Saturday, July 21, 2012

flight

Mid-afternoon in Athens during a heatwave. Temperatures have been as high as 105 Fahrenheit during the past week. The heat is oppressive and my neighborhood resembles a ghost town. As I make the short walk from my apartment to the car, dragging my suitcase along the sidewalk, the sun sears my shoulders as sweat gathers at the small of my back. The only other person on the street is a dark-skinned immigrant, pushing a supermarket cart filled with bits of metal and other scraps. He stops at the trash bin and lifts the lid, rummages around but he doesn’t find anything and continues on to the next set of bins, pushing his cart down the street while the scorching sun beats down on us. Before I drive off, I check my bag one last time. I have everything I need. Money, passports, e-ticket number.

The past week has been filled with mixed emotions – melancholy and excitement. As the plane soared over the azure waters of the Aegean - Greece sparkling before my eyes like a gem - I felt a strange sadness and longing for what should have been… As we ascended through wispy clouds and flew high above the Adriatic Sea I watched the coastline below… The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and everything seemed perfect as I observed the changing colors of the scenery – blues and browns changed to varying shades of green as the plane flew past Dubrovnik, then Venice, and over northern Italy and Switzerland. As we neared Zurich the skies turned to grey and the clouds darkened as a thunderstorm rained over the airport… I walked through the jet bridge towards passport control shivering in my sleeveless shirt as the cold air rushed in.
I show both passports to avoid the usual confusion if I just offer one (if I show only the US passport, they ask ‘when did you enter the EU?’ and ‘where is your entry stamp?’ or ‘do you have a work permit?’… if I only show the Greek passport they ask ‘you are in transit to the US, do you have a US passport?’)…. So I rifle through my bag and find the blue one and slide it under the window, and as the official thumbs through the pages of my US passport, he says something to his colleague in the next booth and they both glance at me and chuckle (perhaps a snarky comment about the ‘dumb American tourist’?)… In the meantime I’ve found the maroon passport and I slide it under the window too and their faces become serious again. Did they realize that I am also an EU citizen, I am also ‘one of them’ and perhaps I understood their amusing comment? The official quietly scans my Greek passport and then I am on my way to gate E53 with my two identities in my purse and the dichotomy in my head: am I Greek? am I European? am I American? I decide that I am all three…

The next flight passes over Western Europe and crosses the Atlantic Ocean. I settle into my seat with a novel about a journalist in the 1980’s – he travels to divided Germany and settles in Berlin. As a foreigner he is able to cross the Berlin Wall and he easily travels in and out of East Berlin. He writes about the differences between East and West Germany and how the people in East Berlin treat him differently because of what he represents: the outside world and freedoms they do not have… Some East Berliners treat him with suspicion; some are indifferent, while others are resentful. The journalist struggles with this duality and the guilt he feels because he is able to leave while others cannot.
I watch the monitor in front of my seat, which shows a map of the route. The plane has crossed the Atlantic and is nearing the East Coast. It flies past Nova Scotia in Canada and goes south, descending towards New England. I don’t need to look at the monitor anymore, I look out of the window to the land below and I know exactly where we are.

When I exit the airport, rolling my luggage cart through the parking lot, the air is warm and everything is familiar. Even though I have been living in Greece for over 15 years, I feel like I never left my birthplace – the city of Boston. My much-needed time here will be brief, but just enough to recharge my depleted batteries.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

life goes on...


Trying to stay positive is becoming increasingly difficult in a world that is collapsing, bit by bit, every day. Life in Greece is like observing a condemned building after an earthquake. It is unstable and can implode into a pile of dust in an instant; each day the cracks seem a bit wider, pieces of broken cement fall off; it becomes more rickety but somehow remains standing as curious on-lookers walk past shaking their heads in disbelief.

Struggling with pessimism has become a daily battle. Everything is on the rise – crime, attacks against immigrants, unemployment, homelessness, the suicide rate. The new government already resembles a sick man (literally) - the newly-elected Prime Minister was hospitalized for an eye operation and was incapacitated and unable to attend significant, urgent meetings... The Finance Minister passed out and was also hospitalized. He resigned before he even had a chance to be sworn in….
Avoidance acts as a form of escapism. We go about our daily lives superficially – not discussing the (shocking, upsetting) events which are occurring around us. We desperately search for new narratives but they don’t exist. No political party can offer a promising, new hope. There is no magic wand, no fairy tale ending. Yet people hang on to the old narratives and keep telling themselves that everything will be alright.

Escapism offers a brief respite and I find myself wanting to withdraw into my own little cocoon. I don’t want to watch the news; I go offline, trying to avoid reading the headlines, trying to shut out reality. I put on my headphones and listen to a mix of international club songs that were popular in the 1990’s when I was a student. I imagine myself (circa 1992) on the dance floor surrounded by my friends – fellow students from all over the world – happy and carefree.  Then I imagine myself dancing in the streets of Athens, the music creating a sort of Pied Piper effect, people joining in, laughing and dancing, traffic coming to a halt as the street party grows… Eventually I snap out of my daydreaming and come back to reality and to the sound of wailing police sirens...

Recently I found myself at a maternity hospital waiting for the arrival of a new family member. The private maternity hospital is new, modern and lacks nothing. It actually resembled a 5-star resort. But for me, it symbolizes the growing rift between the haves and the have-nots in Greece; those who can afford private healthcare and those who can’t…

Last month the Pharmacists Association was no longer able to extend credit to the National Organization of Health Service Providers (EOPYY), which means that the pharmacists were not receiving payment from the government (which has no money) for prescriptions. Pharmacies were no longer accepting prescriptions from patients. If you had the cash, (and the drugs you needed were actually available) you could buy the drugs at full cost. The result was people who desperately needed drugs for life-threatening conditions (cancer patients, for example) were not able to get the drugs they need. A dire situation – if you had the money for these expensive drugs (and could actually find them) then you could get them. If you are like most people, you don’t have the money so you don’t receive the drugs you need. This is the new reality in Greece. By the end of June, the government began to pay off the 127 million euro it owes pharmacists for April prescriptions, and thus pharmacies have resumed supplying drugs on credit to those covered by state health insurance (EOPYY). So if you are still alive, you can now get your prescriptions filled.

Many people outside of Greece believe that we are kicking back, receiving “free” socialized healthcare and enjoying the benefits of this wonderful system. The reality is that the services offered by socialized medicine are sub-par. State-run hospitals and medical care are severely lacking. Those who can afford it, buy (usually expensive) private medical insurance which offers treatment and medical care at private hospitals and clinics (which are modern, state-of-the-art facilities).
So, there I was, waiting anxiously at the private maternity hospital with the rest of the extended family to see the new addition… When they finally brought him out, I looked at that tiny, precious life and realized how lucky he is indeed – and hoped that his future will be bright.

Despite everything going on around us, life continues – people are getting married, having babies, planning their summer vacations… and telling themselves that “everything will be alright”…. I hope they are right.