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Are you there, European voters? It’s me, an immigrant

d2f3fbb254a014713f9220e39f5f7710Have you ever been talked about in a room while you were stood there in front of the people who were doing it? I can’t say I’ve had much experience of it, apart from the early days when I was still learning Greek and people didn’t know i could understand what they were saying. Not so long ago, it happened at a gathering of Pakistani women where a couple of the other women assumed I was Greek (I can’t win) and began talking about me in Urdu.

Now and then it happens on Greek twitter when trolls think that as a foreigner in Greece I couldn’t possibly have any working knowledge of Greek. Sometimes, I get nice Twitter messages in Greek too.

But if you combine being an immigrant with European elections and Twitter, prepare to be talked about as if you’re not there. A lot. 

The latest such election was that of Italy, where again, us immigrants got nice, thick lashings of why we’re to blame for everything.

Watching Twitter activity on the day of the election, I was not surprised to see nationalists from the UK and America jump on the Italian election bandwagon and urge Italians, who they’ve never met, and whose politically dynamics they are completely ignorant of, to “take back your country”. Let’s all take a short moment to remember how well nationalistic voting worked out for both those countries.

Even that well-known mutated offshoot of Trump, Katie Hopkins, grabbed the chance for a trip to Italy for some dolce vita and racism.

Us immigrants in Europe get talked about a lot. We are the go-to group of people to blame. Twitter trolls talk about us. Outright neonazis talk about us. Genuine concerned citizens worried about the direction of their country talk about us.

And political commentators talk about us, along with journalists, columnists and pretty much everyone else. By and large, except for a few notable exceptions, none of the people who like to talk about us and write about us are actually representative of our group.

In a political sphere, where immigrants have become the number one scapegoat, and where we’re apparently such a huge problem and a threat to everyone’s economy and existence, for some reason we rarely get asked to talk about it.

In the wake of the #Metoo movement, it has largely been women who have been writing and commenting about the everyday sexism which blights our lives. If the majority of editors allowed 80% of the coverage on this movement to originate from men, it would be nonsensical.

Not so when it comes to immigration.

What goes into the thought process of editors repeatedly commissioning pieces on immigrants in Europe to be written by non-immigrants in Europe? I’m not for a second suggesting that many of my peers don’t do an excellent job covering this issue, because they absolutely do. But, it would also be nice to get the chance to say “You’re all talking about me as if I’m not here. I come from this body of people you’re so terrified of. Do you want to perhaps hear what I have to say?” If you did, it might shock you that the economy, terrorism and integration issues are also topics that immigrants worry about as well.

It is the cheapest, nastiest type of populism that takes a minority group of people and marks it as responsible for the country’s ills. Our voices are not heard when we start to see this happening, and they are not heard when it is in full swing. We are not listened to when we see the growing danger, alter our way of talking or dressing to avoid confrontation and see people voicing a very dangerous rhetoric become ratified and established within parliaments as if their violence and bile was completely normal and valid. It is the normalisation of the abnormal, which began a few years ago in Europe and was given the seal of approval through the anomaly of the Trump presidency.

Taking the example of Golden Dawn, I and other observers were worried about them long before they gained any sort of real power. But immigrants were repeatedly told that they were no big deal, in a country where we around us could feel the hostility rising, and felt powerless because we don’t enjoy the right to vote. And since we can’t influence the vote, in Greece at least, political parties practically fell over each other to court the far-right voting pool into their own parties in their never-ending race to the very bottom. In doing so, they normalised racism to a degree that I had not seen before. “Yes, but” became standard fare in conversations with people who I knew, who knew me, and who still yes butted their way through discussions on immigration with me.  

Violence and the populism in Greece escalated hand in hand, and we know what happened next. With a neonazi group safely established in parliament, people still don’t believe us immigrants when we tell them about the racism we’ve experienced. I have been asked to list incidences of violence when talking about racism, as if being kicked, beaten, knifed or spat at is the only type of racism that counts.

One thing I’ve been told again and again is that racism is rising because “Greeks are tired of foreigners telling us what to do and bringing our country to its knees.”

There is no way to win that argument, and I’ve tried, because no matter how many times I point out that 30 years of bad governance by Greek politicians, not foreigners, destroyed the country’s economy, it will still circle back to the argument of the honourable Greek being humiliated by the rest of Europe.

In the case of Greece, the advent of the economic crisis brought about an escalation in nationalistic and plain old racist rhetoric. Politicians and the media talked about us all the time as if we couldn’t possibly follow their arguments or understand what they were saying. We were, and are, considered invisible to the point that all this can be said about us as if we’re too ignorant to understand the conversation.

