Now & Then: Greece’s Present Tense of Loss

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“Markaris was talking instead about a set of values, including the importance of living in solidarity with others in community, which enabled Greeks for centuries to live, as philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin would say, ‘poetically’—literally so, when you think this is a country where ordinary people, even those who couldn’t read, would know by heart the works of poets, embedded in the songs they sang. It was a culture marked by its people’s ability to celebrate the small things in everyday life and the resourcefulness to do it well despite limited means.” Stefanos Christoforos

Breach of Close

by Stefanos Christoforos

From Panayotis Ioannidis’s series, “The New Economy.”

From Panayotis Ioannidis’s series, “The New Economy.”

Stefanos ChristoforosATHENS Greece—(Weekly Hubris)—5/28/2012—No one explained to me when I was growing up that we were a family of very modest circumstances.

Even if they had, I wouldn’t have understood. I never felt the absence of things.

There was always food on the table, even if at times it consisted of warmed-up leftovers. As the eldest of three boys, I was bought new clothes now and then. My brothers were less lucky, though the start of school and sometimes Easter meant new clothes for them, too. We lived in a working-class neighborhood in the city. In the morning the air was redolent with the aroma of roasted coffee from the Maxwell House factory by the river; in the afternoons I’d come back home to the smells of sofrito and kielbasa. But I spent summers at my grandfather’s country house by the sea.

Oh, I knew that there were better streets in the city than the one we lived on, but I knew there were worse ones, too.

A disinterested observer would have pointed out that my brothers and I slept on a pair of sofa-beds in the living room. That our clothes were bought on sale from discount houses. That my mother was a fanatical coupon clipper, dinner was sometimes Taylor Ham-and-egg sandwiches, and my father, whom I rarely saw during the week because he so often worked late nights, drove a boxy embarrassment of a car.

The car was the only clue I had that we didn’t have much money: a red Rambler  that always seemed to be dirty, however many Saturdays we spent washing and waxing it.

Our car always stood out when we’d gather at my grandfather’s farm for some holiday. My uncles drove big shiny black cars that glided silently over the road, Chryslers and Cadillacs, with leather seats and electric windows. But then again, my father himself—a wiry, fair-haired man whose mother spoke German, and stood out among my mother’s lumbering Italian-Americans brothers—and our quirky car seemed to me simply part of the package of who my father was; my family was.

I was happy growing up. We never lacked for toys though, looking back, I can see that they were all inexpensive. Things like Yoyos and tops and colored gimp we’d plait into bracelets. Occasionally, something special would appear, such as coloring sets or models of birds and monsters and knights in armor, though they were bought by my grand-uncle or grandfather, not my father. At Christmas we’d find board games such as “Chutes and Ladders” and “Candyland” under the tree, and the Elgo red-brick-and-white-trim sets with which I would design and build suburban split-levels and ranch houses—the kind of house my father used to talk of taking us to one day.

There were treats as well, more often than not one of the dozens of ingenious ways that manufacturers had devised to deliver doses of sugar to kids: we slurped syrupy liquid from tubes of wax and picked off beads of pastel-colored candy from a roll of paper. We sucked on straws filled with fruit-flavored crystals and clicked on dispensers that would disgorge pill-sized sugared brick. I didn’t have music lessons or French, but I did have candy. We were fairly close to poor, but I never felt it.

I was telling this to a friend of mine who’s been laid off from his job. His wife still works and they’ve got some savings, but they’ve downsized, cutting expenses wherever they can. Kosmas is worried most about the kids. About the things they will no longer have. “But kids don’t really need that much,” I said. “A feeling they’re loved and safe and special is enough. Regular times to eat. Hugs and kisses. But you know all this already,” I added.

“It’s different with my kids,” he said. “They’ve grown up having things, and now they’ll have to make do with less. A lot less. You and I didn’t have any standard of comparison. We grew up poor. But they didn’t. They have a standard and, for them, it’s ‘now and then.’ And they’re not going to be happy with the ‘now.’”

