The word 'crisis' has practically become a synonym to 'Greece' over the last year. In its modern meaning, the word depicts 'a situation facing a turning point for better or worse, or a distressingly significant event.' In its ancient Greek and original meaning, however, the word crisis signifies 'judgment; the precise diagnosis of problems of personal or collective life; the selection of intelligent strategies to face a multitude of obstacles of organized action.' In its acute relevance to what Greeks are faced with today, the original meaning reveals not the fact but what preceded and followed the fact, thus perhaps proving more poignant. Yet both interpretations are perfectly relevant if used in describing what Greece is experiencing nonetheless. Regardless that all the signs and actual events daily indicate that things are going from bad to worse, and of strained efforts to generate solutions, it's impossible to not feel a certain sense of excitement of all this leading to a future in which things will get a lot better.
Just as no renaissance ever took place when political or social standards were rosy, one cannot evaluate or appreciate improvement if one has not first experienced the malaise that preceded an amelioration. Artists know that very well, as do politicians, journalists, advertisers and business people, who practically base their existence on the downfall of one thing in order to be able to create, relate or invest in the insurgence of a better model. For members of a society, especially one that has been lulled by false beliefs of stability, normality and healthy existence, it can indeed be a terrible shock to suddenly realize that they are faced with a disease that grew silently in their life and must now be dealt with no matter what. The feeling of injustice and confusion first overrides any other emotion, quickly followed by anger, if not rage, sadness and hopelessness. And finally, if one literally survives (and in Greece suicide rates over the past year have risen by 40% due to financial desperation and social desolation), one has the hope to finally reach a state of strength and wisdom, appreciation and positive renewal. Greece is only a mirror of the world, which is perhaps why it draws such intense emotion and fascination. Wherever you are, brace yourself, for a new start.
Stores like Marc Jacobs and Hermes remain open in Athens' priciest districts, yet for most Athenians, the days of stepping out of a Porsche Cayenne or Hummer, decked head to toe in costly if often tasteless designer ensembles and blinding jewelry are over. Not only has it by now become almost 'anti-patriotic' and so decadent it's embarrassing to flaunt one's flashy gear in public spaces, it's also downright dangerous, as crime has escalated to dizzying heights, with cars being jumped at traffic lights and women mugged on the streets in broad daylight. Since the early 80s, when then Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou lured rural Greeks to the city by the millions playing his magic monetary flute and media outlets built a laboratory-like temple dedicated to growing all strains of nouveau riche glamor, Athenians rich and poor have proudly presented themselves in garish brand-stamped outfits and accessories, which led to the famous joke about the gypsy man stopping a Kolonaki (priciest city neighborhood) lady to ask for directions; while giving directions the lady points left and right, up ahead and round, all the time purposely flashing her jewels, and to thank her the gypsy uses his finger to push his lip aside and flash her his gold tooth, saying "thank you!" Today's crisis-bitten Greeks are developing a meta grunge anarchist/hipster/wartime severity look that says 'I am grounded but still edgily creative / alive.' There are regular second hand, vintage and clothes-swapping events taking place, something that was unheard of amongst a grand majority of people who thought that if something isn't new it must be disgustingly filthy.
