Letters from Greece
By ROZ DINEEN
Not long ago, we were hearing a lot more from Greece, but while the debt crisis has hardly passed, the coverage has certainly diminished. The story that 700,000 migrants arrived in Greece this year has understandably overshadowed the machinations of the Greek Parliament as it reluctantly approved an austerity budget for 2016 that will include significant increases in privatization. Perhaps we will hear more from our news outlets when measures to double the income tax for Greek farmers and a new round of pension cuts are put forward. Perhaps not. A recent, harrowing episode of Crossing Continents on BBC Radio 4, Greece: No place to die, reported on the exhumation of graves which are often only rented for a three-year period.
There is appetite for stories that emerge from impossible situations. The Syrian refugee crisis has given rise to several admirable examples (such as this, this and this). But this sort of long-form reporting doesn't suit all publishers; it is often deemed too expensive to create and too time-consuming to digest.
Step forward Letters from Greece from the innovative digital publishers The Pigeonhole press. The Letters were curated by the Greek literary agent Evangelia Avloniti, and they arrive to Pigeonhole subscribers in instalments on any device. Its beautiful illustrations include works by the New York Times contributing photographer Eirini Vourloumis.
One of the stand-out letters is by Angela Dimitrakaki, a celebrated Greek novelist and a senior lecturer in History of Art at the University of Edinburgh. She revisits a topic she has written about before, the distinctive apartment culture of Athens, and depicts the atmosphere of life in this city. In short: everything is awful and, at one and the same time, not so bad.
Dimitrakaki recounts what it’s like to return to Athens from abroad:
"When I used to live mostly in Britain, I expected not to see the infamous Athens traffic jams upon my return, thinking that no one could afford petrol any more. Despite the frequent phone calls home, despite my regular travels back and forth, despite my formal training in suspecting the media of, well, lying, descriptions of Greek destitution were impossible to dislodge from my head. After as little as five days away from the apartment, I would start questioning my first-hand experience of the reality of Athens."
Another man returning to Greece is Peter Papathanasiou, who was born in Florina but then adopted by a family in Australia. In his dispatch, he has returned to see his biological brothers and renew his Greek identity card. He occupies the ideal insider-outsider position from which to relate to us the intricacies of a different culture:
“The taxman or inspector comes to your shop, fakelaki. You open any business, build anything, go anywhere, you need the magic fakelaki. It’s the way business works. Without it, nothing happens. It’s an ancient and noble tradition. Like growing your best olives on land the taxman can’t find.
My brother had also told me a story about my adoptive mother, who came from Australia to adopt a Greek baby from an orphanage. She had been living in Australia for so many years that she didn’t offer a fakelaki, thinking they no longer did that in Greece. She walked away from the orphanage empty-handed. Had she remembered the time-honoured custom, she would not have asked my biological parents to have another baby, and I would never have existed.”
As he recounts his trip, Papathanasiou also traces his grandfather's harrowing journey from Anatolia to Greece in 1923 as an Orthodox Christian refugee at the time of a population exchange with Turkey. It reminds us of our continent's history of people escaping, on foot, with no aid, in desperation. Meanwhile, Angela sits in her apartment with friends whose lives have been diminished by the Greek crisis, watching videos of refugees in Calais and Macadonia. “Our own city is full of pain, and who are we to be enjoying a fabulous risotto among people we have loved for years and others that we may love in the future? Guilt . . . . Heavy with stupidity, our times do not condone cultural openness. Our times display a collective preference for structures of withholding and patterns of exclusion, and for punishment."
In conversation with each other, the letters link the old news with the new. They leak word from inside not a single crisis, but a nexus of geopolitical and cultural events, that – for the usual purposes of the news – must be teased apart and simplified for consumption.
To read A. E. Stallings's Freelance column of February 27 – "Snow on the ground, The Clash in the air – and Cavafy in Parliament" – click here.