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Friday, March 6, 2015

SYRIZA’s Radical Leftist Moderation: With No Grexit So Far, Life Goes On In Crete

Constant Change, But Is Anything Really Different?


Greek political and economic news is too boring to remind most people who don’t live here of an old-fashioned rollercoaster ride’s ups and downs, but from where I sit on the island of Crete in Greece, it’s been a bumpy month. The news was full of twists and turns in the policy and strategy of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s new leftist government, along with changing stock market reactions and varying forecasts of the likelihood of a Grexit (in which Greece would leave the Eurozone to return to the drachma). No one I talked to here was sure what to think, with Greek and European politicians talking compromise some days and refusal to compromise other days, the leftist SYRIZA government saying they’d fulfill their campaign promises some days and might not on other days. Reluctantly pushing myself through the required routines of daily life while under attack by three of the many viruses circulating here, I’ve been both relieved to sink into my desk chair for sedentary distraction from my symptoms, and struck with anxiety as hopes here rise and fall. And now it feels like Greece is facing a steep uphill climb. Most Greeks can’t escape this, lacking the foreign job, connections, and money to get away. As one working mother said, “We started the dance, now we have to dance it”—whether or not we were in charge of telling the dancers what to do.

February began with a dust storm in Crete, then shifted between warm southerly winds and cold northerly gusts, mild sunny days and rainy, sleety periods with temperatures almost down to freezing even here near sea level, and the Cretan mountains filled with snow. By the end of the month, we were back to the strong warm, dusty southerly winds, the wildly waving olive branches, and sea mists blowing above whitecapped waves so boats stayed in port and delayed their deliveries to Crete. The question is whether we were also back to the same old story of a detested bailout program imposed by the troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund that we’ve been hearing for years now. 

Many of us in Greece (and elsewhere) have been frustrated by the stubbornness of German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and his allies, who refuse to acknowledge what so much of the world does—that austerity has not worked in Greece, that it is unjust to continue punishing ordinary Greeks to save the banks, and that a different solution is needed here. Commentators disagree on whether Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and finance minister Yanis Varoufakis have really gained anything substantial for Greece. Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman saw “an unholy alliance … between left-leaning writers with unrealistic expectations and the business press, which likes the story of Greek debacle because that’s what is supposed to happen to uppity debtors.” But according to Krugman, who disagrees with both the angry, disappointed leftists and the disgusted conservatives, “there was no debacle. Provisionally, at least, Greece seems to have ended the cycle of ever-more-savage austerity” (What Greece Won). 

Most of us here seem to think that remains to be seen. A gas station attendant I spoke with believes things will continue to be difficult but figures we’ll know what’s going to happen in about five months. He was probably thinking of Prime Minister Tsipras’s “bigger goal … to deliver quickly on reforms to earn credibility so the government can negotiate a new bailout agreement in June, with terms more favorable for Greece” (In Greek Crisis, Rare Moment of Consensus). I was sorry that SYRIZA was asked to give up on so much of what it had promised voters, and upset that Greece had yet again been pushed to prioritize banks and creditors rather than struggling people. Many who voted for SYRIZA expecting substantial change are even more sorry—or angry. But Krugman insists, “If you are angry that the negotiations didn’t make room for a full reversal of austerity, a turn toward Keynesian fiscal stimulus, you weren’t paying attention. The question instead was whether Greece would be forced to impose still more austerity” (What Greece Won). At least, he says, Greece didn’t get that—for the moment.

No one thinks Greece’s problems have been solved. It’s clear that the government has a tough road of reforms and negotiations ahead of it and that Greeks will see very limited improvement in their situation, if any, in the near future, since the government cannot afford to offer much help to struggling people. So an unemployed Greek mother outside a local supermarket expects no help from the state, and instead begs her fellow citizens for food for her children since she has lost her job in a shoe store. Greece may be allowed to run a lower primary surplus (before debt payments), which could provide some money for relief for the needy. The government might gain some leeway by collecting unpaid taxes, especially from wealthy tax evaders, and fighting corruption and tobacco and oil smuggling, all of which could bring in desperately needed income.

