The signs were everywhere. A wire mesh world sat in the Thessaloniki harbor, a public sculpture left to decay, the carcass seemingly picked clean by the perched black birds. Graffiti, shuttered stores, a destruction of wild cats dumpster diving, the return of wood smoke in the air from heating stoves, the bright rash of OPAP gambling outlets on every block, an itch to scratch.
In Greece, they simply called it the krisis — it’s more fundamental than financial. Every nation state is a fable, a story each people tells itself. What happened in Greece was they stopped believing the tale that had enabled the corruption and abuse of power. But then came the banks, bonds and bailouts and a country was felled.
Krisis comes from the Greek, which can mean a turning point in a disease, or a judgment, a choosing. It’s an uncertain moment, one I wanted to experience deeper than the headlines I read from afar. From the urban centers of much misery to holy Mount Athos to the secluded islands, the crisis affects everyone and each copes in his or her way, some turning to God, nature and art.
Andrew was hungry and tired when I met him. A few days in and he was already dreaming about banana muffins and apple pie and his wife’s flesh. He’d been waiting to be welcomed at the Skiti Agias Annas since morning, slumped on a wood bench, his back to the slate sea of the Agion Oros Gulf.
Mount Athos was far from his home of Athens, far from the 21st century. No women have been allowed here for a thousand years, an avoided distraction for the Orthodox monks that kept the religion alive with toil and prayer.
He looked a youthful forty, solid like a pillar. Born in Russia during the Cold War to a father in the Red Army and a Greek mother, he served in the Special Forces before seeking opportunity in Greece eighteen years ago. Working at first for a sailing company in the islands, he then decided to use his innate military skills to make money in Athens.
A wire mesh world sat in the Thessaloniki harbor, a public sculpture left to decay, the carcass seemingly picked clean by the perched black birds.
I met Andrew often while hiking among the monasteries. Over early morning bread and jam at Pandeleimonos he divulged he was a soldier in the Greek mafia, the lowly job of collecting payments from a club in exchange for protection. But the crisis cut everyone and he bottomed out of his denial, no longer able to deny his reality. “Fast women, fancy cars, big lines of coke and I’d come home and my kids couldn’t eat,” he said. Never very religious, the meagre and uncomfortable life of a pilgrim got to him. But then something changed. “It’s the first time I’ve gotten close to God in forty years.”
A few days later at Dochiariou I watched him press his lips against the gold cheek of the Virgin Mary, cross himself and bow. On my last day, waiting for the ferry in Daphne, we met again. Thirteen days he’d been on Athos, down to his last euros but planning to stay longer. The Holy Mountain had been charitable to him, in the simple hospitality of the monks, car rides in the rain, donated money for new shoes. He offered me some Russian sweets. “It helps with the homesickness.”
Amorgos had no airport, no package tourism, still a dreamland of hilltop villages and lone stone walkways through olive groves and beaches of island blue. Mihalis’s family left for Germany when he was a child and, after his father died, a dream of setting up a life here drew him back. He’d build rentals on his family’s land, work the summer and travel in the winter. Paradise, he thought. “But maybe it was just in my mind,” he said during one of our conversations.
When I visited in November, the fog thickened, as if the island were adrift at sea. The village was small, the same hard faces all the time. “Greeks here are tricky, especially since the crisis. If I shake your hand will I still have all my fingers?”
He seemed happy to talk to a new face, said he would normally be home already but had remained to finish the new buildings. But the investment seemed a mistake now. When he first bought the land he saw the panorama of Aegiali’s horseshoe port. Now he saw only doubt and taxes and not enough tourists.
Every nation state is a fable, a story each people tells itself.
One day he drove us up to a lookout where he pointed out his beach house below. “I wanted it for myself but since the crisis I have to rent it.” Sitting in the pick-up truck, gazing out at his uncertain future, he mentioned his travel plans, visiting his ex-wife and son before seeing a specialist doctor in Berlin about his bi-polar diagnosis. He said it like an address on his itinerary. We talked about it in his pick-up truck, one stranger to another. His soft, gentle gloom had an explanation, which was better than having no reason, he thought. “ The crisis makes it worse, I focus on only the negative. Sometimes I feel Greek and German, or neither, I don’t know.”
Work helped, the Sisyphean stone wall he had hewed and cemented in front of the apartments. I asked him about the hike out to Stavros and some passion animated his voice. Later, when I reached the white squat church perched on a lunar cape, I understood why. Scrubbed cliffs sloped to the sea, no sound but the wind. I saw at the tip of the cape the green canopy of the last original forest that Mihalis had described. A place to forget yourself, the only pressures are the sea and the sky and the hazed horizon of nowhere.
When I arrived in Athens my friend, Nadia, was teaching a workshop. I made my way to the theatre in the Psiri neighborhood and watched the red-nosed clowns fool around with failure and laughter. At the end the students paid Nadia one by one, some just what they could afford. She didn’t turn students away. Both needed the money but they both needed the laughter more.
Nadia was a theatre artist. A hard life had become harder. No funding for teaching or touring, no one to pay. And yet art was flourishing in the city, over 1,000 shows produced this year. “With the crisis art has something to say. There’s always a dark misery over Athens, but with the theatre and this political cabaret I’m in we try to go to the light, a way for people to cope.”
Riot police stood by, leaning against a wall, smoking and chatting, weary and watching the stubborn protesters who continued to show up year after year.
Next day was a general strike and I wanted to see it. She told me to be careful. “The police don’t see humans in front of them, just a threat.” I came upon it in Syntagma Square, Athen’s spiritual home of outrage. But like a piñata at the end of a party, the noise and violence were over, the body broken. Riot police stood by, leaning against a wall, smoking and chatting, weary and watching the stubborn protesters who continued to show up year after year. Despite being a general strike in the country, there were only a few thousand in the street, the despondency of repeating an act that brought no change. But what else to do? A few bull-horned voices chanted the protest on and the mob trudged forward.
On the way back I topped Phillapappos Hill for the best view of the Acropolis. There, on a lone concrete column, was a stenciled face — not of outrage or defiance but of drooping submission — with all of Athens spilling below.
Featured photo from CrippleHorse.