ATHENS -- During the summer of 1973 a gigantic illuminated "NAI" ("YES") loomed over Mount Lycabettus, one of the hills in central Athens facing the Acropolis. "What is this?" I asked my mother while my father was driving. I had just finished second grade in school and was excited at the prospect of summer vacation, which would not commence for many Greeks until a political crisis got resolved. "It is the logic of the illogic," my mother murmured. She turned back to me and smiled: "You are too young to understand my boy. 'Yes' is a good word, but this 'Yes' (her finger pointing towards the hill) is as good as air!" The military junta that took over Greece in 1967 was holding a plebiscite under pressure on July 29 to bolster its waning authority at a time of modernization and international outcry. In the capitals of modernity, London, Paris and New York, famous Greeks like the Oscar-nominated star of "Never on Sunday" Melina Mercouri were waving the Greek flag in high-profile demonstrations against the Greek dictators.
At home, a few weeks prior, the dictator George Papadopoulos had proclaimed himself the president of a revamped republic whose political system would no longer abide by the rules of (the suppressed) monarchy or dictatorship! Of course, it was still a dictatorship even when 78.6 percent of Greeks voted in favor of Papadopoulos as president of the "republic" that summer, in a race that was tightly controlled by the junta.
A year later, the regime fell anyway and the metapolitefsi, the political changeover after the dictatorship led by the New Democracy party of Konstantinos Karamanlis, in yet another referendum in December 1974, removed officially and decisively the power of the king. Greece was declared a democratic republic under the leadership of a man whom many Greeks back then perceived as God. When his plane touched down that year from Paris, where Karamanlis was residing in voluntary exile throughout the dictatorship years, thousands of Greeks hurried to the airport to welcome him. He's back, He's back! In our Athens neighborhood people were raising flags and screamed jubilantly at each other: He's back! At least, as a well known Athenian actor claimed back then, unlike Beckett's play Waiting for Godot, in Greece's surreal reality Godot was not a phantom; he landed in flesh and bone and his name was Karamanlis.
He is long dead now, but his legacy is still high in a country where politicians' reputation has reached such bottomless pits that nowadays, as an Athenian lawyer puts it, "better to be called a pimp than a politician." After all, and compared to what the Greeks have seen since, Karamanlis was a decent man, a stubborn, provincial Macedonian who came to Athens from the northern lands of Alexander not to conquer but to dream and to rule like a 20th century Pericles.
"In 1974, Karamanlis rightfully feared that his country could not make it alone in the accelerated Western world."
Karamanlis had a willful vision: Greece should be part of the European Community. He rightfully feared that his country could not make it alone in the accelerated Western world. Also, Europe was the natural home of Greece: after all, everything European once spread from this tiny corner. Romantically and pragmatically, this union made sense. Lord Byron would have endorsed it. Valery Giscard d'Estaing, then president of France, went for it. Karamanlis' close friendship with Giscard helped, and, against all odds, Greece became a member in 1981. That day was declared a holiday.
Valery Giscard d'Estaing and Konstantinos Karamanlis, Athens, 1981 (Michael Skafidas)
My parents took me to the streets where thousands had gathered to greet the Greek prime minister and the French president ascending Sygrou Avenue from the airport to the parliament. Older people were holding back tears: they had seen wars and famines and that celebration gave them hope because not only were they getting rid of the red threat (as many Greeks saw the Soviets) once and for all, but also because the days of poverty, division and political instability were turning into a distant memory.
"We are back home where we always belonged, the Europe we pillared," my ancient Greek teacher exclaimed. "Now we have to prove ourselves."
A Dream Deferred
Ever since, socialists and capitalists came and went through Syntagma Square's Greek Parliament building, but truly nobody took advantage of that membership the way Karamanlis and Giscard had in mind. From the days of Andreas Papandreou's Panhellenic Socialist Movement, or Pasok, in the 1980s to today's labyrinth of failures, Greek governments used the incoming European financial packages for their own ends.
Agriculture languished, inequality rose, unemployment skyrocketed, tourism, the main Greek industry, often faltered. Whether embezzling in drachmas or later in euros, one thing has been guiding the heart of the post-Karamanlis Greek political system: leverage. Undoubtedly, this has been the case elsewhere: look at the scandalous Italy of Bettino Craxi and Silvio Berlusconi, or the France of the 1980s champagne socialists and their Gauche caviar philosophy, which renewed Paris' reputation as, in Zola's ageless account, the meretricious cradle of iniquity.
But the Greek politicians have surpassed in cunning all of the above -- their craftiness and penchant for trickery would have impressed even the father of our shrewd Odysseus himself, Homer. Otherwise, with all the European financial support of the last 30 years and a booming tourism, Greece should have been closer to Ithaca than to the Underworld that it is about to enter.
This is not entirely the fault of the Greek people, even though they repeatedly voted the "crooks," as they call them now, in and out of office in an endless race of devious chess. Of course, few modern Greeks went by Jack Kennedy's urging words: "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." The Greek political system capitalized on treating its citizens like powerless clients by hiring them in the civil sector (even if it did not really need them), promising them the stars, and serving them goodies under the table.
"The Greek political system capitalized on treating its citizens like powerless clients by hiring them in the civil sector (even if it did not really need them), promising them the stars, and serving them goodies under the table."