SYRIZA calls the troika “the institutions” now and writes of an “agreement” rather than the hated old “program” or “memorandum” signed by earlier governments—changing the terms--and it did manage to make some of its own decisions about which reforms to focus on. So some agree with Prime Minister Tsipras that SYRIZA won the battle, if not the war. But others say SYRIZA did a U-turn and completely gave in to the other Europeans, led by Germany and other austerity-loving governments such as Portugal and Spain who fear for their own political futures, which could be jeopardized if Europe really made changes to prioritize regular children, women, and men instead of banks and creditors. (For different views, see for example Greek reform list to comprise mainly structural actions, says gov't and A Deal That Preserves Greece’s Place in Eurozone, and Fiscal Restraints, as well as The unlikely winners of Greece's surrender on euro.)

Support for SYRIZA: Still (More or Less) Strong in Greece


I am concerned that some of SYRIZA’s proposals, for example regarding universities, may be counterproductive, others may be impossible to implement in the foreseeable future, and others may be inadequate. (No one talks of abolishing the wastefully expensive system of after-school private schools, or frontistiria, that compensate for known deficiencies in public education—it seems impossible to dismantle such a well-established institution that employs so many.) Nevertheless, SYRIZA is growing on me, which seems to be the case with many here. Even the conservative-centrist Greek daily Kathemerini praised the new government’s flexibility and criticized the Germans’ refusal to acknowledge that the European situation has changed (Stubborn but not almighty). 

During February, SYRIZA supporters were demonstrating in support of the government, for a change. After the agreement with the Eurogroup to extend the bailout program with some changes, several hundred far(ther) leftists did protest the government’s actions, and there was some violence after the march, but that was a small demonstration compared to what Greece has seen in recent years. Some disappointed, angry leftists have criticized Prime Minister Tsipras so harshly that there’s been talk of the most radical elements of SYRIZA withdrawing their support for him. But recent polls show SYRIZA with 41-42% approval ratings overall, with the previous governing party, conservative New Democracy, in second place with only 18-19% ready to vote for them in an imaginary election. An astonishingly positive poll just after Greece signed the Eurogroup agreement showed 68% of respondents “satisfied with Greece’s negotiations with Europe” and 76% viewing “the government’s course as positive so far.” 55% considered Alexis Tsipras “more suitable for Prime Minister” than Greece’s previous leader, Antonis Samaras, who received just 13% of the votes (New Poll: SYRIZA has Comfortable Lead Over New Democracy). 

However, a slightly later poll hints at less enthusiasm: “after the final negotiations [with the Eurogroup] and a four-month extension deal, 43.3% of those polled view the situation as getting worse, with only 15.9% of respondents saying they were optimistic about the country’s future,” and “39.1% of respondents said things are ‘neither good nor bad’” (New Greek Poll: SYRIZA 41.3%, New Democracy 19.2%). On February 25, “it was stock and bond markets that reacted more positively, while Greeks appeared more subdued about the outcome” (Greece gets warnings from creditors, now comes hard part). That is not surprising; nor are the most recent, mixed poll results. Things look better, for the moment, for investors and banks, but to regular citizens and immigrants it’s not so clear. A young psychologist doesn’t know what will happen but keeps hoping: “I trust them; they’re not thieves like the other politicians.” On the other hand, a social worker and mother is “worried. I voted for them. I’m not SYRIZA, but I wanted a change. But now I don’t know. If it doesn’t get better, those of us who want a better life for our children will have to find somewhere else to live.”

No Tie, Untucked Shirt: The Significance of Style


Greeks’ tension was sometimes alleviated by press attention to SYRIZA leaders’ refusal to wear ties and finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’s habit of leaving his shirt untucked. Some Greeks seem to be proud of the bold independence of these rather daring gestures on the European political stage, although one of my elderly neighbors seemed horrified by it, asking me whether anyone had ever seen such a thing before. In any case, even those who pay little attention to political or economic developments noticed Greek leaders’ clothes as the leftists rebelled against a more conservative world order stylistically and hence symbolically as well as politically. “Varoufakis becomes unlikely heartthrob in Germany,” announced a headline last month. Unlikely heartthrob, indeed—and does it do any good if some ordinary Germans are attracted to the Greek finance minister, if the German Prime Minister and finance minister are dead set against him? 

