Unmasked Nostalgia

Alexander Billinis

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“As the years have passed for me here, and particularly in fractious 2016, I fear that the age of multiple masks, and luminous, colorful ones, is yielding to that of the mono-mask.”—By Alexander Billinis

Roaming East Roman

By Alexander Billinis

“Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne,” by Francis Bacon (1966)

“Three Studies of Isabel Rawsthorne,” by Francis Bacon (1966)

Alexander Billinis

CHICAGO Illinois—(Weekly Hubris)—December 2016—Some people wear the mask of only one nation, assigned them at birth, while I wear three.

There’s my American mask, a legacy of birthplace, upbringing, and living four-fifths of my life here. There is the Greek mask, bequeathed me by grandparents and parents, later made more solid due to dual-citizenship and life experience. Finally, there is the Serbian mask, now worn, at times, due to intimate association (marriage), three years’ residence in my wife’s homeland, and the close religious, geographical, and cultural association between Serb and Greek.

Three masks, three faces, three identities. All, finally, me, though no single mask defines me.

All of my masks have fit me rather well, neither chafing nor binding, heretofore. However, the fact that, to all appearances, my three masks fit hardly compensates for the inward discomfort I feel wearing any one to the exclusion of the others.

Fortunately, for much of my life, my ability to change masks at will has made me more open to the world and, at least on the face of it, the world more accepting of me.

Seeing the world from inside different masks, disguised as a native in three lands, I reason, has made me understand others better.

The post-Cold War world was to be one of globalization, Received Wisdom counseled, both in terms of work and markets but, more important, in terms of people and culture . . . levitating on the pin head of tolerance. So we were told, and for a while, I believed.

I could, as I did in 2006, don my Greek mask, and “repatriate” to Greece. Prior to this, I wore the Greek mask only occasionally.

I learned, though, that when I sewed on that mask, more or less permanently, it wasn’t such a great fit for me. My American pluralism and desire for diversity and transparency sought expression behind my Greek features. A Hellenic máska could not disguise a voice with traces of the Amerikanáki. My eyes betrayed a sense of withdrawal from the otherwise familiar and beloved surroundings of Greece.

I wore a mask, and spoke without an accent but, wearing my Greek mask 24/7, I lost about half of my soul in translation.

In London, where my little family moved next, the community I entered was diverse and global, and the ease with which I could switch from the Greek to the American mask was both amusing to one and all and, initially, good for my so-called career.

My Greek mask, backed up by Greek papers, opened the London banking market to me, but the American voice behind my typically Aegean features gave me far more clout than a Greek accent.

This was brought home to me when my wife’s Serbian accent clearly set her apart as a continental European at a time when the British mask was already breaking through the EU mask the English had donned only reluctantly. Since Brexit, the British seem to have cast off that European mask entirely.

After losing our jobs in the first major hiccup of globalization gone awry, we moved to Serbia, and bought a house, in part as a refuge from the sharp elbows of the system. Here, I donned, occasionally, my Serbian mask. It fit rather well, for a Greek, particularly in the region of Vojvodina, where we lived. In this tiny province, there exists a mini-Europe, with residents of two dozen nationalities. And because I wore my Serbian mask so loosely, it lacked the suffocating feel of the Greek one. But Serbia, too, suffers from a malaise similar to that of Greece; of a corrupt polity collapsing on itself and its inhabitants.

In 2013, we returned to America, all of us blowing the dust off our American masks after eight years of only periodic use.

Any mask feels good when you first don it, particularly one so transparent and loosely tied at the back as the American. I felt, initially, the empowerment of this country’s inclusive diversity. To my Byzantine mind (and oh, yes, I could wear a Constantinopolitan mask quite well) my American mask resembled a pastiche of many divergent features. I felt that my European experience, if anything, added color and luster to my New World face. Well, that’s how it used to feel . . . .

As the years have passed for me here, and particularly in fractious 2016, I fear that the age of multiple masks, and luminous, colorful ones, is yielding to that of the mono-mask.

The Greek mask is now distinctly Blue-and-White, no shades of grey permitted; and the fit is smaller and tighter. Now, too, the wings of the Serbian Double-Headed Eagle have begun to snuff out the diversity in my wife’s country. And the Brits appear to have discarded the Blue-and-Gold mask of Europe and may, soon enough, replace the iconic Union Jack, with its imperfect diversity and wonderful eccentricity, with the sharper, blood-red of England’s St. George Cross.

What of the American Mask?

Here too I feel a definite and palpable tightening, a sense of suffocation. My mosaic-mask is being plastered over, like the mosaics of Hagia Sophia, with primary, patriotic colors: the rainbow is reduced to red, white, and blue.

To don my other masks may soon become an act of virtual expatriation and dangerous “self-othering.” As in Europe, the protest against the cronyism and inequality globalization has brought has here morphed into a protest against tolerance and diversity. Masks must now be monochrome (and wearers sewn into them), never to be exchanged for other masks. Cosmopolitanism has been sacrificed by demagogues to expiate the sins of globalization, while these sins continue, sponsored by the new leaders of “Great” or “patriotic” movements.

Meanwhile, my mask itches . . . and it becomes harder and harder to breathe.

Alexander Billinis

About Alexander Billinis

Obsessed with traces of lost empires (especially the Byzantine and the Hapsburg), Alexander Billinis self-identifies as an American-Generation-X-Liberal, but with a European’s faith in social democracy. An international banker who's spent much of his career in the Europe of the Financial Crisis, Billinis has most recently lived in Chicago and in Sombor, Serbia, in the multi-ethnic province of Vojvodina. Before that, he lived in the UK and Greece. A bi-national citizen of the United States and Greece, with a facility in several languages, this “Roaming East Roman” has now returned to the United States for the foreseeable future, unearthing his law degree to practice the law; and writing and lecturing on the side. His book, The Eagle has Two Faces: Journeys through Byzantine Europe, is a travelogue of the Balkans, Asia Minor, and Southern Italy. His second book, a novel, Hidden Mosaics: An Aegean Tale, reveals the common heritage of an Aegean littoral now divided up by exclusivist states. Both books are available via amazon.com and other online vendors.
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2 Responses to Unmasked Nostalgia

  1. diana says:

    Alex, you have moved me to tears. And I wonder what kinds of masks your children will have to learn to wear. I think we are all struggling for breath, even those who only wear the red white and blue.

  2. Alex Billinis says:

    As did your article, Diana. As for my kids, yes, I worry that they will have known the cosmopolitan world, and be forced into a button-holed identity not of their choosing. They will at least, know the difference. Nostalgia for the present is my constant feeling nowadays.

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