Sunday, October 09, 2011

Living with rumors

Living in two Balkan countries, Albania and Greece, I have overdosed on “Balkanicity”. Living in the Balkans means a lot of things. One of those things is getting used to living with rumors.  Public life in the Balkans, to a great degree, is formed via rumors – regardless of the political regime. The same was true in communist Albania. This is why in the Balkans, newspapers and government statements are not the source of political news updates, rather information is gathered in the cafés, the hang-outs and through family networks. It is these sources which produce the most valid “publicists”.
Most likely, life with rumors is an “inheritance” left behind by the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. In those times, the news from the Empire’s capital, Constantinople-Istanbul, would reach the provinces after passing through thousands of “filters.” When the news finally got to the provinces, it no longer resembled news – instead it bared more resemblance to a myth. The people and the town criers invested in their own self-promotion, their own fears or their own benefit. When the Empire fell and new nation-states emerged from its ruins, many things changed.  Illiteracy disappeared, newspapers were printed in national languages, the town criers were replaced by the radio, television triumphed over the radio, and then came the internet.  Despite all this, to a large degree, public life continued to be shrouded in a fog of rumors. There are many sources of the rumors.  Many times rumors are reinvented or “built” upon real facts, always searching for the secret, invisible side of things.  It’s something like conspiratorial interpretations of reality. Other times, rumors are spread by those in power, by those who hold “court,” who are planted to promote or test a certain public sentiment.
If the issue is viewed historically, you come to the conclusion that in all societies, rumors usually spread like wildfire in times of great instability – when societies find themselves in a transitional period, when the credibility of its institutions start to decay, when people feel like they are no longer being told the truth, when they feel that they cannot control their present and their future.
For the past two years now, we’ve been living with rumors in Greece. They never stopped anyhow, but for the last two years, rumors have become the norm in our everyday lives. Rumors of bankruptcy. Rumors that Greece will leave the Eurozone and return to the drachma. Rumors that neighbors who live next to the National Mint can hear the machines working at night, printing drachmas for the post-euro era. Rumors that in November something big, huge, and frightening will happen. Rumors that December and not November will the month that the inevitable will happen. Rumors that the poor are withdrawing their money from the bank and hiding their savings in basements and under mattresses. Rumors that even the rich are doing the same thing. Rumors that Papandreou has been paid handsomely to put Greece in the IMF. Rumors that Merkel doesn’t want to save us, but Putin will, along with the Chinese and the Arab emirs.  Rumors – where the border between reality and myth has already been eradicated. Living with rumors is like living on a bridge. And the bridge is the preeminent symbol of the Balkans.
Yesterday morning I got a phone call from a friend. He sounded terribly anxious. He told me that in one hour, the Minister of Economy Mr. Venizelos was going to announce Greece’s “controlled default” and that Prime Minister Mr. Papandreou has already prepared his statement and his resignation. He added that the stock market is crashing and people are rushing the banks. Incidentally, for two years now, besides all the rumors, we have learned a lot of financial jargon: “spreads”, “hedge funds”, “bank bailouts”, “controlled bankruptcy”, “bank mergers”, “PSI”, “PSI plus”, “haircut“ and the list goes on and on. At the cafés, even the people who used to discuss sports scores, Otto Rehhagel and Djibril Cissé – now discuss the spreads, Chancellor Merkel and Jean-Claude Trichet. I hung up the telephone and decided to go for a walk. To determine the correlation between rumors and reality. The house where I live is located near a street that is filled with banks.
Out on the street, I didn’t witness anything unusual. Everything looked the same as it did yesterday, the day before, a week ago. I determined that the greengrocer was selling fruit. Next door, at the fish monger’s, however, they were talking about the National Bank’s stock, and the sixth bailout loan. The fishmonger insisted that they would give us the sixth loan, but wasn’t sure if they’d give us the seventh. There were long lines at Alpha Bank and at the National Bank, but the other banks were quiet. The flower shop on the corner had shut down, and in the window next to a hand-drawn red rose, there was a yellow ‘for rent’ sign. I continued down the street and saw four Pakistanis squatting down low, practically in front of the entrance of Millennium Bank. They were sitting around a plastic plate filled with french fries and pita bread. They are wandering salesmen and they have placed their crates and flowers next to them. They are eating with their hands and when an elderly woman walks past them she stares so intently at them, that they begin to stare back at her. I’m watching the elderly woman who’s staring at the Pakistanis, who in turn, are watching the woman. As she stares at them, is she sorry for their present state? Do they remind her of something from her past that she had long forgotten, and which is painful to remember or is she seeing images of a future which she fears?

(Translated & edited by Gigi Papoulias)

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