Archive for April 2012
It was never really much of a main street, just five blocks of shops. Despite its illustrious name, the narrow street was never the kind you walked along but instead walked to. It wasn’t meant for strolling or window-shopping. The stores were mostly places you’d go to get something done or fixed or to buy something to eat or drink. It had a tailor’s, a hairdressing salon, a dry cleaners, a bakery, hardware store, shops like that. A couple of pharmacies, a barber’s, two greengrocer’s, a butcher’s. The DVD store, of course. I seem to remember a shop with artist supplies and another one that sold women’s clothes. But those must have been the first to close, right before the crisis became visible to most of us. That’s how we date things now. Before and after the advent of the crisis.
The first shop closures were followed by the two florists and the travel agency and the pet shop. And then I lost track of exactly what shop closed when. I can’t even remember what some of the other empty storefronts used to be before the crisis. There are so many of them. I counted 29 as I walked down the street this morning.
The signs of the crisis are everywhere to be seen, of course. You encounter them throughout the day, like the intermittent pain of a tooth starting to go bad, a nagging reminder that this is not going away and a harbinger of how much worse things will get. I don’t mean just the announcements of yet another tax increase or pension cut, or the headlines that report yet another contraction in the economy and higher unemployment rates. I mean the stories, too. Like the one my friend Lina told me yesterday. She lost her job last year and hasn’t found a new one yet. She was saying she needs to put up bars on the windows of her ground-floor flat. The house next door to hers was broken into. Apparently they got in through the window. Right now Nina keeps hers locked all during the day and night but she doesn’t know what she’ll do in the summer. She can’t afford the bars.
Or Anna and Marios, who are moving to Germany, where Anna has found work. Marios has been out of work for more than a year. Anna has a job, but it’s one without health insurance. “I hate the thought of leaving,” Anna told me, “and Marios even more than I do. But how can I have a kid with this kind of uncertainty?” We gathered in a small smoky taverna in an old Athens neighborhood to wish them off. There was tsipouro and wine and honest food from the grill, and a trio that played rembetika. There were presents, of course, to remind them of the country they were leaving: a bronze pendant inspired by ancient Cycladic axe, books of poetry, a set of small ouzo bottles with hand-designed labels each sporting a different Greek saying in the original and a funny fractured mistranslation into German.
I hate how life in the city has turned into a series of leave-takings.
There are the less dramatic signs, too, but more frequent reminders: the ever thinner ply of the paper towels in rest rooms (at least restaurants and bars still stock the dispenser; Alexis, whose wife works in a public school, tells me the teachers themselves stock the dispensers at the school), the pouches of rolling tobacco that have replaced the packets of Marlboros or Camels that I used to see on café tables next to the mobile phone and cappuccino freddo.
But the closed shops are perhaps the most striking and ever present mark of the blight wrought by the recession. In most places in most times, a shop or two that goes out of business passes almost unobserved. At most, you’ll notice a sign in the window thanking the loyal customers who supported the business over the years, but the place gets rented soon enough and a new shop sets up business. But here the shops stays closed. And the one next to it or two doors down soon closes as well. Then others. Now in my neighborhood most of the shops along the six blocks of a street named after the first Prime Minister of Greece and the man who delivered Byron’s eulogy, are hauntingly empty. It’s not much different from what’s happening in a lot of other neighborhoods in the city, maybe a little worse (one in four shops in Athens have closed since the beginning of the crisis). In any event, I notice it more here. I live here.
I see the city receding before my eyes. I see it becoming ever smaller and emptier. The streets downtown are empty most evenings (this for a city that was renowned for its 1 a.m. traffic jams), partly because of the crisis, partly because of higher crime or the perception that the incidence of crime has increased downtown. A recent initiative has been launched to get people back into the center on Friday evenings—discounts at restaurants and cinemas, free concerts and happenings, extended happy hours. It helped in the first few weeks, but it was probably the novelty of the idea. The streets are pretty much still empty. The city is receding, caught in a slow, inexorable process of decay and attrition. And as the city changes, I feel that I am changing too.
One of the first things my friends in Athens ask me about when I got back from a recent trip to Germany was the weather. They always ask about the weather when I come back from the North.
I could have told them about the mournful cadet-grey cloak of low-lying cloud cover that turns the day into one long period of extended twilight. About the morning mist that segues into a midday drizzle that lingers throughout the day, protracted foreplay to a storm that never breaks. But I kept it simple: “Cold, grey and wet.”
“With weather like that,” a colleague said, “I’d work like the Germans, too.” Meaning, of course, that there wouldn’t be much else to do other than work.
(The irony is that Greeks work on average more hours per week than the Germans do) But Alexis was convinced he’d work longer and harder in a country of long dark winters and cool wet springs. It was if the carpet of overcast skies would sponge up all his enthusiasm and élan vital along with the light of day.
Apparently, in very dim light people lose their color vision. They see everything in shades of grey. Alexis says he’d feel the same way.
The slow decay of the urban core threatens to become our gloom, forcing us to downshift into a monochrome of dullness and despair. I wonder when I will become anaesthetized to this twilight zone of loss, when it will no longer sadden me, as it does every morning as I ride the trolley to the gym, my way marked by the signs of a city that is wasting away.
It is not like this all the time, of course. There are pockets of vitality everywhere in Athens. There’s still much creative energy in the city, new initiatives in the arts and community action projects. And as Alexis would say, the weather is gorgeous now and just sitting outside with a friend for coffee at a café—the only business that seems to be booming—is deeply restorative.
I’ve acquired a much greater appreciation for the neighborhood shop and the people who run them. They’re eyes of the street and gossips in the good sense of the word: collectors of social news. They anchor the neighborhood in a sense; their shops are points of social encounter for the neighborhood as a whole, perhaps the only one for people like me who don’t go to church or play cards in the very old-school neighborhood café that is frequented mostly by retired men.
Yannis’s shop is one of the few left on the first block of the street. He sells fish. He bought the business from the woman who was retiring. He did it right in the midst of the crisis. Maybe he figured people could do without a dry cleaners but every neighborhood needs a place to buy fish.
