Tuesday July 17, 06:47 am, Athens
The ornate lattice of the balcony’s railing presses hard on the man's back as he pushes off.
Nobody notices the impeccably dressed figure falling from the 16th floor of the Hotel Grande Bretagne in the heart of Athens, in Syntagma Square. His room is located on the side of the hotel where traffic never stops, but nobody is looking up at this precise moment. Nobody registers his fall.
It is still too early in the day for tourists to be wandering about, looking up as dawn breaks over the ancient city above the shimmering Acropolis. As for the Greeks, they no longer feel like looking up since their country fell into a financial calamity of its own making. What had been the cradle of civilization is now rapidly turning into a wasteland. Despite the new aid deal from the EU, money has become scarce in Greece. Politicians continue to play their petty games, with the Greeks getting angrier and more desperate by the day. This anger, turned inward, makes them stare at the ground rather than the sky--not an illogical thing to do, with neglect and lack of public funds dotting the streets with broken pavement and sundry refuse.
For an instant, he seems suspended in mid-air, elegantly poised, dark pinstripe suit contrasting with the dreamy Attica blue of the dawning sky. Now plunging down, he claws at the air like a wounded bird of prey.
The point of impact has streaked the pavement directly below the Hotel Grande Bretagne. An amorphous mass of red, and pinkish white is spread on the marble tiles. The almost creamy substance has seeped through the parts where the marble is broken-these marble shards a weapon of choice for Greek anarchists, thrown at the riot police in each and every demonstration. So this is what her city has come to: first a violent push, then a fall, now splatter.
Athina looks ruefully at her beloved Fage strained yogurt, 0% fat, strawberry flavor, spread over the marble tiles. The bag she had been carrying it in, thrown out of her hands by the panicking crowd right after the explosion, sits crumpled nearby. The bang had been intense and frighteningly loud, right in their midst, causing one hundred thousand people in the square to flee, people who had until then been demonstrating indignantly, yet until that moment, peacefully. They scrambled in all directions, trampling over anything that stood in their way.
It takes very little to turn a gathering of generally sane and decent individuals into a hysterical mob, thought Athina. The average Greek citizens, despite all the hype about“Mediterranean temperament”, tended to be docile and prone to accepting harsh, even irrational measures imposed by authorities. Today those authorities increasingly seemed to be powerful members of the European Union. In this case, all it took was a loud bang.
Athina had stood her ground while the mass of humanity—young people, groups of middle aged people, even parents carrying their babies on their backs—all of them wild eyed, rushed by. The laggards were the old people with walking sticks, the morbidly obese in tent-like clothing, and a youngish man in a black hoodie, combat trousers and old military boots. He passed close to Athina with this rearguard of older demonstrators.
A journalist, Athina’s driving desire to observe everything rooted her to the spot, noticing the tiny details. These always led to the big picture, to the mechanisms and machinations behind events. That unfolding led her to skip law for journalism. After ten years at“To Neo”, Greece’s largest paper, working since college, this desire to get at the root of events regardless of time or cost, had come to define her professionally, to the frequent consternation of her editors at the paper.
Athina always loved the writing: fresh vibrant words whose purpose is to bring to life what she saw and learned, making others see it as clearly as if they had been there. She tolerated the transient quality of reportage, the fact that even the most momentous and enthralling writing expired the very next day, no different from the most frivolous and mundane articles. Of such varied stuff is the fabric of life composed.
So Athina stays after the people rush through. Observing, noting, listening.
She decides to talk to the police who have now, self importantly, taken control of the square.
The policeman who seems in charge looks long and hard at her, trying to assess whether the young woman really wants to find out their take on events, or whether she’s the type of“establishment leftie” journalist, sympathetic to the young anarchists, who tries to blame everything on the police. This kind of establishment apologist for the left is found in all the right circles in Athens, often females of middle aged variety, wearing either sharp two piece Chanel knock-off suits if they are thin enough.
He takes in Athina’s well cut blond hair- long enough to look feminine, but not“arty”; her black leggings under a long black cotton tunic of seemingly shapeless character, yet of a cunning design that shows off her lean and petite body to best effect. His eyes fleetingly rest on her black Prada sneakers which allow for agility of movement and are the closest thing to perfect a stylish woman can get to on a journalist’s salary.
