‘Between Two Homelands’: The Story of a Greek Immigrant and his Life in Finland

Ilias Missyris

American novelist and painter Henry Valentine Miller was once quoted as saying  “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” Here in an exclusive interview, Ilias Missyris, originally from Xylokastro, Peloponnese, shares his thoughts and first-hand experiences on moving to Finland as a young man and how he adjusted to a new way of life and a fascinating culture.

 First of all Ilias, I’d like to learn a little about your Greek background, your family here in Greece and where you grew up.
I was born fifty years ago in a very beautiful Greek town, Xylokastro, which is situated in the Peloponnese. I was one of three boys and my father was a telegraph school graduate who started his studies at the break of the second war and worked later on for OTE, the Greek telecommunications organization. My mother was a house wife, a brilliant cook and the manager of our home.

We were really lucky to be brought up by such good parents, so the first seven years of my childhood were just brilliant.  I still recall many great moments that we shared with our friends and relatives during our family get-togethers, and I can still hear the “clop-clop” of the taxi (a horse-drawn carriage) passing our street. Back then this was the transport for taking people to the nearby railway station, which was also our playground.

Xylokastro was at its best then, with a lot of tourists from around the world, as well as actors, politicians and people from the movie business, as the town and area were often used as a shooting location for movie productions.

In the villages up on the nearby mountains, the situation was very different. When we visited my father’s hometown in the mountains there was not even electricity there yet, so we had to go to bed early listening to old war related stories of our ancestors under the dim light of the oil-lamp…unforgettable pictures from a more simple and happy lifestyle.

However, our blissful life was about to end in April 1967, when the military government came to power in Greece and we were forced to go to live in the mountain plateau of Tripolis, the Arcadian town in the centre of Peloponnesus. We spent seven years of hardship during that time, enduring the second war and eventually moving to Halandri, a suburb of Athens, when it was all over. In 1978, soon after I graduated from school, my father retired and we moved back to Xylokastro after being away for ten years. It was a period when Greek rock & roll culture was at its best and I met up again with old school friends who had formed a rock group, “The Moles Band”, and became their lead singer.

After that, I studied electronics at Piraeus Polytechnic (TEI), which meant moving back to Athens to attend classes and study there. I also found myself a job at the fruit-exporting factory of Xylokastro which was exporting 30.000 tons of lemons each year to the Soviet Union. That way, I could earn some money while studying, and also during the weekends in Xylokastro, get together with my friends to rehearse songs. It was during those years when people were content with the simpler things in life.

So, when and what was it, that made you decide to leave your family and friends to go to Finland, a country so different to Greece?

By the middle 80’s, I was still a student and traveling was considered cool and easy those days, due to the fact that we could make many new friends vacationing in Xylokastro during their summer holidays. We would exchange hospitality, so we were able to spend Christmas holidays in Europe. Inter-rail was very much in fashion then, as well as the legendary Magic-Bus leaving Greece through ex-Yugoslavia.

On one of those journeys to Europe in 1984, I met my Finnish wife, Tina, as we were both traveling on the same train, the legendary Hellas-Istanbul Express from Munich to Greece. From then on, Finland was included in my traveling plans and became my second homeland. As for my family and friends in Greece, I guess they eventually got used to my lifestyle as I was traveling to and fro, living for a while in Greece to serve in the Greek army in Rhodes and managing hotels on Crete with Tina, before finally moving to Finland to start a family when we were both 33 years old.

You say that in the early years you were traveling frequently backwards and forwards between the two countries. What was that like and how did you feel when you set off each time?

Before setting out on a five and a half day trip from Greece to Finland, you should clearly have in your mind a fully detailed travel plan of how to combine various destinations including the final one. I have never traveled just to escape to nowhere. If you do that, I think you risk losing your roots or suddenly you end up in the middle of nowhere without hope and money. If you know where, when, and how you plan to go, traveling is a getaway to freedom, the best way to discover people and yourself, a mobile school of life I could say. Traveling sometimes puts you to the test and can be the roulette of your own destiny.

Were the immigration laws as tough as in other countries?

Yes, I could say that it was tough to get to Finland in the middle 80’s. In order to allow you in to the country, you had to prove that you had enough money and a return-ticket. I know some cases where people were turned back…It was the last years of the cold war which made Helsinki a tricky place to visit. Personally, I preferred to use the ferry connections from Sweden to Finland which felt like a great gift of comfort after 5 days on the road… In 1995, Finland joined the European Union and immigration laws changed, allowing more foreigners and later war refugees from Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afganistan and other countries to start a new life in Finland, so I think the country became more accessible and more international after joining the EU in 1995.

