who inhabits this palace, this senate, this sentried barbed-wire enclosure
where dare enter none but subservient breeze; bent, broken blossom; dry rain.”
C.K. Williams from “Butchers”
“When you say freedom, what do you mean?”
(HAUniv student question for the June “ΚΑΛΠΙ project”)
Today’s a good day to blog. I canceled my teaching for the day due to the 48-hr. strike after students wrote to say it was going to be difficult to make it to class. The pending parliamentary vote on this 3rd mind-boggling 13.5 billion tranche loan with its latest slew of “new & improved” austerity measures has shut down the city. No public transportation or public sector venues, like the post office and hospitals, are operating. Much of the private sector is showing solidarity too. Last night, searching for a channel to get a news update on the latest stalemate between the 3-Party Coalition who came together in June to keep Greece afloat, it was, ironically, on CNN that I managed to get the day’s update. After two journalists were removed from hosting a morning news show for reporting on the “Lagarde list” published by Kostas Baxevanis (or Vaxevanis, as the Greek “Beta” is pronounced in English), news channels also went on strike. That included radio channels. I watched the CNN coverage of protest skirmishes, the tear gas and assaults. The CNN reporter went on to note abuses (people being hit by clubs, skin burned by cigarettes and lighters…) the MAT police are being accused of, verified by such groups as Amnesty International. The government spokesperson has denied that such cases have gone uninvestigated. The fact of the matter is that there is a clear sense that the State has not (for a long time now) put the welfare of the Greek people as a priority to keeping Greece “afloat.” These new austerity measures mean yet more slashes into what is an already dying body. Pensions at subsistence levels, if they are that, are about to be cut some more. The minimum wage, now at 580 euros, is still being negotiated. And salaries already reduced by as much as 40% are going to be reduced some more.
Because there was no news on the Greek channels, I watched a documentary on the homeless, and realized I recognized some of the people being interviewed; the man who sits outside of ZARA, another person I’d seen asking for a cigarette. They were all articulate. One spoke of his past career as a music manager. He had helped promote some labels; had a private business, and then had to shut it down. After the continuous tax statements he received over a 3-year period he found himself without the money to pay rent. He described living on the streets. How it felt the first night, then the second, after a couple of weeks, you forgot “basics” like wanting to keep clean, and hoped for some food. There’s an organization called ΚΛΙΜΑΚΑ (loosely, “Climax” … as in the tragic moment as opposed to the pleasurable… in case anyone is wondering), which is helping people to “find their place in society again.” I was as overwhelmed by the poise and matter-of-factness of the way the people running the program expressed their work as I was by the poise of the homeless being interviewed. There was footage too of various events organized by the program directors such as a recent music event in which well-known Greek musicians played pro-bono in a city park and asked that everyone “sleep out” for the night so “we can all experience what someone lives through who is homeless.” There were pictures of people on benches and on the ground, and then the documentary ended with the person who heads ΚΛΙΜΑΚΑ saying he was once homeless himself and repeated the adage: “If you want to feed a person for a day give her fish, if you want to feed her for a lifetime, teach her how to fish.”
It was the end of a long day yesterday that began in the Halandri ΔΕΗ (Electricity) utility offices. Already at 8:30a.m., there was a line. I had received a bill a few days before. It was part of the “XARATZI,” another one of the “solidarity measures.” I had to ask a friend “which tax is this?” Since I was still paying the property tax, which was separate from the solidarity tax. She said “the electricity XARATZI is part of the property tax,” that ingenious idea of the previous (Papandreou) government’s initiative to address the loopholes of tax evasion — that it connect each household’s electricity to their property tax, so everyone would have to pay it, or be without electricity. I felt like I was in a Brecht play, standing in line as the populace, or “το Λαό,” voiced their part.
I was hoping I would get through the line in the next hour so I could make it to my morning class on time. I asked a young guard if I had to “get a #” from the machine. He asked me what I needed. I said I wanted to pay in installments, he nodded me toward the line, “no # needed he said everyone there is asking about payments.” As I join the line, more people come in, one man asks a slender woman obviously in charge, “I don’t want them to cut my electricity, but I can’t pay right now.” She answers: “No one here is paying.” The young security guy high-fived a man leaving the room; he looked sad. Then he hugs him. A woman on the phone, one of the employees, in bright pink, is earnestly talking, as the rest of us listen. “He just paid. Yes. He received a notice that they’re going to cut his electricity.” She is looking at the computer as she is talking. “The notice of the payment won’t arrive for another 24 hours so I’m verifying that he’s paid. I’m telling you so you can let the company know not to cut the electricity.” On another phone another woman is talking to someone who has called in about her bill, “Repeat it for me again. You’ve given me too many numbers. Try taking out the ‘7’” she said. I’m amazed at everyone’s patience, those of us in line included. It’s not always like this. Or it’s rarely like this. There’s palpable solidarity. A woman standing behind me looks irritated at the person who has just come in announcing loudly, “1950. This is 1950s Greece. They’ve brought us right back to 1950s Greece.” He looks the part of the villager-gone-abroad-returned-with-money. “Why did we want an Athens anyway?” Someone else in line says “Go back to your chickens then.” The man nods, smug. He repeats something about his chickens being just fine, that he was stupid enough to have come back to Greece to buy an apartment when he should have stayed away. Someone says, “Well some of us don’t have villages to go back to.” He has cut in front of a woman just behind me and another man. The man right behind me is attractive; his hair is in a ponytail and his eyes are intelligent. Another man then comes into the room loudly announcing that he can’t stand in line because he has a health problem. The guy with the ponytail says “Ochh,” when the man who’s announced he has a health problem, says “it was cancer.” The guy with the ponytail says, “Now we’re escalating the problem.” I smile. The man with the health issue repeats that he can’t stand in line, adding “Do you want me to show you my scars?” The woman in charge who has been patiently asking people if they are there to pay a bill or get a payment plan tells him, “Ask them” and points to the rest of us. “If it’s okay with them for you to cut the line, it’s okay with me.” The guy next to me with the ponytail shrugs. The man doesn’t wait for anyone to answer and proceeds to sit down at the nearest desk with an employee.
It’s at that point that the woman behind us says, “Why don’t you speak up? I mean people like that… it’s people like that..” but she doesn’t finish her sentence. I’m not sure if she means the man who announced he’s had cancer or the person who says we should have stayed with our chicken coops. But her eyes are tearing behind her sunglasses. “I feel guilty,” she says, “guilty for what the next generation is going to face. It’s our fault. It’s our fault that we didn’t speak up, that we didn’t stand up for …” I interrupt, asking her “what?” She says, “People like that who think everything is owed to them.” I look at her like that rare person she seems to be: someone with a conscience. “We didn’t ask much,” she says, “but we got our degrees, we found jobs. We could afford things like a new pair of shoes, having a coffee with friends.” She is now actually crying when the woman in charge asks what she would like help with. She says the owner of the apartment she rents refuses to pay the XARATZI, but the electricity bill (that the property tax is tied to) is in her name. The previous government had tied the property tax to the electricity bill so people would be forced to pay them, but whoever has a bill in their name is now saddled with the tax even if they don’t own the property. I shake my head. The guy with the ponytail says “Brilliant.” I am thinking if only some of the country’s leadership could share in these moments.