That made me think of something novelist Petros Markaris said about how Greeks once had a culture of poverty that helped them live well despite privation—and by well he didn’t mean materially.

This culture of poverty has nothing to do with the now widely discredited theory first made popular by Oscar Lewis in his study of slum dwellers in Mexico City, the idea that the poor—“aliens in their own country”— have a distinct subculture marked by feelings of powerlessness, dependency and personal unworthiness.

Markaris was talking instead about a set of values, including the importance of living in solidarity with others in community, which enabled Greeks for centuries to live, as philosopher and sociologist Edgar Morin would say, poetically—literally so, when you think this is a country where ordinary people, even those who couldn’t read, would know by heart the works of poets, embedded in the songs they sang. It was a culture marked by its people’s ability to celebrate the small things in everyday life and the resourcefulness to do it well despite limited means.

This culture was subsumed, though not lost entirely, in the frenetic hyper-consumerism made possible by the inflow of cheap EU money. It was a sham prosperity, created by an economy fueled by personal consumption, construction, loans and an ever-burgeoning public sector generating jobs that served no productive purpose—a country where the public TV channels had twice as many viewers as all the private channels taken together; a country where, as Stefanos Manos notes, the state-run Olympic Airways was losing €1 million a day, while the private carrier, Aegean Airlines, was earning a profit of €100,000 a day.

It was a sham, but it didn’t feel like that at the time.

Kosmas bought 60€ rugby shirts for his kid, who’d outgrow them in a year. It felt real enough, this prosperity, though there were voices that tried to warn us that this perverse “model” of development was unsustainable.

Perhaps we had an inkling that things were not all right when we saw banks outdoing themselves in offering eortodaneia and diakopodaneia (the notorious “holiday loans” and “vacation loans”). We laughed, but perhaps there was the slightest undertone of concern in our laughter. Or maybe not. It’s hard to remember now exactly what it felt like then. Back then—before the loss.

The signs of loss are everywhere to be seen now and, most tragically, in the recent unemployment statistics that speak of 20 percent unemployed. Everyone knows it’s higher; the numbers don’t include my friends Luiza and Marios and Leandros, a freelance graphics artist, music teacher and translator respectively, whose commissions have all but dried up; or those like Menios, who never had a “legal” job and so isn’t listed on the unemployment rolls.

I see this loss, too, in the neglect and abandonment that seems to be claiming ever greater swathes of the capital, Athens.

One usually thinks of “depressed neighborhoods” in economic terms, but it really is more than that here. The psychological symptoms of apathy and self-neglect, the aching emptiness and evacuation of joy are just as present. It doesn’t happen all at once but there is a point when the encroaching sadness is impossible to ignore: the fungus of tag-graffiti that soon covers every imaginable building surface, the proliferation of for-rent signs in the lobbies of apartment buildings, the permanent state of disrepair into which more and more buildings fall—the equivalent in concrete of the depressive’s disinclination to shave or change his underwear.

One sees this loss in the closed-up shops in my (working-class) neighborhood in Athens. First to go was the pet shop and one of the butchers, then a hairdresser and the tailor’s shop and the hole-in-the-wall that serviced PCs, and then two florists in the space of three months.

Luxury items in a crisis, you’d say: not surprising they were forced to close. But then, the corner “supermarket” closed and then the dry cleaner’s.

We still have three pharmacies in the space of four blocks; the profession, with an obscenely high state-guaranteed profit margin and protective legislation regarding operating hours, is still “closed” to real competition.

I wasn’t sad to see the supermarket close. It was a dirty shop with grossly overpriced goods that exploited its singularity for a quick profit. The prices didn’t seem to matter back then, before. At some point they began to matter, though.

“Mixer” by Panayotis Ioannidis, from his series, “The New Economy.”

“Mixer” by Panayotis Ioannidis, from his series, “The New Economy.”

