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Columns

Gods abandoning Greece

Monday 6 July 2015

The Gods Abandon Greece

 

“When suddenly, at midnight, you hear/an invisible procession going by/…don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,/work gone wrong, your plans/all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly./As one long prepared, and graced with courage,/… say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.” (Konstantinos Kavafys, Greek poet)

 

This is the story of my mother and myself. It is also is that of most Greeks. Our stories of who we and our families are, inevitably encapsulate the story of Greece—the circumstances, manipulation by great powers, corruption of Greek elites, and the internal discord that led to Greece now slipping to devolution, soon to be oblivion.

Everyone is a Greekologist at the moment. Still, the buzz is ending—and it’s long overdue I suppose. The world will move on to other things, other crises, other interests. We the Greeks will be remembered either as heroic victims (who did not pay their taxes) or as profilgate, arrogant madmen (who did not pay their taxes.) As Leonard Cohen says, there is truth that lives and truth that dies, and how my motherland and nation will be remembered, will shape whatever future it may have. So I am writing to preserve the truth I have known all my life.

On Sunday night, my mother and I watched the Greek referendum results, thousands of miles away from each other. On a bad Google hangouts connection (wifi is sketchy now in Athens) we were alone together, silenced by despair. Earlier in the day, my mother had, with trepidation, left the apartment to cast her “Yes” vote. Yes, to remaining in the eurozone. Even so, she was torn. Many of those responsible for getting the country in this situation were proponents of the “Yes” vote. Many of those rooting for “No” were anti-Syriza, yet the hits they had taken for far too long, blurred the lines between fighting and fatalism.

The only child of a single mother, I was born in a country where, even in 1980, the mother had no right over her child. My mother worked day and night, as an interpreter and guide (it was the only way she could be paid in dollars and not drachmas), in order to send me to an American school. To this day, the sight of dollars generates awe, fear and longing in me.

My American education came at a heavy price though, for my mother. Although licensed by the Greek state, travel guides were not recognized as a profession by social security until the ‘90s. This meant that when my mother retired after almost 45 years, all she received was a 300 euro pension—the kind the EU wants to further cut, making no distinction between high and low pensions, and no consideration as to the current age of the pensioner, as well as the age when he/she received the pension. European… thoughtlessness has made Greeks suffer for many generations.

In 1923, in Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey) my mother’s father, Spyros, returned from his American school one afternoon to find his family slaughtered by Turkish troops. He watched people he knew, killing and being killed as the French and British looked on from their ships in the harbor. 

My grandfather, my mother's father, managed to escape to the Greek mainland. During the Nazi Occupation of Athens (especially brutal because when Greece was asked to capitulate, the national response "OXI" was so overwhelming it forced the dictator, Metaxas, to adhere to public emotion--and that led the Nazis to decide to make Greece an example of what happens to those who resist), my grandfather, like many middle-class people, he worked in an office by day, and by night fought with the Resistance. Like many Greeks, he used all the family savings to buy milk and eggs for the women and children starving in the streets. The milk and eggs were provided by the black-marketeers—a small group, some of whom, after the war, used their riches to become ship owners and industrialists. Now, they have decamped to London and Geneva.

My mother followed in her father’s footsteps. In 1967 the Greek Junta seized power. It was a Colonels' dictatorship supported by the CIA (thereby engendering an anti-establishment conspiracist sentiment in the Greek people that lingered for decades, adequately manipulated by politicians, from the center to the extreme left.) My mother left her well-paid job as flight attendant at Onassis’s airlines “Olympiaki” so she could become part of the Resistance, and the subsequent movement to constitutionally get rid of the German-imposed king. 

A few years after the Junta fell and the dethroned king fled, Greece came under the governance of PASOK, a center-left party founded by Andreas Papandreou, an American-trained economist, son of a former Prime Minister of Greece. The incipient democracy easily fell prey to his demagogery. “The EU and NATO are the same syndicate” and “Banish the US military bases (in Glyfada, Athens) because they kill people” were slogans he launched, fermenting anti-western sentiment in the nation. “The poor will become rich” was another. His charisma made him a demi-god in the eyes of half of the Greek public—the half he rained (the then, seemingly endless) EU subsidies on. His crony socialism created a new class of nouveaux riches, while creating an atmosphere of natural entitlement and discord among those who benefited and those who did not. For me, it practically meant that my mother and I could not afford to take a holiday, and—adding injury to insult—doughnuts, bubble gum, and American books were hard to get by and cost a fortune. 

My mother just worked and worked, taking care of me and my grandmother. When the Junta fell, she, together with some of her companions, watched people who at best tolerated, at worst collaborated with the Junta, receive a "resistance bonuses" (like a pension, regardless of age). It was one more event that created a rift in my people that endures to this day, through other guises.

