Can the past save the future?
Photo courtesy of the author
By Amalia Melis
I got a call today from an American cousin visiting us in Andros, the island our family is from. She invites me for a swim; real world stuff. I could get in the car with her and get whisked away to another village, spend the day by the sea. I could put my hands on my ears and not hear any of the headlines, not listen to pleas for rational decisions to be made in Greek Parliament whose members never agree on anything other than Greece’s destruction.I could cover my eyes and not see the winding ATM lines at the closed Greek banks in Hora, the capital of the island, with weary village faces, old and young, waiting, and waiting.
I have never been told I am allotted only fifty euros from the bank per day. Because of this I panic, I think I need more. In general I never need more but the denial feeds my fear.
In Andros, everyone knows everyone else. Most people I recognize on the ATM line are my parent’s age and don’t know about debit cards, some wait for hours to figure out what is happening, some push to get inside the bank to talk to a teller only to be turned away. The ATMs run out of money, panic sets in, tears. I have never lived through anything like this before. I have never been told I am allotted only fifty euros from the bank per day. Because of this I panic, I think I need more. In general I never need more but the denial feeds my fear. Need to keep the car filled with gas, need to get bread, need to get milk, remember to eat.
Two days ago I went to the municipal office to pay fees for my mother’s upcoming art exhibit. She keeps sane in this financial chaos by painting the Andros landscapes, the mountains and village where she was born. I ran into Mayor Theodosis Sousoudis, who is a childhood friend. He invited me into his office and expressed his worries. He said he didn’t know how the situation would go. His hands were tied. He told me that municipal employees are working with no salary, no money available to replace worn town water pipes, no money for gas to fill the garbage trucks. He mentioned that some cultural events were cancelled and the Goulandris Museum and other art centers on the island have fewer visitors this year.
Reporters swarm the streets of Athens, only miles away, seeking the true interview, the “honest point of view.” There are those who pass by here briefly, for a summer’s respite, and claim they know Greek experience. They may have waited one day on line at an ATM but they want to own the drama, the ruins and the repercussions of living here, working here, trying to raise a family here. It is not their experience. It is not their moment. It is the Greek public’s moment. The painful austerity measures we have been living with since 2010 are ours. We don’t get paid on time or at all. I am a freelance writer and many of us who worked for one magazine remain in limbo; the publisher left the country and has changed professions. What’s left of the magazine office staff had nothing to say to out requests for payment. How are we to make a life decision about something simple like a doctor’s appointment with invisible money? We put it off. We don’t prioritize even the priorities.
Last week, the Greek public was urged to vote in
Yet I want to hide this country’s vulnerability, this pleading for cash. It is embarrassing. We are exposing the family’s dirty laundry. The begging of my country combined with this particular Greek government’s arrogance while it begs is like a neighborhood bully huffing and puffing at the feet of Europe. We scare no one but ourselves. A photo of an old man crying makes its way around the world in the media. After going to three banks he was unable to get the allotted pension money for his wife and he broke down crying, falling to the ground. I don’t want to see this kind of desperation. Not in this country, not again. I was weaned on these stories: neglect, austerity, poverty. The healing from WWII and the Civil War that followed has taken a long time to happen, it has not happened completely and continues to divide us.
She said villagers don’t like to go in to that room because the dead are in there, and she uttered a line I heard only once when I was a child and held her hand as she and I walked through St. Michael’s cemetery in Astoria, New York after visiting my grandmother: “The dead won’t hurt you. The living will.”
Am I communicating with ghosts of my father’s generation? He and many villagers like him grew up with little to nothing. Barefoot, hungry and desperate. Children who turned into men who turned into sailors who sailed away from Andros and worked on ships forever to feed families left behind. Some died on the boats, some returned, all are prisoners of poverty.
My family fled Andros; each member in his or her own way. Both of my parents worked hard in New York to raise a family, make ends meet, and, of course, to fulfill a lifelong yearning to save enough to return to the homeland. They did. But there is a twist in their loyalty to Greece. Since Citibank closed operations earlier this year in Greece, their American pension is no longer available from Citibank but it is now deposited in Alpha Bank, a Greek bank, so they too are trapped in the Greek senior citizen loop of getting only 120 euros out every two weeks since Greek banks remain closed. I worry about them. I worry about my husband. I worry about my child. I worry about everyone I know. My parents are over 80. What if they need more money for something I can’t predict or plan for? What if we do?
