I have traveled as north as Canada, as east as Japan, as South as Australia but the diagnosis is the same: Heart Greek, Mind American. What are the odds that I will find a cure? None. The thread always leads back to here the only place that makes sense to me: the island village my family is from: Apikia in Andros.
With this disease ever present, I choose to live in a country that is undergoing one of the most turbulent changes to its social and financial makeup. You all know which one I mean: Bad, bad Greece.
Fingers wagged in my face by the Troika (International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank, European Union), by international journalists, tourists, concerned family and friends living on the other side of the Atlantic, leave me self-conscious, embarrassed, determined, but often doubtful of my sanity. At times I feel like I am screaming from inside a sealed vault. I cringe at the total incompetence of Greek politicians I voted for (with heart and soul each time). I am angered by the lack of vision, lack of spine needed to move forward at a time when the entire world has finally awakened to the fact that Greece is indeed in trouble; and with it, my heart.
Daily reports uncover scandal after scandal compounding my battle with this growing sense of doom in my chest. I have little work as a freelancer; essays, poems and novels don’t pay. My friends and family are equally at odds on how to survive, even the lucky ones who still bring home a paycheck. A good friend works two jobs to make ends meet when one job was once enough. Her poems drip with bitterness, with sadness for this land. We look bewildered at each other and ask: do we pack up, close the door behind us and never return? Do we finally come to terms with a country that never fully accepted those of us who were born elsewhere and chose to live here? We delicately unfolded our own dreams when we got here decades ago, we tried to play by the rules to make the dreams real only to uncover that the corrupt status quo is far stronger, far more ruthless than we could ever be. And to think that I believed if I could make it in New York, I could make it anywhere. New York, where I was born and raised, was easy to conquer. I left all that behind to find family roots.
A long time PASOK (Socialist Party) politician and former Minister of Defense paraded around Athens for years while accusations regarding millions upon millions of Euros he took in bribes went unnoticed by the justice department and by his fellow PASOK comrades. Those Euros were not his to keep. He spent millions of Euros on our behalf for submarines that are faulty, for major defense purchases that had nothing to do with protecting this small country. Those irresponsible choices required that money be taken out of my pocket, my friends’ pockets, any Greek salaried employee’s pocket who paid taxes. Yet, there is no justice served. This former Minister now sits in jail awaiting trial, if they get to his case before time runs out to prosecute him, allowing him to walk free. Each day we read yet another scandal uncovered, exposed by this politician’s own meticulous record keeping in his many notebooks so as not to lose one Euro of the millions he kept stashed in off shore companies all over the world. Greece continued to bleed but his Party asked for our enlightened votes over and over. And we gave it to this Party, snubbing the conservatives who were much longer in the game of grabbing, hiding, taking. How much was enough for that politician, his family, his children? How many politicians from PASOK and New Democracy sit in their mansions laughing while Greece teeters on the edge. So many scandals layered one on top of the other perpetrated by Socialists, Conservatives, in the name of Greece, in the name of me.
Yes, I take it personally. I have to fight back. My vote was always my weapon of choice. The June elections brought about a coalition government made up of three hallucinating paralyzed soldiers in a bloody battlefield. My vote used to be gold. It could not be bought or sold in any of the thousands of pawn shops wanting to buy gold from Greeks that have sprung up on every corner ever since continuous austerity measures have been shoved down our collective throats. These pawn shop owners are salivating, waiting to grab whatever gold heirloom some desperate Greek will part with or some thief is eager enough to sell for the quick buck.
In the meantime we continue to reinvent the wheel to get the simplest things done. Two days ago, I received another letter to pay an outstanding bill for 1,000 Euros. I paid this tax bill two years ago and have the receipt. It doesn’t matter if I stand on line in a tax office again ( I have nothing better to do with my time) or call countless times to remind some anonymous public sector employee to look in the drawer way, way in the back for papers long forgotten. I am lost in a bureaucratic maze composed of a bloated public sector and I can’t get out. Recently, the government announced that Greeks can finally pay their taxes online. To get the password however for such a revolutionary act, I had to physically go to the tax office and wait on another endless line. You can’t make this up.
Decades ago the Socialists passed a law “regarding ministerial responsibilities” which roughly translates into no matter what scandal is uncovered or hinted at during the time whatever Party rules, the slate is wiped clean as soon as new elections are announced. Now, why create a law like that if you have nothing in mind for yourself? Same goes for the Opposition that never repealed that law. The law is active and healthy to this day. No one, not one politician has stepped down or gone to jail. We have the results to prove it. Just take a look at where Greece is today. Speculators are rubbing their hands in glee waiting like vultures for this country to finally fall on its face.
Greece has survived the brutality of the Nazis, the wrenching hatred of Civil War which followed. Parts of Greek society allowed a seven year military dictatorship to take hold, further tearing the country apart. Foreign powers were happy to frolic in the same bed with Greek dictators in the name of lucrative business deals. Greece was given hope when the Socialists were ushered into power with the winds of Change–those words brought me here in 1981 as a single young woman eager to discover the country my family comes from. It was a historic time when anything was possible. Anything; and the public, from left wing to right, would have supported that Prime Minister’s vision. That historic moment echoes inside me still; precisely because it was made barren, depleted, robbed, rejected, lost, forgotten by the ones whom I thought knew better.
