Monday, October 22, 2012

The Calm before the Storm, Part 1: August in Athens

I am just now looking back to August and September, because life intervened to steal my writing time, as it has for mothers across the continents and centuries. In my case, the more there is to write about, the less time there is to write.

Back to August 16, when we were lucky enough to travel from Chania to Pireas on a much newer ANEK ferry boat than usual: the Elyros, rather than another that appears to be decades old. So we spent part of our seven hour journey admiring impressively curving stairways and gleaming railings, eating our lunch in a cafeteria with a glittering sea view and expansive mirrors. That was the day after the holiday celebrating the Assumption of the Virgin—the major holiday of midsummer, the most important of several days honoring the Virgin Mary (Maria or the Panayota), and name day for many of the Greeks named “Maria,” “Panayota,” or “Panayotis.” We were doing things backwards, leaving a Greek island to vacation in Athens just as most Athenians with adequate means left Athens to vacation on the islands. While this exposed us to the scorching heat of an Athenian summer, it also left us with more parking spaces than we’d find at any other time of the year and, in some places and times, an astonishing sense of solitude and quiet in a city that’s now in turmoil. Whether businesses were closed for an August vacation, or they had gone bankrupt due to the economic crisis, I sometimes felt like I was walking through a ghost town.

The day after our arrival, we gave in to our kids’ echoing appeals and took them to their favorite place: the three-block-long series of playgrounds near the Parko Flisvo tram stop in Paleo Faliro. When I first saw those colorful climbing, running, sliding, hiding castle- and boat-like creations, I was amazed by their scale and variety. My childhood self retrospectively envied my children—how I would have delighted in such playgrounds! Unfortunately, the municipality partly ruined the effect by inserting in the middle of an open space a number of completely unnecessary electric kiddy rides for which we must pay a euro or two if we decide to appease the desires they create. I have complained to the attendant about this devious plot to extract money from parents and distract children from healthy exercise. But we still arrange to meet friends with children at this spot where the kids are delighted to spend time—even if actually keeping track of them can be challenging enough to make conversation difficult. This August was the first time we unexpectedly chanced upon friends there—one of my oldest Greek friends, whom I’d met in 1991, with her husband and young son.

One evening at a restaurant, four couples, plus our own two kids, savored the best meat I’d eaten in a decade—steak from Kansas, where my grandfather once raised beef cattle! While another mother kindly distracted my daughter, I attempted a mental juggling act that caused me great confusion: I struggled to resurrect my long-lost Spanish, conversing with a Spanish woman who’s learning Greek but—as I then mistakenly believed--didn’t know English. Since my Spanish seldom came to mind, I tried Greek and then asked for the Spanish translation. I’d known for years that my limited Greek had usurped the space in my brain that Spanish once occupied. Never a very successful foreign language scholar, I felt my mind tied in knots by multilingual gymnastics conducive to much worse than mixed metaphors. However, my new Spanish friend and I enjoyed laughing over our efforts and taught my young son a few Spanish words. Meanwhile, others in our group—economists, an engineer, a scientist, all with graduate degrees—debated the political situation in Greece. They argued about whether Greece will still leave the euro, whether it might end up with two currencies, whether the euro zone will disintegrate, whether a new political party or only a martyr could save Greece, what could make most Greek people accept necessary changes to the current entitlement mentality and society. I don’t think this was so much about whether to help needy people, but more about so many Greek people believing they are entitled to a great deal, without necessarily contributing to society. This brings to mind a typical situation at a public office recently: while a long line of citizens waited in vain for assistance, two employees engaged in casual conversation.

Given the economic situation, we needed to buy as many as possible of our kids’ shoes and clothes for the coming school year in the Athens area; Chania’s prices are simply insane to anyone who hasn’t lived there all her life (49 euros for kids’ canvas sneakers that don’t last half a year, for example; 70 and up for better kids’ shoes). In Pireas, though, within a ten minute walk of D’s mom’s house, there’s a sort of outlet mall with many durable brands at very low prices. After many hours of careful, tedious, tiring shopping, mostly at Orchestra for the kids, I emerged triumphant with 32 items for 189 euros. We managed to buy the kids some good fall/winter leather shoes for 25 euros each at the nearby Crocodilino, and found some 20 and 30 euro partly leather Puma sneakers at the outlets. As long as one doesn’t mind sale items from last year’s stock—which is all the same to me, since I prefer the comfortable, durable, economical, and practical to the fashionable—those are the places to shop. And indeed these very affordable stores are the ones that thrive now, while others are nearly deserted, and many businesses have closed.

