Eleni, art consultant and lecturer
Eleni is an art consultant, writer and lecturer with a remarkable past career in the museum profession. She was born in Chicago of Greek parents, but she lived and worked in Cambridge, Germany and Italy before returning to the UK in 2014. She has a PhD from New York University and speaks four languages fluently.
"Give it another generation or two and the UK will be thoroughly multi-cultural like New York. This is now a very rich and enriching environment. Much more interesting than it has ever been"
What do you consider your nationality to be?
I was born in the United States, but parents were very Greek, though my father was born in Istanbul. He came to the US as a Fullbright Fellow and returned later as a civil engineer, while my mother worked as a cancer researcher. We were ‘diasporites’ [people of the Diaspora].I left the US as a teenager to study in Greece, then came back and left again for studies in Germany, before living in Egypt, England, Germany again and Italy. Throughout the 1990’s I was Keeper of Antiquities at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, where I also taught in various faculties.
When I used to go to Greece every summer I felt as though I was going home, but then there was a point when I was returning to England, I will never forget. I was looking out of the plane’s window and it was raining and everything was green and suddenly I felt, “I’m home”. After starting a family in the England, there were no doubts about where home was.
Do you think your experience would have been the same if you stayed in your country of origin?
If I had stayed in the US I wouldn’t have had the rich international experience, but certainly I would not have had to cope with the many obstacles. I wouldn’t have had to shake the phone to make it work. I would have taken an operating infrastructure, such as computer networks, databases etc, for granted. I wouldn’t have had to do things on a shoestring the way I had to do in Europe.
How do your origins inspire your work?
I grew up as a Greek immigrant in the US and we were encouraged to work and produce amazing results. It was an immigrant mentality that governed us. Immigrants needed to work hard, and my parents put a lot of emphasis on academic success. The same was true of our neighbouring Jewish and the Polish communities.
What about the Greek influence?
Yes, we were still Greek [laughs]. You couldn’t get around that. Our friends were either Greeks or Jews. We spoke Greek, we went to Greek weddings, we ate Greek food and everything was very Greek.
Do you still sometimes feel like a foreigner in this country?
Yes and No. I’m defeated by my accent which is North American, now more Mid-Atlantic, so people say “you’re American” and I reply “well, I haven’t lived there since I was 17”. And when I was in America I was actually Greek, until I moved to New York. I feel British really, but I suppose I’m often made to feel a bit state-less.
I came to this country in 1986, married, had children, but didn’t take citizenship until I was about to leave the country to take up the position of museum director in Germany. Suddenly, it had become very important to me. You don’t think about citizenship until you really need to think about it.
Can you tell us your story as a Foreigner?
When I came to Cambridge to work at the university, there weren’t many tenured women there. I remember how fortunate I considered myself, but ten years later I gave it all up to go and work in Germany. I was headhunted in 2000 for a museum directorship. My husband was very positive and I decided to give it a try.
My children left school in Cambridge on Friday and started German school on Monday. Neither they nor my husband spoke a word of German at the time. As I watched my little daughter go off tearfully holding the hand of the teacher and looking back at me and I thought “what have I done?!”.
When did you decide to leave Germany for Italy?
Having tired of provincial north German politics, towards the end of my contract I saw that the museum of Turin was looking for a director so I applied. I was interviewed in English as I didn’t speak a word of Italian. Like the German museum, Turin was about to be privatised and I had good experience in change management. Turin’s museum foundation had 50 million Euro to renovate its Baroque palace, which was also appealing. Unfortunately, not all public components contributed their quota to the operating budget, plus I was stuck with the tariff system imposed by the government whereby everybody under-18 or over-65 was entitled to a free admission, as well as police, military and teachers, while citizens between 18-25 had a reduced tariff. So basically nobody paid museum admission. Thus, I had to generate 80% of the operating budget every year, while having to deal with the unions. I’m proud to say that within one year, I increased the visitor numbers from under 200,000 to 530,000, and I maintained over half a million visitors for all the 8 years I was there (in a city of less than 900,000 inhabitants).
What did you enjoy about living abroad?
In Germany it wasn’t easy. I was very productive though. I felt I had to work ten times harder, because people were quite hostile to the idea of a foreigner having the job. This was a provincial town with a world-class museum, where people held strong right-wing opinions. On the other hand, I joined an orchestra and I played a lot of music (cello). However, moving to Italy I had a warmer welcome. Nevertheless, I had to fight a very hard battle with the local ‘gerarchia’ [hierarchy]. The local ministry bureaucrats didn’t like the idea that they were losing control of a former state institution. Thanks to my Italian looks, I blended in more easily, and I and my children learned Italian and became ‘Italian’.
Of the three countries which one would you say was toughest to integrate?
Each country offered its difficulties. I suppose Cambridge was my first tough experience because I wasn’t Oxbridge-educated, I wasn’t English, I was ethno-American and I was a woman. So I didn’t have a lot in my favour [laughs]. But I did good work and I won the respect of my colleagues. Then Cambridge is just a beautiful place to be.
What was the first impression when you returned to the UK?
I was always getting lost. I was confused in the underground. The language had changed, people started using nouns for verbs. They were “sourcing” things, museums were being “gifted” objects. I took up a position in the National Trust, which involved a lot of travelling, and a lot of new jargon to decipher.
Did you find England more welcoming to foreigners than it used be?
Yes, absolutely. My banker was Jamaican, the manager was a Sikh and I thought “this is amazing, I don’t remember this assimilation when I last lived here”. England was becoming more like New York, similar to what I was accustomed to before I came to the UK in the 1980s. What was very refreshing was the fact that meritocracy reigned, and to me this was the most important thing.
What message would you want to share with British people who don’t know you?
Britain has internationalized itself. When my daughter went to up to university in Manchester I wasn’t very happy. I thought that Manchester would be cold and rainy and as she is ‘solare’ [sunny], I reckoned she needed to live in the south. But I went to visit her, I thought “wow, this is like being in Brooklyn!” [laughs]. The city had transformed itself into a socially integrated, dynamic and exciting place. That was not the England I had left in year 2000, but completely different. The English haven’t realized the change for the good that foreigners have brought to this country. Yes they complain about people not speaking the language well, but give it another generation or two and the UK will be thoroughly multi-cultural like New York. This is now a very rich and enriching environment. Much more interesting than it has ever been.
Anything you would like them to know about your country of origin?
At this point I would like to give up my American citizenship for the obvious reasons. I’ve never worked there, except when I was a student, and the US hasn’t been part of my reality since I was a teenager.
What are your plans for the future?
Hopefully to stay in England. This is my home. When I get old and retire I have this idea, I don’t know if this would work, of moving to Greece and maybe having a couple of goats and making my own cheese. I know this is an idyllic idea [laughs], but I am drawn to a particular place in Greece.
The words you would associate with Foreigner?
It works both ways, negative and positive.
What’s positive and what’s negative?
The negative is how foreigners are perceived by others. Naturally because I’m sort of stateless, I even gravitate towards foreigners, I feel comfortable around them. I was mortified in my last job when having to fill out some form and declare my ethnicity, I playfully asked my staff “am I ‘British Other’ or am I just ‘British’?”. Everybody said ‘Other’. For them I was ‘Other’. For me, as a British passport holder, I’m as British as you. I might not be English, but I’m British. That perception of me, as “Other” was a shock. The positive aspect of foreigners is that they enrich and render a nation multi-cultural.