How did you find the cultural changes and of course the climate?

Certainly, there are many cultural differences between the two countries which I think strongly relate to the climate and the environment in general. In countries like Finland, the climate and the weather forecast makes the rules for your every day life and in everything you do, you must always have a “plan B.”

The concept of timing is also a good example of how cultures differentiate from each other. In Finland, being punctual is a sign of how trustworthy you are.

Finnish people have a special relationship with nature, especially the forest, and they are very connected with it no matter how busy they might be…It’s very similar to the Greeks who have a passion for the sea and fishing.

As for the cold, I think cold weather is eventually good for people because it makes them more energetic and more pragmatic in their lives. Finland also offers two additional gifts to its inhabitants, “space” and “silence”. They both contribute to people having a civilized conversation where “the listeners” and “the silence” play a major role in keeping things peaceful.  Another great gift relating to the climate is that over here in the north, we can still enjoy the four seasons. The colors of the Finnish autumn make it, to me, one of the most inspiring and creative times of the year.

Tell me about your work and how you are kept busy.

At first, I was involved in project management which involved implementing an idea (project) and following it through to reality (management).

I worked on various projects relating to Education, Youth Training and Culture (including art and music). Most of them included mobilization of groups and that’s where tourism came in. My five years experience at the beginning of the 90’s, my teams of co-workers and the valuable contacts I had in Crete helped me a great deal to successfully mobilize all these school groups and set up a good network.  In 1998, I started with school exchange programs between Finland and Greece funded by the EU-Sokrates program. Meanwhile, we continued with some student placements on Crete under the EU- Leonaro program, and then at the Culture Department of Vaasa city with another artistic workshop project for young artists from 8 north European countries. It’s been a great intercultural experience for all these school kids who took part in the projects.

Finally, after successful implementation of all the above projects, I ended up in 2003 at the Ostrobothnian museum, which is one of Finland’s oldest museums, with 3 exhibition departments of Culture History, Arts and Natural Science including Terranova, and our audio-visual Nature Centre with several stunning exhibitions. There is also a department for the Wildlife Vaasa Festival or the International Nature Film Festival, which we organize every second year in Vaasa.

During the last 10 years the festival has grown in stature, hosting the best and newest nature documentaries from all around the world. Last time we received 214 films from 46 countries with hundreds of visitors and delegates attending from all over the world. I am kept busy arranging various media events, implementing film projects at schools and much more. The last 2 months leading up to the festival becomes a race against time, but every second year it’s very exciting to hear the announcement of the results of the winners of the two film competitions.

Finland has two official languages: Finnish and Swedish, the latter of which is spoken by only a small percentage of the population. Have you learnt both languages? Are there any Greek people living in your neighborhood who you can speak Greek to? What about your wife and children, have you taught them any Greek?

In Vaasa, there are only four or five Greek-Finnish families and a few students at Vaasa University. However, the Greek language is very popular here and it’s taught by various adult education centers like the one here in Vaasa. I have been teaching Greek courses as a part time job for a couple of years with a surprisingly high level of participation. I also gave Greek lessons to the high school pupils we worked with during a Sokrates-Lingua project, so I have gained a little experience in teaching Greek to different groups of people.

My wife and daughters also speak good Greek as they have learnt it from me in the early days, by reading books, singing songs and of course talking. They also use Greek with their relatives and family in Greece.

As far as the Finnish language is concerned, it is very unique and quite difficult to learn, you need many years of patience and to study hard when you learn it “from scratch”.

Have you traveled around Finland or crossed the border? After all, St. Petersburg is only a six-hour train trip away from Helsinki.

Through my work and my music concerts I have traveled quite a lot around Finland as well as the rest of Scandinavia and the Baltic Countries like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. They are very interesting countries with a lot of folklore, unknown old culture and traditions. The people are indeed very friendly too. Surprisingly, I have yet to visit St. Petersburg and Russia.

How do the Finnish people treat you generally, do you still feel like an outsider?

Most Finnish people love Greeks because they love the Greek culture, and also Greeks living in Finland remind them of their vacations in Greece, so I have always been very welcome in Finland and in a very Greek way.  After living in Finland for so many years, I can definitely say that Finnish people are very hospitable and helpful to foreigners.

How did your singing career come about and how did you get involved in the ‘Souvlaki’ orchestra ?

Well, I started playing music on a “melodica” back in Tripolis when I was 10. Then, later in Xylokastro more than 20 years ago with the Moles Band, and then another 16 years with the Souvlaki orchestra.

I can play a number of instruments, including the guitar, the lute, the bouzouki, the baglama, the charango and lately a Chinese banjo which I play the Greek “Calanda” on.

