Monday, May 21, 2012

This is (new) Greece…

For a few hours a day, I feel the need to escape. I turn off the TV, the laptop, my phones - I try to shut the world out. I go to the gym and for a few hours I don’t think about anything. I always walk through a large park on my way to the gym. The park is clean, well-maintained, is filled with shady trees and green grass, there are children laughing on the playground, people jogging, there is a small outdoor theater where various performances are held during the summer. For me, this park was always a kind of haven, and now more than ever, it has become a refuge for everyone seeking a break from reality. I often visit the park on Sundays, (when it is especially packed) and sit on the grass in the shade with my Sunday paper, enjoying the spring weather and the pleasant surroundings.  

Earlier in the year, when I joined the gym and met the staff, they asked me about my background. When I told them that I am Greek-American they only had one question for me: why are you still here? In a half-joking manner they commented that now when so many people are trying to get out of Greece and find opportunities in other countries, you remain here instead…

Almost 20 years ago, when I first came to Greece, Greeks would ask me many questions. Which country do you love better – Greece or America? Where do you prefer to live? Do you feel more Greek or more American? I knew what people wanted to hear – that I love Greece the most, that I can’t imagine living anywhere else, that I most identify with my Greek side. However, people were mostly puzzled by my replies (I love both countries, I feel like I live between two countries, I feel both Greek and American.) Many times people would persist and try to elicit the answers they wanted to hear. What they were really getting at was where does your allegiance lie? Perhaps they wanted me to say that I chose Greece over America, so as to reinforce or justify their own feelings about their own choices.

As Greek immigrants in America my parents were accepted, they were welcomed and respected; they worked hard and gained much. As the child of immigrants I too was accepted, was never made to feel like I did not belong; I had the same opportunities as everyone else. Being raised in a Greek home, I learned about our heritage and when I got older and started to visit Greece as a student, I studied Greek history, literature, and I even fell in love with Athens itself.

Perhaps being from two countries is like having two great loves - you can never forget either one, never give your heart to only one, you are always missing the one you are not with.

Throughout the years, my American friends saw my life in Greece as something to envy – with my weekend trips to the Greek islands, and my various jobs with interesting businesses and organizations… As much as I tried to explain that life sometimes becomes routine wherever you live, to them, I had an exciting, exotic Greek life.

And now, so many years later, Greeks are asking me very different questions, mainly: why are you still here? My American friends ask the same question: why are you still there? However, I don’t want to answer this question. I can’t answer this question.

After the gym one day, I walked through the park again on my way home. It was mid-afternoon, a very quiet time in the park, the playgrounds are empty and most of the joggers and walkers had gone home… I walked through the center of the almost-empty park, and was pleasantly surprised to see a small group of Pakistanis playing a game of cricket. This is not an unfamiliar sight in many downtown areas of Athens where empty lots are used for makeshift cricket fields. However, I had never seen cricket being played anywhere else, and it was the first time I was seeing it in this park. Cricket is similar to baseball and the kid inside me wanted to run and join the game, and have a turn at bat.

They looked like they were having so much fun – running, laughing and joking with one another – I couldn’t understand what they were saying but I didn’t need to understand their words to know how they felt at that moment. There was a small snack bar nearby and a few people sat there, lingering over their coffees, watching the cricket game with interest. To avoid walking through the cricket field, I walked off to the side, and as I passed the game, unfortunately my adult brain overtook the kid inside me and instead of joining the game, I just offered a shy smile and kept walking.

But before I left, I too turned to linger and watch as the batter swung and hit the ball, sending the others running after it. An elderly man approached the center of the field and when the players returned with the ball, the happy expressions on their faces suddenly changed. The laughing and joking stopped abruptly as they gathered around and the elderly man spoke to them, pointing and gesturing. I was too far away to hear what he was saying but I didn’t need to hear his words to understand what was going on. It was the first and last time I saw a cricket game in this park.

A few days ago, after returning from my ‘escape’ to the park and gym, I turned everything back on - the TV, the cell phone, the laptop. Back to reality. I read about Niko Ago, an Albanian journalist who has been living and working in Athens for 20 years. On Thursday, May 17, Greek authorities notified him that he faces deportation within 30 days because back in 2007-8, he did not work enough hours, which were required to renew his residence permit. However, at the time, his lack of working hours were due to a serious health problem.

I also read about a 78-year-old retired Dutch man who has been living near Monemvasia (in the southern Peloponnese) for almost 20 years. According to a police statement, on Tuesday, May 15 police arrested two local men who are suspected of attacking the 78-year-old man as he walked his dog along the beach. The two men drove up and asked the Dutch man if he was German and when he told them he was Dutch, they physically attacked him, breaking his jaw. They shouted “this is Greece” during the attack.

