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Identity Crisis in Athens

One of the reasons my wife likes to travel is local politics. She remembers edgy armed soldiers in the streets of Jerusalem right after the Six Day War; her hippie friends grabbed and jailed for having beards in Chile back when Pinochet and Kissinger were keeping the world safe for democracy; stares of hatred from Egyptian pedestrians months before busloads of tourists were massacred at the Temple of Hatshepsut; frustrated Mixtecs in Oaxaca demonstrating during a presidential campaign wherein Carlos Salinas de Gortari eventually stole the election from Cuahtemoc Cardenas. Good times.

So when my family went to Athens last summer, the first thing my wife did was take a walk and see if she could find some politics. Lucky us: About 200 people were singing and speechifying in a little plaza, and a young woman distributing pamphlets knew enough English to explain that there would be a huge rally the next day in Syntagma Square.

Athens is great. Don‘t let people tell you it’s polluted and ugly. It‘s a modern, electric city like any other major metropolis, except you can see the 2,500-year-old Acropolis, birthplace of democracy, sticking up out of it like a hallucination. There’s a mood of optimism, because Greece, the poorest country in Europe, is making its way into the relative economic security of the E.C.

So my wife and 8-year-old daughter and I were going to see some politics. Oh boy. First we took a taxi to a museum, checked out some wonderful Cycladic art -- 5,000 years old and archetypally simple, it‘s ancient enough that all the “Modernists” copied it. (The previous day I’d seen a locally made vase from 800 B.C. that had a swastika on it. It was an original. The pediment sculptures from the Parthenon I saw were copies, the originals being, naturally, in London‘s British Museum.) Then we headed for Syntagma Square.

A guard in a bizarre 19th-century costume did slo-mo goose steps in front of a kiosk. Colorful. The other soldiers were not so colorful. Olive drab. And there were many of them. Many, many. More arriving all the time, in buses and trucks. Also arriving, in buses, in taxis and on foot, were many, many non-soldiers, some carrying placards. All going in one direction. Most of the gates leading to Syntagma were blocked by armed soldiers. So we kept walking and walking, along with the flow of humans. No taxis were allowed where we were going.

“Daddy, what’s that?” Junk piled on the sidewalk by a military truck.

“Uh, body armor, honey. And riot shields. And helmets. And rifle cartridges.”

“What‘s it for?”

This was a good question. We had a family discussion about whether we wanted to bring a child into a place where there would be thousands of people and guns. We decided we didn’t think so. We reversed course.

It turned out that there was no riot that afternoon. But on the following day, the English-language edition of the Athens newspaper contained some interesting information. The rally, which had drawn well over 100,000 people, was about ID cards. The government had recently proclaimed that religious affiliation would no longer be among the data listed on the cards, which every citizen must carry. Socialist Prime Minister Costas Simitis had enacted this change without consulting Archbishop Christodoulos, head of the Greek Orthodox Church.

And the archbishop was pissed at the slight. During the Syntagma rally, he‘d said he wanted the world to know that, godless forces of globalization notwithstanding, Greece is a Christian nation, and its citizens should be free to proclaim their faith proudly on their cards. “Greece means Orthodoxy,” thousands had chanted. Of course, what Christodoulos had really meant to demonstrate was that Orthodoxy means political grease.

It made me think: Why shouldn’t people be allowed to put their religion on their ID cards if they want to? Then I considered what that would mean. Greece is overwhelmingly Christian. Who would put their religion on their ID cards in an overwhelmingly Christian country? Christians. And who would opt to list no affiliation?

I thought about World War II, in which the Greek Jews were removed to concentration camps, where 17 out of every 20 died. There are very few Jews in Greece today.

That night at 3:30 a.m., as we slept in the expensive Hotel Grande Bretagne, an extremely loud song, a recording of a passionate Greek ballad played through some kind of powerful portable sound system directly in front of the hotel, came up to us. It went on long enough that it must have wakened every single sleeper for blocks around.

I didn‘t understand the lyrics of the song. But I like to think it had something to do with freedom and democracy.


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