Thursday, 21 June 2012

Letter from Athens: 21 June 2012

A mass sigh of relief was let out across Greece this week – and it had nothing to do with the politicians who managed to strike a deal and form a Government.

School’s out for the nation’s schoolkids, and for those aged 12 and up, that marks the end of a grueling month of intense revision for their end-of-year exams to determine if they graduate to the next year of High School.

By yesterday evening, the ink was dry on the last of the exams in the nation’s schools (though some youngsters still face the tests set by foreign language institutes, taken through private evening schools) and the kids could finally let their hair down and enjoy being young.

In an ordinary middle class suburb of northern Athens, like many across the country, the class of 15-year-olds graduating from Junior to Senior High celebrated in a uniquely Greek way with a show that combined a spoof awards ceremony, self-penned songs, traditional folk dances and a full-on mini-rock show by the students.

It was a much needed release of tension for these adults in training. They’re part of a generation having to come to terms an uncertain future, the overturning of expectations and prospects, and the strain put on Greek family life by the economic woes of the country. These past two years have been more of a baptism of fire than an education for these teens now at an age when they’re becoming aware of politics and its effect on the society they live in.

Many have been caught up in the general anger of the time, fueled by massive disillusionment at mainstream politicians. Some have thrown themselves enthusiastically into the mob expressing their frustration in the most physical way at protests. Others have been even been charmed by the sinister siren call of extremism.

And yet, for most, teen life still goes on - albeit with some serious cutbacks. Fewer families than ever before have the means to head off for a week or two on an island or even their grandparents’ villages, take-away coffees drunk in the leafy shade of public parks have replaced hours spent in the city’s cafeterias, and jamming at a friendly house has taken the place of heading for a night at a club.

At their best, both Greeks and adolescents are irrepressible. They’re nearly always loud, frequently argumentative, often messy, and perhaps a little wayward – but their energy and lust for life is what they are all about.

Despite what some might think, it doesn’t take much to make them happy. A little respect, someone willing to listen to their point of view, the chance to express themselves without being slapped down by the Powers That Be (be they parents, teachers or the EU and IMF) and the right to have a say in their own destiny. Most just want to be left alone to enjoy the things they love – their friends, their family, their music and (yes, still) their beautiful country.

You’ll see their patriotism and passion on full display in the living rooms and balconies, coffee shops and bars of the country tomorrow night – when Greece and Germany go head-to-head on the football pitch in the Euro quarter-finals. Though few really dare to believe it, there’s a spark of hope that maybe (just maybe) the players in their national team might repeat the giant-slaying trick they pulled back in 2004.

Now, more than ever, they need a reason to celebrate.


  1. I love your thoughtful balanced writing, your powers of description and how you bring Athens to life for someone who has never even visited it, let alone stayed there for any length of time.

    The Husband was made redundant in March, after thirty-two years with the same company, so we too know what it feels like to have unseen puppets pulling our strings and making decisions where we get no imput. We have decided to leave his professional pension alone until he is sixty (he is 56 now) and spin out the redundancy money for as long as possible. This means we too cannot have a fortnight on a Greek island, regrettably, as we'd like to put some money their way. Even a week on Skopelos (my favourite) would see me right, but it is not to be, as we are down-sizing properties to release equity but it's a bloody awful time to try to sell a house at present so nothing has happened even by way of an offer, not in two months.

    If I were Greek I might be more patriotic, but I am English, so I am not. I love my country but its sports teams don't represent me in any way. I say let the best teasm win, and if that could be Greece it would be wonderful.

  2. I meant puppeteers at the head of my second paragraph, but the Freudian slip is telling; who pulls the strings of those who pull our strings?