Saturday, July 2, 2011

What to Wear to the Revolution

Most of what I’m writing today is based on hearsay.  Then again, most of what I write everyday is based on imagination, so I guess that’s an improvement, at least if you’re looking for “just the facts.”  This piece is also slim on photos, for it did not seem opportune to take the ones I’d like.

Last week I wrote about the source of the anger streaming onto screens around the world from that now famous area bordering Greece’s Parliament, Syntagma (Constitution) Square.  This week I thought it only fair to point out how very different life in Athens actually was from what you saw in the media for virtually all but the hardcore protestors.

Tuesday was the first day of a two-day general strike across Greece against Parliamentary votes on Wednesday and Thursday that adopted the stringent measures required by Greece’s lenders in order for the country to receive additional bailout funds.

No doubt the strike brought hell to a lot of tourists in the midst of holidays, but for Athenians at least it was not nearly as inconvenient as it sounded.  When the power company announced it would join the strike, that meant “rolling outages” and a published schedule of which neighborhoods would be affected and when (I hurriedly typed the first draft of this before my time had come).  Stores remained open and although public transportation was “on strike” the metro kept running.  Greeks are, after all, practical and their people must get to the protests inevitably accompanying a strike.

Taxis, too, were operating for Greeks are also entrepreneurs.  And what sane Athenian would drive into Athens on a protest day?  Then again, perhaps “sanity” is not limiting enough of a qualification when it comes to the Athenian’s approach to their countrymen’s protests.

Athenians accept protests as an inevitable part of their way of life, and until this week, walked around them as people elsewhere would a rowdy football celebration.  The focus of the crowd was not on the people on the street, but on the government, and as long as you stayed away from the very few serious anarchist types going head to head with the police and outright vandals seizing the moment, you’re basically ignored.  As for those omnipresent whiffs of tear gas, well, you got used to them.
At least that’s what I'd always heard from friends who did business in and around Syntagma.  

When Syntagma is not “on the air” it’s home to some of Athens' finest hotels and shopping.  As a matter of fact, on Tuesday afternoon I received a call from a friend who worked within “throwing distance” of Syntagma and asked me to come down to see “what’s really going on.”  I was assured it wasn’t dangerous.  “Sort of like after midnight mass on Easter Saturday, when the kids are tossing firecrackers.”  

I asked about the tear gas and she said, “It’s not bad, but might not be good for your allergies.”

I jumped at that macho excuse for passing on the invitation. 

Then she said that she had to be at an appointment on the other side of Syntagma at six, and was worried about wearing her Louis Vuitton backpack, as it might seem ostentatious in light of the austerity measures that precipitated the demonstration.

Life in Athens had become surreal.

The evening before (Monday) I had a six-thirty appointment a few blocks from Parliament.  My first surprise was that my drive into town took only fifteen minutes.  The past record was twenty minutes with a little more than two hours on the down side.

When I came out a couple hours later the streets weren’t any busier.  So, I decided to take a spin past Parliament and around Syntagma.  Police buses were lined up along one side of the building, but there were a lot more TV broadcasting vehicles than that lined up elsewhere—perhaps covering both the demonstrations and the Special Olympics World Summer Games going on between June 25th and the 4th of July, in part just a few blocks from the heart of the protests.

There were police and military types milling around but no one seemed engaged or concerned.  The famous Grande Bretagne Hotel on the corner of Syntagma just across from Parliament looked to be doing business as usual, although its first floor windows were shuttered.

The square itself was not at all what I’d expected to see.  Yes, it was cloaked in homemade banners proclaiming all sorts of unachievable things, and filled with "indignado" protestors camped there for weeks, but there was no noise.  Calm before the storm?  Maybe.  But it seemed more like a Woodstock experience between acts.

Then came what made me dismiss my friend’s concern over her journey through the crowd.

At the end of the square farthest from Parliament, by the main entrance to Syntagma, vendors were selling Greek flags and whistles—a wise marketing decision considering the purpose of the gathering.

BUT, just inside the entrance and running along both sides of the walkway for forty feet or so, lined up five rows deep, was a breathtaking assortment of every conceivable knock-off designer bag!  And beyond that, rows of knock-off watches.
My friend had nothing to worry about, I thought.  This revolution seemed to appreciate the properly accessorized.

Sadly for the Greek people, it turned out that my friend and I were wrong.  This demonstration did become dangerous Tuesday evening, and tear gas lingered in the air in far greater volumes than whiffs.  Thankfully, my friend delayed her trip across the square until early Wednesday morning and was out of the area by the time violence resumed at noon.

