You can go home again

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I was in Greece this summer after many years and it’s hard to believe it’s the same country that is now in the news roiling with unrest over the European bailout and wracked with strikes by unions and ordinary citizens seeing their savings and their pensions shredded by the new austerity measures.

And now Greece is living with the uncertainty of a referendum that if voted down shortly, might abort any more of the European bailouts it needs to keep functioning as a country.

When we traveled to Greece this past August we saw some government troops stationed in the street near Syntagma, and we saw the random graffiti of social protest around there and on the walls of the swank apartments on the walk to the Acropolis (“BurnThe Rich”). But the cabs the week we were there were plentiful, the trains ran and the Metro stations were magnificent (a showpiece that would make any other country jealous), the planes flew (relatively on time), the ferries ran and were nothing like the old buckets I used to take in my younger years—their salons have captain’s chairs and views from sun-splashed picture windows—and the streets were buzzing with cars and tourists and shoppers, and aside from the proverbial flea-bitten dogs of the street treated like the sacred cows of India, thoroughfares were clean and many of the shops were new and thriving.

Yes, the conversations in homes and cafes were all about the economic crisis. People talked about their pensions hovering in the air and their benefits tanking. People talked about the unrest in the street and the fate of the young people coming out of universities and finding no jobs and seething with frustration. “The whole spectrum of people are living with uncertainty,” said a friend, a former high school principal now living on a pension that he admits has been cut from under him and he fears will be cut further. “I can survive, somehow,” he says, “I have to cut and cut to the bone, if I have to. But I lived my life and I had my career. What future do these poor kids have? I had them in school and I know how much they looked forward to their careers. Some of them, especially the new immigrants, came from homes where they were the first to go to high school. Now you take that away from them. And what do you say to the old people who rely on their pension? Suddenly, after all these years of service it doesn’t exist anymore? Where do they go from here?”

We talked about this, while we sat in the café, and he flipped his worry beads, and other men sat around and flipped their worry beads, and sipped their coffee, or their lemonades, and the woman met them after their shopping with all their bags, and the teenagers were chatting on cell phones and getting ready to rendezvous at the many clubs that night, while all around us the shops and restaurants were buzzing with life.

Life in Greece does go on, as it always has, and always will. Greeks have a passion for living and no crisis seems to faze them for too long. They have a passion for finding crises in their lives, and rising up to the challenge, and our hopes are that they will survive this challenge and show the sinew and survival skills that have made Greeks and Greece, a small population at best, a small country at best, one of the most enduring and significant in human history.

Dimitri C. Michalakis


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