April 4, 2012
ATHENS, Greece —
At night with all but a full moon overhead, the Parthenon is lit and golden, almost a place of dreams as it sits there on that high rock over the city.
And so, on my first night here, on the rooftop restaurant of the Hotel Grand Bretagne, looking at the iconic ruin with fellow Americans of Greek descent, it was easy to talk of Greece's economic troubles as just some temporary setback, in the context of history and of Hellenistic glories of old.
But there is real pain here, and despair, and it's in the present. And I couldn't help wonder if I was also looking at America's future. That's partly what I came to find out.
"You're a journalist?" asks Katina, at a kiosk selling newspapers near Constitution Square. "Will the politicians find the solution?"
She laughed with her voice, but her eyes were flat and they weren't smiling.
Of course you can see what's happened, can't you? The government continued to grow, feeding an entrenched, carnivorous bureaucracy that smothered entrepreneurship.
And the people, having been taught to trade votes for favor, couldn't help but flock to political parties for special benefits delivered to them by political leaders. These leaders increased their power by increasing government services.
It is a corruption that includes everything from do-nothing patronage jobs to luxurious public pensions, to university admission for the children of the politically blessed. And no real means to pay for it all except to increase taxes on the private sector, which uses political influence of its own to cut its taxes or avoid paying them altogether.
Finally, it was inevitable that the money would run out. The people lost their confidence. So no wonder it's a catastrophe.
No, I'm not just talking about Greece. I'm talking about back home too. The bill hasn't come fully due yet in America. It will. But it's past due in Greece, and guess who pays?
Here, the Greek people pay.
For decades after the war, politicians spent whatever they could borrow. It was a system that built power for the lords of the political machinery, and with power came great personal wealth. Even a moron should have realized that such a system was completely unrealistic and unsustainable.
And while patronage workers still keep their jobs here, massive layoffs have come in the private sector. Some 50 percent of young people in Greece are unemployed. Many have had their wages cut, others have lost their jobs entirely. Costs continue to rise.
"I kill myself standing on my feet, and the guy with the political job, he has everything, and I have nothing," said Spyros, who works as a waiter nearby.
Spyros is in his 30s. He is thin and tired. He can't afford a family. He doesn't fit the stereotype of the Greek who sits lazily in the cafes, any more than a stereotypical Chicago political hack describes most Americans.
The reason? Spyros isn't a political hack.
"These politicians are bloodsuckers," Spyros tells me in Greek. "And the public sector workers, they're bloodsuckers. When the politicians even talk of cutting them, they organize, they scream, they yell, and the politicians become afraid.
"But you are going to see changes coming here," he said, no longer angry, but rather flat, a man resigned to natural law, the way you might be resigned to gravity if you saw a ball rolling off a table and knew there was nothing to stop it from falling.
"The changes are coming," he said, "maybe not this election, but the next."
And that's what concerns many. In a few weeks, there will be elections, and so far polling suggests that neither of the main parties, the left-leaning PASOK and the center-right New Democracy party, will win outright.
This means that the same parties that helped ruin the economy will form a coalition, and this coalition is also expected to fail, as other parties on the hard left and right play the populist card and attract support from a weary and frightened people.
I left Chicago on Saturday, flying on Turkish Airlines, first to Istanbul and then to Athens. And after a few days here, it's on to Istanbul, to see a people who are excited and confident about the future.
Not so here.
"For the general population, there's a severe sense of despair," said Marina Terkourafi, director of modern Greek studies at theUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "There's a basic lack of trust in the ability of politicians."
"The initial reaction a few years ago was to blame the politicians," she said. "Now, they're beyond blaming. Now there is no faith in the system."
They're depressed now, yes. But they've been through so many catastrophes, mostly ignored by the world.
They lost their empire. They suffered 400 years of occupation. And during World War II, it is estimated that at least 100,000 people starved to death on the streets of Athens. Then they endured a debilitating and vicious civil war.
And through all that time, for more than 2,000 years, the sunlight on the Parthenon hasn't changed.
Poets and artists have wondered about the sunlight of Greece for thousands of years. It's not the flat, thin sunlight of the far northern countries. Nor is it that heavy, rounded and almost voluptuous light of the rain forests along the equator.
It is unique light, clear and clean, bathing the Parthenon, which looks down over an exhausted people.
But even now, after the first rush of anger, and amidst the settling despair, I can almost sense an optimism building. At least I'd like to hope so, that perhaps the economic crisis has empowered them to make changes, and see things clearly.
The way a Chicago newspaper columnist, an American in the land of his father and grandfathers, can see it, that special sunlight, falling on the Parthenon.
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