“This doesn’t look like a country in crisis,” my cousin said.
We were walking along the broad cobblestone walkway that skirts the base of the Acropolis on its way down to the cafés in the Thisio, an old Athens neighborhood generously studded with renovated neo-Classical houses. It was shortly before dusk and the cafés, more than a dozen flanking the walkway alone, were all packed. Friends engaged in animated conversation, laughter, a lot of positive energy, as my cousin would say. Not the face of crisis.
She had come with her “travelling companion”, Hannah, to Athens, the last stop on their Grand Tour of Southern Europe. That’s what she called her, her travelling companion, not her lover or roommate or friend, but her travelling companion. I liked that. It sounded very Victorian and very mysterious.
They had the earnestness and innocent exuberance that many young Americans have on their first trip abroad. They delighted in the foreignness of it all, the colorful currency, the electric trolley buses and skinny trams, the kiosks with the afternoon newspapers strung like wash on a line for passersby to stop and read the headlines. It was the first time they were spoken to in a language they didn’t understand, though they made admirable efforts to learn a few phrases of it and when that failed, invented the words they needed on the fly, as when they ordered a souvlaki vegetariana; this isn’t even close to the Greek word and in fact describes something that doesn’t exist, but the kebab-tender got the idea and accommodated them by stuffing a grilled pita with tzatziki, tomatoes and fried potatoes. They took to the idea of the aperitif, another dividing line between the cultures, though I sensed it would be only for the duration of their trip. Above all they were intrigued by the antiquity of the city, the history expressed in the ruins of the temples, theaters and stadiums they visited. My friends here joke that Americans don’t have a history. But of course they do, even if it to a Greek it seems fleeting. What they mean is that Americans don’t have a sense of history as this massive, cumulative, tectonic force that shapes identity and delimits the possible. History for Americans is a matter of pageants and parades, school projects and community plays. It’s something that is studied or re-enacted. It’s not something you come to terms with.
But my cousin wasn’t naïve. She knew crisis. She told me about communities in her home state of Florida, where entire blocks of vacant foreclosed houses had been boarded up, their interiors eviscerated by thieves who strip the copper wire, heating units, even the toilets.
She said hers was the first generation of Americans whose prospects were worse than those that their parents had had when young, the first generation of young Americans who would probably never be able to live in the kind of neighborhood they grew up. She was only partly right. There are certainly places in America where prospects never seemed to get better.
Many Greek youth now finishing university are facing similar diminished prospects, another reason they’re leaving in even greater numbers for graduate study abroad. Seven out of ten young university graduates in Greece want to work abroad. Four out of ten are actually looking for such a position. Of those who leave, few will return. Unemployment in the age group 15-24 is 30%, ten percentage points above the EU average.
But that’s not what my cousin was describing. The future confronting many Greek young people today—underemployment, subsistence salaries, a modest (at the best) style of life—is perhaps not much different than the one their grandparents and great-grandparents were confronted with. It was their parents’ generation that was the exception. Thanks to expansionary fiscal policies, a burgeoning public sector that provided a seemingly never-ending supply of jobs, and prosperity fueled by unprecedented growth in the construction, retail trade and tourism sectors (made possible in no small measure by sudden access to low-interest loans afforded by the country’s entrance in the Euro-zone), a great number of Greek families in the last decade and a half soon had considerably more disposable income than they ever had had. It was wealth for which many beneficiaries of this consumption-primed boom were ill-prepared for. Countless families were thrust into a maelstrom of precipitously increasing consumer expenditure financed by spiraling consumer debt (the country’s banks acted even more irresponsibly in granting this credit, of course; many of us here still remember the banks’ shameless advertising campaigns for eortodania, or ‘vacation loans’). The sad thing is that many still believe that this intoxicating, when not surreal, interregnum of unbridled and, in the long run, unsustainable spending (on both the individual and national level) was not an aberration that eventually would have to be paid for and in the end abandoned but was instead a right.
The government’s harsh austerity program, which ushered in drastic cuts in salaries and sharp increases in taxes and which has occasioned a deep recession and an unemployment level of almost 20%, has curtailed consumer spending. Spending on clothing and shoes especially, but also on gasoline and even groceries is down. Up to 30% of the shops in some areas of the city have closed.
The crisis has many faces. It can wear the face of fear. And the fear is wholly justified: if you lose your job in this country and can’t find another, and you don’t have family to take care of you, you’ll probably wind up living rough on the street in a year’s time, surviving on the city’s once-a-day free meals. There are more of these faces on the city streets these days. The crisis is read in the faces of anger: not only the anger occasioned by the loss of a lifestyle that was ultimately unsustainable but also the righteous anger provoked by injustice. A government cannot demand sacrifices from its citizens when the corrupt go unpunished and the burden of taxation falls on those without the means, cunning or brashness to avoid paying their share, but more importantly, when leadership fails to provide a vision of recovery, as this government has. There is a limit to which prospects can diminish before austerity degrades into hopelessness.
We are not at that point yet, though we may soon be approaching it. Some families are truly suffering. But for the time being, many are making do. With a little help from friends and more from family. We are making do with less. Greeks have been doing this for centuries, of course, and I think they have a particular gift for doing so. Perhaps they haven’t entirely been uprooted from the culture of their forefathers. Perhaps it is their sense of history
Greek culture—yes, the culture of poverty—has historically embodied the ideal of the Apollonian lito (even when in tension with Dionysian excess) a hard-to-translate term that essentially means that which remains after all that is unnecessary and superfluous has been stripped away, the bare-bones essential. It is sometimes translated asaustere, and indeed, the word for austerity, as in the aforementioned government austerity program, is correctly translated with the substantive, litotita. But ‘austere’ has a trace of a joyless asceticism that is missing from the Greek lito.
What my cousin was seeing was precisely this genius for life lived at its most essential, something as unpretentious yet life-affirming as conversation with friends over an endless cup of coffee in an al fresco café on a summer evening. Even with the scandalously high price of a cup of freddo cappuccino, it’s a budget night out. After all, it’s just one cup and no waiter here would think of making such a crass motion as clearing the table once the coffee’s been drunk as if to signal it’s time for you to leave. Admittedly, many more of the patrons of the cafés now smoke hand-rolled cigarettes and fewer will continue on to dinner out. But the cafés are still packed.
I don’t know what my cousin expected to see. Deserted city squares? The mentality one finds in a state of siege? Mass depression?
What my cousin saw in Thisio is also one of the faces of the crisis. A face that speaks of survival and community. It is a good face to see.
Image: Ken Ohara, from the series With