BEAUTY AND THE BEAST:
A Dispatch from Athens
On April 4, 2012, during the morning rush hour in central Athens, a number of passers-by and people exiting the subway witnessed a horrifying sight. A retired 77-year-old pharmacist stood beneath a tree, put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. He took his life in the middle of Syntagma (Constitution) Square, directly across from the Greek Parliament, where most of the demonstrations and riots of the past two years have taken place. In a note he stated that he was opting for a “dignified” end. A witness quoted his last words as “I don’t want to leave any debts to my kids.” Suicides have doubled since the crisis began. Most alarming is the rise of public suicides. One of the side effects of the debt crisis is that we have, as a nation, become obsessed with interpreting what these figures mean. Predictably, there is endless speculation about the cause, not least by interested parties eager to claim yet another suicide to forward their agendas.
In the early days of the crisis people took to the streets. On some days we witnessed two or three separate demonstrations and strikes. Those were the days of reaction, rage, and revolt. The old, the young, the middle-aged, the employed and unemployed, the working class and middle class (sometimes I even caught a glimpse of the upper crust), all joined forces in protest—albeit against different imagined or real enemies: capitalism, politicians, the troika, the neoliberals, the state, the police, the rich, the media, the fascists, the communists. The 300 Members of Parliament (especially the most recognizable ones) couldn’t walk down a street without getting epithets, vegetables, eggs, and yogurt slung their way. Squatters took over Syntagma square and established a kind of commune, encouraging public discussion and decision-making processes. Eventually the commune degenerated into a kind of spectacle, a fun fair of sorts with offhand vendors/stalls appearing on the scene to sell soft drinks and souvlaki to the crowds that came to watch the proceedings and be entertained. The initiative lost its momentum and the squatters were driven out by the police. The demonstrations peaked in the summer of 2011 throughout Greece. The largest one in Athens had an estimated 500,000 protesters.
Since then, a prevailing sense of gloom has settled over Athens. The faces on the buses and trams are sad and weary. We Greeks, stereotypically impulsive and passionate, would boisterously party through difficult times in the past. Nowadays we are numb. It is disheartening to see how all those aspects of life that most appealed to Greeks, spontaneity, “kefi” (best translated as high spirits or joie de vivre), “filoxenia” (hospitality), and openly expressed emotions, have fallen victim to a general state of misery and depression. It is as if we awoke from a deep, blissful sleep, only to discover that the world as we knew it had crumbled overnight.
Back in 2008, before the crisis, life was still sweet. Of course the problems were there and they reared their ugly heads now and then but they weren’t so obvious and they certainly weren’t openly acknowledged. The political parties spoke of discrepancies and scandals but that was what they always did, blaming each other for years on end. Much like the anecdote used to animate global warming, where a frog placed in a pot of cold water that is gradually heated experiences a pleasant euphoria that prevents it from leaping out of the pot until it ends up boiling to death, Greeks were lulled into a false sense of security. Government corruption, tax evasion, and ubiquitous forms of everyday graft had become the norm, “legitimized” over a period of 40 years by the various governments (conservatives and socialists) succeeding the military junta that ended in 1974 and compounded by the unrestricted lending practices of European banks to prop up the economy, without a clear program of exit from the spiraling debts. The majority never expected the bubble to burst. We had it good—a few had it far better—but on the whole there was no sign that life as we knew it was about to drastically change.
The city is now disrupted daily by strikes: public transport and sanitation, civil services, health and education, cab drivers, even ferry boat operators. Each morning, having checked the latest news to see which services are not functioning and which demonstrations are planned in which parts of the city, my husband and I organize our schedule, figuring the best way to get to and from work, setting up childcare for our son and daughter when the playschool staff are on strike and after school pick-up when they aren’t. Our families—the traditional stronghold in Greek society—have really stepped in. The more able members—those with more resources, who are still lucky enough to have salaries and pensions (none remain intact)—support those in greater need. We also share a lot more than we used to with our friends, pooling our expenses and income. We drive less due to the high cost of gas, and many have switched to bicycles. We’re learning to use less and to use the resources we do have more wisely—economy-driven ecology. We still go out, though much less frequently and on a tighter budget, but we also hang out at each other’s homes more than we ever did.
