For Astoria’s wary emigres, election in Greece hits close to home

A Greek flag in an Astoria window. (Harlan Harris via flickr)
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In a narrow office of Spartan decor in a Long Island City office building yesterday, the barebones staff of Hellas FM, the biggest Greek-language radio station outside of Greece, was having a busy day.

They were broadcasting eight hours of live coverage of the elections in Greece that would determine whether the troubled country would exit Europe's joint currency.

With listeners comprising 45 percent of online listeners to Greek news outside of Greece, the burden was heavy on Dimitris Filippidis and his colleague Eleni Gkioka; Gkioka was speaking on a panel with a Greek Orthodox cleric on the other side of a glass wall as Filippidis described the day.

“I went live on Greek radio, Greek TV and Cyprus TV,” he said, rather excitedly. The 33-year-old native of Kavala, in northeastern Greece, has a face for television and is the U.S. correspondent for the Greek-based Alpha TV and Alpha radio, in addition to being program director at Hellas FM. “It’s a crazy day.”

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Greek nationals in the United States are technically allowed to vote in the elections, according to a 2001 amendment to the Greek constitution, but no laws implementing a system for voting from abroad have been put in place since then.

Olympic Airlines, the onetime national airline of Greece, used to make provisions for voting Greek citizens living in the U.S. to return to Greece to vote at heavily discounted ticket prices, but that ended when the airline went bankrupt and was privatized in 2009.

And so Greeks and Greek-Ameircans in the traditional Greek stronghold of Astoria could only watch and wait as more than 9.8 million citizens of their home country filled out their ballots Sunday.

At the Minos Cretan Association on 33rd Street, some 50 Greeks and Greek Americans were gathered, not more than usual for a Sunday, watching TV and endlessly smoking cigarettes in a room with yellow walls and scant decoration.

Costas Nikolopoulos, a 28-year-old PhD student in computer science, said the election was inescapable even here, 5,000 miles away from Athens. Originally from Agrinio, Greece, he now lives in Astorian, not far from the Association.

“If you’re first generation, even if you try to avoid it, you can’t," he said. "What happens at home affects you directly.”

For one thing, many Greeks living in New York have relatives back home. And many long to return there themselves, if the country can gain a sound footing.

Sunday’s elections were supposed to boost the Greek government’s credibility in the eyes of Europe, and the rest of the world and its financial markets. For his part, Nikolopoulos was skeptical of the importance of the election to Europe generally.

“The future of Europe doesn’t depend that much on Greece,” he said, putting a cap on the debate that had absorbed much of Greek Astoria for much of the day. “If Greece decided to leave the euro zone, then is the euro going to collapse only because of Greece? I don’t think so.”

And to many Greeks here, it seemed to serve as a replay of the last Greek general elections, held on May 6, which were followed by the parties’ failed attempt to form a coalition.

This time, New Democracy, the pro-Europe conservative party, gained 30 percent of the votes, sealing a narrow victory over the new, radical leftist party Syriza, second with 27 percent. The pan-Ellenic socialist party, Pasok, got 12 percent, while the far right nationalist party, Golden Dawn, got 7 percent. The biggest surprise was perhaps the 4 percent achieved by the communist party, a historical defeat.

Today, the conservatives and socialists were expected to cobble together a parliamentary coalition.

The results were positively welcomed by the White House, many European leaders, and the International Monetary Fund; a government of coalition between New Democracy and Pasok should be formed on Monday.

According to Filippidis, back at Hellas FM, the Greek American community had mixed feelings about the result.

“The main fear among many Greeks living in the United States was that if the leftist party dominated the elections, the country would possibly withdraw from its agreement with the [International Monetary Fund], as well as from the euro zone,” Filippidis said.

“People are relieved, on one hand, because Greece will remain in the euro zone,” he continued. “At the same time though, they fear this is just the same story all over again, because the parties that are going to form a coalition are the ones who drove Greece to where it is now.”

No celebration followed the results of the elections, either in Astoria or back home.

“The people in Greece are very disappointed with the two main parties,” said Panagiotis Kariotis, 58. “New Democracy and Pasok sacrificed our privilege to be an independent country. We used to have a currency, a treasury. We did not owe a penny to anyone. Now we owe millions.”

Like many here, Kariotis, a yellow cab driver, comes to Astoria even though he lives in Forest Hills, Queens; many Greeks and Greek Americans frequent Astoria but have moved on, to Elmhurst or Jackson Heights or Forest Hills or Bayside or Nassau County.

Kariotis is originally from Kastoria, a small village in the West Macedonia region of northern Greece. A regular at the Association, he likes to spend his summer evenings off work there, enjoying the sun from underneath the vine-covered trellis on the backyard porch.

On Sunday, while sipping raki, he discussed the sustainability of Greece’s place int he Eurozone with his 30-year-old daughter, Maria, who works in banking.

“We’re not against Europe, but against the way they’re doing things," the father said. "They’re putting a bank above everyone; it’s unfair. If it’s to be the way we are now—starving—then we better get out!”

His daughter, like many Greek nationals living in New York, thought at one time that the natural thing to do was to get an education and a financial footing here in the States, then return to Greece. And in fact, migration of Greek Americans back to Greece has been stronger than Greek immigration to the U.S. over parts of the last decade. But not recently.

“There’s no future there for us young Greeks educated in the United States,” Maria said. “I would love to go back and live there, but what am I going to do, work as a waitress? There are no jobs, no hope.”

Nikolopoulos, the PhD student, says it's harder in a lot of ways for young people to return than it is for older people to stay in Greece.

“If my father who’s fifty-something makes 100 euros less, it’s not a big deal, because he’s done what he had to do in life,” he said. “For someone who’s starting out now though, it’s a big problem.”

Kostantino Missirlakis, 35, was one of the few at the Association who said they didn’t want to see Greece out of the euro zone.

Despite the fact that his family was deeply affected by the economic hardship, which many Greeks blame on E.U.-mandated "austerity" programs, he thinks the Eurozone is still the way forward for Greece.

He is a second-generation Greek American, born in Brooklyn and living in Queens, and works in construction. Every year he spends two months in Crete, where part of his family still lives.

“At least seven out of my 10 cousins back home have lost their jobs," he said. "And I know of a lot of people who have been moving back to villages and agriculture, looking for a cheaper cost of living and better quality life.”

His father, Zacharias, 58, was playing backgammon with his friend, 43-year-old Cretan-born Stratos Mamalakis; Mamalakis chimed in here.

“My sister’s grill was doing 800 euros a day," he said, referring to a restaurant his sister owns. "Now, 40.”

But Missirlakis continued, talking about how the switch to the Euro resulted in investment in the country's infrastructure that never would have happened otherwise. He didn’t see why the euro zone should be viewed as entirely negative, and he didn't want Greece to leave it; but he got more emotional talking about the E.U.'s posture toward Greece.

“The word Europe comes from Greek,” he said. “How would you give up the country where it all started?”

Only a few hours after the results of the elections had come out, however, the attention of most of the people at the Cretan Association Minos seemed to be already focused on another national appointment: Germany versus Greece, set to play next Friday in the last set of group matches in the Euro Cup 2012.

“Instead of Germany kicking Greece out of the Euro, it’s going to be the other way around,” said Missirlakis, smiling. “Greece will kick Germany out of the Euro. Only, it’s a slightly different one.”