August 15, 2012 § 5 Comments

There are two ways of traveling: you can travel around the world, or you can find a good spot and let the world travel to you. To understand what you see, though, you must be skilled in both modes of travel. Knowledge you obtain by actually traveling can’t be replaced by whatever you might see from your spot, your point of view. And if you’re unable to sit somewhere quietly and patiently, to watch, listen, and reflect on what you see, traveling might take you farther but not much further.

A couple of weeks ago, I travelled  from home back to home. Then, I mostly sat somewhere and watched the world walk by.

At a Greek police station:

I had to renew my passport. In Greece, you do that at the police station in the district of your birth. What does that tell us? For my part, this is an unacceptable remnant of a strongly authoritative state with a dictatorship in the not very remote past. The police station was in a terribly old building, and the passport office was a two-room facility with two officers working in the bigger room – which still was not big enough – while the smaller room, with a hypofunctioning air conditioner, was packed with people waiting to have a passport issued or renewed. The officers replied curtly, often coarsely, to our questions about the procedures, mostly addressing women in the singular, although in formal situations like this, the plural would be appropriate. They spoke “loudly and clearly”  (I bet you can imagine the tone of that) to anyone whose Greek was not good enough. The door between the two offices was constantly open, so there was no privacy. We could hear all the personal information of people in the office, and they could eavesdrop on any discussion taking place in our waiting room. A tiny model of a police state, indeed. Naturally, bored by waiting, and being the deeply democratic creatures we are, we soon started communicating conspiratorily via eye contact, small sighs, and tongue clicks, commenting this way on our Kafkaesque powerlessness. But apart from this discomfiting situation, looking around at the people waiting with me in that room, I couldn’t help but notice two things: first, I found most of them very simpatico, and second, half of them were underage children.

I thought about these two observations and knew very quickly that for sure all these families waiting here with me, in the middle of the biggest financial crisis in postwar European history – and in the middle of an August heatwave on top of it – didn’t need a passport in order to attend big family gatherings abroad. No, as small talk with one or two of them confirmed later, they were all preparing their papers for emigration. And these emigrants were a different kind from those Greece had sent abroad in previous times of poverty: these were young, smart, educated, and multilingual, let down and terribly disappointed by their own country.

Greece is debt-ridden, in recession for the fifth straight year, with an unemployment rate that has reached 23.1 % . It is no less politically bankrupt, as it has lost its sovereignty to a foreign troika that controls its finances, and beyond that, most of its political decisions, too. It also faces an incredible rise in suicides, crime, neo-fascism, and xenophobia. Depression is the right term for the economic situation, and depression is the right term for the emotional state of mind in the country’s inhabitants. These people felt, a couple of years ago, politically and financially secure in the European family, and then woke up broke and deep in debt, denounced as lazy and corrupt, laughed at and despised. And though there might be fire with any smoke, thus truth in all of this too, I feel that in this case, the smoke has already blinded viewers too much, and maybe for too long.

When I was a young child, just after the end of the dictatorship (1974), and before Greece entered the European Community in 1981, not all of the roads in my village (which was not even one of the most remote in the mountains, but near the sea, a few kilometres from Corinth and just 90 kilometres from Athens) were paved, many families had no car or colour TV (sometimes not even a TV at all), and most of the houses had no central heating; there was no kindergarten, and the elementary school had just three teachers for all six grades. There was no health centre around either. All of these were in place by the end the eighties. All of these have cost money, money which has been borrowed abroad. Yes, money flew in and also flew away: tax evasion, corruption, structural problems, etc., – all of this occurred, sure, but there was also a lot of building, learning, and educating, working and dreaming, too. Greece suffers from a modern Ikaros syndrome: too high too soon. Nobody really cared where the money came from as long as it kept coming. “I do blame our parents”, said a guy in his late thirties who was waiting for a passport for his four-year-old daughter, “but I blame our ‘partners’ in Europe, too, for they made good money with us building this infrastructure, and they’ll make good money by using us as cheap slaves now, too.” Yes, people are bitter in Greece.