In his visually arresting series of photographs of “The New Economy,” Panayotis Ioannidis has delivered a moving and eloquent narrative of this loss and abandonment.

His photographs of empty shop windows, with their flotsam of dashed dreams—a mascot doll from the Athens Olympics, a lone table soccer figure lying alone on a shelf like a discarded mummy of a discredited sect, burlap-wrapped crates, a scrap of a “Made in Greece” poster that stands like a memento mori on a bed of crumbled wrapping paper in a display window—each in its own way bears witness to the ruins of an unsustainable economy.

There always seems to be something missing in these works: the casing for an electrical box, the seats in an open-air theater now given over to weeds and rust, a chunk of a decaying balcony, the nameplates next to the buzzers on a commercial building (the last in an intriguing Rothko-like composition in which the repeating vertical blocks of the absent nameplates is recapitulated in a graffito to the right).

Nowhere is this abandonment, however, more strikingly emblematic of the crisis than in his photographs of blank billboards.

Billboards were once ubiquitous in Athens, not only on empty lots along the expressways, but also on the roofs of apartment buildings along thoroughfares in the downtown area. Legislation against street-side advertising in the city curtailed the use of these billboards as advertising surfaces, but that almost seems irrelevant.

Even without legislation, the budgets are no longer there to finance their use. In one shot, the uncovered grids of a pair of billboards stand like awkward crowns of folly on the roofs of dilapidated low-rise houses. The foreground of the photograph is dominated by a futuristic, three-headed streetlight (financed, no doubt, in part by EU funny-money) that rises up like an alien probe, an anemometer whose readings were taken but not disclosed.

The empty billboards have become, literally, a sign of the crisis; like an empty picture frame in a gallery or on a living room end-table, they bear sad witness to theft or loss, heralds, now rendered mute, of a culture of wealth to which we became unaccustomed. Then. Before.

Note: Further investigate the work of Greek photographer, Panayotis Ioannidis at http://rvision.daydreamlabs.com/user/40772211@N07/set/72157627888029636 and http://www.flickr.com/photos/panayotisioannidis/

Stefanos Christoforos blogs at http://sxchristopher.wordpress.com/. His columns are reprinted here by kind permission of the author.

About Stefanos Christoforos

Stefanos Christoforos grew up a subway stop from the Christopher Street station in New York’s West Village. Technically, it was “a river and a subway stop” away in Hoboken, New Jersey, a waterfront town that achieved a place in the annals of American song and sport as the birthplace of Frank Sinatra and baseball. He couldn’t sing or swing a bat and had little desire to do either, and thus, freed from the commitments of choir practice and junior varsity, he spent his time exploring, at first his own little square mile of working-class ethnic minestrone and then eastwards across the river to The City, where he discovered there were things he was good at that he didn’t need to practice. Or maybe that the practice was so bound up with passion that it never seemed like work. One of the things he was good at (but actually did require a lot of practice) was languages. Though he studied various things in college and graduate school—political science and city planning and even theology—he eventually wound up spending most of his waking hours working with languages, his own and those he later acquired. It was a bit like the route between Hoboken and Christopher Street: a path waiting to be discovered. He now lives even further east, in Athens, Greece, where he works in the fields of corporate communication and translation. He writes here as an amateur on subjects he cares about: art, memory, language, identity, and increasingly, about politics, the city and the crisis in Greece. Writing about them feels to him a bit like trespassing on other people’s intellectual turf; hence the title, Breach of Close, an old legal term for "breaking a man’s close," to wit, trespassing. Author photo by:Adrianne Kalfopoulou
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6 Responses to Now & Then: Greece’s Present Tense of Loss

  1. Dean Pratt says:

    Dear Stefanos, thank you for your wonderful and compassionate column about a country I have come to know and love. I pray that there are many more Stefanos Schristoforos’ in Greece and around the world that will work toward returning Greece to a “then” that will create a future “now” for this great country affording it’s people the dignaty and propserity they and their country deserve.

