May 5, 2010, a defining moment in the Greek crisis

May 5, 2010, a defining moment in the Greek crisis

Far from the summits, the markets, the polemics and the posturing, the Greek crisis was about ordinary families whose lives were upended. Few more so than the Papathanasopouloses.

I met them on a drizzly day in Patra, southwestern Greece. They had recently lost their daughter Angeliki in the Marfin fire.

May 5, 2010: an infamous date. The Parliament in Athens debated the first memorandum, with which a Europe unprepared for the crisis sent Greece on an impossible mission. The streets around Syntagma Square seethed. Angry crowds marched past a vulnerable bank branch on Stadiou. Behind its glass entrance, a magnet for Molotov cocktails on an alley of steel shutters, Angeliki and colleagues were working because they were expected to.

Angeliki, four months pregnant, reassured her anxious mother by phone that she would leave work early. She had a doctor’s appointment for a scan to learn the gender of her child. She never found out.

Covering the crisis took me from Crete to Komotini, from Angela Merkel’s austere office to the tents of the “Aganaktismenoi,” Greece’s Indignados. Perhaps no encounter taught me as much as that gray afternoon in Patra. The Papathanasopouloses were a normal middle-class family, charming, cultured, and heartbroken.

They told my Greek colleague Nathalie and me the story of Angeliki, a young woman trying to make her way in the Greek reality. A loving upbringing in the provinces, studies in Athens and London, then choosing the land of her parents over easier opportunities abroad. Working long hours in Athens for modest pay, and planning a family with her young husband Christos.

We heard of the negligent, rule-breaking employer, of the tolerance of mass demonstrations for the violent fringe, and of the state’s inability to find perpetrators. “Nothing is working in Greece. Laws only exist in theory,” said Sissy, Angeliki’s sister. We heard of Angeliki’s mother dismissing the Marfin chairman’s offer of compensation. “All we want is our child,” she told Andreas Vgenopoulos, who fell silent.

I subjected Christos to detailed, painful questions. What did Angeliki say when she phoned him from the smoke-filled bank? What were her last words to him? What did he do when he reached the scene? For Angeliki’s father, a deeply patriotic, broken man, the loss of his daughter had merged with the humiliation of Greece. He summoned national poet Kostis Palamas: “I do not perish in Tartarus, / I only rest a little; / I reappear in life,/ and resurrect nations!”

My colleague and I, shaken, retired to a taverna for dinner. By chance, Christos and Sissy chose the same place. Christos sent our table a bottle of tsipouro. Then another. And another. I felt obliged to drink, and staggered back to the hotel. I think it was his price for my glimpse of their pain.

Marcus Walker is the South Europe bureau chief at The Wall Street Journal.

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