(by Simone Perotti)

We met Charalampos Tsouroukidis in a very particular way: we were in a bar, having a drink, when a man wearing a fedora and scarf, dressed simply but elegantly, approached us and in very good Italian started to ask us questions, and then invited us to visit his home, the most beautiful house in the old city of Kavala, which we had noticed and photographed earlier.

We accepted at once. And as we climb the stairs of what would seem to be a ten-storey tower clinging to the hills of the Turkish district, we gape in wonder. Beauty, creativity, originality and taste unfold before us in the home of this famous Greek architect, who, as we would discover later, is also an activist and philosopher. But it is just the start. After a couple of drinks and a chat, we decide to go out and he takes us to a restaurant that he restructured, the former residence of an Ottoman Sultan, which is about two hundred years old, where we dine in an elegant and exclusive setting, and pay nothing at all thanks to his intercession. “I restructured this place free of charge. That is why I never come here, because they just won’t let me pay”. And this is just the first paradox.

The next day we are once again in his living room, and turn on the camera.

Babis, which is what everyone calls him, why did you invite us here yesterday, and treat us with such courtesy, why did you open your home to us, telling us so many wonderful things? “And why not? It came straight from the heart, without thinking. I associate dignity to gratitude for what we have, in other words, the Cosmos. Kosmina means jewel, did you know that? Here is a word that has everything to do with your question. Extract the jewel. And another words is Agalma, which means something that reassures me, makes me smile inside. I could ask you the same thing: why did you come, why did you decide to give me this gift?”. I smile at his upside down vision. And it often comes up during our conversation.

Don’t ask me to tell you about myself through definitions. I don’t like it. I work hard to become a human being. It takes a great deal of time and hard work to succeed. If you say that I am an architect, you reduce everything to something specific and immovable. But I change all the time. You can’t let too much time go by without smiling, for example, that’s something which speaks of me and of what I am. Without arguing, making friends, doing something for the people around you, for society”.

If you are a social activist, you are politically active, right? “Look… the parties, the establishment, administrators, they are all dangerous, and cause continuous damage. That is not what politics is all about. They throw far too many words at us, and we throw far too few at them. So one day I said to myself: let’s do it. But not as an association, group or movement, they are all dangerous useless things. But as individuals. That is how my efforts for active citizenship began. Evolve, change, open your home, remove barriers, do something as individuals. Society, the system, they are nothing but empty words. Only the individual counts. Either the individual does something, or nothing will ever happen. Participating is pointless. You have got to get things done”.

How do you become an active individual, Babis? “You’ve got to look into yourself. Do you know why no one does that? Because all they see inside is solitude, and that scares them. The problem is that if you don’t look inside yourself you will never be a conscious person, and you will never be able to do anything for yourself or for others. This jewel is not easy to deal with. You need courage, a great deal of courage, otherwise you can destroy everything”.

I feel the urge to ask him to explain this to me, to give me concepts and explain them with examples, but I suddenly realise that they are so clear and beautiful, that I don’t need to ask him. “Do you know what produces courage? Dreams, in other words ideas and projects that you place above yourself, that inspire and drive you. If you don’t have dreams, you can’t have courage. It is exactly the opposite of what most people think, namely that if you have courage you can try to make your dreams come true. But ideas, dreams are what make you soar”.

Someone I know might say that these are beautiful words, but that then one has to live, earn and manage money, they are all issues you are familiar with, I am sure. “Ah, do you know how often I hear all this? I don’t have needs. I have zeroed everything. If I don’t have money, I don’t buy anything, then if I do have money I buy a fedora, because beauty is important. Otherwise, never mind. People are afraid of beauty, you know. People see me dressed, not in an expensive manner, but well, and they think I am rich. They don’t understand. Anyone who says “I don’t have money, what will I do?” is someone who has abandoned himself. He is living in the dark. I know so many families who don’t have money, and I have never heard them complaining. They do everything they can, in silence, they don’t argue with anyone, they help each other, they do the best they can. They live a life of dignity. Complaining all the time is not dignified”.