The fish from the central market is much cheaper, and there’s much greater variety, and that’s where I go to find things like razor clams and skate or when I’m going to make a fish dinner for friends and need a lot of fish. But I try to buy from Yannis for everyday fish, despite the surcharge. I think of the extra cost—entirely justified seeing as he doesn’t have a huge clientele—as a neighborhood duty in both senses of the word: a responsibility to the neighborhood and as a payment due by virtue of living in the neighborhood, a tax whose proceeds go to keeping the neighborhood alive. I pay it as gladly as I pay the surcharge to the brothers who have the (admittedly well-stocked) corner wine shop.
I’m not one of Yannis’s big customers. I usually buy cheap stuff like mackerel and cuttlefish and farmed sea bass, not the big-ticket items I see some of the other customers buying, red mullet or gilt bream or, God forbid, dentex. Once in a while I’ll splurge on some shrimp for a paella. Sometimes he’ll recommend something I don’t know—he’s a man with a mission—and I’ll take his advice. I always take his advice.
He treats me as if I were one of his best customers, whatever I buy. He even offers to fillet the sardines I buy. To appreciate the magnanimity of this offer you need to realize how tedious this work is and how cheap the fish is (try asking your significant other to gut and debone 20 small fish). In fact, it’s so generous an offer than I never let him do it.
Last Saturday afternoon I was passing by his shop on my way to the bus-stop. On the sidewalk right in front of his place he had set up a small folding table, on which plates of food were set out. I waved and said hi as I made my way to stop. “You’ve got to try this!” he called out to me. “Monkfish liver!” he exclaimed as he proudly pointed to one of the plates on the table. “Have you ever had it?” I confessed I hadn’t. “Well, it’s awfully hard to get, because fishermen usually keep it for themselves, but I found some this morning and, ah, you really have got to try some.” I hesitated but he was so excited I didn’t want to dampen his enthusiasm.
He had sautéed slices of the liver on a makeshift propane-gas burner at the back of his shop, where he had also fried medallions of tope shark and prepared the small bowls of olives and pickled hot peppers that were meant to accompany the fish.
The liver was surprisingly good, all buttery rich and tasting of the sea. Later I learned that monkfish liver is a prized delicacy not only among the fishermen in the Aegean but also on upscaleNew Yorkmenus. I wound up buying a small piece to sauté myself the next day.
Just cooking this stuff in his shop, much less serving it on the sidewalk probably violated a dozen provisions of the health code, and in a city like New York or Munich he would have been fined by mid-morning.
But he wasn’t selling anything. Maybe it was a smart business move in a kind of relationship-marketing loyalty-building way, but it didn’t feel like that. It felt like he just wanted to share his good luck. He was treating us. The neighborhood. This “middle ground of light and shadow”. I don’t know if he’s a promise of better days, a voice of resistance to the discourse of social implosion that is the daily fare served up by the more extreme parties and the boulevard press. I don’t even know how much he weighed the risks of taking on this business at a time when many in the neighborhood are turning to generic tuna as their fish of choice. Maybe he’s just a guy who loves what he does. In any event, I’m glad he’s here.
I had seen the signs for the Hausordnung posted in the S-Bahn before, the “Rules of the House” that govern the access to and use of the train stations in the city. But I had never read them. They were so long! But the last time in Munich I took the wrong train on my way out to a swimming pool outside the city and wound up alone on a platform in an exurb with a twenty-minute wait for the next train back to the main station. And so I read. First I read the posters for concerts and exhibitions, and then the mobile carrier ads, the train schedules and table of fare tariffs and, in the end, having exhausted the platform’s reading material, I read the house rules.
It was, as I said, a very long list of rules. They were set in the taut award-winning modernist font that Erik Spiekermann designed for the Deutsche Bahn. The text was crisply laid out with clear headings, appropriate use of white space and neatly leaded, red bulleted text. I don’t think I’ve ever seen rules laid out so attractively before.
It begins, as you think rules of the house should begin, all friendly and welcoming.
“Welcome to our station! We want all our guests to feel comfortable while they’re with us.”
And then it immediately gets serious: “The following rules are therefore to be observed.”
The German in the House Rules uses an impersonal imperative, as if they were obvious, universal rules that all sentient beings would follow as a matter of course. And then 500 words of rules and regulations ensue.
The level of detail is remarkable. Bicycling in the station isn’t permitted, but neither is kick-boarding, skateboarding or inline skating. Grafitti is banned, as expected, as is dirtying or damaging the station, but it’s spelled out: it’s forbidden to spray, paint, write on, besmirch, misuse or stick things on the station’s fixtures, surfaces, ceilings and walls. It sounds almost poetic in the German, this quartet of words for befouling the station: Besprühen, Bemalen, Beschriften, Beschmieren. Sticking things on the ceiling didn’t make much sense to me, but then I thought, ok, it’s just a matter of thoroughness.
There were rules to control the riffraff, the ones against rifling through the litter bins, begging, harassing other passengers and sitting or lying on the floors (or on the stairs or in the passageways or access tunnels), and others that you would have thought were rules of the land and not just of the house, like the one against selling drugs. Some of the regulations seem to have been an afterthought, added in the aftermath of an unusual accident, like the one against carrying metallic balloons. Oh, and you aren’t allowed to feed the birds.
You can’t play loud music but you can organize a live performance in the station if you get permission in advance. I thought that was cool.
Minor violations against the rules are dealt with by reprimands, more serious ones by Hausverbot—you’re declared persona non grata and the house is off limits—or prosecution and claims for damages, which I have no doubt actually happens in cases.
The prohibitions end with the following:
“In cases of the deliberate dirtying of the station, we will impose a handling fee of 40€ for the cleaning costs. The same fee will be imposed in the event that a dog soils the station. We wish you a pleasant stay and pleasant journey!”
To be fair, other cities have such regulations. The ones for the New York City subway are even longer, more exhaustively detailed and spelled out in the kind of language lawyers use when speaking to lawyers. These also reflect the particular problems encountered in the New York subways: “No weapon, dangerous instrument, or any other item intended for use as a weapon may be carried in or on any facility or conveyance… For the purposes hereof, a weapon or dangerous instrument shall include, but not be limited to, a firearm, switchblade knife, gravity knife, boxcutter, straight razor or razor blades that are not wrapped or enclosed in a protective covering, sword, shotgun or rifle.” It’s ok to carry an unloaded shotgun, though, provided you conceal it from view. I don’t think the rules are posted, though.