I’ll admit that belonging to a group of people that gets demonised all the time is starting to get wearing. I now dread being asked where I’m from, because that once innocent question has become so loaded in the last few years. I’m tired of the elaborate process of constantly trying to reassure the other person that yes, I come from a country that Greeks lately throw around as shorthand for something grubby and unwanted, but don’t worry! Look! I fit in! I am a contributing member of society! Now please feel free to tell me your expert opinion on what my home country and its people are like, since I’m trapped in your taxi so it’s not like I would dare to contradict you anyway!

There will now be much commentary on the rise of populism in Europe, the danger that this type of nationalism poses and what can be done. To that I’ll say, us immigrants saw it all coming years ago, and we did raise our voices. We did try to warn about the danger, but we weren’t listened to or our fears were played down: it’s a non-party, Greeks/Brits/Americans/Italians are just angry, it’ll blow over, no one takes this seriously.

As immigrants, we have to be exceptionally good (doctors, scientists, token Muslim who saves someone during terrorist attack) or exceptionally bad (terrorists, criminals) for our narrative to ever make it into the press.

Beyond these two narrow frames, we are talked about very often, but hardly ever listened to. Economies and tax revenues to a degree function off the back of our labour contributions, and elections are fought and won on rhetorics that demonise us, but we as a group are otherwise ignored. And as long as we are working and contributing, all is well. Should we dare to claim something back (as if our right as taxpayers), we must again quietly listen to the hysteria about “immigrants claiming benefits”. It happened not so long ago in Greece, when it emerged that one in 10 of those who received a special payout from the government was a foreigner, sparking outrage, screaming TV debates and vicious online coverage. How very dare we work and pay our taxes fair and square, and then claim a benefit that we’re fully entitled to.

This will all be recycled and reproduced for the next round of elections. It’s happening already in Greece with the main opposition party, New Democracy, not feeling at all ashamed to court the extreme right, with the result that their position in the polls did not go up, but that of Golden Dawn did.

Too bad for New Democracy, and even worse for us immigrants.

It’s easy to buy into this simple explanation of immigrants being to blame for everything, of us being the reason for you being priced out of the market (rather than unscrupulous employers who won’t pay a reasonable wage), because it makes the native population feel safe, and seeking safety is a natural human instinct.

That too is a trap, because if anything the pattern of how the far right and populism in general operates has taught us is that their narratives work inwards from the outside, moving in circles and increasingly giving the people in the centre new groups of the population to be scared of or to dislike – the unemployed, the homeless, the disabled, LGBTQ individuals, women, single mothers, the list is literally endless.

So you might think you’re securing your own future by voting for such groups, but it’s very likely that you’re not. And the next time this all swings around again, remember that you too could probably benefit from talking to immigrants rather than talking about immigrants.

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What Americans in Athens Think About These Elections

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American elections are always a global event, but this year, more so than ever. In the birthplace of democracy, elections are nothing new. But there’s one group of residents who will be watching these elections with particular interest. These are the Americans living in Athens, a long-established and vibrant community from across the Atlantic.

Americans have been arriving on these shores in a steady stream for decades, engaging in elaborate word of mouth games to root each other out in the days before social media, and dealing with the consequences of American policies which sometimes breed anti-American sentiments in Greece. They’ve learned to love loukoumades as much as donuts and eat their pumpkin pie savory instead of sweet.

And they’ve left their mark. There’s the private American Community School established in 1946, which currently occupies a sprawling space in Aghia Paraskevi and makes you feel like you’re looking at a school in California rather than Athens. Election fever saw them host their own mock presidential debates among students. Head to Kolonaki, and you’ll find the Hellenic American Union, established in 1957 while in Pagrati, there’s the Athens Centre, running since 1969, where you can enjoy culture, Greek lessons and more.

And there’s also IKEA. Yes, IKEA. I know it’s Swedish, but several Americans I spoke to said they go there when feeling a little homesick, because “IKEA looks the same everywhere!”

The Americans in Athens have been talking, debating, encouraging friends to vote and arranging election parties as they wait for November 8. Now when I speak to them, they find themselves in a quiet period, the eye of the storm so speak, as they prepare for what comes next.

“I feel like I won the lottery!”

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Marty Eisenstein is a guitar teacher from Boston who has been living in Athens since 1993 after following his wife here. He’s been teaching music lessons at one of the city’s private schools, Campion, for 23 years now, and has a daughter who just started state university.

Marty is a rare breed because he’s also Jewish and a guy! “There aren’t that many American guys here!” he says with a laugh. He’s hoping Hillary Clinton wins, but “I don’t want to jinx it.”

