We’re in Athens, on holiday, passing through on our way to the island of Naxos. One evening we visit our friends Tasos and Eva at their home in Kato Patissia. As we walk down Patission Street, the traffic is loud and familiar, but the mood is grim. The small shops that line the street, selling everything from flowers to fur, shoes, lingerie and icons are boarded up, covered with graffiti and ‘For Sale’ signs. Our friends work in insurance and Eva has recently lost her job. We haven’t seen them for two years and planned this trip before the crisis took hold. Now, every time I try to ask them about what is happening, the conversation turns to something else. It occurs to me that in hard times, people often don’t want to talk about hardship. Yet at the end of our meal I tentatively ask, How will Greece get out of this crisis?

At first I think I’ve caused offense. Tasos sits back for a minute then gets up to fetch a sheet of paper. He sits down again and starts drawing a diagram of the Acropolis. When he’s finished, he turns the paper to show me, then adds a grid to the top of the Parthenon. I don’t have a clue what it means but I note that it resembles a bar code and he’s pleased with my observation.

‘Exactly!’

Eva looks doubtful. ‘But does this answer her question?’

‘Of course. Of course!’ Tasos then segues into arithmo-philosophy, psycho-linguistics – We are all Greek – and the Trojan War. All of these secrets embedded in the Parthenon. He points again to the top of the column. ‘The binary code – look.’ I peer at the drawing. ‘One and zero.’ He leans forward: ‘The Ancients knew everything. Technology and computers – the future! This is what they are telling. We made the first democracy. We can do so again. If we crack their code.’

‘That could take a while,’ I say.

‘We can wait.’ He refills my wine glass. His face is serious. ‘No problem.’

I exchange glances with Eva. She can see I’m not fully convinced.

Back on the island of Naxos, we’re having lunch with our neighbours. Three generations sit around the table: Kiria Voula and her husband Kirios Giannis, their eldest daughter Anna, her husband Nikos, plus their adult children back from university and military service. It’s the Big Week before Easter – Megali Efdomada – and everyone is fasting: no meat, sugar, oil or dairy products. Kiria Voula and Kirios Giannis have kept the fast for the whole of Lent. Their children and grandchildren observe it only for Big Week. There are six days to go. The food keeps coming. Kiria Voula brings miracles from her galley kitchen. Everything is from the family fields. There are platters of snails. Dishes of octopus and rice. A huge round of spinach pie. Two plates of the famous Naxos potatoes; a vat of wild greens and salads of tomatoes and cucumber. Bread to feed everyone twice over and home-made wine. Then more of everything. The marinated octopus comes courtesy of an uncle. We are fasting. We are very happy.

Kirios Giannis, Nikos’s father-in-law, mutters about Prime Minister Papandreou and has a dig at the ruling PASOK government. It’s an ongoing debate between them. Nikos used to be PASOK mayor of one of the mountain villages. He’s worked for the electricity company DEI for over thirty-five years and was due to retire this year. Like all government employees his wages have been cut by ten percent and he will lose his summer bonus. His final pension has been reduced and he must wait at least another year until retirement. He regards himself as a man of the left. His father-in-law is a man of the right.

Nikos’s wife, Anna, a doctor, weighs in about the Americans and then the British. How the banks caused the crisis and how Greece has been made to suffer.

Halfway through the meal, Nikos puts down his fork. ‘So,’ he smiles. ‘What do they say about Greece? In the English papers, the television. . .’

I try to answer. I realize it’s an enormous question. I rattle on about the ‘crisis’. My Greek isn’t up to it. I don’t say that Greece has become short-hand for ‘economic meltdown’, the butt of jokes for politicians and comedians. I’m uncomfortable with the reportage on Greece. The German tabloids fume over the ‘laziness’ of the Greeks and call for a fire sale of islands and national monuments. I want to spare my friends any further humiliation. Instead I nod and say, ‘Anna is right about the banks.’

 

*
 

Around the table everyone agrees that life on an island like Naxos – predominantly agricultural, less reliant on tourism – is much easier than life in the cities. In Greece, for the fifteen-to-twenty-five year age group, unemployment runs at thirty-five percent. The general unemployment level is fifteen percent and rising. Many of the brightest students leave Greece and never come back. Yet there is a small but growing movement amongst young people to return to the villages of their grandparents to become involved in organic farming and eco-tourism. They do this primarily to escape the cities. The mayor of Athens recently announced that he was scared to go out at night and that the economic crisis has reduced his city to the level of ‘Beirut in the 1970s’. An article in Kathimerini claimed that eight out of ten Athenians had experienced a mugging or a robbery in the past year. Most blamed illegal immigrants.

Back in Edinburgh I meet Giorgos. He’s completing a PhD in computer science and has been studying abroad for six years. ‘The only thing between Greece and total collapse is the Greek family,’ he says. I ask if he has any plans to return. For a moment sadness clouds his face and I regret my question. There is a pause as he reaches for a cigarette and then he shakes his head. ‘No,’ he says. ‘Not for a long, long time.’

 

Photograph courtesy of April Killingsworth

Letter from Naples
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