Monday, October 31, 2011

View of Europe from Ersi Sotiropoulou


Five prominent thinkers from five EU countries offer personal reflections in BBC 4 - on the idea of Europe at this critical moment in its history.
The writer Ersi Sotiropoulos contemplates the view from Greece.
Ersi Sotiropoulos, who was born in Patra and now lives in Athens, is the author of ten works of fiction and a book of poetry. Her novel Zigzag through the Bitter Orange Trees (Peter Green's English translation of which was published in 2005 by Interlink Books) was the first novel ever to win both the Greek national prize for literature and Greece's preeminent book critics' award.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Narratives of fragmentation



For the past week, as it turns out, I’ve been going downtown almost every day to meet with foreign journalists who wanted to discuss the current situation in Greece with me. Coming to Athens has become some sort of “pilgrimage” for foreign journalists. They travel here from everywhere, attempting to understand and record what is happening. Most journalists I meet in Athens are from countries of the European Union who look at Greece as a projection of their nightmares. We usually gather in Syndagma (Constitution) Square. Athens, a city of paradoxes. In Syndagma Square, right in front of the Greek parliament, anti-constitutional utterings can be heard: some of those who are protesting against the austerity measures, in this very square, are shouting that the parliament should be burned. In a country that has experienced dictatorship, this is something that causes me to shiver (read MORE)

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)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

“In this place, all those who love / eat tainted bread”



My name is Zoë Sakelliadou. I was born in 1982 in Athens, at Aretaieio Hospital. At the time, my parents lived in Karpathos*, and on the island there weren’t any gynecologists at all. I am the only child in the family who was born in Greece.  My parents fell in love and got married in Karpathos and immigrated to the United States. They managed well there, opened their own business, and became US citizens as did my three siblings who were born there. At some point though, they decided to move back to Greece. Nothing could extinguish their longing to return to Karpathos. I don’t remember much from my childhood. It’s as if my mother’s death, ten years ago, has blocked my childhood memories. I remember that ever since I was a child, I dreamt of journeys. My travel fantasies seemed strange to my parents. They had returned, I wanted to leave. I also recall that, for us – children growing up in remote, isolated areas – Athens was the equivalent of chaos and overwhelming fear. But this was appealing to me. I loved my trips to Athens. I liked the hustle and bustle of the city, in comparison to the quiet solitude of the island.

***
My teenage years were strongly affected by the death of my mother.  I was in my third year of high school. It was my first real contact with the Greek health system. I knew the words “bribe” and “corruption.” But then I experienced them. My hair stands on end when I think that if you don’t pay a bribe, you won’t get the treatment you are entitled to. A country’s culture is revealed, I think, by its cemeteries and its hospitals… I studied in Athens, at Panteion University, graduating from the Department of International Studies. I finished a post-graduate degree in European Law and then applied to Law School.  I often felt awkward at university because I was not a “partisan sheep” following one political Party or another. When I started working for the Greek Council for Refugees, I clearly realized that the situation in Greece is not going well at all.  Human rights are being violated and applicants for asylum are being treated like animals. I was crushed by the refugees’ personal stories. I came in direct contact with the ugliness of that world, but also with the beauty which is imparted by the courage of these people.

***

At some point, I felt like I was drowning in Greece. I felt aggravated, frustrated.  It was then that I decided to try and leave. I began to apply to as many international refugee organizations as I could. And one day, I got good news. I was hired by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in Croatia. It wasn’t easy announcing to my family that I had decided to leave. My father told me that living abroad, that immigrating was the worst thing, to those who have experienced it. When I told him “I’m leaving,” he feared the loneliness and seclusion that I would endure. “Life with a suitcase in hand is not easy,” he said. I was only going for six months. But it’s already been five years now… I was 25 years old when I went  to Zagreb - a city full of greenery, flowers and fragrant scents - civilized, without the smog and chaos of Athens. My new work environment was excellent. In Athens, it would take me an hour and a half to get to work each day. In Zagreb I would walk to work. In Athens, I belonged to the “700-euro-generation,” whereas in Zagreb, I earned an income that was considered unimaginable for my generation. In Greece, I felt that I was at an impasse with the refugee issue. In Croatia, I felt like I had something to offer, that I was making a difference.