There may even be House Rules for the Athens subway, but I’ve never seen these either.
But the ones in Germany are posted. There was another set, just as long, at the swimming pool I finally managed to get to. In fact, it’s striking how ubiquitous the signs of the imperative are in German cities, governing who can do what under what circumstance and at what time.
I actually don’t think anyone—anywhere—needs these rules in order to conduct themselves civilly in a train station. Most people wouldn’t think of lying down in an access tunnel or spray painting the condom dispensing unit. The posted rules and orders and commands instead serve a different purpose, though ‘purpose’ is the wrong word, since what I mean is something latent and unarticulated. These signs, taken as a whole, cultivate a just-below-the-surface awareness of the existence of rules, so that even in a place where they’re not posted, you conduct yourself as if there were a set of house rules. In fact, you probably subconsciously invent rules in places where they’re posted.
It is symbolic that the S-Bahn regulations (which the New York MTA calls “Rules of Conduct”) are called “Rules of the House” and that they address the passenger as a guest. Admittedly, the regulations are the expression of authority, at least that of the train’s management. But in a way they are also the encapsulation of the collective will of the community for the good of the community, or at least of the will of the vast majority of its members who are not beggars, graffiti vandals and persons deeply attached to metallic balloons. Perhaps this plethora of posted commands and regulations seems oppressive for those of us who live in a country where our approach is less imperative than infrahortative, where in the place of signs and ordinances we have pleas of discouragement without much bite, as witnessed in the complete failure of two successive smoking bans.
It is a town without litter. An island village, to be specific. I walked through its streets for an hour and didn’t find a piece of garbage on the street. No empty cartons or crumbled pastry wrapper, no soda cans or tissue paper. I think I saw a few cigarette butts, but they had settled deep in the cracks between the cobblestones where a broom couldn’t easily get at. The town has sanitation workers but their job is to pick up the garbage, not to clean the streets. They don’t need to. One morning I walked with a local resident down the old stone path that leads to the port. She picked up two plastic water bottles that had been tossed by the side of the path. “Foreigners,” she said, with an air of resignation, as if speaking of barbarians of whom one necessarily expects the worse. Later she brought us a basket of wild asparagus and dandelion greens she had gathered from the hillsides, a slab of a tangy fresh farmer’s cheese, and a basket of eggs her chickens had laid.
Everyone whitewashes the fronts of their houses every spring. It helps protect the houses from dampness. But they don’t need to do it every spring. I think they do it as much for their neighbors as for themselves. None of this is written up in town ordinances, but they do it anyway. On every island in the Aegean.
There’s no Rules of the House posted anywhere in these towns, but rules are followed, faithfully and assiduously. The rules are probably just as extensive as the ones in the S-Bahn. They are rules about painting your house and sweeping the alley and weeding the cobblestone walkways. There are also more complicated and encompassing rules about hospitality and generosity and solidarity, about the responsibility one has a resident of the community to the common good, though none of these are apprehended as external regulations but rather, again, the expression of the collective will of the community. For the House is the community, and each is both guest and host.
Though no one tells them to, guest and host are called upon to paint their houses, but also to protect their common cultural legacy and contribute to the community, to look after and minister to their neighbors and guests. Bemalen, Beschirmen, Betreuen. The rules of the house.
Yannis Kounellis’s untitled site-specific installation now at the Museum of Cycladic Art until September 30th is being presented as a response to the turbulent times in which the Greek people are living, a mordant commentary on the crisis that has befallen us. “The exhibition is not mournful,” Kounellis has said, “it is harsh.”
But it is difficult not to feel the sense of loss that imbues this powerful one-act (as the artist preferred to call his installations) tragedy. And there is no mistaking the presence of death. Death is the first thing you encounter as you enter the elegant Stathatos mansion which houses the exhibition, a grand townhouse which was first built for one of the oldest and wealthiest of Athens families and which in recent years has hosted exhibitions by contemporary artists such as Louise Bourgeois and the deste finalists.
Set in the entrance hall and exactly aligned with a virtual path that runs like the trajectory of an arrow from the outer staircase up through the museum’s doors and into the entrance hall, is a grave. Literally, it is a concentric ring of coal-filled burlap sacks that contain a mound of earth. On the top of this mound lies an uninscribed rectangular slab of marble, a toppled unmarked stele. The slab is set like a two-headed compass onto the mound, pointing at the same time to the city outside the building and to the continuation of the installation within and above.
The mound seems to recall in miniature the ancient tells of abandoned settlements that testify to the life and death of a city that no longer exists: the heaped debris of razed houses, collapsed walls and urban rubble, long since eroded and now covered in earth.
The plangent yet defiant dyad of loss and witness that is evoked by this anonymous tumulus forms the theme of a threnody whose variations are developed in the adjoining rooms on the ground floor. In one, the coal-filled sacks, again arranged in a circle, enclose a heap of plaster fragments, broken replicas of busts of ancient god (I think of them as variants of Apollo), lying half-wrapped in pieces of yesterday’s newspapers. You can make out a few words from the newsprint visible between the white shards: ‘foreign interest’, “opinions”, “complicity”. This is certainly not coincidental.
The heap of shards looks like a cargo of pottery fragments from an ancient shipwreck, the unhappy end of one of countless shiploads of cultural artifacts that crossed the Mediterranean in Antiquity. And the mound arguably plays on the association between trade and culture, indeed, the trade in culture, the commercial exploitation of s cultural legacy; after all, the pieces of statuary are circumscribed by coffee sacks—a symbol par excellence of commodity trading (some are emblazoned with a stencil that reads Côte d’Ivoire). But mostly the mound is a witness to what is no longer whole. Something has been lost, though we don’t know exactly it is. The sense that we control our destiny, the cultural identity we once fostered, the autonomy we once had?
Off to the side of the room stands a huge iron easel on which presumably an equally large canvas is set, though it is shrouded, as are the paintings in church on Good Friday. The shroud is made up of navy overcoats that have been stitched together with rough string. In a recent interview to Athens Voice before the exhibition opened Kounellis said that the only response to the terrifying is to howl, but what we have here is the silent cry of a masked painting, the untold stories of the nameless simple men who once wore these coats, the mute enigma of a crate of broken statues. If it is a howl, it is that of a nightmare, powerful but unvoiced.
