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Crisis Week in Greece

So here I am in Athens Greece at a time and place that historians may one day point to and say this is where it all started to go terribly wrong. Half the country is on strike. No buses, trains or metro and even the airport is closed with no flights coming in or going out. The government workers unions are having a big demonstrations downtown and after weeks of the students at universities and high schools being on strike and having in effect taken over the schools, today the teachers and professors have joined them and are on strike too. The government is desperately trying to save the country, passing one reform after another to bring in more money, squeezing the public past the breaking point, ruining careers and lives. The people have run out of patience and blame the government, hoping that by bringing it down everything will be OK and life can go back to normal but it is too late for that. This is the new normal. Greece tottering on the edge of the abyss and it will continue until we tumble in or slowly through sacrifice and hard work pull ourselves away from disaster.

Yesterday in the paper there was a rumour that George Papandreou was going to resign. The government quickly declared that prospect ridiculous. But who could blame him if he did? His situation is similar to Obama's only worse at the moment. He inherited a mess that was created by the Papandreous and Karamanlises of the past that would take the kind of superhuman personality that only comes around once in a lifetime to fix, and maybe he is just not up to the task. Or maybe during one of the nights of soul searching that he must be going through, he will have some kind of spiritual breakthrough and realize that this is his moment and he will take the country on his back and drag it into the future, kicking and screaming yet somehow obedient.

The story of George Papandreou should be a lesson to us all and remind us of JFK during the tension of the Cuban Missle Crisis when the fate of the world hung by a thread, and he said to his advisors, "I can't believe I campaigned for this job". George Papandreou and his Amherst college roommate Andonis Samaras, who is now the leader of the New Democracy Party, the opposition to Papandreou's PASOK and just about every measure it takes to steer the country through the crisis, supposedly said to one another in their college days "One day we will rule Greece" (In a Freudian slip of the fingers I actually typed ruin). The lesson is to be careful what you wish for. The office of Prime Minister could be like a hot potato in the next few weeks. Can you think of a worse job to have at a time like this? Papandreou has to convince the IMF, The European Bank and the EU to lend him money to pay his bills, and in return they want the country to apply austerity measures that strangle the economy and could lead to the people rising up in revolution as they lose their homes, and the money they need to even feed themselves.

In a way I can understand why maybe this time, Greece's 'leaders' are serious about fixing the system. In the past the politicians always put themselves and their families above their responsibility towards the country, using their positions to feather their nests (which is a nice way of saying to steal billions of euros that belonged to the people they represented). Now the two causes have merged. Self-preservation and saving the country are now one and the same. Because if the politicians are not successful they are marked men. Bodyguards and armoured Mercedes and piles of money may forestall the inevitable but if the economy collapses and Greece is ruined, they know they will be the target of the wrath of the people, who to be fair, up to now have been patient and accepted the fact that the next few years will be a struggle, but one that must be undertaken if Greece is to survive as a European country and not a banana republic. So should the government fail in its efforts to rescue Greece, the future of the current batch of politicians, some of whom had nothing to do with causing the crisis, can go in two directions: One a slow death under what might be likened to a self-imposed house arrest in their walled villas surrounded by barbed wire and hired thugs to protect them. The other is exile, which to some Greeks is considered worse than death. Because they will be blamed for the sins of every crooked politician who has come before them.

Even so, despite the direness of the politician's situation there is still evidence, or at least rumours that things have not really changed. This year the publishers of the textbooks for Greek children refused to print the books because the government had not paid them for previous years. The first idea the government had was to photo-copy the textbooks. But that would have cost three times as much and added that much more to the debt it was pointed out. So they put the textbooks up on the Internet where students could print them out on their own, which is more sensible. But then at the beginning of the school year each student received a CD of their school books which seems like an unnecessary measure, especially since the CD only had the first few chapters of each book. It would seem to be another example of government waste and ineptitude unless you read the fine print and discover that the CDs were made by the company owned by the husband of a government minister. The minister of education actually.

Not all the news in Greece is bad. Yesterday my lawyer had to stand in line for three hours at some government office because thousands of people were turning in their license plates because they could no longer afford to have a car. Less cars mean less traffic and more parking spaces in Kypseli.

The tax collectors are also going down to Flisvos and other marinas where all the yachts are kept and trying to discover who owns them. They already busted one of Greece's most famous lawyers who owned one of the biggest yachts in the harbor. Most, if not all of these boats are owned by fake companies in order to hide the real ownership and the owners actually rent the boat from themselves. But the owners of fake companies that show no receipts except from themselves, brothers, sisters and friends can still be taxed on their assets, like million dollar yachts for example. So despite the talk on the street that the poor are shouldering all the burden while the rich escape unscathed, the tax collectors are going after the money wherever they believe it may be.