At the turn of the millennium Greece found itself floating in a strange heaven of affluence: the second country in Porsche imports in the world, the dizziest spinning stock market in Europe and the most rapidly expanding fashion market in Athens. The drachma was replaced by the euro in 2001 and the jubilant Versace-minded Athenian wannabes had no time for pessimism, even though prices were doubled overnight. Above all they had joined the international spending elite that David Brooks hailed as "Bobos" (Bourgeois Bohemians) "Bobos in Paradise." The Cayenne convoy sped faster than the Internet and the real estate boom in affluent Athenian suburbs, and the famous Aegean islands reached unprecedented heights. It was certainly cheaper buying a house in Malibu than in Vouliagmeni or Mykonos.
My father, who had just retired as an opera singer for the National Opera House and had fought in the war, looked at me in disbelief one day when I asked him how come he did not invest the little money he had in the Greek stock market.
"All this is not real, mark my words," he told me. "All this is going to come down and crash with a lot of noise one day soon."
I did not take him seriously. We are sorry now.
"'All this is not real, mark my words,' my father told me. 'All this is going to come down and crash with a lot of noise one day soon.'"
Herodotus told us so many times in his "Histories" that wealth and power are elusive. But the millennium euphoria obscured the lesson of Croesus' predicament: "Who is the happiest man?" The king asked Solon that question, expecting the erroneous answer he never got. Many Cayenne-Greeks answered it for themselves: "we are!"
Forsaking the Elderly
Are we? The greatest failure now is not Greece's responsibility towards Europe but towards its older citizens. An old man stood in front of an ATM in Athens a few days before the referendum and doesn't know what to do with it. His chopped monthly pension is 300 euros and now he is supposed to make his way daily to the ATM and withdraw the maximum amount allowed per day (60 euros) until his amount is paid in full, because that's all he can do. He turns to me:
"The hell with this damned machine," he says trying to withhold his anger. "I fought against the Nazis in the Second World War, I ate from the garbage during the Nazi occupation [in Athens], I survived the Civil War, I demonstrated against the dictators; I am not putting up with this humiliation. I'd rather go home and dye in dignity."
He could be my father, but fortunately my father is gone, because such a sight is unbearable.
"It's becoming commonplace to depict the despair and the anger in the streets of a city that only 11 years ago shone as the master capital of the Olympics."
It's becoming commonplace to depict the despair and the anger in the streets of a city that only 11 years ago shone as the master capital of the Olympics. Back then people still thought that Karamanlis' European dream had indeed become true in the 21st century. But, of course, back then, only very few knew that Greece's finances had been "cooked" with the help of European "friends" and American banks so Greece could join the euro in 2001, in a true spirit of globalization! And now, Greek banks are indefinitely closed and in a week's notice the Greeks had to decide: "Yes" or "No?"
An Absurd Act of Democracy
As much as this 8th Greek referendum since 1920 (two were held by the junta) sounded like an act of democracy, it was in reality absurd, divisive and disorienting. Even friendships and marriages came to an end in Greece this past week: unless you were both "Yes" or "No" you could no longer be friends (no less spouses) and debate reasonably. You don't have to circle around the divided Greek cities to notice; a look into the heated exchanges of Greeks on Facebook suffices: "We stay in Europe, down with the Junta of Tsipras," shouted one side in frenzied posts. "Out of the Fourth Reich of the Germans, back to our drachma" declared the other.
There is a sense of division in the air, as much as there was in the 1940s before the Civil War. I was not born back then, but I've heard what it was like from my parents and my teachers. It is true Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras only inherited an ailing country, but his gambling has certainly opened many wounds.
"He shouldn't have called this referendum, that was wrong," a fellow Greek reporter who voted for Tsipras tells me. "We voted for him, to take charge and lead us. When the unfortunate time comes for a divorce in a family, the father does not turn to his children and ask 'shall I divorce your mother or not?'"
It remains unknown what the victorious "No" in Sunday's referendum will bring. More than 60 percent of the voters said no to a deal that would have imposed greater austerity measures, and that indeed is a triumph for Tsipras who campaigned blatantly for it.
According to Tsipras' promises, "No" does not necessarily mean Grexit and isolation from Europe, but harder negotiations with Europe for a more viable deal. Most Greeks voted "No" having this in mind. But, judging from previous empty promises that the Greek government has been spreading like worthless checks, "No" may also mean isolation and return to the drachma.
"Judging from previous empty promises that the Greek government has been spreading like worthless checks, 'No' may also mean isolation and return to the drachma"
If that happens the Greeks would be called to disown not only their debts (historical, constitutional and financial) to modern Europe, but also Karamanlis' legacy and his accomplishment of uniting Greece at a critical historical juncture and turning it into a member of the European Community. That is an awful lot of rejection of a country's very own political, social and moral fiber as shaped after the fall of the colonels.
Unfortunately, in Greece's current dissonance and discontent there is no one with Karamanlis' credibility and charisma in sight to take charge and speak with persuasion to European leaders. No one ever liked Cassandra, but everyone has always been in fear of her in this land. And it was Cassandra's foreboding ghost that surrounded the Greek parliament while Tsipras appeared triumphant to greet his voters last night. What kind of a triumph that is it remains puzzling. A few meters away from the victorious prime minister, in Syntagma Square, the heart of Greece, the ATMs stand dark and empty.
"It's sad to admit that we see darker days than before, darker even than during the dictatorship," I heard an old woman saying while queuing to get money a few days ago. "Back then there was political discontent but no poverty. Now we have both."