Life Behind the (head)line

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My older son is four. He has a sort of waddling swagger, not really noticeable to anyone except those of us who know. Sometimes, when he’s had a hard day or is generally tired and frustrated, his hand reaches up and out to me as we reach the edge of the curb. I hold it and help him tackle the mountain that is the edge of the curb. I wish in those moments that the world was flat as a pancake.

***

Several weeks ago, Matina Stevis of the Wall Street Journal wrote a very moving piece about what it’s like being a Greek abroad in the midst of the country’s economic nightmare She wrote about the casualness with which people make racist statements about the lazy, tax dodging Greeks, even when these stereotypes are blown out of the water with hard facts, and how she avoids revealing where she’s from if she can help it. The debate that follows is not worth the effort.

Ever since I read that piece, this blog post has been demanding to be written. I wanted to add my perspective. I have tried repeatedly to write, and repeatedly stopped after watching the blinking cursor for a few moments. I knew it would be emotionally difficult. In between work and pitching for new projects (commissioning editors, my rates are reasonable) I have made excuses to myself about not having time, when the truth is I just didn’t want to pour the sadness of an austerity riddled life onto my screen because I am living it.

As a foreigner in Greece, I occupy a strange twilight zone. Outside of Greece, I am on permanent defense mode as people take digs at Greece in my presence, expecting me to agree with them since I myself am not Greek. If it’s a valid point – Greece’s pitiful track record of governing – I might agree and add my own perspective. Mostly though it’s comments about the lazy Greeks retiring in their 50s.

For the record, I know no one who retired in their 50s, no one who avoids paying their tax and no one who works less than a 40 hour week. But even if I say that, what usually happens is that the other party will shrug and tell me I’m wrong. After all, how could I possibly know the reality of life in a country I am living in? A correspondent in a faraway land is in a much better position to judge than I am, because my judgement is clouded with sentimentality. My husband is Greek, so of course I’m not going to admit the Greeks were wrong, that they are lazy, greedy and irresponsible.

Then there are the Greeks. My Greek friends and even my husband will debate among themselves about what has gone wrong in Greece and what needs to be fixed. If I jump in with a controversial opinion, I get told it’s not like that, then given a list of reasons why it’s not like that, usually ending with a statement like “You’re not Greek, you haven’t lived here long enough.” Based on that category of having a legitimate opinion on Greece among Greeks, I will never have lived here long enough. Five minutes earlier, a Greek in the group might have expressed the exact same opinion and got away with it.

Outside of Greece, my affiliation with Greece means my opinion is not objective. Within Greece, I’m not Greek enough to understand.

I have lived in Athens for nearly a decade now. I speak (almost) fluent Greek. Sometimes I can remember a word or phrase in Greek but not in English. I arrived in this city just as the first rumbles of an economic crisis were being felt.

I made my life here. My first son was born in 2011, as the cracks in the economy became wider. Still I felt insulated from the chaos unfolding. Having longed to be a mother, I was riding on the wave of a wish fulfilled. I felt invincible.

I often tell people asking about life in Greece that 2012 and 2013 were the worst years for the crisis (now I have to add “so far”). Those were the years when austerity really bit, when suicides began to climb and around me, I could feel Greeks losing their joy for life.

This coincided with a personal disaster in my own life, my son’s Duchenne muscular dystrophy diagnosis, so if I’m honest, I remember little of those two years. I know what happened because I remember the news reports. I remember the sense of despair among my own friends. But I couldn’t give you any real data or reportable facts because I saw it all from a distance, lost in the labyrinth of the event that had decimated the future I had envisioned for my child.

My child’s future in Greece is a question mark because of the economy. His future overall is a question mark because of his manifesting disability, which unfortunately has emerged perfectly timed with a wave of austerity across Europe.

This week, I sat under the florescent lights in a physiotherapist’s office in the West Midlands as my children played. Beverly is wonderful, happy woman, oozing positivity and gently coaxing my son to let her manipulate his feet and legs and tell us numbers which tell us where we are along the slippery slope.

She is losing her funding. She has lost staff. Last year she offered my son hydrotherapy. She’s lost funding for that now. She moved her efforts to the pool at the local health centre. It’s not ideal – muscular dystrophy hydrotherapies require the water to be a certain temperature to avoid muscle damage – but it’s still better than nothing. That health centre is due to close in a few months. Beverly somehow stays upbeat as she says she’s not sure what they’ll do after that.

Meanwhile in Athens, it took my husband over a year of searching, researching, cajoling, persuading and negotiating to find the right combination of physiotherapist, heated hydrotherapy pool and venue to set up this vital resource for my child and our friends in the same boat. We pay for it ourselves. Despite that, the special needs school where the pool is based is teetering on the edge of closure due to lack of funds. If it eventually does close, we’ll have to start the search all over again, and we’re lucky. We’re not one of the many children who rely on the school for education as well as therapy.

