At a seaside café near the Greek-Albanian border, during halftime of last week’s European Champions League soccer match between Barcelona and Munich, I got an unexpected lesson in the European perspective on immigration, minorities and diaspora.
As Barcelona scored again and again, my husband commented to the genial Greek bartender that he’d heard a lot of Albanian spoken on the streets of the Epirus region; having studied social sciences, he was curious about the local Albanian minority. That was the word he used — minority — which many people understand to be a group distinct in some way from the majority population.
But according to the bartender, those Albanians were not a minority. An ethnic minority in European terms, he explained, is a group of people who historically lived someplace before borders shifted, rendering them a minority in another people’s land — a kind of pre-existing condition, if you will.
After the wars of the 1940s uprooted long-established Albanian and Slavic communities of Northern Greece, virtually no Albanians lived among the Epirus Greeks until an influx of economic migrants began in the post-Cold War years. By this logic, the Albanian residents of Epirus are new immigrants — and not the official ethnic minorities accorded special status by European Union governments. The bartender was friendly and his tone was thoughtful, not strident, but the subtext of ethnic tension was clear.
It was an eye-opening conversation for this American — revealing the way travel can reshape perspective, especially in a time of social unrest. And it took place during my first trip to Europe since the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, which ignited an already-simmering debate over anti-Semitism, immigrant anxieties and the prospects for Europe’s Jewish minorities.
On the surface, Europe’s bars, boulevards and beaches seemed tranquil, humming with the slow rhythm of the not-quite-summer crowds. But on the news each night, large groups of dark-skinned migrants from across Africa and the Middle East were shuffling off boats at the Continent’s southern fringe. Thousands were dying in the choppy Mediterranean; thousands more waited in border zones as already-overwhelmed European countries, struggling to cope with underemployed populations, mulled what to do about this new tsunami of desperation.
As I flipped through a New York Times Magazine article about British-raised jihadists, I reflected on the ironies of immigration. Those British-raised South Asians and Arabs lured into ISIS had parents who themselves had followed the hopeful, desperate course of the migrants now splashing across the Mediterranean. They resettled entire families in the West, but the tensions — and stigmas — of minority life and immigrant culture remain complex challenges.
Across Europe, there is also an invisible layer of immigration that outsiders might not notice. Bosnians, Bulgarians and Albanians don’t stand out visually in Oslo or Athens the way Sudanese might. But their languages, cultures and — especially — religions are not those of the surrounding majorities in their chosen lands, and the locals aren’t always welcoming. Secular Jews can be similarly invisible, but again, not standing out doesn’t mean you always fit in.
Jews have a particularly tortuous and tortured history as European minorities. From Dublin to Donetsk, Jews have migrated repeatedly throughout the diaspora — assimilating for centuries before being uprooted again, often rising to elite levels in politics, the arts and scholarship, and resettling as circumstances shift. The debate over whether a Jewish religious minority has a home in contemporary Europe comes in the context of a Continent that is rapidly changing, diversifying ineluctably against a backdrop of global inequities.
When American Jews travel in Europe, we frequently do so on two levels of cultural inquiry. We seek to explore both the historic society of the places we visit — in this case, Northern Greece — and the local Jewish culture, past or present. In Epirus, where only a handful of Jews remain from a once-vibrant Romaniote community, it can be instructive to observe the way Albanians, Italians and other recent arrivals are subtly reshaping the cultural geography.
Proud of their foundational role in Western culture, Greeks are understandably anxious about the changes that are transforming their country. A good deal of this anxiety comes not from the influx of settlers, but from the outflow of Greek-born émigrés — a generation of well-educated youth, disillusioned by a dysfunctional economy at home, that is itself becoming a minority in the wealthier corners of Western Europe.
To drive across northern Greece is to traverse a landscape that is startling in its emptiness. Hundreds of miles of mountains and fields are completely devoid of human civilization, with no cars on the highways, no gas stations or cafés along the route, and only thick forests where villages might once have thrived.
All of which makes the lively, ethnically diverse towns of the Epirus coast such a relief. We spent evenings in cafés listening to the chatter of multiple languages, while the crowd strolling at dusk was heterogeneous in every way: age, ethnicity, race. As I savored the pleasures I expect from Greece — fresh fish; sunsets over the Mediterranean — I reflected that while our observations may be uncomfortable, travel is all the more meaningful for the discoveries we don’t expect.