Monday, November 25, 2013

visible and invisable Athens


Θλίψη” I heard a woman say to her friend as I walked along Stadiou Ave in downtown Athens. It is the one thing I clearly heard amid the noise around me – the whooshing of passing traffic, the honking horns, the buzzing mopeds leaving puffs of grey clouds in their wake. I was walking past a block of neoclassical buildings that were burnt and destroyed during one of last year’s protests-turned-ugly.

The two women had paused to look across the street at the boarded-up, blackened edifice. The protest long over, the ugliness of the charred buildings is not the only thing that remains. What’s left is something much deeper: sorrow, misery, heartache, devastation: θλίψη. 

The visible scars of the crisis are everywhere. I walk along the central streets of downtown Athens, past homeless people who have claimed a spot on low, wide ledges or steps. The cold marble is covered by blue yoga mats, which are covered by tattered sleeping bags, on which small bowls have been placed with hand-written signs propped up against them: help, I’m hungry, or thank you.  

Pre-crisis, these central streets were vibrant and bustling, full of shiny storefronts, immaculately maintained buildings, well-heeled people. Since the crisis, the streets began to reflect a surreal picture of what was happening.

***

I continue on my way to a bookstore in search of a book called σευχαριστώ που μαγαπάς (thank you for loving me) by a woman named Dimitra Nousi. As soon as I learned about the book, I went to Patakis on Akademias St and found it. New purchase in hand, I take a long walk through Athens and slowly make my way home.

I walk past a luxury department store which still stands in its polished finery. Next to this - empty storefronts, dirty windows, neglect. I turn into a side street, it’s darker and dingier than the previous block. On the sidewalk, I see three men sitting on a stoop, on a piece of cardboard. They are filthy, their hair is matted, and their faces are dark with grime. They are hunched over, fiddling with something in their hands. As I walk past them, I see that one of them has a syringe and the others are preparing something; I see a spoon, a lighter. They don’t even notice when I walk by, less than two feet away from them…

***

When I got home, I spent the rest of the afternoon reading the book. The next day I finished it. The wounds of this crisis are noticeable to anyone who lives here, or even visits briefly. But this book talks about the wounds that are not so visible. The ugliness that is harder to see, and more difficult to ignore.  In 2011, Dimitra Nousi, employed by the city of Athens for over 10 years, was given a challenging new position:  director of the city’s foundation for the homeless and disadvantaged (Κέντρο Υποδοχής Αστέγων Δήμου Αθηναίων). The foundation acts as a reception center and offers meals, shelter, clothing, a food bank, medical attention and psychological support.

It seems like an impossible task to provide these vital services during a time when everything is collapsing. Austerity measures forced the foundation to slash its budget, reduce its staff, while the remaining staff is underpaid and/or goes for months without payment. Morale at the foundation was low, to say the least. Some days the shelves of the food pantry were practically empty, and donations were dismal. Sometimes all the foundation had to offer desperate people was plain, boiled, white pasta.

The author’s frank narration about a reality that she experiences day in and day out, is overwhelmingly shocking and tragic. People from all walks of life go to the foundation every day to receive free meals. The homeless, drug addicts, people with psychological problems, refugees from other countries, and the ‘nouveau poor’: the elderly whose pensions have been slashed so drastically that they can no longer afford food, rent, heat; the newly unemployed whose savings have run out; families who have been able to stay in their homes but have nothing left for food after the bills have been paid… Each group has their own needs and their own set of grievances, triumphs and failures.  Every day, people line up in the foundation’s courtyard to receive meals, and anything else that can be offered. The author came to some very raw conclusions about destitute refugees and the Athenian ‘nouveau poor’:

[the refugees] are the strongest among us; the most shielded. Their only tool of survival was to develop their resistance. They are ones who can smile impulsively about the small but significant things they have in their lives… when you see one mother express her joy when she is given a few oranges, and another express her shame, even though both feel relieved that they have managed to obtain some fruit for their children, you realize a simultaneous reversal of the facts of life. One mother feels like she has managed to attain success and is joyful, the other feels her failure and is devastated.

Years into this crisis, the facts about the shrinking middle class and the growing class of newly poor are well known. People who suddenly find themselves unable to support themselves, and have used up any savings, find themselves at the mercy of charitable organizations. The author witnesses people face their new horrific reality, while at the same time fears that she and her staff may be facing the same fate, as their pay continues to be reduced, and new austerity measures only increase the cost of living.

