As an American foreign correspondent based in Greece, Joanna Kakissis is our eyes and ears from across the Atlantic. From her base in Athens, she reports for National Public Radio and Time Magazine. Her byline has also appeared in many national publications, including The New York Times and The Financial Times Magazine.
But unlike your typical foreign correspondent who parachutes into a country without the language skills to even read a local newspaper, Kakissis is Greek and can provide an intimate knowledge of the local culture and politics.
For the past two years, Kakissis has been sending copy (newsroom jargon for article) from the frontline of Greece’s economic crisis – the worst in decades. She has covered all sides of the economic crisis, from the political to the social, and has reported on the elections and every big demonstration (an almost-daily occurrence in Athens) against the harsh austerity measures designed to cut the cash-strapped country’s bloated deficit.
The Pappas Post caught up with Kakissis between stories. Now it’s her turn to answer the questions.
What’s your view on the Greek crisis?
I think that a lot of it would have happened sooner or later because the country was on the verge of collapsing.
I also think that, to some extent, Greeks should share some responsibility for the crisis. But I think it’s really disturbing that Greeks are being vilified. Greeks are being described as tax evaders and corrupt. You hear this everywhere you go. You have people saying that everything would be solved if the Greeks would just pay their taxes and learn to be good citizens.
That’s just scapegoating. And it’s not just coming from the Germans, but from many people in the Eurozone leadership.
For me, it shows that the European Union is a lot more divided than anybody ever thought it was. It’s a beautiful experiment that unfortunately was done on a continent that is always looking back on its terrible history and always looking to find somebody to blame, to scapegoat, for their problems.
We all blame Greece’s corrupt politicians, but how much of the blame does the average Greek deserve?
Clearly the country is responsible for getting itself in the situation that it’s in and it’s not just the leadership. One of the most frustrating things I noticed here is that people say that the regular people are not to blame. But they are. Who were they voting for all these years? They were voting for the two main parties over and over again and they knew what was going on.
What is one crisis-related story you would love to cover in the future?
I wish I could find a really tangible way to do the scapegoating story. I would have to do it in a way in which I can keep my own emotions in check because honestly I’m really tired of the anti-Greek jokes when I go back home.
I was back home last year and I was talking to a business editor, a friend of mine, he said the problem in Greece is that “you people” – not the Greeks, but “you people” don’t work and have 300 days of vacation a year and that no one pays taxes.
I remember how angry I felt. I almost lunged at him. That’s what I mean. It’s a story that needs to be told but I would like to do it in a way that I can keep my personal emotions in check because I feel personally affronted by the things that I hear about Greece.
My 82-year-old uncle Thanasis, who has been in a couple of my stories, has always paid his taxes. His pension has been cut and he still pays all of his taxes. So my point is that there are people out there who are very, very upstanding and to make a blanket statement on Greece and say that no one pays taxes and that everyone is lazy is personally infuriating to me. So I would like to find some way to do that story.
I would also like to do something more in-depth on the rise of the extreme right. I’d like to find out, not so much about Chrysi Avgi, but about why people are voting for them. That’s a story I think hasn’t been done well yet.
What has been your most remarkable interview so far?
I have interviewed many politicians like Mr. [George] Papandreou and Mr. [Alexis] Tsipras here in Greece and they were both interesting interviews in their own way. The thing about famous people or politicians or people who are in high level positions, however, is that they already know how to talk to the press and in some ways they are always spinning themselves and their image.
The most interesting people to interview are the regular people on the street.
Here in Greece, I think my most remarkable interview was with an Egyptian immigrant who was beaten up by what he suspects are members of Chrysi Avgi [Greece’s extreme far-right party]. It’s something I wrote recently and which hasn’t aired yet.
He’s a 28-year-old guy from a fishing village in Egypt called Rosetta. He seemed so hurt and alarmed about what had happened to him, and in a country where he said everybody looks like him. He does not understand why he was singled out.
His story made me think that things are changing in Greece in a way that’s really alarming. It was a very depressing interview, but it opened up a disturbing trend.
Tell us about yourself. What’s your story?
I was born in Athens, but my family and I moved to South Dakota when I was four. Then we moved to North Dakota and then to Minnesota. I grew up in the American Midwest.
I worked for a long time for a newspaper in Raleigh, North Carolina, until moving to Greece in 2004. I worked in Greece at the English edition of Kathimerini and as a freelancer until 2008. I returned to Greece in 2010.
Did the Olympic Games in Athens bring you to Greece the first time?
I had always wanted to cover the Olympics and I had kind of always wanted to come back to Greece. So I took some time off and went with the Boston Globe to write a column for them . I left and came to Greece. Initially I was writing for the Globe, but then they sent back all their staff correspondents overseas and stopped needing freelancers because their mission changed and they wanted to be more of a national paper and less of an international paper. So I struggled for a little bit trying to get work for a while.
How did you get started as a journalist?
Well, I’ve been writing since high school and I always wanted to be a journalist. Actually, I just always wanted to be a writer, but once I saw how interesting non-fiction was, I decided that what I really wanted to do was interview people and find out why they do what they do.
In some ways I wish I could have studied anthropology in college because I think anthropology is probably the best background in being a reporter.
What made you decide to return to Greece in 2010?
My parents were really attached to Greece. My father died when I was 18 and he was extremely attached to the country. So, I think for nostalgic reasons I really wanted to come back here. I had really idealistic notions of what it would be like.
Has your cross cultural experience helped you in your career?
I think in some ways it’s helped and in some ways it’s hurt. I think I’m more tolerant of other views and I think that everybody who has straddled two cultures is that way, especially if they have grown up in areas where there is not a big community of their own culture.
I grew up in an area where there were no other Greeks. It really helped to have the viewpoint of the other because when you see things from the outside, you always see more than the people who are in the inside and who are part of the group, the posy – whatever you want tot call it.
So in that way it is helped. But I think in other ways it has hurt because you always want to go back to that second home. I think that if I hadn’t been so attached with going to Greece, I would have gone somewhere else because I always wanted to travel.
Where would you have liked to go?
Maybe I would have landed in some part of the Middle East or in an interesting part of Africa instead of coming back to Greece and trying to figure out if I belong.
Do you belong?
I think the answer is that you don’t ever really fit in. At the end of the day, you are still not Greek – at least not the way the Greeks are.