Can Europe Make It?

Here we are

A Greek question to which the answer comes eventually from elsewhere.

Nick Papandreou
22 July 2015
Patras on the first day of capital controls.

Patras on the first day of capital controls. Demotix/ Menelaos Mich. All rights reserved.While waiting in the ATM lines caused by the bank shut down in Greece, Phaedra, my nine year old daughter, did her flips and cartwheels and generally entertained the crowd of mainly older people who were trying to retrieve the maximum daily allowance of sixty Euros. When we were done and walking back to our Fiat, she tugged my sleeve, and looked up at me through her thick red glasses. “Daddy, will ballet school be open next year?”

I didn’t have an answer. The whole country seems to be shutting down – one theatre here, one business there. Most people around me are either looking for a job or know someone looking for a job. At home my office is stacked with bios of extremely qualified people who believe that with my last name and my contacts I can secure their shaky future. My son, Andronicus, told me that five of his friends in the British private school he attends are leaving the country for good. Those that can, run. Those that can’t, get in line.

At the beginning of the crisis, I attended a musical production under the Acropolis in honor of a Greek composer, Manos Hadjidakis, famous for Never on Sunday. I was struck by the wealth of local talent evident in the two musical groups that backed up the event. One was the String Orchestra of the city of Patras – a city whose population is no more than 170,000 and has been especially hard hit by the downturn. The other was the Polyphonic Choir, also from the city of Patras. Two hundred girls and women sang into the heavens, accompanied by dozens of mandolins and a bouzouki orchestra made up of wizened older men.

Both have been funded by the local municipality, which in turn was supported by the now bankrupt Greek state. The possibility that all such cultural activities will disappear if Greece collapses completely is something we have never had to contemplate. The choir and the polyphonic, many of whose members come from the rural area of Peloponnesus, form the rich texture of an advanced society, in full colourful dress. Group efforts like these create friendships, encourage altruism, cooperation and volunteerism, strengthen social ties and at the same time, reward the young for their talent.

I am not sure if either choir or orchestra will be around next year. They are already facing major problems and only the spirit of altruism holds them together. They are not alone. Since the crisis began, theatres across the country have had to shut down. This summer, the Athens Festival held under the Acropolis has cancelled one event after the other. My book publisher has frozen all new publications because he can’t import paper or ink – he has to prepay in cash - a very rare bird, one stuck inside the vaults of closed banks. At the time of this writing we are into the fourth week of a permanent bank “holiday.” Payments are withheld and individuals are allowed to withdraw only 60 Euros a day. Nobody is paying anybody anything. I am not sure if my daughter’s ballet school will ever open again. Worse, her teachers may never find work.

A slow destruction of social wealth is under way. The first signs are already visible as cultural activity is coming to a resounding halt. If Greece is not “bailed out” by its creditors, these shutdowns will reach Tsunami proportions. We will then be front seat witnesses to a rare historical reversal: a developed economy that slowly at first and then all at once sheds itself of its “extras,” all those “things” (books, theatre, movies, music, dance, gyms, bookstores) that lend to society a high quality of life.

Some things are not stopped by the economic crisis: creativity itself. On the island of Crete the old tradition of rhyming couplets is still strong. Men with poetic skill are called upon to perform at occasions such as weddings, baptisms, funerals, and inaugurations, often singing and accompanied by the lyre.

Globalization has actually helped this ancient sport. The youth in Crete text the newest rhyming couplet on their iPhones and Samsungs and send it to their friends. Instead of hello, rhyming coupleteers or rhymadores – as they are called - greet each other in the streets in rhymes. For the true rhymester, couplets are not just a hobby, but an obsession, a source of income, a war, a proof of life. Emphasis is on originality and innovation and in saying everything in two lines. Rhyming competitions are held regularly – think of a rap fest – and applause determines who is best.  The crisis has not escaped their notice.  Below are two I like, though something is lost in my translation:

“What’s wrong in Greece is not my fault”

If that’s what you think – we will surely default.


He smokes his cigarette, but then hides the pack

 You look at him – he turns his back. 

Creativity, and not the upraised finger favored by former Minister of Finance superstar Yanis Varoufakis, is the true form of resistance. A nation that can still create – even in dark moments – is a nation of survivors.

In a world where things are rapidly collapsing, where the material world shrinks day by day, where people are unwilling to spend a euro on a newspaper and who buy locally-grown tobacco in plastic bags on the black market, our past purchases and choices suddenly seem foolish and excessive.

I take comfort in something that requires neither a credit card nor an ATM: reading. An essay in Threepenny Review a few issues back (the Review is precisely the sort of cultural “output” which underpins and is also proof of an advanced society) describes an incident that made an impression on me, even though it occurred far far from here, in a cold empty otherworld.

Travelling on the Arctic tundra with an Inuit (Eskimo) guide, a doctor was caught in a blizzard. In the icy dark, outside the boundaries he knew, the doctor cried out: “We are lost!” His Inuit guide looked at him thoughtfully and answered: “We are not lost. We are here.”  

Indeed, little Phaedra, my lovely dancer, my crazy girl, “here we are.”

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