A Citizen

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On Thursday, March 6, 2013, I broke out of the comfort of my apartment in search of the Hilton Hotel where I hoped to swim on a regular basis. As I reached Vassilissis Sofias, I could see a crowd walking towards Symtagma Square. Change of plans. I followed them. The closer I got, the more police I could see. Finally the street was completely cordoned off, so no traffic except those of us on foot could pass in front of the Parliament Building. The police were stationed close to the florist I sometimes patronized. The incongruity of colorful, fragrant flowers along side riot-geared, machine-gunned, gas-masked police on the ready made me smirk in painful irony. I was reminded my own protests in the sixties. I am living the class I am teaching at the university, Film of the Sixties.

I put on big sunglasses and armed with my iphone readied myself to be a “citizen journalist.” I had tried to do the same this summer during the elections in Spetses.  At that time, a friend asked me, “How can you be ‘observing Greece” from the lap of luxury?'” I had been staying in a Villa.  Today, living in Kolonaki, another lap of luxury, on my way to the Hilton, and not speaking Greek does create some difficulty. I didn’t understand the signs; I didn’t know what was being protested. Most of the people in the streets were young, so I imagined the gathering might be about unemployment which is about 25% for youth.

My classes had been canceled on Tuesday due to a protest against the merging of departments at the University which would result in an elimination of part of the Humanities. However, I thought that protest took place on Tuesday.

I took photographs, placed myself directly in front of the Parliament, and waited to see what would happen. There seemed to be about two or three thousand people. Standing next to me was a “woman of a certain age” as the French would say. She petted a dog who like many in Greece has a collar but belongs to no one. She spoke to me in English after I made my one statement in Greek that everyone seems to understand, Then milaw Ellinika. I don’t speak Greek. She told me that the dog’s name is Victory. We laughed. I found out that the protest concerned the changes being made in education, that is, firing of teachers, getting rid of some schools. I was in the right place.

After some discussion about this situation, she confided that she had given up her Greek citizenship. Shocked, I asked her why. She said she couldn’t be part of a country that handled this crisis so stupidly, whose leaders were corrupt and still no one did anything. I told her that I had wanted to quit the United States when George W. Bush was president, but my husband had insisted that “someone had to stay and fight.” She went on to say that she is having trouble living in Greece because she speaks her mind, saying what other’s don’t want to hear. I wondered if she was being harassed by people from Golden Dawn as she kept mentioning cults. However, that wasn’t the case.

She is on her own and is in conflicts with her community, with her neighbors where she speaks freely about her frustration with Greece. I was reminded that Freedom has a price. Just that morning, I had been considering applying for a Greek passport, having dual citizenship. I can as my grandfather was born in Greece. Another contradiction, another consideration. What does it mean to be Greek with the blinders of romanticism taken off?

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Return to Athens

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I have been in Athens for almost a week; this visit is different. I will be living here for three months with an apartment, a neighborhood, and a job- teaching film studies. Presently, I am living in a posh neighborhood and seem to be partially “protected” from the desperation that lives in other parts of the city. There is graffiti on a few walls, and occasionally, a homeless person emerges, posting herself next to a kiosk; however, unless I move out of this enclave, I see little of the suffering that Greeks are experiencing.

Last week, as I walked to the National Library for an exhibit, a seemingly professional man seemed to be lost. He followed people, mostly women, looking for direction, not directions, but direction. Naturally, those he approached were uneasy. People moved away from him and police scowled. He drifted away.

Two days ago, as I sat in a cafe reading The International Herald Tribune, a middle aged man who also had the air of the middle class about him, paraded in front of the cafe speaking aloud to the coffee drinkers. He wasn’t particularly aggressive nor did he seem unhinged. Yet, there was something he needed to share. No one responded.

As I was walking home that same day, I crossed behind the National Gardens. At the corner, a soldier stood at attention with a machine gun held to his chest. Who is he protecting?

Another sight that seems more prevalent on the weekends are individuals laying prone on the sidewalk arm extended for an offering. One such women lay in front of an expensive boutique. She moaned as two young women discussed the price of the handbags displayed in the window. Now, I find myself crossing the street to avoid beggars. How much would it cost if I gave to each of the beggars I encounter? Then, there is my New York scepticism. Are they for real?