Both my children go to state nurseries, which, without the safety net of grandparents for childcare, is the only way that I can work and my husband can continue the literally life saving work he does as a patient advocate as he fights for standards of care in Greece to match the rest of Europe, fight being the optimal word there.

Friends ask me all the time why I don’t leave Greece and go to the UK, and the truth is with a Conservative government now firmly in power, my family with its one disabled party has few places to turn.  In Europe today, austerity is the norm. As far as the austerity fans are concerned, couldn’t we just try, you know, not having public debt? Had we considered not being disabled perhaps? Maybe we should try it, hmmm?

Austerity is destroying Greece. It’s difficult for me to give you facts and figures of what it’s done to my own life – my pride won’t allow it. As a journalist, I have struggled with staying neutral, because when I see things like the good friend who avoided our calls only to turn up months later waif thin because he literally could not afford to eat and was too embarrassed to admit it, I find it very hard to sit on the fence about austerity.

When I don’t know whether my son will have the care he needs next month, I battle with staying neutral. It’s exhausting. It’s rage inducing. I’ve spent money I don’t have on breathing and meditation classes to cope with the double dilemma of both life under austerity and parent to a child with a rare and life limiting condition. I worry a lot, more than I should, but I can’t help it because there is no end in sight to either situation.

I could tell you a lot more about Greece under austerity and what trying to punish 50 years of government mistakes within five has done, but who is listening? The Guardian recently asked for us in Greece to submit our experiences of life under austerity. I opened the page and I tried, but I couldn’t do it, purely for the fact that even today, despite it being known that austerity has ruined Greece, it is still being forced down our throats, and we are still Europe’s bad guys. Read the comments on any recent story about Greece – there is an almost sadistic glee in seeing the country buckle under even more austerity.

I couldn’t contribute my story because there seemed little point. We are Europe’s austerity porn, nothing more. Our miserable lives get clicks and sell papers. In the first Bridget Jones’ Diary movie, Bridget rehearses sounding clever and interested in current affairs, saying over and over to herself “Isn’t it terrible about Chechnya?” Today she would probably be saying “Isn’t it terrible about Greece?” Let’s fret for five minutes, then talk about EastEnders.

In Greece they say if you have your health you have everything. This has kept people going, combined with strong family ties and sense of community. The crisis in Greece has been appalling, an abomination and an outrage to anyone with a conscience. But it’s lucky that it happened in a country like Greece where people still rally together – almost anywhere else and the damage would have been unimaginable. Paradoxically, losing control over my child’s health meant that my family’s life has become simpler. We are rediscovering the joy of stolen treats that were before so easily affordable. In the Greek sense, we don’t have our health, so we have nothing. And yet we have it all. Life has come down to whether today we were happy, today the curb was easy to climb, and tomorrow we’ll take as it comes.

Happiness has become my family’s hard currency, its presence often eclipses all other problems like the economy and unreasonable working conditions. We continue our careful balancing act, fighting against the economy uprooting us, and retaining hope that our children will inherit a better tomorrow.

There are endless reams of debate that you can go and read, about what Greece has done wrong, some accurate, some not so much. But whatever happens today, tomorrow, at the next Eurogroup, default or not, we’ll still be here, trying to find a way to live through it and making it up as we go along. There are lives behind the headlines.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Life Behind the (head)line

  1. Louise

    Another great insightful article … as another outsider married to a Greek person, I identify so much with what you describe. And yes, as the Greeks say, we have our health, everything else is a bonus… keeps us going. I hope you and your family (with your beautiful boy) keep smiling too.

  2. Helen

    Thank you for this!
    With solidarious greetings
    from a fellow Athenian.

  3. Lyn Kalogirou

    For years I’ve wondered why I don’t see articles about the reality of living in Greece and now I know – “We are Europe’s austerity porn, nothing more.” – That’s it! Some years ago I said to a friend that the rhetoric I was hearing was reminiscent of words and phrases used to fuel fear and hatred against the Jews pre-WWII – dirty, lazy, grasping…….although of course I don’t mean that our situation is the same as that of the Jews.
    Your blog is the article I’ve been searching for.
    Thank you. I wish you all the best.
    Lyn

  4. Thank you for your insights, I hope things will improve I once spent a few months on a Greek island and was so impressed by the health care system, young doctors giving 6 months to island communities, simple solutions like making the paper work and xrays the responsibility of the patient thus cutting out a whole heap of bourocracy… excellent.

  5. Haven’t been to Greece but I can empathize with you being in an almost similar condition- at the end of the day hope keeps us moving

  6. Prasad Khedekar

    empathise with overall situation in Greece.

    please try Sahaja Yoga meditation as a supportive method for your son’s health. Its totally free and being practice worldwide in more than 100+ countries.

    Details :
    http://www.sahajayoga.org/
    http://www.sahajayoga.gr/en/

    Thanks & Regards,
    Prasad

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