Abraxas Lifestyle recently sat down with Greek Ambassador to India H.E. Pano Kalogeropoulos for an exclusive interview.
Is this your first visit to India?
Yes this is my very first visit; I have never been here before. I have been to South East Asia, both professionally and privately – Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, but never here. As a matter of fact it coincided with this assignment, so I came over for the first time to Delhi. The only other part of India I have seen until now has been Mumbai, not even Agra and the Taj Mahal. I haven’t had the time to go there yet. I know that it is the biggest attraction for tourists coming to Delhi since it is close by. But I would like to visit other parts of this immense country like Bengaluru, Chennai and Kolkata, as well as Rajasthan. I would also like to go to the North-East, especially to Sikkim and to the tea gardens of Darjeeling. I intend to travel and get to know as much as a foreigner can get to know India. I feel that India is an open society but has a rather closed culture – the languages, the customs and the religions make it very exotic to a Westerner. But I am here with an open mind and I want to take in as much as possible.
How is your culture different from that of India? Are there any similarities?
It is a bit risky for me to talk about Indian society because I am a new comer. But when it comes to similarities I feel that both people tend to address their surrounding reality based on their emotions. I think it applies to India but it certainly applies to Greece. Although we invented geometry as well as philosophy in the western world but still with the average Greek industry, it is a very emotional version. We’re not mystics but we’re emotional. Instead of approaching an issue or a given situation with the mind, we do it with the heart. Familial bonds are still strong in Greece, (not as much as India ofcourse), but people feel very much a part of the family. There is a lot of respect and affection for the parents and young Greeks do not tend to leave their parental homes when they turn 18 like in other western societies.
What sort of picture did you have in mind of India before you arrived here?
To be honest, I had the picture of the “Incredible India” campaign, with the lopsided e and I. I remember the TV spot, with the animals, all the monuments one tends to associate with India (such as the Taj Mahal) and people throwing colour. So that was what I had in mind.
I had never thought that I would serve here as an ambassador, but our lives are so unpredictable and you never know where you will find yourself next time. And I here I am, in India.
Also, when I was a child of about 6 years old, my parents took me for a movie that had a big impact on Greek audiences at the time. That movie was Mother India. I don’t remember anything at all except one scene, where a baby tells its mother that it is hungry and opens a pot boiling something and found only water. This impressed me as a child, and this is also an image of India that I carry with me.
I think India is a wonderful country and has a great civilisation and culture. Plus India’s contribution to world heritage makes up our human condition – this is the privilege of very few cultures, cultures that have marked the process of humanity. There are others but the Indian stands out in a specific way that is always attractive to foreigners.
Do you like Indian food?
I’m a bit reluctant to taste non-European food because it is spicy and you cannot distinguish what is floating in the sauce. I have tried to eat it but it is not my favourite cup of tea.
However when I was in Mumbai, I spent time with some Greek friends of mine who come to India every year. They hosted a dinner, with exclusively south Indian food. I do not know what it was, nor can I distinguish it from North Indian and Western Indian food, but south Indian food was something I liked very much. This food also reconciled me with the taste of coriander (something that I used to despise). We were served coriander chutney in rice bread and it was much tastier than what I have tried. There was also a fish dish which was cooked in banana leaves. The texture was very nice and the taste of the fish was exquisite. I liked it very much.
Talking about Indian films, how many have you seen?
I have not seen very many. When I was an ambassador to Lebanon, I had a friend who was an importer of foreign films and controlled several theatres where these films were shown. I remember seeing a film in 2009-2010, (the typical boy loves girl story) which was shot in Goa.
I have never been to Goa but I have heard that it is very nice, very green. Bollywood movies have lots and lots of music, there are songs all the time!
Once the Indian ambassador to Athens had an organised an evening with Bollywood dancers who had been especially flown in to Greece and the event was a big success. I was surprised because we (a big group) had been invited and I thought it would be a show of traditional Indian dance and music. Instead it was Bollywood, with lots of beautiful shiny costumes and men and girls dancing.
Have you heard any Indian music?
I attended a concert of Ravi Shankar’s in Germany and one of him and his daughter in Vienna. I know that this is classical Indian music, with a lot of meditative moods.
I understand that his daughter also experiments with fusion of western and Indian, so that makes it understandable for us and closer to our aesthetic climate so to say.
What do you have to say about the tourist flow between India and Greece?
I would say that it is very limited. It is a pity because there are many things to see in Greece and surely in the last few years there are a number of Indians who have travelled to Greece. Mostly it is Athens or the islands, but I think for the informed person there are many more places to see. I don’t think we had more than ten to twelve thousand Indian tourists visiting Greece last year. Certainly this is one of the tasks I have set for myself, to try to improve the image of Greece as a tourist destination. We do all we can facilitate the issuance of visas, but there are still two difficulties. Firstly, there is no direct air link between Greece and India, and second is the food. Many Indians who visit Greece have certain constraints about food. Which is a pity, because if Indians think that we eat beef for breakfast, lunch and dinner daily, then they have it wrong. Our food is based on the Mediterranean diet, which mainly comprises of vegetables, and olive oil. So there are dishes that certainly would correspond to the Indian food code, but it takes a bit of effort to find out. If you go to the Acropolis and you ask for paneer with spinach sauce (palak paneer) you probably will not find it. But I have been told that there are hotels in the greater Athens area that have Indian menus.
Tell us about Greece.
Everybody that reads the papers knows about the financial crisis in Greece. It has monopolised the public interest outside of Greece. I think that after a period of big growth and prosperity, Greece has gone through this crisis which has rearranged our list of priorities. Still Greece remains one of the 30 richest countries on earth, and we have immense potential to do things. Right now the attention is focussed on combating the financial crisis but also the by-products of this crisis, which includes political radicalisation of some segments of the population and this is something that we need to take care of this because Greek society has always been an egalitarian society, a democratic society and it is very unfortunate that we see the rise of right and left extremists on our political spectrum. So this is something we need to take of; plus the migrant crisis that is draining much of our attention and resources. In November 2015, out of the 54000 people that entered the European geographical area, 51300 people were registered in Greece. You can imagine the crushing burden this poses on our infrastructure, our resources, and on the public feeling. Then there are also the tragedies that happened because many of these people drowned on their way to Greece from Turkey. But still, the people of the islands go out of their way to make the refugees feel like they can count on somebody’s helping hand and there are many touching stories of people who are migrants or had ancestors who were migrants helping fellow human beings in need.
What can you tell us about your other interests?
Western classical music is my biggest hobby. I used to play the piano when I was younger. I love wandering in nature. I also like history. I’m trying to learn how to play golf – I think India is the place to learn how to play golf. When I was in Mumbai, I spent a whole morning at the Elephanta caves. I always like to learn new things and meet new people.
What did you want to be growing up?
I don’t think my own ambition manifested itself very early but since my early teen years I wanted to be a diplomat. So I have fulfilled my projected wish to become a diplomat.
Is your family here with you?
No I am here alone. But I still expect friends and family members to visit me in the coming months so we can explore India together.