The difference between how Greeks and Americans view these elections is pretty distinct, according to him. He was in the US a few weeks ago, and says that while in America, people might call Hillary Clinton dishonest, in Greece they call her “a monster, a warmonger. That’s the first thing many Greeks say.”

He doesn’t think much will change to his day to day life, since he’s not had much hostility anyway. He does remember one moment of anti American sentiment so sudden and so strong that it made him cry. “The lowest moment in my 23 years was during the bombing of Serbia. My local bakery owner turned to me and said ‘We’re not the same, Greeks and Americans.’”

Whatever happens, he’ll still be here, teaching guitar the next day. “I lived in Israel for a few years and I think Greece appeals to that Mediterranean gene I have. In that sense I like it here, that’s what’s kept me here I think. I love the place in a lot of ways.

“If you think what Greeks have been through economically and politically, anywhere else, people would have taken guns on the streets already. It doesn’t happen in Greece. To me that’s an amazing thing. and now that my daughter is going to university for free, as an American I feel I won the lottery!”

“Trump? He’s a faflatas!”

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Stacey Harris-Papagioanou moved from Chicago to Greece in 1985 and divides her time between the glamorous island of Mykonos and Athens. Both sides of her family as Mykonian, which is why she can still afford to live on an island the rest of us can only dream about.

“The summer romance with my ex was the catalyst for moving here, but my real love was Greece.” she says.

She has two children, and has always cast her vote as an absentee. The moment she realized how important this was was during the Gore-Bush elections of 2000. “That election was so close. So not only did I make sure I was always registered to vote, but I made sure all my friends were too.”

Stacey is a very active member of Democrats Abroad, and when we speak, she’s just spent the week calling everyone to make sure they are ready to vote.

There is a big buzz around this particular election. “Everyone is saying vote, whatever you do, go and vote, and a huge percentage have already taken part in early voting and absentee voting.”

She’s only ever experienced anti-American sentiment twice, once during 9/11 when she heard people saying that America had it coming, and now when Greeks ask her “What’s wrong with the people in that country? How can anyone vote for Trump?”

“Trump, there’s a Greek word that describes him perfectly. He’s faflatas (someone who talks a lot but does little)! The difference between the candidates is night and day, and what that means for the rest of us will be night and day.” she says.

In stark contrast to the Greek way of doing things, Stacey says Americans have gone quiet and avoid political discussion as the election nears. “People don’t talk too much so as not to fight, unlike the Greeks that are very passionate and don’t mind telling their opinion to anyone. Americans a bit more reticent in that respect.”

And when she wants to get a flavor of America in Athens, she goes to the usual places one might suspect – the Hard Rock Cafe in Monastiraki, TGI Friday’s in Kolonaki and Applebee’s when it was still open. “Or a coffee with members of the American Women of Greece, of which I’m a member. We can talk about home, or where to find ingredients. We used to make tacos from scratch when I first came here, now you can just buy them in the supermarket! It’s so much easier for the new girls!”

“I was called a spy!”

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Christine Jackson has been here since 1972 after coming to Greece with her husband and arrived right in the middle of the Junta. “I was working at Deree college when the polytechneio events took place. I wasn’t there that day but colleagues heard the tanks go in.”

Christine is one of the longest established members of the American community in Athens. “Once I was called a spy! That was during the Cyprus crisis. It was totally unprovoked, I was on the street and my accent must have been wrong and a man called me an American spy.” She has one daughter, who played a caryatid in the Athens 2004 opening ceremony.

After working at the Deree college – “which I discovered wasn’t actually American,” she worked for the next few decades at the Fulbright Commission, advising Greek students who didn’t have scholarships but wanted to study abroad. “It’s an addictive job. I still do it.”

When she wants to get her American fix, she heads to the Athens Centre in Pagrati for cultural events and poetry readings. It’s a place where she’s met and become friends with other Americans in Athens over the years.

A fellow American who she very much admires is the former ambassador to Greece, Brady Kiesling, who resigned after America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, becoming the first of three US foreign service officers to resign in protest. “That’s such a rare thing for a person to be that principled.” she says.

Christine says she’s very concerned about the outcome of these elections. “I think it will be a tipping point if Trump wins.”

“You can love your country and see that it needs improvements. Greeks certainly do that with their country. Patriotism is hollow if it doesn’t embrace the fact that you want the country that you love to be its best self not its worst self.” she says.

“If you can’t beat them, join them”

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Anna Goritsa came to Athens nearly 20 years ago to marry her Greek husband. She has two sons who are going through the Greek public education system. As an event travel consultant, she works with US companies based in Greece, so she’s around other Americans frequently, along with charity work and embassy events which keep her in touch with the community.

