Of Voices & Solidarity

“Equality is a vital need of the human soul. It consists in a recognition, at once public, general, effective and genuinely expressed in institutions and customs, that the same amount of respect and consideration is due to every human being…”  Simone Weil

A woman in the corner store where I get groceries when I can’t get to the supermarket, is saying, as she’s chewing on a cracker, “they’re lucky they weren’t killed,” when another finishes the story about two old people who were recently robbed of 2000 euros, money they’d just taken out of the bank. “A woman,” she goes on, now furiously chewing on the cracker, “was murdered right here on Gravias street.” I pause since it’s around the corner from where I live; it’s also the street where the American College of Greece is located with its large, imposing and well-guarded gate. So I’m surprised. “Are you sure?” I say, the woman nods swallowing her cracker and, quite beside herself now, adds “I’ve become cynical, I know, but how can you not be cynical?” “When was this?” I ask again, since I’ve stopped watching the news for awhile, a way to put distance on the paralysis or a way to find my own niche & way of coping. It’s just “getting worse” as people will keep saying, which finally means rage threatens to become part of the paralysis. If one goes with the facts, they are overwhelming: 50,666 unemployed in one month (now 24% of the population) “one in two people” the news commentator said, the last time I watched the news. The conversations on the streets are all about who has just lost a job, what happened to another who had to give up an apartment, someone else, or yet another who has packed up to leave the city for a village.

It is the first week of classes, and two of my graduating students come by. They tell me their own stories. S after doing a thesis on Jhumpra Lahiri’s short stories is facing the fact that she will most likely have to go back to Larissa, “save money for the next two years so I can leave afterwards.” M, who is her best friend, and also graduating, is looking for work. “Anything,” both say, “last year we had our classes, our thesis to write; I was teaching at the same time in a frontistiria, and now there’s nothing, nothing at all… not even waitressing.” They tell me that they are considering the possibility of moving to Africa where a relative has a bakery. “There’s also Australia,” S says. The next day, T comes by and when I ask her how her summer was she says “do you really want to hear?” I nod cautiously. She tells me she has moved out of her room because her uncle is ill and moved in with them and needs around- the-clock care; she did this for the summer, and now lives with a close friend. Her family owned a bakery for over 60 years which they had to close this past spring. More shops in my neighborhood of Agia Paraskevi have closed. I am particularly pained by the empty windows of the store that sold organic food; it had opened two years ago. The people who ran it had put a lot of thought and taste into the place. In a small shopping mall further down Agiou Ioannou there are signs on all the windows advertising special sales if they aren’t announcing final sales before closure. It’s hard to believe it has only been a year since the ravages of austerity began to show. A year since George Papandreou was still in office; it was his government which voted in the first loan package with its attendant measures, his government that invited in the IMF, a year ago since Syntagma was covered with tents of protestors speaking up against terms that have devastated the economy and made the stories of destitution an everyday occurrence. My friend M who spent over a decade in Greece before moving to Provence is shocked, “how is it that these ladies in black are on the streets begging? Where are their families?” From Medea to Jocasta, mothers in the culture whether for good or evil share the dimensions of myth and they are now, they too, on the streets, begging for their families. “I couldn’t believe it,” M goes on, “I mean, hell… I gave each 5 euros… two women I saw standing within a block of each other.” I nod. I hear their whispered pleas daily — “Please, my child is sick…” is one refrain, “Please… I have to feed children.” While these women range in age, I have yet to hear one of them ask for money without mentioning it is for someone besides themselves. So the rage becomes visceral, and impossible. It is impossible to live with the edge of it every day without feeling that it will destroy you too, you – or me – who still have a job, who are part of the shrinking lucky now working twice as hard and longer hours to maintain what we have. The taxes have doubled, and there are extra ones, too, to meet the troika’s terms. After a 30% cut in salary I took a second teaching job, but I have to consider myself lucky. On the road at 7:30 a.m. (to be in class at 8:30) I notice the cars and think just that — we’re the ones going to work, we’re the ones with work… and yet, I am bitter if still not crushed… I feel I’ve lost a context to speak in when I talk to those outside of this world, that I find it hard to articulate – even here – the realities of what is making for the radicalization of extremes, for example. But as one Christos Pallas posted in a heated discussion on the Modern Greek Studies Listserv regarding a Dr. Chrysolara post that analogized the Golden Dawn Fascists with the Coalition of the Left, the Left, for all its radicalization does not envision a racist society, as it articulates an increasingly emphatic defense of the right to our dwindling basics and calling for some end, or reduction of the “murder measures.” In Pallas’ words, “The equivalence … between Syriza and Xrisi Aygi, might be formal, but the equivalence between the establishment and Xrisi Aygi is substantial…”

