And I say “This is what life should be like. There is nothing else”. I believe it. I am convinced. And Yota smiles and nods. And for a small fleeting moment, I feel as happy as I can possibly feel. There are no more problems in the world, just the sun and the sea and the smell of salt in the air. And I realize that no matter how far or how close I am, this is my home. The home I leave, but the one that always beckons me back as a siren.
Penelope Vaxevanes | email@example.com
It is a truth universally acknowledged that in Greece all problems cease to exist in the summer. When the sun becomes blinding, when the heat becomes intolerable, when everyone starts talking about islands and beaches and cocktails in summer clubs, annoying everyday problems start to fade in the Greeks’ minds. The summer is here and it is taking over everything.
And it was like that that I landed in Eleftherios Venizelos airport on the last night of June, after a 17-hour long trip, with the temperature reaching 30 degrees at 2 am, making everything and everyone uncomfortable. But I was home after ten long, long months. Home, in my bed that seems foreign. Home, at my house, that seems strange, yet familiar. Home, where my mother has to remind me all the time that we do not flush toilet paper, because “You are not in Germany”. Home, in a neighbourhood where everything feels and seems the same. Home in the big city you always love, even when you hate it so much. Home in the country that has changed in ways that are so subtle, yet so dramatic, in ways that are cruel yet delicate, in ways that I could never really describe to someone that has not experienced it first-hand… and yet, I’ll try.
The first few days pass in a daze, with a never-ending array of coffee dates and dinner dates with friends and family that I haven’t seen in months. They ask you to tell them how it has been. What do I answer? How could I, ever, describe how it was? Can I tell them about any little detail of 10 months split in three countries? Can I tell them about everything I lived and felt? How changed I feel? But I do talk, because they expect me to and I see them smile and say how jealous they are and how all that moving from country to country must have been so exciting and fun. Most of it is not, but I really don’t want to sound ungrateful and they don’t want to listen to me being a little over-privileged brat.
And then I ask about life in Greece and I offer my first impressions. What are my first impressions? Everything seems the same but feels different. “Everything has gotten so cheap”, I offer. They do not agree. It doesn’t matter if something has gotten cheaper when you cannot afford it either way. “The coffee is less than three euros”, I offer again. “How much is it in Germany?” they ask. My argument, suddenly, becomes very weak.
They are right. All of them. But I am too. Everywhere you look, you see small restaurants that offer cheap, simple food. The number of gyros places has tripled in my area because you can have a big meal there for less than 5 euro. It is good, affordable food and a chance for a family to go out and enjoy a meal. The nightlife booms. Everywhere you go, there are new bars. You can hardly find a table to sit on a Monday night. When I point that out I always hear a cliché “Greeks will cut from their food, but they will never cut from their fun time out”. It is true. But what is also true, is that all these new bars that have opened offer good, inexpensive drinks. Sometimes with no proper service, sometimes in plastic cups, but still the quality of the drinks is high. And then, there are all these new Greek beer breweries. Ten years ago, a Greek beer was a joke. Not anymore.
I walk to the centre of my suburb in Athens, Halandri, one warm evening in July. I am with my best friend Electra and her boyfriend Matt. For as long as I remember, since we were small girls, we have been talking about living abroad when we graduated from university. She has been living in London for more than three years, but now she is moving back to Athens and Matt is joining her. They want to open a bar like those I described. It is very difficult but, in this market, to me, it doesn’t seem like the worst idea. And like this, Electra becomes the only Greek I know that moves back to Greece instead of going as far away as possible.
One steaming July morning, I find myself in the Piraeus port of Athens, at the house of my friend from my Erasmus days in Lyon, Ioanna. She is a new mother. In what is a true marathon visit, we talk about everything that has happened since I last saw her at her wedding. The baby, the jobs, the family life, our Master’s degrees, our times in Lyon, all mingled together with food, sweets and coffees, until it’s late and Dimitris, her husband, comes back from work. He owns a small ship cleaning company with his family. Conversation turns to the crisis and how difficult it is to raise a child in this economy, how their mentality has changed in one year but also, how lucky they are to be able to have the life they have. Ioanna tells me how depressed she becomes when on the train to Athens, she just sees gloomy faces. “No one smiles”, she complains. And I think about that. Have I seen anyone smiling genuinely? Was the smile reaching their eyes?
The last part of my vacation is, as expected, the vacation part. I take the 12 hour ship to Kos with my friend, Yota. For almost two years she has been working in a tourist shop in the posh tourist shopping district of Plaka, in the centre of Athens just below the Acropolis. Plaka is booming every summer with tourists trying to find the best kind of souvenir from Greece. We joke all the time about how I do a Master’s in Euroculture and she did a Master’s in fake ancient statues sale. She has been recently forced to quit because she was no longer affordable for the business. In one year, the new labour laws state that they can hire people who are aged 25 and under, and pay them half of the standard 8 hour minimum wage. It’s supposed to be a solution to the huge unemployment rate for people aged 25 and under. Being over 25, suddenly, becomes the worst feature on someone’s CV.
And we arrive at the port of Kos, an island that used to be cosmopolitan, rich and a huge tourist attraction for foreigners, especially English and German, in the 1980s and 1990s. At the bus station, waiting for the bus to the village where we will stay, we learn that this is a dead summer. It’s not that the tourists are not coming to Greece. It is that they are going to huge hotels that offer all-inclusive accommodation with three meals, snacks, and all beverages in their holiday packet, therefore leaving nothing for the local businesses of the islands. Tourism still represents more than one fifth of Greece’s income but the future seems uncertain. Another part of Greece’s future that seems uncertain.
And finally we are at the sea, and the sun shines brightly, and we relax in a way that you can only do one meter from the blue sea, the sea that is the only thing that I miss abroad, the sea that is part of the Greek DNA. And suddenly, as if by a miracle, no problems exist. I do not think about the year that lies ahead. There is no Master’s thesis to write. I don’t have to move to Hamburg where I know no one. Yota is not unemployed. The crisis is forgotten. We have only one concern: how fast can we get tanned without getting cancer?
And when we are burned beyond recognition, and we cannot ignore our bellies that want to be fed, we move to the little tavern, where (illegally) the tables are 50cm from the waves, and we eat the Greek salads and the fried calamari and the fresh fish, and we both smile. And I say “This is what life should be like. There is nothing else”. I believe it. I am convinced. And Yota smiles and nods. And for a small fleeting moment, I feel as happy as I can possibly feel. There are no more problems in the world, just the sun and the sea and the smell of salt in the air. And I realize that no matter how far or how close I am, this is my home. The home I leave, but the one that always beckons me back as a siren. The country that is in deep trouble, but always finds a way out of catastrophe. The country where nothing works but everything somehow makes sense. My home, Greece.
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Penelope is from Greece and studied French Language and Literature in the
Philosophic School of the University of Athens. She studied in the University
of Göttingen and Jagiellonian University, Krakow, and hopes to fulfill a career
in Cultural Diplomacy.