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Erik Bruns, a Dutch Rhodian

By on October 27, 2016
Alexander Billinis

Alexander Billinis

I have known Erik Bruns for many years, meeting, as one often does these days, over the ubiquitous medium of Facebook. In our case, a shared affection for the works of Patrick Leigh Fermor was the initial reference point. Other common interests included a passion for history, the shared angst of the Generation X cohort, and a profound love for Greece.

A Dutch-born and educated historian, Erik maintains a foot in both Greece and the Netherlands, calling, like so many Europeans today, more than one country home. He is not the Northern “Sun Worshiper” seeking a spot on the beach; his love for Greece is visceral and learned. His is a complicated feeling, yet studious and methodical—dare I say “Dutch”—way in which he approaches his “adopted” homeland. He is at home with Dutch, English, German, French, and Greek, and in our conversations we darted between three of these five languages to prove a point or when one language simply “puts it” better. This mix of culture and language is the Europe we both subscribe to, and one which he struggles to preserve.

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Working with several other locals and expatriates, he established the Rhodes International Culture & Heritage Society (RICHeS) (www.rhodesriches.org) in 2009, a unique organization dedicated to the holistic approach to Rhodes’ astonishingly rich and diverse cultural heritage. Among RICHeS many activities include sponsoring lectures in their Studium Generale series, and I had the great honor to lecture on Byzantium for one of their lectures. I profiled RICHeS in the September 2014 issue of Neo Magazine but I felt that the reader would be best served for Erik to provide his own views, in his own words, on Rhodes, Greece, Europe, and the Greek Diaspora.

When did your, for lack of a better word, “relationship” with Greece begin?

My special relationship with Greece goes back to autumn 1976, when I was just 5 years old. I remember one evening where my parents were visited by friends who had recently returned from a journey to Greece by car.

My parents asked them all sorts of practical things, about boats, experiences, and I remember feeling that something adventurous and special was being planned there, that very night. I was sent to bed but could hear the soft murmur of their voices in the drawing room right below my bedroom. There was a great sense of anticipation. The following spring, May 1977 we went to Greece, by car. It all seems now so easy and simple, but back then going to Greece was still something relatively rare, long before real mass tourism and travel had begun. Of course certain islands, like Corfu and Rhodes, already were firmly established as mass destinations, at least for the standards of the seventies, but overall Greece was still a far destination in a time in which air travel and intercontinental holidays were still very rare.

We went by ferry from Venice, a ship from the Karageorgis Lines and it all made a huge impression on me; the Adriatic, the Greek flag at the stern, the Canal of Corinth that looked like we could touch its walls, the smell of tar and oil, the heavy customs officer with a moustache, stamping our passports in the harbor of Pireas. Once we started driving I knew I was in a ‘different’ place; the brilliant light, the cheerful atmosphere, the odd car models, exotic images like of huge carcasses of animals hanging on iron hooks outside butcheries, with hundreds of flies swarming around them. And of course the landscape, the antiquities, the sea in its countless bays and coves, the friendliness of the people, especially to a 5 year old. We travelled through the mainland, in remote villages people waved at us or patted the car, as a sign of welcome. Maybe the Dutch number plate helped, it was after all shortly after the Junta and the Dutch minister Van der Stoel was seen as a hero [for his anti-Junta policies]. I have countless memories from that first trip, all of which are set in my memory. So, I can date my ‘relationship’ with Greece from that moment.

What in particular about Rhodes has held you for so many years?

In spite of that immediate love I felt for Greece in 1977, which was confirmed two years later with a second trip, it took me until the year 2000 to return to Greece, a more than twenty year absence. In the intermediate years I went everywhere but Greece, and the country became increasingly known [in Northern Europe] as a cheap mass tourist destination. To be honest, I was afraid to go back, afraid that it had changed dramatically and that my childhood memories would prove to be an illusion.

Finally I did try it again and booked a trip to Rhodes, indeed very cheap. I thought that going to Rhodes would lessen the chance to spoil my memories because it had already been ‘different’ in the seventies when we drove with our car through the remote free valleys and along the development free coastline of mainland Greece. Moreover, I thought Rhodes, with its strange Gothic palaces and Hospitaller heritage, was somehow not so ‘Greek’. Of course I was very wrong, Rhodes turned out to be very Greek, and its diverse heritage, landscape and light immediately rekindled that old flame.

Since 2000 I have been traveling a lot in Greece but Rhodes has remained my base whenever I am in Greece. I taught Dutch history and language for a while on the Dutch School in Rhodes. As a historian I became fascinated by Rhodes’ past and heritage and the challenges surrounding its preservation and the general lack of knowledge about it. I founded the Rhodes International Culture & Heritage Society (RICHeS) to promote the cultural heritage of the town and island.

You know Greece and her history and culture intimately, how do Aegean islands such as Rhodes differ from mainland Greece?