As for the Souvlaki orchestra, that was formed back in 1995, out of the need for a Greek folk dancing performance at the Kaustinen folk music festival.  We have been performing for 15 years now and have plenty of memories of Greek nights with Greek food, drinks, music and dancing. The most important thing is that Greek culture is still alive today as our concert calendar is full throughout the year. Actually, we have played many times in Greece as well, last year in Kosov, and next year we are invited to Pärnu, the summer capital of neighboring Estonia, to perform with an Estonian-Greek music orchestra. We are also planning to be in Greece again by the end of June, this time in Kalamata with Meltemia dancers.

Are you a member of any Finnish-Greek associations? Tell me about them.

There are a total of 27 Finnish-Greek associations operating all over Finland.  Their members are mostly Finnish people who simply love the Greek culture with all its treasures, music, dancing, language, and of course fine food and drinks. They have also founded The Federation of Greek culture associations in Finland. These people are a living advertisement for Greece and they have achieved many times in the past what Greek politicians and ambassadors will never achieve; to truly connect people from different nations simply through respect and a love for cultural differences.

Now, let’s discuss the documentary film ”Between Two Homelands” directed by Christos Karakasis. It depicts your life and gives an insight into how you adjusted to the Finnish way of living. How did you hook up with Christos and what was it like making the short movie? What made you decide to do it?

I have been co-operating with Christos Karakasis for over 5 years after he participated in the Wildlife Vaasa Festival back in 2006. He’s a tireless worker, an asset in the area of ​​culture and arts in Greece, a remarkable director, filmmaker ,and a very succesful organizer of major events. Above all, he’s a good person and somebody who can be trusted to put his every effort into a project.

As for “Between two homelands,” it all began in October 2010, when Christos asked me to give him an interview for his website. Six months later, in April 2011, we  met up in Athens to shoot a television episode from his Blow-up TV series, along with the lovely and multi-talented artist and writer Vassiliki Kappa, who wrote the fantastic narrative texts of the film. We agreed to cooperate on a festival level during the 1st Digital Short Film Festival that they organized in July 2011 in Athens, and after we finished with that, Christos suggested we make a long documentary film about the two homelands. I sent him audiovisual material from Finland and Greece and pushed forward to meet the deadline for the submission to the Docfest in Chalkis.

Christos managed to deliver the film on time, and it was selected and premiered successfully in Halchida after screenings at the Finnish Institute in Athens.

The main reason that I didn’t hesitate to tell my story through his film was the fact that it had good potential to reflect other similar stories of people like myself, all ”children of diaspora” living around the world, between two homelands. Furthermore, I thought that the messages and the emotions that come out of this film could touch the Greek souls of the audiences.

How do you feel about the present situation Greece finds itself in? Would you encourage people here to immigrate to Finland?

Unfortunately, we became ship-wrecked in our own sea. I have a lot of mixed feelings  because I have been following closely the events from April of last year, when I was asked to help a Finnish television crew. They visited Greece for the filming of one of the 8 episodes about the global economic crisis.

I have noticed though that the bad economic situation has now reflected negatively on Greek society and the image of our country abroad, which was a lot different in 2004. The crisis in Europe has allowed many European politicians and the media from other countries to voice their opinions in an angry but humorous way against Greeks, our history, and our culture, and that’s very bad for our global image.

One way to make a difference is to use our right to vote wisely to become once again enchanted by new elected leaders and also by people who think positive in such times, preserving the right to fight for a better future for the next generation. Then, we have to start to identify the comparative advantages of our country and get the best out of it. Greeks also can invent things easily. We all have to contribute to re-branding our country as soon as possible.

What would you say to the Finnish-Greek youth today to encourage them to succeed in life?

Even though I think that young people should also advise older people sometimes, my general advice is: No matter what, try to live your dreams considering not what you will be doing for work in your life but how many different goals you can manage to achieve while living, and what kind of skills you must have to accomplish your goals. Live those dreams, remembering always to be interested in politics and to be very careful for whom you vote for next time. If the world nowadays has excluded young people from the working life, it is because they stay out of politics. Especially in Greece, the country needs more than ever leaders and not puppets…

Do you have any final comment you would like to make to our readers?

I want to thank you Lorraine, and the Greek Reporter, for your kind invitation and for your great work on this news portal. You bring together all these fantastic stories from the Greeks of the diaspora and I think that their stories and their amazing life experiences are the best guidebook for those who will finally leave Greece to emigrate.

The film “Between two Homelands” can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Xr9rtgg82Y&feature=share and both Ilias Missyris and Christos Karakasis have Facebook profiles.


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