It starts with a tingle in the nose, like you're about to sneeze. Next, a stinging in the eyes, followed by a discomfort in the throat. Suddenly, your sinuses feel wiry, you sniffle and your eyes tear. The feeling in the throat becomes like a razor-deep, choking sensation, and within minutes, these feelings intensify to the max, until it becomes unbearable. You start to pull your collar up over your nose in a useless effort to protect yourself, as your face burns and your lungs constrict, and desperately, you squint, stumbling forward, crying, aching, and straining for breath.
Welcome to the effects of tear-gas, which for Athenians has become an ordinary experience. Whether peaceful or not, demonstrators know that if they're going to be present at a demonstration they need to protect themselves from this penetrating chemical (actually a burning gas known as capsaicin) used so liberally by the Greek police, and have developed a 'survivor's dress code' in an effort to defy it: layered clothing, anti-shatter goggles and, ingeniously, the use of a liquid antacid solution mixed with water and used as a soothing spritz or protective layer around the eyes. Gas masks reminiscent of WWII are also de rigeur and can be found at local hardware stores.
On Sunday February 12, as parliament voted on whether to accept the new austerity package, thousands of Greeks gathered from the early evening in silent protest and, as has happened far too many times on such occasions when citizens assemble to make their presence felt in support of an ideal, the police bombed crowds with tear-gas. "I was there to peacefully demonstrate," a friend told me, "we weren't even at Syntagma Square, we had walked down a quiet street and there were hundreds of people -- families with their children, elderly people, teenagers. We were just walking, and the MAT police appeared out of nowhere from two sides and attacked us with tear-gas. I literally couldn't breathe, I thought I was going to die. A lady next to me passed out, and people struggled to help her."
Certainly, there are over-zealous demonstrators -- or rather, rioters -- who intentionally provoke the police and then get hit, while there's also a believable theory that amongst these individuals there are organized provocateurs, who intentionally cause aggressive scenes to create the illusion of senseless anarchy amongst civilians -- an image that unfortunately has been widely dispersed around the world. For years, social networks have been swarming with photos of hooded men standing conspiratorially on the sidelines of Athens riots beside police officers.
Surely, a balanced perspective leads one to the theory that there is a mix of authentic anarchy, by certain enraged groups, in combination with organized, artificial acts of provocation, funded allegedly by state or para-state organizations, individuals or institutions. Whatever is truly going on behind the scenes at the multitude of rallies that make up our reality (Greeks love being vocal about their feelings and thoughts, it's in our genes), tear-gas use is extreme, toxic and regularly uncalled for, and as the latest in Greek T-shirt fashion writes: 'Don't throw tear gas, we are already crying anyway'.
Unfortunately, building a stunning, giant, expensive, internationally exemplary museum dedicated to the Acropolis has not yet managed to bring the Parthenon marbles any closer to the city from which they were stolen from by British Lord Elgin, but when you have a middle aged female guard, who was quite easily bound and gagged by two thugs, protecting the invaluable treasures of Greece's glorious Olympic past, the country is not exactly proving its capability to take care of its awesome heritage. At a time when the nation is being sold off layer by layer and imbued daily into deeper debt, when people are being robbed of their jobs, homes and right to live a free, dignified life, it scalds to see that even the objects symbolizing some remaining form of precious identity are as easily looted as a pricey pair of shoes from a smashed shop window. Of course, this kind of event, and I am referring to the recent burglary at the Ancient Olympia Museum in the land where the Olympic Games first took place, tragically gives cause to those who are against the return of the Parthenon marbles to their rightful home, to say "you see?". Just as our relics and monuments represent a respectable part of us, so we as individuals must respectably represent them.
Alexis Zorba: "Damn it boss, I like you too much not to say it. You've got everything except one thing: madness! A man needs a little madness, or else..."
Basil: "Or else?"
Alexis Zorba: "...he never dares cut the rope and be free."
A dialogue from the classic 1964 film Zorba The Greek, directed by Michael Cacoyiannis and adapted from the same-named novel by Nikos Kazantzakis.
The mere title of that movie conjures in people who can't even point to Greece on the world map the ability to hear the sound of the Syrtaki dance, building up slowly but surely, and all the way to its giddy, kicking crescendo. You can smell the ozone from the sea, hear the clink of ice breaking down in your frosty ouzo glass, feel the sun baking your skin, taste the crispy, succulent kalamari melting on your tongue. And with beffudling nostalgia, you can smilingly imagine your dear friend Zorba, the crazy Greek.
However it is these very (cheesy and passe) stereotypes that have led Greece into an image rut, according to global branding strategist Peter Economides, owner of Felix BNI, whose talk on Rebranding Greece became a YouTube hit among optimistic Greeks rallying for a fresh approach to the hard-hitting crisis. Economides' theory is that Greece is a brand that has never been branded, or managed. The Greek National Tourism Organization has changed its "logo" far too many times, he says, and given out mixed messages and impressions that are irrelevant and damaging to Greece's contemporary identity. Following the country's magnificent but sadly short-lived show of aesthetic and organizational perfection in the 2004 Olympic Games, there has been little, if anything, to show that Greece is a country worthy of the historical weight it carries, by now, like an albatross around its neck. A recent international study showed that Greece ranks fairly in terms of popularity amongst European peers with a far more sophisticated image-making strategy, simply because it's likable enough, "but the problem lies in another point of evidence shown in the same research" Economides says: "we rank last in terms of self esteem." Greeks are now separated into two camps -- the visionary believers, who see the crisis as the root for a new beginning, and are prepared to keep walking forward, focussing on the positive; and the bedraggled, self-deprecating cynics, stuck on analyzing how much the crisis proves that the nation is rotten to the core, and often being very enthusiastic in letting their negative opinions be known.
Consumerism made Greeks, like billions of people around the world, lose their sense of direction and innate principles, replacing pathos with Prada, Economides attests. Be creative, believe in yourself, hone in on your strengths, join a constantly growing community of skilled, intelligent achievers, he says; there is a lot to be done, and to be lived out. He has created a Facebook page that has thousands of followers, and his encouraging message is "Ginetai (it can be done)", a reminder of President Barack Obama's "Yes we can" campaign that helped plug him into power.
As a lover of my country (but not as much of its sometimes adolescent and short-sighted mentality, which I struggle to comprehend), I have often pulled at my hair in frustration to see so much beauty, power and potential, yet so little practical, positive effort to get things lined up properly enough so that they don't just get started but continue to work and blossom. There are a multitude of Greeks who can indeed do it better, but often they resort to moving to different, better organized and socially progressive countries, or simply give up after being thwarted by an unobliging system far too many times. As Economides says, this is the time for Greeks who don't abandon ship to make the difference, and while relegating the Zorba stereotype, we can honor the paradoxical mantra of fun and madness as the seed of creativity. I hope above all that beyond the spine-tingling, heart-warming excitement that comes with new hope, strategy and collaboration (particularly joyous in a period when the hardships of life and an unreliable government can make one feel very alone), the visionaries among us will create change through actions, not just words. Dancing on the beach is enjoyable, and fun is an essential component for getting things done well, but sometimes we have to do the tedious stuff too. Opa!