Portland Review is publishing several of my Athens 2012 photographs in their current issue. Order a copy here.
At night, the junkies take over the square. They are almost vaporously thin, like the dead even before they shoot up. They have ruined most of their veins and bend forward to stick the needle in the backs of their knees or other parts of their legs. The happy ones are curled up fetally, oblivious to everything. A tall South Asian man with a tense, fierce face asks me several nights in a row if I want anything. “Hash? Junk? Anything?”
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An update to the article published in Open Magazine:
Last night, the conservative, pro-bailout and pro-austerity New Democracy party won the elections, but not decisively enough to have an outright majority. To be able to form a government, they will need to form a coalition with one of their opponents. The second vote-getter, and close second in the elections, was the upstart, radical left party Syriza. It’s leader, Alexis Tsipras, has ruled out any coalition with any pro-bailout party, and so a coalition will likely be formed with PASOK, and one of the other, smaller, leftist parties.
While the election of New Democracy averts the immediate crisis of Greece leaving the euro, it in no way changes the long-term picture. The requirements of Europe’s bailout haven’t been fully implemented, and some of the most severe cuts are yet to come. These will be very difficult to get passed into law, and if they are passed, will likely cause a violent reaction on the streets in the coming months. But the larger picture is more disturbing. Even if the cuts are implemented, Greece will still ultimately be unable to live up to its commitments. It will not be able to pay back its debts in full, even at the current levels where much have been forgiven, and it will not be able to grow its economy effectively under the burden of such severe austerity measures.
The reaction of international markets to the Greek election struck me as quite rational. An initial sense of optimism because the immediate crisis was averted, followed by a pullback and a dose of reality, because even with the election of the conservatives, there is no obvious way forward for Greece within the euro. We’ll be exactly here again a year or so from now, if not sooner, and between now and that time, Greece will continue to suffer. The only chance that a deeper crisis can be averted is if Germany and the rest of Europe acts proactively with real stimulus measures designed to actually grow Greece’s (and Europe’s) economy. I’m not holding my breath.
The highway from the airport is eerily empty. It’s mid-afternoon in the middle of the week, and there are fewer cars than on highways in a California desert at the quietest daylight hour. Another unsettling sight are the billboards. From the airport to the city, except one, all are blank. Some of them drip with papery fragments of old ads. It looks like a set for a zombie movie where everyone has died except me. Office parks and foreign factories line the highway’s edge, but most appear closed. The Ikea parking lot is empty.
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This morning in Perivolia, Crete.
It’s hard to avoid. Sooner or later, once you arrive in Greece, you’ll hear it. The first time for me was a few days ago in the port town of Chania on the island of Crete. I am sipping a coffee at a corner stand when the tourist shop kitty corner started blasting the tune through its speakers. It is the theme to Zorba the Greek, the 1960’s classic movie of repressed Englishness brought out of its shell by life-loving Greekness, and a little dancing. Hearing it makes me cringe. I cannot think of any other country on the planet whose history, culture, thought, and most fundamental life force has been reduced to the bars of a jingle.
A few days earlier, on another island, this time Tzia in the Cyclades, I sit at lunch with a Greek writer. “Zorba killed Greece,” she says bluntly. “That’s what half the people who come here are looking for, something to turn them inside out, take them out of themselves. But that’s not how he killed this country. It was the Greek men. You see, just like the English fell in love with the Englishman in that movie and all wanted to be him, the Greek men did the same, but with Zorba. All that life, all that drunkenness, all that macho… stupidity. They’ve spent their lives trying to be him, and look at where it’s got us.”
It was my first time in Greece, and I arrived not knowing what to expect. The May elections produced no parliament, and new elections are scheduled for this Sunday, June 17. These are widely considered to be a referendum on whether Greece will remain in the Eurozone or leave. If it votes for the socialists, the upstart Syriza party and its charismatic young leader, Alexis Tsirpas, then it votes to leave; and if it votes once again for the old guard, who have shuffled in and out of power for the last thirty years in ever more corrupt regimes, then it votes to stay. Staying means years of bone-crushing austerity measures, measures which have produced none of the promised results of financial growth, while leaving means a return to the drachma and the wiping out of property values and the savings of any Greeks who still have money in the country.
This is not a decision any rational person can make.
I’ve been here for two weeks now, following the elections, talking to locals when I can, and trying to understand the choices presented to the voters. And I’ve come to one conclusion. There is no way to reach a clear-headed decision on who to vote for.
I see this in the people I talk to, as even this close to the election, there are many who still don’t know how they will vote. Who can blame them? On one hand, disaster, and on the other, disaster. Who wouldn’t be paralyzed when faced with such choices?
Again and again, I see it in their faces. Greeks are exhausted. After five years of recession, and two years of devastating austerity cuts, cuts which still haven’t been fully implemented, few people have the energy to keep going. For Greece to rise above the current crisis, it needs something to look forward to, a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Europe’s punishing caning of austerity certainly doesn’t offer that, and the muddle-headed, leftist policies of Syriza, which ignore basic economic realities, don’t either. It is extraordinary that at this time of real crisis, when the lives and futures of millions hang in the balance, no one is willing to step up and offer a real, workable solution.
A this point, such a solution could only come from Brussels and Berlin, and they have decided, in grand European tradition, to bury their heads firmly in the sand and let Greece suffer. With seventeen sovereign members of the Eurozone, its easy to pass the buck, or what may soon be left of the euro, and paralysis is almost guaranteed. By insisting on years more of austerity, Europe has already decided Greece’s fate. It will almost certainly leave the euro, the disaster will happen, the only question now is when.
In Athens, I eat dinner with a young, artistic couple who are considering plans to leave. There’s no future here for them, and likely none for their two young children.
They tell me they don’t blame the Germans, or the Europeans. The Greeks did this to themselves. Years of corruption, years of useless red tape, of a state overflowing with bureaucrats, and years of switching between the same two, pathetic parties. “When we joined the euro, everyone spent, credit was cheap, money was pouring in. No one thought the party would end.”
I hear this many times. It’s not the Germans, or not only the Germans, that the Greeks blame. Their responses are almost always more nuanced than that, and many lay the blame squarely on themselves. The deep corruption of the both major political parties, the lure of easy money, the lack of scrutiny given to the many international deals they entered into, etc.
Only one person I meet plans resolutely to stay, a depressed Scots woman I encounter on Crete who arrived in 1979 to free herself from the shackles of the repressed life of Scotland, searching, no doubt, for her own Zorba. “We had such parties,” she says wistfully, “before the crisis.” Now she keeps her claws in, she tells me, desperate to stay, and prays for a Syriza victory. “Everyone’s lost everything already, they’ve spent all their money. At least with the drachma, things will be cheaper.” I suspect she has euros abroad, and hopes for disaster just so she might be able to spend them at a discounted rate, and enjoy one last summer of partying in the sun.
At that lunch on Tzia where my friend the Greek writer told me how much she hated Zorba, she adds this. “If we’re going to survive this crisis, if we’re going to change, we have to kill Zorba, we have to kill that idea of ourselves, and learn to make ourselves modern.”
There are signs of hope. On a gorgeous, secluded beach one afternoon, a group of men and women in their teens and early twenties lie about in bathing shorts and bikinis, talking animatedly with each other. To me it sounds like they’re talking about what young people everywhere talk about: boys, girls, music, movies, clothes, etc. My friend tells me no, that’s not what they’re talking about at all. “They’re discussing the economics of growing peas,” she says. “How to grow them, how to market them, how to export them. A year ago, who would have thought of young people talking like this, but it means at least they are trying to take control of their future.”