I think it is not correct to distinguish ‘the’ Aegean islands so clearly from ‘the’ Mainland, both regions are not opposed and far from uniform. Greece consists of many distinctly different regions, all with their idiosyncrasies in culture, history, landscape and character. I agree with [celebrated author] Lawrence Durrell and others that each island constitutes a world by itself, even those which are grouped together, such as the Dodecanese and the Cyclades.

Rhodes is very different from other large Aegean islands but also different from its direct neighbors. Of course there are certain similarities and common denominators but still, I wouldn’t go so far as to make this clear distinction between mainland and islands. Of course, islands have a direct influence from the sea, which inland areas do not but mainland regions like the Mani do have, so it all depends where you look. Most Aegean islands do however miss the ‘Balkan’ character that is found in north Greece, and many do also, at least that applies to Rhodes, have a more ‘Levantine’ character, situated as they are on the crossroads between north and south, east and west and in close proximity to the actual Levant.

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When you are in Rhodes, you wake up with the sight of the mountains of Turkey every day. This proximity to Asia Minor, how does it affect Rhodians and other Greeks who live within sight of this massive mini-continent?

I believe that this differs per island and depends on factors such as geographical proximity and also on the size of the island. I imagine that in Kos and Samos – or even more, Kastelorizo – where you can see the houses opposite – it’s a totally different feel than here in Rhodes where the sparsely populated Turkish mainland is still at least 18km away and therefore far enough in the distance to give a feeling of remoteness. At night we do not see lights opposite. Nevertheless, in Rhodes problems like with Turkish jets violating Greek air space are an almost daily occurrence and everybody is aware of this.

Still, things have changed. There is now a thriving exchange of tourists between both countries. Initially it was mostly European holiday makers in either Rhodes or Turkey on a day trip but in the last couple of years we see an increasing flow of both Turks and Greeks spending holidays in each others countries. This was still very unusual in, let’s say, 2001, when I first visited Turkey from Rhodes and people warned me about making that trip. Few of my Greek friends and acquaintances had visited Turkey, now all of them have, and often more than once. There is also a commercial interest; Turkish customers have become a welcome addition to existing tourist flows. Rhodes is a world by itself, large enough and prosperous, the direct presence of Turkey does not play a real role in people’s every day imagination, at least, that is my take on it. But when something specific happens it is different. When we heard about Erdogan being bombed in his holiday retreat in Marmaris, right opposite Rhodes, during the failed coup of July, many people realized (again) clear how close it all is and basically how vulnerable we are in this region.

You are on the Eastern Border of the EU in Rhodes, what does Europe mean to you, and is Europe disintegrating?

Europe as a civilization means everything to me, but the EU as an institution in its present state means very little to me. In the past I saw its positive aspects but I think too many wrong decisions have been made and expansion went to fast and uncontrolled. I have always been skeptical about the lack of defining what ‘Europe’ really means and should mean. The EU has unfortunately become an increasingly negative concept to me in recent years, I associate it with its lack of democracy, too much bureaucracy and double standards. The situation regarding the Greek crisis has not helped either. It has become more and more a vehicle for the interests of big corporations. But I also see there is no real alternative and I hope it will turn out for the better. I do not see the EU really disintegrating, in spite of developments like the Brexit. But you never know, we live in a volatile and uncertain period, everything is possible and reform is essential to keep it all together.

And in terms of Europe, what is Greece in relation to Europe? Are we part of Europe, or somehow different?

Yes, Greece is clearly part of Europe, as a member state of the EU and also geographically. Historically and culturally the same, though of course Greece is clearly different than, let’s say Poland or Denmark. Greece is not different from ‘the’ rest, because the rest of Europe is not one homogenous mass. Nevertheless it is interesting, and to an extent telling, that we often ask ourselves this question, if Greece belongs in Europe. It does reveal something about the Greek identity. Citizens in the Netherlands do not ask themselves this question.

There is no standard European country. Europe is an amazingly diverse patchwork of cultures, traditions, customs, languages, nations, communities and histories with very large differences in mentality and development. It is in nothing like the Unites States and never will be. Nevertheless, though one should be careful with this, there are several cultural zones and regions to be distinguished. Greece belongs to the Balkan/Orthodox group of countries, if there is such a group at all. When Greece became a member of the EEC in 1981 it was indeed different than the other members which were all western European states. But this has changed with the accession of all the new member states. Europe has become more heterogeneous and Greece has become less ‘special’.

While Rhodes has had less of an influx of the massive refugee wave coming via Turkey, how do you feel that Greece, and the rest of Europe, needs to confront this massive problem?

