The Summer Before Austerity (June 2010): The Everyday of a Crisis in the Making

Soo-Young Kim
For histrionic or fanatical stress on the mysterious side of the mysterious takes us no further; we penetrate the mystery only to the degree that we recognize it in the everyday world, by virtue of a dialectical optic that perceives the everyday as impenetrable, the impenetrable as everyday.
— Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia”
Philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow—it is a goldsmith’s art and connoisseurship of the word which has nothing but delicate, cautious work to do and achieves nothing if it does not achieve it lento. But for precisely this reason it is more necessary than ever today, by precisely this means does it enchant and entice us most, in the midst of an age of ‘work,’ that is to say, of hurry, of indecent and perspiring haste, which wants to get everything done at once, including every old or new book:—this art does not so easily get anything done, it teaches to read well, that is to say, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers…
— Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality
A three-year-old’s birthday party was my introduction. Shiny plastic presents, dinner from grandma’s kitchen next-door, and husbands ducking inside periodically to check the soccer score. The international news coverage had primed me to expect something else.
The suburb of Athens where I arrived, along with the summer’s first heat wave, had a history of affluence. Initially the wealth had been modest, that of an agricultural community. Then it shot up exponentially, thanks to the nearby construction of a new airport and highway—both completed in 2001, the same year Greece adopted the euro. Former fields were cashed in for serious sums and working for a living took on the novel quality of being no longer obligatory for all.
From afar, through newspapers mostly, my grasp of the Greek debt crisis had been limited to a matter of numbers and acronyms—VAT up to 23%, deficit at 12.7% of GDP, EU/IMF loans of €110 billion—i.e., crisis as a total abstraction. What I was after in that dry June heat was a sense of what crisis could actually feel like. What are the experiences of crisis, what are some of its practices? What does it mean to say you’re in crisis, and how is it exactly that you ever even know?
Takis and I are discussing crisis over coffee the afternoon of my arrival. I’ve brought up the topic, not yet realizing how easily subsequent conversations will turn to crisis without my prompting. “My father’s patients, they don’t know what to think. So they ask my father. He’s only their doctor, but they don’t know who else to ask. My father? He doesn’t know. He asks me. And what can I tell him, what do I know? I ask my friends. We’re all trying to understand.”
It’s Takis who sees the upside of crisis in the absence of traffic as we’re cruising on that windfall highway into the city center a few days later, and then questions its very existence when we find ourselves in Thiseio faced with a wait-time to eat. These are casual remarks, more reflex than products of reflection, but I’m hearing them often and from all around. Crisis making itself felt in the form of a language to describe the everyday.
And why not, this expectation that practices of the everyday are where crisis should be palpable? Describing all kinds of situations—cafe crowds, interpersonal relations, just about everything short of the weather—with recourse to crisis seems like a way to make sense of crisis, to invest it with intelligible form. Crisis as the difference between a 25-minute drive and a 45-minute drive is a crisis that I can at least begin to grasp.
But the language of crisis doesn’t just describe the everyday, it also tries to explain it. The everyday is recognized in crisis, just as crisis is recognized in the everyday. By looking for crisis in daily situations, they practice a new attentiveness to the everyday. Do these observations about everyday life—articulated this summer in terms of crisis—seem novel because crisis has qualitatively changed the situation or because crisis is making them pay attention to it for the first time?
We show up at the neighbors’ for a late afternoon swim in their pool. The crisis keeps me from getting in. “I’m sure you’ve heard about the crisis,” Eleni begins. I play naive: “Well, yes, a bit, I guess. But what does it mean really?” She’s not playing: “The problem is that I don’t know. The problem is that I don’t understand. A few years ago everybody was feeling rich. Now we’re all feeling poor. I don’t understand how that’s possible. I don’t understand what’s changed.”
The turnaround is even quicker for others. Panos is weighing job prospects in Stuttgart, London, and Madrid. He enlists my help on the finer points of English grammar for a letter he’ll send to turn down one offer, but we don’t stick to grammar for long. “Before, my mother would ask me, ‘Why do you want to leave? What could be so much better over there?’ But now, now she’s urging me, ‘Go! Leave while you still have a chance!’”
Looking for work abroad, withdrawing bank savings, wondering which possessions won’t be passed on to their children. If crisis names anything this summer, it’s an inescapable atmosphere of uncertainty. One way to give shape to this uncertain future is to make plans and preparations. The absence of credible information drives another—rampant dealing in rumors and speculation.
This sovereign debt crisis does seem to offer its subjects at least one certainty, however, one thing they can almost all agree on—uncharted hardship just around the corner. By all material indications life today seems unchanged from a year ago—they still have their pools for the moment, they’re still drinking €3.50 coffees for the moment—but the knowledge that change is imminent lends a wholly new appearance to these same practices. Is it still possible to be doing all right when you’re constantly hearing that any day now you won’t be?
The present slumps beneath the weight of the future, and the practice of everyday living becomes a matter of awaiting an imminent yet unimaginable fate.
Back to that packed Thiseio restaurant. “Where’s the crisis?!” Takis playfully asks upon seeing people at every table, and Stefanos doesn’t miss a beat with his answer: “They’re all tourists.” They consult for a moment, then decide there’s nothing to do but settle in for a wait.