***
My job in Croatia was to help in the creation of an asylum system. Croatia has gone from a country that once produced refugees, to a country that now accepts refugees. Some of them had entered from Greece. Nothing can stop people… In Croatia, I came in contact with the consequences of the war in former Yugoslavia. I think an entire generation has been destroyed. To fully understand what the war was about, I had to travel to Bosnia. Since 2009, I have been working in the mountains of Bosnia. When I first entered the country, I got the impression that I had entered a vast cemetery. No matter how much money is given by the international community for the country’s reconstruction, the souls of the people have been irreversibly stigmatized. The war left behind mistrust and cynicism. The blood of the victims is still fresh. All of the sides involved in the war have blood on their hands. I have spoken to people who fought in the war. They tell me that they never understood why they were fighting. On the other hand, I have met people with big hearts. It is impressive that humanity manages to survive even in the worst atrocities. I realized that the biggest contribution I could make was to listen. To the people and their stories. When you become a part of a story which is so full of blood and sorrow, you realize that happiness is found in very small things. Perhaps it sounds cliché, but for the first time, I felt this here.  When I heard people saying “he’s lucky because he died normally,” I realized they meant he died of natural causes, of a sickness and not because of the war…

***
I love Bosnia because culturally, it is familiar to me, it is Balkan. And also because I believe it resembles me. It is quite complicated. I return to Greece to visit my family. I admit that a lot of things get on my nerves. The strikes, the attitude of the employees, the passengers on the metro who lunge onto the train before people have a chance to disembark. The public services. Bosnia may be a country that recently experienced war, however its public services function better than the public services in Greece. And this is tragic. There is a song that I often listen to here, which I have identified with Greece: “By planes and ships” by Sotiria Bellou**. “In this place, all those who love / eat tainted bread/ their love and passion goes underground”. My eyes tear up every time I hear it. What do I miss about Athens? The multiculturalism.  Because Athens is a multicultural city, even if it exists underground.

***
What has the journey taught me? That I am grateful for being born in a country without wars. That everything is a road that leads us. The journey changed me. It made me more humble. And the journey has not ended yet. My constant companions are my books and my cat. They wander the Balkans with me. I don’t think of returning. Sometimes I feel like a coward for not having the courage to try and make it in the country where I was born. I am seriously thinking about my future. It’s not easy to have a job indefinitely which takes you to a new country every couple of years. Recently I went to the American Consulate in Sarajevo to begin the process of becoming an American citizen, as the daughter of an American citizen. I was impressed by how polite the employees were. Why do I want to become an American citizen? Because I think I’ll have better opportunities to make it on my journey…


(Translated & edited by Gigi Papoulias)

*Karpathos - the second largest of the Greek Dodecanese islands, in the southeastern Aegean Sea.
**S. Bellou (1921-1997) was one of Greece’s most famous rebetika singers. Rebetika music is often compared to the blues, and its soulful melodies tell of hardships, poverty, refugee life, and war. To listen the song click HERE

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)

Thursday, October 06, 2011

“Childhood experiences are like a suitcase that we always carry with us”



I was born in 1970, in Crete, in Voni Pediados, a small village with 500 residents, where nothing ever happens. Until every year on July 17, when something of a miracle happens. The village is flooded with people. It is the day when worshippers come to the Monastery of Saint Marina to pray. I remember it fondly. Afterwards, the visiting people depart and the village returns to its uneventful live, waiting for the next pilgrimage. My name is Sophia Ploumaki. As a child, I was called “the teachers’ daughter.” Both of my parents were teachers, demanding and strict, especially my father. As “the teachers’ daughter” in a close-knit community, I was somewhat of a public figure and I had to be perfect in everything I did. Even today, my philosophy is to try very hard to be perfect. Childhood experiences are like a suitcase that we always carry with us. We are never getting rid of those. I don’t believe in ‘getting rid of’. I believe in maturity and self awareness. 

***

Journeys – as an escapism - always existed in my imagination. This was a strange mixture of curiosity and adventure. When I was little, I “traveled” reading Bleik and Peter Pan.  A little later, came the readings of Loudemis*. His poetry I discovered in Heraklion, the capital of Crete. At age 11 we left the village and moved to the city of Heraklion. I felt free, I was no longer “the teachers’ daughter,” I was lost in anonymity – but this also caused anxiety. At the village school, we were only 40 students, but in Heraklion we were 300. In addition, I felt like the kid who came from the village, different – again. I remember trying to convince myself that it was all just temporary.  For me, the ideal place was always somewhere else. I didn’t know where this place was, just that it existed somewhere…

***

At 19, I went to Athens. I had taken my university entrance exams in Heraklion, but I did not pass.  Rote learning did not interest me. My parents were embarrassed of my ‘failure’. It was believed that whoever didn’t get into university was hopeless and a lost cause. I told my parents that I wanted to go to a private university. They agreed, but only if I chose a private university in Greece. They were afraid to send me abroad. I went to the American College of Greece in Agia Paraskevi (district of North Athens), to study Psychology and I got a scholarship. I also worked while I was a student. In the beginning, I was frightened of Athens. I got over it quickly, however. My own creative experiences led me to enjoy Athens and feel comfortable there.  At the American College I gained an appetite for an academic career. I think it had to do with the American system, which fosters competition and gives you motives to succeed. I studied Psychology primarily I wanted to understand and analyse my own experiences… I wanted to learn more about psychotherapy because it relates directly to people’s experiences. The only way to do this was to leave. In Greece, there were no choices. I think it’s tragic that the Greek public universities exclude those of us who graduated from private universities.