A German satire video from NEO MAGAZIN ROYALE that had been viewed over 1.3 million times by March 4 complicates the question by suggesting that Varoufakis puts the “hell” in Hellenic with his James Bond-like sex appeal, domineering awesome-ness, and Facebook friendship with Voldemort—strange claims (even in a satire) for someone who strikes many as pretty friendly and straightforward for a finance minister. This satire self-consciously examines the way Varoufakis poses a threat to some Germans’ understanding of not only politics, economics, and priorities, but also style, manners, and the culture they belong to. (Watch at your own risk, and only if you’re over 17; this should probably be rated R.)

In portraying someone whom many consider a casual, ordinary smart guy as a dangerous evil villain who’d befriend good ol’ Harry Potter’s nemesis, the satirical video emphasizes the cultural differences between northern and southern Europe which have previously been masked by conservative manners and clothing. Letting it all out in the open makes many people nervous, rather like a discussion of racist attitudes toward African Americans or their right to dress and speak as they wish. Georgetown law professor Paul Butler seemed to imply a similar connection when he said that “Greece is the young black man of Europe. Both get all these finger-wagging, cultural critiques – they’re undisciplined, impulsive, lazy, hedonistic. The subtext is ‘just stop wearing your pants below your butt, Greece, and it will be all good!’ But both sets of issues are deeply rooted in historical deprivations and structural inequality” (Reading The Times With Paul Butler). Act more like the American white middle class, act more like the conservative/centrist elite European political class—that seemed to be what Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi wanted Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to do when he gave Tsipras an Italian tie. But we haven’t seen Tsipras wear it yet, since he has vowed not to wear a tie before he gets the Greek debt situation under control. Many of us still think, “Good for him!” as the underdog stands up to the mighty ones, attempting to fight inequality and deprivation. But will he be allowed? Can he manage it?

Grexit, Anyone?


In the last month or so, the likelihood of Greece leaving the Eurozone has moved up and down along with hopes, varying between one in four and one in two, as far as I’ve heard. This was part of the stomach-churning ride through the month, since if Greece exited the Eurozone, life here would be even more difficult for some (undetermined) time. One Greek father I talked with at our school’s pre-Lenten carnival party seemed to believe leaving the euro would just mean some confusion at the supermarket as Greece changed currencies again—how many drachmas for this milk?--as if there would be no greater consequences in everyday life. However—leaving aside what would happen to the rest of the European and world economies, which are most people’s main concern, but not mine or ordinary Greeks’—it looks like a Grexit would mean much more than that for Greece.

Various commentators suggest that newly printed drachmas would make Greeks’ money worth much less than it was before, so that the price of imported goods, including certain foods, petroleum, and medicines, would rise incredibly and even be rationed and/or available only on the black market (The Grexit Dilemma: What Would Happen if Greece Leaves the Euro Zone? and Ending austerity in Greece: time for plan B?). It seems quite likely that there would be high inflation and lower living standards, and Spiegel also predicts many bankruptcies. Many expect “social unrest,” possibly riots (e.g. Here's what happens if Greece is forced out of the euro). An increase in the already serious brain drain would likely be accompanied by a worsening recession, although most seem to think Greek tourism and exports would become more attractive due to their cheaper costs, offering possible hope for the country’s economy—although how much hope, how soon is unclear (see e.g. Grexit: How likely is a Greek exit from the Euro and what would happen to the economy?). Given such threats on top of years of recession and 26% unemployment, it is unsurprising that a recent poll found 81% “in favor of Greece staying in the euro, while only 15% prefer returning to the drachma” (New Poll: SYRIZA has Comfortable Lead Over New Democracy).

