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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.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Poverty and Prosperity, Politics and Parties, Protests at Parliament, but No President: December in Crete and Athens


Poverty: Clothes and Shoes Cast Off and Passed On

When I first saw an abandoned shoe on some rugged rocks near the sea beyond the dead end of a gravel road leading out of our neighborhood, I thought it might be the beginning of a fictional mystery. When I saw a small package deep in a water hole nearby, I imagined smugglers making secret trips to that rocky coast to deliver contraband goods to the occasional pickup truck drivers I passed on my walks out that way. However, the few people I saw there seemed to be fishing, and I began to notice  abandoned shoes in other places as well. A dirty, smashed, nondescript sneaker near a dumpster. A black shoe with laces in the road. A pair of children’s sneakers neatly aligned next to another dumpster.

So what’s the story with abandoned shoes in this country, I wondered? Why haven’t I seen so many in the U. S.? Since I’ve been writing and thinking more about the reality of life in Greece and real Greeks today, I don’t think it’s so much of a mystery. It’s more a matter of what people do with things they don’t need any longer, and what people and animals do with what’s thrown away as garbage here. Generally speaking, Greeks are certainly more careless about littering than Americans; garbage can be found scattered all over the place. The strong winds don’t help any; nor do the stray cats that jump into the dumpsters in search of food or the stray dogs that pull apart whatever’s left outside of dumpsters. But in these years of economic crisis, I don’t think most people throw potentially useful things deep into dumpsters. There are no yard sales or garage sales here, but people pass children’s clothes and shoes around the neighborhood or family until they fall apart, or they give them to the church or to people they know. Even middle-class Greeks have become less ashamed to take hand-me-downs than they used to be. There’s always someone who needs something now. People hang articles of clothing and umbrellas over the side of a dumpster or leave toys, furniture, and shoes next to it. Then the junk man or woman, Roma, or destitute people come along and take what they can use or sell. They also root through what has been thrown into the dumpster to be sure they don’t miss anything—an increasingly common sight in recent years.


Enough Prosperity for Parties?

During the first few weeks in December, the people I know in Crete seemed to be more focused on their own personal lives and families than on political developments here in Greece. One family has been mourning the grandfather who passed away last month. His forty-day memorial service occurred the same day as the school Christmas party and my daughter’s classmate’s birthday party, and the day after a neighbor girl’s birthday party. Many families have managed to celebrate this month, even if they are concerned about their children’s progress in school (since they got their grades for the first term in mid December) or how they’ll pay all their bills on top of the increased taxes the Greek state has thrown at ordinary citizens to make up for their failure to collect from large-scale tax evaders or otherwise compensate for governmental overspending and corruption over the decades. Of course, when I discuss birthday parties I’m talking about the families who have been able to remain in the middle class rather than the increasing numbers crowding in with relatives, splitting one paycheck among three generations, or turning to soup kitchens, churches, dumpsters, and Doctors of the World for free food, clothing, and health care (see, e.g., Greek Patience With Austerity Nears Its Limit and Crisis stretches welfare groups, prompts a change in tactics.) There was some discussion about the local government at one party, but otherwise I heard little about politics in my own relatively privileged circles in Crete, even though almost everyone seems to have to cut back on spending because of lower incomes and higher taxes. 



Politics, But No President

However, the political news has had more of a sobering effect on late December social gatherings here in Athens and its next-door neighbor Piraeus, where we’ve come to spend the holidays with family and friends. Imagine this: as the U. S. finally seems to be emerging from another Great Depression, a supermajority in Congress has to approve the President’s candidate for a Prime Minister who functions as a figurehead much like the British queen; if not, the constitution mandates elections within a month for the President and all members of Congress. Since Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on the candidate, the jobs of all members of Congress as well as the President are in jeopardy, all at once, leading to uncertainty that destabilizes the still foundering economy. –Sound ridiculous and impossible? In spite of U. S. government shutdowns, I think so. Yet that’s what has happened in Greece. Of course, here in Greece, it’s the conservative/centrist New Democracy (Nea Dimokratia) Prime Minister’s candidate for a ceremonial President that failed to win approval by the opposition party, the leftist coalition SYRIZA, as well as a host of other small parties. So the country is headed for national elections on January 25, and Europe is nervous.

The temperature dropped in Athens yesterday, plummeting from highs in the 60s last week to around freezing, with some freezing rain, sleet and snow in some areas. But things are heating up politically, since the upcoming elections throw Greece’s relationship with the troika, its creditors, and the euro into question. On January 25, Greeks fed up with austerity will decide whether the conservative New Democracy Prime Minister Antonis Samaras (and his increasingly irrelevant socialist coalition partner PASOK) should continue on his euro-friendly course of harsh reform and overwhelming debt or step aside for SYRIZA’s radical leftist Alexis Tsipras, who no longer wants to leave the euro but continues to promise to renegotiate Greece’s debt agreement, seek at least some debt forgiveness, and reverse many of the austerity measures that have led to more than 25% unemployment, a one third drop in household incomes, reductions in healthcare benefits, and severe increases in taxes over the past six years of Greece’s version of the Great Depression (Greek Patience With Austerity Nears Its Limit).