The room off to the other side of the lobby also features a sack-enclosed mound, this one a pile of eyeglasses. There is something almost inconsolably sad about these glasses. Or horrifying, as they call to mind—or at least did for me—photographs taken at Auschwitz of piles of confiscated spectacles. On one wall hangs an inverted cross, at the base of which an oil lamp is set. It fills the space with the church-like scent of burning oil. Fragments from the Apollo replicas—a lock of hair, a nose, part of a jaw—have been affixed in a row along one of the other walls, held in place by a cruciform wire bracket. It is hard say whether the fragments in this via dolorosa of statuary serve as witnesses to a crime or votive offerings for salvation, but their presence reinforces the sacral (sacrificial?) aura of the space.
The last mound is set in the mansion’s atrium, a grand space lined on one side by panels of opalescent glass that are etched with delicate fronds and ribbons and set above a bank of pattern ferns. The mound is entirely shrouded in black cloth, as is the chandelier handing from the ceiling above. Kounellis talks of these mounds as “four dervishes dancing through the space [of the installation]”. But if so, they are prophets dancing under heavens clothed in blackness (Is 50:3).
The signs of absence are even more manifest on the second floor of the installation, where the focus of the narrative becomes more individual. In one room a row of black wool overcoats hang forlorn on butcher’s hooks on each of the walls. A large rock occupies the seat on a simple chair. A line of worn brogues and felt fedoras are displayed in an eerily illuminated case framed by drapes in the same mournful black cloth. Whoever had these shoes took care of them. Though the leather is worn in spots and the lining frayed, and even a shoelace goes missing here and there, they are not terribly scuffed. They are the Sunday shoes of men of limited means, cared for over a lifetime.
I can’t decide whether the assembly of shoes and hats is curatorial or commercial, an exhibition case for the belongings of the anonymously departed or funereal shop window. But regardless, the ghosts are there. Their presence is almost palpable. We see their traces everywhere and though the installation does not contain a single human image (Apollo is a god, and his shards don’t count), I’ve found myself conjuring up faces as I moved from room to room. The installation is haunted.
Kounellis, who began as a painter, once said that all painting is a ghost. I suppose by this he meant that painters incorporate and recapitulate techniques and achievements of earlier generations of artists and movements, even when they expand the boundaries of the art of their own age; every painting thus bears traces of—is haunted by—the paintings of the past. But one could say that this installation is haunted as much by Kounellis’s own past works as it is by the tradition (and predecessors of) arte povera.
The inventory of humble materials—the burlap coffee bags, the chunks of coal, the plaster replicas of an ancient god, the second-hand overcoats and hats and shoes, the empty bottles—have long featured in Kounellis’s work. They are somehow universal and timeless, simple basic things we mine or grow or weave or make, the work of laborers and farmers and artisans. Even the mound has figured in earlier installations, including the 1993 work on exhibit last year in the Polyglossia show at the Onassis Cultural Center. These elements form the particular iconic language of an artist who works more in the manner of a poet than that of the painter. They are, as Rudi Fuch notes—“the morphological fragments of a lexicon that substitutes the art of painting”.
Kounellis has recombined and redeployed these elements specifically for this site and for this time. I don’t know if, as the curator argues, this one-act play constitutes a response to our troubled times. But it certainly is a witness to the crisis. Or at least that is how I read it. Kounellis’s work is richly enigmatic and we will each tell a different story. It is in the nature of an installation such as this, something in its theatricality and sheer physicality (including the scent of burning lamp oil), that invites us to narrate. In her Sense and Non-sense of Revolt, Kristeva describes how contemporary art installations call on the spectator not merely to contemplate images but to commune with being. And we do this telling the story of what we sense and experience: “An installation invites us to tell our story, to participate, through it and our sensation, in a communion with being.”
A way of life we have known for decades has been irretrievably lost. It was not in some respects necessarily a good life, but it is the one to which we grew accustomed, and now it is gone, and nothing has come to take its place save for austerity and poverty. We’re stuck in a seemingly interminable Good Friday, and no one knows in what guise and at what time salvation will come. Most are prepared for worse times. Many economists agree. Political leadership, which trades on optimism, doesn’t, of course. Eighteen months ago the Minister of the Economy assured us 2012 would be a year of modest growth. Instead another contraction of the economy, the fifth in a row, awaits us. Granted, politics is the art of the possible, but most of us have little confidence in the ability of this leadership, or the one that will succeed it after the May elections, and much less the one in Europe that is dictating an increasingly catastrophic “save-till-you-die” austerity program, to bring us out of the crisis.
For Kounellis, however, the problem is not the economy but identity. He says we have lost our sense of who we are. It is broken, like the shattered cast of an ancient statue. Some would argue it was not the crisis that broke it but the cultural estrangement wrought in the hyper-materialist decades that preceded and precipitated the crisis.
Not everything has been lost, though. “They said the same thing after the war and then again after the civil war,” he says, “but the country survived.” Perhaps, as Cavafy wrote, the gods are not dead, though the statues may have been broken and the gods driven out of their temples. (I was reminded of the reference when reading Stefan Beyst’s engrossing essay “Jannis Kounellis: the Metamorphoses of Apollo” )
The last room on the second floor contains the only piece of white cloth in the entire installation. It is wrapped around a tall, broad stack of empty green glass bottles, enclosing in its cincture yet another black overcoat. But unlike the ones in the room of coats, this coat does not seem to point to absence. Maybe it’s the whiteness of the cloth that protectively girds it. Or the way the white canvas cloth resembles a sail. Yes, a sail.
Former PASOK Minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos was arrested last week on charges of money laundering and tax offenses, including the failure to declare the true value of a €1.8 million mansion at the foot of the Acropolis. Grand, debonair Akis, the tall, lean, almost-Prime-Minister who had been stripped as a young man of his citizenship by the junta because of his resistance activities but who many years later held his (second) wedding reception in the Four Seasons Hotel in Paris so that he and his guests could have a view of the Eiffel Tower, spent Easter in police custody at the Athens Police headquarters on Alexandras Avenue. Akis, an engineer by trade who “served” as Minister of Public Works and Minister of Defense and various other positions from which he is alleged to have profited was finally behind bars. At least until the trial. Public prosecutors Evgenia Kyvelou and Eleni Siskou, who have documented the charges, have indicated that under-the-table payments for defense procurements had been going on for more than a decade, with funds from kickbacks being funneled through various offshore companies that the former Minister owned but were managed by associations, including Nikolaos Zigras, a first cousin (who was also a former minister).
