aware that I was not negotiating this well, "All my papers are fine...I told you why I didn't have my belt on. I wasn't thinking...I just left the supermarket..." I started to break into English, so she answered me in English:
"In England or the United States would you be arguing with me?"

© 2006 Adrianne Kalfopoulou, Author. All Rights Reserved