What serves as the piece de resistance, thanks to which he decides to talk to Athina, is the gold Lalaounis ring-- the single piece of jewelry she owns-- worn turned around so it resembles a wedding band. Even to a suspicious policeman, this traditional statement invites confidence.
After 2010, any sense of security deteriorated in most parts of the Greece. In downtown Athens, to wear even the least bit of jewelry is to invite trouble of the worst kind. Unless you are sporting a chain with a cross, like a“fylachto” to keep you safe, or a wedding ring. Even the hoodlums who seemed always to fringe these mass demonstrations, like jellyfish washed in with the tide, respected these articles of jewelry and kept their distance from people wearing them. Athina believed that their working class families had instilled in them remnants of religious superstition and respect.
“The explosive device does not seem to have been intended to harm”, he told her,“An M80, a fairly common firework sold illegally in Omonoia Square and Ermou, went off in the monument of the Unknown Soldier. So it was probably one of those silly yet also dangerous pranks some of these demonstrators pull. As you must have noticed, each demonstration has its share of jokers, guys who protest because they have nothing better to do and want to draw attention to themselves.”
“Yes but how would someone gain access to the Monument when your forces had cordoned it off since yesterday morning?” Athina asks.
“The policeman scowls at her.“We cannot have our eyes everywhere all the time!” he says indignantly,“we are grossly underpaid. We get insulted, even spit on by citizens at demonstrations, who berate us for protecting the politicians and not taking the part of the people. As for you journalists, you make our lives living hell, setting us out to be monsters. As to this event, young lady, when Athens is burning, your garden variety anarchist is just a guy who’s never had a job and is looking to kill time. This must have provided amusement.”
“But there was no one near the Monument when the thing exploded. How would some harmless prankster be able to remotely detonate an explosive device, even a firecracker, in the middle of a cordoned off area?” Athina persisted.
The policeman shrugs and walks off, feeling annoyed by the young woman. Maybe the guy lit a fuse. and had a good throwing arm.
Athina doesn’t immediately leave the square. She perches on one of the supposedly decorative iron structures lining the pavement. Their real purpose had been to prevent motorbikes and cars from parking. But like most of the things municipal authorities did for the sake for the Athenians, this measure backfired: now the pedestrians were effectively walled in from the street, unable to cross even at convenient pedestrian crossings. Those who could, climbed over them.
She is thinking hard: why anyone would put a fake bomb in the Memorial for the Unknown Soldier, just below the walled courtyard of the Greek Parliament? It didn’t appear to make any sense. Why would the protesters or any element of government try to scare civilians? Was it a random act, or was there a method in the madness? Who stood to gain from dispelling that afternoon’s demonstration? There were always winners and losers.
Athina had come to terms with the fact that most people who are actually capable of having an impact—good or bad—in other peoples’ lives, undertake such action for concrete reasons which invariably have a direct effect on themselves. The two primary ones being to gain money or power- the one barely discernible from the other… It was when people sought other things, such as religious purity or civil rights, that things got complicated and less easy to unravel.
That was what she had been thinking of when she had arrived at the rally that morning. Together with thousands other Athenians, she had been there to register her dismay with the harsh and ineffective austerity measures successive governments had imposed mainly on the middle and lower classes. These measures had stifled productivity and hope, turning many into desperate paupers in an ongoing, but perhaps doomed attempt to keep Greece solvent.
Yet that morning’s demonstration had had a different, deeper resonance than all the previous ones. It had been in the name of a 77 year-old man named Foivos. He was the reason so many people had shown up at the rally carrying flowers, tears in their eyes.
On Monday afternoon, the eve of the rally, the dignified elderly man had gotten off the metro at Syntagma (Constitution Square). In his carefully pressed grey suit and spotless white shirt, open at the neck, he had briskly walked up the stairs, into the late light.. Seven pm and the sun was still brilliant, early summer bursting all around him in the heart of Athens. Foivos had stopped walking when he reached a cluster of tall trees opposite the subway exit and Grande Bretagne hotel. There, the elderly man had turned to face the Greek Parliament, put his right hand into his right-hand trouser pocket. Taken out a pistol. Pointed it at his head. Slowly spoken a few words—carefully enunciated, so the people walking past that moment would remember them. He had pulled the trigger.
later that night, the country had been dumbstruck, hearing of Foivos’ tragic end: one more in a growing list of people who, finding no way to survive, chose suicide as the most respectable exit. Yet, maybe because of the articulate nature of its tragic hero, Foivos became a poignant symbol.
