[TRADING PLACES] Finding Greek democracy on the streets of Seoul

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[TRADING PLACES] Finding Greek democracy on the streets of Seoul


From left, Greek archaeology and art history professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies Kim Hye-jin, Ambassador of Greece to Korea Dionisios Sourvanos and chef of Greek restaurant Santorini in central Seoul Nikolaos Kordonias pose at the dining table of the ambassador’s residence in central Seoul on June 14, filled with delicacies from in and around Greece including: melitsanosala, or feta, cheesecake cups; tzatziki yogurt sauce; tirokafteri, or spicy feta, and eggplant mousse on baguette; dolmadakia, or stuffed grape leaves with rice and herbs; spinach pie spanakopita and cheese pie tiropita; and baklava. [PARK SANG-MOON]

In the Greek play “Antigone” by Sophocles, the titular female protagonist opens the scene with a determination to bury her disgraced brother despite being forbidden to do so by law, choosing her own kin over the authority of the city-state in the context of Athens in 441 B.C.

“Here in ‘Antigone’ you have a conflict of values and this is what you have to see when you study mythology,” said Greek Ambassador Dionisios Sourvanos. “Because the problem is not only to recognize what is good and what is evil, but what is good and what is the actual virtue.

“You see, sometimes even something that seems wrong might be the solution, which makes it a virtue in such a case,” he continued. “In this sense, mythology and archaeology from the ancient times provide some vital lessons on how to deal with everyday life.”

Though centuries have passed since the idea of what is right and wrong was questioned at the Theatre of Dionysus in Athens under plays written by Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides and Aristophanes, some of these ideas set sail across the world, including to here in Korea.

“Greece is the inventor of democracy - ancient Greece had democracy, though for only about 200 years, and mostly in Athens,” said Kim Hye-jin, professor of Greek archaeology and art history at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. “But with the recent candlelight vigils here, I felt that Korea had made another chapter in the history of democracies around the world. I was very proud of that.”

Nikolaos Kordonias, who has been cooking in Seoul for the past 13 years, has sailed across the world himself, having worked as a chef on cruise ships and in New York, Montreal, Greece and now Korea.


“Working in the kitchen, it’s not easy,” he said. “You work many hours and even during weekends and holidays. So some people come and go, and chefs from Greece have come and gone.

“Santorini, the restaurant in Itaewon, called me and hired me, and I started working there from 2004,” he said. “There is no magic recipe to restaurant business, you have to work and wait and people will come and talk about it and come back, and that’s how it is.”

Gathered at the ambassador’s residence on June 14, the ambassador, the professor and the chef discussed whatever topic arose at the table of mezethes, or small dishes of Greek food, ranging from Greek mythology to modern Greek values and the economy.

“It’s been many years since I began working here, and still we are going strong,” Kordonias said as he popped into his mouth a cheesecake cup made with melitsanosala, or feta cheese dip. “And the best things are yet to come.”


Left: Kim Hye-jin on Areopagus in front of the Acropolis of Athens in 2003, when she visited the site with her colleagues. Right: Nikolaos Kordonias, left, and one of his beloved ajumma coworkers in the kitchen of the Greek restaurant Santorini in Itaewon-dong of central Seoul, posing with souvlaki, pork skewers, during lunch one day in 2015. [KIM HYE-JIN, KORDONIAS]

Golden routine

If there is one thing to take away from his four years of service as the Greek ambassador to Korea, Sourvanos said it will have to be finding joy in working.

“I mean the main thing is that I do not have time to do anything else except to work,” he said. “It’s kind of a main feature of the country, the sense of professionalism about the people is something I see wherever I go, even if I go for lunch or dinner, or go out for fun or work.”

With the Greek Embassy located in the Hanwha Group headquarters building in Jung District, central Seoul, Ambassador Sourvanos said he often sees groups of office workers zooming out of the building at around 11:30 a.m. and coming back within an hour.

“You see them going out all at once, and coming in en masse, too,” Sourvanos said. “I have been posted in many countries before, but I have never seen this sense of collective, massive work going on in a small country. So if I have to enjoy something here, it is to enjoy working.”

Kim Hye-jin: I saw in a report on working hours in OECD countries that the Greek people also work really hard, because the working hours in Greece were ranked in third place in the world. Mexico ranked first and Korea second.

Dionisios Sourvanos: But the way we work is different in Greece - many Greeks can also work hard and make miracles happen, but they tend to work more individually and not many Greeks are crazy about working that hard. We tend to try to work smartly, so we can have more time for fun by the sea, in the mountains, or close to nature. Many working Greeks look forward to escape, to work less and to work individually.

Sourvanos: Life is very organized here. In Greece we have an expression called “golden routine,” which asks the question of whether one would prefer a life of routines so well organized that it’s golden, yet without ups and downs or surprises, or an exciting life with ups and downs? I think some things that are unexpected are needed in life, because if everything is expected, it’s a bit boring, don’t you think?

Yet in the organized way of life here, even visible in some public rallies, the ambassador found an interesting surprise.

Sourvanos: The candlelight rallies were an interesting surprise for me, not good or bad. The movement was very well developed and well organized. I perceive it as a kind of maturity for a country and its democracy. Back home, we may have destruction of property in a strike.

Sourvanos: But what I found very interesting was the resolution of the problem after the impeachment, the resolution that the Constitutional Court gave on the basis for impeaching the president - that the president betrayed the trust of the people. You know this expression very rarely appears as a main reason for impeachment in other cases, and this shows real maturity of the judiciary, on focusing their ruling on whether the president has the trust of the people.

