Waking up in a household full of Greek students in the Netherlands, I wondered how I got there. And before you say a plane, think again…
I was in Athens for a trip and I was told by a student who studies in Rotterdam, that ‘you should visit us in Holland, there are many Greek speakers.’ I usually politely nod to such requests and say yes without ever meaning to visit. However, a few days later I met up with my cousin who told me he had moved to Amsterdam to work as a chef at a Greek restaurant. In that instant I knew I would visit.
Known as Holland to many, the Netherlands is a country with a rich modern history, a strong soccer tradition, friendly people and flat terrain which makes it easy to drive in. The Dutch have a tradition as sea farers and in the 17th to the 19th Centuries had a medium size empire and a large fleet of ships that made its way around the world. Keeping this in mind, it’s easy to see how Greeks, with their own tradition of sea life finding their way here.
The pretty port city Rotterdam was at one stage a major hub for Greek ships during the middle of the 20th Century. Despite the current economic turmoil in Greece, Greek shipping is still the second largest in the world in terms of merchant vessels (it’s a shame most are registered in foreign territories). This is a pleasant city, big enough to sight see for a few days but small enough to get around with ease.
Approximately 2000 Greek speakers live in the country, though at its peak in the 1960’s, there were 10,000. Rotterdam has few native born Greek speakers remaining. I was told by the representatives of the Greek community I met, that due to marriages with locals or a return to Greece, the numbers had declined.
Evidence suggests that the first Greek Orthodox Congregation was founded in the Netherlands by Erasmus of Arcadia, Bishop Gerasimos Avlonites around the late 1700’s. Another interesting point is that in the 1480’s, Greek was introduced at a school located at Deventer. The school was part of the clergy of the Lebuïnuskerk, St. Lebuin’s Church. This was the first time Greek was ever taught at a lower level than a university in Europe.
Having been to over 40 places around the world to interview Greek speakers, I usually am struck by the little Greek pockets and neighbourhoods that exist. Unfortunately, the Netherlands does not have that. A Greek ‘gitonea (neighbourhood)’ will always help to maintain a Greek identity, without it, it is difficult. Safety in numbers goes a long way. This makes it even more important that a Federation or Church help fill that breach, otherwise, the Greek presence will diminish rapidly by the next generation.
Being hosted by Greek students was a reminder of how far Greek speakers are travelling at the moment to get out of the economic doldrums being experienced in Greece. At any given time there are perhaps 50,000 Greek students across Europe. A tiny fraction, perhaps 200 – 400 are in the Netherlands studying.
It had been a while since I spent any time with students…. I am after all well into my 30’s. But it is always refreshing to see how optimistic students are about their own prospects being abroad, though it is tempered by how much they miss the simple pleasures of home. A good Greek kafedaki and dolmades that were produced that day are amongst the pleasures and surprisingly the chaos of Greek traffic versus the orderly and patient drivers of the Netherlands. The students made it clear that whilst they enjoy riding their bicycles to campus, sometimes the feel of a motorbike or traffic chaos in Athens is what they prefer. Ironically, sitting in traffic in Athens kentro to Marousi can take an hour. The exact same amount of time will get you from Rotterdam to Amsterdam.
Despite how nice I found people here, the media have not exactly been warm towards Greece. In 2011, De Telegraaf was quick to say ‘Kick them out of the Eurozone. Our citizens no longer want to pay for these wasteful Greeks.’ Many other media organisations, like other countries in Europe, are blaming Greece for their current economic turbulence. It seems ironic that a country with just 0.2% of the EU GDP can be blamed. As of February 2012, the country is back in recession and it is hoped Greece is not used as a poster boy for the bad economic decisions that have come from Brussels, the Dutch neighbour.
I have to admit, the locals I met generally made reference to the Greek economic crisis. It would be nice to travel somewhere and not be reminded of the problems confronting Greece. It seems that the days of talking about Greek mythology or the islands is being replaced by more ‘serious’ topics. On a positive note, it is great to see that The Hellenic-Dutch Association for Commerce and Industry exists. It is a professional business and networking group that seeks to promote trade between the two countries.
Union of Greeks in Netherlands
I was excited to be driving to see the offices of the Union of Greeks in the Netherlands. I was there to meet Ms Maria Rogaar-Angelidou and Mr Dimitris Stratoudakis.
