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.

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