OPINION

Ch- Ch- Ch- Ch- Changes (Hellas freezes over)

It is over a week since Greece was smothered by blizzards and there is still some snow on the sides of the Attiki Odos highway on the capital’s outskirts. It is either piled up in dark, morbid lumps on the side of the road – like the blackened, abandoned victim of a hit-and-run – or it streaks up embankments, pure and white like a bridal veil, a relic of some distant, windy wedding. Whatever it makes one think of (and most of us are probably thinking of burst water pipes in last weekend’s sub-zero temperatures) we can add the climate to the list of radical changes that have hit Greece in the last few years. In many ways, the worst snowstorms and temperatures of the past hundred years showed up how the Greek system functions. It was both reassuring and illuminating. The most reassuring thing was that, according to the weather bureau, we last had such weather in 1911 and 1897. So, unless this keeps happening every year, we can be comforted a) by the possibility that it probably will not happen again for a long time, and b) by the knowledge that the snow and cold were not unprecedented. It was also comforting to see that in this age of globalization, the Greeks retain many of their traditional virtues and failings. Our weather forecasters got it right that this would be a storm to remember. The civil defense authorities issued an alert. And, true to form, almost everyone else acted as if none of this meant anything to them. Truckers and car drivers went out onto the highways without snow chains for their vehicles, blocking roads when they got stuck, trapping hundreds of other drivers, cutting the country in two, or three or infinite parts, and making it all but impossible for emergency services to clear things up. So, despite the horrible dilution of our national character in recent years (if we are to believe the lament of every Sunday commentator), each of us still knows better than everyone else when we decide to go ahead and do something stupid. According to reports, many operators of snow-clearing equipment were not at their posts (perhaps selling their services to the highest bidder rather than shirking at home), or contractors did not carry out their obligations to clear snow off roads, and so on. This is now the subject of a prosecutor’s investigation. But we can be certain that for every one of those rumored deserters, there were a hundred snowplow drivers, utility company employees, plumbers and provincial government workers battling the cold and the snow for the sake of the rest of us. They are not what the news media and the political parties focused their attention on. We all partook of the finely matured whine that spread out over the land as everyone blamed the State (or the lack of it) as well as privatization for all of Greece’s woes. This was a stirring example not only of the injustice that the Greeks feel every moment of every day, but also of their enviable capacity to look upon the mighty wrath of nature and know who is to blame for it – someone else. But this time there was a wonderful variation to the national lament – the State fought back. The Athens water and sewage company blamed the collapse of its network (which lasted up to three days in some parts of the capital’s greater area) on the citizens. Water needs were double those usual at this time of year, the company said. And people had left taps dripping so that pipes would not burst, while many homeowners used hoses to wash snow away from their sidewalks, cars and balconies. All of this was true, at least in part, but the water company did not come clean with its own problems with regard to the lack of reservoirs, possibly faulty pumping stations and its own dodgy network. So we were all witness to the consequent free-for-all in which the opposition parties blamed the government for what had happened. Athens International Airport was snowed in, literally. Whatever the difficulties of keeping planes moving under such conditions – and they appeared insurmountable – it would have been a good move on the part of the airport authorities had they shoveled away the snow on the sidewalks outside the terminal buildings. This would have at least deprived television cameras of the images of total surrender at the airport. But there was more sport, when the government and the Civil Aviation Authority (which, for years, has been unable to improve its own operations so as to get off the US Federal Aviation Authority’s list of countries with shaky flight safety) took on a piously peeved attitude toward the privately operated airport, huffing and puffing that they would fine it 3 million euros for hassling passengers. The truth of the situation is still not clear but it was a fine opportunity for theatrics at a time when thousands of people were stuck in uncertainty, unable to get to their destinations. And in the middle of all this, it was hilarious to see the two protagonists of our election campaign, George Papandreou and Costas Karamanlis, plodding about in the snow, commiserating with stranded motorists on the highway and, in Karamanlis’s case, fuming at the State’s inadequacies. This new style of politicking was so strange to Greece, yet both men seemed to take it so seriously that it seems we are irrevocably in a new era of Clintonesque «I feel your pain» leadership. Karamanlis was so taken by this that he demanded to know where the country’s prime minister was. Perhaps Costas Simitis was doing what all of us should in times like this – staying at home and being as little a nuisance on the country’s roads as possible. And this is what most people did, although, watching television broadcasts, you would have assumed everyone was fighting a life-or-death struggle against impossible odds. This is because our world view has become solely the Athenians’ view. In the old days, before 1989 and the advent of a million private television and radio stations, all of which appear to be run by the same team of Athenians, blizzards came and went with each winter. Mountain villages would be cut off from the rest of the world and no one kicked up a fuss. People made do and did their best to protect their livestock and their crops from the cold and the snow. The weather was a force of nature, not the screw-up of the government. People did complain of the endless neglect that made the peasant’s hard lot harder, but if they needed to get somewhere in a blizzard, they walked. They did not have a four-by-four vehicle all year for that one occurrence – and if they did it was a donkey. This, we might be shocked to hear, is what people did once again. While Athenians’ woes dominated the news, their cousins in the country were battling to save their livelihoods. Crops were ruined, greenhouses collapsed, livestock froze or starved – precisely what happens every winter. Life was far from the cameras. The blizzard of 2004 is a metaphor for Greece today in that it shows the chasm between reality and our view of it. In the same way that political parties are still fighting each other with the terms and constructs of the Cold War era and unions do nothing for the unemployed, the underemployed and the recently employed: All they care about is not losing the rights of the next wave of pensioners and to hell with whether the system works in later years. The reality of the job market is far from the ideal over which battles are still being fought – as any young person working long hours for less than minimum pay and no insurance could attest but does not, in order to keep his or her job. And, if we want to see how blind we are to the monumental political developments, we need only turn to Cyprus over the past week. While we were otherwise engaged, the island lurched forward on the road toward a possible end to its division before May 1, when it joins the EU. President Tassos Papadopoulos and Turkish-Cypriot leader Rauf Denktash, after much pushing and pulling by the UN, the US, the EU, Greece and Turkey, agreed to resume talks. This time, though, if they do not agree, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan will choose the text of a final agreement himself. This suggests that there is no stopping a solution to a problem that has confounded mediators for 30 years. The most interesting thing, however, is that the people of the island’s two communities will be the ones to decide, in separate referenda, whether they accept the deal. In effect, the two leaders will be absolved of much responsibility for the final solution. It will be Annan who will propose and the Cypriots themselves who will decide their fate. This is the «participatory democracy» that PASOK’s new leader can only dream of. And though the political parties and news media will throw up their usual wall of sound and fury, it is each Cypriot who will part the curtains of the polling booth and take the future in his or her own hands. It is they who will show Athens and Ankara the way forward after years of wandering in the blinding blizzards and long deserts of diplomacy.