Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Two knights?

Saturday night...

A few days ago, on June 16, I was on my way home, walking through the square. The unbearable heat of the past few days had eased up and a strange, wild wind whipped through the air – violently shaking the tree branches and causing the awnings on the buildings to snap furiously, their metal parts clanging….
It was the day before the election and the square was buzzing. Crowded, loud, cafes full – enormous screens were set up everywhere, in place for the Big Game - the Euro2012 soccer tournament. I realized that was the real reason behind the ‘buzz’… Down to the wire, Greece needed to beat Russia (against the odds) in order to advance to the quarter-finals.  Not being much of a sports fan, I went about my business, rather oblivious to the sense of growing anticipation over the game.
Personally, I was more excited when I came across a book swap, set up by a group whose leaflet said: “people come before money” - “democracy now! everywhere and instantly!” - “solidarity is our weapon and active participation is our future!” The group regularly meets on Sundays in Syndagma Square and holds a ‘book and goods swap’… Although it was the first time they held the swap in my neighborhood, initiatives like this are becoming more and more common as people have less and less money to spend on “luxuries” such as books. So at the book swap, I traded three books in English (mindless, mass-market paperbacks which I never got around to reading) for three books in Greek: an old, musty, moth-eaten edition of Tolstoy’s The Cossacks, a novel published in 1863 about an aristocrat who joins the army and is sent to a village to fight in the Caucasian War – the book explores themes like the purpose of life, the nature of happiness, and the interaction of social classes;  the second book was a book of poetry by Kostas Karyotakis  - an influential poet of the 1920’s who committed suicide in 1928, while working in the northern Greek town of Preveza. He was a lawyer for the state, deployed to dole out land donations to refugees of the Asia Minor War of 1922… before his suicide, his last poem reflected the misery and loss he witnessed and experienced while working in the town; and lastly, I got an old book about the island of Kastellorizo, which is Greece’s easternmost island, only 2 kilometers away from the Turkish coast.  
I left the noisy, bustling square and walked along my quiet street - eager to get home and inspect my loot. As my key turned in the lock, I heard the sudden sound of a crowd erupting into cheers – a roar of primal triumphant noise. We had scored a goal. Sports fans from the surrounding balconies filled the neighborhood with their joyful cheering. I was glad. I wanted us to win. Later on, while I was half asleep on the couch, I heard another eruption of sheer joy – but this was prolonged and was quickly accompanied by the sound of car horns honking. This signaled that the game was over and we had won.
The captain of the Greek national soccer team, Giorgos Karagounis, had scored the only goal early in the game, and his winning goal made him Greece’s new knight in shining armor. From my balcony, I watched the victory party in my neighborhood – cars drove through the streets – people hanging out the windows or standing up through the sunroof, waving flags, blaring music, beeping horns, hooting and whooping it up. I fell asleep after midnight to the sound of honking horns, screaming fans and roaring winds… I was happy that Greece was at last victorious… at something.

Sunday night...
The world seemed to be waiting for the outcome of Greek elections with baited breath, but over here the sense of urgency was not felt. Whatever the election results would be, Greece’s immediate future will not be bright – this much has been understood and digested. When a dark cloud is hanging over your head, you eventually get to the point where it doesn’t really matter if the storm will bring light rain or heavy sleet. You know you will have to endure the storm – and whatever it will inevitably bring.  
Sunday night we gathered around the TV to watch the results of the first exit polls. It was like a déjà vu of May 6 elections. And the question still remains: will the politicians be able to cooperate and form a coalition government?
I stayed up late watching TV - all the channels were showing another victory. Antonis Samaras was at Zappeion, where he always goes to make his speeches and proclamations. Zappeion is a neoclassical building in the center of Athens, designed by Danish architect Theofil Hansen. The building was dedicated in 1888, and was originally built in preparation for the revival of the modern Olympic Games in Athens, held in 1896. The building has a long history, and among other things, was once used as a hospital; during World War II it was occupied by the Germans and used as a barracks. Today the building is mainly used for ceremonial purposes, private conferences and events. The signing of the documents which ratified Greece’s accession to the EU in 1981 took place at Zappeion.

And so from this historical place, Antonis Samaras held a press conference and made his ‘victory speech’ on Sunday night. Journalists clambered to snap photos and get sound bites. His speech was serious; his people stood behind him with their arms solemnly folded in front of them, as to visually emphasize the importance of his words…

I sat on the balcony to get some air. Election night. Results in. Speeches made. The neighborhood was extremely quiet - only a few cars slinked along the main road. Even the wind had died down. New Democracy’s Antonis Samaras had claimed ‘victory’ - with approximately 30% of the votes, but no cheers could be heard. Why do I get the feeling that this victory did not produce a knight in shining armor? I fell asleep to the sounds of a very quiet Athens, with only the words of the poet Karyotakis ringing in my ears:

friend, it seems my heart has now grown old.
my life in Athens is over…

…I won’t come again to the place, my countryman  
to the place marked by youth’s celebration.
Rather I will pass only as a bystander, with my hope, with my dashed dreams…

…I will walk up towards Zappeion, singing and staggering…
all around me, the horizon will be pleasant and broad,
but my song will sound like a sobbing wail.

[poem: to an old college friend, by Kostas Karyotakis, 1921]



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