University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

Two Perspectives on the Financial Crisis: Part 2: A Year in the Perspective – Kurtis Tanaka

July 27, 2015

Every year, the Penn Museum provides support to Penn undergraduates and graduate students as they deepen their understanding of the human experience outside the Museum’s walls. Follow these blog posts from our intrepid young scholars as they report on the sights and sites that they encounter throughout their travels in the field.

As Amanda Ball has illustrated in Part 1 of this series, the crisis here, in the small farming village of Pagouria, seems distant, the fiscal year far removed from the yearly rhythms of the agricultural cycle. Throughout the past year, the farmers have planted their wheat, cotton, or other crop (this year, fields of sunflowers along side the traditional cotton and wheat have created a stunning patchwork of gold, yellow, and green), they still water and weed their fields, life goes on. However, having spent the last year living in Greece, I can see the crisis, even here, both in the bigger picture and in the small details.

Pagouria from a distance. Photo by Amanda Ball.
Pagouria from a distance. Photo by Amanda Ball.

I’ll start with the small details. Greece is a cash economy; I have lived here for a year and have yet to pay for anything with a card. This, of course, is the reason for the long lines at the ATMs used as the cover photo for every news story on the current crisis. The first time I came to Greece, I remember being surprised both by this fact, and the general impatience of most shopkeepers with making small change, everything was always, informally, rounded up or down to a convenient multiple of ten. I never saw the endearingly small euro penny. Now, however, exact change is all anyone gives, carefully counted out, down even to that diminutive penny (endearing, and I should also add, a complete annoyance; I have collected an overflowing jar of 1, 2, 5, and 10 cent coins that I am not sure what to do with).

Perhaps the most striking detail, however, is the extent to which the Greeks, and indeed, I myself, have become inured to the crisis. Calling it “the” crisis is, I think, the wrong term for the situation in Greece as well. Rather, “the” crisis is just a series of mini-crises coming along every few weeks (the next deadline is July 23). Over the past year I have lost count of how many deadlines have come due, how many critical, doomsday level, on the precipice moments have gripped the headlines for a week or two only to be replaced by the next looming financial disaster. After a while, it becomes hard to keep track or to imagine the gravity and consequences of each of these deadlines. So now, even as we are about to find out, it’s not surprising that there is so much confusion here over what all of this actually means.

The bigger picture of what these crises mean for Greece was thrown into high relief by a recent trip to Istanbul, a seven-hour bus ride from Pagouria. Istanbul is a mass of new construction, high-rise after high-rise after stadium after school after shopping mall fly past as one enters the city. This frenetic pace of construction could not be more different from Athens, where investment in infrastructure seems to have completely stalled. Standing on the Acropolis and looking out upon the vast urban sprawl of the city, you can see one, maybe two large building projects, made noticeable only by the spindly yellow cranes, usually idle, looming above them. From this perspective, the city seems paused, as if, like the people who inhabit it, the very bricks of the city are holding their breath between this crisis and the next.

Far from Athens, the crisis takes on a different feel in Pagouria, less public, more private. Major construction works are not anywhere near as common here as in the nation’s capital and largest city. Instead it clings about the house, in the half-finished renovations, for example, of the reoccupied family homes of those who have had to leave Athens. Beyond that, however, it is hard to calculate how much life has changed here. The people are still warm and welcoming, they press on. One can only guess at all the ways, big and small, their lives have been interrupted.

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