But in between discussions with foreigners living in Greece (There is nothing to discuss with the Greeks—we just give each other knowing shrugs, like “What else is new?” “What did the world expect?” “Life’s always been hard.” “Have we known anything different?”) another older discussion of freedom and social responsibility competes. I’m referring to the one that takes place in my head only, because there is no discussion with the Greeks. These are areas of striking dissimilarity between us, the imprisoned Americans and, them, the free Greeks. I remember the first Greek who looked at me, with that incredulous expression, the one I would see repeated many times, along with his words: “You Americans call yourselves free! FREE?! You are not free. WE are free. We do as we please. You are restricted on every level!”
The first time I heard this, I thought, surely, I had misunderstood. But this same statement was repeated by countless others, each time accompanied by that same look of disbelief. We Americans were not free but controlled, in every aspect of our lives. Even our vacations were controlled, every hour planned down to the last minute. Slowly, I started to view freedom through their lens. I noticed the transparency of information about 9/11 present in every newspaper in every kiosk on every street corner…compared with the black box hush-hush response that greeted me and, quite frankly, freaked me out when I returned home just one month later. I noticed (how could I not?) the ease with which the Greeks carried out protests and strikes. Even the doctors went on strike, something I couldn't dream of in the U.S. Despite half the country on strike, life continued. A similar event on a much smaller level would incapacitate us. I started to recognize, adopt, and long for the ease with which the Greeks accepted life and death (a belief system that would simplify, greatly, my practice of medicine).
Once I was living in Greece, it wasn’t long before I realized the flip side of Greek freedom—what I labeled as a lack of social responsibility. And I’m not talking about issues of injustice, but rather their different definition of responsibility, which included personal self and immediate loved ones only. This was hard for me to understand at first. Take, for example, a favorite Greek pastime, smoking. How dare anyone impose an outside standard! Second and third-hand smoke cancer-causing? Heck, I still remember my first Greek boyfriend proudly telling me that his cardiologist-friend had told him (while they were, no doubt, sharing a smoking break) that my friend had nothing to worry about, that he was in great physical health. Smoking would never harm him. This is why the decision-- let alone the reinforcement-- to ban indoor smoking was shocking to me.
Of equal surprise was the shift to place garbage into bins rather than flinging assorted papers, wrappers (and, of course, cigarettes) onto the ground. I recall watching in horror when my boyfriend’s mother threw a paper cookie wrapper onto the church grounds outside her granddaughter’s baptism ceremony. Thank God I didn’t say anything. My boyfriend would have probably responded with that same incredulous look (and, let’s face it, he had already nicknamed me a word that meant “crazy-in-a-good-way,” although his sister didn’t seem to agree with his translation).
One cannot expect to change overnight…or even over a lifetime…the way an entire nation thinks. The Greeks have developed excellent coping mechanisms after being under Turkish rule for almost 400 years. This includes their particular type of freedom, which I’ve come to believe is, indeed, much freer than ours.