by Randal Fuller “WHAT are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?” asked the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy in 1904. “Why do the Senators sit and pass no laws?”
Less than two weeks before Greece holds another round of national elections, Cavafy’s famous poem “Waiting for the Barbarians,” has renewed force and urgency in Athens. The elections, scheduled for June 17, will decide Greece’s fate in the euro zone and perhaps even its long-term future as a viable state. But with an excruciating choice to be made between draconian austerity measures and a departure from Europe’s shared currency, the birthplace of democracy is paralyzed with indecision and poised to descend into chaos and economic catastrophe.
Evidence of a state tottering on the edge of complete dysfunction is apparent everywhere in Athens. Traffic signals work sporadically; a sign giving the shortened hours of one of the world’s great museums, the National Archaeological Museum, is haphazardly taped to the door; police officers in riot gear patrol the perimeters of the universities, where a growing population of anarchists, disaffected young people and drug addicts congregate in communal hopelessness.
“Greeks have worry beads up to here,” one Athenian told me in the shadow of the Acropolis, measuring to the top of her head. “We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
The most visible sign of these dire, uncertain times is the proliferation of graffiti over almost every vertical space in the city. Athens has long cherished a tradition of political commentary and street art, but the recent financial crisis has spurred the young to express their discontent with nihilistic intensity.
“Wake Up!” is a ubiquitous tag in the city. “Welcome to the Civilization of Fear” reads another. One airbrushed scene portrays an Athens bus — not long ago a symbol of Greece’s commitment to improving its civic infrastructure while reducing pollution — about to run off the road or crash into an oncoming vehicle.
If the young bear the harshest burden of the economic crisis — 48 percent of Greeks below age 24 are unemployed — they do so with a mix of denial, frantic exuberance and a debilitating sense of the absurd. A flash mob recently appeared in Syntagma Square, not to protest the lack of jobs or the political gridlock but to dance to ’N Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye.” Nearby, another graffiti slogan seemed to capture the mood: “Dancing All the Time, Feeling All the Rage.”
Throughout Athens I asked people of all ages what it was like to live in Greece at the moment. “Hell,” one woman told me. “Terrible, terrible,” said a waiter at a tavern on the Plaka.
A Greek friend sighed and admitted that he would leave the country immediately if he could: “There is no good solution to the current crisis. Austerity will damage us for years to come, and so will the return of the drachma. Either way it will get much worse before it gets better.”
On a warm, lovely Saturday night two weeks before the election, the immensely appealing Greek pop star León was finishing a sound check at an outdoor space in the trendy Gazi neighborhood. Strumming a ukulele, León sang what could easily stand as an anthem for this perilous moment in Athens and the rest of Greece:
Tell me what to do when everything is changing,
Tell me what to do when you can’t step on the same river twice.
If Cavafy’s poem blamed national inaction and a too-easy fatalism on a long and tortuous history of invasion from without, León seemed intent on exploring ways to survive this period of gloom and impasse from within. “The master of the ship, the leader of your mind ... you don’t need them anymore,” he sang.
Then the tune, a folkish number titled “Someday (Somewhere, Maybe Somebody),” blossomed into an infectious chorus. León’s band, an eight-piece group of men and women playing electric guitars and the more traditional accordion, leaned in and sang together.
In this place where tragedy was invented, the song was joyful and sadly cathartic. The chorus had no words, but it nevertheless contained an invitation to join in the achingly beautiful melody. I still can’t get it out of my head.
Randall Fuller is a professor of English at the University of Tulsa.