In 2013, armed with a generous grant from the Cornell Institute for European Studies, I embarked for Greece on a three month field research project with the aim of mapping out the socioeconomic dimensions of the economic crisis. The central question of my research was: why is the world's oldest democracy struggling so profoundly with its modern democratic composition? Conducting interviews with politicians, workers, students, members of the press, self-styled revolutionaries, agriculturalists, writers, orthodox monks, farmers, and survivors of the Nazi occupation and the Greek Civil War in Athens, Thessaloniki, the holy mountain of Athos, Epirus, and the islands, I attempted to delineate the fault-lines along which Greek society has fractured since the 2008 economic crisis, and contextualize them within four periods of domestic crisis in modern Greek history: The Greek Revolutionary War, the Axis occupation, the Greek Civil War, and the military junta of 1967-1974. Grounding these sociopolitical and historical inquiries were questions of quotidian existence under austerity and domestic instability: life during economic wartime.
My findings are the topic of the forthcoming book, "The Gun is Heavy: Travels in the Greek Crisis."
In anticipation of the release of "The Gun is Heavy," chapter one is available below as a preview.
"The Gun is Heavy" Chapter 1: The Olive Tree, The Grapevine, and the Boat
“Greece’s spiritual as well as geographical location carries with it a mystic sense of mission and responsibility.”
– Nikos Kazantzakis, Report to Greco
Eleftherios Venizelos Airport is named for the former Prime Minister of Greece, a charismatic champion of the Megali Idea, or, “Great Idea.” An ethno-nationalist vision of a rejuvenated Hellenic empire, Venizelos’s Idea triggered the 1922 campaign against Turkey known as the Asian Minor Catastrophe. The ill-fated military expedition, aside from resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Greek and Turkish citizens, stripped from Greece its ancient Turkish population, and Turkey of its ancient Greek population. At Venizelos Airport, the tourist season had yet to populate the faux-velvet rope-lines with international travelers, and airport employees milled about sleepily beneath signs advertising Vodaphone and Metaxas, the foul-tasting Greek spirit. The smoking lounges, containing few smokers, were glass cages exhibiting a lonely, dying species.
It was 2013, and the Greece that welcomed me wasn’t entirely sure of itself. The European Union, the country’s fiscal babysitter, was pursuing major negotiations with the Greek government regarding the country’s unsustainable public sector hiring, the recapitalization of its national banks, and a solution to a perennial aversion to taxation. Representatives from the European Union wanted to see radical structural reform, while many Greeks seemed to simply want to go back to the good old days when loans were plentiful and the tax-collector didn’t have the entire Western world breathing down his neck to do his job, and do it well. Decisions loomed on the fate of Greece’s promised bailout funds, and the country seemed to be holding its breath.
From afar, I had been watching the situation in Greece deteriorate. As a student, writer, and lifelong philhellene, the crisis seemed to me to embody the quintessential contradictions and paradoxes of the contemporary capitalist world. Greeks had become guinea pigs in a vast experiment with neoliberal reform, with its orthodox insistence on “austerity.” It wouldn’t take an observer long to realize that the experiment had gone painfully array, and that its repercussions had bled from the economic sphere to the social, political, agricultural, educational, spiritual, and moral. At the time of my arrival, to read Kathimerini, one of the few surviving reputable newspapers in Greece, was to confront a democratic doomsday—“Brutal racist attacks in Thessaloniki,” “Sharp rise in Greek doctors leaving country,” “More Greeks Falling Prey to Job Swindles,” and so on. As a traveler and observer, I arrived with the intention of understanding the relationship between government and governed. Of particular curiosity to me were the ways in which Greek citizens contextualize the crisis in three critical periods of modern Greek history—the Greek Revolution of 1821-32, the Second World War and its near seamless segue into the Greek Civil War (which lasted until 1949), and the Military Junta of 1967-74. I was 21, a fervent seeker of solitude armed with a generous grant from the Cornell University Institute for European Studies, a notebook, audio recorder, camera, and spring of inquisitive energy.
Maria Psichas, the sister of my godfather whom I consider my Greek aunt, delivered me to the northern Athenian suburb of Kifissia, where I would be staying at her home. The Psichas residence—a two-storied compound facing the Athenian valley, is a work of breezy dignity and architectural balance reflected in the luxury boutique hotel her family has run in Santorini since the late 1970s. On the way from the airport, we discussed my project. I mentioned my impression that Greek youth have a high level of political consciousness, informed by an awareness of the extended history (stretching back to the Greek War of Independence and beyond) that has resulted in the nation’s current challenges. Maria Irini, shaking her head in disagreement, informed me that Greek public education leaves most of her countrymen painfully unaware of their modern history—sowing the seeds for the same mistakes to appear periodically.
