The rooms are chilled. The heat is off or at low temperatures. A says they are keeping their stats at 16 degrees centigrade. The chill is sometimes “to the bone” as the expression goes. These are the homes I’ve gone into since being back. I’ve kept the heat in the apartment off too, as often as I can, but I’m not home much anyway. Some have not turned on the heat at all this year. The fact that the gas and oil bills are foreboding means people decided to (literally) weather the weather. It’s a month now since I’ve been home, and while I’ve wanted to write something, the maelstrom, as T put it, has been unrelenting.
The last days of January: I didn’t realize the protocol for our annual road tax (the sticker that used to go on the car) was now done online. I’m a week late, even though the deadline was extended. The woman at the tax office says I’ll have to pay double. I’m there with my passport and show her the dates I was away. “The law doesn’t foresee situations like this,” she replies. I ask to see her supervisor. He is polite and tells me “can’t some of the women there help you out?” I repeat what they say about the law. “Then call the Ministry,” says the supervisor to one of the employees. “She could risk it,” says someone else in the office, “until her number license plate comes up as unpaid, and then she could negotiate to pay in installments.” I say I want to pay in installments now (since I have to use my car). But this hasn’t been “foreseen” by the law either. “You mean you’re suggesting I drive around illegally until I get the notice that I am illegal?” She shrugs. “I can’t think of anything else.” The supervisor tells me they’ll figure something out if I can’t negotiate a way to pay in installments. All the banks I go to say that after the deadline they won’t accept payment. I feel frustrated but also, strangely, comforted by the discussion in the tax office. All of the four people behind the counter are trying to figure out how I can find a way to pay my tax.
There’s a similar scene at ΔΕΗ, the electricity company. I am there with what feels like the rest of the city, negotiating installments. Our new “χρατσι” taxes have come in and mine is near 500 euros. There’s a long line here even though it’s early in the morning. The two women who are doing the readjustments are overwhelmed but also matter-of-fact. One is talking to a woman over the phone who I assume has cancer since she keeps saying, “she’s having chemotherapy sessions? Tell her she can have her daughter come in…” She gives practical advice, focused on ways to accommodate a difficult situation. “This is like being a doctor in an emergency ward,” I say to the woman in charge, “… the things you must be dealing with..” She nods, and says, “It’s worse.”
What feels comforting in the maelstrom? The unapologetic subjectivity of it all; if the thefts and investments siphoned out of Greece into Swiss bank accounts has not come back into the economy as a result of politicians’ and businessmen’s criminality and indifference to their country and its people, small moments in the middle of this mess express the opposite — people are trying to help, even to find solutions, absurd as the circumstances continue to be.
“Take them, they’re mine,” says the man at the open market. I have a eruo and forty cents, and then a 20 euro bill. The radishes and cucumbers come to 2 euros. He shakes his head when I ask him if he can break the 20, and takes the euro, forty and adds a few carrots too, since, as he emphasizes, they’re his.
It happens again in the A &B Supermarket, the woman at the cash register looks exhausted, her eyes seem bruised from sleeplessness. She shakes her head when I give her a bill… I am slightly short of the extra cents, in change. “Never mind,” she says. Once in the states a salesgirl went to another shop to break my dollar because I owed 2 more cents and didn’t have the change. Of course it might have come out of her paycheck otherwise. I am comforted by the fact that money is sometimes treated as secondary to other values, that efficiency is not viewed as a money-value.
In Spain the news is that 500 homes are being “sized” by banks daily. One policeman refused to evict a woman in her 80s, saying “we are supposed to be serving the people.” In Italy Monti lost the people’s vote.
When Mark Mazower gave his talk in Athens on the rise of the political extremes in Greece he made the very simple point that the “purist” rhetoric of the extremes like that of the Golden Dawn fascists, or the Communist party, is not political – politics being messy and impure. Politics being a willingness to deal with the culpabilities and failures of history and the present. Despite the turgid path of Greece’s modernity that extended the traumas of WWII into a Greek Civil War, there was (excepting the period of the Greek junta, 1967-1974) democracy. Democracy is about dealing with impure realities, of speaking “truths” to power, and not being censored.
We are living through a tricky time. We are exhausted, and may need to continue in this way for a long time. T says “we will have to develop new strengths.” Themis says “it’s like a patient who has become immune to the antibiotics, but who keeps getting sick.” The cure (or maybe the diagnosis) wasn’t enough, or was misdiagnosed. Tonight Jan Blommaert the linguistic anthropologist gave a lecture titled “Strange Words of Power: How democracy lost the economy.” He spoke, like Mazower, of a loss of legitimacy in the political body; how the likes of Mark Rutte, the prime minister of the Netherdlands called George Papandreou’s unpredictable call for a referendum on the Euro a gesture of “democratic games.” As if Rutte had any legitimacy to speak “for” the Greek government, let alone the Greek people. It will begin with us, Blommaert says rather confidently. I wanted to believe him.
Blommaert certainly believes in the possibility of our abilities to reclaim the foundations of democratic government. That it must begin with the people. Not with faceless data sheets run by corporations whose language of “market values” and “investors” alienates society from being actors, let alone participants in a script others are determining. Phrases like “Necessary measures” meant to “improve the economy,” began in 2010 when George Papandreou brought in the IMF to help “improve” Greece’s dire economic situation, promising growth and economic rehabilitation. Today Greece has one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe. The homeless are everywhere. No one believes in any of the governing bodies – lists of tax evaders have been systematically ignored – George P. was invited to teach a course on economies in crisis at Columbia and apparently has rented or bought an apartment next to Lady Gaga.
Here, we talk of a coming newness; we’re not sure what it is. We’re not sure who will see it, but we are speaking of it with necessity.