SYRIZA supporters are delighted by this chance to bring their party into power, since it leads New Democracy by 3 to 4.5% in the latest polls, although one poll paradoxically said one third of its respondents would prefer a New Democracy-led coalition while only 24% want a coalition led by SYRIZA (Opinion poll lead for Greece's anti-bailout party narrows). So it is likely but not certain that SYRIZA will win the election but less likely that it can attract enough votes to lead the country on its own, as opposed to forming a new coalition that would take over responsibility for whatever may happen next here. Everyone I talk to who’s not a SYRIZA supporter seems to doubt that there will be any improvement. Some say the future of Greece will be in SYRIZA’s hands and depends on what they dare to ask of creditors and the troika; others say it’s up to the troika and Greece’s creditors, and how much they are willing to give back to the millions of Greeks and immigrants who have suffered poverty, illness, desperation, and hunger here, not just “made sacrifices” for the sake of too much reform too fast at the wrong time. Of course, first it’s up to voters to decide whom to trust with Greece’s next step—a perplexing question, given the failure of so many Greek politicians to put the country’s affairs in order. Sure, Greece needed to make a lot of changes, and sure, many were able to comfortably give up something, with money left over for parties—but others were not. They are the ones who used to be gainfully employed but now turn to unemployment agencies, charities, and even garbage bins. This is not an exaggeration. Now, how much can you ask struggling people to endure when they don’t know how to pay their bills? How far should you push people toward desperation? Where will those pushes take Greece and Europe now?

Now, everyone’s talking about whether SYRIZA will be able to govern on its own, or with whom it could form a new coalition government, what the latest polls say about the decreasing size of SYRIZA’s lead, and what a new government will mean for Greece. SYRIZA, once a proponent of a return to the drachma, has sounded less extreme for some time now, so its leaders don’t seem likely to go that far (see e.g. The Question Hanging Over Greek Debt). But many argue that austerity cannot be ended and the debt cannot be evaded if Greece is to stay with the euro (see e.g. The angry kingmakers), so no one knows what will happen. Like many, I am infuriated by statements like this one by Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, which show a complete lack of understanding of the serious problems caused by austerity measures: “We will continue to help Greece to help itself on its path of reforms” (quoted in Europe Braces for Economic Fallout as Greece Heads to Early Elections). German officials have not helped Greece help Greeks at all; they have helped impose harmful measures that increased unemployment and deepened the Greek depression. I can certainly understand most Greeks’ desire for a change in government, although I don’t know if such a change will bring improvement.

The Price of Prosperity

Improvement is clearly needed, and fast. Half of one highly educated family I know in Crete is preparing to move to the U. S. for a better-paying academic job; another is considering an offer in Kazakhstan; a third family is divided between Athens and Dubai. The brain drain that’s been going on for years continues; as the brightest and best educated leave the country in search of better jobs and opportunities, I wonder who will be left to offer Greece hope for the future. Here in Neo Faliro, Piraeus, the owner of a small grocery store that never seems to have many customers says she wishes things would at least stay the same, but instead they keep getting worse all the time; now, with the plight of Greece once again thrown into doubt, people are afraid to buy much for Christmas. They don’t dare to purchase a lot of heating oil, even with prices far below last year’s (Uncertainty sees fuel demand revert to crisis level), so my coat again smells like wood smoke after an evening stroll. Even in the showy bakeries full of tree-shaped Christmas cakes covered with green icing and round New Year’s cakes, counters covered in Greek sweets, and huge mounds of snowy, powdered sugary kourambiedes and spicy, syrupy brown melomakarona, a saleswoman said people are not buying as much as they used to. An Albanian immigrant working at another bakery, clearly exhausted since they’ve been open almost constantly these days, unlike the regular stores that close December 25-26 and January 1-2, assured me that it’s still much better here than in Albania—although one of her compatriots and news reports tell me that many Albanians have returned home because that’s not true for them.

