Martin Kippenberg, Metro Net

Going Nowhere

Natalie was pissed. It wasn’t one of those parties you could be fashionably late for, it was cocktails at the Rector’s. And even if it had been one of those parties, we were beyond what fashion would excuse.

I had gotten us hopelessly lost. In my technological hubris I had ignored the hand-drawn map of directions to the Rector’s house that Natalie had given me as her navigator and insisted instead on pursuing a shortcut I had discovered on my iPhone. But the digital map turned out to be horribly out of date or just wrong. Forty-five minutes after we were supposed to have arrived I had her backing off highway entrance ramps that my map indicated were side access roads,  then pirouetting out of a dead-end that was supposed to lead on to the address we were looking for but instead was severed by a canal.

My intentions were noble—it really would have been much faster going my way… if only the road was there—but that doesn’t count as an excuse. I’d never try out a new dish at a dinner party, why would I use an untested shortcut to get to an important date? Important to Natalie, anyway. It’s so typical of me, really, this drive to do things better than they need to be done, but also this unexamined faith in technology, as if the sheer modernity of the medium—in this case, the sleek screen of a high-tech smart phone—endowed its content with an air of infallibility. How could a Google map be wrong? Or worse, out of date?! Or Christ, mistake a ditch for a cross-street?

I almost shared with Natalie my suspicion that the street maps had been deliberately doctored to frustrate anyone driving who in who didn’t belong. The Rector’s neighborhood was one of those self-contained suburban enclaves of the rich, cut off from the rest of the city save for the one avenue–the  one that figured so prominently on the Rector’s map–that  fed, like the intertubular venules of a kidney, into a network of cul-de-sacs that all seemed to look in on each other. Like other such enclaves it had been built entirely in the last decade, a result of the construction boom occasioned by the access to low-interest money that was available after the country joined the Euro zone.

But I kept my paranoia to myself. Natalie’s temper is legendary. She lacks that inner rheostat of anger that in other people allows for the gradual escalation of annoyance and irritation before its release as rage. Natalie has only two modes of anger: exasperation and fury, and she was hovering at the far end of exasperation at the moment.

In the end we back-tracked the wide arc of detour we had taken and found the main avenue and followed the map to the Rector’s house. It was hidden behind a high stone wall bedecked in a profuse overhanging of carefully tended honeysuckle and jasmine and studded with a trio of security cameras. The house itself, from the outside at least, was architecturally unremarkable but spoke of money, a recently built white cube with generous window space shielded by a brise-soleil. It reminded me of a fortress. Or a Berlin office building.

What the house lacked in ornament on the outside was more than compensated by the rococo opulence of the interior, of which Natalie and I had only the briefest of looks—enough to ascertain that the contents of the dining room alone must have been worth more than my entire apartment—as we were escorted upstairs to a spacious veranda by the help, a bit too briskly I thought, as if we were too untrustworthy to be left to wander through the rooms below and amid the 19th-century oils that hung on their walls.

After the obligatory greeting of the host, Natalie and I shuffled across the highly polished deep-green granite floor and made our way for the bar, which was set up on a sheet of glass over the Jacuzzi. It felt as if we were gliding along an iced pond of algae. The young man tending the bar poured us each a modest measure of a drinkable Merlot, which we quickly dispatched and proffered our glass for a refill. Just to make sure there’d be no misunderstandings as the evening wore on.

“I’m sorry I got us lost,” I said.

“It doesn’t matter. We’re here now.”  And it really didn’t seem to matter any more. The tension I had noticed in her body when in the car had loosened and whether from the wine or the soft light of the oversized rice-paper lanterns, her skin had taken on a faint glow, like the sheen of a lemon sorbet as the surface crystals first begin to melt in the warm air of a summer evening. “Besides, I’m the one who should be apologizing for dragging you here, and in a coat and tie. Though you do look good dressed up.”

“Only older men look better dressed up than down.” I said. “But I forgive the slight,” I joked. “So why did you so desperately want to come to this anyway?” I asked. The mood of the party, if you could call it that, was subdued. Conversation was muted, the lighting dim, the drinks small. Perhaps it was the setting or the granite or the forced formality of business attire on one of the hottest days in July, but the party felt a bit like Church without the pews.

“Academic politics. You wouldn’t understand,” she said. “I should mingle. So should you. You might learn something.”

