Romiosini – The Soul of Greece

The trouble with Romiosini is that it is what could be called Greek fundamentalism. No two Greeks that I know have ever given the same definition. It is tied up with their identity and their soul, but it is not exclusively either. It is about Greekness, but not the Greek State as such. It is Hellenic and Byzantine and it is almost incomprehensible to foreigners and difficult to describe,even by Greeks.

All agree that the origin of the the word Romiosini is from being part of the Roman Empire – eastern Rome which became the Byzantine Empire which was largely Greek and based around its capital Konstantinopoulos and included the borders of the Black Sea and Mikra Asia – Asia Minor. The ‘Megali Idea’ was the concept back in the 1920s that this Empire could be regained, an enterprise which resulted in catastrophe and the exchange of populations with a result of nearly two million refugees.

In fact the history of modern Greece has been largely a story of catastrophe from the Ottoman occupation until recent years. Greece has always been at the crossroads of Europe and Asia and apart from the fact that everybody wanted a piece of the pie and Greece has suffered invasion after invasion and internal dissension such as the civil war and the military Junta, Greeks themselves are torn between being of the West or the East. Many folk dances are distinctly Anatolian and the bouzoukia came from the Ottomans as did the Greek fetish with fishing with lamps. Thus the average Greek, who is far more aware of his history than most nationals, is essentially of a schizophrenic nature. Even the language, cleaned after the Ottoman yoke and called Katharevoussa was the official language of Greece except that the everyday language of Greece was and is Dhimotiki. Two different words for the same thing had to be learned by the children – one word at school and the other at home – basic things – ithor and nero – water….. artos and psomi – bread.

Today there is a Modern Greek State, but it is less than two hundred years old, although Greek history goes back through Homer to the Acheans and beyond. Greeks say they are Greek, but not in the same way as an Englishman says he is English. It is easier to be English, we can point to a country and say ‘that is England’ but as recently as one thousand years ago, it was changed for ever by the Norman Conquest. There may be pride in an Englishman’s heart but it does not compare to the breadth of that in the heart of a Greek for romiosini.

It is difficult to define something like romiosini, few Greeks can do so clearly, but it is the something in the Greek soul that keeps Greeks Greek. The shadow puppet plays also taken from the Turks have become essentially Greek where the Greek peasant bows and scrapes to the Pasha, but outwits him in the end. That is Romiosini.

Zorba, the character created by Katzantzakis, although seemingly larger than life – is a distillation of many of the facets of romiosini – something that is often almost larger than life to a Greek.

And it is the incredible love for life that Greeks posses. They fight life and they go along with it, but always, they love it. They have discos and supermarkets, but even they are very Greek in character. Greeks take from many cultures and turn it into something very Greek. That too is romiosini. Although the politics and the places change for Greeks, they can point to a language and a history and traditions in dance and song that have remained unchanged for three thousand years ‘in spite of’ the catastrophe and trauma that living at the crossroads of a tempestuous world has brought them.

Where else can you ride a bus when a man will just get up and sing for the pure pleasure of it and nobody think that strange? Where else would you find the traditions of revolution in the name of eleftheria in every village. Where else would you find ‘to horio’ at the heart of national life. This is all part of Romiosini. The biggest and most well organised resistance in the war came from the people- EAM ELAS, and the language of Greece today is the language of the people. Wherever the Greeks have been threatened they have resisted. A Greek is superb at philoxenia – hospitality – parea – ambience but also a petra – a rock when you try to take his Greekness from him. It is perhaps no coincidence that on the road from Paphos to Lemessos there is a place called Petra tou Romiou.

A Greek is a Greek is a Greek, but it is romiosini that has kept him that way. No-one will change that and wherever Greeks go – and emigration has always been a problem in Greece, they will stay Greek and most likely they will return to their own village to die. A Greek is like anyone else, but in times of adversity, they are superb. Only in Greece, the top national holiday is called Oxi day. The day Greeks said ‘no’ to Mussolini. It is in the tradition of three thousand years that Greeks have said no to those who would oppress them, and they will fight. They do not always win, but in the end they do, because that oppressor will never have the satisfaction of seeing the Greek tradition beaten or dead.

That is Romiosini.