As a child, I was fascinated by my mother’s, and her mother’s, tales from the 1940s, and in particular their stories about life under the Nazi occupation. It is perhaps not a coincidence that children’s books used to be replete with grim tales of murder, dismemberment and assorted horrors.
Most of those tales were desperate attempts by my family’s women to convey to a young, spoilt brat the awfulness of their experiences, the value of bread, the memory of solidarity and resistance in an environment of crushing fear and loathing. The winter of 1941 was thus etched on my mind, almost complete with black and white images, that mother’s narrative had occasioned, of horse-drawn carts doing their morning rounds in the streets of Athens, collecting the corpses of those who had died of hunger the night before. Out of this tapestry of woe, one tale stuck out.
What made that particular tale stick out was not some act of inconspicuous heroism or unspeakable treachery (they were plenty of those in the other stories), nor a tragedy that the young mind found extraordinary. No, it was a simple tale of a week spent on some Peloponnesian beach, in the summer of 1943. My mother’s bother had been ill with TB and my grandmother thought it would help if he spent some time near seawater, away from the cesspool of grief and disease that was occupied Athens. My mother’s lyrical stories of the small pleasures that they enjoyed on that sunny beach, despite their empty bellies and the darkness enveloping the nation, took on a significance in my own childhood’s imaginary that is still with me.
August 2013. I am spending, as I write this, the last summer days, before returning to the United States, at Aegina – our Greek island sanctuary. It is not 1941, nor 1943. The restaurants are buzzing with their usual midsummer buzz, the sea is as blue as ever, the ferry boats carry fleeting tourists. And yet, Greece is in the grip of a calamity that those who lived through the 1940s had thought they would never have to live through again. But I must desist. For this is not the place for analysis and argumentation about our contemporary Greek catastrophe. This is a piece of brief summer tales. So, allow me to relate three such stories.
Dimitri is an Aegina boat builder who makes a living by servicing and looking after small boats. He is our own zodiac’s guardian angel, which we moor at Aegina harbour next to his magnificent speedboat; a super-slick, super-fast 8m vessel that his meagre earnings could never buy him and which he effectively built up with his own hands. Yesterday I met him on the quayside. Less jovial than usual self, his face invited me to ask him “what’s wrong”. “It’s the coastguard”, he replied. Two days before they confiscated his boat temporarily. Why? Because the coastguard’s own speedboat would not start, as it had not been serviced for two years due to lack of funds. So, they took Dimitri’s boat to speed into the horizon, armed to the teeth, in response to some report of an act of piracy between Aegina and the island of Poros. They returned two days later, empty-handed and, to Dimitri’s despair, empty-tanked. Five hundred euros worth of high octane petrol had gone. “Did they not reimburse you?”, I asked naively. “Don’t be silly”, came his reply. “How could they reimburse him when the Aegina’s coastguard’s budget cannot even afford to buy an air pump for their own inflatable?” Dimitri, it was abundantly clear, bore no resentment toward the coastguard officers. His sadness was a mere reflection of the average Greek’s sadness at the sight of a bankrupt state which is forced to expropriate what little its citizens have been left with.
Speaking of fuel, for the past two months Aegina’s petrol stations run out of petrol regularly. For days and nights on end, tourists approach them in anticipation of filling their rented vehicles’ tanks up, so as to be on their merry way, only to find that the pumps are not pumping. Even worse, leased yachts sail into Aegina harbor, carrying tourists who paid thousands of dollars per day for the privilege of sailing our blue waters, only to find that the quayside diesel pump is dry. The first time it happened to me I imagined that some labour dispute was responsible; of the petrol pump employees, of the petrol tanker drivers, of some trades union along the chain of distribution. A few days later someone explained the actual reason: “It’s the crisis, my friend”, he said, clearly enjoying the fact that he was about to explain something about the crisis to a seasoned ‘crisis commentator’. What happened is that the larger of the two shipping companies that share the Aegina-Pireus franchise (Hellenic Seaways) has reduced the number of vessels it keeps on the route from eight to three. One of these, the majestically named ‘Poseidon’, is meant to carry fuel tanker trucks to Aegina once a week, as part of a deal with the state (since state regulations prohibit the company from carrying passengers when it transports large quantities of fuel). Off-season this deal is a nice little earner for Hellenic Seaways and the Poseidon keeps Aegina fully fuelled up. But, during the two summer months when tourism picks up, the company makes more money ferrying noisy tourists than ferrying fuel tankers. So, the weekly fuel run becomes a bi-weekly, or even a tri-weekly, ritual; starving the island, and its tourists, of essential energy supplies. When I questioned an official on the rationality of the situation, he retorted: “No one stops you from using the Poseidon to take your car to Pireus where there are plenty of petrol stations to fill it up.” Tragically, instead of cursing him, I began to discern a point in his counsel…
Readers of this blog need no reminder of the human emergency in Greece’s public health system, following the bankruptcy of the state apparatus. Nor are they innocent of the corruption that plagues our health service. What you may not have heard of, however, is the story’s ‘other side’; the heroic one. (Yes, there always is one!) Hellenikon, meaning ‘Greek’, is a southern suburb of Athens, the locus of the old Athens Airport. In Hellenikon one can encounter the benevolent face of the crisis. Several public health doctors, nurses and practitioners have established a medical centre where they spend their free time, for free, providing free medical services to all-comers. The centre is gaining a reputation fast for excellent medical care and for a true humanist spirit. Coachloads of Greeks, migrants, locals and people from other cities come to Hellenikon for treatment, medicines that they cannot otherwise afford, solace even. Remarkably, even though the centre seeks support from anyone willing to assist, it refuses point-blank cash donations. If you want to help, they will give you a list of the pharmaceuticals they need; they will post online a request for toner for their photocopier; they will ask people to help transport patients in their cars or perhaps to lend them a mini-bus. But they will not accept cash as a signal to the world that theirs is a form of untainted act of pure solidarity. The doctors and practitioners responsible for this miracle of humanity are, nonetheless, deeply rewarded. One of them told me, almost in tears, of a phone call they had received. It came from a woman whose husband had just died of cancer. Her request? That someone from the centre goes to her home to pick up his chemo drugs. “He would not want them to go to waste, when so many cancer patients cannot afford them”, she said.