  2. diana says:

    Welcome to the Weekly Hubris team. EBH has acquainted me with your marvelous, poignant blog posts, which will be a real addition to our columns. But tell me, if your father was of German descent and your mother Italian, where does the Greek connection come from? And whereabouts in Athens, my home also, do you live? Maybe one day we could meet? Thanks for your writing. And thanks to Dean, too, for his heartfelt comment.

  3. sxchristopher says:

    Thank you very much for your comments. I, too, hope, that we can set right what has gone wrong and draw upon the strengths of this country and its people to create a better tomorrow. At the moment it’s hard to see what that future might look like, and even harder to imagine how we’ll get there, but it would be worse believing that it is not even possible. S./

  4. George T. Karnezis says:

    I appreciate the careful attention to detail and the evocation of places and environments in your piece. I especially welcome the observations about consumerism and its dubious value. The question remains: can any society based on the virtues of accumulation create conditions where the human spirit can flourish? The question was put by Socrates to the citizens of Periclean Athens: amidst all this building, have citizens’ lives been improved beyond the “increased standard of living”? Years ago, Reagan asked if people were “better off” than they were four years ago, and that “better off” had more to do with economics than any measure of a deeper quality of life such as that imagined by the likes not only of Socrates, but also by thinkers like Thoreau and Emerson and so many others who understood that one does not live solely by bread. A more just society would reward the skills of your friends whose talents would enable them to sustain the quality of life that seems to be diminishing in Greece and elsewhere. I hope that we can find ways to understand why these sad conditions were not merely, like the weather, unavoidable, but the product of human agency and decision-making.

  5. sxchristopher says:

    Thank you for your generous comments. You are right that this sad situation need not have arisen. I would go a step further and say the true tragedy is not that the current crisis could have been avoided but that there were so many times that it could have been avoided.

    The massive foreign debt, sclerotic labor market, and ineffective and bloated public sector that now saddle the country did not happen overnight or even in the last two years. It began as early as the 1980s when the newly elected socialist PASOK party essentially followed a policy of income redistribution, nationalization, and expansion of employment in the public sector. Nikos Tsafos, in a post to his blog Greek Default Watch (one of the most cogent and enlightening analyses of the Greek financial crisis), entitled “Did the 1980s Ruin Greece” (http://www.greekdefaultwatch.com/2010/09/did-1980s-ruin-greece.html) shows that nearly all economic measures worsened significantly during the first terms of the PASOK government. While, as Tsafos notes, such economic policies had the positive benefit of incorporating previously marginalized segments of the population and furthered democracy in the country, they incurred a massive cost—one that we are only now paying.

    But later governments did nothing to reverse these trends. There was no significant effort to tackle the problems of tax evasion, corruption and political cronyism, no effort to set the economy on a more sustainable basis than consumption and public spending. Here again the crisis could have been avoided.

    I find it hard to believe that European governments did not know of the structural problems of the Greek economy when they consented to allow Greece to enter the Eurozone. Banks, too, must have known that were lending billions of euros to a country that would not in the long run be able to repay the debts it was incurring. Again, the crisis could have been addressed and avoided.

    I could go on. I could talk about the last New Democracy government before the bailout, during whose tenure public debt again skyrocketed. I could talk about the failure of the government led by Giorgos Papandreou to implement the structural reforms that remain an important part of the bailout program. Or the failure of European leadership and vision. So many lost opportunities.

    But we have nearly run out of opportunities, I think. And what we are faced with is not a return to a more modest way of living with a deeper quality of life—which I would welcome—but a society in which one out of every three families lives below the poverty line and one out of every two young persons is unemployed.

    Let us hope that we—and our leaders in Greece and in Europe—make the best out of the very few opportunities that still remain.

  6. immindElony says:

    Dogs, cats, hamsters, fish, parrots – who do you prefer? Or maybe what that exotic animals – snakes, crocodiles, lizards, monkeys?

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