After seemingly becoming lost for what seemed like hours, I finally found my way to the quiet street I was looking for. The quaint, picturesque building was easy to spot with its Greek flag and 2 friendly people waiting to greet me.
Maria was born in the Netherlands and is married with 2 children. She told me that the number of Greeks had dwindled in recent years. In part due to assimilation of Greeks and the fact many ship owners, who had previously provided employment to many Greeks in Rotterdam, had moved on.
The Union has 100 active members. I was told about their regular catch ups on Sunday afternoons, a newsletter, Greek lessons and various other social activities that are held at the ground level hall. The hall may be massive, but there was no doubt that it was big on imagination and a tribute to Greece. There were religious icons, Greek publications, tables set up as if it was a small taverna, and various Greek paraphernalia. I was also treated to Greek sweets.
I was told by Dimitris, an elderly man but full of the Greek spirit, that the Greeks had been coming here since about 1760 due to the shipping. Dimitris himself was born in South Africa but talking to him about the Netherlands in the Greek language, you would have expected he was more from Athens than anywhere else. His face lit up when talking about his late wife of 50 years, Mrs Eleftheria Evangelene Stratoudakis-Papadopoulos, who had passed away in September. She had been an active member of the Greek community.
The Union had until recently been funding and overseeing the local Greek Orthodox Church, which is literally 500 metres away from the offices. There had always been a plan to move the offices next to the church which is set in a nice park.
Agios Nikolaos Church is an architectural triumph. Its late Byzantine style makes it a beautiful place to worship. Due to the dwindling number of Greeks in the Netherlands, the church has been passed on to the control of the Greek Church of Belgium. The priest, Fr Christos Sidiropoulos, travels from Belgium to deliver his sermons and to work with the local Greek community. He is young and energetic and took the trouble to explain to me the meaning of the icons and the architecture. The church has been in existence since the around 1959.
The Union formally was responsible for raising funds for the Church through annual dinners that would attract up to 500 people. I was told that the Dutch were strong supporters, not just the local Greek community. Until 2011, the 2 main activities that were organised for fundraising were the annual Dinner Dance “Griekse Gala”, and the annual Greek Bazaar.
I hadn’t seen my cousin, Giorgos Georgopoulos, since the Athens Olympics many, many moons ago. Having caught up with him in Greece recently, he invited me to visit him at his work in Amsterdam. The moment he told me he was the chef at the appropriately named Greek Taverna, I was sold.
After driving the 60 kilometres to Amsterdam from Rotterdam, I was fortunate enough to find a small room on a Saturday night. My room was near the Byzantium Carpark. For a Greek Byzantine like me, it was a good sign!
I must have been one of the few people ever to visit who wasn’t interested in the seedy side of ‘Dam. The Red Light District and the hash joints of the city were not high on my list of attractions. The idea of souvlaki cooked by my cousin certainly was. This super hungry boy wasn’t to be disappointed.
My cousin has lived in Amsterdam for about 18 months and met his Dutch girlfriend, a phil-Hellene who speaks fluent Greek. I recall meeting her and she spoke to me in Greek rather than English. It turns out she has spent many months at a time in Greece, having developed a love of Greece she quickly picked up the language. And speaks it better than me.
My cousin was in good form that night. As he cooked me the best meal I had in the Netherlands, I was kept entertained by the Greek band and a number of Greeks who chatted to me about why they had moved from Greece.
As I ate my biftekia and Greek salad, I met a local Greek, who did not want to be named. He told me that he moved to Amsterdam in order to better himself financially, even before the Greek economic crisis became official. The owners who are his friends, have run the business for many years and they seem to be a magnet for Greeks to come and socialise on a weekend.
And my night at the taverna was complete when a Turkish person started chatting to me about how nice Greece was, and how much she enjoyed the Greek culture. Finally someone who didn’t ask me about the Greek crisis!
As Greece finds the going tougher than expected with the austerity measures and the recession, it is reassuring to see that many European countries are welcoming Greek speakers. It is hard to ascertain how long the established generation of ‘native’ Greeks can last in countries like the Netherlands in generations to come. However, it is likely there will be at least a new wave of Hellenes ready to take their place. I hope that they can maintain their identity and when the time comes, return to a prosperous Greece.