—From ‘Burnished Day, Conch of the Voice,’ by Odysseus Elytis. Trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard
Each summer, I travel to Greece to visit friends and family and to teach on an island in the Aegean. This June, I arrived in Athens just in time for a strike that had halted the metro from the airport to the city. Whereas some cities’ bleak and filthy subways make the convenience of a taxi preferable, Athens’ metro is clean and efficient. In some places, it’s even beautiful. The excavation project to build it was extensive, and some stations resemble museums, with the unearthed antiquities displayed behind glass. Despite jokes about ‘Greek time,’ monitors in each station show the arriving trains down to the minute. Last year, posters in the stations and trains were filled with the poems of Yiannis Ritsos; this year, Odysseus Elytis.
This is not the image of Greece on the front pages of the newspapers these days, nor exactly the one that I would find ten days later when I returned to the city after my time on the islands. My arrival coincided with the start of a forty-eight-hour general strike, the first such long walkout since democracy was restored to Greece, after the seven-year military dictatorship, or junta, in 1974.
Because my recently completed first novel is set in Athens during that sombre time, the current events in Athens take on particular resonance. One afternoon, I sat in a cafe in the neighbourhood of Kolonaki, not far from Syntagma, and I was sure I could feel the residue of tear gas in the air while I edited a passage about tear gas being released at the Polytechnic University more than forty years ago. But whereas Athenians followed the events at the Polytechnic through underground radio broadcasts and word of mouth, I had been following the news from Syntagma, a five-minute walk away, on Twitter. It was early afternoon and one journalist noted that all was quiet. Outside the cafe where women marched by on their high heels, their arms full of packages, an assemblage of policemen on motorcycles waited. Most of them were young and seemed either frightened or bewildered. None of these were the faces we saw later that day, men with clubs and rage on their faces, grabbing and striking at protestors. One leaned up against the building, trying to roll a cigarette on his knee. When he caught my eye he smiled, as if he forgot himself, as if he were on a break.
Just after this, there must have been some call to action, because the cops took off with a roar. I noticed from the opposite section of the square another cadre of cops explode out into the street.
I tried to follow them to Syntagma but before I even reached the square I could feel the tear gas’s sting in my eyes, its thickness in my throat. What had started as a seemingly peaceful albeit tense moment turned into bedlam. Journalists and protestors alike put on their gas masks. Only from writing my novel did I know that both Vaseline and lemons would have been helpful here, but I had neither. I turned around and headed back toward Kolonaki, where life seemed to go on as usual.
Though my novel is a work of the imagination, one of its characters was loosely inspired by my great-uncle, the Greek poet Mihalis Katsaros. Katsaros saw poetry as a means of resistance, and that first day I arrived in Athens, a friend sent me a photo of a banner that hung in the ‘tent city’ that had for two months been a fixture in Syntagma Square. Printed on the banner was one of Katsaros’s poems that begins, simply enough: ‘Resist.’
In 1966, the year before the junta took power, Katsaros, in this same square, asked a friend: ‘Are you going to take part in the coming fratricidal war?’ One year later, when a right-winged group of army colonels seized power, Katsaros’s rather fey utterance turned out to be prophetic. Tanks barrelled through the streets of Athens, lines of communication were cut, and major streets into and out of the city were blocked. The junta was infamous for its suspension of civil liberties, torture of political prisoners, rampant censorship and the brutal repression of a student insurrection.
The protestors in Syntagma, from teenagers to grandmothers, are resisting the government’s austerity measures, but behind their indignant rage lurks fear. Whereas the colonels’ dictatorship also incited fear – fear of arrest, fear of torture – this new fear is not of any particular force. Born of frustration and not immediate danger, its object is the future. Depending on whom you ask, there is not one known enemy but several: the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund, collectively known as ‘the troika’; the current administration and the administrations before it; the rich, non-tax-paying Greeks; immigrants; Angela Merkel and Germany; the banks; the police; even the protestors, particularly those hurling marble and stones.
