Winning and Losing No Matter Where You Are

I wasn't going to write about an interaction I had yesterday with a young Greek employee at a cell phone store, partly because this blog is supposed to reflect my archaeological research, not my social experiences, and also partly because the interaction itself has become so commonplace in my life here that it almost seemed like it didn't merit mention. But then I saw that CNN posted a story today that paralleled my experience, and I decided that my story was one worth adding to theirs.

The CNN story can be found here:

I went into my local equivalent of a Verizon store yesterday. I knew exactly what I needed and it required a sales associate, and so I was left to idle until someone felt like helping me. Cell phone stores everywhere are like that everywhere it seems. No lines, no numbered queue, you just kind of stand around and maybe poke at some phones until someone in company uniform appears.

Finally an employee decided to take on my cause, and I pointed out what I needed and then went up to the counter to pay. In Greece, your cell phone is connected to your national ID card in a computer database, so buying anything at a phone store brings up a huge picture of my very foreign driver's license on the screen. No way to hide from his assumptions now, I was definitely an American. With that confirmed, he could now ask me all the questions he wanted, about housing, about jobs, about what kinds of cars people drive, about what kinds of cell phones everyone has.

I've run into questions like that a hundred times before, and not just in Greece. People take the opportunity to de-mystify the U.S. or add to their own mythological understanding of it. They want to know that it is either better or worse than where they live. It just depends on where you are and who you are talking to.

Once, in Ecuador, I let two children squeeze onto a single bus seat with me, one on my lap. Their mother was grateful for a few hours of peace, and the kids and I were thoroughly entertained in each other's company. The kids wanted to know, had I ever been on an airplane? Does every kid in the U.S. have their own soccer ball? Did I take the bus to school? What these kids really wanted to know was, are Americans like me or do they have it better? I reassured them that they were lucky to live in Ecuador, because in the U.S., we only have about 4 different kinds of fruit juice and they hardly ever show soccer on TV! They laughed, satisfied.

Another time, in Norway, a man in a small town café asked, did I own any guns? How many horses did I have? How many Wal-Marts were in my hometown? I was totally thrown off by these questions, but he was obviously amused. He explained that, since I was an American, then I must be a cowboy. Weren't we all? Didn't we all just ride around, shooting things and hollering and being ignorant racists? I tried to laugh it off, but it never feels good to be subject to the criticisms of strangers. He was knocking the U.S. down a notch and also implying that Norway was more civilized. People in Norway could and did make fun of Americans, seemed to be the point.

In Greece, I always think that their questions are a little of both of these scenarios. Lately, though, the questions leave me feeling sadder than usual.

The store employee was in his late 20s or early 30s, with a statement beard, brown hair flecked with ginger, and a thick wooden hoop through one ear. He looked like so many other young Greeks I have met, with their proclivities towards homemade whiskies and Bob Dylan. It's no wonder that the rock music of the 60s and 70s (and the grungier early 90s) is so popular in Athens now. The youth are angry, neglected by a system they don't recognize as their own. Alex Tsipras, leader of the leftist party Syriza, was their very own John F. Kennedy, except that Tsipras lost.

This guy told me that he had an M.A. in Software Engineering and finished his Ph.D. in Computer Science two years ago. He told me that since then, he has been working at this cell phone store, making what he estimated was about 6 euros an hour. He wanted to know what the minimum wage in the U.S. was, and made an obvious mental note of some of the figures I told him. What did a software engineer make? I told him I had no idea, but that I knew it was a good job to have. Way more jobs in software engineering than in archaeology, and better pay. Bad joke. "Not here. Archaeologists always have jobs in Greece," he said, shaking his head.

He told me he wanted to move to the U.S., that he was sure things would be better there. I told him that things aren't all that great in the U.S. right now either. He told me that they couldn't be any worse than they are in Greece, that no where could be worse than Greece. So we stood talking for a while. I quoted what I thought an apartment cost in New York, in L.A., a house in the suburbs somewhere in the Midwest. I estimated the cost of a new car, a used car. I also told him how hard it was to move away from your family and friends, to get used to different types of food, to use a language not your own. What I was trying to say was that maybe the grass isn't really always greener, just different.

He wasn't convinced. Still resolute in his desire to emigrate, he asked me where would be a good place to get a job, where should he move to? And there I was, standing in a cell phone store, being asked to give a desperate man advice that I was in no position to give. I shrugged. I told him I didn't have any answers, that people back home were struggling with the same questions and decisions that he was. I still don't think he believed me. "Even if I don't end up being a software engineer, I can still make more money in America." I told him maybe so, but he'd have to go a long way and give up a lot to do it. He told me that he had nothing to lose. "Greece has given up on me, maybe I give up on it." I asked him what would happen if everyone gave up on Greece? But no, too serious of a question. Couldn't be answered within the confines of small talk.

To him, it seems likely that the Greek ship is sinking. No one here knows for sure, and it feels like most people are just waiting for a sign that yes, it is time to abandon ship. But they're not totally convinced; maybe these are just rough seas that will soon calm, and if they jump off now, they'll be too embarrassed to come back on board later, when things are better. They don't want to desert, but they also don't want to drown. And no one can make those choices for them. Not an American, not the troika, no one.

The signs in the photo at the top read, "Some people are so poor, the only thing that they have is money" (photo courtesy of Freegan Kolektiva). I appreciate their sentiment, and it is good to know that not everyone has given up on Greece, but instead have chosen to give up on a system that values money over all else. I also appreciate those who leave in hopes of better jobs and better salaries elsewhere, making the hard choice to give up the wealth of nearby loved ones and familiar places. They're all just doing the best they can.