A Trini in Europe
By Natalie Williams
It is a difficult time to be in Greece, for locals and foreigners alike.
Everyday life in the capital, Athens, is like watching a Greek tragedy play out.
Not on the ancient stone seats of the world famous Parthenon or from the marble balconies of the Acropolis, but in real life…with ordinary Greeks forcibly given the starring roles.
Greece is the birthplace of the Olympics and it also gave the Western world democracy and early political theory.
Nowadays, it is fast becoming famous for being the country that could destroy the eurozone, maybe even lead to the collapse of the European Union.
Renowned for its bustling nightlife, with endless cafés, restaurants and night clubs that never close, Athens today is even more frenzied and tense than ever.
Feeling the strain
There is a strain in the atmosphere that is palpable.
Depressed, stressed-out Greeks facing unemployment, pension cuts and higher taxes hurry to catch any form of public transport – hundreds do it as many times a day as it takes to find a job, any job.
National transport has been severely disrupted by thousands of protesters camping out outside the Greek parliament in the well-known Syntagma Square.
When I emerge to begin my explorations, Athens appears extra-polluted.
My heart breaks as I spy graffiti defacing nearly every building – be it government or religious, ancient tourist attraction, historical or nondescript. I cannot believe my eyes.
Greeks are angry with many people, including the affluent Greek Americans on whom they’ve become so dependent for their tourism dollar.
From my quiet corner, I watch hotel workers try to be as friendly as they can be to “insensitive foreigners” who ask for painstaking directions to the nearest shopping districts.
I hear the concierge take a deep breath and sigh across the front desk to a beautiful lass in a slinky sundress, who is oblivious to the pain she is causing.
“Yes, Madam, that is where the Prada shop is. I don’t know if it is a flagship store. Yes, I suspect the Gucci would be near there too.”
Even when I attempt to confirm that the tram stops at the beach nearest to Athens, I get a look that says: it’s Monday and you want to go to the beach?
Public hostility to planned austerity measures for rescuing Greece from its colossal economic mess is growing on a daily basis. And politicians are becoming desperate.
They had to work on getting the people on their side, anxious for them to accept the conditionalities of this second bailout package from the IMF and EU leaders worth 130bn euros (US$171bn).
Both institutions say that Greece and her coalition government will not get a single cent unless these measures are implemented – lock, stock and barrel.
The worst-case scenario is that Greece will be forced to leave the euro, devalue its currency and begin at least a century of economic hardship, and some say social unrest, akin to what has been unfolding in the Arab Middle East and North African belt.
So what has brought this once-thriving tourist and shipping giant of a country to a crumbling halt?
In simplistic terms, many EU member countries complained that the Greeks party too much.
Greece has been living beyond its means, “hanging its hat higher than it could reach,” as we Trinis would say.
Deep financial problems
But the more serious argument says it all started when Greece joined the European Union and its eurozone in 2001.
It is on public record that the Greek government went on a spending spree, increasing the public-sector wage bill.
And Greece already had a major problem with tax evasion - massive tax evasion.
The Greek media is pulling no punches with its own theories for the mess.
Headlines describe the Greek political establishment as incompetent and, at worst, corrupt.
A major problem is endemic cronyism, or the culture of “rousfeti"... a word that, literally translated, means "expensive political favours".
And the private sector does not escape the media’s wrath. It is said to be “narrowly self-centred and bereft of social conscience”.
International bankers, the IMF and the EU, especially Germany with its harsh demands, have all been accused of contributing to the Greek tragedy.
Mix in ordinary Greeks’ sense of entitlement and dependency on the State, with long bureaucratic time-frames for government response (not even approval) to business proposals, and foreign investors simply give up and take their money elsewhere.
'Come and eat here'
As night falls, it is the beautiful tree-lined bustling restaurant district of Plaka that beckons.
This is where Greek al fresco dining is at its best.
The hundreds of candles peeping through Mediterranean foliage create an ambiance that belies the anger and frustration, just a short walk away in Syntagma Square, where thousands more coming off work join the protesters daily.
In Plaka, waiters usually hang out in the streets with smiles, gently beckoning passers-by to come and sample their dishes.
Tonight, I find the mood is edgy and the tone of their cries is a bit aggressive.
“Come and eat here. We need the money. Support us, don’t walk past,” their pleading faces seem to say. They seem impatient with anyone who studies the menus outside for too long.
Tourists either walk away or sit down quickly.
