To the Playground


“Άστους να δούν τι έκανε τις καρδιές μας να καούν…”

(“Let them take a good look at what made our hearts burn…”) Zembetiko, Stratos (1946)

Hours before the end of a year that never let up, relentless and overwhelmed, it was a year rich in discoveries as much as pain. The image of my near-90-year-old grandmother came to mind some days ago. Before she died she had such a look of earnestness to a face that had seen and survived, among other things, war and deprivation, and violent uprootings of family. I think it stayed with me all these years as an expression of the kind of mysteries that can happen in conditions of assault to the spirit. Death always catches up but as her own life came to a close she looked toward it, paradoxically, with the face of a much younger person’s questioning expression, there was innocence and openness and humility in her voice and eyes when she said, “it all went by so fast, I didn’t have enough time to understand what happened…”

In this year’s storms what stays with me is also paradoxical, while we gathered on the grounds of the national radio and television buildings, known as the “Hellenic Broadcasting Corporation” (ERT) after its unilateral and illegal closure on June 11 by the Samaras government; while we joined demonstrations against the Golden Dawn neo-Nazis in horror at the murder of the ANTIFA (Antifascist) rapper Pavlos Physsas, & the government’s negligence at reacting to immigrant murders by the same party; while we spoke and articulated a continuing rage toward those now- familiar names in the previous and current government who have had more than a hand in the corruption and economic rape of the country; we also lived moments of solidarity and humor and eros that were perhaps all the more acute for the fact of our vulnerability. But there was something else too, or something new, for me, which was the gradual realization that certain facts of injustice, and evil, were now concrete rather than abstract, part of a reality that was not going to change in the near future, if it would change at all. Any naïve sense of promise was radically demythesized – or as D said when she went abroad to teach, “some of the students [in her program in the UK] were returning to countries with hopes.” This was a new realization that hope, or the kinds of promises fed to us from PASOK’s inflated-dreams-on-loan, to the current government’s penchant for calling their tragedies “success stories,” proved, in Yeats’ words, that “… the center cannot hold” because the center was rotten. The center, as the man in my neighborhood who has a small frame shop said to me, is “the system,” and “what” he said so casually, “can anyone expect from a system” so flagrantly compromised. “So what if you lose your house to taxes,” he continued, “if you have the soul, you’ll build it all again.” The moments that were the most fundamental to this year were, for lack of another way to put it, moments with soul. And those moments seemed to accumulate and exist in stark contrast to the ugliness of the news with its catalog of grotesques.

Near my apartment is a playing field where the neighborhood soccer matches are held, where there’s a corner with a treadmill and some other gym equipment that was installed by the municipality. About a year and a half ago a stall of metal tiers with plastic seats was put in to replace the wooden benches that had been ripped up. The playing field is manned by someone who slurs and is probably mentally challenged, someone who smiles and while his words are not always easily understood he is always ready to help out, always says hi when I go to run at odd hours. He was shaking his head on a night when it had been pouring rain. There were maybe one or two other people there, it was late, he showed me the dwindling plastic seats on the tiers, their broken green lay strewn on the ground. “I don’t know when they come in here the hooligans but I’ve never seen them… they’ve destroyed everything.” Out of 5 tiers with about 20 seats to a tier there were just a scattering of seats that were still unbroken. It was sad and expressive of the kind of rage and frustration that was a danger to us all. “Moderation is no longer an option,” someone said at a gathering where Thanos Veremis, the Greek historian shocked me when he bluntly admitted that many, including himself, would be voting in the next election for individuals they loathed. “There’s no choice,” he elaborated, “we either stay in Europe or we’re completely lost.” I suppose, to me, this was another way of saying if we’re lost we’ll be lost with Europe as opposed to without it. But the remark brought back what it meant to be within a rotting system, a system in which a Mr. Tobouloglou, director of the PAIDON children’s hospital in Athens was caught taking 25,000 euros as a kickback; where Mr. Liapis turned in his license plates because his jeep or truck was highly taxed, only to reissue himself false plates so he could continue to use his jeep without paying the taxes; even the King and Queen are back, renting, apparently luxurious apartments built by the former Prime minister’s daughter; so the system has lost its soul, if it ever had one to begin with, or as P said “we’re witnessing the decadence of the spirit..” and then added “western.” But the danger isn’t the fact of decadence, it’s its ability to contaminate what’s still healthy. The MPs are keeping their healthy salaries at their existing levels while the air in Athens is thick with wood burning because people can’t afford gas and oil, you can taste it on humid nights, sometimes it stings, and sometimes it chokes you.

I wish I could say I have some pity for these people who seem unable to give up their flagrant lifestyles, or feel any shame for their unapologetic greed. I wish there were people in government who would take some of those stolen millions to pay off the debt, and rebuild the playgrounds. But that would assume that they had some soul. It was chilling to see the empty spaces on their metal tiers where people gather to watch the matches. There are soccer matches with adults, others with younger groups. All ages use the gym equipment, some of which has been smashed up and then replaced again. In this space people hang out in the evenings, kids ride their bikes on the dirt ground; some people just come and sit and watch whatever happens to be going on. I’ve become very fond of it and hope in this new year, and years to come that we don’t lose the soul to protect it, we would be so much poorer, and pitiless.

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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