The government has long supported an education program that brushes over events of national fratricide, particularly the Greek Civil War that extended from World War II to 1949 and the Military Junta of 1967-74. They favor instead a mythologized, hyper-nationalist interpretation of the Greek past that renders the ancient more accessible than the modern.
The scholar Maria Repoussi has written that not only is the content of Greek history textbooks based on “cutivat[ing] a series of national myths,” but even the very didactic method through which history is communicated remains “asphyxiatingly under state control.” From 2006 to 2007, the development of a new textbook designed to dispel some of the more glaring historical inaccuracies printed in older history textbooks was met with hostility from the Greek Orthodox Church, led by Archbishop Christodoulos, and a powerful, multi-partisan lobby called “Network for Democracy and Homeland.”
As the conflict between educators and historians supporting the new textbook and its opponents intensified, members of the now-banned neo-Fascist Golden Dawn party burned copies of the new books in Syntagma Square, the home of Hellenic Parliament, and nationalist politicians campaigning for the 2007 elections rallied Greeks against its publication, calling it an “insult to our nation.” The textbook’s writers and editors were demonized, their privacy violated as they were photographed from afar in swimsuits by tabloid paparazzi. The new textbook was eventually abolished, and educators were instructed to return to the old volume. Athens moved on.
But that afternoon, arriving at our suburban perch located only a half-hour metro ride to the Parthenon, I believed with manic hope that the raw nation was awakening, preparing to reclaim its historical, democratic birthright. Eager to explore the neighborhood that would be my home for at least a month, I suppressed my post-travel delirium and set off for a run in a bath of glorious late-day light. There is nothing on earth like Greek light, even in the sprawling concrete-scape of Athens. I watched the sun sinking over Mount Parnitha and the Western ridge which cradles Athens within its valley. Shadow crept over Tatoi, the verdant monarchic hunting estate. I passed women smoking cigarettes purposefully in their cars, graffiti replete with the ubiquitous anarchy symbol, and a few elegant bronze sculptures.
German Shepherd watchdogs stirred a hollow fear in me when they crashed against gates, foam dripping from black jowls. Evocative of lines of riot-police and the intimidation of prisoners, their fury was intensified by their associative history. After the fall of the Third Reich, pet marketers considered rebranding these herding dogs of Franconia as “Alsatian Wolf Dogs” when the ghost of the Third Reich threatened pet sales throughout the free world. With Greeks again pitted against Germans, (this time in low-intensity economic warfare), one wonders if European breeders are debating such a rebrand for the Greek market.
It would soon be dark and I was lost and travel-weary in the Athenian suburbs. The stores and services lining the streets of Kifissia indicate an affluence that is only otherwise seen in tourist neighborhoods of Athens. Tempurpedic mattress stores, delicatessens advertising pricey German meats, a tennis club, a swimming club, ornate gates and impassable walls, Range Rovers, and the notable absence of the garbage that is omnipresent elsewhere in the city lends the neighborhood an air of comfortable European prosperity. I arrived at my hosts’ after dark, having fortunately stumbled upon their street just as my legs and confidence threatened mutiny.
I had a long conversation over dinner with Exenia, my roommate and an opera student following in the footsteps of the great Greek soprano Maria Callas. She bemoaned the lack of government support for artists, poets, and cultural rejuvenators. She recounted her participation in the production, “Street-people of Athens,” staged by a group of actors, directors, make-up artists, choreographers and set-designers in the garage of the Opera House as a protest against the institution’s halving of wages. The politically charged production became immensely successful, indicating a profound hunger for domestic culture. Without culture, Exenia explained, a citizenry is devalued to a conglomeration of consumers, mere inputs, cogs, or “pigs” in her words. From this vantage point on a breezy hill sitting above the city, it was easy to speculate that the crisis would inspire the redemptive power of creativity, easy to forget that transcendence through art can only occur once the basic needs are met—food, shelter, medicine, security.
The first morning in Athens met me with a milky grey sky, and I resolved to spend the day testing the route that would guide me to the city-center and my Greek language class for the next month.
