He was a diminutive figure of a man looking very much alone. I was washing dishes in the monastery kitchen with my son when we saw him standing in the courtyard holding a small bag. Father Panteleimon dried his hands and went out to talk to him. When he returned he said winking with a smile: "Christ has brought us another lost lamb. He is staying the night. I'm going to give him a bowl of lentil soup and some bread to eat in the Trapeza but I've gotta go fill the oil lamps in church. Could you keep him entertained until I get back then I'll show him where he will be sleeping tonight." I finished up my work in the kicthen took off my apron and walked into the trapeza. "Kalispera," he looked up at me from his meal through tired eyes and stubby white beard. "Kalispera my boy, my name Haramlambos but everyone calls me Lambi. I mused to myself on the meaning of his name, "shine from happiness," noting that he seemed anything but happy nor shining.
"What do they call you?" "Stavros," I replied. "And where are you from Stavros?" perhaps noticing that I was out of place in a Greek monastery. "From Ameriki. The monk you spoke with is my son." "Ameriki" he said rubbing the stubble on his chin, so far away from your son? He had within a few minutes of meeting me understood what troubled me. "What a good boy he is," he followed up as if to salve my pain, "I can tell these things at my age. I can size people up quickly. It's a gift and a burden at times."
"Where are you from? I asked. "I grew up in Karditsa but now I live in Pireaus with my son. He doesn't much care for me but his wife does. She has a good heart. I have six other children, not that it ever did me much good after my wife died, poor woman. Since then I prefer to wander here and there as long as these wretched legs hold out. When I outwear my welcome I move on." I surveyed his furrowed brow, the weather worn skin on his face and his rough hands, the products of a lifetime of hard work.
It wasn't long before he got to the question every Greek asks of another Greek, as if searching for some connection. "Where are your parents from?" I smiled because I sensed the question would come sooner rather than later, "From Northern Epirus and Constantinople. "And you grew up in Ameriki. Your Greek is very good for an Amerikanaki," he winked playfully. "That's because my Greek wife makes me speak Greek," I said. He smiled, "A Greek wife is a blessing and a curse, like most women, I should know, having lived with one for fifty years. She died a few years ago and I miss her terribly." He seemed pensive returning to his meal for awhile, eating an olive and spitting the pit in his hand, then taking a bite of crusty bread. He looked up, "What I would have done for meal like this when I was a little boy during the Occupation. God provides, my boy, even for an old wretch like me. I have had a hard life, war, poverty. I spent ten years in Germany working in a kitchen, after I had enough of that I came back to Greece, got married and my brother in law got me a job working for the railroad. Raised a family and now I am blessed with grandchildren. I've got a small pension but it's not enough to live on, so I scrape by as best I can. I don't want to be a burden on my children. The most valuable thing I own right now is my freedom, once you lose that and the use of your legs, life becomes misery. My son calls me 'alitis,' a bum, because I won't stay in one place and wait to die. What kind of life is that I ask you, waiting to die. So I wander when begin to feel suffocated." He lit a cigarette and took a deep drag on it exhaling through his nose. "All the money in the world is worthless if you lose your sense of filotimo. There are worse things than poverty."
We both sat there in silence thinking our private thoughts.
I left for Athens the next day after the liturgy but couldn't get Lambi out of my mind. His life was an allegory of sorts representing what was happening to the country as a whole. As I surveyed the wreckage about me and felt the deep malaise of so many Greeks, many of them people I know and love, I couldn't help but feel that Greece too was like a wandering old man. She was exhausted, moving from one catastrophe to the next, with little hope for the future. The Greek word for poverty is "ftoxia" and one hears it alot these days in Greece. It is a country where people wake up to a nightmare and not from one. The generation that grew up during hard times, the stone years, when war and poverty took their toll, still remember. The same fears and worries are once again their lot in life. The younger generation who once hoped for a better tomorrow now find themselves similarly bereft of hope for the future and fighting for survival. They however, never saw it coming.
Everyone asks "How did we get to this point?" faced by the debris of decades of government mismanagement, corruption, over-reach and utopian fantasies. Who is responsible for the collective misery of the Greek people? Was it the banks and the greedy capitalists, the politicians trolling for votes and willing to sell the future for their own purposes or was it the Greek everyman voting for those who promised the most. In the present conflagartion no one is guilty and everyone is guilty. The Athenian landscape is dotted by For Sale signs, empty storefronts and downtrodden citizens hoping for better days while they scurry to survive the current ones. The IMF representatives and the dreaded Troika come and go issuing their edicts and threats. The old demagogues have been replaced by new ones of the left and right, Tspiras and Mihaloliakos. Once again Greeks are mesmerized by the empty promises, scapegoating and boastful oratory. How ironic that the Germans, who were bankrupted by the victors of World War I, are now imposing a similar fate upon the Greeks. One which which has strengthened the extremists, very much the way it did in Weimar Germany.
Austerity is a dirty word in Greece. The austerity imposed on Greece is long overdue however the manner in which it has been hoisted on the Greek people is draconian. It is destroying the engine that will eventually put things right again, the Greek economy. More importantly it is destroying people and the little hope they have. Most Greeks support staying in Europe. Maybe they see it as a chance to become another Denmark, then again who wants to be Danish? I am just a wannabe Greek of the diaspora, with a different perspective and mindset. Maybe I should keep my mouth shut but it pains me to see Greeks give up their sovereignty. A sovereignty so many fought and died for just so they can now beg for some crumbs from the master's table.
The security promised by the European project, whether it is economic or military, is in the end, illusory. If Turkey attacked Greece tomorrow, the rest of Europe would not lift a finger to help the Greeks. As usual Greeks put their trust in allies who will always let them down when push comes to shove. Anyone with a knowledge of Greek history will understand that history only repeats itself time and again.
I am in no way absolving Greeks for their present misery. They blame the capitalist system when in fact they have a soviet style economy. They blame Wall Street and the Banks when they should be blaming the corrupt political class of both the Left and Right that has looted the treasury for decades to line their own pockets and those of their supporters. They decry the destruction of the Greek economy then go on strike to chase away the last few tourists still willing to spend their hard earned money in Greece. Now they want to unionize the armed forces, one of the pillars of the nation. Madness.
Greeks are still not willing to change, they are not willing to transform their society in fundamental ways. In order to do that there has to be a dialogue and right now Greeks are too busy shouting at each other to hear what the other side is saying. Only when Greeks put their abundant talents to the task of making Greece better instead of protecting their own piece of the diminishing pie will Greece prosper.
May the Theotokos keep the wolves at bay long enough for Greeks to awaken once again.