Nine Questions for ...

Rüdiger Bolz on Athens: “My Table is Your Table”

Goethe-InstitutCopyright: Doug Bull
View over Athens (Photo: Doug Bull)

8 September 2010

“Why doesn’t Angela Merkel like us?” It’s the question Rüdiger Bolz hears most often. In this interview, the director of the Goethe-Institut Athens tells us how the Greeks can be salvaged, what we can learn from them and that it’s simply impossible to plan your dream project.

Can the Greeks be salvaged?

I’m going to word my reply just as facetiously and flippantly as the question was put: No, they cannot be salvaged because they have to salvage themselves. That’s the far more difficult challenge, for it requires fundamental structural change as well as, to some extent, a change in mentality. Of course, the director of a Goethe-Institut in Greece ought to word such a statement more carefully – but legitimatized as a “friend of the nation” through being a long-time representative of the Goethe-Institut in Greece (from 1994 until 1999 in Thessaloniki, since 2007 in Athens) and through having a Greek wife, I hardly am considerate of national over-sensitivities anymore. For the rest, in Greece, openness and unconditional freedom of debate are considered the Goethe-Institut’s hallmarks – and that since 1952 (Athens is the oldest institute abroad!) and thanks to deserving predecessors.

What preconception about the Greeks ought we rid ourselves of right away?

I’d suggest the alternative term “conventional ideas.” Ergo my advice: Read Johann Joachim Winckelmann and his elegies to Greek beauty and charisma. This view was the chosen orientation of Goethe, Schiller, Lord Byron, Herder, Hegel, Hauptmann and, well, all graduates of humanist grammar schools, and many people still maintain this ideal image today – regardless of all modern realities. These are best conveyed in a conversation with the people, from shepherds (yes, they exist!) to scholars.

What can we learn from the people of Greece?

A great deal, for example how to continually get the most out of the European funding pots. Yet, there are some things we should not learn like, to stay on topic, to manipulate Europe – “just a bit” they’d say in Greek. But we have to keep in mind the Greek maxim of my table is your table; I take pleasure when you acknowledge appreciation of my wine.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut Photo gallery: A journey through Athens

What question about Germany do you hear the most?

“Why doesn’t Angela Merkel like us?” (They tend to personalize.)

What Greek book should we be reading?

If you want to understand modern Greece you must read Petros Markaris. Once you start with him, you will want to read everything he’s written. There is no writer who is able to describe my host country for Greeks as well as for non-Greeks in all its contradictions and amiability more precisely. It’s a pity that Markaris, who also produced the most important translations of Goethe and Brecht into Greek, has still not been conferred with the Goethe-Medal. A special pointer by the way: Nikos Themelis, Jenseits von Epirus, Munich 1998. Of course, Ritsos, Seferis and Kazantzakis are required prior reading...

What German book are people in Greece familiar with?

Thank you for this question! Almost everything and interest [in German literature] remains unbroken. Excellent translators, risk-taking publishers, the truly attentive translation funding of the Goethe-Institut and a well-prepared feuilleton ensure that hardly any literary or academically important publication from German remains un-translated.

What do you look forward to most when you come to Germany?

To (Bavarian) cabaret live on stage. It is such a pleasure to understand even the most minute nuances and innuendos of a language.

Copyright: Goethe-Institut
Institute director Rüdiger Bolz: “It’s easiest to get to know the Greeks in conversation” (Photo: Goethe-Institut)
What do you look forward to when you are back in Athens?

I admit, it’s clichéd: to be awakened by the rising sun and that almost daily.

What is your dream project?

I have experienced dream projects as has everyone who works for the Goethe-Institut. After an event, on your way home you have this feeling: THAT was meaningful, that will last! The fatal aspect of this (but for me the best) is that it cannot be planned. For example, the institute sent out invitations to the premiere of a documentary film portrait about a survivor of the German army massacre of Distomo. The protagonist is there, the director, as well as a number of historians, journalists, diverse VIPs and television crews. Following the screening, there is an extremely hot debate about demanding German reparations. Then, while the cameras are running, the director of national television speaks up and says that the most important thing for him is that events like this film premiere including this thorny argument are a matter of course and always take place at the Goethe-Institut. About 400 people spontaneously applauded his words. Something like that cannot be planned, but in retrospect it was a “dream project.”

The questions were asked by Gabriele Stiller-Kern.

Rüdiger Bolz is the director of the Goethe-Institut Athens and of the Southeastern European region. Previously he worked for the Goethe-Instituts in San Francisco, Murnau, Munich, Thessaloniki and Istanbul.

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