Walking out of Politia, the subdivision of Kifissia where my godfather’s house is located, I noticed how quiet the streets were. An architectural coldness marks the newer constructions in this area, though I would speculate that inside they are meticulously decorated, as was the case within the bunker-like houses of Sicily, where I lived in 2008. There is a fortified quality to many of these residences, characteristic of a wealthy enclave within a sea of economic misfortune. The houses were not, however, equipped for siege by the poor and desperate to the same extent as other cities I’d visited.
In Miraflores, the wealthy neighborhood on the Pacific coast of Lima, Peru, houses routinely are fitted with barbed wire, broken glass jutting from high concrete walls, and panic rooms. A friend told me that in the wealthy areas of Peru it is no exaggeration to say, “every man’s house is a fortress,” a sad bastardization of Sir Edward Coke’s legal dictum that “an Englishman’s house is his castle.” Here, in an area undoubtedly populated by Greek government officials, celebrities, and business magnates, they make do with high walls, cameras, dogs, and the occasional armed guard sitting in false-mirror boxes looking remarkably vulnerable. My godfather’s house, and the older wooden houses of the northern suburbs, are exceptions to this rule, and are delightful to view from both inside and out, clearly remnants an era in which this suburb was a community unto itself, and not an extension of the sprawl of Athens.
The only people on the streets around me were Asian maids walking dogs and texting, the only sounds the barking of dogs and the occasional speeding Smart Car or Audi that would brush dangerously close to my elbow as I walked along the sidewalk to the bus station.
Women, old men, immigrants, and the mentally handicapped crowded the bus I embarked to Kifissia, the first leg of the commute. It was crowded, and driven by a disinterested bus-driver somehow smoking a cigarette and drinking a frappé (creamy iced coffee) while driving a crowded bus through congested streets, his eyes hidden behind dark aviators. In downtown Kifissia, I purchased the Herald Tribune and boarded a train with the help of a narrow-faced young man who kindly guided me to my connection in Attiki. Public trains in Athens, as is the case everywhere, attract an odd confluence of people; faces and bodies of every shape, size, and hue, stares of every intensity, dress indicating each echelon of society. The crowded train look like a group portrait by Otto Dix, an impression that increased when I boarded a second train from Attiki that dropped me in Syntagma Square—Constitution Square—the center of Athens and home to the Hellenic Parliament. It was also the site of the 1944 massacre of Greek resistance fighters and their supporters by British troops and forces loyal to the Greek King, an event that re-ignited the Greek Civil War. The recent economic crisis turned the central square once again into a battleground. Government employees on incessant strike, anarchist groups spurring towards violence, the despised police and MAT—the terrifying military riot squads—made for a fiery mix. Today, however, the square was mostly empty, the Molotov cocktails swept away by government employees themselves.
The proliferation of graffiti gives Athens, and most urban centers of Greece for that matter, a sense of chaos that is striking to me even as a New Yorker. The name of the most powerful anti-fascist group active in Greece today, ANTIFA, is scrawled on every imaginable surface, from golden sculptures of the great Greek philosophers to abandoned storefronts, as is the international anarchist rallying cry of ACAB—“All Cops Are Bastards.” One occasionally notes a crude depiction of the Greek meander, otherwise known as the Greek key, a symbol of the Hellenic age that today is unmistakably associated with the Golden Dawn party, who claimed to have chosen the symbol for its historical and cultural significance to Greeks, though its visual proximity to the Nazi swastika is a more likely reason.
The Parliament building looked bleak before the grey sky, the Greek flag atop its peak fluttering defiantly. I was surprised by the chill of the wind, but even more so by the closed storefronts, as the Syntagma of my childhood was lined with a commercial buzz that would somehow make me feel nauseated after weeks spent in the ascetic physical beauty of the islands. When I made my way down the boulevard that extends like a spine from Syntagma to Monastiraki, there were many people wandering about, mostly German tourists. I permitted myself to get a bit lost, locating a cafe populated by middle-class Greek couples. The men smoked incessantly and the women sat looking bored with an absurd amount of makeup caked on their faces, the table surfaces composed with the essential elements of the modern Greek still life: cell phone, frappé, glass of water, cigarettes, worry beads.
The route to my school took me through the National Garden. I was alone as I walked, save the occasional company of a statue. Dionysios Solomos, the great Zakynthian poet, or Ioannis Kapodistrias, the Corfiote founding father of Greece, stared at me as I passed through solemn eyes of oxidized bronze, imploring me to scrub the disgraceful graffiti from their chests.