The Korean ajummas

In his 13 years of service as chef of Santorini, located just a block from the Itaewon Station, Kordonias said he has worked with many helpers in the kitchen from different countries, but he finds one group superior to all the others.

“The Korean ajummas [middle-aged women in Korean] are the best,” he said. “I enjoy working with them - they are reliable, clean, and they do their jobs with no complaints. I tried working with Koreans, with Chinese, with many Greeks, but Korean ajummas are the best. They work very hard and I respect them.”

From 11 a.m. until the evening, they work busily in the kitchen. Most of the ladies in the kitchen are in their 60s and 70s.

“We eat together often after the peak hours of the evenings,” he said. “We put together some simple Greek and Korean dishes.”

Some of the dishes he prepared for the day were: tzatziki, a type of Greek yogurt sauce; melitsanosala cheese cake cups; tirokafteri, or spicy feta, and eggplant mousse on baguette; dolmadakia, or stuffed grape leaves with rice and herbs; spinach pie spanakopita and cheese pie tiropita.

Sourvanos: You will often see a combination of something that is salty with something fresh and sweet in Greek food. For example, feta cheese is served here with cucumber and watermelon as you see, to break the salty taste of the cheese. Tzatziki is often used to help balance or excite the tastes.

Sourvanos: The dolmadakia is an example of a Turkish influence in our food, as we are inevitably close with Turkey. The dessert Kordonias prepared, baklava, is also widely enjoyed in Greece and comes from the near east area.

Kim: I think Greek food is well known for the spices involved. When I landed in Greece for the first time in 2001, the first thing I noticed was a smell of different spices in the air.

Nikolaos Kordonias: I noticed it also when I landed in Korea for the first time. It smelled of something close to ramen.

Sourvanos: One of the strongest memories I have associated with a sense of smell in arriving in a country was at Zanzibar, Tanzania, a place very famous for its spices. Another was when I arrived in Bruges of Belgium - all I could smell was chocolate everywhere.


When Kim left for Greece in 2001, her family was just getting out of the 1997 financial crisis.

“My family, just like many others at the time, struggled in the Asian financial crisis,” she said. “So I when I went to Greece to study, it helped because I was able to focus on my studies, far from home.”

Kim said she experienced the “golden age of Greece” during her first few years.

Kim: I call the early 2000s the golden age of Greece. In 2004, Greece hosted the summer Olympics and in the same year the Greek football team won the UEFA European Championship. The next year, Greek singer Elena Paparizou won Eurovision.

Sourvanos: Yes, it was within a very short period that Greece won in things it never had before. The European Championship was the biggest surprise, nobody expected it. Greece was called the underdog team, but it had a very smart German coach, who focused on defense. We won most of the games 1 to 0. So the strategy was defense, defense, defense, and pop one goal at the right moment, that was it!

Kim: The second time I went back to the country was in 2006, and I left after finishing my Ph.D. studies in 2012, so I was just witnessing the beginnings of the economic crisis there. It had changed the society. I never saw homeless people on the streets in Athens before 2012.

Kim: I think one difference between the Korean and Greek economic crises was that I saw more Greeks taking on the struggles individually rather than collectively. There were visible collective efforts in Korea when the crisis hit, like community-based donation of gold and jewelry to help the government pay back debts. But in Greece, I came across more people who were worried about their individual tax hikes and dwindling income that may drag on for years.

Yet regardless of the crisis, Kim experienced philoxenia, the Greek word on hospitality, or being a friend to a guest, in Greek homes.

“My professor at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens invited her students to her home one day,” Kim said. “She cooked so many things I wondered how one woman could have made them all in such a short time!

“After I became a professor,” she said, “I wanted to be like her and practice philoxenia, but then I found out that there is small hope in improving my cooking skills.”

And true to their roots, the Greeks at the ambassador’s residence took about half an hour in wrapping up the mezethes to be gifted to friends and families after the gathering ended.

“This is the normal goodbye scene in Greece,” Kim said. “All the goodbye kisses, some more last-minute chats, and packing food for the guests to take home - it’s weird if goodbyes don’t take more than half an hour or so.”

BY ESTHER CHUNG [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]

Greek Ambassador Dionisios Sourvanos

Dionisios Sourvanos was appointed as ambassador of Greece to Korea in 2013. Born in Athens, he pursued studies in political science at the University of Athens and began his diplomatic career in 1982. He has previously served in Nairobi, the United States, Beijing and Berlin. He then served as ambassador to Cameroon and Nigeria before his post in Korea. Married, the top envoy is father of two sons, and says he likes to spend time with his family or listen to classical music in his leisure time.

Nikolaos Kordonias

The chef of the Greek restaurant Santorini, located close to Itaewon Station in central Seoul, Nikolaos Kordonias began his cooking career on the cruise line ships Stella Sollais and Stella Oceanis from 1990 to 1996, before studying at the International Culinary Center in New York. He then worked in catering and for a restaurant in New York. He moved to Montreal from 2000 to 2001 and then worked on the Greek islands of Corfu and Kos from 2001 to 2003. Kordonias has been working at Santorini since 2004.

Kim Hye-jin

Professor of Greek archaeology and art history at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies Kim Hye-jin first went to Greece in 2001 when she took up a scholarship to study the Greek language at National and Kapodistrian University of Athens in 2001. At the same university, Kim received a masters’ degree in Greek art history in 2006 and a Ph.D. in Greek archeology and art history in 2012. She got married while she was pursuing the Ph.D. studies and said she and her husband successfully managed a long-distance marriage for some three years while she completed her studies.
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