***

I searched for a university abroad and I found a post-graduate degree program in group psychotherapy at Goldsmiths College, University of London. I was leaving Athens after seven years. The first night in London was traumatic. I was given a room in the student dormitory – there was a bed without sheets or a pillow. The room was near the train tracks and every 10 minutes the room would rumble and shake. I felt like my life was starting over from scratch. Everything in London was different and new. Next door there was a student from Mongolia; across the hall, a Japanese girl and a Chinese girl. My multicultural experience began that night. However, the biggest challenge was the English language. I knew the language, but now I had to master the emotional language of psychotherapy. For the first time, I had to exist, to think and communicate my feelings in a language that was not my native tongue. In the beginning, communicating with patients scared me. They spoke English filled with idioms, which I didn’t understand. I tried to understand them by their body language. It took me five years to master that level of the language. Today, I am able to narrate emotional experiences only in English. Whenever I return to Heraklion, for the first few hours, I feel like I can’t speak Greek or English. There is a gap where the languages get tangled up.
***

I’ve been living in London for 14 years. I consider it my city. However, I don’t want to grow old here. When things become familiar, I begin to feel weighed down. I often feel like I want to go somewhere else – to an English-speaking country where I possess that unique language of emotions. Recently, I’ve been thinking about it intently, because I observe an unbearable change in the way that the British people consider us the non – British. The UK is gradually but steadily becoming narrow-minded and oppressive. I deal with xenophobia even in my job – the way I am treated by clients and co-workers sometimes, because I am not a “pure-blood” British person. I think the British never got over the fact that the British Empire no longer exists. On the other hand, they are living with a shrinking social welfare system and a great fear that the foreigners will deprive the locals of resources. How can I describe a racist or a xenophobe in psychological terms? It mostly has to do with fear and envying the Other for the love of the Parent. A racist and a xenophobe enjoys life and love by completely excluding others. A racist often resorts to behaviors reminiscent of a child demanding his parents to love only him and no one else. He suffers from a deep insecurity and is constantly afraid that the others, the “foreigners,” will steal that which he believes belongs only to him. The idea that he has to share is unbearable to him. Personally, I have come across this reaction specifically from individuals who have suffered very serious psychological traumas and depravations…

***

I came to Greece this year in May. I observed that the people are overwhelmed or overtaken by a strong feeling of worthlessness. It’s not about a chaotic situation – chaos, when you manage to keep a sense of boundaries, is something creative. In psychological terms, I would say that I perceived a sense of collective clinical depression; the main attribute being that one either sees the situation as black or white. In a situation of clinical depression, a sense of collective responsibility does not exist. You simply try to make the others responsible for something that has happened to you. This attitude reminds me of the slogans “I didn’t do it” and “I didn’t steal [the money]” which I read in Syntagma Square (in the center of Athens). In terms of childhood experiences, such reactions are usually common in people who have had a traumatic relationship or experiences with their parents. Parents who are overprotective or absent (physically or emotionally), create the same symptoms: the child’s inability to face reality, to solve their problems creatively and to communicate with others… What has my journey taught me? I think my journey has not yet ended. I always have my suitcase ready… for somewhere else…

*Famous Greek poet

(Translated and edited by Gigi Papoulias)

Saturday, October 01, 2011

A short athenian handbook

In recent months I have received a lot of messages from friends abroad asking me what is happening in Greece. Everyone in Europe is talking about Greece. Global recession and financial strains have already been felt in other countries, causing people from Asia to the US to deal with these same issues and introspections. It is a time of great reassessment, instability, upheaval and change. That’s why I felt the need to create this blog in English, trying to give a more accurate information and personal feedback on what is happening here.

I decided to inaugurate my posts with a series of real stories from Greeks living abroad. They have been published already in Greek in TO VIMA (www.tovima.gr). The real people in these real stories talk about their journey and they give also their explanations and insights about what is happening in Greece now. One of the main reasons why I decided to begin with their stories is the fact that I have an obsession with traveling and borders. And on the other hand, by reading their real stories you can understand a lot about the current situation in Greece and the roots of the crisis.

Furthermore, in this blog, you’ll find articles, reports, interviews, images from Athens and Greece. You can send your stories, your pictures, your opinions and your reports about Athens and Greece as well.

In the coming days I will begin posting real stories of Greeks living abroad. I hope you enjoy reading them.

Special thanks to Gigi Papoulias for her help with translating and editing them in English.