sexta-feira, 18 de setembro de 2015

The unbearable lightness of leaving Greece

Nostalgia. It is a word formed from Greek roots, and that is fitting, since Greece is not a country you easily leave. Nostos, the journey of return to the homeland. Algos, a pain that afflicts the mind. Put them together: a wistful longing to go back. For a Greek far from home, no word sounds more bittersweet.

Yet here we are, thousands of twentysomethings living abroad while so many back home wish they had our luck. Is leaving perhaps not so hard after all?

My country has lately been defined by different words altogether. Austerity, the consequence of a crisis that began more than five years ago. The reviled Troika of international lenders, who enforce this harsh regime. Unemployment, austerity’s consequence in turn, and a fate that now befalls one in four Greeks. Elections— taking place on Sunday for the fifth time in six years.

It is sometimes a relief to be one of the 200,000 young Greeks living abroad who do not have to experience every day the demise of our country and its people.

That way you do not have to see your local bookshop close down and the tax authority bar the staff from giving away the remaining stock. You do not have to be there when the door slams shut on a toy shop that was the Aladdin’s cave of your childhood, or watch your parents console their friend who was the owner. When homeless people appear on the street corner, when members of your own family search frantically for a job — you do not have to witness these things either. When people ask each other how they will avoid falling back on elderly parents for money, they ask someone other than you.

It is a relief, too, to have a university life undisturbed by political upheaval: free of protests and elections that delay exams or curtail lectures, unmarred by the sudden shortages of cash that create shortages of everything else, leading to classrooms without heat or sometimes even chairs.

It is a relief, however, that is tinged with loss.

One thing that Greeks lose by living abroad is the right to vote — expatriates in the UK could not vote in the July referendum unless they returned home, and the same goes for this weekend’s parliamentary elections.

And some say we also lose the right to a point of view. I was at home in the week before the July referendum. The debate was everywhere — vote yes or vote no. But joining in was awkward. You don’t live here, people would say. This doesn’t concern you. Don’t be so passionate about it.

It is true that even mentioning what we lose seems ungrateful when you consider what we have gained by choosing to leave.
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With close to half of young adults currently unemployed, Greece is not a land of opportunity. School friends of mine moved to Athens in search of an entry level job in architecture, only to go back home after finding they could not find work that paid, or paid enough. Graduates of law, or of the polytechnic school, were obliged to go back to their rural roots as soon as they finished their degree; the only jobs they could find were with their family business.

Then again, perhaps “choice” is not the right word to describe the act of leaving Greece.

One of my closest university friends is from Japan. She considered staying in London, but decided to return to Tokyo; at home, she said, there would be more opportunities. For me, it was a disorienting decision.

It is not that I have never thought of returning home. Two weeks before I left Greece for my fourth year in London (and my first after finishing my degree) I began to wonder. Could I stay, and follow a path that would contribute to my country’s recovery without throwing my own future away?

Friends who still live there did their best to discourage me. Trying to become a political journalist in my home town would be futile; most of the newspapers in Thessaloniki shut down long ago. I contacted some media outfits in Athens, where my prospects seemed better. But getting paid was out of the question.

Choosing entails having the freedom to decide between options that are all at least decent. And for a young person in Greece, such choices are what you gain only when you leave.

In other countries it is different. You aim high, you do your best, and you know that while failure is a possibility, so is success. You are not thwarted before you even start; you actually experience yourself working towards your goals.

But for a Greek, it makes no sense to go home — as my Japanese friend did — so you can choose your own course.

The biggest brain drain in Europe is a harsh thing to have to watch. Who will remain if all of us leave in search of a better future? To that I have no answer.

But it is scarcely more comfortable to be joining the exodus. Staying would be the bigger sacrifice. But even in avoiding that loss, something precious must be given up.

For there is more to Greece than the financial crisis, political instability and a worsening migration problem. Greece is fresh fish and homemade olive oil, basil, thyme and chamomile. It is the sea, the sun, the sunset; music, family, friends.

It is home. And no matter where you end up, it will always be where you began.

Iliana Magra, a politics graduate who grew up in Greece, has lived in London since 2012