Alex who is a sociologist at PANTEION, one of the national universities, says to me she is rereading Marx. I should revisit him myself. It is in times like this that the collective takes on, necessarily, voice, as the individual is helpless, or worse, silenced. Maybe it’s why I want to keep the posts going, yet as things get worse I am feeling the challenge of substance to discourse. Substance is listening to “the regulars” on the metro, there’s Vassilis who always introduces himself: “My name is Vassilis,” he says as his emaciated figure barely walks down the subway aisle: “sorry for this intrusion but I’m 20 and just out of jail. I’ve been clean for days. I don’t want to steal, but I’m really having a hard time. I can’t find a job and I don’t have money to eat. Whatever you can spare is appreciated.” There are others, too:  “Even some small help is important to me so I can have a piece of bread. I haven’t eaten in 4 days.” Those begging, from ex-drug addicts to more conventional looking men or women apologizing for their intrusion, always end with “God be with you” and “Keep well.” On the radio this morning I hear the reporter preface her commentary with “you hear crazy and crazier stories…” today’s is about a young Greek linguist who was studying in Spain, and came back to look for work. She was told the rate was, or is, 2.18 euros an hour for teaching in a language institute or frontisteria. The reporter then concluded “so how many hours will someone like her have to work, for 200 – 300 euros. And what are you supposed to do with those 300 euros?” What happens in these circumstances?

In The Need for Roots, Simone Weil writes that one of the “vital needs of the human soul” is “to feel one is useful…” that “complete privation from this point of view is the case of the unemployed person… for he represents nothing at all in the economic life of his country, and the voting paper which represents his share in its political life doesn’t hold any meaning for him.” While there are the ministers with their ongoing negotiating with the troika speaking, too, as if things while tough are still somehow salvageable in middle or lower middle class terms, the bottom is falling out from under. Another reality is forming, and the discourse is discovering itself. A culture that rarely saw homeless in the streets let alone mothers and grandmothers begging, is looking inwards and elsewhere, and inevitably the rage, the rage at past governments, but especially at their rhetoric of promise, their stance of inclusiveness which has betrayed the promise for restored growth, and hope, has become visible. In Weil’s words, “Every social organism, of whatever kind it may be which does not provide its members with these satisfactions [of ‘initiative and responsibility’] is diseased and must be restored to health.”

Paul Krugman in his September 27, NYT Op Ed points out, once again, that austerity “serves no useful purpose;” as the “truly irrational players” are “the allegedly serious politicians and officials.” If there is a consensus forming now it is one that believes that if solutions are to be had, and livelihoods salvaged, they will not come from the state. If it is a necessary faith, or tolerance, that any social contract by definition involves compromise the discrepancies between what was supposed to happen, and what has happened, are so radical that they have eaten into any fabric of consensus beyond a feeling of betrayal.  A rumor went viral this summer that the ex prime minister Papandreou, now the head of the European Socialist party had refused to pay his ferry ticket to an island, ministers and  politicians being oddly exempt from such banalities in the event that they travel to their constituents. Various local papers covered the incident but it was never made clear what in fact happened. Whether GP had no ticket and the captain refused to allow him on board without it, or if the captain, knowing he was on board, refused to transport him, and then resigned. The bottom line I guess is that a now massive rift exists between a privileged “they” responsible for the depth of the tragedy upon us, and an “us” living it. The fact is, had GP gone forward with the troika’s initial demands for cuts in public sector spending and privileges (public servants retiring at the age of 40 for example on full pensions with bonuses of 50 and 100 thousand euros), we would not be in the dire state we are in today.

It was a year ago, or a little over a year ago, that the extent of the economy’s free-fall might have been checked, but while GP was running his solo marathons keeping himself in shape as he always has, the state and its citizens were experiencing the first of what changes were going to change us, what silences were going to consume “Our Sun.”  In the poet’s words —
“This sun was mine and yours’ we shared it./Who’s suffering behind the golden
silk, who’s dying?/…// It was ours, this sun, we saw nothing behind the gold
embroidery/” It was another time, another war Seferis was describing, but his conclusion
resonates again:  “And it was then I found out about those things behind the gold and the silk:/we don’t have the time. The messengers were right.”

About akalfopoulou

Author of three poetry collections, a book of essays, Ruin, Essays in Exilic Living, and most recently, A History of Too Much (Red Hen Press 2018).
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1 Response to Of Voices & Solidarity

  1. DyAnne DiSalvo says:

    Heartbreaking and shattering to read the “ordinary” voices that are spoken throughout the country during this “extraordinary” time of uncertainty and stammer. The internal dialogue and displacement of the people have yet to be unleashed on the political apathy of a “Broken Greece”.

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