Greece: a Rock and a Hard Place

Five days until the new elections here in Greece and I wake early. There are two things I get used to very fast when I return to Greece: the cocks crowing from 5.00am onwards – the cock on my elderly neighbours small-holding seems to be the sentinel bird for the whole valley – and the lighthouse; every couple of minutes its distinctive pattern of two long flashes and two short sweeps across my bedroom wall. On sleepless nights it’s something of a comfort. The constant rhythm of lighthouses and ports, fishing boats and ferry schedules is one of the constants of this nation.


This-morning small scuffles outside the front door turn out to be two cats and three kittens sitting round a propitiatory dead rat and below my house a young and smiley Albanian labourer is listening to a badly tuned radio. When I go past him later I notice his three mobile phones and suspect a complicated love life. Greek pop music is not Anglo-American pop music like elsewhere in Europe. In most taxis bars what you hear is a blend of tumultuous ballad and folk with musical hints of the middle east. “S’agapo” I love you, I love you, go nearly all the songs. A gay Greek friend says, half scornful, half wounded, ‘oh they’ll all sing it, but they’ll never say it.’

Nothing obvious has changed since I left Greece last autumn. Last year saw whole backstreets of shop closures in Corfu, taxi strikes, ferries suspended because of forged documentation, the occasional appearance of traffic wardens and their portable rules on my small island and the panic when the tax inspectors arrived, unheralded, from Corfu. This year a few shops in better streets are boarded up. A Greek small hotelier tells me he may not last the season, a British travel agent confirms bookings are down 20%, yet the streets and cafés in old town Corfu are reasonably busy.

But the real change is in mood: last year there was humour as well as resentment in the Greek predicament. ‘Pay me next year in drachmas’ said a boat owner when I hadn’t got the right change. This year the predominant feeling is of sadness and even shame. Every Greek I talk to, of every age, occupation, class and political persuasion, professes themselves weary of their crisis, yet all of them start talking and stay talking about it.

In Greece it is compulsory to vote, although there are no arrangements for the very many (disgruntled) Greeks working or training abroad to vote unless they return home. Many are doing so. On the whole the countryside votes differently from the more polarised politics of the cities and the islands vote differently from the ports that are their main contact with the mainland. But allegiances are shifting under the pressure: a middle-aged Greek, a well-educated traditional conservative, will not vote for Samaras (“I knew this man from a boy. He is an idiot’) . He hopes for a Syriza win as he fears otherwise Syriza as a potential miracle will always be a distraction, but he worries about reaction from the far right: "it could be worse than the civil war", he says. A young woman – a fine poet – and a male publisher in his 60’s say that Orthodoxy and its propaganda underlies Greek hostility to immigrants. A sociologist tells me that the Syriza bloc contains both candidates who have advocated armed protest in the past and those who are respected teachers/lecturers, idealistic and active in their local community, so represent the best and worst of political life.

Athenian residents talk with profound dismay of a current breakdown in law and order in poor city suburbs, the constant visual presence of Golden Dawn and their strong base of support in the police. One mentions a man who had squatters in an empty property and asked Golden Dawn for help. The squatters were evicted but only after they’d been forced to clean and repaint the premises.

This island elected a Syriza candidate last time round and the only political posters I have seen support him: a wise and conventional looking man in his 50’s. A small building down the lane used to be the HQ of the communist party, with a shabby red flag and a painted sickle on the wall, but it was restored to a house last year, its past obliterated. PASOK was daubed on various ruins years ago but has almost faded now and nobody has added to the graffiti.

The Communist Headquarters

What is new this year is frequent talk of the days of the Civil War and the military Junta and, above all, a sense of deep anxiety and embarrassment.
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