04/05/2012 05:30 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Death in Athens

"Ask not for whom the bell tolls... ," it tolled for 99 percent of us Greeks yesterday. A pensioner, aged 77, brought a dramatic end to his life in Syntagma Square and shocked the nation. At least, I hope he did, for that was his intention.

Although Greeks conduct almost all their activities in public -- whether the café or now the street -- they are normally very private about dying and death. We have long known that suicide is on the rise here. Today's top Athens daily, Kathimerini, states that two people kill themselves every day, but their departure usually goes unnoticed and unreported, either because it's disguised as an accident or kept quiet. Beyond the shame and controversy attached to it, the Greek Orthodox Church will not give suicides a proper funeral/burial.

But Dimitris Christoulas chose his spot well. Syntagma aka Constitution Square is the heart of Athens. Parliament and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier overlook the east end of it, luxury hotels line the north side, while the west is flanked by cafes, shops, and the post office. It has been far too much in the news recently, as the stage for violent confrontations between riot police and looters/vandals, who steal the limelight from genuine demonstrations about Greece's shrinking economy and the Socialist (!) government's brutal wage and pension policies. Last summer it was Tent City for the Occupy movement, and I can't count the number of times it has been cleaned up and restored after hooligans have rampaged through it. Or how many hundreds of tons of marble paving stones and facades have been wrenched from their place and hurled as weapons.

Every time Syntagma's damaged or Athens is burned, I become furious. What is the point of destroying the city's history and its people's livelihood instead of targeting the politicians (and other culprits) who have cynically sold us into bondage?

Mr. Christoulas's protest instead went straight to the mark. Stopping by a tree near the metro entrance, he quietly took out a pistol and shot himself in the head. He did not chip any marble, threw no Molotov cocktails, did not even pluck a bitter orange and fling it at a cop. But he certainly shattered any illusions we might have left about our social contract. I did not read his message until this morning, but after seeing his tree, pasted with notes of sympathy, on the eight o'clock news, I could think of nothing else. All night, he entered my sleep, waking me up again and again.

In his note, he blamed "a collaborationist" government for cutting his pension, earned after 35 years of work as a pharmacist, to the extent that was no longer possible for him to survive with dignity. Envisioning a future of fishing though garbage bins for food, and being too old to "react dynamically" or take up a Kalashnikov, he hoped that young people deprived of their future would one day "hang the traitors of this country in Syntagma Square, just like the Italians did to Mussolini in 1945."


I know so many people like Mr. Christoulas, young men and women without jobs or prospects, older people whose pensions have been shredded, parents with kids to educate who couldn't afford to heat their homes this winter, whose own parents buy them food. I don't know anyone yet who has had to resort to a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen.

But there are lots of us on the brink. Last summer I wrote a semi-serious piece about becoming one of those old peasant women who sells bunches of herbs on the sidewalk. My husband jokes about taking a violin -- an accordion would be the instrument of choice -- and standing at a supermarket entrance, hat on the pavement to collect a few pence. We keep reminding ourselves to buy lottery tickets -- there are two newly spruced-up lottery shops on our street (as well as three funeral parlors), so we have no excuse.

All we can do is hope that Mr Christoulas will not have killed himself in vain. That somewhere among our 300 parliamentarians there are some with a soul and a heart, who will say "stop" to these cruel measures that are killing our society, that are making the crooked even more devious and leaving the honest poverty-stricken. That we will not take up Kalashnikovs or stage hangings in Syntagma to right these wrongs.

But when I read that the computer programs for cross-checking tax data and catching up with tax evaders have been sitting idle for five months because the Ministry of Finance has not dispatched any personnel to test the systems; that 92 amendments containing provisions for vested interests (rousfetia) were slipped into legislation this past week; that property owners are filing applications to legalize illegal houses even before they are built because it's cheaper to pay the fines than the permits, then I wonder whether Greece has a chance to save itself.

I usually try to write about positive things that are happening here, there are so many outstanding people doing outstanding, courageous work to help others and the country. And I'll get back to them. But I couldn't let Mr. Christoulas's statement pass unnoticed. And I will take it as a positive action that will lead to good.

At the very least he deserves a plaque in Syntagma Square to commemorate his bravery.