That makes me appreciate how you feel about this recession … “Which is a moral, and not an economic recession. Hypocrisy, lies, illusions, that is what we had for years and years. Everyone thought they were rich, but no one knew how or why they were. We were all light miles from reality. Today you hear so many people complaining: how can I live on 500 euro? But my question is: what are you giving for that sum? What are you giving in return? If you don’t do anything at all to understand yourself, you can’t give anything back. Therefore if you are not useful to society, to others, you are a liability, a danger. This recession is useful. There was no longer any measure, no proportion. No one looked inside themselves anymore, they all looked to the exterior. What is consumerism, if not this?! Now, however, we can try to understand ourselves, as the Greeks and then the Latins used to say. If this doesn’t happen the world will not change. What can I do to smile or make others smile? People who don’t smile are danger for themselves and for others”.

It is almost impossible to continue an interview when one agrees with every single word the person you are interviewing is saying. I try counterpoising arguments, but I am not convinced and my questions seem unimportant and dull, or perhaps they really are.

“We all used to go out for dinner, restaurants, cars … do you know what I mean. All lost opportunities. Today, without money, things are better. I retired three months ago. I have never had a monthly income, this is the first time. And pensions have been halved, but I am not complaining. If you accept a process from the start, without trying to change it, you must also accept the consequences. But talking about money is pointless, and even detrimental”.

What does that mean? “That things will only change if put passion and love into our work. Enough taking, you’ve got to give. When you are somewhere, with other people, you have got to ask yourself: what am I saying, what am I doing? Why am I alive? You need passion, which is that keeps you young and vital. That is what I was saying earlier: passion creates the dream, in other words it places the idea over and above you”.

Why have we sunk so low? “We underestimate our true wealth, in other words the culture and beauty created by our ancestors. Others however placed great importance on this wealth. And so they unleashed a war to take everything away from us. While we slept in a drunken stupor, they stole the secrets of our Mediterranean model and used it to put us down. They stole everything. Their museums are filled with works of art that belong to us. If they were to return everything to us, their museums would be empty. Thank goodness our Ethos has ancient roots, and it has resisted. We are still here today and we can start again. Provided of course we do not start again from ideas, groups and parties, but from individuals. Each and every one of us can change the world. Indeed, the only one who can change the world is each of us. No democratic procedure-ideology-party-elections-government-laws can save us”.

But how can individuals become aware of this value, of this revolutionary opportunity? “Never argue, because when you do you lose valuable energy. Losing energy means losing ourselves. Not knowing ourselves means losing energy. Without psychological, existential and emotional stability, we never have enough energy, and we cannot do anything for ourselves and others. If an individual enters the space of his consciousness, the world changes”.

You need a driving force though, what is the driver that applies energy? “Pride. Doing things generates pride, and thus new energy do to more. Enough of reading books, no more words. We need to do things to trigger a virtuous circle of energy”.

And what about young people? “Young people, thank goodness, are forced to face this recession. Without it they would be finished, like the previous generations. Now however they are using their creativity to survive. And this will save them. If a university graduate looks for a job, for example, he is not worthy of his degree. He has been fortunate enough to study, so he must create jobs for others, not ask for one for himself. If he does so then he must go back to digging the earth”.

It all seems so simple, but then we have to come to terms with out limitations, what do you feel about that? “Every now and then we go home and cry. No one realises that, because no one imagines the pain of others. There is no compassion. In those moments the only thing that saves us the gratitude of others. Friendship and gratitude, those are the most important things!”.

And what about all those very many ungrateful persons out there, Babis? “They free us. They go their own way, and we are free. Their ingratitude helps us to understand the human soul. We must therefore be grateful to them. The truth is this: it is not without that ingratitude that we will resolve our problems. If we don’t know how to stand on our own two feet, if we are not emotionally self-sufficient, the problem is only ours”.