The 77year old pensioner used to be a pharmacist. Divorced but friends with his ex-wife, an ERT (state tv) employee. Foivos had always been a“leftie”—in a quiet, peaceful way, mainly as an active member of various citizen organizations.
Before pulling the trigger, Foivos had carefully penned a note which he had left on his desk in his tiny apartment:«This government has literally annulled my ability to survive. They have canceled a respectable pension which I alone (with no state aid) paid for during the past 35 years. Since I am at an age which doesn’t allow for a more dynamic reaction to this situation, I find no other solution but to end my life respectably before I am forced to start foraging in the rubbish to find something to eat. I believe that the young people of Greece will, one day, rise and take things into their hands, for us all.”
With these thoughts milling around in her head, Athina quickly walks back to her newspaper through the winding streets and back alleys of old Athens, avoiding the onslaught of traffic which has by now resumed in the main streets of Panepistimiou and Stadiou.
As she walks past the medley of’60’s pillbox buildings sprinkled with older neoclassical gems, now mostly derelict, she can feel her heart sinking. So much of the Athens she grew up in has vanished in the last couple of years. surrendered to neglect by owners who no longer have the assets to keep them going, and sometimes burnt by anarchists, its buildings stand like sentinels of past glory.
In the block with her newspaper's office, only one building is in use: a narrow one inhabited by Athina and her 70 colleagues at the paper.
Today in this woeful place, a spark is being kindled. That familiar tingling feeling for Athina- the thrill of a new hunt. It’s so intense it becomes sexual. Discovering and disclosing what goes on behind hermetically sealed doors. Rapture. Strange occurrences, oddities, and things that don’t quite match up tend to hide dark truths. And Greece is currently rife with inexplicable coincidences and occurrences.
She enters the“To Neo’s” offices.
The newspaper enfolds Athina as she walks in. A palpable urgency of looming deadlines pervades the warren of desks and offices. She again feels the pressure of having to prepare a story for the following day. It hasn’t changed, despite the years she has been there—a decade! The word sends shivers down her spine. Even only in thought, it sounds too long.
At first as a starry-eyed 18-year old intern in her second year at law School, Athina regarded TO NEO as a complex hive. The energy, the elaborate scheming, the unabashed involvement in politics used to be intoxicating ten years ago. The power of this collective body, then composed of a closely-knit community of top-notch journalists, was unrivaled. In bankrupt Greece today even to remember how things used to be a few years ago seems wistful, a quaint relic of a prehistoric era.
Yet it was not just Greece that had changed—albeit for the worse—Athina muses, the rest of her world had too. The advent of the Internet media had created“free for all” news, constantly updated news. The continuous access to the mobile web through phones and tablets, like the flow of blood in the body, defined the way news was consumed, filtered through social media like Twitter and Facebook. All that had eaten into newspapers’ revenues, undercutting their mission and turning them into failing dinosaurs: cumbersome, un- cool and battling to stay afloat and relevant. Athina had gone through a period of depression verging on despair at realizing, despite her reputation as a serious journalist, she was just another badly paid employee in an industry whose survival was at best uncertain, even as the fate of most companies in the rapidly dwindling Greek private sector was at best uncertain, even as her tiny nation, which now felt like the world’s end, had a future that was, at best, uncertain.
After some self-indulgent months of moping and feeling ill destined, unfortunate, unloved and tragic—a bit like her country—Athina had pulled herself together and sought a solution to the existential question all journalists were currently facing. She found it in Twitter. Hesitantly at first, then incessantly with the passionate entanglement of first love, now more temperately but always“on”, Twitter became a staple in Athina’s life. It opened up the world to her, it provided solace, ideas, acknowledgment, connectivity. Through it Athina had achieved recognition as a journalist from news outlets she had never dreamed of approaching—CNN, the New York Times, even the snobby Financial Times. In the past two years, since Greece’s financial tragedy had become a fixture in the headlines, the eyes of the world were turned to Athens, and thus also to Athina, generally considered by the ‘Twitterati’ to be one of the most foremost “specialists” on all things Greek.