Who would Katsaros peg as the enemy now? He resisted just about everything so perhaps he’d admonish everyone. His poem entitled ‘I Will Leave You’ could be directed at both the crowds in Syntagma and the government against which they protest:
I’ll leave you to run.
I, among dead trees and tombs,
with my flag in tatters
with and without wind
among your uncertain multitudes
I will wander alone—
an impassioned prince-magician
The time has come. The temples will be destroyed.
There is no fire in your heart.
The evening after the forty-eight-hour strike I went with a friend to Syntagma, where yet another protest was planned. The square was packed, but there was no tear gas. The police stood, sombre, guarding Parliament, staring blank-faced at jeers from the crowd. People took to the stage set up in the square, rallying the crowds not only in Greek but in English too; college students hung banners and signs and waved Greek flags. If you wandered onto the square, unsuspecting, and saw the vendors selling nuts and snacks, the voices blaring from loudspeakers, for a moment you might think you had wandered into a music festival. The energy was intense and explosive but it did not feel violent. Mostly, people just wanted to talk to each other, and I was particularly moved listening to a group of young people – Greek, French, and Spanish – conversing in accented English, talking about what was happening.
When my friend and I left, we walked down the centre of a main avenue, which had been blocked off, to get to an open street for a taxi, which were still in operation (the day I left Athens the taxi drivers had gone on strike, a daylong strike that foreshadowed the subsequent one, which lasted for nineteen days). The area immediately around Syntagma felt eerily abandoned, as if all bodies had either been sucked into the centre of the storm or blown out into the quiet of the suburbs. Even some of the hotels had been evacuated the days before. Inside the cab, I didn’t hear contemporary Greek pop or rembetika or techno. I heard the Talking Heads’ ‘Road to Nowhere’. I turned to my friend and asked if she noticed what was playing. She listened for a moment and shook her head in disbelief.
Unlike the Talking Heads, who know where they’re going but don’t know where they’ve been, the Greeks know exactly where they’ve been. History – and I don’t mean the ancient remains of the Acropolis, or the classical that often gets conflated with overused metaphors and images of modernity, but a recent, contemporary history – is as palpable as the tear gas that drenched Syntagma Square. There are many Greeks who say the IMF bailout is the worst thing that could have happened, that succumbing to foreign intervention is selling Greece away. I too cringe at the notion that the Greeks are, by way of national character, somehow ill equipped to handle their problems. (Think of Lord Elgin and his marbles, what Christopher Hitchens has called ‘the amputation of a sculpture from a temple’). Of course Greeks are defensive when the world thinks both their beauties and woes are best handled away from there. I’ve heard many Greeks say that Greece should have defaulted, that its people would suffer, but then at least amid the anger and revolution things would change. But how would they change? A different leader? A different government? The conditions therein, to me, seem ripe for chaos, or martial law—another military dictatorship?
Contrary to what the media might want to portray, the Greeks are not looking for handouts. They are not lazy, and the great majority have not been recipients of distorted public sector privileges such as early retirements; in short, the Greeks don’t want something for nothing. Many are desperate for work. That the Greek economy is a mess doesn’t have to do with Greece alone. The problem is global.
That evening, as I wandered around Syntagma, listening to Greeks and foreigners alike stand on the stage and rally the crowds, I tried to find a glimmer of hope. I wanted to look at all the protesting as a coming together, the building of something better for Greece. Over drinks one evening a friend of mine remarked that even when Katsaros expressed irony and disappointment, he was always clear about anticipating what is and what is not yet; in the sense that utopias express unfulfilled hopes, his vision was utopian. He was solemn and sardonic, always looking ahead while he kept in mind the events of the present and past. ‘Take water with you,’ he writes. ‘Our future will be dry.’ At least he could imagine a future even as he saw it in its darkest moments.
I think of that Talking Heads song blaring away in the taxi as we raced away from Syntagma: ‘. . . the future is certain. Give us time to work it out.’
Photograph by endiaferon