This for her is an election that’s turned the status quo on its head. “We are living in trying times and I believe that many of us who live in Greece are insecure on what the outcome will be. I’m very concerned. I believe that many US citizens will not exercise their right to vote during these elections.”

“When I am able to watch the elections with my fellow US citizens here in Greece, regardless of their affiliations, it’s more fun because we know why we are arguing. And yes we try to avoid prickly topics because we respect each other’s opinions. When watching with my Greek friends who have never lived or stepped foot in the US we argue for the sake of arguing.” she says.

As for anti-American sentiment, she’s experienced it a few times, but that changed with Greece’s economic crisis. “Greeks are experiencing anti-Greek sentiments all over Europe and have realized that the citizens of a country should not be judged for the policies of one’s government.”

Despite the downs, there have been some funny moments too. Back in 1997, Anna says she couldn’t find good-quality deodorant in Greece and so would have family and visitors bring stocks of American deodorant for years!

The American community in Athens has been a vibrant and well-established one. They’ve been through a lot together. But, Anna says, it’s very different for the new generation. “They’re not surviving because their potential and options are very limited and many are moving elsewhere. The same challenges exist today as 20 years ago for the newcomers. The number one survival quote when you move ANYWHERE in the world is “if you can’t beat them, join them.”

“I can’t wait till it’s over”

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Nick Barnets, a freelance journalist, has been coming to Greece all his life. He spent his summers in a village in Halkidiki but moved to Athens full time in 2014 to strengthen his career as a journalist.

For him, the elections are not just a political event. As a journalist, they affect his livelihood too. His job involves covering international affairs, and that will be affected by whoever is the next president. “Since I cover Greece, and occasionally Cyprus and other parts of Europe, the way the next president’s policies affect these areas will definitely affect what I’ll be reporting on and where for sure.”

Like everyone I spoke too, he’s anxious about these elections and the way they have polarized politics in the US. “I fear regardless of the outcome, there will be now more than ever in recent history, lots of hate and anger. If Donald Trump wins, there will be fear and anger among those who did not vote for him. If Hillary Clinton wins there will be fear and anger among those who did not vote for her.”

He’s finding watching these elections less intense that the last ones, because the last time around he was working as an election researcher for CBS News. This time, he can take a back seat and observe.

“This is the first time I’ve watched a presidential election from across the Atlantic, but it’s not as distant an observance as I thought it would be. Of course I’m also a political junkie, so I’m keeping up with it vigorously despite how upsetting this election has been.”

Anti-American sentiment is not something he’s experienced, especially not since Obama’s presidency and Greece’s recent turmoils which have meant that Germany has taken the place of America for disgruntled Greek sentiment.

Nick says his Greek friends are terrified of Donald Trump becoming president and are disappointed that Hillary Clinton is his main opponent in these elections. “She’s never really been popular here herself. They just can’t believe that we could end up in a world with Donald Trump as President of the world’s most powerful country.”

Perhaps it’s because of his job, perhaps because of the relentless, vitriolic and divisive nature of these elections, but Nick has had his fill. The sooner it’s all over, the better, as far as he’s concerned. “I can’t wait till it’s over, November 8th can’t get here soon enough for me because on the one hand I am always excited for watching the election results but also want this particular election to just be over with so we can move on.”

As one of the new generation of Americans in Athens, Nick doesn’t feel the same pull as the previous generation for getting a piece of America in the city when he’s homesick. That’s partly thanks to social media which keeps him well-connected with Americans friends and family. “But I do feel like I’m right back in the US whenever I’m at The Mall, because despite the stores being different and everybody speaking Greek, it really feels more America than Greece there.”

“I haven’t voted in a while”

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I’d easily call Rhea my favourite American in Athens, since she’s the first one I ever met. It was in her bohemian dance studio, festooned with belly dance costumes and off-the wall souvenirs she’d picked up over the decades that I learned two important things: how to dance first with my heart and then with my body, and how to stop taking life so seriously. It was there that I made my first Greek friends with my patchy, faltering Greek. She’s been somewhat of a mother to me, having seen me grow from a new student shrinking into the back of the room, through motherhood, miserable life events and the crisis which meant I couldn’t afford dance classes any more, and she lost nearly all of her students.

She then did something which I felt at the time was the equivalent of a cancer patient cutting all their hair off before it falls out. She stripped her studio bare. Today, all the costumes have been given away, the zebra-skin wall hanging is gone, the swords and coin belts have disappeared. My heart sank the first time I visited her after she carried out this purge.

Rhea arrived in Athens in 1975, and of all the Americans I spoke to, she is the only one who had absolutely no connection to Greece. As a professional belly dancer in California, she had a dream that she was dancing under the Acropolis. So she upped and left, and has been here ever since. Her tales of life in Athens, including the time she chased down an aggressive driver and attacked his car with her dance sword are endless, hilarious and sometimes sad.