For Now, Life Goes On


Since we haven’t left the Eurozone so far, business and life carry on pretty much as usual here—with the usual high unemployment, reduced salaries, pensions, and benefits, and closed businesses, that is--even if we do wonder whether we’re heading for a rollercoaster wreck. One hairdresser and mother of three hasn’t even been following the news, but her customers, like many others, seem to think things will stay about the same here. Some hope for at least a bit of improvement; others don’t know what to think. Everyone is just waiting to see what happens. Meanwhile, snow falls on the mountains, rain falls near the coast, the sun comes out, the winds blow, and the anemones, buttercups, almond blossoms, orchids, and daisies bloom. Students head to school and after-school activities; those who still have jobs head to work; adults find ways to take care of families, houses, laundry, cooking, shopping, and errands.

I fight with my dryer and dehumidifier daily, trying to convince it to work. A plumbing problem leaves us with too little water to shower, run the washing machine, or even wash hands and feet properly for a couple of days. Then the electricity blinks on and off, so I scramble to unplug appliances lest more of them get fried to death as so many already have here. I expected all the outages we had during the week of our fiercest storms, particularly on one especially cold, windy, rainy/sleety day, but not the blackouts of the calm, sunny day. I should know by now, though, not to take electricity, water, or phone service for granted here. Even within the Eurozone, life in Greece is no vacation. 

Carnival Time: Let Them Eat Cake and Cheese Pies


In the middle of last month, our school’s parents’ association organized its annual pre-Lenten carnival party at a restaurant we took over for a few hours at midday for a break from our rollercoaster of stress. There may have been a slightly smaller crowd than in previous years, but parents provided all the usual cheese pies, cakes, cookies, popcorn, sandwiches, and donuts. This year, Zumba dancing was replaced by kung fu exhibitions, and the punches, kicks, blocks, and turns of the more advanced kung fu students--especially the one with the sword--impressed the watching parents and costumed children. Our instructor inadvertently added extra drama to his routine with a long staff when he shattered a large, globular glass light fixture above him; he joked that that was a special effect until he learned that one little girl was cut by a stray glass shard. After the glass was swept up, games began, with dozens of the younger children holding a large colorful cloth they could lift into a balloon or playing a “land/sea” game where they jumped to one side of a line or the other as instructed, while older kids played their own games outside. Greek dancing by everyone from kindergartners to grandmas followed, with many of the children’s costumes beautifully complemented by the artistic face painting of a white-faced mother in a Japanese kimono.

I didn’t see as many vampire girls this year as last, but there was the usual contingent of small princesses and Spider Men, my kids reported sighting a number of Darth Vaders, and there was a variety of clowns, belles, Ninjas, and pirates male and female, plus a female police officer with her face attractively (if incongruously) painted half full of flowers and a lovely female Joseph (of the Technicolor Dream Coat, but in pharaoh assistant garb) courtesy of last month’s musical. Unfortunately, the party, like most events of its kind here, was a prime site for virus transmission—at least, school absences and parents’ illnesses suggested as much the following week. 

Viruses, Sleet, Snow, Flowers and Compassion


The flu hit Greece hard this year, along with a generous selection of additional viruses; “olos o kosmos,” the whole world, was said to be sick here, and two neighbor children were even hospitalized. A pharmacist’s assistant commented, “I don’t want to attract the evil eye, but I haven’t gotten sick all winter,” and I promptly knocked on wood, while the customer waiting behind me pretended to spit to discourage the “evil eye” from destroying what it might view as too much good luck: Ftuy Ftuy. 

Right after I told my cold, snowed-in American Facebook friends that we don't have snow days in our part of Crete, I looked out the window and was astonished to see a sleet storm. Just at the moment when school was letting out, no less! My kids insisted that it was really snow—at least higher up the hill at school—since they managed to collect enough from a corner to throw at each other. Snow and sleet are always a surprise here near sea level, although the Cretan mountains were hit by loads of snow last month, and a fair amount in January. We managed to find a foot of mountain snow in mid-January, to the kids’ and my delight, since we weren’t driving the car that slipped around on the slushy, winding single-lane road. As the kids threw snow at each other and D, I photographed a snowy mountainside punctuated by pointed rocks above us and evergreens below, fading into the hills and the distant sea.  