They may want to look in Swiss Banks too. I don't see why not in the current circumstances, to keep the world economy from collapsing, the Swiss and Cypriot banks can't freeze all Greek accounts until they can be investigated? Better yet what if every Greek who has embezzled, taken a bribe or kickback, or has any money that he has squirreled away by using his position in the government, give back half, voluntarily. You love Greece? Prove it! Give back half the money. Meanwhile the church which has more money than God, and has promised to do its part to help get Greece through the crisis, has complained that the Greek government should be paying the salary of the priests. With what? IMF loans? The church should take care of its own and that does not just include the priests, but all the people of the Greek orthodox faith. Why can't the church provide the government with low interest loans?

But everything I have written up to now is just news and opinion. What is the reality on the street? I spend my time on an island. It is in the middle of Athens in the crowded neighborhood of Kypseli. Fokionos Negri is a grassy park that begins near Patission Street and continues up the hill towards Tourkovouna, a mountain in the middle of the city, and both sides of this narrow park, which is really an avenue that has been pedestrianized, is lined with cafes and restaurants. I am in one of them at the moment, a fancy place called JoJo which plays 80's pop and is right now filled with Greeks of all ages, drinking frappes, talking, reading the paper or just sitting watching the people on the sidewalk as they pass by. Every once in awhile an African comes by with bootleg DVDs and CDs for sale and usually finds at least one customer in these crowded cafes. People may be worried about their jobs, their pensions and the future in general but you would not know it here. Then again the people most affected by austerity are the government workers and they are marching towards Syntagma right now. There are at least a dozen or so other cafes in this section of Fokionos, all filled with people. Beautiful girls in sweatpants and t-shirts walk briskly by on the way to and from the gym. Young men and women stroll with their dogs and let them poop in the green grass where soon children will be playing football and hide-and-go-seek.

Immigrants from Bangladesh walk the streets and stand at traffic lights to sell small packets of tissue. This is nothing new. An old woman is going from table to table at JoJo, Bangladeshi style, selling tissue. She is Greek. She is somebody's grandmother. This is new, at least here on Fokionos Negri it is.  She is good natured about it. "Look at me. It has come to this," she says. But she doesn't fare much better than some of the immigrants. I look around at all the tables and see I am the only one with tissues, yet everyone has enough money for cigarettes. And these are the people who are going to work together to save the country? They won't even spare fifty cents for an old woman selling petsetes. Then again I could just be a sucker. I have a bowl full of change that I take handfuls of to give to the immigrants I know will approach my table wherever I sit, to sell me flowers, flashlights, key-chains with small animals whose eyes light up when you squeeze them, and other necessities. Often I don't take the flowers or flashlights or keychains and just give them a euro to leave me alone. They touch their hearts like they are telling me I am a good person. Maybe I am in some ways but not for this. It just happens to be easier to give them a euro to go away rather than have to look at every item in their basket and say no thank you til they get tired of asking.

George at Fantasy told me they have a saying in Greece which of course I forgot but the idea is this: If you give a beggar your shirt, the next thing they will want is your wife. We had sort of adopted a flower-seller from Bangladesh, buying from him every night and paying more than he asks other people when he makes his rounds of the cafes and restaurants. The word got out. Suddenly there are Bangladeshi flower-sellers following me everywhere I go.

We walked to Psiri the other night, through some of the bad areas of Athens. Bad is in italics because Athens bad is not like London bad, or Paris bad, or Baghdad bad or San Francisco bad. People in the suburbs consider Kypseli bad. I guess you could say bad in Athens is bad compared to how the neighborhood used to be. But when you walk through these areas that does not mean something bad is going to happen to you. You may see some things you don't like. You may feel uncomfortable with the way someone looks at you. You may be upset if you are a parent and you are exposing your child to things you would rather not have them see or know about until they are adults. But nothing will happen to you in a bad area that won't happen to you on the metro or in a good neighborhood. Petty crime is a problem in many neighborhoods, not just the bad ones. When I leave my apartment I have my keys and my phone in one front pants pocket, as much spending money as I will need in the other front pocket, and a photo-copy of my passport in my shirt pocket. And in my back pocket, I have my fake wallet stuffed with papers and other things to make it look fat and desirable to any petty thieves who want to waste their time stealing it.

