Wednesday, April 25, 2012

letter from Nafplio

Perhaps it is ironic that this week I find myself in the city of Nafplio, which was the first capital of the modern Greek state.  A city rich in monuments which reflect Greece’s multiethnic past: Byzantines, Franks, Venetians and Ottomans once ruled Nafplio and left behind a hilltop fortress, a seaside tower, Catholic and Orthodox churches, mosques and remarkable examples of neoclassical architecture.

Much of Greece’s modern history began here… during and after the Greek War of Independence. The various Greek clans banded together to oust the Ottoman occupiers and eventually succeeded. When Ioannis Kapodistrias, the first governor of the newly-formed Greek state, came to Nafplio in 1828, he was faced with stark reality: Greece was broke, factional infighting was still rampant and was hindering the formation of a unified national government, the military was disorganized, the educational system was practically nonexistent, the country was in need of a national currency, living standards were extremely poor, and as if that wasn’t enough he still had to negotiate with the Great Powers regarding the degree of independence of the Greek state….  (sound eerily familiar?)

Despite this grim reality, Kapodistrias managed to make great reformations and began to modernize the new nation. He was able to unify the military and regain territory which was formerly lost to the Ottomans, he introduced the first quarantine system in Greece which raised the level of public health by bringing epidemics under control, he founded schools (the first military school for cadets) and the first university which produced the first teachers of liberated Greece. He also introduced the first currency of the modern Greek state in 1828, the “phoenix” – named after the mythical bird and symbolizing the rebirth of a nation. However the monetary rebirth was short lived when only four years later the government printed more money without having the assets to back it and the people justly rejected the phoenix… which led to the introduction of the drachma…

Perhaps many of us don’t know that the original “Potato Movement” happened in Nafplio. The cultivation of the potato in Greece was introduced by Kapodistrias. At first, the people didn’t care for his potatoes and he feared his plan had failed. In order to win the public’s enthusiasm, he had a shipment of potatoes unloaded at Nafplio harbor, and had them guarded day and night. People began to assume that if the potatoes were being so closely guarded, that they must be of great value. Thus, Kapodistrias’ potato movement became a grand success…

But perhaps his greatest effort is what lead to his demise. Kapodistrias tried to destabilize the power of the traditional Greek clans and families which had ruled in the young nation’s recent past. He considered this type of ‘governance’ to be outdated and a product of a former time, an ineffective remnant that had no place in a new, modern, forward-looking country. Furthermore, Kapodistrias imposed customs dues on the powerful and wealthy merchant families which comprised many of the ‘clans’…  This elicited much opposition by the old political tribes, who refused to pay dues to the Kapodistrian government.

On October 9, 1831 two clansmen representing one of the most powerful family dynasties of the time, assassinated Kapodistrias. One fired a gun but missed, while the other stabbed Kapodistrias on the steps of St. Spyridon church in Nafplio.  As I stood in front of the church, looking at the bullet hole in its wall, I wondered about upcoming elections and what the future of our ‘new’ Greece will be. Who will lead this country into the next chapter of its history and in 200 years’ time, what will Greeks have to say about it? If history repeats itself, who will be brave enough to try and undermine the authority of Greece’s current political clans and families? On May 6, voters will chose among 36 political parties that will be on the ballot. Of the 36 political leaders, will we find our Kapodistrias?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

great expectations

I stood in the churchyard shivering in the cool night air, holding an unlit candle, surrounded by hundreds of people – all waiting expectantly for the priest to appear with the ‘holy light’ – the annual ritual…  I observed the scene with a detached weariness as the flame was passed from one candle to the next and a soft glow slowly spread throughout the churchyard. I felt like a bored spectator watching a play I’d already seen too many times… observing the next familiar act… The church bells started clanging, the priest’s voice crackled over the loudspeaker proclaiming ‘christos anesti’ (Christ has Risen), people kissed one another shouting ‘chronia polla’(well wishes) and then everyone rushed home to enjoy the traditional meal (soup, red eggs, sweet Easter bread)… In a few short minutes the churchyard was practically empty - perhaps only the people who really understood the true meaning of the religious celebration remained inside the church, following the service until the end.

But most of us are just ordinary people after all, and perhaps expecting great things of ordinary people is just expecting too much.