On her way to her desk, Athina tries to sneak past the open door of the conference room where the editors are setting the agenda for the day. Her flats make no noise on the floating pre-finished cork floor. Yet the political editor, as if sensing her presence, turns around and looks her square in the eye. Sternly.“Welcome” he says, clearly in irony, while beckoning her to enter the room and take a seat,“how nice of you to drop by! Your tweet-dispatches from the demonstration just now were most enlightening. Would you however happen to have anything relevant to your assigned reportage for the paper—this humble Greek paper which is actually the one paying your bills? There are demonstrations almost every day, and the occasional real bomb, and neither of those is what you are supposed to be covering right now.”
The frustration is almost palpable in his voice. The war the editors and owners of the traditional media waged against the new media is still at a peak in Greece. Inevitably, all journalists were caught in its crossfire because by now they had all adapted to the new era’s mandate: instant, 120-character tweet, journalism for free, at a more demanding pace than the newspaper.
“Well, I have the ongoing story of our government bond“haircut” under control: the new bonds for the bond swap have been issued and trading starts early tomorrow as soon as the Asian markets open. Everything’s proceeding according to plan. So trading will proceed normally tomorrow. I can call the government spokesman now and get an optimistic quote from him. We’re also expecting a positive announcement from the EU Commission later on in the day. So we have more than enough, I think, for a substantial four-hundred-word reportage”.
“We need live reporting”, her editor said, wagging his finger at her.“It makes the story more vibrant” he says,“you should know that from Twitter! There’s a meeting going on at the Ministry of Finance right now, between our guys and the IMF dummies. They’re supposed to“ok” the whole thing. The Gestapo are not sitting in, as Merkel has called the EU delegation to Berlin to brief her. So, that’s where you’re going now—back to the trenches!” He smirks as Athina turns on her heel and strides out of the room and the paper.
She feels it’s one of those days that she has gotten up on the wrong side in bed (the quirky phrase had latched onto her subconscious as a four year old devouring the Mary Poppins books, one after the other, so she wouldn’t feel so very alone and scared). The day had started out early by journalistic standards, at 8:30 am, forcing her to leave before she had a chance to make coffee. Now, long past midday, she still hasn’t even been able to approach her desk, where she keeps her coveted Nespresso machine next to her computer. As for the yogurt she had bought to eat later in the day as her only meal until dinner, it has become collateral damage in the tumult of the demonstration.
The firecracker at the demonstration…Who would have planted it? Athina wonders. The thought nags at her. It doesn’t make sense. Why would anyone set off a really loud explosion, to create panic amongst the demonstrators? The police? So the demonstrators would scatter and leave, like they did? Maybe, although from the outset, it had been a very peaceful demonstration. The anarchists? Unlikely! The more extreme anarchists who had crossed the line into terrorism, used real bombs. They threw“handmade” Molotov bombs—and at the police, never the demonstrators.
For a second, Athina remembers the strange man of an indiscernible age, leaving the demonstration after the explosion. Although in attire similar to that of the anarchists, or at least the more radical of the demonstrators, his face was patrician and he had departed alone, walking at a leisurely pace. Unlike all the other demonstrators too, he had not seemed at all perturbed by the explosion.
As she walks rapidly down the narrow streets connecting the newspaper to the Ministry of Finance (one of the very few ministries that are still located in the center of Athens, in old buildings full of history and dark corners) her mobile vibrates in her small, always overflowing bag. She stops to rummage for it. Eventually she locates it. She has one new text message.
“Where are you? I texted you before, you didn’t answer. Are you at work? Where?” Damn the man, she thinks. He has an uncanny ability to pick the worst times to pester her. Sometimes she believes he exists only to frustrate her. Before the guilt at harboring such uncharitable thoughts for poor Dimitris settles in, like it invariably always does, she receives another message from him. At such moments—and there are many of them—she honestly believes she will have to kill him before he bores her to death. One day, soon.
