03 Aug 15

Exploring Museum Mysteries Amid Fears of a Grexit

Fotini Barka

That night we ordered Chinese. A friend came over. After a long period of unemployment, she had just started working for a technology startup. We tried to recall the last time we ate Chinese food. Nobody could. "It’s been a long time," we said and tucked into the noodles as the kids played with the fortune cookies.

Protesters demonstrate in favour of a No vote in Greece’s referendum on international creditors’ conditions for another financial bailout at Syntagma Square, Athens on July 3, 2015.


Photo: Georgios Giannopoulos via WikiMedia Commons.

We were about to call it a night when my husband shouted: "Turn on the TV!" We could barely keep up with the newscaster. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was on the other half of the screen and at the bottom were the words 'Referendum on July 5'. Tsipras was going to hold a snap vote on the eurozone’s conditions for another financial bailout.

Silence. Then phones started ringing.

"I'm going to the ATM. I don’t have any money," said my friend, a mother of two, and left before we could see her tears.  A few minutes later she called to say that more than 50 people were queuing in front of the cash machine in my neighbourhood, a relatively new and sparsely populated suburb 15 kilometres northeast of Athens city centre.

After that moment when the referendum was announced, around 1:10 a.m. on Saturday, June 27, no one I know slept normally for a single night.

That weekend Tsipras tried to secure ELA from the ECB - financial guarantees from Europe's central bank to keep Greek banks operating. I attempted to organise my research on EMST and MOCAB - museums of contemporary art in Athens in Belgrade respectively, whose long-term troubles I am investigating. Neither building is open to the public at the moment and the question is: why? Tsipras and I, each of us steeped in our own acronyms. But unfortunately neither of us able to achieve our goals.

The fear of economic meltdown was terrifyingly real. The government announced banks would be closed and cash withdrawals limited to just 60 euros a day. I was scheduled to travel to Belgrade on July 1 to explore the reasons behind the years-long closure of the contemporary art museum there. But a two-hour flight and a few days away suddenly felt like a huge risk. Anything could happen while I was gone. Was this really the time to focus on a couple of museums when the fate of my country seemed to be at stake?

In the end, I decided to take the flight.

Normal life in Belgrade worked wonders for me. It was a relief to be away from the febrile environment in Greece. But I never imagined that seeing Greek banks open in the Serbian capital could make me feel so bad. Alpha Bank, Piraeus and Eurobank are everywhere in the city and each one was a reminder of the worries at home.

Serbs admire us because we "resist". Newspapers boasted that Serbs had not cancelled their holidays in Greece, "unlike other Europeans".

I reached the closed MOCAB building at noon. The location is superb - on the banks of the Sava river, near its confluence with the Danube, where Belgraders cycle or roller-skate under the shade of tall trees. This calmness was so refreshing.


Riverside life near the (closed) building of Belgrade’s museum of contemporary art - a refreshing antidote to the stresses of the Greek crisis

Two security guards in their 50s, a woman and a man, welcomed me. Both wanted to learn more about Greece. The woman’s sister has been living in Thessaloniki for more than 20 years and is married to a Greek. The security guard called her and passed the phone to me. Here I was, inside the museum of contemporary art, speaking Greek with a Serb who lives in Thessaloniki! I know a lot of artists who could be inspired by such a quirky combination. From the conversation, I learned that the woman in Thessaloniki and I would not vote the same way in the referendum.

The museum closed for renovation in 2007 and, after various delays, is finally meant to reopen in October this year. But the building still looked to be in poor condition. The two guards obviously did not believe the project would be completed any time soon, but they didn’t seem to care.

"Serbs and Greeks have a lot in common," the woman told me, expressing her distrust of Europe. "We are Orthodox," she said proudly, as if religion was a defining factor in our mutual superiority.

On referendum day, I thought of them both. The emphatic rejection of the eurozone’s proposals must have pleased them. The next day, a few Greek newspapers compared Greece's situation with Serbia's isolation from the EU during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

According to leaks from a meeting of eurozone finance ministers on Saturday, July 11, Greece's compatibility with European standards was openly called into question for the first time. That prompted me to start writing immediately. To me, the Greek financial crisis reflects a deeper crisis of values. For too long, notions of transparency, meritocracy, accountability and the public interest have meant little to our political establishment. That is also reflected in the saga of the Athens museum that was meant to be a showpiece for modern Greece but is still not open, six years after construction was meant to be complete. By exploring the stories of the museums in Athens and Belgrade, I hope to reveal something about the culture of public life in both countries.

For now, a Grexit has been averted, albeit with a deal that seems even tougher for Greece than the one rejected in the referendum. More pain and uncertainty lie ahead. But perhaps unravelling the mysteries of the museums will help me finally enjoy a good night's sleep.


Fotini Barka is a freelance journalist based in Athens who worked at the daily newspaper Eleftherotypia for many years. She has written extensively about arts and culture in Greece and abroad, both as a reporter and a commentator. 

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