Romance in An Age of Protest
This is a love story that says much about the times in which we live.
Here in Athens, against a backdrop of sweeping political and economic unrest, there are real people assembling down there in the streets – thousands of tired police, and hundreds of thousands of frustrated protesters.
Even when there are few massing in Syntagma Square, police in riot gear are always nearby, working double and triple shifts. Some haven't seen their families since this latest uprising began.
Demonstrations are nothing new to this city. Greeks go public with their dislikes all the time. But the recent events are different.
Everybody understands matters have reached a breaking point of sorts. As the debate in Parliament moves to an austerity package certain to divide the population further, patience will wear thin.
That is when the real damage takes place, altering lives – sometimes forever. What is playing out in this city is more than swelling crowd shots and lead videos on the evening news. Some real people are facing very personal crises.
Let me introduce you to two of them.
Marina and Costas
Marina S. is a 25-year-old Greek woman doing graduate research in Athens. She was in the audience when I addressed the Athenian Institute earlier in the week and came up to the podium afterwards to ask a question.
Since she has the same first name as my wife, the two Marinas started a conversation of their own. Later, she would be in a group of students we sat with for hours. It was clear from the conversation that all of them were in support of the protests – and against the government.
I see her again several days later, as another crowd is massing in Syntagma Square, across the street from the Parliament. Marina S. is on the first step of the wide stairway making its way down from the street to the square itself.
The loudspeakers are alternately blasting music and rally slogans. Meanwhile, on the other side of the street, blue buses are disgorging riot police carrying shields.
A police cordon is forming once again. The symbolism, however, is even more painful for a Greek. Because directly in front of the Parliament and directly behind the police barricade is the Greek Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Should the crowd storm the building, they would desecrate one of the most cherished monuments in the country.
The police have rubber bullets and tear gas. However, if the crowd breaks their ranks, regular army troops comprise the last wall of defense protecting very unpopular legislators.
The army has orders to shoot, although it is still unknown whether they will, in fact, obey those orders. (I have personally witnessed this scene played out in like situations, from Moscow and Warsaw to Lima and Quito. And I know soldiers often find it difficult to shoot fellow compatriots.)
Marina S. and I exchange hellos as she joins in the almost obligatory responses to shouts from the bullhorns. But her mind is obviously elsewhere. She strains to see who is on the other side of the street.
Her fiancé is named Costas – at 27, a rising figure in his chosen profession. He has even received a recent promotion… to sergeant in the Athens riot police.
Tonight, in a scene repeated several times over the past 12 days, these two will be facing each other from opposing lines.
In a detached voice, she tells me what it has been like.
“Some in the crowd will quickly start throwing things – bottles, rocks, whatever. I do not because I could hit my Costas.”
“Then why don't you just stay away?” I ask her.
“What, here in the cradle of democracy?” she replies. “You cannot stay away if you believe it is necessary to stand up for something. I think my entire country is now like Costas and I – torn in different directions.” Now laughing, she adds, “We have a lot of little Greek tragedies playing out these days.”
I want to ask her about how the events have affected their relationship, but thought it too intrusive. Turns out, she just starts talking about it on her own.
“We do not see each other much. Some of it is his schedule, and some of it is our concern over what his superiors will say if I get detained.” At that point she lapses into the Greek version of “crossing that bridge when we come to it.”
Their concern is genuine enough…
Last week I talked to one of the police superintendents during a cocktail party at the National Academy. He told me that every square foot of the crowd is under video surveillance with facial recognition software used to identify those he called “known agitators” and “outside militants.”
The police have also been known to settle accounts after the fact.
It turns out that the crowd is not going to be doing anything tonight. There will be speeches, “educational sessions,” and debates in the square, but nothing more.
The situation may worsen tomorrow and Wednesday (June 28 and 29) – a major citywide protest has been called. The streets are adorned with large posters announcing a two-day general strike, certain to be accompanied by additional unrest in the streets.
Yesterday, I witnessed police beating up one of the taunting protesters hanging up signs. They put him in a squad car and sped off. These police are armed with real automatic guns. No rubber bullets here.
I start making my way back to the hotel. Before I leave, however, there needs to be one more – intrusive – question.
“Are you two still planning on getting married?” I finally ask.
“Yes,” she says resolutely, “but our child needs to come into a better Greece than we have now.”
Seems Marina S. is expecting Costas' child.
Everything in Athens these days has a sense of personal urgency about it.
Another Kind of Crisis
The schedule calls for my wife Marina and I to leave Athens tomorrow morning. We have arranged for a private driver to the airport, because the general strike will grind to a halt all transport in the city.
Next stop is Mexico City, where I am to arrive Wednesday afternoon on my own. Friday's Oil & Energy Investor will be coming to you from there.
I'll be in Mexico to advise PEMEX, the national oil company. PEMEX is experiencing another kind of crisis – significant production declines along with rising organizational difficulties in a country the U.S. relies upon for crude oil imports.
Will fill you in on what I find out.
Then, on July 2, I will move on to JFK to meet my Marina for a flight to Morocco and another consulting assignment. Will take you along on that one as well.