Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Paralysis in Athens

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Paralysis in Athens

Article excerpt

With an excruciating choice between austerity measures and a departure from the euro, the birthplace of democracy is paralyzed with indecision.

"What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?" asked the 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. …

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