Yesterday, I decided to go to a high end shopping center which turned out to be a block long department store. As soon as I entered, I wanted to leave. There were many clerks but no customers. The store, Attica, could have been anyplace where wealth is possible. In Greece, where universal health care has been eliminated and people are cutting down wood in the national gardens to heat their homes, this store wreaks of moral decay. Berlin in the thiries?

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Learning Greek

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Many months have passed since my last entry. Is there anybody out there still interested? I am taking a bit of a left turn as I move closer to not only observing Greece but perhaps understanding it as well.

Three months from now, I will be living in Athens and teaching a film studies course to university students as a Fulbright Fellow. Although I will teach in English, I hope to occasionally communicate in the language of my students. Therefore, I have become the student and am presently taking an elementary course in Modern Greek. The class has seven students, and I am the least accomplished. This situation comes as a great surprise: I have never had a failing grade in my life. I considered abandoning the class; however, I enjoy listening to Greek, learning to write in Greek, and reading in Greek, even if I only master forty percent.

I find my response interesting. Who enjoys failing? Hearing and reading the language creates an excitement about the people, about their lives. Although I’m not successful, I feel a pride in knowing I can write a sentence in Greek. I can, even, read a sentence in Greek.

Perhaps, I will be able to understand the newspaper Kastelliotika Nea sent to me every month from the village where my grandfather was born. I am one quarter Greek on my father’s side. Since 2001, I have made seven visits to the village. I could not speak Greek and the uncle who lives in my grandfather’s house does not speak English, nor did his wife, his sister, or his sister-in-law who were the family members I saw most often. I have younger cousins that speak English, but they are rarely there. Yet, not speaking didn’t seem to bother me. I felt at home in the courtyard of my great grandfather’s house, in the village square where we had souvaliki at night, tiny delicious pieces of marinated meat skewered on a large toothpick, grilled over charcoal and squeezed with lemon- a “meza” before the evening meal.

The first time I went to Greece, I climbed into a closet every day and cried. The Greeks looked so cranky, pushed up too closely, and spoke with what seemed like aggression and abruptness. When I visited the village and was embraced by one relative after another, the two impressions didn’t jive. Now as I learn Greek, I start to understand.  When I say “nai” that is “yes” in Greek as it sounds in class or on the CD I use, I hear my voice emphasize, not in abruptness or aggression, but in the joy of agreement, the pleasure of interaction, maybe even, some Hellenic pride.

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THE TEMENOS EXPERIENCE

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Almost by accident I was introduced to Temenos by sitting in on P. Adams Sitney’s showing of Markopoulos’ films at Princeton University. The course was titled, The Image of Greece in European Cinema. As the film screenings were open to the pubic and as I live in Princeton, teach film, and was keen to know more about my Greek heritage, I made sure I attended whenever possible. The Illiac Passion was shown that night along with a few of Robert Beaver’s (Markopoulos’ partner) films. Mr. Beavers presented the films and spoke about Temenos where every four years Markopoulos’ films are shown in a remote area of the Peloponnesus under the stars. I was on fire. The thought of seeing Markopoulos’ films in a meadow high in the Peloponnesus ignited my imagination.  I vowed I would go to the next one. I kept my promise; however, I added to my motivation by applying and getting a Fulbright grant to research Markopoulos, his drive and his creation of community. As Robert Beavers said at this year’s Temonos, the showing of Markopoulos’s films which are free and without any commercial restraint provide an artistic respite for the filmmakers who attend -a community, certainly.

I looked forward to participating in this three day “community forming.” However, circumstances altered my place in this newly formed group. Since my son and I had a car, we were not housed in Loutra Iraias where most of those attending were housed, but, instead, almost 30 minutes away in Rafti.  Consequently, we were somewhat isolated from the rest of the group. Also, we didn’t arrive until close to 7 P.M. the first day, another consequence of driving from Athens and getting lost on several occasions. By the time we got to our rooms, we were too tired from the stress of driving and didn’t make the first night’s celebration in Lyssarea where the films are shown.