Is she voting? “No. I haven’t voted in a while. I’m not going to go to the American Embassy and lose an entire morning or afternoon. I hate to say it… but no actually I don’t hate to say it. I never talk about politics. I’m telling you because you asked me. We’re not going to hell in a hand basket. The world will go on as it is.”

Athens’ 12-foot American

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My final American is tall and stoic, clutching a scroll in one hand and staring quietly at the traffic and offices opposite him.

He doesn’t say a word to me, but I don’t mind. You see, he’s a statue. The statue of President Truman to be precise. This rendition of the 33rd American president, a known philhellene, is a lightening rod for anti-American sentiment. Since it was erected in 1963, it’s been rammed with a car, bombed, toppled over and splashed with paint.

On the day I meet him, with hours to go until polls open, Mr Truman is looking pretty good, but a closer inspection reveals little specks of red paint clinging to the bronze and larger splashes generously flecked on the surrounding ground.

In an election campaign where both sides paraded childish statues of each other, at least this statue of an American leader retains some dignity, even when he’s brightly decorated with pink and red paint. It could be worse. He could be a statue of Donald Trump.

A condensed version if this article appears in Greece Is. 

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The Waiting Game

I wish I was writing this on the triumphant cusp of an agreement. I wish I was writing it without calculating my route today based on how many ATMs I’ll pass, which ones might have the shortest queue and factoring in “Queue Time” in my schedule.

The Build Up:

When the referendum was called, I was still in the UK for Hermes’ appointments. It brought home what an information vacuum that the circumstances we are living in in Greece today have been defined by. Information in the UK was scarce, and what was available was panicked.

I had no idea what to do. I called my husband “Should I leave the kids here? How bad is it going to get?” He reassured me that it would be fine to come back. And rightly so. Back in Athens, there was no unrest, no riots, no disintegration of the social fabric.

I spent the week before the referendum feeling the momentum build. Athens turned into a city with a one track mind. From old people to teenagers, there was one sole topic of conversation: the referendum.

I spent Friday evening playing with my children at a playground in my neighbourhood and wondering if I should go downtown. Both No and Yes camps were holding rallies within walking distance of each other. I was already feeling these circumstances, the ATM queues, the worried friends, starting to wear me down. As a freelancer, there isn’t always an outlet for my coverage to go to, so the trip downtown wasn’t going to be worth my while in money terms. Couldn’t I just stay and play with my kids for a while?

Eventually I decided the rallies were too important to miss and headed off. I was sure I’d missed them, but when I got there around 10pm, the streets around Syntagma were bursting with people. The atmosphere was electric. You couldn’t move. I became stranded in a small island near a souvlaki seller. Rallies (and riots) being something of a national sport, fast food vendors often pop up where they think they can do business. When I managed to slide out of the crush, I walked through the National Gardens to Kallimarmaro, wafting barbecue smells behind me.

Even in the darkened park, riot police who had been assembled but luckily had nothing to do, were sitting in groups of three and four and talking about the referendum. As I made my way to Kallimarmaro, the Yes camp appeared empty. This was interesting. I took a few pictures and doubled back to see if the No camp was still going strong. They were. The gathering had turned into a concert. There were too many people to get a good shot, so I climbed some scaffolding to get my pictures.

The Big Day:

By an incredible stroke of good luck, referendum day dawned with me running around Athens with a video journalist from the Guardian. Around Athens, talking to people, the same message played out.

In a taxi, the driver said “We want to be in Europe. We want to be a part of Europe. But not a Europe like this, not a Europe that’s always telling us what to do.”

Frank Sinatra’s Summer Wind came on the radio. How ironic I thought, listening to the lyrics. We listened in silence. “I’ve met Sinatra, you know” said the taxi driver finally. “I was a footballer for Olympiacos. I’ve met him in California.”

In Pireaus, the poor twin city of Athens where the port is based, and where Greece’s main production industry was based until it went bust, the mood was in favour of No with a few Yes’s scattered around.

At a kafeneio, old men joked and laughed with each other. In Greece, nearly all the media outlets, print and broadcast, are owned by oligarchs that push their own agenda. The impression we had been given in the run up to the referendum was of a society falling apart, deeply divided along socioeconomic lines.

Wherever I went, there was no sign of that. Two men joked with each other. I asked them if they’d been able to get their pensions. One of them, a Yes voter, said he had. “Ask this guy!” he said, pointing to his buddy “He didn’t take out any of his money from the banks!” His friend, a No voter, retorted “As if I have any!” They both roared with laughter at this.