The city has managed to corral most of the drug addicts in central Athens on to a small street called Tossitsa which interestingly was one of Athen's first pedestrian streest. Unfortunately the street is right between the Polytechnic University (which looks like an abandoned city) and the National Museum so any tourist going on foot has to walk by it if you are on the east sidewalk of Patission Street.(You can easily walk across the street and just cross when you get to the museum which saves you the big hassle of crossing busy Alexandras Avenue). But on little Tossitsa Street you can see people nodding out sitting on the curb or leaning against the walls, and junkies in small groups arguing or making deals or whatever it is they do when they get together. As ugly as it is, (some of these people look like death), it is somehow benign. It came to me as we walked on and I saw a well-dressed guy duck into a side-street and pull out a needle and wondered if he was a junkie or a diabetic (there are lots of them here) and coming to the realization that it did not matter, that in a way they were basically the same when you got right down to it. One injects insulin to fight his diabetes. The other injects heroin to fight his disease, which is an inability to cope with a life that seems pointless and illogical. His disease is called hopelessness. But you might call Tossitsa Street a bad area too except the bad people who you are afraid of have as much interest in you as they do in the Greeks who walk by them every day. They have one interest and that is heroin. Robbing a tourist in front of dozens of witnesses will not get them their next fix so to them you don't even exist.

Continuing through Omonia Square I was surprised to find that there were no junkies, no immigrants, in fact the square was empty of all but some taxi drivers whose cars were lined up waiting for customers, and a few tourists on their way to the Plaka, Psiri, Monastiraki or Gazi for the nightlife, just as we were. Even Athinas was empty of everyone but young Greeks and a smattering of tourists. When we got to Dimarchos Square where the mayor's office is (and one of the most beautiful squares in Athens) there was a concert being held with young performers singing and playing a variety of musical styles from apagorevmena rembetika songs about heroin and hashish, to Elvis impersonations, all this on a Monday night in October.

In Psiri, the Taverna Psiri where we go was not full but there were plenty of Greeks and foreigners enjoying themselves and Manolis, the owner had dyed his hair blond. While Pandelis Melissinos told us all the ways that Athens was falling apart, everything felt completely normal. OK. We are a group of Greeks and Americans in businesses that have not yet felt the deeper effects of the crisis. But around us were Greeks, eating and drinking and talking the way Greeks always have and always will no matter what crisis the country is in. It was in the Taverna Psiri during the Nazi occupation, where a short story takes place that describes the lives of the people at the various tables. I remember particularly the German soldier who has been stationed in Athens, sitting at his favorite table, drinking his retsina, tears in his eyes because he has just gotten his orders and tomorrow he will be leaving for Stalingrad. So, no matter how bad things seem they could be worse. At least you don't have to go to the Russian front.

A few days ago I did the same walk in the daytime, just to get some exercise and visit my friend Kosta at the Hotel Attalos. Just as I got to Athinas Street a police car drove up and blocked the traffic from entering. I continued to the square where cops were clearing the area in front of the town hall. "I wonder what VIP is arriving?" I thought and watched as the area was made secure. When they began to push those of us in the square further and further away I asked the Pakistani guy next to me what was going on. "Bomba" he replied. A bomb? I was trying to get a better view of an important politician or a visiting dignitary. Not a bomb. I sent Andrea, who was on her way downtown, a message to avoid the Dimarchos Square and just as I did there was an explosion, though not a very impressive one. "That was a bomb?" I asked one of the cafe owners who was telling all his customers that it was safe to return. "There was no bomb. The police bomb squad just blew up a bag full of newspapers." Sure enough there were pieces of shredded newspapers all over the street which the municipal workers quickly swept up as traffic returned to normal.

Later that afternoon we had lunch with Kosta at a restaurant he likes in between the Agora (central market) and the one block Athenian version of Wall Street. Inside there were brokers and bankers in business suits eating their lunch while in the corner an old couple sang nostalgic Greek songs to the accompaniment of an old man playing the accordion. They played so loudly that we could barely talk or even think of things to say. We looked around at the dazed businessmen picking at their food or staring blankly into space. "Its like the dance band on the Titanic" Andrea said.

I woke up at 6 this morning in a state of terror. The truth suddenly dawned on me. The EU has to rescue Greece. Not that they have any fondness for the Greeks or care in the slightest what kind of suffering they have to go through, but because by not saving Greece they destroy themselves. If Greece defaults then Italy, Spain and other countries will follow and Europe will be plunged into an economic crisis the likes of which we have never seen. The US banks and insurance companies will also be affected and the world economy will go down the toilet and even in the USA we will have to stand in the breadlines with the people who had predicted the collapse of the capitalist system, talking loudly and congratulating themselves on being right. So Greece has to be rescued, no matter what kind of stance the European leaders are forced to temporarily adopt in order to appease their angry constituents. But what if the Greek people who are tired of failed austerity measures and broken promises and crooked politicians don't want to be rescued? What if even if you can sit down and say "Look... you have to suffer to save the rest of the world", they say "No. We don't want to. We have suffered enough and the rest of the world can go to hell for all we care," and they overthrow the government or just behave in a way that makes the country ungovernable?

