I keep having this mental image of an hourglass, the sand either trickling way too fast or getting stuck in the neck. During these past five years in Greece, the ‘memorandum years’, something extraordinary has occurred as far as time is concerned. One certainly has the feeling that time is slowing down (in fact it seems to be inching along, especially on days when you have to try really hard not to have a mental breakdown or when big decisions are at stake and you keep refreshing your social media pages to see what life-altering decision will be made). But at the same time you find yourself waking up one morning and a hundred years have passed.
You’ve spent so much time waiting for your future to be decided on, that nothing seems to surprise you anymore. Or almost nothing. The referendum announced by the Greek Prime Minister was not quite unforeseen but it surprised the Greek people nonetheless. From then on, a possible Grexit was all you could hear taking a random walk around the city. Grexit talk often ended up with the phrase “we have nothing to lose, we have already lost everything”, which was at the same time depressing and hopeful .
The European powers that be and the various Greek governments’ decisions forced us to grow oddly fast. We didn’t get the chance to be middle-aged. We were young and then suddenly we were old
For the most part, it seems to me that it all began ages ago. Nowadays I usually feel older than I really am, like being thirty-five going on sixty, an old soul roaming the earth, filled with unwanted wisdom. For wisdom is supposed to be reached after years and years of experience, not in the blink of an eye. It is unnatural. But what has happened in Greece is unnatural. The European powers that be and the various Greek governments’ decisions forced us to grow oddly fast. We didn’t get the chance to be middle-aged. We were young and then suddenly we were old, faced with insurmountable difficulties.
It was clear that a line had been drawn. Growing up, my generation were told that we could be anything we wanted, do what we please, reach for the stars. Then we were told to put our heads down and endure all kinds of injustice. To deal with unemployment, to move back with our parents, to sit and watch atrocities meted out to immigrants by neo-nazis, to see our friends leave the country in search for a future. Our lives as we knew them were over. Not only had we to fight for our survival, but this had to be done in the midst of a huge wave of human misery.
Misery is not an abstract idea. I have seen it everywhere and in every imaginable form. The centre of Athens has turned into a well of misery. There are times when I ride the bus that I can’t hold back my tears. People’s sufferings are out there, on the streets, exposed in the ruthless light of the much-praised Greek sun that under normal circumstances is supposed to be invigorating. But even if you fail to see people’s misery, you hear the stories whispered next to you, you read about it in social media, and you know that these people are real: the people wandering empty-eyed, ghost-like, those shoved out of their houses, the homeless people who died on a particularly cold winter, the men in suits begging in local bakeries and the women abandoning their babies in hospitals, the people taking their own lives.
When all hell broke loose, I kept thinking that, being a writer, I could and should write these stories down, not because it was interesting material but because I figured that people’s sufferings should be recorded in as many art forms as possible. But every time I got to it the same thought was troubling me: these were people, not stories, therefore writing about them not only needed gentle handling but great strength as well. But people’s grief crushed me – it still crushes me, though I’ve managed to put some of these things down on paper. I can’t help but think that maybe I have proven to be too sensitive for this city, or this country, or this world whatsoever. But then I realize that it’s probably the world that has been too cruel on us.
In January, the political situation changed when Syriza, the radical left party, won the national election. I feel that although the door opened just a crack, hope has managed to gush in. And looking back, I realize that despite all the hardships, the memorandum years have not been just about suffering. Our lives, much as they changed, went on, even if a terrible shadow had been cast over them. We were fighting all the grief by getting married, having babies against all odds, celebrating birthdays, making new friends and comforting them through their grief, spending time with our families, laughing our heads off, writing novels and poetry, traveling abroad.
as soon as I started interacting with my fellow-students from all over Europe, I found myself having to defend Greece and its people all the time
In the summer of 2012 I attended a Scottish Literature course at the University of Edinburgh. I immediately felt at home when I set foot in the “Athens of the North” but as soon as I started interacting with my fellow-students from all over Europe, I found myself having to defend Greece and its people all the time. “No we aren’t lazy, no we didn’t live above our potential, no, Syriza is not a communist party”. I ended up hanging around with people from southern Europe – apparently they could relate more with the situation. By then, the Scottish referendum had already been announced and Scottish people were talking about it openly. It was no surprise that those supporting Scotland’s independence were appalled by the austerity enforced upon the Greek people, so I found a few allies there.
One of the highlights of my stay in Edinburgh was meeting the author and poet James Robertson, who I later found out was for Scottish independence. Last Sunday, as I watched the exhilarating results of “OXI” to the Greek referendum coming through, I flipped through a journal and came across one of his poems. It’ s been three years since the summer of 2012 but it might as well have been thirty. The poem seems to sum up what’s it like to be Greek in these unspeakable times – only now you can add some extra hope to it. It’s a tiny poem, but I find it really powerful, you know, like certain countries are.
The Way We Live Now
The way we live now is
the way we used to live,
only now we have
more ways of knowing it,
and fewer ways of living it.