Even in Arcadia is death
?Et in Arcadia ego? — even in Arcadia is death. Before it became a leafy generalized utopia, Arcadia was an area of the Greek Peloponnese and is still a province in the modern country. Brought up in the cold Green Mountains of Vermont, I found the hot, white city of Athens an arcadia, an alternative to whatever American locale I inhabited. But now ?Et in Arcadia,? for I have just learned that an Athenian friend has killed himself. His death was not a public protest, not like the recent suicide of a distraught pensioner in the capital?s Constitution Square [Syntagma], but I believe the outlines of the life and death of my friend Iannis represent much about the country that over the last thirty years was a second home to me.
Like that clever warrior and poor sailor Odysseus, Iannis suffered from nostalgia. Not what that English word has become, a sentimental attachment to the past, but the root meaning from the ancient Greek: homesickness. And to give the word a slight twist, the sickness of the home country where he died. After graduating from the Greek Polytechnic University, Iannis earned a PhD in engineering from MIT. He moved to New York City, had a lucrative job, lived in a great apartment, and took advantage of every cultural opportunity the city offered.
But Iannis felt the pull of home and returned to Athens in the early 90s. Like many brainy Greeks educated abroad who hoped to bring meritocracy and efficiency to their homeland, he had trouble finding a job worthy of his training and experience. He lacked what the Greeks call ?mesa,? an ?in,? a cousin or family friend or soccer buddy who could get him into the sclerotic, patronage-dominated and crony-ruled Greek workplace. Eventually Iannis took a job working on the new Athens airport, and thus participated in the Olympic overreaching that employed many Greeks in the late 90s on public works projects that ran up deficits and are now mostly useless and deteriorating. Though he wasn?t happy with the job, Iannis was making a lot of money. Unlike other Greeks, he was investing rather than spending.
About the time Iannis?s elderly parents became ill, he stopped working and devoted himself to maneuvering them through the opacities of the Greek public health system, which also often requires ?mesa? or, if that?s lacking, bribes. After they died, Iannis moved into their apartment in Exarchia, an Athenian neighborhood now the center of anarchist activity and a gathering place for many of the city?s illegal and impoverished immigrants. His dead-end street became a noisy, needle-littered, and tear-gassed slum.
Iannis tried to rise above the sickness of his home. He spent a lot of time on the Internet. He got out to movies, plays, musical performances. He loved to tango. If you?ve not lost your job, if you?ve inherited a home, if you have an investment income, life in Athens now can still resemble life there a decade or two ago. But if you are afflicted by nostalgia — if the bond of your homeland is irrationally strong — you may have invested, as Iannis did, in Greek government bonds. The income he depended on in his late fifties was reduced by two-thirds, and Iannis became desperate.
He called a mutual friend, a nurse, about his high blood pressure, but Iannis, who once figured out how to mend his own broken leg, was not good at taking medical advice: see a physician, see a psychiatrist. Maybe he thought he could cure his illness as he fixed his femur. I didn?t hear from Iannis the last few months of his life, so I don?t know what was going through his mind before he hung himself in his home, but I do know that the last twenty years of his life were a waste of his enormous intelligence and talents. Except for the years that he spent caring for his mentally ill mother, to whom he would politely introduce me every time we ran into each other at the cafe they frequented. Yes, Iannis had a talent for home care. But his country and his city were no home to him.
Like Americans, Greeks who borrowed to purchase houses beyond their means are losing their homes. Iannis lived moderately, except for buying the expensive paper edition of the New York Times on Sunday, but was betrayed again and again by governments left, right, and center, politicians that refused to institute real meritocracy, allowed public health to deteriorate, tolerated anarchy and poverty that made the center of Athens an urban wasteland, and then — when they could no longer deceive the European Union — defaulted on the public trust.
My Greek wife and I used to go to Greece every summer. Not this year. With Iannis dead, Greece no longer feels to us like a first or second home.
* Tom LeClair is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Cincinnati and author of five novels, several of which are set in Greece.