I decline my cousin’s kind invitation and send her off to swim alone. I can’t be in the here and now and I am in no mood for suntans and lunch. I want to curl up and be silent but I get in my car instead. I know where I am going. I don’t know why it is calling me so strongly today but I must go. I am going to be with the dead.
My daughter is scheduled to go study in the U.K. this fall. She turned around to her father recently and said, “Dad, thanks for raising me Greek.”
I want to be with family today – the family that has already left this place. Perhaps the howling wind has some secrets I can hear. Perhaps I can make out an answer to my questions, to what I feel, this overwhelming sense that no matter what decisions are made in Greek Parliament and then with the Eurogroup, we have failed. We are The Boy Who Cried Wolf, the ultimate Aesop’s Fable and the strongmen of Europe are wagging rigid fingers in our faces telling us, We don’t believe you. You are liars. What will this mean for our future? My daughter is scheduled to go study in the U.K. this fall. She turned around to her father recently and said, “Dad thanks for raising me Greek.”
I gaze out at the view from the cemetery; the sea and Stenies village stretches out far ahead, the deep green cypress trees, the white houses with terra cotta rooftops. Small paths cut into the villages. The wind is so strong it howls into my ears. No one is here but me.
The cemetery is situated at the edge of town. If I could draw it I would imagine the setting for Our Town only harsher because right beside the cemetery is a small building that houses our ancestors’ bones in small boxes with the person’s name on it. We have an old ritual here – every three years, the villagers take the remains of their loved ones, wash the bones with wine, wrap them in savano (the white cloth of the dead) and place the remains in these small boxes.
I open the small church door, all is quiet. My legs start to shake a bit when I open the door to walk into the room with the boxes. I scare myself. I find the wooden box with my grandfather’s remains, there is a small black and white photo of him with his sad eyes. Those eyes have been inherited. They are my father’s eyes, my aunt’s eyes, my eyes. I find my uncles, aunts, my great grandfather, my great grandmother; her name has been carried on: Franseska, my mother, Franseska my niece.
The family names Raissis and Valmas are scattered all over the cemetery, common names in this village. I think about this island and how it has changed, how it has stayed the same. Sariza the mineral spring is a blessed constant in our village and runs continuously from the mountain. The marble lion head at Sariza is worn at the spout from where the water pours out forcefully. I remember the water as a child on my first visit to Andros from New York. Sariza was like holy water to us, to be held, to be taken in, to be had as often as possible. As if drinking it would keep us satisfied every time, we, the family of immigrants, left on our journey back to the working class world we came from in Astoria.
I want to believe that today’s visit to my ancestors at the cemetery, to the wise villagers of long ago might have something to say. We have gone too far away from where we came from: the soil on this earth and the sea. I visited all of them today. I remembered each and every one of them in the room with the dead, how they lived, how close they were to the earth they tilled, the sea they sailed. We are no longer connected to either in the cities we live in. We acquire and acquire but feel empty just the same. Is that what Greek politicians suffer from? The European Union funds poured into Greece in the 1980s and 1990s, farmers stopped farming and most sit in kafenions drinking coffee, drive their BMWs and employ Pakistanis as slave labor to till the earth that was theirs, their grandparents. In many sectors it is the same, while 1.5 million Greeks are unemployed there are immigrants all over the country doing drudge work no Greek wants to do anymore. Something is wrong with that picture. As a daughter of immigrants I watched my father work two jobs his whole adult life, no work was beneath him, if it was honest. That lesson one cannot buy, family teaches us that. My ancestors taught my father, he taught me. These last forty years or so brought us to the current breaking point. Is the disconnect to blame for where Greece stands today?
I can only write about all this as I live it.
We chose the story, we chose the plot, the ending is upon us. We are the Greek drama; the Greek tragedy and comedy all rolled into one. The world is our audience and the critics soon will judge.