However—unlike us--many Americans got their fill of snow this winter. I discovered that posting photos of Cretan winter flowers is a better way to attract attention on Facebook than discussing the Greek economy, Greek politics, or my Albanian friend Spressa’s brother Nikolaos, who had emergency surgery for a duodenal perforation, a life-threatening complication of an ulcer in the small intestine, here in Chania in January, and then needed treatment in an Albanian hospital for an infection after he returned home. Thanks to the help of some wonderful, compassionate family members, friends, and friends of friends, we managed to raise enough money to cover Nikolaos’s Greek hospital bills, which is important since Nikolaos is unemployed and uninsured, with no savings or safety net. There are still Albanian hospital bills to pay, the possibility of more tests and treatment in Greece, and food to buy for Nikolaos’s five children. Could you contribute even a few dollars or euros to help this unfortunate family? However much you may be struggling, I know they are much worse off, financially, than most of the people who read this. Please go to this site to learn more and help them, if you possibly can! 

Saturday, January 31, 2015

After the Greek Election, SYRIZA Takes Greece to a New Threshold

Greece Is On (the) Edge—But Is It on the Edge of a Precipice or a Bridge to a Brighter Future?

The sunny, halcyon days of temperatures in the 70s here in Crete the week before the January 25 Greek national election could not last—and they were halcyon in meteorological terms only, since Greece and a good part of Europe were nervous about the coming election and its potential consequences. While the sun shone, I gathered anemones and buttercups, admired little daisies and bizarre Mediterranean spurge plants, passed cats and dogs drowsing in the warm sun as bedding aired on windowsills and balconies, and sympathized with all the Greeks who would vote for SYRIZA, the Coalition of the Radical Left, because they believed the pre-election claims that at long last hope was coming, that a “powerful SYRIZA means an autonomous Greece. It means an end to national humiliation. It means an end to the catastrophic memorandums” in which Greece traded severe austerity measures for bailout loans and ended up with its own version of the Great Depression (Tsipras urges extra support for majority in House).

Election day was stormy in our part of Crete, windy and rainy—although we did see a perfect rainbow. Which part of that weather symbolizes Greece’s future? After last weekend’s national election, Greece is in the spotlight and on the edge again—but the edge of what? The edge of a beneficial anti-austerity movement in Europe, with more assistance for ordinary low-income people and fewer advantages for the ruling elite? The edge of slight changes to appease expectant voters with hope for a brighter future in the Eurozone? Or the edge of the abyss of a Grexit, the unhinging of the European Union, and a wildly disruptive return to the drachma? Whatever is coming, the uncertainty leaves European financial markets in turmoil, investment and savings in Greece way down, and ordinary citizens going about their business pretty much as usual, heading to school or work, shopping, running errands, hoping for the best, and wondering what will happen next. They figure it’s out of their hands now that the Greek elections are over.

Nikos Konstandaras, editor of Greece’s conservative centrist daily Kathemerini, wrote the day after the election, “Naturally, many voters opted for utopia” when they voted for SYRIZA, with its promises to undo much of the austerity imposed in Greece over the last several years without leaving the Eurozone; but now SYRIZA and its leader, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, must face reality and see what it can really do (SYRIZA's win will test institutions). As I said, I can understand voters’ embrace of SYRIZA’s message of hope for a better future, after decades of the same old corruption, cronyism, and nepotism under elite political families and unprosecuted wealthy, well-connected tax evaders. 