My cell phone started ringing; the voices from the talking heads on TV got louder as all the speakers begin to shout over each other; outside a gypsy truck drove past and the driver announces through his crackling loudspeaker that he collects all kinds of junk… and I am again lost in a cacophonous world… a new reality, a new Greece.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

in limbo

And so here we are. It is the seventh day after national elections and we still don’t have a government.

This week political party leaders held a series of meetings with one another, trying to figure out if they could piece together a government which would complete the parliamentary puzzle. And it seems like today’s last-ditch efforts to form a coalition government has also failed. The probable result of this week’s political wrangling is new elections in June, and until then, a caretaker government.

The election results produced new realities – Pasok, the established party which dominated Greek politics since the 1980’s, came in third with 13%. Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left), a party which was only founded about 10 years ago, was second, with 17%. Main opposition party New Democracy, was first with 19% of the votes. The most distressing election result was the 7% that neo-Nazi Chrisi Avgi (Golden Dawn) gained, which would give them 21 seats in parliament if a government was formed.

So for the time being, we sit in limbo and we wait.

The world keeps spinning I suppose, and on the surface everyone is going about their usual day-to-day routines. From a distance, everything seems to be functioning as usual. But if you look a little closer, you notice that things are, in fact, really quite… different.

On Wednesday, May 9, police mistook a visiting professor from India, Dr Shailendra Kumar Rai, for an illegal immigrant and arrested him. He was taken to the police station and detained. Dr Rai is a visiting lecturer at the Athens University of Economics and Business. He has been teaching here for six weeks and will conclude his classes at the end of June. On Wednesday, when he stepped out of his office (without his passport) police stopped him for an identity check. Dr Rai was interviewed for today’s Sunday Vima (newspaper) and describes the incident in his own words:

It is their [the police] duty to uphold the country’s law and order. To do this, they can stop anyone they want, at any time, to check their identity and inspect them. Therefore I was stopped by police and it was found that I did not have my passport with me. I had just left the university building and had forgotten my passport in my office. In any case, a few minutes after they stopped me, some professors and administrators from the Dean’s office came out and spoke with the authorities, to confirm my identity and my relationship to the university. But then I was really surprised when I realized that the police were not willing to listen to my university colleagues, and the result was my arrest. That’s what was shocking to me. It was my first bad experience in Athens….

The article also says that the dean himself, Konstantinos Gatsios, had to intervene in order for Dr Rai to be released from the police station.

As the week dragged on, each day brought news of yet another impasse and by Friday everyone was getting increasingly skeptical, confused, angry, scared, annoyed, distrustful, charged, restless…

A stroll around the square in my neighborhood late afternoon on Friday was an odd experience. I’ve never seen the square so full of people. All of the outdoor cafes were packed – not an empty seat could be found; the pedestrian walkways were over-crowded; people sat on benches or stood around in groups; in one area a small cluster of teenagers had gathered and were playing guitars and singing; a homeless man with a goofy smile was stretched out on a patch of grass, barefoot and propped up on his side observing the scene; some of the political parties still had their pre-election kiosks up and people were gathered there, sitting around and talking. There was an electric buzz in the air. You could feel it.

I don’t think it was the warm weather that brought everyone out of their apartment buildings for a cool afternoon stroll; I think we all had a need to get out and talk to people instead of being cooped up inside watching endless debates and listening to talking heads on TV… It’s as if all the people in the square were anticipating something but we didn’t know what… so we stood around, sat around, strolled around and waited… in limbo.

On Saturday night while sitting in my living room with the balcony doors slightly open, I heard the distant sounds of a crowd approaching and car horns honking… I figured it was just the fans of a local soccer team who often take victory laps through the streets when their team wins a big match. I’m not much of a sports fan so I was not aware of any big games that might have been happening that evening. But as the noise got louder, it didn’t sound like the usual celebratory cheering – I could hear chanting.

I stood on the balcony and watched as about 100 people carrying large banners and signs walked up the main street towards the square (traffic piled up behind them) – they had megaphones and shouted anti-fascist slogans: “Golden Dawn is not a political party, they are neo-Nazis”, “no Nazis in our parliament”, “rid the fascists from our neighborhoods”…

I watched as the group headed towards the square, with two lines of riot police escorting them on either side of the street. A little while later, the small mobile rally returned – they must have walked around the entire square and were on their way to another destination. They passed on the opposite side of the main street, riot police in tow, with a bunch of excited little kids trailing behind them. The blocked traffic eventually started moving, the honking horns ceased and the group exited as strangely as they had appeared.

