Of Public Phones and Besieged Humans – Our first contribution to Witte de With's Review

Witte de With Contemporary Art Centre, of Rotterdam, has just launched its Review, both electronically and in print. As part of this effort, WdW have established desks in Athens, Cairo, Istanbul, Jerusalem and Ramallah – five ‘ancient’ cities. vitalspace.org, founded by Danae Stratou and yours truly, was selected as WdW’s Athens desk. Our first contribution is entitled Of Public Phones and Besieged Humans, a tale of migration, dislocation and the current Greek predicament. (For the WdW site click here – it includes complete photographic documentation)

The Call

The sun had just risen over the hills of Aegina. The corner store had just opened its door when I stepped in to buy a phone card. It would be the first time I used a public phone in years.

The calendar read November 2005, well before the Crisis that has now engulfed Greece broke out. The decrepit yellow public phone was on the opposite side of the road, adjacent to overflowing garbage containers and at a junction of narrow streets connecting the delightful town with the fields on which migrant workers toiled. It was to become the junction that connected my clashing worlds.

At the other end of the line, in far away Sydney, intermittent baby noises awaited. For three months, ever since her mother had taken her to Australia for good, the phone had become a dark corridor of irregular sounds, the harsh soundtrack to Xenia’s (my eighteen month-old daughter’s) absence. For several minutes every day, I would be speaking into it, never quite sure to what effect, merely hoping to maintain our fading bond.

While at home, in Athens, the morning landline call to Australia divided my days, like a harsh no man’s land divides two nations, two realities, two imagined communities. All my other calls, the anodyne ones that came and went insipidly, involved my mobile phone. The landline’s relative cheapness, when it came to reaching the Antipodes, had given it a privileged status in my displacement, blending it seamlessly with Xenia’s mute universe.

This dark equilibrium was perturbed when Danae crashed bravely through the solid fortifications of my woe. In the same month that I had tasted radical absence for the first time, I also discovered an incessant fountain of hope, love, presence, excited anticipation. When Danae suggested, soon after we met, that we spend a few days at her island summer house in Aegina, I did not think of the daily Call. Nor did I anticipate the heterotopia awaiting me at that Aegina phone booth.

As the first night on the island began to recede, turning into a damp dawn, I slipped out of Danae’s majestic, yet landline-less, house in search of that phone booth. It was like slipping into another world.

Exiting the corner store, phone card in hand, I joined a short queue. A Pakistani farmhand, already chatting away with his wife, and one Albanian construction worker who arrived just after me, eager to speak to his ailing mother in Shkodra. That was all. Three very different manifestations of migration in one short queue.

While I was the only ‘legal’ migrant of the trio, and stuck out like a sore thumb, our connection was closer than the other two could imagine. After all, I was there to hear the sounds of a little one whose maternal grandparents had migrated long ago to Australia, refugees from an older version of Greece which resembled so much the Pakistan or the Albania of today.

As I was waiting my turn, I became alive with an inner tension between multiple identities:

  • A former migrant to Australia, where I had lived for twelve years struggling not to acquire the mentality of a migrant.
  • A professor at Athens University, who frequently socialized with Greece’s rich and powerful, who ‘advised’ a future Prime Minister, and who was acknowledged as an ‘important person’ within an increasingly self-confident society that collectively treated migrants as a necessary evil—a society I was to re-enter the moment my Call was complete, leaving the ‘other’ migrants ‘behind’.
  • A father whose daughter could only be a migrant wherever she lived; in Australia as a Greek, in Greece as an Aussie, everywhere else as a Greek-Australian.

I still recall the sole source of succour while in that queue: It came when I recalled the meaning of my daughter’s ancient Greek name: kindness to strangers, who, in ancient times, also included the refugees, the migrants, the ‘lost ones’.

Annul it please!

In the Greece I grew up in, phoning from outside one’s home was the great social class equalizer. There were precious few phone booths but most kiosks (our beloved periptera) had a phone that was available to the public. Plebs and patricians, old and young, out of town visitors and local elements would poke their faces through the kiosk’s window and utter the same words to the proprietor: Mideniste to parakalo! [Annul it please!]. (What we meant, of course, was that we wanted to make a fresh call and, so as not to be over-charged, the ‘meter’ should be reset to zero.)

Indeed, Mercedes Benzes and Vespas, pristine high society ladies and workers from nearby construction sites (with the sweat to prove it), would stop at the kiosks to place a call. They would all queue up behind one another, on a first-come-first-served basis, ready to pounce on the one who talked for too long, or who was trying repeatedly to push through an engaged line.

Landlines were a different matter and their distribution told a vivid story about patronage and corruption. Rationed out on the basis of ‘connections’, not of the telecommunication kind of course, a family acquired a landline on the basis of a pecking order of dizzying complexity. Some homes had two or three landlines while their neighbours were on the waiting list for ten, even twenty years to acquire their first. In sharp contrast, phoning from a kiosk was a great democratic, and democratizing, institution.