After the restoration of democracy to Greece, my mother shied away from politics in disgust. Like most Greeks, she always hoped someone incorruptible and effective would come to power “some day”; like all Greeks, she never expected that to happen. Still, she never ceased hoping, not even after my grandmother passed away in a public hospital where, like all public hospitals, life and death was largely determined by what politician you knew, in addition to the size of the daily bribes the (underpaid) doctors and nurses received.

While studying Law, at 18, I became a foreign affairs reporter. 

I felt the limitations of my country and language, yet could not conceive of a life elsewhere. Besides, Greece was on the rise. In 2001, five years since Andreas Papandreou passed away, in London, in the arms of his decades younger spouse, known for her love of luxury real estate, psychics, and soft-porn selfies, Greece acceded to the Eurozone. In 2004 Athens hosted the Olympic Games with phenomenal success. Greek banks, as well as the Greek welfare system, grandiosely funneled money to all the Balkans, even Turkey. Greece was dreaming big dreams. 

Yet the country’s foundations were sinking. Papandreou’s successor, the correct yet pusillanimous Kostas Simitis succeeded in his endeavor for Greece to accede to the eurozone. Still. Many of the elites close to the government allegedly made billions during the final depreciation of the drachma, on the eve of the entrance to the eurozone. This set the tone for what was to follow. Everything was a business, and all business was black. It is telling that during the years that followed, all over  Greece, not just Athens, myriads of bouzoukia centers (something between a concert venue and a club) opened. In even the seediest bouzoukia, millions of euros were consumed each night in grand reserve champagnes, thousand-dollar whiskeys, flowers to rain on the performers who sang old rebetika songs of Greek expatriation and pain-nostos and ponos. European companies, like the German Siemens, were among the protagonists in this nexus of corruption. 

Greek life entails taking the incredible (and not in the surreal Chagall way) into stride. In 2006 a major scandal erupted involving Greek monks and the government of Kostas Karamanlis. The epicenter of this conspiracy was a monastery in Mount Athos, a peninsula in northern Greece where entry is prohibited to all females—from women to cats. The Russian President, Vladimir Putin frequently sojourns there.

The Greek people lost all trust in church and state. Despair started overtaking us. Overwhelmed by all that terrible and wonderful complicatedness with our roots that we never get over, some people forgot how to forgive; others forgave too much. Every line that was drawn soon became a bad mad farce...and then a gap.

On December 6th 2008, a 15-year-old Greek student, Alexandros Grigoropoulos was killed by two policemen in the anarchist ghetto of Exarcheia. The boy’s death resulted in large protests and demonstrations, which escalated to widespread rioting. The extreme left (Syriza, and its more extreme siblings) started rising in popularity.

On May 5th 2010, swarms of black-hooded, masked anarchists overtook a massive anti-austerity demonstration in Athens. One of the many gasoline bombs they threw, set fire to a bank building. Three people died, trapped in the burning building. One was a young pregnant woman. The divide between "us" and "them" started growing. For some, "them" were the anarchists; for others, "them" were the Europeans, as moral instigators. 

Like many middle-class, moderate Greeks, I started feeling an outsider in my own country.

Things got worse, even worse, then plateaued. We paid inordinate taxes; our property devalued; private sector salaries were cut mercilessly; even Greek yogurt became pricier than anywhere else. Banks that had served as vehicles to enrich to the already very rich, were bailed out by the state. "Good" banks were saddled with the rising public debt. The “blue chip” bank stocks the “little people” had sacrificed generations of savings to buy, turned to ashes. The loans the middle-class economy had relied on, stopped. Big companies downsized. Small ones closed. We all lost someone we knew to suicide. The escalating price of electricity made summers fatal for the vulnerable and old who could not afford to use their air conditioners. Throughout the winters Athens was covered the fog of pollution generated by people burning anything they could lay their hands on to stay warm. My mother with her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease could not breathe. Even so—or maybe, exactly because of the diverse hits nearly everyone was taking—we expected that things would get better, soon. 

In 2012, I abandoned all I knew and with astonishing naivete, came to New York, telling myself and everyone else, the timeless immigrant tale: it’s just for a bit; I’ll be back. The gods laugh at the plans people make, we say in Greek. 

The other day, right in the middle of Greece’s devolution, my mother’s time here was up, she had to return. Permanent resident status cannot be extended to mothers. Only to husbands and kids (even though I have neither). At the airport I cried. 

In Athens now, crime is rife, the supermarkets are cleaned out. No one knows what is yet to come. It is a world that my elderly mother will have to navigate entirely on her own. This endeavor becomes even harder without a pension, and no access to medicince for her very serious lung condition.

“What can we do?” I asked her helplessly over the Internet.

“Go on” she says. “What can we do? My one joy is that you are in New York. Because our home, is no longer home. It is nowhere any more.”


 
My beloved terrorist
Published by: LIVANIS
First printing: 2001
Pages: 403
Hellenists: Greece does not wound them
Published by: LIVANIS
First printing: 1999
Pages: 314
 
 

 

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