Former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’s conservative centrist New Democracy party (Nea Dimokratia) had promised to tell the truth and guarantee the future, trying to instill fear in the hearts of potential SYRIZA voters—fear of the unknown, fear of a return to recession, fear of a return to the drachma (After an Anxiety-Filled Campaign, Greek Voters Consider a Turn to the Left). They succeeded in making a lot of us nervous. But since New Democracy’s truths had been largely depressing in recent years, and ordinary Greeks don’t actually see tangible evidence of the publicized economic improvement after five years of austerity-induced depression (both financial and, for many, psychological), SYRIZA’s offer of hope prevailed. No one seemed to know exactly what the moderate young River party (To Potami) stood for, so it lost third place (among about 20 parties--see some of the ballots below) to the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party (Chrysi Avgi), even though Golden Dawn’s leaders were campaigning from jail. A few other parties made it into parliament, but many were surprised by SYRIZA’s decision to form a coalition (since it was two seats shy of a majority in the 300-seat parliament) with the right-wing, nationalist Independent Greeks party.  

This decision concerns me, since The Guardian characterizes SYRIZA’s new coalition partner, “the rightwing party Independent Greeks (known by its Greek acronym Anel),” as “notable for its xenophobia, antisemitism and homophobia” (Greece’s new anti-austerity government set on collision course with Brussels)—and others see it that way, too (see, e.g., Kotzias, Dugin and the EU). The two parties agree only on their rejection of the debt agreement with the Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund), leaving many nervous about what this will mean for negotiations with European leaders and even wondering if the coalition can actually work together. I am surprised that liberals have said so little about allegedly discriminatory aspects of Anel, but perhaps the assumption is that SYRIZA, the major player here, will not allow them to create problems along these lines. I’m waiting to see what will be done for immigrants, among others.

I’m glad Anel did not prevent the appointment of Greece’s first (ever) cabinet minister with a disability, Minister for Health and Social Security Panagiotis Kouroumplis, who is blind—and I’m surprised that I haven’t seen more about that historic appointment in the news. I’m delighted by this appointment, because it must be incredibly difficult to be disabled in Greece, where sidewalks are full of motorcycles, trees, cars, café tables, and holes; cars and motorcycles are liable to hit pedestrians even when the latter cross the street with their own green light; restaurant and café restrooms tend to be down the stairs, in the basement; and there are far too few ramps for wheelchairs (or strollers). And that’s just what I’ve noticed as a sighted, able-bodied person walking around with babies in strollers and older women with mobility problems. At last, people who are disabled will have a truly understanding voice at a high level in the Greek government! For this I congratulate SYRIZA.

However, both Greeks and observers around the world are wondering if SYRIZA’s New Deal can work for Greece. The New York Times even hosted a “Room for Debate” discussion of the Greek situation, in which C. J. Polychroniou asserted that “the bulk of Syriza’s economic program for addressing the catastrophic crisis in Greece, which has evolved into a humanitarian crisis, is inspired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, though on a smaller scale.” Why not? Greece has been enduring its own Great Depression; it needs a New Deal to reverse the “brain drain in Greece” Aristides N. Hatzis calls “a national emergency,” and to give the unemployed and underemployed a chance, if this country is to have any hope of prosperity.  

But exactly what kind of deal can Greece work out? One issue that comes up a lot now is the rather blurry line between “reform” and “austerity.” SYRIZA rejects the austerity that has left over a quarter of the population (and at least half of youths) unemployed, cut per capita health care spending by a quarter (Greek health cuts a matter of life and death on Samos), imposed excessive taxes on the working and middle classes, closed thousands of businesses, and drastically reduced wages, benefits, pensions, and purchasing power. Rightly so, many agree. But that doesn’t mean SYRIZA should, or does, reject reform. Or was some of that painful “austerity” also necessary “reform”? Paul Krugman reminds us that Greeks have already reformed a lot: public spending is 20% lower than in 2010 (Ending Greece’s Nightmare). Yet, as the New York Times recognizes in an editorial sympathetic to Greece and its new government, there’s still a great deal of room for more reform in tax collection and fighting “corruption, nepotism and cronyism in government” (Greece’s Agonized Cry to Europe)—which SYRIZA vows to do. Relatively few people here seem likely to support more of the careless, across-the-board cuts made in haste and without regard for consequences that we’ve seen far too often in recent years. The question now is how much more reform—or even how much maintenance of recent reform--is possible while protecting the rights of workers and impoverished people, and how much help for those people can be provided in a country in as much debt as Greece. How much, and what, reform is productive? How much, and what, reform is destructive? How much, and what, reform is necessary? That’s a puzzle that will be at the heart of many debates over Greece’s future. I hope the new government will come up with wise, logical, workable solutions.