Many are already talking about what we can expect next. Recently, a prominent Chief Investment Officer who oversees an equity and bond fund with nearly €1 billion in assets, expects that Greece will leave the Eurozone in 12 months’ time.

According to a recent report from the European Commission, EC president José Manuel Barroso expects that Greece can transform itself if it adheres to reforms. He also stated that he expects Greece can generate growth and jobs and we can even expect changes by this year.

But what we expect and what actually happens are sometimes two very different things.

Former Defense Minister Akis Tsochadzopoulos probably never expected that someday he’d be arrested and accused of corruption and money laundering. But on Wednesday, April 11, we watched as the drama unfolded live on Greek TV as Tsochadzopoulos was led from his home (in one of the most prestigious neighborhoods in Athens) to police headquarters. He remained in custody until after the Easter break and on April 17 we all watched the drama continue live on TV as he was led by police to Korydallos prison. He is a founding member of the socialist PASOK party and held key ministerial posts throughout his career which spanned over 20 years. Perhaps this is a 'lamb' which some never expected to see being led to slaughter.

Many people hope the arrest isn’t just a pre-election attempt to convince the public that the government is serious about cracking down on corruption – even at the highest of levels. Who might be next on the list? Are certain politicians starting to get nervous? Is this the beginning of a new Greece where real justice can be expected? Or is this just too much to expect?

Other experts write articles stating that they expect European leaders will eventually rally to our aid and provide a great, new Marshall Plan which will guarantee our rescue.

I returned to Athens after the break and finally realized why Easter was so important this year. In this unstable, uncertain time, where we don’t know what to expect of Greece’s future, we found comfort in ritual. Even if for a brief few days, we had a great need to know what to anticipate. We found great comfort in knowing exactly what to expect – we knew how this story would play out and had a great need to believe in a crucifixion, a resurrection, a salvation, a sacrificial lamb, a celebration.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Passion Week

A bomb exploded this morning at a government office – at the Ministry of Administrative Reform – destroying the ground floor of the building as well as the cars parked out front. And so begins Holy Week 2012 in Greece.

We Greeks are a passionate people – everyone says this about us. If you see Greeks talking loudly, waving their arms, making strange gestures – no, we are not arguing, just having an animated, passionate conversation. If a Greek man shows interest in a woman, won’t leave her alone, insists on buying her a drink – no, this is not harassment; he’s just being a passionate Greek lover...

And so this being Holy Week, or “Passion Week” as it is called in Greece, I see passion everywhere. This year, everyone is feeling passionate about something.

The largest seaman’s union is passionately fighting for the revocation of the law incorporating their social insurance fund into the new national health plan. They will be passionately striking this week for two days – a move which will disrupt transportation not only for thousands of Greeks who plan on going back to their ancestral islands for the Easter holiday, but will also disrupt the transportation of goods from farmers and business-owners, causing them a significant financial loss.

A recent poll showed that 89.9% of Greeks believe that “immigrants are the cause of increased acts of violence and criminal activity” – when this same poll was taken in 2009, 74.5% of Greeks agreed with that statement. What has happened in three years, then? Are Greeks becoming more passionately opposed to immigrants?

And naturally, everyone is passionate about the recent public suicide; Dimitris Christoulas, a 77 year-old retired pharmacist, shot himself in the head in the middle of Syndagma Square last Wednesday.  His suicide note stated that he chose to end his life in a dignified manner, before he was forced to scrounge for food in the garbage… The day after the suicide, a peaceful rally in Syndagma Square turned violent and a photojournalist covering the event was seriously injured by riot police who passionately beat him repeatedly with batons.  Marios Lolos, the photojournalist, is still in the hospital, recovering from surgery and severe cranial injuries...

On Saturday afternoon, after the funeral of Dimitris Christoulas, mourners left the cemetery and took the metro to Syndagma Square, to visit the spot where Christoulas took his own life, which has become a make-shift shrine. A policeman and his colleague were on their way to work, when the mob spotted them at the Syndagma metro station. One policeman was passionately attacked by the mob of mourners and ended up in the hospital with serious head injuries. The mob also passionately robbed the policeman of his coat, bullet-proof vest and other parts of his uniform – all of which are now part of the make-shift shrine to the dead pensioner.

