Paradise Lost: Greece Then and Now
Anyone who is Greek and has half-an-ear open for the news has to be feeling something for the economic agony that is happening in our old country right now. As a first-generation Greek-American, I feel helpless, distressed, chagrined/ashamed, perplexed, sort of how you feel when you get the news that someone very close to you but who lives very far away gets into a fatal car crash. On the one side of the heart, you feel “Kala na pathoune” they had it coming to them. Those clever, no-work and all-play, take-it-easy grasshopper cousins of ours. They loved to have a good time; with their cushy civil servant jobs so they can stresslessly spend their lives sipping cold frappes for hours in the chic cafes. “Kalo perasaides “ (“have a good timers””) my mother calls them. When we worker ants would visit them in the summer, they’d laugh at us and call us “Amerikanakia” you know, like we were stupid for working so hard and sweating for that American dream.
But on the other side of the heart, it hurts. It hurts when I walked through Syntagma Square last June when several public unions and the universities called for a general strike. The sting of tear-gas still suffocated my throat. Car corpses charred from Molotov rockets, shop windows shattered, the red “A” anarchist graffiti on the National Bank of Greece. It hurts when you hear the land of your ancestors mocked on the international media stage enveloped in charges of corruption, mismanagement, malfeasance, fraud, incompetence, and now financial ruin.
When I had lived in Athens 15 years ago, sure there had always been strikes. A Greek national exercised his or her right to protest and strike as often if not more than his or her right to vote. “Apergia” was the magic word that’d be called to get attention for the slightest injustice, to voice dissatisfaction at the general way things were. Never get between a worker and his or her right not to work. There would be a strike called for anything by anyone at the drop of a drachma. “What happened to the electiko “ the electricity”? (I’d ask my aunt when the light bulbs flickered and went out during the early evening”?) “Tipota, apergia.” (Nothing, strike). If the kids didn’t have enough books to write on, “apergia.” I remember while living there that the entire city of Athens was deadlocked in the grips of a universal transit strike that lasted not one day, not two or three, not one week even, but two TWO entire weeks. When the bus, trolley, train, taxi systems all announced “apergia” the army trucks had to be called out. I still have the memory of that poor “giagia” in her black kerchief and knee-his getting a boost by a young soldier up a twine ladder into the back of a khaki army truck.
But this time it was different. I had never seen demonstrations with such urgency in people’s faces. Before the apergia was called as a relief; now it was called as a state of emergency. Before, protests had a sense of inconvenience about them of a national kvetching natural to a nation that complained even when things were going well. They might even be, well, fun. You never knew if you would wind up to work on any given day. That period of the great transport strike, it was so difficult to commute to downtown Athens, I’d call in sick. But the university’s secretary was never there to take the message; she couldn’t make it to work; neither did my students. We all found our way to the local café and talked about the national shame of the country around the strong but bitter Greek coffee.
“My poor country, Kaimeni patrida” my mother kept crying as we watched news of protest police bulldozing young protestors. “It was such a beautiful country! Now it’s lost, it’s lost.” This time Greece is not the devil-may-care, drink-your-troubles away eagle dance at the end of Zorba the Greek that Anthony Quinn dances. There is a sense of paradise lost.
When Greece was still under the drachma, perhaps things didn’t function as smoothly and sophisticatedly as under the aegis of the Euro, but there was something quintessentially Hellenic about it. Yes, it took two years for my application for a new phone line for my flat to come through. Yes, the washing machine service man would say he’d come on Tuesday morning and he’d call Thursday saying he couldn’t make it. Yes, there was grand chaos in the underdeveloped infrastructure. (My first impression of Greece during a summer vacation in the mid-1980s was of a stray German shepherd that was walking through the tarmac of the airport in Glyfada.) Yes, I had not received a paycheck for three months of teaching freshman English at a private “American” university because as I found out later, the president was using the teacher’s salaries to pay off debts from his failed newspaper business. tBut for the couple of years I lived there, people were happy and carefree. They didn’t make much, but they wound up living freer lives. Greeks notorious night owls and money-burners for spending money in restaurants, cafes, movie halls, beach clubs, and dance halls. Athens must have the most cafes per square foot of ground besides Paris. I remember coming back from a coffee break in Kolonaki surprised to find the Ethniki, the national highway, was deadlocked in bumper-to-bumper traffic even at 3 am. Other coffee-drinkers had been coming back from their soires too. I would spend hours sipping on a frothy Frappe in one of the bumper-to-bumper cafes lining the sidewalks Kolonaki Square with silver coffee tables engaged in the perennial conversation: the supremacy of the capitalistic work ethic vs the Greek “work to live, but never more than you have to” ideal.
