Last month, Writers & Company host Eleanor Wachtel travelled to Greece to meet with some of the country's most prominent thinkers and authors as part of a special series about the complex and challenging situation there. In this post, she shares some of her experiences and offers a preview of what's to come on the show. The series airs April
7 to May 5
The day before I left Greece, the Herakleidon Museum of Visual Arts hosted an open discussion on the topic, "Society and Health in Conditions of Economic Crisis." Featured were a cardiologist, a psychotherapist, and an Athens University Professor of Law, Economics and Political Science, whose subjects include "Is There Life Before Death?" For tourists, there's the three-hour Greek Crisis Walking Tour, which takes you past Parliament and Syntagma (Constitution) Square, scene of the major demonstrations against austerity. A resident economist discusses "the underlying causes and outflowing effects of one of the world's most significant economic disasters in recent years" as you stroll past the Central Bank and the Old Greek Stock Exchange. For 70 euros --
305 euros if you want a private tour --
you may end the walk in a local wine bar. "As we take a sip from the local Greek wine, we will emerge with a much clearer understanding of the Greek economic crisis and its social elements."
In a curious way, this seems to be how many Greeks themselves are coping with the crisis. Cafes and tavernas are crowded with people -- often just nursing a cup of coffee -- and talking. As Petros Markaris, the country's most famous mystery writer, told me, Athens is a city where people like to socialize, to sit together at cafes and restaurants; it's not a city of walkers. Since the crisis, bicycles have made something of a come-back. As Urban Bike Workshops boldly advertises: "THE ECONOMY SUCKS
YOUR BIKE SHOULDN'T"
Endless discussion is apt for a situation that elicits such a wide range of opinion and political interpretation, much of it revolving around who is responsible. Where to assign blame? How much is the crisis home-made and to what extent is Greece again the victim of external powers?
It's more than thirty years since Greece joined Europe --
the European Economic Commission, as it was then called --
and started to receive a continuous influx of money. The idea or ideal of a European Community, erasing borders across a land that had endured the most violent century in its history, was based --
in a significant way --
Last fall, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for "advancing the causes of peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe." At the same time, some people in Greece invoke World War III, feeling invaded by a powerful Germany all over again. (At the unhappy conclusion of the recent bank crisis in Cyprus, the banner headline of a Greek daily provocatively declared: "Uber Alles") Others argue that 30 years of European assistance was a missed opportunity, mis-used by the Greek government itself, and resulting in exponential debt. For instance, the 2004 Athens Olympics is regarded as one of the most expensive ever.
However you look at it, the 2008-2009 global financial crisis has left Greece in a severe recession with the highest unemployment rate in the EU at 27 per cent, with youth unemployment at over 60 percent. Approximately one-third of the population is living in poverty.
Economics, especially the extreme globalization of finance that started in the '90s and accelerated in Europe with the creation of the Euro, is hard to understand at the best of times. As historian Mark Mazower has pointed out, what's happening in Greece is the dark side of this story. That a country whose GDP makes up less than three per cent of the entire eurozone could become an international issue of such consequence is because "our knowledge of the world and its interlocking parts --
political, financial, economic --
has failed to keep pace."
So, to launch the series, I turned to political economist Yanis Varoufakis, author of the bestselling book The Global Minotaur
. An original thinker, he makes creative use of Greek mythology to explain finance. As one critic put it, Yanis Varoufakis is "one of the best, brightest and most innovative economists on the planet."
Walking the streets of Athens, I thought I found a clue in the language itself. The Greek word for bank is TRAPEZA. Aha, I thought, that would explain those high-flying stunts that has sent the world reeling. Turns out though that its Greek origin has more to do with table than trapeze. A communal sharing of food and drink.
Featured in further programs:
A view of the main building of the Neoclassical Academy of Athens in Greece, featuring statues of ancient philosophers Plato (left) and Socrates (right). All photos courtesy of Eleanor Wachtel.
- Leading crime writer Petros Markaris paints a gritty picture of life in contemporary Athens through the investigations of his fictional detective, Costas Haritos. A trenchant social critic, Markaris is up-to-the-minute with current issues in his most recent set of novels, "the financial crisis trilogy." He's also unflinching in his depiction of increasing racism, corruption and harsh divisions in Greek society.
- Nick Papandreou, son of the late Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, describes the pressures of growing up in a political dynasty in his memoir Father Dancing. His quiet adolescence in Canada contrasts with the tumultuous events he experienced in Greece, including the 1967 military coup that led to his father's imprisonment.
- Albanian writer Gazmend Kapllani became fluent in Greek after escaping from the totalitarian state in 1991. He has since achieved recognition in Greece for his journalism as well as his ironic fictional autobiography, A Short Border Handbook, which describes his remarkable journey.
- Poet Jenny Mastoraki came of age during the military dictatorship. Finding her voice at a time when words were considered dangerous, she explores "unofficial" narratives in her work, which often evokes the mysterious world of legend and folk tales.