We may never know the true extent of the former Minister’s dealings. The prosecutors have located millions of euros’ worth of deposits in several European banks, including 16.2 million Swiss francs in Switzerland, which have been linked to the procurement of Tor M1 missiles. But according to the prosecutors’ report, this is just a fraction of the suspected theft.
The Tsochatzopoulos case is exceptional, not for the singularity of his crimes—corruption has been pervasive at high levels in both left and right governments in the last three decades, though few admittedly led a lifestyle as opulent as Tsochatzopoulos did. No, it is exceptional because he is the only politician to have been arrested and charged for corruption in recent memory.
His arrest has a certain symbolic value. The fall of Akis. The details of the case seem to confirm what many here already mistakenly believe is the true cause of the crisis: an unprecedented massive theft of public money engineered by a corrupt political elite. But few here feel satisfied, precisely because so many others are still untouched. Even fewer believe that he will actually serve much time if convicted. But for many the arrest is a way to put a face on at least one of the perpetrators who have robbed the country of its prosperity and promise. It lets us name the villain. Personal greed is always an easier mechanism to understand than trade imbalances, monetary policy, investor confidence, and bond yield spreads (even when these are often partly driven by greed as well).
Tsochatzopoulos is just one of the gallery of crooks, tyrants, rogues and fools at the helms of political and economic power within and beyond the country who are ascribed responsibility, in many instances with ample justification, for creating, prolonging or exacerbating the tragedy that besets the country. My friend Natalie tells me that if she were to be diagnosed with an incurable disease and two months to live, she’d take some of these down with her. How many, I ask? “I don’t think I’d have time for more than 5,” she says. “After all, I would be busy dying.” She made it sound like a terribly complex project that was about to run over budget. The dying part, not the killing, I mean.
“Five’s such a small number given the circumstances,” she said. I wasn’t sure if she was sad because she couldn’t execute more or because there were so many to execute.
“How many do you think would need to go?” I asked. “Seriously. I don’t mean executed. I mean, put in jail. Assuming we could get our hands on the convoluted paper trails of their crime—if any were left to trace—and build up a good enough case. How many would be enough?”
“What an odd thing to ask!” she said. It seemed so obvious to her, who the guilty ones were. It was if she could she see them in front of her. Members of a ruling elite who plundered staff coffers, people like Tsochatzopoulos, who skimmed millions off a huge submarine procurement deal.
But the patronage system is much vaster than arms deals and national roads. The crimes committed by the grand embezzlers at the top were multiplied on a much smaller scale with a myriad of lesser deal-makers. Ministry officials, hospital managers, deputy mayors, customs officials, army officers, state planning officials, tax officials—each had something to leverage for votes, loyalty or cash: jobs, contracts, subsidies, grants, hospital beds, consultancies, licenses, commissions, protection, transfers, exemptions. Not all engaged in this marketplace of patronage; perhaps most didn’t, but enough did so to make the idea of “purging” the system and satisfying justice highly problematic. How deep do you go? Where do you stop?
The extent of corruption is bewildering. A study for the Brookings Institute in 2010 concluded that political corruption, kickbacks and patronage was costing the Greek economy roughly 8 percent of GDP.
Global Financial Integrity estimates that Greece lost about $160 billion in the last decade to unrecorded transfers through its balance of payments, that is, illicit money that was channelled in or out of the country (e.g. illegal capital flight). As Transparency International notes, this is roughly equivalent to the latest bailout ($120 billion).
Transparency International’s 2011 National Survey on Corruption in Greece estimated that petty corruption—not the grand embezzlement schemes, but the corruption ordinary people are exposed to—cost Greece €554 million in 2011. Admittedly this is down by €78 million from the previous year, but it’s still shocking to think that in the midst of the crisis, small-scale bribes and fakelakia are still costing the economy half a billion euros.
Six in ten Greeks expect public officials to abuse their position for personal gain. Over 1,000,000 Greeks paid money in fakelakia last year. Clearly they didn’t pay this to a million different officials and doctors, but even a ratio of 10:1 means you’ve got 100,000 people receiving this money.
How deep do you go? Where do you stop?
The endemic corruption and tax evasion is not a bogeyman the foreign media or German ministers have come up with to castigate Greece with. Revenue lost to the Greek state because of tax evasion is about 30-35% of total revenue. This is equal to this year’s budget deficit. The entire budget deficit.
How deep do you go? Where do you stop?
Of course, the difficulty in finding the exact point along this chain of smaller and smaller crimes where we can say, yes, this is enough, justice is served, does not mean that the grand embezzlers shouldn’t be brought to justice. They should. All of them, hundreds if the evidence is there, even though I doubt that in the end more than a dozen will land up in jail.
But the other thing with a patronage system is that it has patrons. It seems obvious enough, but we tend to forget that clientilism prospered for so long because we were its clients. Sometimes, when faced with the arbitrariness of a convoluted and self-serving bureaucracy, we became its unwilling clients. Other times, when political pull could help us find a job or build a house or get scheduled faster for an operation, we were its eager clients. In most cases, though, we were just resigned to it. Resigned that this was the way things were done. We weren’t told, of course, that the largesse of a system that hired more and more employees to the public sector, the waste and absence of accountability and audit that allowed—or indeed, encouraged—kickbacks, that all this was being financed by loans that the country would not be able to repay.
When did it all start? When did we begin to think that passing along a little envelope of money to someone to do something they were already getting paid to do anyway—or not to do something when they were supposed to do—was “just the way the system works”? When did we cease to be surprised when hearing of a planning official who is bribed to call a forest a field or confirm the flooding of a crop of rye that was never planted? How did we come to consider it ordinary practice for small businesses to keep half their employees and stock off the books? When did we first start fashioning this strange calculus of interest, in which we told ourselves that it was fine to hide a part of our income, since we had already paid our share and anything else was only going to line the pockets of corrupt politicians or cover a ten-fold markup in a big construction contract? At what turning point in recent history did the dreams of young people begin to coalesce in the single aspiration of a sinecure in the civil service?