I can’t decide whether there were more beggars or wandering immigrant salespeople in the Athens area this time, or not. For years, any time we’ve sat at a café in a tourist area, we have been beseeched by Roma children with flowers or instruments and outstretched hands, strong mothers carrying heavy babies, and immigrants selling cheap watches, CDs, or toys, one after another, in a procession of appeals and sales pitches. Most urban train rides continue to feature musicians, individuals selling tissue packs, or people who are disabled and/or unemployed, or have sick family members, telling their stories and appealing for help, moving from one car to another at the stations. Many display ID cards and some sort of medical documentation. In August, one middle aged man tried to convince train passengers that he deserved assistance because he was an unemployed Greek, rather than a foreigner. Two dark-skinned teenage accordionists surprised me with their unusually beautiful duet. Near Thisseio metro station, an unaccompanied five or six year old musician wore an oversized cowboy hat. And in the resort town of Xylocastro, an energetic foursome entertained taverna patrons with a miniature circus of contortion, music, dance, clowning, and juggling with fiery torches. That I'd never seen before. Nor had I seen dark-skinned immigrants selling sunglasses and hats on beaches in the Athens area and beyond, as I did this year.

There probably are more people begging for help, or desperately trying to sell whatever they can, and there are certainly more police on the streets and sidewalks, more security personnel in bullet-proof vests around stores and the metro, and more security scanners in stores. D’s mom lives close to the neighborhood police officers’ favorite corner, not far from one of the many new pawn shops that have sprung up in the Athens area. I was surprised to see its window proclaim that it deals in not only gold, but also cars and real estate. They’re ready for any level of Greeks’ desperation. At the other end of Athens, on a trip to the Best Wildlife Photography of the Year exhibit, which inspired me to take better, more careful photos—with a better, more expensive camera than I’m likely to have in the foreseeable future--I managed one or two quick shots of the cool, impressively massive Mall of Athens before a security guard informed me that I must turn off my camera. I’d never heard of photos being prohibited in malls, but apparently that’s another security measure meant to stop thieves from finding ways to scale four or five story walls unseen by security personnel, so they can enter through skylights James Bond style to steal some expensive shoes or handbags…. 

 Graffiti in Athens and Pireas has become more colorful and pointed than I remember, with the exterior of some trains almost completely covered in rainbows of designs and nearly illegible lettering. The interiors feature such hastily scribbled comments (in Greek) as “Fascists we don’t wait for you we look for you,” an anarchist’s call for confrontation with the neo-Nazi extremists who have gained in popularity during the economic crisis. Another message urges, “F-ing idiot Greek wake up, stop the idiocy.” On the other hand, outside the Olympiacos soccer stadium in Neo Faliro, where we attended a free practice session with the kids, one wall advertised “Olympiacos fanatics,” while a block away “Olympiacos fans against fanatics” responded. The best painting under a highway underpass near the soccer stadium—a site surrounding the Theater Under the Bridge which is always filled with street art rather than quickly spray-painted slogans—is the most elegantly significant graffiti I’ve seen this year: two blue and white hands nearly cupped, raised up to catch a falling, flaming euro coin—or have they just released the coin and thrown it up, ablaze?

As part of my escape from the Eurozone crisis, I enjoyed rambling around the semi-familiar narrow streets of Plaka and Monastiraki, whose main thoroughfares seemed full enough of tourists, past the handsome neoclassical buildings and houses juxtaposed with tourist shops. I appreciate striking glimpses of the Acropolis and other pillars, towers, arches and walls, which are particularly imposing in their dramatic illumination at night. Since we’d completely upset our kids’ (and our own) sleep schedule by hiding from the heat wave until after 6:00 p.m. and then returning home around midnight (after which we’d sleep through most of the morning), we ended up visiting the magnificent Acropolis Museum during its extended hours on a Friday evening. We’d been there before by day, when the kids were too young to allow us more than a quick survey of the museum’s amazing architecture, its fascinating views of ongoing archeological digs under the floors, outside and in, its extensive collection of ancient marble and bronze sculpture, its re-creation of the top of the Parthenon, and its awe-inspiring views of the Acropolis. This time, I was even more entranced by the views and reflections of night. On the top floor, the radiant white of the marble that Lord Elgin did not take to England—the sculptures of men and women, goddesses and gods, horses and symbols--compete for attention with the lit-up Parthenon that once housed them, which we view through windows that reflect back the sculpture as if to reunite monument and adornments separated by people and time. 

