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A Greek Odyssey

(Article published in the Nov 18, 2009 issue of Manila Standard Today) 

Everything seemed Greek to me.  Signs were in letters unfamiliar.  Speech was in sounds my ears were not accustomed to. But, all that was not surprising. After all, I was in Greece.

What was surprising, though, was how familiar- in the root sense of being “very family” - the Greeks actually were. Up until recently, the Greece I knew was what came from without.

Greece was to me a far away place where unfolded Edith Hamilton’s stories about strange gods of long ago quarrelling amongst themselves on Mount Olympus when not cavorting with one another.

Greece was also, tucked away together with other high school remembrances, a distant shore from where a thousand ships were launched by the face of Helen, a Trojan. A label that used to evoke images of fierce close contact combat; now spoiled and soiled by some modern blasphemer who appropriated the brand for his line of prophylactics of exclusive use also in close contact, but of a different sort.

And even in those later years of intellectual transit from the trees of Loyola Heights to the dust of Padre Faura Street, my Greece was no more than where Socrates heroically drank his hemlock; Plato dreamed of his world of ideas he deemed the real; where Aristotle his drew up his system of knowledge shaped by math, whilst Thales and Heraclitus sat on rock earth fascinated by water and fire respectively unmindful of Diogenes with his lighted lamp at daytime sometimes swinging towards Solon who was telling people how to behave.

My Greece was distant and hard to find and, more so, to be one with. But then, just recently, eureka! In the three days between 29th of October and 01 November, I found a different and, I am certain, the real Greece.
 










     

Actually, I should have sensed the affinity much earlier, at the latest mid-October when I sought a Schengen Visa. The Greek consulate was the place to get one since Greece was our first port of entry to the Schengen countries. But Gina Gacusana threw me off.

I knew I was cutting it very close, but work and other alibis left me no choice but do a full court press. I had a letter sent requesting urgently for an appointment for me to personally plead my cause.  “Call on Gina of the Greek embassy as soon as you can” relays my secretary to me the quick feedback.  I put the papers together, grabbed a cab to the Sage House in Legaspi Village, Makati City, and after clearing with Security at the first floor, I took my place in the queue on the twelfth floor.

Gina was the only one who could be seen from the waiting area. But she was equal to the task. Like a solitary cashier in a teller’s booth in an extension office of a suburban branch of some universal bank, she methodically attended to everyone like she personally knew them all, accepting applications of some, handing out passports to others. Always with a smile; speaking gently and softly, even whilst explaining for the nth time to an obviously nervous seaman how to fill in a blank in the application form. “Because she is Filipina,” I said to myself, “not Greek.”

When my turn came, Gina, as she had done with others’, looked over my papers; but then she disappeared for a moment, and upon reappearing called me in to see Ms. Alexandra Anagnostopoulou.  “I’m dead”, I muttered to myself.  And for while, it seemed like so.

“This is going to be difficult. You have to leave for Istanbul for a conference before we can usually expect to receive confirmation that you could swing over to Greece. That is very little time to grant you a Schengen visa. But we shall try”, Ms. Anagnostopoulou said. “Please call us for the status of your application, starting Monday next week. By Friday, whether or not we get confirmation, we will give you back your passport so you can use it to for Turkey on the weekend.” she added. “Nice one,” I said to myself. “Gina must have taught the Greeks how to say ‘No’ in Filipino.”

My Monday to Thursday calls to Gina, promptly made before 10:00 A.M., uniformly elicited “Unfortunately, we have not yet…” But on the Friday, before I could muster the daring, my Blackberry beeped, “you may pick up your Schengen Visa on Saturday; a staff member has been told to report for work, just to do the releasing of your visa in the morning.”  By 3:00 pm, I was being led to the check-in counter at the NAIA by Julia Torres of Gulf Air to board GF Flight No. 157 to Bahrain en route to Istanbul.

Landing at Venizelos Airport in the evening of the 29th was not a problem. Nor was taking the tube to Athens to lay one’s head on the soft pillows of the Amalia Hotel on, where else, Amalias Avenue by midnight to sleep the sleep, nevertheless, of the tired.

By mid-morning of the 30th, I checked my coordinates from the balcony of Rm 406: the Parliament Building and the tomb of the Unknown Soldier were to my diagonal left; right across the street was the entrance to the National Park (a perfect place to run and work off jet lag); and to my diagonal right was Kalimarmaro stadium venue of the first Olympic games in modern times, 1869.  On the same side as the hotel, but a bit further down left, was the Synthagma Central Square from where you could take a ride to almost anywhere.

Soon two pedestrians crossing Amalias stopped on the island and started waving to me. For a while I thought they were Filipinos. Actually they were Greeks, Kanastasos Prassas and his wife, Sofia Stravropolous, doing what Filipinos do: excitedly welcoming at first sight people they have heard of only from stories of their kin, people who by transference had themselves become kin to them.

What happened next in Athens could have occurred just as much as in Manila, mutatis mutandi: gifts were given and received; meals were shared, sites were visited, sights were shown, stories were swapped, and, of course, for the women, shopping was done. 

Though we spoke no Greek and our hosts spoke very little English, communication was no problem.  Translating back and forth was Ovidiu Paleu, a young Romanian doing his PhD on sociology at the University of Athens and a director of a cultural society called Contemporary Balkania. He was always on hand whenever hosts and visitors were together. He enabled family to talk to family.

           It was eerie, our boarding the Airport Bus in the afternoon of Nov. 01.  Back in Manila, many families were gathering, remembering the life they once had together; in Athens, two were parting, wondering if and when, where and how, they will be meeting again.
 

     

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