The author describes what it’s like for the families that have been hit hardest by the crisis. She talks about the time a well-dressed, educated woman came to her office to ask for food, without completing the required forms so as to remain anonymous:

Tears kept falling from her eyes, but she wiped them away. The fact that she was able to control the tone of her voice gave her courage as she told me about her hardships. For some reason, she insisted on speaking with me specifically and not with the social workers…. When I asked her why, she replied: “because I cannot stand it, I can’t take the feeling that my family and I have become a statistic of the social services. We have our health. The only thing we don’t have is food. We have everything else in our home. We have love, understanding, my children are [college] students here [in Athens]. They don’t know I came here. If you give me food today, they’ll never know I came here. They shouldn’t know that I came here, isn’t that right?”

I didn’t have an answer to give her. If I was a psychologist would I have been able to answer her questions? Perhaps… Should her children know the truth? “We have everything else in our home…” Do you have honesty? …

….”Do you have children?” the woman asked…

…“A daughter” I replied.

“…you are a mother. Don’t you agree with me? I have a duty to protect my children from this situation I am faced with. They know we are struggling. They understand. They don’t ask for things. But if they found out I came here today to ask for food, how will they feel? Am I not right?”

I didn’t know how to answer her. The only thing I thought about was how this woman, whose entire world fell apart so suddenly, sat before me, wiping her tears to get a bag of groceries, had every right to feel justified.

All of the author’s personal accounts of her experiences are compassionate and thought-provoking. The one that stands out the most, I think, is the exchange she had with Fatma, a small refugee child who would often show up at the foundation with her family to eat.

Fatma was a shy child with green eyes. I am not sure of her age, perhaps 8 or 9 years old… She would never push and shove when in line to get a chocolate bar or a pair of shoes, she didn’t talk as much as the other children, she didn’t approach me often, nor would she fall into my arms to give me a hug and kiss. On the contrary, I always approached her… Only one day she approached me and said, “ma’am, do you love me?”

“I love you Fatma, of course I love you. Would you like to go play with the other children? Over there in the circle. Panagiotis has a ball…”

Fatma looked around as if she wanted to tell me a secret. First she made sure that no one could hear us and then she asked, “I stay here with you, ma’am, ok? Mama and Baba leave for Germany. Everyone. And my siblings. I stay here with you. Here – with food, with courtyard, ma’am. I want you and courtyard. No Germany. Do you love me, ma’am?”…

I hugged Fatma and was not sure if the child’s words were what hurt me more, or my own memories [of immigration and uprooting] from my grandmother. When your heritage is migration and hunger, condemnation and failure… how difficult is it to not identify with the ill-fated? In the end, that which shields us is also what makes us more vulnerable…

“Fatma, I love you very much. But your parents love you even more. Do you understand what I’m saying? Children belong with their parents. You have to go with your parents to Germany. You, your siblings, you will go all together, and you will have a better life there. OK? Why don’t you go play now with Panagiotis?”

“OK”

She left to join the circle with the other children. As soon as Panagiotis saw her… she turned and ran back to me. She hugged me and said again, “I, ma’am, love you very much. Do you love me?”

“I love you, Fatma.”

“Thank you for loving me, ma’am.”

This time, she went running back to the circle happily, determined to join them. Panagiotis held out his hand to her and she smiled.

I don’t recall how many minutes it took for the conversation to sink in. It is the most significant combination of words and meaning that I have come across in my entire life. Did she understand that she managed to stun me?... with what power did she manage to simultaneously deliver both a deep blow and such a warm caress? Such contradiction…

***

In the sixth year of the financial crisis, life in Greece continues to be a series of powerful contradictions on every level. Burnt-out buildings on Stadiou Ave, a luxury department store on the next block; drug addicts shooting up in a dark corner, a crowd of young people eating at a trendy new burger joint on another corner….

Dimitra Nousi’s book offers a haunting glimpse into the depths of the crisis, on a most personal level… Another view of (new) Athens, one that goes beyond the visible surface, a story from the very heart of Athens.
 

***
  • Τhe book is available in Greek. (I have taken the liberty to translate a few short excerpts for the purposes of this article.)  

σ’ευχαριστώ που μ’αγαπάς… μια ιστορία από την καρδιά της Αθήνας, Δήμητρα Νούση, Εκδόσεις Πατάκης, 2013.


 

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