The transformation from world citizens to migrants…
Do you remember it? “Why? Did you forget?” might be your ironic reply. It was exactly four years ago. The entire country sat glued to a television screen. Ok, it didn’t exactly come as a surprise. For some time now Greece had been headline news in the international press. The English word ‘spread’ had found its way into our vocabulary. It wasn’t long before bad things started happening. You couldn’t really grasp the meaning of the message from the idyllic setting. On 23 April 2010 Giorgos Papandreou announced that our country had signed a memorandum. ”I have already instructed the Minister of Finance to take the necessary steps. Our partners will offer immediate, decisive support to provide Greece with a sheltered harbour that will allow us to rebuild our ship with sturdy and reliable materials,” he said. Actually the only sheltered harbour that existed was the one the former Prime Minister used as the background at Castellorizo . The ship began to sink and our much sought after goal, our “Ithaca” , became a point on the horizon that you’ll never reach, even though it’s in clear sight.
We were finishing university around that time. We came of age in the bubble of a ‘strong Greece’, ran in the streets waving the Greek flag to celebrate winning the Euro Championships, watched the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Games choreographed by Dimitris Papaioannou awestruck, and laughed at the almost quaint, folksy Closing Ceremony. Today we’re cursing those Games, asking how much they cost, as we sit watching the Olympic venues fall into ruin. We studied business administration, or opted for an education that would secure a definite position in the public sector. Nowadays there are no businesses to run and the public sector is firing rather than hiring. Today kids filling out their preferences for uni opt for military and naval schools that offer a low but certain wage, or for agronomy (there’s been a 77% rise in applicants for the Athens Agronomy School) as people turn towards alternative crops, or for tourism schools (with a 45% rise in applications for the Thessaloniki School and a 93% rise for the Rhodes School). Of course, law school and medical school remain firm favourites.
We wanted to move to a different town, taking the first tentative youthful steps towards independence; to try out all the delivery restaurants in the area; to master student revelry without having to listen to the nagging question, “Will you be home late?” We argued in the amphitheatres about Louis Althusser’s “State ideological apparatuses”; came to understand the “vulnerable life” as a successful condensation of Butler’s critique of post-modern society; signed petitions to abolish the Tobin Tax in the Third World and considered that we’d paid our debt to history by participating in the student movement against the revision of Article 16 . We had our passports to hand, ready to do postgraduate studies in Paris, to wander round LA or engage in self-management experiments in Chiapas, Mexico.
Then December came, a precursor of the dangers ahead, as the cracks began to appear in the veneer of normal life. It was then we realised for the first time that life didn’t owe us anything; instead it was holding us to account. We came down to earth, face to face with the reality of over-consumption, alienation and social violence. We painted our faces with Maalox at demonstrations to protect ourselves against the tear gas; made pamphlets against the occupation of the Greek National Opera; and complained about just how bureaucratically-minded the trade unions were. We weren’t scared though. We were ready to face life, to go on long journeys, build major careers, and find great loves.
Yet now we find ourselves stuck in long queues… the ones you pile into daily to submit a CV, to collect unemployment benefit, to apply for work abroad, or to enter into a debt repayment scheme with the electricity company or the tax office. We are ‘the lost generation’ as modern sociologists and political scientists have dubbed us. We stand next to the generation born in the period 1883-1890 who came of age during WWI, which is when the term was first coined by Ernest Hemingway. We had to give up our expensive smoking habits and withdraw to our childhood bedroom with a faded poster of Jim Morrison, the TV on spouting advice about career opportunities for saffron growers and snail farmers, and a degree lying buried in a pile somewhere since mum was no longer in the mood for that classic Greek ritual of framing degrees.
Youth unemployment among the under 25s is 62% in Greece. 30% of young unemployed people are under- or post-graduates. Historically speaking, it’s perhaps the first time that such a well-educated and trained generation is sinking into the spiral of social exclusion. It’s estimated that youth unemployment is costing the Euro Area € 153 billion a year in unemployment benefits, unutilised productivity and reduced tax revenues. Of course it’s costing young people an awful lot more. It’s making the “vulnerable life” a reality that’s being experienced rather than an academic turn of phrase. It’s making the “deprivation of meaning” a collective experience rather than an intellectual-sounding night-time pickup line. Now we’re signing petitions to stop the bank selling off the home of some unemployed man in Perama or to get someone with a heart problem but no social security into a public hospital. We’ve transformed from world citizens into immigrants. Almost half the Greeks of working age are looking for a job abroad according to a survey commissioned by HRM company, Adecco. Young people are at an impasse, trying to escape both literally and symbolically. According to a European Commission report, 64% of young Greeks aged 15 to 35 said they were willing to become economic migrants to seek out a better environment to life in.
We’ve got our passports at the ready; our pockets lined with Xanax. We learned about the “primal trauma of existence” reading Julia Kristeva, and imagined psychoanalysis as an integral part of a progressive lifestyle for a successful generation. We never expected that we’d experience a choking feeling on the metro; that we’d feel our stomachs tense up the minute we walked into the office; that we wouldn’t want to open the curtains in the morning, that in the evenings we’d be stuck machine-like in front of a screen that we’d be swearing at; that it would be anything but love that kept us awake at night. We’re depressed young people without a divan to lie on.
After the initial shock and rage, comes a period of mourning they say. We took to Syntagma Square again, our faces now used to being painted with Maalox against the tear gas; hell, we even got used to the tear gas. Now we’re getting used to loss. We do a tally at the end of the month: how many colleagues lost their jobs; how many friends left for Germany; how many empty shop windows there are on Stadiou Street; how many drivers sound their horns in a bad temper on Kifissias Avenue; how many homeless people there are in Klafthmonas Square; how many outstretched beggars’ hands there are in Omonia Square… The only thing we’re not counting is national insurance contributions, as we become increasingly more convinced that we’re never going to get a pension. When Prime Minister Samaras spoke of the Greek ‘success story’ on Twitter, we felt like we were being trolled. We’re stabilising the primary deficit in our own lives and we’re not really convinced that our day-to-day life will improve radically now that the word ‘fresh’ no longer appears on milk cartons.
It’s precisely what Sonia told me when I explained to her that I wanted to write something: ”Write that spring may have come but we continue as if it’s still the heart of winter”. That’s what I tried to write. For the concluding remarks I’ve saved those images that scream and shout that fucking spring will come eventually, to shine light in the darkness and that this generation will cast off its ‘lost’ moniker: the cooperative bars that have sprung up along Kolokotroni Street opened by young people bored of being numbers in some Hellenic Statistical Authority report; the humorous trending stories in the social media that make me laugh when I’m writing a story about the social dividend being distributed; the colourful markets every Saturday in my local neighbourhood selling food straight from the grower without any middlemen; the friends who tell me to “wise up and join them for a beer”, while you play hard to get; the surprised faces of pedestrians when you stop at the crossing to let them cross the road; a banner of murdered rapper Fyssas at the football supporters club Thira 13; and two blasé glances exchanged in an erotic flirt at some antifascist festival.