While the rest of us regroup, cut back on superficial things like going out to a taverna, travel, extra trips to anywhere, my husband and I seriously focus on how to keep our eleven year old car running, how to maintain our home which was bought by paying off two bank loans to acquire it, school tuition, our teen’s needs and wants. How will we pay all the new extra taxes added on to other new taxes we have already paid on everything we own? We are not alone. Our friends are in the same boat and there is no end in sight to what the near future might hold for all of us.
I am thankful that I am not hungry. Yet. I still believe I can contribute to this new situation in Greece by looking for a ray of light. I might be nuts but I organized and will participate in a group art exhibit with two established talented artist friends. When I chose the title for the exhibit “Creativity in a Time of Chaos” little did I know that on November 7th, our opening night, every single major union will be on strike paralyzing the country. No metro, no ferries, no buses, no taxis, no air traffic controllers, no nothing. Yet we will all be there displaying our art work, each one of us with our own vision. I make assemblages out of discarded metal and wire pieces I find in the street. Appropriate for the times we live in?
It all started for me when I was in the process of writing my first novel which hasn’t found a home yet. I had a strong desire to make three dimensional pieces that reflected the evolving story in some way. The process of making these assemblages was never about making money — it was about grasping the energy coming out of me so I could make sense of what I have been witnessing, understanding what I hear, what I am in the process of becoming here in Greece — what my immigrant story aches to tell.
I know it is a mere drop in the ocean to volunteer at a homeless shelter in central Athens. Sorting out blankets, used clothes for women, men and children, passing out yogurt, cans of milk, talking to those who linger in the yard where weekend feedings are held (500 meals x three shifts), or nodding my head to “if you find a pair of size 41 shoes can you save them for me, I need shoes, save them for next Sunday when I come again.” I cannot look these people in the eye because their hunger, desperation, is too raw, too new, too naked for me to take in. I don’t know what to say to an elderly Greek man who tells me he lives alone and he can no longer make it with the cuts to his social security benefits so now he comes to the homeless shelter to eat his one meal for the day. That was unheard of a few short years ago.
Greece always had a safety net; family. Family took in the one on the verge of homelessness or alcoholism, or mental illness in every village and town. There was always a seat for that person, a plate of food, a warm bed. That is what is broken in this country. In my village on the island it still holds that we take in and provide for someone down on his luck. Thankfully, I still see this in action. Family is no longer able to stay afloat in urban centers like Athens where I live. Social security benefits slashed, health care in shambles, illegal immigrants who are desperate enough to commit crimes, have Greeks so frightened they are doing unheard of things like relying on Golden Dawn Party members and their neo-Fascist ways. They swarm into poor neighborhoods to “help”, to protect Greeks from what is turning into a new battlefield between desperate foreigner and desperate Greek.
These radical social changes unmask Greek politicians’ most tragic shortcoming: making Greeks so desperate they will reach out for help given by extremists: neo-Nazis, Stalinists and more. These small political parties once insignificant are seeing their numbers rise in polls conducted to feel the pulse of the nation and unfortunately this new desperation made Golden Dawn legitimate Parliamentary members in the last elections. That is the ultimate betrayal to Greeks by Greeks: giving legal voice to extremists.
The monster is out of the cage and it is chasing us all over Greece. A few months ago it was World Poetry Day. I hand painted my sign with the words WE WRITE TO EXIST because that was the best way to describe how I feel. If I don’t write about the drastic changes taking place in Greece, in my life, I will go mad. I hopped on the Athens Metro ( one that has magnificent ancient artifacts on display at different metro stops, no graffiti anywhere-so different from the New York subways I grew up using), I met my friends, we were with over 500 people who gathered to peacefully protest the choking austerity measures, to celebrate the power of words in poetry. There was no tear gas, no violence and the riot police who watched us seemed bored or relieved. The crowd made several stops to recite poems on busy Athenian streets by Ritsos (Lenin Prize poet), Seferis and Elytis (both Nobel Prize poets) and more.
A poet carried a sign with a line from Elytis : “If you can’t find Spring, make it.”
I am trying to make it, my friends are trying to make it. We will not watch the flashing neon signs pointing to the exit ramp: Abandon Ship NOW. I can’t. I chose to live here. My friends can’t either. They will compose music to exist, they will write graffiti on walls with words that hurt, reflect and urge every one of us to wake up. They will write poems to exist, they will act on stage to exist, paint on canvas to exist.
Even as I become poorer each day I also become richer. I have crossed paths with so many creative minds who linger here even against all odds. Something tells me I should keep plowing ahead by gathering writers from all over the world to come to Andros each summer to write and be part of a writing community I created with much love and dedication. I will continue to open my arms and welcome them to this country, this island that has inspired so many and will inspire new stories from the richness that is Greece. Something tells me I should linger with my daughter to listen to island songs played by my uncle’s santouri, by our friends’ tsambouna, laouto, violin at our village feasts. Something tells me I should give my daughter blog posts to ponder, give her reason to question political choices each of us makes, that she will one day make. While Greece undergoes growing pains, looks into the mirror to see its ugly and strong side, something tells me I must write to exist.