There is no question though that the social web that was, is disintegrating. Unemployment rose from 14.8 percent to 21.8 percent within the last year. Many workers still haven’t received a paycheck in months. Shops are closing down, every second one on some streets. The middle class is shrinking. In its place, a new class, the nouveau poor, is emerging. Well-dressed, well-spoken people can be seen all over Athens asking for help, yet they are clearly ashamed of their predicament, reeling from the shock of it all. And then there are the new homeless. According to a European Commission report, homelessness rose 25 percent between 2009–2011. Forty thousand people, mainly middle-class, educated males have become superfluous in this economy, and through a chain of events that are out of their control, have found themselves living on the streets.
Like the great waves of emigration Greece experienced at the end of the 19th and the middle of the 20th centuries, many young and middle-aged Greeks are fleeing the country en masse—only this time it is the highly-educated workers that are leaving. Unemployment among the young has reached 50 percent. The lucky ones find jobs for which they have no aspiration at a monthly salary of 450. A cheap flat in Athens is around 350 per month (before the crisis it was much higher), so it is more a case of surviving, rather than living. Young Greeks, who typically receive financial support from their families well into their 30s, are awakening to an adult life with little prospect of a future. With no space to dream, they are desperate to get out.
Meanwhile, people from “third world” countries continue to flood into Greece. This immigration, which began in the 1990s, is not related to the crisis, but it does receive a lot of attention in the media—and predictably by ultra-nationalist parties that are on the rise in Greece as elsewhere in Europe—because it is seen as compounding the problems of homelessness, unemployment, and crime. Everyone who isn’t Greek is a potential scapegoat. I used to be able to walk anywhere in Athens, even at night. Now it is beset by violent crime. Every day a bank is robbed somewhere. Homes and businesses are broken into for anything that can be sold on the black market. Galleries and museums are pilfered. Worst of all is the escalation of street violence and petty theft that involves guns, something we’ve never seen on this scale before.
In addition to the bloated public sector and high rates of early receipt of pensions, a big part of what got us into this morass—systemic corruption—is only now beginning to be acknowledged, let alone dealt with. Pervasive tax evasion, the plundering of public funds, the extensive networks of bribery and falsification of financial allowances, expensive prescription frauds, etc., all on a massive scale has led to a total breakdown in public trust (which was never that high in the first place). The endless and mindless bureaucracy needed to complete even the simplest transactions forced people into finding ways to avoid or bypass the law. Everyone is implicated in daily petty legal transgressions. The average Greek has become inured to this form of corruption. In this way, he is an accomplice to the far more serious crimes that are sanctioned and driven by those in power, both politically and economically. This explains the prevailing sense of injustice, shared by a majority of Greeks who feel they have been taken advantage of and thus have the right to “take back” what is theirs. We believe we are victims.
Now that the crisis is deepening and the non-stop austerity measures imposed by the troika have become unbearable, there is a deep sense of defeat and simmering unrest. Nobody knows what will happen or where we are going. There is certainly no one people trust to lead us out of this impasse. Faith in traditional politics—let alone the two major parties that have alternated power over the past 40 years—is long gone.
The May 6 elections were proof of this. Greek voters punished the two major parties with the lowest percentages ever recorded in national elections. PASOK (the Panhellenic Socialist Movement) received a mere 13.18 percent, landing in third place, while the conservative New Democracy came in first with a humiliating 18.85 percent, failing to acquire the majority 151 seats needed to govern in the 300 seat parliament. The undisputed “winner” of the elections was Alexis Tsipras of the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) who gained an impressive 16.78 percent, based largely on his anti-austerity platform.
Based on the constitutional framework, the president then offered successive exploratory mandates to the leaders of the three largest parties, all of which failed to form a government. In fact all negotiations have since failed to produce a majority government, as larger parties attempted to form alliances with smaller ones. As this article goes to press, a caretaker government has been set up and new elections are scheduled for June 17. These elections have the character of a referendum because they are expected to point decisively towards exiting the Eurozone or not. At this stage it is difficult for us to discern what the country is most threatened by. How fresh a start is required in order for change to occur? The moment of truth is surely upon us.
Greece went to sleep with the Beauty and woke up with the Beast. But I still hope. Greece is a country with great potential. We could scrap our heavy bureaucracy that kills every positive effort in its tracks. We could build on sustainable tourism. We could export the products of our healthy Mediterranean diet. We could develop our renewable energy sources—the sun and the wind—which we have in abundance. Greece could be re-born from its ashes. We could even be the Beauty again.
—May 23, 2012.
KATERINA TRIANTAFILLOU lives in Athens with her husband and two children. She works as a fundraiser for World Wildlife Fund Greece and as a freelance journalist.