Athens: business as usual?

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Athens, 5 June 2012

Well, here we are in the Greek capital. After Rome last week, it seemed the natural place to be. Also, we are sure that US author Gore Vidal would agree that Athens is as good a vantage-point as Rome from which to observe the last days of a dying civilization (see “Roma felix” our post for 24 May 2012).  Which, of course, is why we have pitched up here. We thought we would like to have a last look at Greece before the warm waters of the Mediterranean opened up and swallowed it whole.

All the same, we already began to have some doubts about this apocalyptic scenario back at the airport in Paris. Our fellow travellers on Aegean Airlines flight A3611 were not dressed in rags and feeding on dripping. In fact the scene at Charles de Gaulle was much what it is at any time when you board a flight for Greece: French holiday-makers, Greeks returning home, American college students on the Grand Tour, etc. None of them looked unduly perturbed at the prospect of the catastrophic scenes of decline and deprivation that they were shortly to witness. In fact, the lady sitting next to us on the plane turned out to be a doctor heading for a medical seminar in Crete. Quizzing her, we got the distinct impression that she was totally unaware of the incontrovertible fact – fully acknowledged by the rest of the universe – that Greece is now a financial basket case facing irreversible economic meltdown. Still, we thought, these medics, maybe they don’t get out much.

However, when we landed two and a half hours later to find an egg-shell blue sky – these guys don’t do clouds – and a temperature of 25° C at Venizelos Airport, we were gobsmacked to find that it was just like any other airport. Families waiting to greet arriving relatives, American tour groups milling around helplessly, thinking that they were in Barcelona, duty-free shops overflowing with typical Greek brands like Dior and Chanel, smartly dressed airport staff going professionally about their duties. Why, this could have been Frankfurt! (PS: don’t tell that to the Germans!)

Our astonishment deepened as we took the super-smooth spotlessly clean underground train into town. The well-dressed Athenians of all ages who joined the train as it passed through the suburbs gave no obvious sign that they had just feasted at a soup kitchen.

Our hotel was in the bustling Ambelokipi district, not far from the city centre but a place where Athenians tend to live rather a tourist magnet. True, there were some potholes in the roads and the occasional kerbstone was missing. But hey, you know, you can even find that in Paris or Berlin! And anyway, Athens wouldn’t be Athens  without the occasional outcrop of crumbling masonry. This is how we like this city and long may it resist all procrustean attempts to modernise and homogenise it. As all the other great cities of the world, hardly without exception, vie with each other to see which can be the fastest at turning themselves into glossy identikit plate-glass shopping malls, Athens  – and to some extent its sister capital Rome – has largely resisted this fad. Long may that continue to be the case.

Ambelokipi in particular has a bohemian feel to it: lots of small mom-and-pop shops, greengrocers, bookshops, kiosks selling newspapers and a few million other things, cake shops, fancy and not-so-fancy bars, restaurants, kebab houses, shops selling antique furniture, natty clothes boutiques, and so on. It is a bit like the Cowley Road in Oxford or the district east of the Bastille in Paris. The shops were all open for business and there were customers in most of them. We saw no boarded-up premises. We had brought a larger-than-normal amount of euros with us because of press reports that banks were running out of notes and that cash points were empty. What was the reality? The reality was that the banks were open and flush with cash, the ATMs up and running. The streets were as crowded, the roads as congested as ever. The one petrol station we saw was doing a roaring trade. We didn’t see a single person dressed in rags nor were we accosted by a single beggar. In cool northern cities like London or Paris you can’t go three yards without falling over one.

So what was it all about? Were we in the wrong part of town? Should we have gone slumming it elsewhere?

Then we picked up a copy of the current edition of the weekly English language “Athens News”. Here is what we read:

Pensioner hangs himself in park

A 61-year-old pensioner was found hanging from a tree on May 30 in the Agios Filipos park of the Nikea suburb of Athens. The lifeless body of the pensioner was discovered by a park attendant, who also found his suicide note, which read:

“The police do not know me. I have never touched a drink in my life. Of women and drugs I have never even dreamed. I have never been to a kafeneio (coffee house). I just worked all day. But I committed one horrendous crime: I turned self-employed at the age of 40 and I plunged myself in debt. Now I’m an idiot of 61 years of age and I have to pay. I hope my grandchildren are not born in Greece, seeing as there will be no Greeks here from now on. Let them at least learn another language because Greek will be wiped off the map. Unless, of course, there was a politician with Thatcher’s guts so as to put us and our state in line.”

Neighbours described the pensioner – a father of two – as a hard-working man. He had been employed at ship repair and construction sites and up until recently he had been working as an electrician on a merchant ship.

It is hard to follow up so tragic a story with comment of any kind. It speaks for itself.  However, we shall try.

Our first point is to suggest that Greece is living a silent tragedy. On the surface life goes on as normal. It is underneath that the pain is felt. The suicide rate has rocketed. The family solidarity for which the Greeks are famous has not been strong enough to overcome the sense of defeat and loss of self-respect that has sapped the will to go on living in so many individuals. For them it’s a case of: stop the world – I want to get off.

Secondly, as was apparent from the results of the parliamentary elections on 6 May 2012, when both the left-wing Syriza party and the fascist Golden Dawn (“Chrysi Avgi”) party gained unprecedented support, the economic crisis has led large numbers of Greek voters to desert the centrist parties – the nominally socialist Pasok and the right-leaning New Democracy – and vote for genuinely left- or right-wing parties. The unnamed pensioner who hanged himself obviously inclined to the right. His last wish for a strong politician to emerge to rescue his country is a frequent reaction of those who have lost out in any major economic crisis. Hitler drew his support from precisely such attitudes. The leader of Golden Dawn, Nikos Michaloliakos, a supporter of the 1967-1974 military dictatorship, is well aware of this and is selling himself with some success as the man chosen by destiny to rescue Greece from its current plight.

Thirdly, it is also clear that the despairing pensioner believed that the Greek crisis had been caused, at least to some extent, by immigrants. This too is a classic loser reaction: blame your own plight on the foreigner. Here again, spotting his chance, Michaloliakos has been playing the anti-immigrant card for all its worth.

Moreover, we are not talking here about wealthy white Americans, of whom there are large numbers in Greece, partly as a result of the Greek diaspora. The immigrants being targeted are poor black immigrants.

The current number of “Athens News” also carries the following news item:

Migrants attacked

A 32-year-old Pakistani was severely beaten by unidentified individuals late on May 29 in the ISAP ilektrikos (underground) station at Agios Nicolaos. The victim had to be hospitalised. The previous night an unknown individual stabbed a Bangladeshi national on an ISAP train. Police are investigating the cases and whether there was a racist motive.

Antigone1984 is spending the rest of this week in Greece in an attempt that to dig out the skinny on what is really happening here and thus contribute our obol’s worth towards deciphering the crisis.


 You might perhaps care to view some of our earlier posts.  For instance:

 1. Why? or How? That is the question (3 Jan 2012)

2. Das Vierte Reich/The Fourth Reich (6 Feb 2012)

3. The shoddiest possible goods at the highest possible prices (2 Feb 2012)

4. Where’s the beef? Ontology and tinned meat (31 Jan 2012)

5. What would Gandhi have said? (30 Jan 2012)

Every so often we shall change this sample of previously published posts.


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