I recently returned to Athens from living on a remote organic farm in the Peloponnese, where I thought I could make a better life than what I'd been living in the overcrowded capital (50% of the population lives in Athens). Country life had been a long-standing desire, especially as my travel-writing has offered me the opportunity to explore the magnificent natural charm of Greece's mainland and islands. I could no longer understand how it made any sense to prefer watching old men fallen from a lifetime of dignity looking through garbage dumpsters in their suits, trafficked eastern European, Greek and Nigerian prostitutes doing their business in broad daylight, or junkies shooting up outside the Athens University. On the farm I had found a job combining several of my skills, interests and talents, and there was the promise that I would learn tons about creating a self-sufficient life via organic farming, permaculture and more. Unfortunately that didn't work out for me, but I am still searching for a nature-based home near enough to Athens, where we can open our window to a sea view, plant our own food and pay far less rent and bills. We are not alone. The crisis has led to the emergence of a new social and ecological awareness, a way of looking at the simpler, purer, more creative and humane way of life, and thousands of people are returning to their villages of origin or greener pastures to create a fresh start (while thousands are also migrating abroad). Greece's first ever eco-community is being created on the island of Evia on Mt. Telaithron by a team called 'Free and Real' who aim "not at a perfect utopia (but) a sustainable, circular community in Greece which will be characterized as a combination of a Resource Sharing Society with the mentality of a Freeconomic Community." The group has been working on this initiative since 2008 and is receiving a huge response, as well as cooperating with international pioneers in the area such as Mark Boyle, author of The Moneyless Man and writer for The Guardian. Boyle, who has voluntarily been living entirely without money for almost three years, came to Greece last year to offer advice and strategic ideas, and is eager to support the creation of a new economic model for a country that clearly needs one.
It took a decade and a half, but Greece has finally caught up with the global gastronomic mania and TV cooking shows have massive ratings; many cool youngsters are now talking about becoming a chef when they graduate from school and recently I read about a man who started a movement of cooking free food on the streets in neglected neighborhoods after being heartbroken by the sight of two children fighting over a piece of rotten fruit at a local market. Greeks have always enjoyed a meal consisting of a broad variety of 'meze' dishes large and small, served at an explicitly leisurely pace, enjoyed with friends over wine and conversation, and although restaurants are far less frequented in Athens today (as prices are not reduced), there still remain a broad variety of affordable and good enough, if not delectable options for a flavorsome Greek feast. So I was unpleasantly surprised when in his 2010 episode 'Escape To Athens', British food-god Jamie Oliver, whose adventurous spirit and excellent taste I have for years tried to telepathically bring to our capital, dedicated approximately five minutes to the place that his show was named after and the rest of it filmed on nearby islands and coastal shores. And if that didn't sting enough, his exposure of the Athens food scene was chiefly dedicated to the souvlaki, a common street food that Greeks spend a total of 2.5 billion euros on per year. Succulent and satisfying when made with good quality ingredients by an experienced cook, the two euro souvlaki remains one of the most popular foods to eat on the run, and the generally small, often family-run businesses are managing to float above the choppy waters of the financial storm, but the quality has significantly deteriorated as more and more businesses buy the skewered meat from wholesale retailers. Still, with so little consoling news coming from Greece today, it would have been nice to have received more in-depth and mouth-watering exposure that Greek chefs anonymous and known duly deserve for continuing to create food that keeps you recklessly ordering til the early hours.
When the Metro system was first being built, I was invited into the urban underworld to see the tunnels being built. The big news at the time was not just the creation of the metro itself, but also the multitude of beautiful ancient artifacts (some 50.000 in total) being discovered in the process. Standing between the ancient and the modern, I anticipated the final result, and spoke to metro representatives for an article I was writing on the subject. I remember being very amused by the very seriously disclosed information by one official that no barriers were going to be put in for passengers, because research had shown that "Greeks are too autonomous and would reject such a thing." I also recall wondering how it would ever be possible to stop one of the world's leading nations of smokers from respecting the non-smoking regulations, and wondering whether anyone would bother leaving their beloved cars (most average-size families have until recently owned two or three per unit) for something that involves walking and crowds. However, the elegant, polished, extremely clean and punctual metro, most of which has stations showcasing archaic relics and contemporary art and playing decidedly non-cheesy music, can be said to be one of the city's best features, and in my opinion is aesthetically one of the best in the world. Traffic and parking problems remain an enormous problem in the city nonetheless, with many central sidewalks becoming a maize for pedestrians walking around badly parked cars, not to mention a danger zone as motorbikes often zap along them to get past traffic. With the regular strikes we have in the city, the metro too now regularly slams down its gates, but when it's open, it's generally become a haven from the otherwise chaotic cityscape.
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