“I knew nothing but shadows and I thought them to be real.” Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Grey
“Greece is always in my heart”. My command of the Greek language is no better than that of a precocious two-year old, but these words of love flow easily. I repeat them time and time again, this to the delight of some and to the utter disbelief of others. You love this country? They ask this question as though speaking to a child of limited understanding.
What’s not to love? I reply. Neither my smile nor my feelings wane. I see the gambit that is Greece: its history and culture, architecture, democracy, medicine, science, and language and yes, also its chaos. And still I’m in love.
I feel the passion for life in the crowded cafes, the heated discussions that seem to flow as easily as the Greek coffee. I love this frenetic life Greeks lead. It makes me feel alive, engaged, and always present. All this activity and commerce also reassures me that life is improving here; the recession has finally turned the corner.
One cousin accuses me of being naïve when I share my brimming praise. He says that I have an infatuation for this country that is not based on fact, but rather on a schoolgirl’s fantasies. “How much is a coffee?” he says. “Everyone can afford a coffee. And if they can’t, their families help. We are Mediterranean; we can’t stay inside, so we go out to be around others. It doesn’t mean anything.”
I listen to him, but refuse to believe what he’s saying.
Later, I venture to a restaurant he told me about several years ago. The place used to make the best galaktoboureko I’d ever had excluding my mother’s. The rest of the food was excellent too and the chatty, friendly owner kept me coming back.
The doors were chained shut, the windows boarded. The owner had made a life for himself and his family. Once. But as with all illusions, that life seems to have vanished into the haze of the economic downturn.
I didn’t get a chance to talk to him, but seeing that shackled door, I felt the owner’s disappointment as though it were my own.
As we walk through the center of Athens, I notice more closed shops and restaurants, a few burnt out buildings. And at the same time I see new places opening, construction projects in the works. The street markets teem. People beg on the street, protests still abound. How do I make sense of these contradictions?
We sit in another outdoor café with plates and plates of food in front of us with yet another cousin. We laugh and joke as we catch up. It’s been too long.
An old man, with no teeth and a cane for support limps to our table and extends his hand. His nails are yellowed and his hands chapped. I stare at the food in front of us. We have so much and he has so little. Still, I avoid his eyes, his plain outstretched need. Like everyone else we pretend that he is not there. Is it this dodging that allows me to remain blissfully innocent to what is going on in this country?
My aunts tell me the situation in Greece is worse than the last time I was here, some two years ago. My cousins agree. “But I’ve read that the recovery is fully in motion, that the government will exit the bailout by the end of the year.”
“I’ve stopped reading the paper,” two of my cousins reply. “They want us to believe this is true, but there is no recovery in our daily lives. It is a struggle, no matter what they say. And the threat of leaving the Euro is as strong as it has ever been.”
The sights, the sounds and now these discussions confuse me. I become introspective and quiet. Disenchantment seeps into my thoughts. My love has disappointed. Or perhaps it is my fault. I looked into the shadows and saw exactly what I wanted to see. Nothing more, nothing less.
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