Not now. Now she has better things to do. Anything is better than dealing with Dimitris. Athina swings open the revolving door of the Ministry of Finance, waves to the two guards who barely look at her, engrossed as they are, playing some game on an iPhone one of the two holds to the level of his heart. These guards, like most civil servants, make a far higher salary than Athina as a result of frequent pay hikes in the easy credit Euro days, and can easily afford the latest gadgetry, even now that the economy has gone off the rails.
The Ministry is quiet, most of its employees long gone by 1:00 pm: yet another indication of how the public sector had effectively wrecked Greece’s economy.
Instead of taking the elevator up to the press room on the second floor where most of the public briefings take place after meetings between the Troika (EU- ECB- IMF) and the Greek government, Athina takes the stairs. She always takes the stairs when it’s not too much of a waste of time; as this is the only exercise that she can get on a busy day.
She can hear a buzz from the second floor as she walks up. Indeed, as she soon sees, many bankers and reporters are already gathered there, outside the press room where today’s public briefing is to take place. Most of them are glued like chattering flies to the side of the room, next to the windows that are wide open but still unable to rid the floor of the cigarette smoke coming from the bankers and reporters nervously waiting for the important meeting to end.
Athina knows quite a few of them—after all, Athens may be a large city of about six million people, but professional circles, especially“establishment” ones, tended to contain the same and same people, year in, year out. Their usual venues were public buildings, embassies and political parties’ headquarters. They usually meet each other and exchange gossip and information at briefings—public and“off the record”—and“big” events, like elections, scandals, resignations. No one ever trusted anyone of course, yet through the years a kind of bond had been formed amongst them; a bond of mutual necessity and shared common experiences. They knew about each other’s problems, transgressions, secret lives. Sometimes they even had short-lived affairs with one another; cynical and hasty encounters, where the main trade-off was information. liking one another did not come into the equation. Above all, they were co-conspirators in the“sham” most of them believed their jobs to be, whether it was government and media, or the banking and markets sector.
So whenever they met, they asked each other about their jobs and personal lives, trying to gauge the measure of their own successes or failures, in comparison to what the rest of the“clan” was doing. They also counted the passing of time at such occasions: through the lines that came into their faces, the children that were born to them, their divorces, the scandals they had born witness to but had never revealed. Of course, in the past three years, their“bond” had transformed to the boring transparency that involuntary coexistence creates. For, nowadays in Greece—still teetering precariously, balancing between a painful salvation and the chaos of imminent irregular default, political instability, social meltdown—“major” events had become an almost daily issue.
For a moment, Athina hesitates. Should she join the crowd? She doesn’t really want to; she neither smokes nor does she have any wish to banter the hours away waiting for announcements which will be broadcast anyway, live on the Internet and TV. Before anyone familiar notices her, she quietly leaves the second floor and slips up to the third where the Greek government-IMF meeting is still ongoing in the conference room, hoping she might snag an exclusive comment when it ends.
The door to the conference room is however still closed, three armed guards, all belonging to the Minister’s entourage, stand outside. One of them glares at Athina, seeing her holding an iPad and a small digital recorder and realizing she’s a reporter. The other two stare appreciatively at her legs which are discernible in her leggings, below the thin cotton fabric of her embroidered white tunic.
“Are they finishing soon?” she asks the two guards.
They shake their heads.“No way”.
“Is the minister inside?”
“Is he happy with our bond situation? Everything ok?”
“Yes. For the first time in a long while, he’s seems…“, one of the guards starts to elaborate but the sulky one interrupts him sharply and starts yelling at Athina to leave them alone.
She does so; she’s bored to death already and, anyhow, how much more than ok can ok get? she wonders. She walks back down, to leave. She’ll listen to the public briefing from her desk at the newspaper. On the ground floor, just before exiting the building, she meets two people from the PM’s press office whom she knows well. They start chatting. Good. Now she will also have government quotes for her piece in the article.
Inside the Ministry’s conference room 2B, one of the IMF representatives, a tall, sharply dressed American, with dark hair in sharp contrast to his white skin, stares hard at one of his interlocutors, his temples throbbing. He crosses his arms and legs, physically trying to constrain himself from getting up and walking out of the room, or—worse—just punching this smarmy, conceited bureaucrat from the Ministry of Finance. How dare the man keep them waiting two hours and after that, come to the meeting unprepared? He cannot quite fathom how an authority figure—of a country still at risk of going under—can act in such a blatantly irresponsible manner. Ever since he was sent to Athens, a few months ago, the American is starting to understand...
