Two weeks ago I was crammed onto an Athens-bound plane with holiday-goers, fellow journalists, and perhaps a few seekers of Schadenfreude. I was headed to Greece to see firsthand how the debt crisis was impacting on local businesses, neighbourhoods, and the national brand.
The strong scent of smoke still lingered in the streets when I arrived. Only days earlier, rioters smashed and burned their way through offices and storefronts downtown. Workers now set about repairing the many charred buildings that dot the city centre. All around, anarchist graffiti had transformed banks and government buildings into political statements, or eyesores, depending on your view.
Early in the trip, I found myself with a gathering of students in Syntagma Square. It soon became a crowd. When the chants grew louder and black masks were donned, riot police sprouted up along the perimeter. Projectiles whizzed through the air, inches over our heads. They were oranges, they grow everywhere in the city and are far too bitter to eat, making them handy when the collective anger boils over. At one point, a teenaged girl eyed the recording equipment jutting through my bag. “Paparazzo, paparazzo!”, she yelled to her friends. I didn’t stick around to see if she wanted to chat or smash more fruit.
Though the protests are sporadic affairs, daily life in Greece has changed tremendously. I had many conversations over the course of a week – with community leaders, shopkeepers, the overeducated and underemployed, politicians and entrepreneurs – and each shared dismal anecdotes about their country’s situation. Sky-high unemployment. A GDP beaten to a pulp. The country’s best and brightest fleeing en masse to more stable environments.
But amid the gloom, between tales of genuine hardship and deep frustration, a curious pattern emerged. I began to predict how the chats would end. “But, you know,” they’d say, their mouths often curling into a slight smile, “I’m still optimistic.”
Default, depression and the ghost of the drachma hung in the air. Was it ignorance? Denial? Or something else entirely?
The French philosopher Voltaire wrote that “Optimism is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable.” But is it really madness? I don’t think so. We may cling to hope at times, but it serves a purpose. The power of positive thinking is a nice catchphrase, yet thinking positively clears heads, and clear heads can more easily spot problems to fix them.
Despite all of its many, many problems, Greece still has a lot going for it. As one Greek colleague put it, they just need to get their act together. Of course, optimism can’t solve the country’s problems on its own. But neither will discouraging it.
If Greeks believe they can pull through this crisis, who are we to claim otherwise?