A short film in English and Greek (alternately, every 12 or 13 minutes) explains the history of the Acropolis, with such a moving appeal for the return of the surviving Parthenon sculptures that our young son expressed outrage at the destruction of some and removal of others—the son who’d been drawn into the museum by the film in the lobby that gave him things to look for in the collection and helped divert him when he began to get bored. (Look, here’s an owl! There’s a horse! Oh, a calf! And some arrows!) Our daughter, who’d started studying Greek mythology and ancient history in school last year (they really do begin at the beginning in third grade history here!), was so interested that she wanted to look at every item in the museum, but we couldn’t manage that either before closing time or before our younger son ran out of patience. I thought we did well to last an hour and a quarter before emerging to admire the museum’s architecture in front of the Acropolis, with both dazzlingly illuminated in the total darkness. If people visit one museum in Greece, the Acropolis Museum should be the one. If Greeks can build a museum like this, perhaps they can make their way out of this crisis to build a better society. Like two of the promising young boys in my neighborhood, the Acropolis Museum gives me hope for Greece.

D and I enjoyed another breathtaking view of the Acropolis one night when we left the kids (at last!) with their grandmother and aunt to join some old Princeton friends at a penthouse apartment in Kolonaki featuring balconies with views of much of Athens. On one side, the church of St. Dionisis; on another, Mt. Lykavittos; across from that, the Acropolis; below and around it all, the city lights. There we discussed the future of Greece (with some former advisors to two Greek prime ministers unassumingly present among friends). The conclusion of these well to do intellectuals seems to be that the current course of austerity and reform intended to keep Greece in the euro zone is the best of the evils—or at least they can offer no better alternative. However, some admit that more attention needs to be paid to fairness to those in need, vs. the wealthy who can better afford—and, literally, survive—“belt tightening” which can mean life or death for the impoverished and depressed rather than merely an end to selected luxuries. Everyone here knows that the suicide rate in Greece has risen dramatically in recent years, as people who once lived decent lives are reduced to scrounging through garbage bins for food, hoping to find space in homeless shelters instead of sleeping on the streets, while others can’t afford train or bus fare for transport to doctors’ appointments, and may not be able to afford or find the medications they need.
We, on the other hand, are fortunate enough to have friends who invite us to visit them in lovely places, and so far we can still afford to get to some of them. So we managed to even escape from our escape by driving to Xylocastro, one of the beach resort towns within one or two hours’ drive of Athens. While I wouldn’t say the pebbly beach or deep blue waters rival those of Crete, the pine forest and view of Mt. Parnassus across the Corinthian Gulf provided a refreshing site for our more or less relaxed visit—more or less depending on how cooperative our kids were, and especially how much the other two couples’ two one year olds were crying, fussing, or otherwise demanding attention. So we lounged on seaside sunbeds and swam, trying to keep the kids in the shade of the palm frond umbrellas, or walked through the long leaf pine forest next to the beach to rock one of the babies to sleep in his stroller (bringing back vivid memories of such times with my kids). Returning to Athens in the dark, we drove past the spectacular lights and fire-shooting smokestacks of the Elefsina oil refineries by full moonlight for a much more intriguing view than the exhaust we see and smell there by day. Then, to my astonishment, the flashing lights of a police car slowed traffic ahead of the first night-time road construction site I’d ever seen in Greece—at 11:00 p.m. in August, month of vacations, no less (although D is sure the workers were not actually Greek, but immigrants). We continued past the Vromiko (meaning “Dirty”) café, followed by the “Godfather of the Dirty One’s” café, toward the illuminated Mt. Lykavittos. But our most impressive landmark was the Straits of Corinth, where we stopped to show the kids the deep canal illuminated by both electricity and the full moon.

Coming soon: The Calm before the Storm, Part 2:  Retreat from Reality (Early September in Southern Crete).  Then back to real life.

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