After a rather surreal week, I feel almost speechless, and so I must borrow the words of one of my favorite Jimmy Cliff songs, and leave you with these thoughts:

Sitting here in limbo, but I know it won't be long
Sitting here in limbo, like a bird without a song
Sitting here in limbo, waiting for the dice to roll
Sitting here in limbo, got some time to search my soul

Sitting here in limbo waiting for the tide to flow
Sitting here in limbo knowing that I have to go…

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

May Day, mayday…

It is my favorite hour of the day when the late afternoon sun emits a wondrous glow on everything. The light is slowly fading, casting a soft gleam on the apartment buildings across the way, transforming their dinginess into brightness. A wandering musician on the street passes, he plays ‘Bésame Mucho’on his accordion. Today is May Day in Greece. I sit in my living room, the balcony doors open, the sounds of the neighborhood wafting past the fluttering curtains… The spring breeze feels good.

May Day…

It’s a public holiday – a day off for mostly everyone and many of those who have to work strike in protest anyway. Today the two main unions held rallies in downtown Athens which were mostly peaceful with only minor scuffles. The ferry workers are on strike, much to the dismay of weary Athenians who were looking forward to a short getaway to nearby islands. The national railway is on strike, so those hoping to leave Athens by train were grounded too. Workers in the food service and in the tourist sector are on strike, possibly effecting services at airports, hotels and tourist-related businesses. I stayed home today. Even if I wanted to go somewhere, I wondered if it was worth the hassle of either being stuck in traffic or stuck in a crowded taverna or a noisy café. So here I sit instead, listening to a young family on the street outside, the wheels of the stroller clacking over the bumpy sidewalk as the mother sings a popular kiddie song…

May Day…
Everything is rather quiet in my neighborhood today. Those who managed to leave Athens for a brief trip to the countryside or seaside must still be gone. It’s unusually quiet; the traffic noise is noticeably reduced. I can even hear birds chirping as the sun fades and my TV produces a faint glow in the dimming room.

The news is on and the faces of the men and women representing all of the major political parties parade across the screen. They are all touring the country, trying to win over the voters, getting out their May Day messages: Pasok’s Evangelos Venizelos ensures that “The country is becoming reliable again. Greek and foreign investors can trust us”… I wonder if Mr. Venizelos would choose to say this at, for example, an international event, with European leaders and bankers sitting in the audience.

New Democracy’s Antonis Samaras states that only ND can move the country past this crisis and that “illegal immigration in Greece threatens the Schengen Treaty itself and if we don’t stop them, if we don’t expel them ourselves, Greece will soon become isolated from the rest of Europe”… In other recent statements, Mr. Samaras has condemned far-right party Chrisi Avgi (Golden Dawn), as neo-Nazis and “enemies of the country” – how is this possible when Mr. Samaras shares the same view as Chrisi Avgi, which also says they want to expel immigrants?

The sun has gone down and the room is dark. It’s so quiet outside. All I can hear is the footsteps of the occasional passer-by on the sidewalk. The glow from the TV casts flickering shadows on the wall as the political face parade continues…
KKE’s Aleka Papariga (communist party) warns that “(after elections) the only thing that any newly-formed government will succeed in, is to spread disappointment and anger among the people”… Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras (Coalition of the Radical Left)  reminds us that today is a day of remembering past conflicts and battles, “it is a day which reminds us that the path of humankind and history was written by workers’ struggles - civil disobedience… by those executed by Nazis… etc… With struggles, with blood and sacrifice the people managed to change history”…. Is Mr. Tsipras suggesting that using violence is the only way to achieve change?

LAOS’ Giorgos Karatzaferis (Popular Orthodox Rally) reminded voters that today is not only a worker’s day, but an opportunity to offer a gesture of love, “a rose to all the women, to those who are here today in this honorable and good struggle, and to women all over the world. Without women, we wouldn’t be able to do anything in this world. Women were always protagonists, everywhere.” He went on to say that just moving immigrants from inner-city Athens to outer-lying detention centers only moves the problem from one area to another. “There is only one solution: For them to leave. And they will leave the day after we win the election and are in power”….
What about the female immigrants, then? Will Mr. Karatzaferis hand them a rose before he kicks them out of Greece?

mayday… mayday…

The TV screen is showing the central train station in Athens, with its motionless trains and empty platforms. The picture changes and shows the port of Piraeus, giant white ships lined up around the harbor, immobile.

I turn off the TV and the room is plunged into darkness, the only light coming from my laptop. Outside it’s black and still. I can hear a dog barking in the distance, like a faraway distress signal.