There’s an enormous difference, of course, between a former Minister who reportedly lived on $50,000 a day and a plumber who doesn’t give receipts and thus declares only a fraction of his income. And there’s a difference between the plumber and me when I don’t ask for his receipt. But we all had our part in keeping this perverse system alive. Through our acquiescence and our votes.
Natalie says I’m blaming the victim. She says that ordinary people really didn’t have a choice. More often than not, it was a matter of survival. Perhaps she’s right. But isn’t this part of the very tragedy? It was arguably in our immediate self-interest to acquiesce. But it was always in our long-range interest to resist. It was always in our greater interest to create an alternative.
And this failure to forge a different vision is above all a failure of political leadership. We were duped into believing there was no other way, that the future was only a more finely tweaked and more prosperous version of the present. Embezzlers, Tsochatzopoulos aside, are often careful not to draw attention to themselves; they misappropriate only a portion of the assets with which they have been entrusted. The theft can thus go on undetected for years. Then comes an unexpected crisis and assets are suddenly needed. Only then do the victims see that they have been deceived and part of their assets has gone missing. And only now do we realize how much of our future has been stolen from us.
On April 2nd I was made 18 wishes. It wasn’t my birthday and I hadn’t gotten a promotion, though considering the situation here, one more week that goes by without an announcement of a cut in pay is grounds enough for celebration. It was a day like any other, except it was Monday, and that’s the start of the week, so a couple of people wished me a ‘good week’ (kali evdomada). Eighteen wishes, and that’s not counting the good mornings I was wished by the barrista where I pick up my pre-workout espresso, the receptionist at work and a dozen colleagues I met on my way to my office.
English doesn’t have a large stock of wishes. Good morning, good night and good luck. The happy and merry holidays. The happy birthdays and anniversaries. But that’s about it. We don’t even have our own words for seeing someone off on a trip or starting a meal together, but instead need to borrow from the French ! And some of the few we do have now sound hopelessly archaic (Good day!) or are confined to more formal and impersonal settings (When was the last time you said “Good evening” without saying in the same breath, “ladies and gentlemen)? Perhaps our optative penury explains why our wishes often sound like instructions: Get well! Enjoy yourself! Have fun! Sleep tight! It may also explain the growing popularity of the ultimate one-size-fits-all generic non-wish: “Have a good one!”
Greek, on the other hand, has wishes for a bewildering array of occasions: for the start of Lent and the break of day, for the fisherman’s catch and the windsurfer’s tack.
Perhaps this continuous stream of well-wishing began as a way to ward off the evil eye or mischievous wights or just bad luck, a kind of talisman in words. And an agrarian society would have had more than its share of unexpected misfortune: flash floods and marauding bandits, the visitations of blight, wilt and scorch.
Some of these wishes are imprinted with the signs of a culture that have since disappeared, semantic fossils that reveal another, simpler and pre-industrial way of life. Mesimeri, literally “the middle of the day”, refers to a span of time that stretches from 2:30 to 5:30 – the hours of common quiet, as the law calls them, when the shops used to close. But kalo mesimeri, spoken when taking leave and never used as a greeting, has very little to do with time per se. The wish for a good midday is more the wish for a good midday meal, or rather, what was once the midday meal, the main repast of the day that one would eat, often at home with family, and that one would follow with a siesta before returning to work for the rest of the afternoon (in Greek, literally, ‘after the meal’). A wish for a restful and restorative break in the day.
Though often among the first words a new learner of a language is exposed to, these greetings, which are in essence disguised wishes, are among the most problematic. The day is not demarcated into clear bands of time but is instead a continuum of modulation. Morning segues quietly into midday, afternoon seeps into evening.
Theoretically I could understand how it could be both afternoon and evening at the same time. Dusk is a problematic time in any language, and I soon realized that Greeks had an especially elastic view of time. And now that globalization has all but eradicated the midday break, evening can start at 3. But that the same person—our receptionist at work, for example—would use good afternoon and good evening more or less interchangeably at the same time (or so I thought) was perplexing. I mean, why couldn’t he make up his mind? Eventually it dawned on me (no pun intended) that he was saying good afternoon to colleagues who were leaving work and good evening to those arriving for an evening concert or poetry reading. One was a farewell, the other a greeting. One said, we spent time together, and that was good, and now that you’re leaving, I hope you enjoy the hours ahead. The other said, ‘welcome’.
I began to learn which wishes are said upon greeting, and which upon taking leave, and which, like the wish for ‘good descendants’ are said only in Church and then only to certain people.
I also began to realize that some wishes came in pairs, great parentheses that, like lexical hugs, embraced the span of a meal, a day, a journey, a season. There is the wish for a good day and a good night, of course, the words with which you begin and end your day. There’s a wish you say when a friend takes on a new project (kalo xekinima), and another when she’s battling deadlines for the end (kala xeberdemata, more or less the equivalent of I hope you manage to tie up all the loose ends and come out of this unscathed, or in short, good riddance).
And then there are pairs for which we in English have only half the dyad, and it’s only until you hear the other half do you realize, yes, we reallyshould have a phrase for this. You walk by a colleague’s office and see her opening her Tupperware container of leftover stir-fry, so you might want to say kali orexi (bon appétit). The next day you walk into her office as she’s polishing off the last remains of a take-away sandwich and you say… what? Kali honepsi, of course (literally “good digestion”)! Some even come in triplets. My friends at the gym wish each other a ‘good workout’ before and ‘good relaxation’ after. But you would also wish a workout partner who continues the workout as you finish up yours a ‘good continuation’ (kali sinehia). This also comes in handy when taking leave of colleagues who are stuck at work for a few more hours while you’re off to meet friends for a coffee.
