Greetings from Sifnos, Greece, an island in the Western Cyclades, quiet sibling to the flashier and better known Santorini and Mykonos. Before I arrived this summer for my tenth return trip, like everyone else I was worried about the economy. How were my friends and acquaintances here handling the Draconian austerity measures Germany insists on imposing? Would Greece quit the Eurozone, default on its loans, return to the drachma? Part of me certainly hoped so: to this outside observer, the currency switch in 2002 had always seemed much better for the rich, worse for the middle and working class, another way for the wealthy to loot the country—as their American fellows do. (Don’t tell me about Greeks evading taxes until Mitt Romney, who may be our next president, releases his tax records.) In 2002, prices of everyday goods and services soared to fit the Euro, but wages for workers stayed low, still tied to drachma rates.
The tourism industry took a hit then, too, as fewer middle class Europeans could afford the hotel rates and meal costs, the hikes in airfares and airport security fees. Athens and the islands were quieter. Even the backpackers from the Antipodes and North America stopped coming in their high-spirited droves, seeking out cheaper beach spots in Turkey and Vietnam.
While international tourism had begun to pick up again in the last ten years, Sifnos is close enough to Piraeus—three hours by high speed ferry—to be popular with Greeks, especially wealthy Athenians. Last summer you noticed their absence, despite the many French (more posey swan-dives from the rocks, less bouzouki-driven pop music, no p.d.a.) who seem to be trying to take their place. Clearly it wasn’t this clan of French who coined the phrase joie de vivre. Although I felt positive about sticking to my plan to return to Greece, no matter what happened in the election on June 17th and its aftermath, part of me worried I’d fill with self-reproach: What kind of opportunist takes a vacation in a country on the brink of fiscal collapse?
But I find instead that as you move away from Athens, particularly Syntagma Square, ground zero for the protests against the austerity measures, people are reluctant to talk to visitors about the suffering. Even my good friend Helena, who is sorting out her mother’s finances, came home from a meeting with the tax officer mostly keeping mum. She did say that she’ll try to sell some property, that the real-estate tax hikes are ridiculous, impossible to meet. But what’s really killing everyone right now is the fee schedule for electric service, which takes a page from the loan shark’s book: every six months everyone—no matter how little electricity one consumes—has to pay a “connection fee”; collecting revenues through utilities is yet another way to make the working and middle class pay, another way to avoid the graduated income tax—which puts the burden on the rich. Helena mostly hinted at this with a series of small jokes and ironic nods, and I filled in the gaps. Hardly what we’d call in New Jersey, where I grew up, complaint.
Greece will survive. Chin up. The sense I get in the Cyclades is that after more than four thousand years of negotiation, of colonizing and being colonized, withstanding attacks from within and without by Ionians, Samians, Minoans, Romans, Venetians, Ottomans, Nazis, bankers and every other form of pirate, they must be right to be if not optimistic then stoic. That hasn’t stopped me from asking questions, of course.
From all of the news articles I’ve read lately, three documents have helped me understand the political/economic situation in Greece these days, and here they are:
Arianna Huffington’s New York Times editorial from May 13, 2012, “Greek Tragedy”:
(Huffington makes clear that the Greeks refuse to mortgage the future of their children, so the austerity measures will never be acceptable to most of them. Read this article and then consider our willingness, in the United States, to allow our children, our young people, our college students, to go fifty, one hundred, even two hundred thousand dollars into debt before they receive their degrees.)
John Lanchester’s New Yorker Comment from June 18, 2012, “Greece vs. the Rest”
The third document is an email I received from an old friend who, among other things, is a Hellenic Studies professor:
“The situation in Greece is unbelievable and I avoid Athens at all costs. I just moved back to the US after living in France for four years, during which time I went to Greece often -- but for most trips I flew direct from Paris to Crete and didn't stop in Athens at all; I gave a lecture at the U of Athens a year ago and the only people on the streets after 10pm were junkies and homeless immigrants (many whole families). Nothing really good is being written on "the crisis" in English, partly since it's breaking news and partly since the English press is just reporting from afar (and mainly just replicating the AP wire version of events). One of the grimmest aspects for me is the rise of the Golden Dawn, the fascist right wing party that used to exist mainly in the Diaspora (it was really strong among Greek Americans in Astoria) but now is popular in Greece, too. There is a strong xenophobic thread in all Greek society and it isn't at its best right now. In my view (which is the minority one) they should get out of the Euro, exit the EU, and figure out how to be less dependent on tourism. But I don't think any of that is going to happen.”
John Hennessy is the author of Bridge and Tunnel (Turning Point Books/Word Press 2007), a collection of poems, and his work appears or is forthcoming in The Believer, Poetry, The New Republic, Harvard Review, LIT, Huffington Post, The Yale Review, Poetry Daily, What’s Your Exit? A Literary Detour through New Jersey and other journals and anthologies. Hennessy is a contributing editor to Fulcrum: an annual of poetry and aesthetics, and he is the poetry editor of The Common, a new print magazine based at Amherst College. In 2007-2008 he held the Resident Fellowship in Poetry at the Amy Clampitt House. Hennessy went to Princeton University on a Cane scholarship and received graduate degrees from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Arkansas; he teaches at the University of Massachusetts and lives in Amherst.