Friday, October 14, 2011

The foreigner and the queen

                                                       
                                                  Photo by Anna Tsimpidis


The other day, Wednesday, was a lucky day. Not because it was a nice, sunny day but because the metro, the buses, trolleys and the tram were all functioning normally – no strikes. This happy fact somewhat compensated for the horrible stench coming from the towers of trash in the streets*.  In order to reach the metro station, I had to walk right past one of the towers of trash. I walked past in such a state of indifference, that I myself was amazed by my apathy. I suppose that after 20 years in Athens, the sight has become all too familiar. I descended on the escalator with coin in hand and made my way to the automatic ticket machine. Suddenly a beautiful young woman was standing in front of me with her hand outstretched. Blue eyes, plain blonde hair, she was wearing a purple scarf and a brown trench coat. It looked like her outfit was styled by Coco Chanel herself. For a minute, I tried to remember if I know this young woman or if she has confused me with someone else. She smiled and stretched her hand out further: “Do you want this?” I lowered my gaze to see what “this” meant and I realized that she was offering me her metro ticket. At that moment, a man, about 50 years old, passed us and realizing what was going on, he paused and he urged me to “take the ticket, man. We’re not going to pay Merkel!”  I immediately realized that I was confronted with a unified act of “underground” aid. (This illegal movement of “exchanging” used tickets among metro passengers began when, overnight, ticket prices increased by 100% - even though the ticket’s use was extended by 1.5 hours from the time of ticket validation).
I must confess that I accepted the ticket – even though I am against such acts of “underground” solidarity and against movements such as the “I won’t pay!” movement**. Thus, my day began with an act which defied my beliefs. I took the ticket and after a while, I began to analyze what the man who urged me to take the ticket had said: “we’re not going to pay Merkel!”.  Many Germans believe that they are paying for the “lazy” Greeks. Many Greeks think that they are paying for the “colonialist” Merkel. Putting aside these labels, I believe the Italian journalist Barbara Spinelli (daughter of one of the founders of the European Union, Altiero Spinelli) is right when she wrote in a recent article in La Repubblica:

“…the Euro crisis puts the subject of the sovereign rights of nation-states on the daily agenda, dissolving delusions and at the same time, hastily reforming their democracies, not without the dangers and the inequities between predominant States and States that have henceforth lost their dominance. The way in which our democracies are reformed: at this point in time, this is the core of problem

I entered the train with this political analysis in my head, when suddenly, this time a tired-looking woman appeared in front of me with outstretched hand – begging. I was touched by the look in her eyes. I am against this type of charity, but this time I put a coin in her hand – the coin which I had intended to use for the ticket. It was the day to do things which were the opposite of what I believed in. She continued on but as it seems, people were unresponsive. At some point, she stopped her gaze on two young men who were discussing a film. “You won’t give me anything,” she said in a protesting tone, “but you give [your money] to the foreigners who are killing us.” She had touched upon my “syndrome.” Since she was standing near me, with her back turned, I leaned in and whispered in her ear “I am a foreigner.” She turned and looked at me again.
“Get outta here, mister,” she said, “if you are a foreigner, then I’m a queen.”  Some of the passengers who were watching this peculiar “dialogue” began to stare at me. I felt myself turning slightly red. To rid myself of this awkward feeling, I took out my glasses and began to wipe them with a cloth. This is the “trick” I use every time I find myself in an awkward position. And while I was wiping my glasses, I thought that the woman who was begging was probably right. The actual foreigner is not defined on the basis of his country of origin. An actual foreigner is someone who is hopeless. Someone who is searching for someone “below” him, so as to at least have the illusion that he himself has not yet hit the rock-bottom of society…

*trash collectors in Athens have been on strike for 10 days now
**passengers on all modes of public transport refuse to buy a ticket, and drivers refuse to pay any tolls 

(Translated & edited by Gigi Papulias)

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