The card

Phoning was not a simple endeavour in the 1980s. As our post-junta democratization in the 1970s meant more landlines for more people, the creaking telephone exchanges could not cope with the increased traffic. While most had now acquired a landline, a crushing ‘engaged’ tone would ring out of one’s receiver after two or three digits were dialled. Frequently, one would need to dial a number fifty times to get through. Or, comically, one would have to call a friend in a suburb that was easier to get through to and then ask them to call the other, unreachable, friend with a suitable message. Thus, the national cry for digitizing the phones grew.

By the end of the 1980s, the phones got better, courtesy of a deal between the telephone public monopoly and a Greek private monopoly that emerged as the local producer of digital phone technology, in cahoots of course with politicians and a well-known German industrial giant. Suffice to say that much of Greece’s neo-corruption, that is now world famous, had something to do with such arrangements.

An offshoot of these developments was a new type of phone booth, the type that I used in Aegina on that damp November morning. When they were spanking new, these booths were magnificent specimens of modernity; devices that signified Greece’s strides as a modernizing European nation. Moreover, the telephone company had gone out of its way to erect these booths in every nook and every cranny of urban and rural Greece. The rate at which they grew is, I am convinced, a great proxy for the Greek economy’s overall debt-driven expansion; the product of a corrupt private sector working closely and energetically with a tainted political system.

I vividly recall a friend’s pride when he opened his wallet to show me his new treasure: a newly minted phone card! He could, he explained, stop his car, a magnificently preserved 1960s white Jaguar, wherever he wanted, insert the phone card into one of the new public phones and, without a word to some kiosk proprietor, place his call with a single punching-in of a string of numbers on a modern digital dial.

Alas, the democratizing powers of the public phones were not to survive the coming of the digital age for long. The mobile phone was around the corner…

Wireless divisions

When the mobile phone appeared in the 1990s, it was as if Dick Tracy’s watch-phone, Captain Kirk’s communicator, and every child’s fantasy had been packaged into one neat device. But it was a dear device. During the first four or five years, class and relative financial imprudence were the main determinants of who sported a mobile phone and who still used public phones.

Before long, naturally, as prices ebbed and credit cards multiplied, no self-respecting Greek would rely on public phones when a mobile was so much more chic, not to mention convenient. A third mobile telephony company was added to the existing two franchises, allowing for a further drop in prices that brought the population’s majority into the ranks of mobile equipped citizens.

While everyone was acquiring a mobile phone, the divisions were deepening and multiplying. On the one hand, there were the migrants, whose numbers were burgeoning during the 1990s, and who became, along with some disenfranchised Greeks, the sole users of public phones. For even if they did have mobile phones, so as to be at the beck and call of actual and potential employers, they always relied on the trusted public phones for communicating with their loved ones back home.

But even amongst the new mobile phone users, the divisions were subtle but ever present. A number that began with 6944 meant that one was more likely to have acquired the phone from the more expensive company at a time when mobile phones were a luxury. Numbers that began with 693 were decidedly less prestigious, while those that had a 697 prefix were decidedly “bus-class.” Still, few cared.

As if on an escalator moving inexorably upwards, it did not matter, we were being told, that some were several steps further up the moving ladder. What mattered, the smart set insisted, was that Greece’s social economy was growing faster than France’s, Italy’s, alas even Germany’s! That half of the population felt increasingly worse off, as their wages and pensions failed to keep pace with rising prices, also did not matter. That our industry was fading was a concern only for old-fashioned moaning minnies. In any case, the din caused by so much money making was drowning all the dissenting voices.

While torrents of German and French financial capital flowed into the businesses of the Greek nouveau riche, either directly or through the ever-obliging Greek state, the nine million mobile phones that flooded a nation of ten million people were just symbolic of the brave, new, strong Greece. Our Prime and Finance Ministers were adamant: Greece was now “in Europe’s hard core” [sic], its governments and ruling elites congratulating themselves for having ‘shielded’ our economy from every possible threat, under the protective cloak of our new currency: the euro.

Crisis

Then, a couple of years after the global financial system went into a 1929-like spasm, came Greece’s Great Depression. After a quarter of the nation’s income disappeared between 2010 and 2012, and taxes reached their terrifying pinnacle, a large swathe of Greeks mothballed their cars, disconnected their dwelling’s electricity supply, even stopped using their mobile phones.

Suddenly, Greek faces were seen queuing up at the ageing yellow phone booths which they had not used for many, many years. Native Greeks and foreign migrants were, perhaps for the first time, using the same dirty receivers; the same almost-erased dialling pads; the same relics of a previous spurt of modernization.

As for Danae and myself, the Crisis has forced us to migrate to the United States. And while Skype and an assortment of new technologies have diminished the tyranny of distance, every time I dial a number, or click on a Skype address button, to reach Xenia or family and friends back in Athens, the feeling of dislocation I felt while at that short queue for a public phone in Aegina haunts me. It is, I suppose, the price one must pay for a footloose life in a troubled, post-modern world.