But perhaps the most passionate people in Greece right now are the politicians. With upcoming national elections, politicians are constantly on television – each group or party persistently bombarding us with their most passionate thoughts and opinions on “what must be done” to “save Greece” and to “save our neighborhoods” and to “save our families”…

This morning I went to my local bakery to grab something quick for breakfast. This being Holy Week, it is the most important “fasting week” of the Orthodox Lenten calendar. Meat and dairy products are strictly forbidden and the “serious fasters” even refrain from fish and olive oil.  The bakery was filled with signs saying “Lenten cookies” and “Lenten cakes” (made without eggs, butter, milk, etc)… I took my non-Lenten ham and cheese pie and went to the register to pay. Behind me stood an older, well-dressed woman. She pointed a bejeweled-ring wearing finger at me and passionately stated “this is the problem with young people today… tsk tsk.. not fasting during Holy Week!” gold bracelets passionately clanging to emphasize her disgust. I gave her a warm smile and passionately bit into my warm ham and cheese pie…

Perhaps we are all straying from the real meaning of ‘pascha’…. I believe all religions, cultures and traditions have their own ‘pascha’ – whether it’s called Easter, Passover, Nowruz  - every spring we all essentially celebrate the same thing: a triumph, a rebirth, a renewal, a reawakening… If this is the case, then why are certain questions stuck in my mind: This Easter in Greece, what triumph are we celebrating? What will renewal bring? What new realities will Greeks be reawakened to?  

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

operation clean sweep

For years, thousands of undocumented immigrants have been living in squalid conditions in central Athens. Unremarkable, ordinary neighborhoods gradually became the new ghettos of Athens. Drugs, crime, prostitution.  Last month I found myself on the fringe of one of these neighborhoods. When I first came to Athens in the early 90’s, I used to stroll carelessly in this very area - shopping, having lunch with friends.  Now, I stood at the bus stop and surveyed the scene: many empty and abandoned storefronts, desperate-looking people were everywhere, dozens of drug addicts wandered around like zombies  - some with open wounds on their arms; immigrants lined the sidewalks openly selling contraband cigarettes… I wondered why the police were gathered around in small groups, standing near each bus stop… were they guarding the people who were waiting for the bus because we were a bunch of sitting ducks? Or were they ‘guarding’ the bus stops because it was easier than patrolling sidewalks where with every step you saw people breaking the law? How can a small group of cops deal with such overwhelming unlawfulness? 

Today I was in this area again (another errand at yet another tax office) but this time, all the drug addicts were gone and mainly, all the immigrants were gone too. What happened? Well, this is Athens one month before national elections.  This week the government began “operation clean sweep” (επιχείρηση σκούπα) in central Athens. Their mission is to “clean house” – basically to round up illegal immigrants and ‘undesirables.’ Reminds me of what I did tonight when I had unexpected guests call to say they are coming over in 15 minutes:  I frantically ran all around the apartment, rushing from one room to the next, shutting away the clutter in drawers and closets, throwing my shoes behind the couch, hiding my half-eaten sandwich in the bread box, sweeping the dust under the rug.  Then my guests arrived and I served coffee in my ‘clean’ living room, feeling proud of myself because I pulled it off. However after they left, the feeling of dread quickly came back as I realized that in actuality, my house was a total mess and it would take hours to really clean it up….

Today I was also around Syndagma Square in downtown Athens, and on Ermou St (one of Athens’ main shopping streets). Usually these areas are filled with immigrant street sellers, hawking fake designer bags to costume jewelry. Today however, they were nowhere in sight. A few days ago, in my neighborhood (a suburb of Athens) I saw police patrolling the square for the first time(I’ve been in the neighborhood for over 10 years). Police in blue uniforms, army boots, guns on their belts, striding around the square as Nigerians fled down side streets, out of sight (ordinarily the Nigerians are at their usual posts in the square, selling pirated CDs and DVDs).

I wonder where all the immigrants who have been rounded up this week have been sent…. PASOK’s Citizens’ Protection Minister, Michalis Chrysochoidis, has announced that 30 ‘reception centers’ around the country will house immigrants either awaiting asylum approval or deportation. But these centers are not in operation yet. So where have all the immigrants gone? Into already over-crowded jails? What giant rug have they been swept under? A temporary solution to a very deep-rooted, serious problem.