What it Means to Live in Greece Right Now (or "The Persistence of the Frappé")

Post-protest graffiti in Athens, March 2012

I haven't written yet, because I truly haven't known where to begin. That, and I tend to get distracted reading about all of the other amazing things people are doing whenever I log on to the Global Conversations website...

I have been in Greece since January of this year, with just a brief trip back to the U.S. to eat Mexican food (almost unheard of in Greece), drink a wide variety of beer (really only one type in Greece), and enjoy time with loved ones (none of whom are in Greece...yet).

These past 6 months in Greece have been perhaps some of the most important in all of Greek history. I did not come here to study the economic situation or its impact on Greek society, but it would be remiss of me to exclude talking about these things. These days, it's impossible to be in Greece without becoming somewhat of an activist, I think. Or, at the very least, being extremely aware of political developments and their effects. So that's where I'll start.

I often hear that one third of all private businesses, including restaurants and shops, have closed down in Athens since 2007. It's not hard to believe. A restaurant that was full of patrons one night could easily be gutted the next morning, disappearing without a trace. Small businesses, as opposed to chain stores, seem to be open for fewer and fewer days a week, making it almost impossible to reliably plan anything, since who knows what will be open and when? The H&Ms and Starbucks of Athens seem to be thriving, though.

This sort of constant ephemerality of life is inherently Greek, just brought to the extreme. The Greeks are an extremely adaptable and easy-going people. They siesta. They have long meals. They spend an hour every afternoon just sipping on a frappé (a ubiquitous Greek drink like iced coffee). I rarely see them get too worked up about anything and when they do, the curse words fly so easily that you can tell they don't really mean it. That is, until you start talking about politics. The Greeks have poured their hearts into their politics recently, protesting, arguing, fighting, and sometimes tragically dying in the hope of enacting change.

It is a type of political engagement that is hard to imagine for most Americans, even for me. I currently call Madison, Wisconsin home. Madison has also spent the last few years in a state of constant political turmoil and see huge changes in how and to what extent people are involved in political life and social issues. The sincerity of Madisonians over the past few years has amazed me and given me a renewed faith in the possibilities of American democracy. Leaving aside my own political leanings, the results of the governor's recall election in Wisconsin actually matter very little. What is important is that the last few years have seen people become invested in their democracy. They have been motivated to educate themselves, to interact within their communities, to be aware of the choices being made on their behalf by politicians. Some have even run for office, despite having no formal experience in politics. It has been a true pleasure to witness this change in Wisconsin. American democracy should look more like Wisconsin democracy.

But all of this pales in comparison to political engagement and activism in Greece. Obviously the issues at stake are very different. It is hard to imagine Americans being forced into economic depression by the demands of larger powers. It is difficult to know how that feels. For the Greeks, I think, it feels like they are losing not just their livelihoods, but their country. Having only won independence in 1832, they do not want to again feel the yoke of foreign rulership. Nor do they want to have to rely on a food kitchen for their dinner.

These are obviously just my own limited opinions based on the time I have spent here and the people I have come into contact with. And despite all this activism and political anger, Greece is still very much alive. The gyros are still delicious. The archaeological sites are still breath-taking, even if they are only open a few hours a day for lack of funding. The people still sit around tables at restaurants, drinking raki and singing traditional songs late into the night.

The day of the elections in May, I asked a Greek neighbor of mine what he thought tomorrow would be like. I wondered if there would be protests, if Athens would catch fire again like it had just two months earlier. He laughed. "Tomorrow, the cafés will still serve frappés," he said, "and so tomorrow, we will go and drink them. Just like we did today, and the day before that. We will keep drinking frappés".

That is the point, isn't it? Despite the fiery protests broadcast all over global media, Greece is still Greece. And it will keep being Greece. There will still be frappés.