I have not been in Athens for months. Then it was still warm, and people were able to convince themselves that things were much the same despite the effects of austerity, the increasing incidence of strikes, the onward creep of poverty and the rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. But I, for one, was made abruptly aware of change.
I have always felt safe in Athens, but in September, while travelling in a crowded suburban train, I was jostled by several large young men. Jostled with intent. When I alighted, feeling more than a little shaken, I discovered that my wallet was missing from my bag. In central Athens now, I grip my bag as I have never gripped it before.
Today I reach a crowded Syntagma Square: some people are organising a protest march, while others are looking on. The police and the riot squad are here, but the protesters are quiet and calm. They bear notices that read: When injustice is suffocating us, the struggle is obligatory.
A succinct and sensible piece of graffiti catches my eye. Two sentences are scrawled on a wall, with one directly beneath the other:
Capitalism is killing you.
Fascism won't save you.
There have long been beggars in Greece, but now there are many more, and of a new type: able-bodied young men, and young women with babies and small children. There are also many more homeless on Athenian streets: a recent estimate put the number at close to 20,000.
At 4pm the temperature stands at 9°C, and street people are already arranging the pieces of stout cardboard, the thin, grubby blankets, and pitifully small cloth and plastic bags. Equally pitiful are the brave attempts to sell a few items: a Pakistani youth waits on a corner and tries to sell one of his four battery-operated toy dogs.
Charitable organisations help when and where they can, with free meals and provision of shelter, but it is difficult for them to keep up with increasing demand. Individuals make their small gestures, and a friend shares the distress I feel when I run out of the small change that I scatter, like unsatisfactory confetti, along the streets.
This afternoon, on my way out of central Athens, I am struck by the sight of a young woman and her baby: both are very thin, and the mother herself is scarcely more than a child. Suddenly a well-dressed Athenian matron stops. She has been to a bakery. She squats down and gives the girl half of the pastries she has bought.
Back in the Peloponnese, I meet a friend. We say happy New Year, but our wishes sound hollow. What's next? we ask, and know at least some of the answers: more scandals, more failure to bring the chief tax evaders to account, more blasts from the so-called Troika, and certainly more struggle for the average Spiros and Soula.
Anne has been in Greece much longer than I have. She is now a grandmother, has spent all her married life here, and I feel her sadness when I tell her about the loss of my wallet. 'Once upon a time you could leave your suitcase by the side of the road for hours, and it would be still there when you got back. Such changes.'
She then tells me that a well-dressed middle-aged man came up to her recently. 'He had tears in his eyes, and said he was hungry.' The next day a young father asked Anne's husband for some milk, or some money: he was unable to feed his child. 'When I was first here, all those years ago, no Greek ever begged. Gypsies were the beggars and were scorned because of it. And now look!'
And that is what I said to myself when the TV cameras rolled during the cutting of Golden Dawn's New Year cake. There on the cake, for all to see, was a swastika. In chocolate icing. Now look.
Gillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 30 years. She has had nine books published. Her most recent is No Time For Dances. Her latest, Seeing and Believing, is appearing in instalments on her website.
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16 January 2013
It's good to see the miracle of capitalism doing so well in Greece, isn't it?
Carefully crafted policies designed to lift whole nations from poverty are weaving their magical way through every facet of Greek life, as they do in other nations too, controlled by wellmeaning solid citizens who put their needs behind those of whole nations in a selfless act of sacrifice.
These are not beggars, or thieves, the people who lifted the author's wallet, but the pinnacle of capitalism's energy force, 'entrepreneurs'. They take their lead from the captains of industry, national leaders, the political class and are to be admired not scorned.
Or did I miss something?
16 January 2013
An excellent article Gillian. It is sad to see a great nation and a great people come to that. I wonder, if the boom bursts, whether Australia may not go the same way?
16 January 2013
It was not capitalism that killed Greece. It was a public that thought they were entitled to an easy life of living off the public purse. The takers became more numerous than the earners. To gain power, governments were only too happy to agree to the demands of the people. The same thing is happening in the USA. They cannot sustain the level of spending people believe they are entitled to. Australia looks set to follow, with Julia Gillard making promises she knows she has no hope of funding.
16 January 2013
Janice Wallace's comments always intrigue me and I tend to seek her out wondering just what cynical gem she is going to come up with next!
But in all seriousness the Greek situation now looks bad, with a reminiscent ring of pre war Germany, but without the dictator...yet!
17 January 2013
excellent summation of the present situation
Kerry and Jim Harley
19 January 2013
Now that is really upsetting. In all the countries I have travelled in, NEVER have I felt uncomfortable or threatened in Greece. Always welcoming, kind and helpful is our experience.