Robert Beavers, when speaking to the group on Sunday, told of how a friend of his described him and Markopoulos as a “society of two.” My son and I for the most part were a “community of two.” Nevertheless, the thrill of making our way to each evening’s films and the experience of the films themselves created exhilarating and challenging discussions as we made our way back to Rafti in the middle of the night . As an undergraduate sculpture major, he had ideas about what art should do to an observer. I defended Markopoulos’ intentions while he questioned if those intentions made their mark with the audience,

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FROM WES ANDERSON TO GREGORY MARKOPOULOS

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One night my son and I were looking at a commercially successful film Moonrise Kingdom in Athens: two nights later we were in a remote area of the Peloponnese watching parts of Eniaios, filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos’ life work at Temenos, his sacred grove near his father’s birthplace of Lyssarea.

My son, Larry, chose to be the first driver but was unable to give up that position when I developed acrophobia as we climbed the narrow mountain roads with no side rails. On our way to Corinth, we discussed Anderson’s film, Moonrise Kingdom. Being annoyingly picky, I pointed out that saddle shoes worn by the female protagonist were not “Sunday” shoes as described in the film nor were they popular in 1965. They were all the rage much earlier. The film can delight most spectators with its fairytale mise-en-scene, its belief in true love, and a plot whose obstacles are overcome first by two protagonist and then by the “in-crowd” who realize they should be good “scouts” and join together to save the orphan and his love. Perhaps I’m jaded; perhaps I gazed at the lit up Acropolis too long during the film. Yet, the idea of a truth existing no matter how outrageous, no matter how difficult to bear, is not so far from Markopoulos’ intention as he decided to go his own way, making films by doing every part, filming and editing by hand. Then, he allowed his films to only be shown as he instructed no matter what the cost, which was often quite high as his films were not often seen. He had a vision, a truth and, since the eighties, he shared it with whomever made the journey to Temenos. Then, as today, there is no charge. A pilgrim has only to pay for his or her room and board.

Several hours outside of Athens, we started to climb up and down the Peloponnese mountains. We both agreed that the drive with its hairpin turns, its goats and sheep blocking the road, with the undulating blue of distant peaks welcomed us into the miracle of Greece, a miracle that Temenos creates every four years enticing filmmakers, students, and academics from different cultures to
it’s sacred grove.

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CINE PARIS ATHENS

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Another child has joined me for the last leg of the trip, my son. We repeated in one day some of our first outings in Athens when he was only eight year old. On most of these excursions, there was a significant lack of tourists, good for us, bad for Greece. Yet, newspapers reported that once the elections were settled, plans to visit Greece went up 27%.

We began the day at the Acropolis, a good day to visit. The day was overcast, the heat less intense, and the crowds thin. We took pictures in front of the steps where once he had sat and now visitors are forbidden to trespass. Then, we made our way to Monistraki to eat the city’s best souvlaki. Here there were hoards, some tourists, many locals stopping for a quick lunch, street vendors selling knickknacks, and children playing instruments, hoping their serenades would entice a euro their way, But this has always been the way in Monistraki.

That evening, we went to my favorite outdoor theater, the Cine Paris to see the new Wes Anderson movie. The air, cool and clean, blew gently across the theater, and finally when dusk became night, the Acropolis lit up. My heart, mind and soul were full: a good companion, delicious air, an excellent film, and history lit up like a jewel.

Afterwards we had dinner down the street at a famous taverna. The restaurants around the square in this usually busy area of the Plaka were barely filled. Will those tourist ever come?

ANOTHER ATHENS HOTEL

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I’m having a Chelsea Hotel moment even though I am at an upscale hotel in the “quartier” of those who have swimming pools on their roof, Kolonaki. I have left the hotel only twice in the last twenty-four hours: to go to a meeting about my Fulbright grant after which I returned and slept and, then, three hours later, to walk three blocks for souvlaki and a beer. Within an hour, I was in my pajamas and back in bed. Soon, it will be 8:00 P.M. and I could go out and find a taverena, but I’ve decided to skip dinner, have a drink and some potato chips from the minibar. Did Faulkner and other writers at the Chelsea succumb to “ennui” so easily?