The massive wave of migrants has been going on for years, but only now has become so pressing and visible for the general public due to the situation in Syria and Libya and elsewhere. As official data show most of them are not refugees but economic migrants. Europe and Greece cannot cope with these numbers. The impact on local communities and culture is too big in my opinion. Real refugees should be helped; I am in favor of providing shelter in areas close to their homeland and if that is not possible for limited and temporary shelter in Europe. Once the war in Syria is over, they should return to rebuild their country. As for the other migrants, from Africa and elsewhere, that is a big problem as well. At the root of it is the population explosion in those countries and lack of opportunity and jobs. As long as that is not dealt with we can expect much more migrants to come our way in the future. This will lead to such immense demographic changes, already happening in certain places, that the Europe and the Greece we knew will become something entirely different.

Talk to me about RICHeS, how it was founded, and your goals.

RICHeS was founded in early 2009. Rhodes has a very important and diverse cultural heritage, the result of its history. There is the classical past, the Byzantine, Hospitaller, Ottoman, Sephardic, Italian colonial and Modern Greek, each with its distinct architectural legacy.

Rhodes is a UNESCO world heritage city. It is unique to find in such a small space Gothic churches, Ottoman mosques, Italian fascist buildings, Sephardic synagogues and Byzantine domed churches together. Moreover, Rhodes has kept to a large degree the communities it had during Ottoman times; Jews, Muslims, Levantines and Orthodox. Contrary to other Levantine towns such as Smyrna, Alexandria and Thessaloniki, the social fabric of Rhodes has remained much more intact, in spite of catastrophic events like the deportation of the Jews, which however was caused by an external party and not the result of tensions within the communities of Rhodes itself.

RICHeS was founded to stimulate awareness of all aspects of this heritage, to disseminate knowledge about it among the population and tourists alike, to develop new audiences, and in general to contribute to the cultural and intellectual climate of the island. We advocate an inclusive approach to Rhodian history and heritage and hope to build an interest among the general Rhodian community about all these different aspects. There is still too much a community driven and therefore limited view on all this. The Italians study the Italian history, the Jews look at their part, the Greeks the same. The Ottoman history is largely overlooked.

The integral and overarching approach is missing. We want to help contribute to the notion that there is such a thing as a distinct Rhodian cultural identity and heritage which is shared by all constituent parts and communities. Also, we seek to build bridges with other regions and towns in order to lift Rhodes from its cultural isolation, the result of being an island. We do so by organizing exhibitions, the European Heritage Days, concerts, lectures, seminars and educational programs. We also actively engage in debate regarding matters of preservation of cultural heritage and are developing plans and projects for the future.

I have witnessed your love for Greece, while you have not gone native, your defense of Greece has all of the passion of a local. Where do you see your “second country” headed?

Of course, I cannot predict anything, but what is certain is that we live in complicated times with lots of uncertainties. That goes for the EU as a whole, for certain individual member states and for Greece in particular.

I don’t like saying it but I am not very optimistic about where the country is headed. The crisis, any crisis, always provides us with an excellent opportunity to improve things, but that has not happened here. While the crisis is already seven years old there seems to be no sense of urgency that society needs to be reformed in order to get better. On the contrary, many want to go back to the situation from before the crisis.

There is not enough sense of shared responsibility, of community and there is a general absence of direction where Greece should be headed. No vision, mission or clear strategy, so to speak. On top of that we now have the new government which, I think, has harmed Greece and Greece’s interests to an extent that we cannot yet assess fully. The situation has visibly worsened since they came to power, yet there is strikingly little protest from society. Maybe people have become numb. In any case; a whole generation of talented young people goes abroad, contributing to the downward trend. On the other hand, many individual Greeks and private institutions and companies are resourceful and show lots of acumen, they can help stem the tide. It has been done before.

Most of our readers are in the diaspora. Rhodes has a large diaspora abroad, what role do you see the Greek Diaspora playing in the affairs of the homeland, particularly in the realm of history and culture?

I think ‘the’ diaspora can potentially play a valuable role in Greek matters, especially in culture, cultural heritage, academic studies and so forth. Though maybe I should say certain individuals or organizations in the diaspora.  After all, we are of course talking about a very large and diverse group of people, with greatly varying levels of attachment to Greece.

The role of the diaspora can be to stimulate and to support, with financial and other means but also through an exchange of ideas, opinions and networks. In cultural matters in Rhodes the various diasporas are absent where projects for the general public are concerned. There is much to be gained there. Cultural projects such as ours are chronically underfunded and because of our independence from politics we do often miss out on funding possibilities.

I would expect that organizations from the diaspora, since they are less directly connected to the political reality of every day, would assess organizations and proposals on their merit and their value for society and not on their ties to certain politicians or parties. In that respect organizations such as ours who find themselves outside the mainstream channels of public funding but who organize events and activities of general public interest, could certainly benefit from cooperation with relative outsiders.

About Alexander Billinis

Alexander Billinis is a writer and lawyer in Chicago, Illinois. He and his family returned to the US after nearly a decade in Greece, the UK, and Serbia. He writes prolifically on Balkan topics. His books, The Eagle has Two Faces: Journeys through Byzantine Europe, and Hidden Mosaics: An Aegean Tale, are available from Amazon.com.