The park, like the city itself, induces sensory fluctuations—the scent of jasmine and other blooming flowers can instantly segue into the smell of urine, vomit, dirty water, and sweat. The same goes for the visual palette. Moving my eyes along a beautiful old building’s facade within the park I was bound to meet some scarring graffiti. With a grandiose name like National Gardens, there is, in general, an inescapable sense of decay, neglect, and weariness to the park, indicative of a nation in perpetual crisis.
My destination, Mets, is an oasis within central Athens and, like the high grounds of Politia, a remnant of an older, friendlier Greece. Cafés with smoking patrons wearing tortoise-shell glasses, bakeries, and barbershops lined my route. Just a twenty-minute walk from Syntagma Square, I easily found the Athens Centre, my language school, and made a triumphant walk back, skirting the park this time.
On the train back to Kifissia it was beginning to rain, and despite the screeching of rusted train upon rusted track, I nodded off. The bus was crowded back to Politia, and a fight between a man and a woman with children broke out, inevitably spreading to the whole bus, each rider chiming in their opinions and the old women clicking their tongues at the man, who had committed some unseen offense. The swarthy ticket collector ordered the man off of the bus, and then entertained the riders with a series of jokes at the disgraced man’s expense, which everyone seemed to enjoy heartily. Nothing unites patrons of public transportation like a mutual enemy. There was a man dressed entirely in denim and a very small arm with a hand that looked like a baby’s foot. When he got off the bus he put the deformed arm in a pocket and left the other arm exposed as he walked along the street.
The next day my schedule was again a blank slate, though I learned from Exenia of a conference on “agro-entrepreneurship” underway at the Athens Hilton—the nesting place of my family on countless brief sojourns in Athens en route to our summer grounds, the islands. The conference had the tenuous title, “The Next Step Towards the New Frontier.” Hungry to conduct a preliminary exploration of the agricultural dimension of the crisis, I hopped on the bus from Kifissia. The bus seemed to attract a much more civilized clientele than the metro; it was therefore far more comfortable and far less interesting.
The Athens Hilton was inaugurated on April 21st, 1963, exactly four years before tanks thundered through Athens to deliver seven years of right wing dictatorship at the hands of the dreaded Colonels. Upper-class Athenians celebrated the establishment of this imposing architectural landmark, and hotel magnate Conrad Hilton himself attended the inaugural festivities, calling the newest addition to his hotel portfolio “the most beautiful Hilton hotel in the world.” It was a symbol of elegance and prosperity in the economic, political, and psychological heart of the Greek state, rattling the traditionally conservative Athenian society and architectural community towards accepting more modernist forms into the Athenian skyline. The construction of the Athens Tower seven years later, it could be said, might not have been possible without the Athens Hilton acting as a vanguard, a sort of foot-in-the-door for a modern visual experience of the city.
Others, however, lamented its commanding size and presence amidst modest, traditional Athenian architecture, also fearing it would overshadow Athens’ ancient heritage sites such as the Acropolis. After all, the Hilton was indeed violating the building code, standing twice the legal maximum height of twenty-four meters, an obstacle overcome by the fact that the Town Planning Directorate representative that waived the building code violation was also one of the structure’s architects. For the Greek left, the Hilton was a poignant symbol of both inequality and American Cold War posturing, and some drew parallels between the Hilton’s construction and the creeping right-wing dominance within government, a tide that would crest during the April 21st coup. Greek novelist Yorgos Theotokas attributed the democratic crisis of the years leading up to 1967 to a “socio-political imbalance” that one could plainly see in the juxtaposition of the Athens Hilton, where “the rich, famous, and powerful” could sip mojitos and listen to American rock and roll atop the Galaxy bar looking over neighborhoods of shanty-houses and dangerously crowded Post-war apartments.
Today the Athens Hilton is the unquestioned landmark of eastern Athens. The conference I attended there was specifically tailored for female entrepreneurs in the Greek agricultural sector, though a man, the founder of a highly lucrative high quality foods company, got the last word. The speakers represented the best of the Greek entrepreneurial spirit. They built biodynamic farming systems, envisioned communities that create more energy than they consume, and forsook the monoculture farming that’s rewarded with subsidies in the E.U. Common Agricultural Plan, choosing rather to plant traditional Greek crops. These were indeed the quiet resistance fighters against the slow but insidious blight of over-reliance on the outside world.
Odysseus Elytis, the Greek Nobel prize winning poet, once wrote: “If you deconstruct Greece, you will in the end see an olive tree, a grapevine, and a boat remain. That is, with as much, you can reconstruct her.” It seemed fitting, then, to start from the ground up. With this inauspicious conference on agriculture, my navigation of the Greek spirit, and its enemies, began.