The level of anger people felt became increasingly apparent during the day. Over and over again they told me the same thing: We chose already, we voted in January, Syriza knows what we want, why are they asking us to choose again? Forced to choose once more, they would do so, this time using the vote to send a message to Europe and say no more, we’ve had enough, we can’t bear it, it’s literally killing us.

During a break, I called my husband and dared to make a guess, “I think it’s going to go to No, and by a big margin.”

I had come down to Zappeion press centre with a dress for the evening and left straight for a good friend’s wedding after changing in the women’s toilets. As the sun set and the bride walked up the church steps in the golden light, tears pricked my eyes. I had been steeped in economic talk for weeks now, listening to young people in their early 20s who had lost all hope for their future. It was such a relief to have something so joyful to be a part of.

By the time the couple reemerged from the church in a shower of rice, the referendum results were out. No had won. On the way to the venue, the streets of Athens were deserted. Long queues began forming outside ATMs. My husband stopped and filled the car. At the wedding party, a plague of little flying beetles had descended on the venue. “Look at this,” I joked “Where’s the world’s media? We voted no and the plague has immediately started.”

Imagine, getting married on referendum day and arriving to see your guests constantly flicking little bugs off their clothes and hair. Luckily, the insects had dispersed by the time the bride and groom arrived. Across the city, No voters partied until dawn in Syntagma square.

The Day After:

The morning after the No vote, both yes and no camps were wondering what it all meant. If the No voters thought Europe would soften its stance, that didn’t happen. But if the rest of the world thought Greece would implode into chaos, that hasn’t happened either.

I spent another day as fixer for a really great team from the Guardian, speaking to many people in the central markets. At one point, we met a butcher from Pakistan and got chatting. He invited us all back to his little flat in Metaxourgeio. “The Greeks are good. If they can solve their problems, this will be the best country in the world.” he said.

“You’re my sister now” he said. He’s been here eight years and can’t get his papers, not from the Greeks and not from the Pakistan Embassy who I’ve been told more than once are utterly useless when it comes to helping their own citizens.

“It’s nice here,” he said. “Peaceful. You’ll come again, right? You must come again. Bring your family, sister. Did I know when I left home this morning that I’d meet my sister today? I didn’t. This was destiny.” he said. His eyes were sad. The more we talked the more he revealed about his life. He’d left Pakistan suddenly after his brother was killed in a bus accident.

“I couldn’t bear the pain. So I left. I had a big shop there, more than one shop. But it hurt too much to stay. When his son was born, he looked just like him. I couldn’t take that.”

He hasn’t been back since. He can’t leave. When he started talking about his mother, his Urdu slipped into Punjabi and I knew the topic must be really painful for him.

A story within another story. “Sister, promise me you’ll come again with your family.” he said as we left. I will, because I must.

The butchers in the meat district, the man in the fabric shop where I bought the fine white net to make a friend’s wedding veil and fabric for the flowing, luxurious belly dance trousers I used to make when I had the time. These are streets I’ve walked in before, shops I’ve shopped from, people who know me and who I know too.

Both living and reporting this story has come to feel very tiring. There is no off switch. I was fortunate that I was working with such a compassionate team, what they were seeing and hearing bothered them. Still, at times, I felt as if I was pulling the team along in a boat behind me, myself waist deep in the water.

What I mean to say is, at the end of the day, a journalist outside this story goes home and puts this story away in a little box. They stay dry. I went the same route as them, but I go home soaked through with the stories I’ve been told that day, the sadness, the frustration, added to my own constant worry about what’s going to happen to me and my family.

What Now?

Over and over, from my kids’ nursery teachers to the policeman in Syntagma police station, Greeks ask me the same thing: “You’re a journalist? So tell me what’s happening. You must know more than I do.”

Everyone is convinced that as a journalist I have access to some source of information that they don’t. Before, on and after referendum day, I got asked that same question. And again and again, I’ve had to answer that I know as much as they do.

We have no answers. Despite being in the centre of Europe’s biggest story, information is slim, and changes lightening fast. My hands are aching as I type this, too much has happened over the last few days. I did a telephone report for a Canadian TV channel. By the time I hung up, what I had just told them minutes ago had changed again.

On the streets of Athens, the public are starting to realise that the referendum didn’t actually mean anything. The new deal being proposed contains even more bailout money – the very thing the No camp opposed. Once again they’ve been ignored, once again they’ll be the ones that pay for everyone’s mistakes.

Greeks have gone into survival mode. We are living in an economic war zone. We live for today with no idea what will happen tomorrow. No one dares to guess. The public is shaking its head in disappointment, and topics of conversation have moved on to other things. This is a population so exhausted, so worn down, that they are protecting their very last asset, their hope, by not engaging any more in this political circus. They are carrying on as they did before, taking each day one day at a time. I can tell you, it’s a very tiring way to live for over five years.