SYRIZA would like to get some money from Germany to help pay for assistance to the millions of needy people here. So would many Greeks who know the history of Nazi atrocities in Greece and elsewhere during World War II and are well aware of Greece’s never-repaid forced “loan” to the Nazis during that period. I’ve read somewhere that treaties have settled all of that already, but even if that is true, few people here can understand how Germans whose WWII debts were forgiven can refuse to forgive any Greek debts when doing so would, according to many mainstream economists, actually benefit the European economy and the very concept of a European Union (e.g. Greece's Crazy Leftists Have a Good Idea). Of course, everyone is aware of the fear of contagion: if Greece gets better terms, others will want them, too. But there’s also the fear of contagion if Greece defaults on its debt and leaves the Eurozone. The whole continent could become unhinged. Tricky politics here. Europe and the world need extremely skilled, well-considered, compassionate, and tactful diplomacy during the upcoming negotiations, since reputations and political gains and losses are at stake as well as (let the politicians remember!) the futures of countries, economies, and millions of human beings.

I’ve been troubled by many readers’ comments on recent news articles, in which ordinary Greeks are often held accountable for corrupt politicians’ and misguided bankers’ and economists’ mistakes, and Greeks are called lazy. It’s true that a large number of Greeks voted those politicians into power and stood by while a corrupt system continued to operate over the decades, many of them benefiting from it in some way. But they often felt they had little choice. That’s become especially apparent in recent elections, when so many Greeks have said they didn’t want to vote for anyone who was running for office. Controlled by oligarchs and based on patronage, the entire system seemed so overwhelmingly impenetrable to change, and so difficult to navigate with complete honesty, that most people didn’t know what to do.

This isn’t the place for a long philosophical consideration of how much responsibility citizens bear for governmental and systemic corruption in a democracy, or how much historical factors such as domination by foreign powers can warp a national mindset. (Certainly the answer to these questions would not be “none” or “not at all,” but I think the conclusion must also relate to how effectively those citizens are educated in ethics, logic, economics, and civics as well as history.) There are lazy Greeks as well as lazy Americans, Germans, Mexicans, and human beings in general, but there are many hard-working, dedicated, intelligent, talented, creative Greeks, too (see, e.g., Who works the longest hours in Europe?). I hope SYRIZA will manage to dismantle the system of corruption and mismanagement and replace it with enough logical organization and planning that Greeks’ talents and intelligence can have free reign to flourish. Can SYRIZA do that?

Although I’ve only heard a few people I know personally praise SYRIZA in my presence, I can’t help but be impressed by their goals of helping working and impoverished people, attacking corruption, cronyism, and nepotism, cutting unemployment, and restoring reduced pensions. I can’t help seeing how “Syriza’s victory is a milestone for Europe” since it is “the first anti-austerity party to take power in a eurozone country and to shatter the two-party establishment that has dominated Greek politics for four decades” (Greece Chooses Anti-Austerity Party in Major Shift). I just hope SYRIZA can find ways to make a lot of the positive changes they aim for without making Greece’s political and financial situation worse. I share many people’s doubts about whether the government is adequately unified, experienced, knowledgeable, skillful, and tactful to manage the situation in Greece and in Europe. But I am glad I’m not a politician or economist, and I’d hate to be responsible for this country right now, or in the coming weeks and months. Actually, I can’t imagine why anyone would want that job, but I hope those who have it do it well.