There’s a wish for the start of a trip (the good voyage we borrow from the French) but also for the end of one (kali epistrofi). One for the beginning of summer and one for the end; the latter, used when greeting someone who’s returned from August vacation is the one I found the hardest to get used to: how can you even think of winter, however good it might be, as you’re sweltering in the only slightly less oppressive summer heat of September? But of course it’s not exactly a good winter that’s being wished, but the remaining year ahead. It is a way to mark a transition, one of those wishes that are signposts of change not only in the seasons and the work of the land—the wish for good harvests and good crops—but also in identity and social role. I learned what you say to the conscript who is about to finish his military service (‘good private citizen’), and to a pregnant friend about to deliver her baby (predictably enough, kali leftheria, or ‘good freedom’).
It costs nothing to utter these two-word dabs of well-wishing, except perhaps a slightly heightened sense of compassion (in the sense of imagining oneself in the other’s position), but how well they lubricate social relationships. Because it is relatively easy to detect a wish that is made begrudgingly or insincerely, they are a litmus test of feeling and intent. Maybe it’s the tone of voice or body language but you really can tell whether your interlocutor cares if the results of your blood test are good (yes, there’s a wish for ‘good results’). Wishing isn’t small talk, even if—or perhaps precisely because—it’s just a few words.And these few words, generously sprinkled through the day like so many hidden treats, are a testimony to a quintessentially Mediterranean genius of making even the smaller events of ordinary life an occasion for bonding—and celebration.
It was the number that grabbed my attention as I was flipping through the pages of this week’s Athens Voice. 63. Political positions, that is. “Which of these 63 political positions do you think are positive?” the article by Stefanos Papanikos asked. And there they were, 63 one-sentence statements arranged in a passe-partout around an ad of a slightly bloodied, sword-wielding Rosemary Pike as Andromeda in the new Wrath of the Titans film.
I thought 63 was a peculiar number of items for a manifesto. Though not a prime, it also wasn’t one of those neat, certain numbers ending in five or zero, like Luther’s 95 or Badiou’s 15 (Theses on Contemporary Art). Nor was it one of these familiar grouping numbers like 12 (Principles of Agile Software Development). But I figured maybe it was a good sign—finally a political movement thinking out of the box. Maybe it was the platform of one of the new parties that spouted up after MPs in the major parties broke ranks (so many are popping up that pollsters find themselves obliged to add the name of the founder in parentheses so that respondents can tell them apart).
I was already excited by the time I had read the first ten.
Liberalization of 121 closed professions, creation of a comprehensive computerized land registry system for the whole country, review of the assets of at least 200 tax officials every year, internal auditors in all the public hospitals… Finally, a platform of common sense!
And then I read: creation of an online system for public-sector procurement, whistleblower protection, reduction of the pharmacies’ guaranteed profit margin by 15%… and the list went on. Imposition of mandatory deadlines for the hearing of court judgments, privatization of the energy sector and implementation of the renewable energy program, Helios. There were provisions to reduce the operating costs of public transportation and health services, including the use of generic substitutes for prescription drugs (only 18% of prescribed drugs in Greece are generics; in the US it’s 85%, in the UK 60%, in Germany 68%)
I had been thinking—for the first time in my life—of casting a blank ballot in the upcoming elections, mostly because I couldn’t find a political party that I believed had a comprehensive workable platform of reform that included difficult but, in my view, needed measures to rebuild the public sector and make it effective, accountable and efficient. And then here they were, 63 succinct theses of common sense (many, in fact, are ideas that have been talked about but not acted on for years).
Compulsory rotation of Directors of the Tax Offices after a specific period of tenure, abolishment of permanent tenure in the civil service, tax audits of freelance professionals and high-asset-individuals…
It was only as I got toward the very end that I began to sense that this platform wasn’t exactly what it seemed to be at first. The last two policy proposals were harsh medicine that no political movement could realistically espouse, even if the intention of these measures was to foster job creation: reduction of the minimum wage by 22%, and for new hires under the age of 25, by 32%.
Written upside down in a little green box at the end of the article was the statement that these 63 theses were taken from the Cooperation Pact (μνημόνιο or mnimonium, which isn’t really a legitimate transliteration but I like the allusion to pandemonium) that was negotiated with or perhaps imposed by the troika as the precondition for the approval of the second bailout package for the country.
Papanikos’s piece was a clever way to illustrate the irony of the anti-mnimonium fervor that informs so much of the public discourse on the crisis. It’s become almost an article of faith for most. Ordinary folk and politicians alike claim that the troika’s prescription was a mistake from the beginning and inexorably led to a vicious circle of recession that decreased state revenues and necessitated further and harsher austerity, which in turn deepened the recession and so on. There’s some truth to this but it’s also true that we didn’t take the medicine as prescribed, or rather, took just a small part of it. The cruelest part that was also the easiest to implement: across-the-board cuts in salaries and pensions and property tax hikes. Hostage to special interests and trade unions, mired in anachronistic machine politics, the first mnomonium government of PASOK resorted to measures that could be quickly implemented—the state signs the pension checks and property surcharges appeared on the electrical bill—while failing to address the thornier problems of structural reform. It’s a bit (though only a bit) like an obese patient with diabetes who takes his insulin but continues to stuff himself with carbs, fails to monitor his glucose, keeps drinking and spends his waking hours at a desk or on the couch. And then wonders why he has to up his insulin dosage.
The Pact has already been approved by Parliament, so in a way one could think of it as a platform for the entire country. But it’s only been adopted in principle, and its implementation can easily be sabotaged through legislative loopholes, ministerial directives that undermine or contradict the original provisions of the law, the unwillingness or incompetence of agency officials who must put the law into practice and the absence of infrastructure and technical personnel to support the task.
And reform will be sabotaged unless there is widespread popular support for change. It really is ironic. The lower- and middle-income wage workers, pensioners, small property owners, young freelancers just starting out in their profession—actually young people as a whole—ordinary people whose income and assets are there, all declared, for the state to see and tax, people who work hard and do a job that needs doing, they—we—continue to shoulder the cost of this debt crisis We should, in fact, be the most ardent supporters of this “political platform”, the pro-mnimonium majority, demanding that it be implemented in its entirety, that all pay their share and that the sacrifices we have already made and will need to make in the future will have some positive impact and not simply be consumed in the waste, graft and inefficiency of the current system. Reform is about change, but it is also about justice.