I didn’t surface for very long today, but it was long enough to notice that many pedestrians carried shopping bags with the labels of expensive stores. I did see other signs of change besides graffiti new to Kolonaki.  An old women in widow’s black surrounded by plastic bags holding her belongings had strategically placed herself on the pavement next to an ATM machine. Nevertheless, she didn’t seem to be profiting by her location. Several older men and some children moved up and down the steep streets with outstretched hands, and a young women sat in a doorway breastfeeding her child, completely exposed, her hand extended.

In today’s International Herald Tribune, Paul Krugman in an article about the European economic crisis wrote, “Forget about Greece, which is pretty much a lost cause; Spain is where the fate of Europe will be decided.” For some, he seems to be speaking the truth; others may be “fiddling while Rome burns.”

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A TURKISH RESPITE CONTINUED

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I have been in Istanbul with my daughter Medb for almost four days. Indeed, this visit is a respite. When I returned to Athens the night before my flight to Istanbul, I was disheartened. My week on Spetses made clear how Greece will suffer if all attempts to overcome past economic practices don’t work. Already, hospitals have cut back on services and in some places, electricity is turned off on a regulated basis. In the taxi ride from Piraeus to my posh hotel in Athens, I saw the anger of the poor and the young against the rich and established. The hotel, St. George Lycabettus, is located in the upscale neighborhood of Kolonoki on a hill opposite the Acropolis. However, the graffiti festooned on almost every building destroys the charm of the leafy streets of exclusive shops and restaurants. In Athens, there is no escape.

Istanbul rests my eyes. It appears cleaner, more genteel, more hospitable than Athens. I know this view is most likely the result of my own ignorance. I am staying at a sweet hotel with a rooftop garden where I have breakfast every morning and gaze out the windows at the Bosphorus. My excursions have taken me to a rug shop, a jewelry shop in the Grand Bazaar, the Hippodrome and an excursion up and down the Bosphorus. Everywhere I travel, I have felt welcomed  and encounter beauty wherever I turn my gaze.

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A TURKISH RESPITE

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After a week of considering politics and its consequences on Greece, I am having a reprieve in Istanbul for almost a week. I have not read a paper or watched the news except to see the new Greek Prime Minister, Antonis Samaras, sworn in. Last week, when I asked the Greeks I met on Spetses what they thought would happen in the Sunday elections, they answered, “We’ll see what happens on Monday.” I imagine they meant the day after would tell them more about the future then who won. The same wait-and-see approach seems to hold true as Samaras maneuvers to form a new government. When I left Greece for Turkey, the media was still predicting disaster for Greece’s future even though the less radical candidate was elected. I, too, will hold off jumping to conclusions until I return to Greece.

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STILL IN PARADISE

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My fifth day in Spetses and I’ve been able to glean a little of how the Greeks, at least on this island, feel about the election and their future. Until Friday night, the island seemed deserted. During the week, all the typical stores were open: the trinket shops with all forms of the “evil eye,” the expensive clothing shops for women and “yachtsmen,” the stores with all forms of worrybeads. However, no one was buying, and I’ve not seen one man fingering those beads for solace. Worried they must be, though. An International Herald Tribune editorial stated that of the 11 million eligible Greek workers, 1 million are unemployed. The writer spoke of a lawyer friend who is considering giving up his practice as his client list drops and returning to the land where he can feed his family.

My friends and I have mostly used taxis to get to some of the exquisite beaches of this island. Today, Saturday, June 16, the day before the election, we went to a beach on the other side of the island. Our driver is a graduate in electrical engineering. He drives a cab because he was making only 800 Euros a month in Athens, the equivalent of $1200. He couldn’t manage living on such a meager amount, so he came back to Spetses.

Last night as I sat in a cafe facing the harbor, Septses came alive. Most restaurants had a decent number of visitors instead of the hundreds of empty tables I had seen all week. People seemed excited, happy, like Friday nights in most countries.

By Saturday, the crowd had grown and even at ten in the evening, many children were playing together in front of the pastry shops. Every day, when I read The International Herald Tribune, the news has not been good. In fact, disaster seems to loom ahead no matter what the outcome of the election. But tonight, football dominated conversations, an escape from matters such as returning to the drachma or having a job.

However, the vultures are circling. Hungry Greeks are raiding ancient sites, hoping to find valuable antiquities. While some companies such as France’s Carrefour pull out of Greece, others are prepared to buy up vacation houses for cheap.

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