You would be hard-pressed to say there was anything amiss in Kolonaki, the upmarket area one stop along from the centre of Athens. Here, amid the Parisian-style apartment buildings and boutiques devoted to the sale of all things Athenian — furs and leather thigh-high boots for the most part — there are no empty shop fronts, and anyone going through a rubbish bin is quickly moved on.
Down on the boulevard that separates the area from the less well-heeled Pangrati, a mild desperation is more in evidence. It’s not the old women, sitting alongside the pathway leading down, using empty ice-cream cartons for begging bowls. There are more of them than there used to be, but it’s not an unusual sight. The jugglers holding up traffic are.
There’s two of them, in red check shirts, cascading three skittles, jumping on each other’s shoulders, and then, as the red light goes into its final seconds, break apart and make their way among the cars, collecting money in out-held baseball caps. They do surprisingly well.
In the break between red lights, they are willing to talk, but not much. Won’t give names. Both are performance students, who had gone into mainstream work — teaching, arts admin — and were now, retrenched, back pursuing their art, in circumstances they didn’t really count on. Are they discouraged? “What do you want, a moving story?” drawls one. “For a piece of re-por-tage?”.
The light turns red, and they leap into action again. There is something stirring about their routine, a piece of performance meticulously timed to the demands of a computerised machine, free play routinised as a symbolic gesture, the money earned half transaction, half donation. It beats the low-level shakedown of the squeegee act, but watch it half a dozen times, and you can see the mix of tedium and irritation pass across their faces.
If those young men, and the other million or so unemployed, were hoping for good news yesterday, it wasn’t forthcoming. Figures announced yesterdayday had Greece’s economy contracting by 5%+ over the course of 2011, the news announced hot on the heels of the unemployment figures.
Put together, the figures are a repudiation of the austerity measures imposed on Greece at the beginning of the crisis, a notion that has been quietly factored into the more recent deal, which includes several separate funds for employment programs, and nationwide infrastructure projects.
The measures were announced by PM-not-elect Lucas Papademos in a long and almost aggresively drab speech to Parliament last night, a performance seemingly designed to emphasise that the country was being run by an administrator, and implementing a program that cannot be questioned.
“The important thing about Papademos is that he can talk to the banks,” commented Michael, a financial analyst. “He was an ECB supremo, he can get them on the phone.”
Said another: “With Papademos and Venizelos [PASOK finance minister] we’ve got half a chance of getting through this. We had none before.”
If the enthusiasm for the networking qualities of a former European central banker, and Goldman Sachs alumni is not shared among the wider population, there is at least a sense that Papademos’s actions have no agenda other than what he is charged with doing over the next three months. Trust in politicians, especially from the two major parties, is at an all-time low.
“We have not only stopped believing them, we have stopped listening to them,” Christina, a teacher tells me in a half-deserted cafe near her school. “Whatever they say now makes people totally angry, they can’t respond to it. They speak but it is impossible to know what has been decided from what they have said.”
This reaction is widespread, and fuelled by Papandreou’s quixotic, late, call for a referendum, and New Democracy leader Antonis Samaras’s staggering opportunism in declaring that his party is both in the government, and yet somehow still the opposition.
It explains one paradox of the whole process: that Papandreou’s deal, which had the country up in arms, can be accepted when it is being steered through by an unelected Prime Minister. With the exception of the 20% or so supporting parties resolutely opposed to the deal, the anti-political mood is so total that conspiracy stories have begun to flourish.
The cynicism extends to Papandreou, whom most non-Greeks find difficult to see as anything other than a decent man, in a situation well beyond his political skills. Not in Greece.
“Everyone is saying that Papandreou did what he did because his brother had invested in credit default swaps abroad, and he wanted the whole deal to crash, that Papandreou was under instructions. I don’t believe it, but I don’t know what to believe,” said Christina.
The cynicism is registered in new polls, which show PASOK sitting on 19%, and the New Democrats on 24% — “fifteen years ago these parties were taking 80% of the vote together. For New Democracy to be only five points ahead after what PASOK has had to do is pathetic.”
With Parliament in session almost continuously over the past 48 hours, so that every MP can give their opinion of the deal, there’s an uneasy mood in Athens. Teams of police are everywhere, drinking coffee at all-night kiosks, whipping through the streets in motorcycle phalanxes. Side streets are roped off with crime-scene tape, for no discernible reason. Corrugated sheets are across numerous shop fronts, but it’s impossible to tell whether they’re closed-up, smashed up, or being renovated. “Watch yourself in Syntagma”, the city centre, three people have warned me, though there is no sign of present trouble
But the confidence vote, usually held at midnight, has instead been scheduled for noon Wednesday, so that Papademos can then get out of town — and so as to avoid November 17 actions kicking off at the witching hour and going for a full day. By then, the Greek Prime Minister will be in Brussels, trying to keep the skittles in the air, in a world run by machines.