Take the communist party for example. They have been something just above a fringe party since they were legalized in the seventies after the fall of the Junta and have been biding their time, waiting for their big moment. When Alexandrou Grigoropoulou was shot by the cops in Exarchia in December of 2008 and young people were rioting it was the communists who encouraged the students to stay on the street in the hopes that the chaos would bring down the government, using the tragic death of a teenager as an opportunity. If there is a successful company, the unions, controlled by the communists, will try to destroy it because that successful company is an impediment to the systemic collapse that they hope will cause the people all to see things the way they do. This is why the past two summers it was the communists who blocked tourists from getting on the ferries or kept them bottled up on the cruise ships, unable to visit the Acropolis and the other important sites (which are our shared heritage, not just something that belongs to the Greeks). Tourism is one of the few things Greece has going for it, which makes it a target for a group that wants to destroy Greece so they can rebuild it they way they think it should be. I am far from being a right-wing fanatic and have some agreement with the communists, particularly that things are really fucked up and greed and stupidity is pretty much what got us here. But destroying tourism and successful businesses is the equivalent of the communists in South Africa taking over and blowing up the gold and silver mines, or to give it a local perspective taking over Kalamata and burning all the olive trees.

But the more the communists can point to the capitalists and say "See! We told you they were all crooks" and the more the government alienates the people, the more it causes them to consider the communist philosophy which seems to be, just destroy everything and we can put it back together our way later. What if all the Greek people get so fed up that they start acting like the communists and the rest of Europe just closes its borders and lets them fight it out amongst themselves and see who comes out on top? What if I am stuck here when that happens? This is the kind of anxiety I get when I know I have to wake up the next day and get on an airplane. End-of-the-world angst.

Of course I go back to sleep and when I wake up again the sun is shining and I can hear the children playing at the school behind our house, and the air smells like pastries from the bakery downstairs and when I go out I see people doing the normal things that people do in Athens, and all over the world. Shopping, hailing taxis to go downtown, talking on cellphones, going to private lessons, dance classes or rehearsals, eating a spanakopita or a souvlaki. I see the empty shop that used to house my neighborhood souvlaki shop has been cleared of machinery and something new is going in there. I see Africans with shopping baskets going from dumpster to dumpster looking for things made of metal or that are salvageable to make the little bit of money they need to eat and pay the rent in the apartment they share with eight to ten other Africans. Mothers and Grandmothers are taking kids for walks in carriages and strollers chatting about body pains and ungrateful husbands, or the property tax that will arrive with their next electric bill. There is a crisis here and it will get worse before it gets better but there is something still somewhat normal about every day life, at least here in Kypseli. It's like my friend Stan Roman once said when we talked about what it would be like if there was a revolution in America. "Even if there is a revolution it won't be that weird. People will still be buying albums and stuff."

So that is how it is here for me. Of course I can leave anytime I want and because my time in Greece is limited every night is spent going out to dinner with friends, not sitting in front of the TV watching people tell me how bad things are and how much worse they are going to get. For a tourist coming to Greece your experience will be closer to mine than to someone whose wages have been cut and whose mother does not know if her pension check is going to arrive next month or not. If there are strikes then you will get to deal with it the same way the Athenians do, by changing plans, routes and itineraries which can be a nuisance but not something that will ruin your trip unless you are the type of person who allows yesterday's inconvenience bleed into today's fun. During today's big strike I sat in a nice cafe on my island of Fokionos Negri and drank espresso and wrote down everything I could think of about what it is like to be in Greece. If you are here during a strike you will find something nice to do for the day and there is no reason to sit in your hotel room watching CNN and thinking of how things might have been if the problems of Greece had not impacted upon your vacation. And you will be a part of history.

Hellenic Motor MuseumSpeaking of tourism, you can add a new museum to your list of must-see places in Athens. The Hellenic Motor Museum will have Jay Leno buying his first class ticket to Athens to visit one of the most amazing collections of vintage cars you will see anywhere. If you visit the National Archaeological Museum then it is just a few blocks away on the corner of Ioulianou & 3rd September & Patission Streets in a large modern building. There are over 100 cars on three floors, mostly from the thirties to the sixties, all in beautiful condition and apparently in running order since they came from the private collection of museum founder Theodore Charagionis and his wife Joanna. Each car has its history in Greek and English and the lighting and presentation is perfect. Visit their website at

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