The Impressive, Productive Talent of Greeks

Back in late December and early January, Syntagma Square, home of the Greek Parliament, was nicely cleaned up, swept out, and bedecked for the holidays, with the protesting Syrian refugees removed from view, as I mentioned in my last blog post. However, in some of the dark alleys a few blocks behind Syntagma, graffiti caught my attention outside shops closed for a holiday break. There, it was just the scribbled graffiti that makes an area look slummy and neglected. On the other hand, talented artists had clearly been at work on the striking paintings near the Theater Under the Bridge in Neo Faliro, Pireaus (next to Athens), and underneath the Peace and Friendship Stadium across the highway from it. Skillfully rendered paintings of faces and a mask elevate and dignify those spaces, in stark contrast with the city of Pireaus’s neglect of the parks outside the nearby train station and stadium, where foot-high, wild-looking grass was being watered between rainy days in the rainy season, garbage lined sidewalks, and some (Roma?) people had set up a camp. It seemed clear to me that several painters’ voluntary labor had produced more public good than the wasteful, disorganized city and state. If only Greeks’ talents could be better used to improve the country as a whole! 

I witnessed another wonderful example of Greeks’ voluntary use of their talents in Chania, Crete in mid January at an amazing free performance of an adaptation of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Local students (aged 9 to 16) had been working on this musical for two years, and their hard work and ability was beautifully showcased in impressive singing whose quality far exceeded the solos and harmonization we managed in our public high school musicals in Pennsylvania decades ago (although we did better with acting, lighting, and sets, and we only worked on each musical for a few months, instead of two years). I don’t know if those kids realize how well they sang—Greeks singing in English, no less. Their director is a well-traveled music professor in his 80s who decided to undertake this probably unprecedented, certainly unpaid project in Greece, where the only musical most people have heard of is Annie. Since Greeks don’t tend to encourage boys to participate in such things, only a few boys were involved, and girls sang most of the boys’ and men’s parts—no doubt transposed by the director to soprano and alto, with lovely choral harmonization. I don’t know why he chose this musical when there were so few boys available, but perhaps he’d already settled on it before the auditions. Musically and socially, it worked beautifully as high-quality family entertainment for an enthusiastic crowd in a packed auditorium. Yes, many Greeks have striking talent, ability, drive, and motivation. Come on, politicians, let them develop that and use it well!


How to Pay for Emergency Surgery, Rent, Utilities, and Groceries?

I’ve also been struck by the drive, motivation, and work ethic of an Albanian immigrant here in Crete whom I’ve known for years. But in spite of working long hours, she and her husband barely manage to pay their family’s bills and buy food and clothes for their children. And they have no luck. Soon after my friend’s brother Nikolaos came to visit her from Albania, he began to suffer sudden, disabling pain in his abdomen that required emergency treatment in the local hospital. Although he had no health insurance to cover his expenses, he was operated on for a duodenal perforation, a life-threatening complication of an ulcer in the small intestine. Fortunately, while still very weak, he has been improving. His sister had to guarantee that his hospital bills would be paid, although she has no money to pay them. Nikolaos, unable to find work in poverty-stricken Albania, does not even have enough money to buy food and clothes for his five children (ages 4 ½ to 16). Yet he will not be allowed to return to Greece for the additional tests and treatment he requires unless his current hospital bills are paid soon. And his sister does not think he can get the treatment he needs in Albania.

Could you help this family by donating even one dollar (or euro)? The current bills for surgery and eleven days in the General Hospital of Chania in Crete, Greece add up to over 1,780 euros (about 2,009 dollars), and we don’t know how much more may be required later—or how soon Nikolaos will be able to work to buy the food his children need. Medical care costs less here in Greece than in many other countries, but the bills still seem astronomical to this family who can barely get by, however hard they work. (I’ve known my friend for years, and I don’t know a harder worker!) Hospital officials tell Nikolaos’s sister that they’ll come looking for her if she doesn’t pay, so she has requested salary advances to cover the first bill. But how is she supposed to pay her rent and bills and buy food for her children if she gives all her salary advances to the hospital? This family has no leeway for emergencies, and no collateral for a bank loan. There’s no safety net to catch her or her children here. Please help if you can by making a donation at this site. Every bit can help, and it’s easy to do.