As the owner of a souvenir shop told me yesterday, “How are things? Things are the same as they were before, except without money.” I stepped back onto the streets that, despite what you may have heard, were still buzzing with tourists. Business as normal, it’s just that our normality seems to change constantly.

Greece’s new, actual final, totally unchangeable, end of the line deadline is this Sunday. Today, they have to deliver a viable proposal to their furious European counterparts. As for what happens next, who knows. A friend of mine received the best answer to this question. “What happens after Sunday?” she asked.

The reply says it all “After Sunday comes Monday.”

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All eyes on Greece as the nation votes

Votes cast at a voting centre in the Southern suburbs

Votes cast at a voting centre in the Southern suburbs

Athens’s central squares on Thursday night were transformed as Greece’s major political parties jostled for position in their final major public rallies before Sunday’s election.

In a scene so ironic it seemed for a moment to have been set out on purpose, the current centre-right government party of New Democracy was forced to share Syntagma square with the Communist party, KKE, albeit at different times of the day.

Less than a mile away lies the run-down square of Omonia, situated in a severely neglected part of the city plagued by drug use, rough sleepers, prostitutes, petty criminals and shabby buildings. It was here that the left-wing Syriza’s  Alexis Tsipras chose to hold his political rally.

Tens of thousands of people crammed into the square that is usually deserted after dark to hear his rallying cry of the coming of hope and change in Greece and Europe. Once a fringe party, Syriza’s lead in the 2012 elections caused total panic with their hardline stance against austerity.

Then, no one party had been able to form a government, leading to a second round of elections in the same year. In the space between the two events, spooked by rumours of a Grexit if Syriza came to power, voters backed off and their lead slipped.

This time, with the markets reassured about the possibility of Greece leaving the Eurozone, things are different. In a country as austerity weary as Greece, limping along exhausted with no finish line in sight, the voting public has put its weight behind Syriza more as a means to punish New Democracy than out of a real belief in Syriza’s promises.

Austerity, much despised by the Greek public, was meant to offer a way out of the country’s financial mess. Instead, several years down the line, things are barely any better. In the last few years, Greece has received a total of  EUR 227 billion in money from the EU and IMF. No other nation has received as much in the last few years.

Detailed analysis of where the money went, showing that 32% went to paying maturing debt, 19% to Greek Banks recapitalisation and 16% to interest payments, only added fuel to the fire.

Since 2008, the country’s economy has shrunk almost 25%, with the Greek stock market losing a whopping 84% of its value. Unemployment rose to 26%, millions of Greek households were dragged below the poverty line and the birth rate declined while child mortality rose.

The austerity measures imposed by a troika of the IMF, EC and ECB turned a European Union country into a shadow of its former self, and this outcome is what Syriza and other parties like it latched onto to propel themselves up the opinion polls.

In December 2014, after failing to satisfy their latest demands, the troika had given Samaras’ government an extension to the bailout terms into early 2015. With presidential elections scheduled for February, this presented a problem to the current prime minister who was seeking to show the public the success of his plan while still in office.

If the parliament of Greece fails to elect a president after three rounds of voting, Greek law states that general elections must then be held. If this scenario played out after the troika’s next bailout meeting, Samaras would have to walk away without any of the glory of being the leader that brought Greece back from the brink of disaster.

So he took a gamble and brought the presidential election forward to December, thus triggering early elections in the process.

The public response was immediate, and Syriza led the polls from the beginning by a margin of around 3%. The last polls, released last Friday, showed that the lead had widened to 6%. As of Saturday, Greek law prohibits any more polls being issued and calls for all campaigning to cease. This window of silence, the eye of the storm, is meant to allow the public time to reflect and make up their own minds without being swayed.

In a country where 22% of the voting public is aged 70 and over, Syriza’s campaign has stood out. It has been slick, modern and heavily sold the message of hope in response to New Democracy’s increasingly panicked scaremongering.

Syriza’s electorate is by and large under 30. Their campaign has embraced social media, and their campaign website is in both Greek and English. Greece’s disillusioned youth have embraced them with gusto. They have set social media alight with various hashtags, including #ftanei, meaning enough in Greek to voice their frustration at the decimation of their futures, and #sexyAlexi in homage to Syriza’s charismatic leader.

Their problem in the eyes of nervous lawmakers and economists in Europe, however, is the same anti-bailout stance that has rocketed them to popularity.

No political party has so far offered a viable alternative to austerity, Syriza included.