On my way out of the police station, an older man who had briefly entered the waiting room but had exited in a rushed way approached me and asked me for help. Could I fill in the documents he needed for his passport? “I can speak Greek but I cannot write it.” Mr Mohamed H. was born in 1945 in Cairo, Egypt, had a Greek ID, was a Greek citizen. Does he want to leave the country, I asked him? No, not yet, but it’s so difficult to find jobs. He used to work mostly in the building industry. “People sell their homes now. They don’t build new ones.”

How true that was I found out for myself the next day. I jumped out of my car to take a photo of a house. I don’t really know why anymore. The house doesn’t look as if it was worth a photo in the photo now. I remember that its sober architecture in the evening light had seemed to me so “European” – as we used to say when I was young – but the name of the street, Pelopos, was just provisionally written on the wall with graffiti spray, very much the Greek way. I had no time to focus my lens on it before a man rushed out of the next house, introducing himself as a real estate agent, informing me that the house was for sale and giving me all the details.

At the beach:

I love the sea. I was born next to the sea. When I’m back in Greece I spend most of my time – just like any tourist who wouldn’t give a damn what’s going on in the country – at the beach. Except I do care what’s going on. I care a great deal. I lived the first twenty-one years of my life in this country, and although I have lived the same number of years abroad, my bonds are strong because I have parents, a sister, and family there. Do you see the crisis at the beach? No, not at first glance. It’s August, our summer’s emperor. Masses of people are swimming and sunbathing, and the tavernas seem full. But if you take a closer look, you’ll see that most are ordering refreshments only, or just the minimum for a lunch. One or two times I also saw families with kids (using the excuse of the kids’ preferences) unpacking things they brought from home. Do I feel sorry for them? No, not really. This is not poverty.

Poverty exists already widely in Greece, though, especially in the big cities, where in certain areas it’s impossible to ignore the number of homeless, drug addicts, or large groups of illegal immigrants hanging around without work. No, this is not poverty yet. This is the first shadow and the fear of it.

And the fear of poverty is lethal.

There are organized areas of the long beach at the Corinthian Gulf with cocktail bars and beach chairs. I go there sometimes, but I mostly prefer the quieter sections of the beach between those parts. I lie on the rough tenderness and warmth of the pebbles, white in their dryness and colourful as soon as the waves swallow them; I read there, enjoy the sea, and watch the people. Among them, immigrants walk non-stop up and down the beach in the blazing heat, selling hats, beach dresses, junk jewellery, tattoos, pirated CDs, etc. They are trapped with us in this downward spiral and, as always and everywhere, they become the easiest to blame.

Just a couple of years ago, Greeks used to look at them and feel almost proud of the prosperity that allowed this kind of illegal business. Now, in the turmoil of the financial crisis, they’re reminders of exactly the prosperity that is lost. The neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn, got into the Greek parliament with 7% of the vote. There has always been xenophobia in Greece, just like everywhere else, but the majority of it was without the misanthropy of racism and Nazism. The first wave of immigrants came from the Balkans after the fall of the Soviet Union. In the beginning of the nineties, Greece for the first time was overwhelmed with something it had known only the other way around: sending immigrants to other countries instead of receiving them.

Times were still very good, though: a waxing economy, a great need for working hands, and the fact that the Greeks knew these neighbours well from previous contacts/clashes in history. A bit of a turmoil in the beginning and then everything settled down to, if not love, then normal levels of mutual prejudice. But the next immigration wave after 9/11, the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and all the other political troubles in the Middle East and North Africa, found Greece unprepared. Greece had just began to implement the Schengen Agreement(25 March 2000) and was overwhelmed by the increasing numbers of immigrants (thanks to the better organisation of criminal facilitators day by day), while the state lost control due to indifference, corruption, lack of experience and incompetence. And then the financial crisis came and Golden Scums could spread their poison on fertile ground.

At the cocktail bar:

At one of the cocktail bars with beach chairs, a woman, dyed blond, came up to the chairs next to me, along with her two children. Sunglasses, hat, beach bags, almost all she wore were fake designer articles bought by the foreign street vendors. The children stretched their bath towels across their chairs. A street vendor walked by and was waved away. “Children, from tomorrow on, we’ll bring our straw mats, too. Our towels shouldn’t be put directly onto these chairs. The Pakistani sleep on them at night.”

(In my next travelogue: More about why there’s no place on earth in which to love your body more than Greece.)


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