It has been a barnburner of a day for him, starting at 4:30 in the morning with a call from a supervisor who completely disregards the challenges of different time zones for his“lieutenants”. By the time the call had ended, it had been too late for him to fall back to sleep but too early for the breakfast meeting with the likable, but really too Scandinavian, head of the IMF mission (whom he secretly calls“my Danish”) held each morning with the five other IMF members. Therefore, he had decided to do some paperwork—checks of financial data the banks of Greece had provided.
Two hours later, the man who is currently the third ranking IMF official in Athens clamors for the meeting with his chief to begin. Still ruminating on the financial statements, the American thinks” You’d have to be a mathematical genius with forensic detail on every transaction that involved Greece, in order to unravel the financial chicanery that has been going on in the country in the past five years.”
Now, many, many hours later, it seems to him this meeting will never end.
As if that weren’t enough, the Minister and his cronies, as well as two of the five high-level officials from the Ministry of Finance, keep going in and out of the room, onto the narrow balcony which leads to a small stairwell at ground level of the neoclassical, maze-like building. Every conference room on every floor of the Ministry of Finance has an identical balcony and stairwell. like all safety exits in the office buildings of Athens, these balconies have been claimed by smokers as their domain, offering them sanctuary from the anti-smoking regulation imposed in Athens a year ago.
In the few meetings the IMF delegation had had with him, the portentous and corrupt—they know it but have no evidence to prove it—Greek Minister of Public Finances had pulled a disappearing act on them from that very balcony when their questions on public spending got too tough to evade. He had begged for a“moment to take a breath of fresh air” and then, a half hour later, one of his men had returned to the room shamefacedly and told them the Minister had received“a really urgent phone call from the Prime Minister’s office and had to leave straight away”. From the safety exit and the backdoor?! When they had remonstrated with him, the urgent phone call had been upgraded in significance, to originating from“Berlin, the German Ministry of Finance.” To that, no one could verily object.
The American emissary covertly takes one more longing look at the safety exit. The door to the balcony is ajar. He stands up, signaling with his hand he will be out, just a couple of minutes. He exits the room. Soon he is at ground level, he walks outside. Enough, he thinks. Already he is feeling alert again. The feeling reassures him. Gotta return or my Danish will be upset! Through the building’s back door, he slips onto the safety stairway and is soon back on the balcony and then, in his meeting.
At that moment, on the second floor of the Ministry, another man, of similar age and build, maybe not as tall, walks away from the windows outside the press room, to the elevator. He has been standing there for the past hour, waiting to observe the public meeting, and smoking incessantly and messaging with his iPhone which he has enclosed in a glitzy protective cover which contrasts strangely with his banker suit. He enters the elevator then walks out of the building. A moment later, he realizes what he has forgotten inside. He immediately swerves to the side of the building. Going back in through the backdoor and the safety stairs, he rapidly returns to the second floor.
Athina freezes at the entrance of the Ministry. For a minute she cannot move. The impeccably dressed man she just noticed slipping out of the building, is identical to the strange guy she noticed a couple of hours ago at the demonstration. His face may have been partially concealed by a hood, but Athina had taken a good look at him, as his behavior had struck her as odd, maybe even suspect. What on earth was he doing at the Ministry of Finance now? From Athina’s quite extensive experience in such matters, people who dressed like anarchists, or at least, seasoned demonstrators, didn’t also wear banker suits. And if they did, the reasons could not easily be benign…
While deep in thought, Athina’s reporter instincts have kicked in and she is already trying to follow the man, or more precisely, to locate him. Yet he seems to have vanished.
She races outside. The man is not to be seen. He didn’t have time to disappear in the alleys of Plaka, or mingle with the people on the street, Athina thinks. She reenters the Ministry building. Races up the stairs, then down again. All four flights. Although she knows she would have seen him passing by her, had he reentered the building. She checks the elevators. They are both still on the ground floor.
The strange man is nowhere to be seen.