[MGSA-L] Haris Vlavianos on Athens

June Samaras june.samaras at gmail.com
Mon Nov 21 21:54:18 PST 2011


Haris Vlavianos on Athens
Nov 21, 2011 12:00 AM EST
Portrays an ‘unquiet’ people in a time of crisis.

Athens is a city with a famous past but unfortunately an infamous
present. As the capital of Greece, she still enjoys the prestige that
the Parthenon and other “glorious ruins”—Greek and Roman—bestow on
her, but as the seat of the discredited Greek government, she has in
the past few months been at the center of a storm. TV channels around
the world have been showing, almost on a daily basis, pictures of a
city under siege. For most Europeans and Americans, Athens is no
longer the sunny place that hosted the Olympic Games a few years back,
but the “center of corruption” where shrewd and ruthless politicians,
like a group of mafiosi in a Scorsese movie, engage in reckless,
irresponsible acts that threaten the stability of the euro, and by
extension the entire European economic structure. A city where every
day there are demonstrations, strikes, clashes with the police,
burnings of public buildings, beatings of innocent civilians—in short,

The scars of this wounded city are evident everywhere. In all parts,
whether rich or poor. If a tourist takes a stroll around the popular,
chic neighborhood of Kolonaki, famous for its expensive boutiques and
exclusive clubs and restaurants, within a stone’s throw from the
Maximou—the office of the prime minister—and Constitution Square (the
meeting place of the enraged citizens who for months now have been
protesting outside Parliament, demanding a change of government and of
the country’s austere economic policies), he will experience a slight
shock. Empty offices, apartments, department stores, and clubs
carrying the sign “for rent” on the front entrance, its owners and
business managers the first victims of Greece’s sudden impoverishment
(some would say of its “fake” prosperity); beggars and junkies
clustering on street corners asking for money to buy their dosage or a
piece of bread; broken windowpanes and marble sidewalks, a reminder of
the riots that broke out three years ago, sparked by the killing of a
young student, Alexandros Grigoropoulos, by an “overzealous,” mindless
policeman; and finally no public figure sitting among those who are
still enjoying their espresso under the clear skies of Attica.
Politicians these days are a very rare breed and are not to be seen
anywhere. Whereas in the past they mingled freely among the Athenians,
now they are almost in hiding, a few having already experienced the
rage and wrath of their loyal supporters—beating, cursing, egg
throwing, etc.

For an Athenian, however, life must go on. Despite the bleakness of
the situation, with the International Monetary Fund and European
bankers and speculators announcing in ever-increasing cynical, and
sometimes vindictive, tones that the “day of reckoning” has finally
arrived, that the country will for certain go bust (which means a
return to the old currency, the drachma) the mood of its citizens is
not entirely one of dejection. There is still some resilience and
pride left. As a friend of mine told me a few days ago, “if we are
heading toward the iceberg, let us at least drown in style.”

So there is still a spark of life left in this gloomy city, especially
during the night hours. That loud, easygoing, fun-loving, “unquiet”
Athenian, as Byron called him, who has recently become the target of
Northern, hard-working, disciplined Europeans, can still be seen
eating or drinking happily in tavernas, restaurants, and cafés, around
Plaka, Theseion, Monastiraki, or Makrigianni—neighborhoods at the foot
of the Acropolis—or taking a walk with friends in the national park,
in Mount Lycabettus (a hill rather), in Philopappou, or Kaisariani.
Perhaps the food and wine on his table are not as exquisite as they
used to be, but there still seems a need among the anxious,
debt-ridden citizens of this city to affirm that not everything is
lost. To paraphrase Cyril Connolly, one might say that in every
Athenian “there is an optimist struggling to get out of a pessimist,”
and against C. P. Cavafy, who admonished Antony to “bid farewell to
the Alexandria he was losing,” the Athenian will stay on, “not
mourning in vain for his fortune failing him now,/ his works that have
failed, the plans of his life/ that have all turned to be illusions./
As if long prepared for this, as if courageous,/ as it becomes him who
was worthy of such a city,” he will endure and endure.

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Haris Vlavianos is a poet, translator, and editor of Poetics, a
biannual literary journal. He teaches history and political theory at
the American College of Greece in Athens.

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June Samaras
2020 Old Station Rd
Canada L5M 2V1
Tel : 905-542-1877
E-mail : june.samaras at gmail.com

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