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Experiencing and Explaining the Greek Crisis With Children

What, if any of this, could our children understand? What have they taken away from their eyewitness view of the world's economic turmoil?
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My family has spent summers in Greece for as long as I can remember. As the daughter of a Greek mother, my connection to the country is deep and emotional, and it's been vital for me to ensure my children feel that bond as well. This summer, we decided to travel to some of the great classical sights on the mainland: Delphi, the Parthenon, Olympia. Our daughters, who were 9 and 12 at the time, are mythology buffs and were thrilled to visit temples and sites dedicated to the gods they've read so much about. The ancient wonders on our 900-mile odyssey did not disappoint, but we didn't anticipate we'd also be witnessing the unraveling of the Eurozone, with Greece at center stage. As a result, our children took a journey not just into Greece's ancient past, but also into the modern world's economic realities.

Greece has always been a small country with an outsize influence on the world and its citizens' pride is profound, arising from the deep conviction that Greece has given much to the modern world, from democracy to literature to philosophy and ethics. As we saw from the steep slopes of the Acropolis to its most far-flung islands, Greece has also endured wave upon wave of foreign invasion, from prehistoric times through the brutal Nazi occupation. Invaders, some of whose names we barely recall, swept through this small but vital country time and time again, plundering and annihilating; yet Greece rebuilt itself each time, rising from its own ashes as a model of endurance and fortitude. Seen against this historical backdrop of brutal invasion and stubborn rebirth, the current struggles of the Eurozone seem almost inevitable. Unlike the Persians and the Romans, this new threat is intangible--no walls are breached, no temples burned, no citizens murdered--yet it poses real dangers. To explain that threat to our children, we had to translate the abstract language of modern economics into concrete terms.

Even for educated and interested adults, making sense of Europe's economic crisis has been challenging. The truth is buried beneath layers of arcane language and political manipulation a mere citizen can scarcely hope to dig through. Social media ensures there's no shortage of heated opinions from laypeople as well. Explaining this to our children has been an exercise in sifting and simplifying: above all, we wanted them to understand this moment in history as something more than abstract. Our goal was to help them see how political and economic forces have a tangible, human cost.

Being a tourist while the Euro crisis peaked was confusing. Realizing--incongruously, over dinner in charming, bustling Nafplio--that all banks had suddenly closed without notice prompted a moderate level of panic for us. We had 25 Euros, a quarter tank of gas, and a plane to catch the next day two hours' drive away. Luckily, our hotel reluctantly took a credit card and we had just enough cash for the toll road--and the flat tire we got as we drove out of town. We tried to mask our anxieties from the children; they sensed things were awry but didn't know we were looking anxiously at the possibility of three weeks with no money. Luckily, we found cash in an ATM in Athens airport, and once we learned foreigners weren't limited to the 60 Euro daily cash withdrawal, our concern for ourselves dissipated. But the atmosphere around us was still heating up.

We spent the next weeks at our Greek home base, speaking about the crisis with the citizens we met each day, many of whom we've known for years. Their attitudes were largely marked by gallows humor and frustrated resignation; ordinary Greeks feel disenfranchised by the European Union, and fear that the country's fate--and by extension, their own--is no longer in the hands of the people. Leading up to the referendum on the European Union's demands, the only signs we saw suggesting internal conflict were the posters hastily distributed by the ruling party exhorting Greeks to vote "OXI" ("NO"). The resulting "No" vote was a show of defiance and vote of support for the ruling party; it accomplished little other than to stave off the collapse of the government. The proposals Alexis Tspiras accepted shortly after were, in many ways, harsher than those the citizens had just rejected at his behest. No wonder it all felt like a farce to Greek citizens.

What, if any of this, could our children understand? What have they taken away from their eyewitness view of the world's economic turmoil? Although too young to comprehend many technical aspects of the crisis, they were curious about the discussions we had with locals. We helped them understand the basic premises of government debt, austerity and political negotiations. Especially as we were insulated from any real consequences of the crisis, it was important to us that our children understand what the people around them were facing: at best, a continuation and at worst, an increase in the hardships they've endured for years already. The connection our family feels with Greece ensured that at least we could have a genuine, humane sense of the events occurring on the world stage. If only politicians, bankers and the media could stay similarly in tune with the reality on the ground.

It will take some time and perspective to tell whether this experience will have a lasting impact on our children; for preteens, the immediate world is far more compelling than abstract concepts. But I believe we were, in fact, lucky to have been there. Talking and living with the real people at the center of the crisis was invaluable. Despite what a difficult and stressful time this has been for Greece, to see its people responding with dignity and fortitude will be a lifelong lesson for my children in perseverance and pride.