She meant about the crisis. The recession, the debt crisis, the chances of default. The fragile underpinnings of the banking system. She meant the faculty who taught Economics.

It was the eve of Parliament’s vote on the mid-range austerity package that needed to pass to ensure the disbursement of the fifth installment of emergency loans that the troika of the European Central bank, the EU and the International Monetary Fund was to lend to Greece to fend off default. No one was sure what the outcome of the vote would be, and rumors had coursed during the day through blogs and forums and SMS gateways, propagating the wildest of scenarios: default, the return to the drachma, food rationing, a run on the banks, martial law.

Crisis-talk hung about the party like the acrid haze from a not-so-distant forest fire that is still raging. Some were more anxious than others. I suppose it depends on how much you have to lose and how close you think the fire is. How much confidence you have in the firefighters and whether there enough planes, men and skill to extinguish the fire.

Only the Economics faculty didn’t seem very perturbed. Perhaps they were just better grounded in reality than the others and they realized that some kind of selective default was inevitable but that the damage would be limited. Or they had already taken such protective measures as moving their money out of the country. Or like the Rector in his cubed fortress had his wealth invested in so many sources and locations—art, land, apartment buildings and wine (he knew good wine even if he didn’t serve it at cocktail parties)—that he was more or less impermeable to the effects of the country’s default.

I remember Natalie’s disapproval when I told her I had converted my savings into German bonds. As if I were unpatriotic, or worse, a traitor. I told her I had already contributed more than my share to financing an inefficient, bribe-ridden gargantuan public sector and bearing the weight of the hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens who cheat on their taxes, including a good number of the Rector’s neighbors. And, I added, it was an easy charge to level for someone whose assets were all in real estate. But she had a point. If everyone did as I did, the entire banking sector would collapse. Was I a traitor?

There was no way I could justify my action other than on the basis of self-interest, of which I had a good share: I will inherit no money; my parents have died and what money they left was appropriated by one of my brothers. I doubt if the pension I will receive when I retire will be enough to live on. I have no sons or daughters to take care of me. I don’t have a painting to pawn as the Rector does, or a summer house on an island as Natalie does. Shorn of my savings (or their conversion into a new drachma worth one quarter of what they are now), I would be faced with (abject) poverty in my old age.

I wonder to what extent my little treason—little in the grand scheme of things and considering issues of scale—is no less egregious than the acts of tax evasion, graft and bribery that some of my fellow citizens engage in. At least I console myself that I’m not cheating the State.

Had I a shred of confidence in the ability of this or the next government, or the one after that, to actually reform this country and move it forward on some trajectory of development, I might have kept my savings here. But I don’t. The extent of change that is needed is so great and so radical that I despair of its ever being realized. Measures are announced—the liberalization of the labor market, the privatization of state assets (which in total are greater in value than the entire debt of the country), the reduction in the size of the state sector, the removal of barriers to investment and the free exercise of trade—but little, if anything, seems to be put into practice. Laws are passed but not implemented or enforced.

I am reminded of a work by Martin Kippenberger that I saw recently at the Cycladic Museum in The Last Grand Tour, its exhibition of works by foreign artists who spent or spend a good part of their time in Greece. Kippenberger is perhaps more well-known because of his run in with Pope, who called the artist’s sculpture of a crucified frog holding a beer can in his hand “blasphemous” (the Vatican tried to get the Italian museum in which it was exhibited to take down the piece; the Director refused and the show went on, but the Director was eventually fired).

The work on exhibit at the Cycladic came from his Metro-NET series, which was apparently inspired on and began on Syros: the exhibit displays models and photographs of the subway entrance he had built on the island as part of an impossible underground transportation network linking Syros with such places as northern Canada, Leipzig and Kassel (where he later built other “entrances” and “ventilation shafts”).  There in the midst of a sandy clearing ringed by bramble and wild thyme you see the entrance, with its wrought-iron railings and steps leading down into the gated shaft. But of course there’s no tunnel under the earth; it’s a gate to nowhere. Like the state of reforms here. It’s all entrances. It’s all show. No one’s doing the real work to dig out a passageway that will bring us from where we are now to a more efficient, effective, streamlined and, in the end, fairer system. Instead we have the illusion of reform, the mere indication of progress which, like the access roads and thoroughfares on the misleading map on my iPhone, are in reality dead-ends.


Image: Martin Kippenberg, Metro Net


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