I spoke to Kevin Featherstone, the LSE’s Eleftherios Venizelos Professor of Contemporary Greek Studies and  Director of the Hellenic Observatory who said “Greece needs further debt relief, of some type, in order to help the return to growth and avoid crippling constraints.  More and more economists would recognise that something of this kind is in the interests of both Greece and the euro-zone.”

“The other agenda is of the need for domestic structural reform to improve the efficiency and effective of public administration. This last agenda is one that has been inadequately taken up in Greece and one that SYRIZA seems to oppose. But it is crucial to enabling Greece to converge more with the EU and to become more competitive.  Without this second agenda, the credibility of Greece’s claims on the first are seriously undermined.”

The world’s media have descended on downtown Athens, awaiting the first poll results which are expected to be available from 21:00 on Sunday night. Over 800 journalists from around 76 media outlets are in the city to cover the events as they unfold. As the world watches, this tiny Mediterranean nation that sent waves through the financial markets will wonder if Monday morning will see them counting the cost of their gamble.

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Local Elections in Athens – Round 1

Greeks vote in local elections starting tomorrow

Tomorrow, the first round of local elections take place in Greece. Up for grabs are positions in Greece’s 325 municipalities in 13 regions.

We always know when local elections are coming up in Greece. The local mayor goes around smashing up his municipality’s paving and replacing it with new pavements, or gets a couple of buildings and public schools hastily painted, and we are all supposed to be impressed.

Elections are a frustrating time for me in Greece. As a foreigner, I have no right to vote in them, and therefore no right to influence the issues that are important to me. For example, those lovely new pavements I mentioned. My older son has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. More than a few times, I have come home from a walk with him in his pushchair, crying tears of frustration because in Athens, pavements come in the most un-mobility friendly design you can possibly imagine. It’s like they have a dedicated person sitting in an office somewhere, looking at street plans and toiling late into the night to work out how precisely he can make the pavements as hostile to people with mobility issues as humanly possible.

So we get two choices to pick from. Either pavements that are broken, cracked and have chunks missing from them, making them ripe ground for children and old people to trip and fall, or pavements that are built with trees planted right in the middle of them, making them impossible to actually use if you are in a wheelchair or pushing a stroller and forcing you into the road. Both selections come with an ample choice of cars parked across them, making them almost completely inaccessible at the best of times.

If there is a stupider design for pavements, I have yet to come across it. We recently had a fantastic new metro station open just down the road from us when the red line was extended. Alimos station is a really beautiful, airy metro station and has connected my neighbourhood to the centre with a mere 20 minute metro ride. The area leading up to it was all newly built too. And what did we get for pavements? A brand new, impossible to navigate with a pushchair, tree-sprouting pavement.

There was no excuse for this, this was a completely new project. I think into the future, my son’s future which for now, with no current cure, definitely includes a wheelchair, and  I feel dizzy from the anger I feel. I feel like going around with a golf club in the baby bag to smash up the cars I see parked across the precious few mobility ramps these ridiculous pavements have.

One excuse is there is no money. I find this hard to believe. In the run up to the local elections, our mayor in Elliniko-Argiroupolis has blown who knows how many Euros building a nice little square on a scrap of wasteland between a main road, Vouliagmenis Avenue, and  an electronics store. They’ve even put down grass, which in Athenian summers costs a small fortune to keep alive. We also got shiny new benches on this nonsensical square, because God damn it, my dream was always to have somewhere to sit while I watched the traffic during rush hour on Vouliagmenis, with an ugly electronics store behind me, and now my dream is a reality.

I have gone off on a tangent. The biggest prize up for grabs in these elections is the seat of mayor of the municipality of Athens proper, and there are five main candidates running. The English version of Eleftherotypia provides an excellent summary of these candidates here.

The candidates are an interesting mix. They are a reminder of how much has happened in Greek politics in recent years. We are faced for the first time with the hideous prospect of having a neo-nazi in the most important municipal post in the country.

There are lots of crisis-driven, crowd pleasing strategies going on that lean to the right, disturbingly towards the realm of Golden Dawn. For example, Aris Spiliotopoulos, the New Democracy candidate, made a big show of officially leaving his party to pursue the mayoral seat and opposes the building of an official mosque in Votanikos, no doubt in a bid to get himself some of those Golden Dawn votes.

The centre right government earlier this year passed a law that banned second-generation immigrants from voting in elections, effectively silencing the voices that would have used their vote to reduce the stronghold of Golden Dawn. It all makes for such depressing reading it’s often easy to forget that this is the birthplace of democracy we’re talking about.

As central Athens bears the brunt of the country’s enormous, badly handled illegal immigrant issue, who knows which way these elections will go.

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