No More Protest Outside Parliament

It looks like it must be better here than Albania when we head to outlets where the parking lot is packed and a salesclerk wishes to escape the Athens crowds for a smaller town or an island like Crete. It looks better yet in Syntagma Square, in front of the Parliament building during the changing of the guard, with no protesting Syrian refugees camped out to block Athenians’ and tourists’ view of the traditional giant boat outlined in white lights, the tall trees growing in the square that are festooned with more little white lights or hung with blue and white stars and circles. The protesting refugees were removed in the middle of the night on December 15, by some accounts “without incidents” (Syrian Refugees Removed from Syntagma Square), by others with one refugee injured and many forced to leave behind their identification documents and their belongings—even shoes (Police remove Syrian refugees from Syntagma). Apparently the government had been negotiating with them, offering immediate asylum with refugee status and access to health care, although it did not promise housing to any but the most vulnerable women and children. I haven’t been able to learn much more about the refugees since they’ve been taken away, but at least the government made a clean sweep of the sidewalk so pedestrians can enjoy the lights, the Santas, and the oddly incongruous oversized Micky and Minnie Mouse, Dora, and Sponge Bob for the holidays. At least the opposition (SYRIZA) couldn’t complain about refugees protesting across the street from Parliament as they objected to the government’s candidate for President.

But Impoverished Immigrants and Greeks Are Still Begging for Change

I was surprised by a beggar inside the McDonald’s at Syntagma which I tend to visit about once a year, largely to remind myself that once a year is enough. The young man, who looked like he might be Filipino, foraged in the papers on the tray left next to me and took a bite out of the remains of a sandwich. He said something about taking food from garbage because he’s hungry, and requested money. Since I’d never seen anyone begging inside an indoor restaurant, I was too surprised to ask him about his background, so I just gave him some change and wished him well. Another immigrant, a Black man from Cyprus and the Republic of Congo (we didn’t quite understand in what sense), told a longer, more rambling story on the train than I’d ever heard from anyone requesting sympathy and money. Begging has been common in Athens for many years, and we still see many Roma women and children begging and trying to sell balloons and roses, but the face of some of the Athenian beggars seems to be changing. More of the impoverished in Greece are now native Greeks. Krishna Guha, head of global policy research at Evercore ISI, has written, “The entire eurozone is in a race against time to achieve the necessary economic adjustments and deliver stronger growth and jobs before the politics breaks” (A View From Abroad). Greece has lost that race.

A Show of Prosperity for the New Year?

Even so, Athens is trying to put on a happy face in Syntagma and the surrounding streets, with starry lights strung across some roads and white walls of lights covering most of a large mall whose shop windows are inexplicably filled with colorful, exotic Orientalist scenes of masked mannequins, dragons, and rickshaws. For me, the plethora of English-language novels in Public, a store reminiscent of Barnes and Noble, was enough of an exotic delight; I hadn’t seen so many outside my own house since I was last in the U. S., let alone spoken with a saleswoman who admitted they should have Louise Erdrich’s books and does intend to order them. The rest of that store was not the calm haven of that English-language book section, but more of a Christmas madhouse of toy and electronics shoppers, much like the overcrowded local supermarket and bakery on the days before Christmas and New Year’s. At least the Athenian strays seem calmer than the ones in our Cretan neighborhood.

In Crete, I left behind the first gorgeous crocuses, early purple anemones, and vast, flourishing wild shrubs full of verbena’s multicolored florets. Here, I saw more orange and green than anything else on my Christmas day walk, although I think most of the oranges here are the bitter ones used to make spoon sweets, rather than the sweet fruits of Crete. Look at that: now I’m not only nostalgic for the U. S. at Christmas and New Year’s—which I am, very much missing my family, friends, snow, ice skating, cozy homes, familiar customs, and favorite foods and scents there—I’m even nostalgic for Crete! Well, that’s where we are putting down roots now. We have a lot of rainbows there, and the rescued kittens that live near some neighborhood dumpsters are growing, even if their shaggy fur is sometimes wet. 

I wish everyone a warm, safe home with people they love, adequate clothing and shoes, the education they need to prepare for a decent life, plenty of healthy food to eat, good health and healthcare, and hope and peace in the new year and beyond. As Greeks say, Χρόνια Πολλά, Hrone-yuh Poe-lah, or many years of good health to you!


Footnote: Avoiding a New Plague?

In the most prominent spot next to the Theater Under the Bridge (Theatro Kato Apo tin Gefira) near the train station in Neo Faliro, Pireaus, a graffiti artist once painted a flaming euro coin above open blue hands; it was later replaced by an illuminated candle. (See my October 2012 blog for the flaming euro.) Now, that has been replaced by an impressive painting of a mannequin in a 17th century European plague doctor’s mask. I have been thinking about the symbolism of this, since I considered the previous paintings in that spot highly symbolic. Before I understood what I was seeing, I thought of a mask used to protect protestors from riot police’s tear gas, and this could be part of the allusion. However, since there have been few riots in Athens this year, there may well be a stronger as well as more direct allusion to a plague—and the question of what kind of plague has struck Greece, what is its source, and how people can protect themselves against it.