When I was living with E & J, we’d talk at breakfast about our dreams. Since we did it so often, we got good at remembering our dreams, and so we always had something to talk about, and it got to feeling ordinary in a way, a kind of “So, honey, how was your night?” kind of thing. I was also in therapy at the time, so I had even more incentive to remember my dreams, though I worried sometimes if talking beforehand with E & J would compromise the psychoanalytical benefit of the dream as therapeutic content, make it less raw and more rehearsed and hence censored. Of course, it didn’t really matter, but I didn’t know it then.
I wondered some times if this habit of talking about dreams, both at breakfast and in therapy, influenced in turn the way I dreamed, if there wasn’t some kind of strange feedback loop in which the dramatic retelling and interpretation of the dream made me dream more dramatically. And the more epic the dream, the greater significance I’d attach to it, which then made me dream even more dramatically, to the point where I was dreaming of swimming through strange stone cities (yes, I was more aquatic than avian in my greater flights—or, rather, glides—of fancy) and falling from a narrow mountain path to my death on a massive hieroglyphically inscribed stone disk.
I didn’t know about Hobson’s paradigm-bending theory of dreams back then, his proposition that dreams are the result of the forebrain trying to make sense out of the noisy input generated by relatively random signals in the brainstem. Maybe it’s good that I didn’t. It might have punched the magic out of therapy. And we would have had to start to actually read the Boston Globe that arrived at our doorsteps every morning.
But I like this idea of the brain working to create narrative out of chaos. I like the notion of this imperfect pattern-maker and storyteller who pieces together isolated feelings and events, interweaving memory, attributing motive, providing sequence, identifying cause and in the end generating as best as it can a text which, if not entirely coherent, can at least be ‘read’ and followed.
I think this act of transforming the intermittent and incongruent into a story is somewhat similar to what we do consciously whenever we recount our own history. We give this autobiography the illusion of linearity, if not fate, connecting (some of) the dots of the things we’ve done and the people we’ve met with the markers of time, result, concession and purpose. And then it gradually emerges! The outline of a recognizable I.
Granted, the firings are not entirely random. There’s already a deeper pattern inscribed in our choices that is not a matter of will. The landscape of possible outcomes is constrained by the geology of character, childhood and trauma. And each significant event in our lives increases or decreases the likelihood of another event happening later, including those that have already occurred. One can never truly revisit the forks in the road one has taken. But the act of interpretation is an integral part of how and why we talk about ourselves.
If that’s true, then talking about dreams must be a particularly hermeneutically dense meta-discourse. It’s a recounting—and hence an attempt to make sense—of a not wholly coherent synthesis of seemingly random events. An interpretation of an interpretation. And that’s just at breakfast.
But I have two problems with this activation-synthesis theory of dreams (researchers in the field, of course, have others, including William Domhoff and his “The Problems with Activation-Synthesis Theory”)
One is how to explain recurrent dreams, of which, to quote Job, there is no end. I ask myself, is it the same set of synapses misfiring or is my forebrain narrator stuck in a rut, repeating itself in stock characters and hackneyed plot lines? Am I really that pedestrian?
The other thing this can’t explain is the appearance of threatening or negative elements in dreams. I’m pursued by monsters and bitten by rabid ferrets. I run through a smoldering cemetery as a volcano erupts in the city. I die in a car wreck. I miss examinations, show up in public naked, wind up in jail. Admittedly it doesn’t happen a lot. More often it’s my house: the roof is torn away, walls leak, strange plants devour the balcony, and drug dealers take up residency on the terrace. I wonder if my narrator is a pessimist, a writer of darkness as my friend Natalie would say, and then think what that says of me, although I don’t think of myself as a particularly morbid person, even if I do have my moments.
A few of these dreams themes repeat themselves, as in the case of the toxic ex-lover who moves back into my house to commandeer my space and life. Not always in the same way, but the basic scenario is the same.
It makes me wonder what exactly is twitching that needs to be translated into narrative, that asks for a face and a storyline. The well-trodden pathway of accumulated if unexpressed anger, perhaps?
This motif of recurrent toxic dreams seems an apt metaphor for what is happening to us inGreece. Or happening to me. The country seems to be dreaming the same thing, again and again: a bleak future of failed reform (if even attempted), deeper recession, and harsher austerity. Dreams in which the same mistakes are made, again and again. The firing impulses of the need to reform is interpreted in the same old narrative and quieted in the accommodation to special interests.
It’s sad and infuriating. Two years after the issue was first broached of opening up the trucking and taxi cartels, legislation is being presented to Parliament. The Minister of Infrastructure has chipped away at the initial draft to delay the liberalization of the trucking industry (which makes it more expensive to ship goods from the north to the south of Greece than it does to ship them across the Adriatic Sea) and to ensure that taxi drivers will have first dibs on the licenses for the new leased mini-vans. The recently appointed Minister of Education is blocking—for the sake of the politically connected interest group of university rectors—the implementation of legislation recently passed that would for the first time introduce assessment of public universities. It’s as if our political leaders’ sense of what is possible–apart from the vicious across-the-board salary and pension cuts and tax hikes (for those who actually pay taxes)–is an only half-disguised attempt to do what we’ve always done. The sense of a future that it’s just a blurred copy of a corrupt past. Plus ça change.
I live in a city shrouded in a Colossus of anxiety rising from the recurring dreams of ordinary women and men who worry that they will lose their jobs or who have already lost them and are finding it harder and harder to make ends meet and feed their families, the hundreds of thousands of people in the private sector who, with the new measures contained in the cooperation pact with the troika, will lose 25% of their salaries in the year ahead.
Ok, it’s not all bleak. There are some voices of reason in the chaos. Isolated and faint, but they’re there. New ideas. Grass-root initiatives like Δημιουργία Ξανά (“A Fresh Start”) that seem to be genuinely committed to reform.
Despite charges from psychoanalysts of reductionist determinism, Hobson didn’t see any inherent contradiction between his activation-synthesis theory and creativity. On the contrary, he maintained that dreaming could be a source of innovative ideas:
Dreaming may be our most creative conscious state, one in which the chaotic, spontaneous recombination of cognitive elements produces novel configurations of information: new ideas. While many or even most of these ideas may be nonsensical, if even a few of its fanciful products are truly useful, our dream time will not have been wasted
One hopes it will be for us, too.