Arab Spring lessons
As a journalist who has covered many a protest and witnessed many uprisings while living and traveling throughout Europe and the Middle East, I know it is often the written slogans on protesting banners that best sum up the real stories and the true woes of the people.
“The people could only take so much,” a bread seller tells me in his best English. “They watch TV; they see what happen in Middle East.”
“Where you from?” the old man manages to ask me.
“Trinidad and Tobago,” I say and I watch as the familiar clueless look comes in to his eyes. I smile and put him out of his misery by adding quickly: “In the Caribbean.”
“Ah, yes, Caribbean. You take me with you,” he says.
Amid the throng of people and placards, I recognise a familiar face: Ernesto Che Guevara is right there in the midst of protesting Greeks.
I make my way closer to that Argentine symbol of rebellion recognisable to anyone raised in the Caribbean - that ever-enduring face proclaiming Viva la revolucion!
So far, the demonstrations in cities across Greece have been peaceful.
“We like our protests violent,” one young Greek waiter tells me.
“But this time we are doing it differently, to see what the politicians come back with in response. They have stolen millions, saying we all got our share. Someone must have taken mine when I was looking the other way,” he jokes.
He tells me he left New York two years ago “to come back home".
"Now I’m thinking I made a huge mistake. Maybe I should have stayed in America. I might have been better off hustling in New York City.”
I engage him on how good his English is, sharing how strange I found it that young and old Greeks alike don’t seem to speak much of the language.
“We and they never needed to learn English. No one ever wanted to leave Greece before now.”
The lone surviving sculpture of the east pediment of the main Parthenon is Dionysus, the mythical Greek god of wine and drunken revelry. While pondering this irony, I enjoy my second Caribbean encounter.
As a Trini in Europe, my ears are always attuned to listening for Caribbean accents, so it only took me seconds to pick up the Kittitian and Antiguan twangs saying: “We have to walk up dey? That real high, boy.”
“Whey the gift shop?” another familiar Caribbean accent inquires.
I head towards the voices and learn that they belong to the team members of the Caribbean special Olympic team, who are squeezing in a little sight-seeing before the onslaught of competition.
“You from the Caribbean?” I ask knowingly.
“Yea, you from the Caribbean too? Whey you from? Trinidad? You is a Trini! Trini to de bone! You all right?”
“Yea, you all right?” I ask in return.
We laugh together, warm and loud. “You from Antigua,” I say, “and you? Let me guess... from St Kitts?”
I am proudly correct on all counts, of course, having lived in both islands for many years. We laugh and they tell me they are here as part of the Caribbean team competing in the Athens Special Olympics, adding how difficult it was to get the funding to “reach Athens”, but they made it.
We hug up and take pictures like old friends and I wish them luck.
After just a few yards’ walk to inspect another beautiful but crumbling monument, we encounter another "aha" moment. A young man approaches to ask if we can take a photo of him and his girlfriend posing in front of the Parthenon – a young, trendy, happy-looking couple, both blond heads blowing in the Greek winds, high up on our tourist perch.
“Of course!” I say, taking the camera. “This is some fancy camera you have here - you sure you want me to hold it?”
I'm flabbergasted at his response: “Are you from Trinidad and Tobago?” the man asks.
“Um, yes,” I say almost dropping the camera in my surprise as I looked into his blue eyes.
He continues: “My mum is a Trini and I was born in San Fernando, but we left when I was three years old.
"We used to live in San Fernando when my dad worked in the oil company there. I go back for Carnival as often as I can, and to this day I’ve been trying to make the perfect roti for myself in New Zealand, where I live.”
“It’s the real thing, honey - he didn’t say ToeBAGgo,” the Wise One jokes to break the silence.
I know we are a cosmopolitan lot, truly the Rainbow Nation, because every creed and race (and ethnicity and skin colour) can find an equal place, but I mean.
There we were standing high atop the Acropolis overlooking Athens, a city in turmoil - exact coordinates 37°58 17.45 N / 23°43 34.29 E – as far away from the Caribbean as one could possibly get, and Trinis everywhere!
A sense of wonderment came over me and I felt quite special being a Trini in Europe!
We chatted some more about doubles, and red mango and roti and how much I empathised with it being so hard to get the ratio of flour and chick peas right.
“Keep trying,” I encouraged.
“Women love ah Trini with sweet hand,” I found myself declaring, suddenly filled with awe at my island people.
“Though, of course, some of us prefer wise Englishmen,” I quickly added, within earshot of my husband - ensuring that I didn’t have to play out a Greek domestic tragedy of my own, right there on the steps of the great Acropolis.