Sunday, September 18, 2011

Reflections from a country on the verge



I do not eat fish.
Or Kalamata olives.
I call pouring milk into cereal or seasoning pop corn "cooking."

In some senses, I am a fraud of a Greek. If passports were earned on the basis of national stereotypes, my Greek one would have been revoked by now. And if not on the basis of disappointing foreigners by not wearing a toga and sandals every day, then certainly on the basis of my having whined all over the internet about how I am struggling to call my birthplace a home.

I do not watch TV here any more because real-life news resembles the most imaginary 'reality shows' in America. The whole country is on sale - if you were waiting for the right moment to buy the Port of Thessaloniki or some archaeological spaces or an island or two, this is your time. Inquire within.

There is a default watch, a ceaseless and invisible countdown clock that measures time until the country falls apart. Nobody is quite sure what that would look like, but we all know to be on the look-out nonetheless. Some think it will look like Argentina in the 1990s. Others think we will have to establish communes with shared responsibilities of cooking and living off the land to survive. Yet others, from the union of taxi drivers to the fans of a Thessaloniki soccer team, are taking to the streets to protest. What are they protesting? Anything from standardized cab fare to unfair soccer match refereeing to social injustice at large.

Like with any crime, everyone is wondering who "did it." Who brought us to the point at which corruption, bribery, bureaucracy and raging, blind taxation have won over meritocracy, the creation of opportunity, the fostering of innovation and the encouragement of effort? My generation of twenty-somethings, most of whom have not had a job in Greece and many of whom are still waiting for the universities to open or books to be printed in order to formally obtain their degrees, blame the generations above them. "We have been on this planet too little to have had time to mess it up."

I do not participate in the displays of public anger, not because I am not civic-minded or enraged about the social injustices here, but because I have come to firmly believe in non-violence. Earlier this summer, I found myself studying non-violent conflict and civil resistance. One of the points that recurred in the discussions was that when movements become violent, they often alienate individuals who would have affiliated with them on ideological grounds. Right now, I am that individual. I refuse to pluck sidewalk tiles off their place so I can throw them during a protest march. Another recurring point in my summer-time study was that when fractions of a movement become violent, they mar the message for the rest of the movement. Indeed, that is the case again: Students in my city have protested non-violently and yet, most protests now bear connotations of angry people, water hoses, and tear gas, overshadowing both the message and the means of those resisting peacefully.

I was on my way to a concert last night - a concert that featured bouzouki and baglamas and the sounds of growing up in Thessaloniki. The five women with whom I attended realized the leader of the opposition is speaking near the concert venue. "I hope we do not get tear gassed," said one of them and proceeded to continue getting excited about the vocal attributes of the lead female vocalist.

Through studies of history and social anthropology, I have often encountered the view that 'children' growing up in a recession, Depression or other hardship often become cynical parents. One of my greatest fears is becoming the parent who says no to a reasonable request from her child because "when I was growing up, did you know what we had to face?!" The self-righteousness of I-have-less-tender-memories-than-you-and-you-will-have-to-suffer-the-consequences makes me cringe. I asked one of my friends here if she thinks people are becoming cynical. Her name  means Joy. In our group, we also have Zwi, which means Life, and our fair share of Maria's and Eleni's to still be Greek. Even my name is incongruent here; one of the women with whom I shared wine and music last night noted that I should start my own home-made handbag line with a name like that.

My friend thought about whether living here during this time is making her cynical and she said: "Look, Roxanne. If anything, I think it is making me more of a romantic. I think about the things nobody can take away from us. I think about love and affection and friendship and sharing wine, whether it's at a tavern or from the grocery store, or whether there's no wine at all and we're sitting at the benches with our friends. There are some things nobody can take away from you, no government, no economic crisis, no austerity measures - and you remember these things right now."

It is these women's beliefs in romance that makes me believe. It is their commitment to finding and creating joy and laughter even while the invisible clock of default is ticking in the background that feeds my faith in humanity. It is their kindness, their curiosity about the world beyond, their desire to get up and fight for themselves every day that replenishes my hope. I got to know these women as my cousin's classmates and everybody's cousin is a cousin of yours here too. They have embraced me with warmth and with their lack of cynicism. They have counseled me to turn off the TV, put on music, pour a glass of wine, and breathe into a paper bag when it all gets too much. They sang next to me while Yiota Nega crooned Eleftheria Arvanitaki's song, Edw na meineis: "You should stay here." I may not eat Kalamata olives or fish, but I have found the little slice of Greece that is still resonant with my memories, I have found the Joy and Life and Elenis and Nikoletas and Ioannas who will keep me coming back. Now the trick is to stop ourselves from imagining what the country will look like next time I get off the plane.

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