But the violence of these demonstrations was of a sort quite different from that of Greece’s Mediterranean neighbors, as captured in a scene by an Associated Press photographer.  Ekathimerini, Greece’s daily newspaper of record, reported that in the midst of the conflict “[a] stun grenade exploded in the hand of a Greek riot policeman, severing a finger.  Police and demonstrators ceased combat and scoured the debris-strewn street, uniting in a frantic search for the missing digit.  They found it.  The finger was rushed off in a wet towel to a hospital, where doctors reattached it to the injured man.” 

PS. For those of you who may have seen a sign or two in the midst of the demonstrations saying “Jeffrey leave Greece” it wasn’t directed at me.  Greece’s Prime Minister George Papandreou was born “Jeffrey Papandreou” in St. Paul, Minnesota.



  1. No one would think the Greeks would want you to leave. You are a one-man tourist board for Mykonos. They have to consider all the people who have put it on their must-see places since your books hit the shelves.

    "Police and demonstrators ceased combat and scoured the debris-strewn street, uniting in a frantic search for the missing digit. They found it. The finger was rushed off in a wet towel to a hospital, where doctors reattached it to the injured man.” Quite an example of politics being set aside for a human and humane response.

    Is there a great deal of difference between the police and the demonstrators? How well paid are the police? Will their pay not be affected by some of those stringent cost-cutting measures? If Greece is like most countries, the guy who lives next door may be a police officer. They are part of the community and, as such, their families, their homes are affected by what happens to the community at large.

    It gets scary when the military become involved. They are not part of the community. They don't live in the community and their allegiance is more closely tied to the government. The pledge of allegiance is made to the nation but, in some countries, the leaders of the government wrap themselves so tightly in the flag that it is difficult to tell how to separate them.

    Greece gave us democracy. It deserves a strong, vibrant democratic society.

  2. The severity of the economic crisis and austerity measures, including pay cuts and the massive unemployment justify massive protests.

    They are also part of Greek history. The people have always protested. It's a given.

    During WWII, there was quite a strong Greek Resistance, and the population is extremely politically astute.

    When I have met Greek shopkeepers in the U.S., they are puzzled why their patrons discuss sports and the weather while a war is on.

    Horrors being visited upon the Greek people are being covered over here in the NY Times, on lots of news blogs, of middle-class people reduced to living in cars and standing on food pantry lines.

    One woman in the NY Times who lost her job six months ago and can't find work said that these austerity measures will cause much more suffering and poverty. She was joining the demonstrations because, she said, "there is nothing left to lose."

    So, I sympathize. I wish people over here would demonstrate, protest, go on strike like their Greek brothers and sisters.

  3. Interesting observation about the police, Beth. Most Greeks will tell you that they hate the police for many of the same reasons they voice similar feelings at their politicians. BUT they also sympathize with their situation. Cops (I understand) make between 700-1200 euros a MONTH. That's $1000-1700 per month. And though, as many workers in Greece receive additional months pay each year, much of that is now gone with more cuts coming.

    Still the frustration rages, but at the police more as an institution than as at a specific human demonstrated by the AP observed event. The army is mandatory service by all male citizens.

    I won't discuss their training, as that's another story in and of itself. However, I think it's fair to say that the military in Greece is not so much an arm of the government, as much as an amalgam of everyone's cousins, brothers and sons.

    As far as the demonstrations go, I'm all for them. What aggravates me and drives even the (peaceful) protestors to anger is how the truly few rowdies who predictably highjack so many protests with their stone throwing and police baiting continue to get away with it. It's "always" the same ones, and no one is arrested. Or so it seems.

    The question is always why? As for the answer, well, Lil, I have none but as your Greek shopkeeper friends will admit (or possibly demonstrate themselves:)) Greeks are prone to see a conspiracy in the number of raisins in a cereal box:).

    Am leaving Athens now to head back to Mykonos. Have a tourist board meeting, Beth:).


  4. Ouch, Jeffrey, it wasn't me, it was Kathy D. I'm just worried about the ordinary people in the world and how they are going to get by. Democracy is messy, and hard to swallow sometimes.

  5. Sorry, Kathy D and Lil. That shows what happens when I type in a rush and don't proof my work--even with the excuse of fleeing Athens for Mykonos:) However, there is an explanation: I was thinking Kathy D but typed Lil, no doubt because I'm prone to mixing up the names of people I like very, very much ... just ask my kids:).


  6. I would write something inane here about the St. Paul roots of the Greek Prime Minister, Jeffrey P, but Minnesota has shut down so I can't say anything.

  7. Michael, are you suggesting Jeffrey P might have picked something up at birth in MN that he's transmitted to GR?:)