The Greeks were infinitely proud of this Greek way in contrast to what they considered the foolish American way. Greeks would look down on the “Amerikanakia” the derogative form of Americans, those pathetic slaves of the capitalistic superculture, the cogs in the wheels, brainwashed into thinking their good work and accolades for the “corporation” spoke more for their merits, stuck in their golden cages. Their way, they felt was superior. “The object of the game is to make enough so you don’t have to work,” the retired lawyer my coffee companion said, “ You Americans don’t know how to live. If you stopped working, you wouldn’t know what to do with yourselves.” When I asked an ex-pat I had met who was running a café/sandwich shop on a Cycladic Island what she had done during the winter, she blurted, “Done? I did nothing. I just lived. I just was. I am just being. Why do we have to do anything to feel that we are alive?” She had escaped to an idyllic Greek island to escape the rat race and the stress of the big cities in both America and Northern Europe. Back in those days, you could actually find people like this in Greece; they would actually flock there for this reason. Greece was the anti-capitalist, antidote to the work ethic. In Greece it was acceptable to do nothing (or close to nothing) and get away with it and most importantly not to feel guilty about not doing anything.
Greece was so un-American in its ways of thinking. While Western/European in its aesthetic and culture, it was Eastern in its philosophy. Greeks were content in just being, living in the now, not thinking about the long-term, not calculating, or organizing but living for the day. They had no qualms about blowing several thousand drachmas on a good party breaking plates and dousing good wine to capture that “kefi , that term to describe the mood of feeling good in the moment, the high of living. What with vibrant tourism, great sun and cerulean beaches, it was possible back then to experience the glory of a good time in Greece. My youth I spent belly dancing on bar tables in the early glow of sun’s rise in so many of those sun-fun islands.
When I visited Greece in 2004 several years after it had made the Euro transition, in the limelight of the Olympic Games, it had turned more European and less Hellenic. The Metro had been transformed into a slick, chic silently-sliding system of digital plaques announcing the minutes of the next arriving train. The pot-hole ridden Ethniki ribboned into a neat loop of ring roads and upper and underpasses in neat bow ties. There were even blue-and-white destination signs now, and fancy road-side rest stops. The dink local bakaliko (good-for-all grocery store with dried beans in burlap bags smelling of mountain tea, salted cod, and wild oregano) had been replaced by a three-story super-antiseptic supermarket with spanking white aisles and sliver shelves that glittered stacked with a ziggurat arrangement of Evian water. Even the airport had been transported and had received a face lift and tummy tuck with lipo. The new Eleftherios Venizelos rivaled the boutique airports of other European destinations what with glass-enveloped structures and avant-garde beams.
But things had gotten a lot more expensive too. A kilo of lemons I remembered buying at the traveling open-air fresh food market, the laiki, for 250 drachmas spiked to 3 euros a kilo (from say 75 cents a pound to 2.50 a pound). The Metro ticket soared from 150 drachmas to 1.5 euros. A frappe once 500 drachmas at an upscale kafeneo became an astronomical $7 or 5 euros. The salaries had not increased to keep up with these costs. I wonder if I could afford to live in my own country on a teacher’s salary.
Now it seems the days of wine and roses are lost forever and with them the Greek way. Like the grasshopper in the fable, the winter of economic reality has caught up with it. The American way, albeit in the form of the European Union, has eclipsed it. The grasshopper’s ways of overspending, not keeping account of the granary, and dawdling away the days of fat in the summer spell an almost certain scepter of death in the coming winter. Frankly, while they had it coming to them, the Greeks and their fun-loving ways are doomed, and this is very sad.
It is sad because a people free in spirit will suffer economic serfdom even slavery for years. Even with this second gargantuan bailout of 170 billion, there is no guarantee that the country will ever be able to pay back what’s owed. Even if taking these bailouts is preferable to bankruptcy, the country is damned if it does and damned if it don’t. Greece has become the sacrificial lamb on the chopping block to bleed for some greater European Union. It will become like some Puerto Rican colony, a cheap, year-round tourist destination like the Club Med type into which Greeks will never be admitted only as wait-staff and shoe-shiners. It is sad because whole generations of young people will have to make mass exodus to other nations to be able to afford to live in their country. It is sad because the middle class feels it’s been sold out by its so-called democratically elected elitist government. Democracy is dead in its cradle. And with it dies an entire civilization and way of living.
“Krimas, (What a shame!”) my aging mother born at the foot of the Acropolis just at the start of World War II exclaims. “The Germans weren’t able to defeat us in the war with arms, but now they have taken us without any force. They have always wanted Greece. They have waged an economic war and have taken us over. We’ve lost the country.”
I keep hoping that there might still be a happy ending to all of this. I keep wishing that the economic fiasco in Greece might turn out like the short story by Guy de Mauppaussant I read in the 7th grade. It’s called “The Necklace”, and in it a middle-class housewife with airs of superiority and aristocracy borrows a jewel-encrusted necklace from a jeweler in order to fit in with the high society at an exclusive ball. While dancing away, she loses the necklace. In order to pay it back, she goes from comfortably middle class to rag poor. Her husband has to work two jobs, she cuts eating meat, she has to sell even the little jewelry that she had. She loses her arrogance and her pride as she is plunged into years of paying off the debt. Then in the end, emaciated, humbled, and exhausted, she learns from the neighbor she casually bumps into one day that the necklace was not real, it was a fake. She had learned a good lesson though and had developed her character. I keep hoping this is the moral of the story for Greece.