Riot shoes, Ramblings on the Enclosure of a Heimat

by Angela Dimitrakaki

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Photo by Dimitris Massellos,
Courtesy of Marina Fokidis

You get the picture because you’ve read your Kafka. One spring night of 2010 I went to bed as a human and woke up as a cockroach. It happened in Edinburgh but could have happened anywhere in the European Union really, given that my sole tie to the place had been a job contract following another job contract somewhere else. Whatever. It was awful. My case made headlines wherever I looked: the BBC, The Guardian, you name it – article upon article about how a lazy, parasitical people in the European South were trying to live off the hard-working people in the European North. Omg! Someone had cast Greeks as the eurozone’s Gregor Samsa: the euro family would pretend to care about Gregor who mysteriously had metamorphosed into vermin but would eventually drive him to suicide. I felt like hiding in a crack in the floor but kept reading instead: a deluge of readers’ comments about how the pathetic southern beggars should be punished for trying to live “beyond their means”.

It would go on for months; it’s still going on. In Vienna, a German curator I had never met before and with whom I was sharing a taxi ride to a conference spilled the beans: “There’s a lot of racism against Greeks right now in Germany, you know.” “Really?” “Yes, before [sic] a Greek was someone who served us fish in the summer, now a Greek is good for nothing.” An Eastern European scholar was also sharing the ride. I wanted to ask her and the taxi driver their views on this verdict but didn’t (they didn’t volunteer/intervene). I opted to turn red in the face and keep quiet, keep low, as it were, like any reflective cockroach would do. Inside me something was turning though. I’d rather be a good-for-nothing than serve you lot fish, the something screamed. Hadn’t all those 1970s Italian Marxists said that to refuse to work was the first step to empowerment? Hmm, one should be suspicious: Italians are southerners too and they love chilling out in cafés so of course they came up with a version of communism that couldn’t be further from Stalinism and its labour camps. Terrible: I had clearly transformed into an immigrant to the European North and all politico-cultural stereotypes suddenly made sense. I could finally understand Eastern European philosopher Marina Griznic describing Eastern Europe as “a piece of shit” in the euro-social imagination.

The Vienna ride was the end of my euro-naiveté, a state of being in which I had been born and raised. It was my world, having lasted for the best part of four decades. In that world I had moved around, without a second thought. Everyone did, for all sorts of reasons: for love, for gigs, for sun, for snow, for parties, for that special x course which happened to be offered by university z in country y. You moved easily because you knew you could get back at any point. You were the girl “with a thirst for knowledge” who Jarvis Cocker wrote “Common People” for – how appropriate that he is now no longer sure that you ever existed. You got a job somewhere in that world because you could get a job elsewhere. It was not that important. You were a cosmopolitan euro-worker watching from a comfortable distance the getting-bigger waves of people who actually had to migrate to get jobs. So many of them had flocked to Greece in the late 1990s that it became impossible for the younger cosmo-natives to think that one day – within fifteen years! – they might actually have to force-flock themselves really far away from Mykonos. To Australia, for instance. Greek restaurants, wherever in Europe you came across them, were an embarrassment to you: relics of post-war devastation, markers of exorcised economic migration: all those unskilled, cheap-labour Greek peasants. Nothing to do with you, the Greek web designer/ business consultant/ academic/ artist/ medical doctor. You went ahead and procreated with some other cosmo-euro worker you happened to meet in your travels, never having imagined that your Nordic ‘family’ would believe what the papers wrote about your southern ineptitude.

Along with everyone else, I sleepwalked into the end of that world. Some time after the eruption of an Icelandic volcano (and Iceland’s economy – a hint that the South didn’t quite get), I realised that I had transformed from the accidental, over-educated, immaterial labourer with an airport accent and mentality into a good-for-nothing Greek, an underdeveloped southerner, a paradigmatic PIIG-passport holder, a continental abomination. Athens-of-the-North taxi drivers berated me, wanted to know what I was doing in Scotland, a question to which my defensive answer was that I had accepted a job offer long “before”. Colleagues started asking politely how things were “at home”. At home? So, I was a guest. A guest worker. An economic exile. They were right, because I sure as hell started feeling that way. I was trapped outside the newly enclosed homeland, with no prospect of ever going back because the higher education sector where I could be employed was being demolished. Apparently, all sectors I could be employed in were being demolished. The IMF and the capitalists of Europe (including Greek ones, that is) had taken over my Heimat.

What a TV series Heimat was! It sure beats the past, present and future production values of HBO, catering to the global masses. Heimat – if you haven’t watched it, this is the time – would open with its beautiful, melancholy score and then proceed to show how Germany ruined the twentieth century and the twentieth century ruined Germany. Then in the last season, the reunification season, when the twentieth century and Germany got their shit together, your cosmopolitan adult life had already started (possibly in Berlin nightclubs) and you thought you knew the rest. For example, how Heimat was very much about Europe and how lucky you were to have been born in a land so inclined to learn from history. Yes, I am being funny.

The most unforgettable thing about Heimat was how it made your screen turn from colour to black & white. This was an unfathomable mystery, which sent shivers down my spine at the prospect of living such a life, switching between illumination and greyness for no good reason, or getting stuck in the grey. The world’s media tells you that these southerners are presently steeped in grey misery, overwhelmed by pessimism, mobilised only by fear. Yet writing this text in Athens (of the South), Greece does not seem stuck in grey. On the contrary, its rioting squares and streets, generating a captivating YouTube visual culture, are so colourful that they may be experiencing illumination. Unwanted illumination, to be sure, as waking up to the real (by which I mean the Lacanian Real, the indescribable remainder after all veils of pseudo-consciousness have fallen) is no nation’s cup of tea. Nation is a word that I have rarely used in the past and mainly in a scoffing manner. Yet now that Greece has become a classed nation, a southern nation, I am reconsidering.

Being a classed nation introduces other lines of division, even within so-called national space. The widespread feeling that the Greek middle classes are being, hmm, disarticulated may lead to flights of actually existing solidarity (not the kind you type with your fingers). Or it may not. It may instead lead to more ready-made economic migration. The glorification of the migrant in contemporary left theory and contemporary art has been so extreme that only when the prospect involves you personally do you begin to see its bitter political truth. It’s called atomised escape, ultimately in support of the system that sought to de-territorialise your labour. It’s called a better future for your children, assuming that a better future includes high profile slave work elsewhere rather than the right to protest against slave work here. Escaping injustice is not the same as fighting injustice, escaping poverty is not the same as fighting poverty – and grasping this is the unwanted, potential illumination I am talking about.

Cosmopolitanism is over – at least for this classed nation. Cosmopolitanism can survive as an aspiration, something akin to the struggle for global citizenship. In 2012 Greeks travel to find work, not to see how ordinary people live in Hackney. As the newly minted Gregor Samsa of the European ‘Union’, they find mostly closed doors. Anyone who had a job in the North before hell broke loose in the South is considered lucky. When I say to people that I want to return “home”, they think I’m mad. Inevitably, they ask “how?” Indeed, how can you return somewhere where you are deprived of the means to make a living? This is the extent to which we are kept hostage to global capital’s regime of labour. How can you take the decision to bring your child to a land of no prospects, a land that she will have to leave later anyway in search of a job? This is the extent to which we have identified the future with the rat race.

I haven’t figured things out yet. What I do know, however, is that anyone contemplating such a decision – of leaving one’s South or returning to it – will have to effectively answer this question: should the future be imagined as Carrie Bradshaw unable to walk in her taxi shoes or as a protester using her body to the max in her riot shoes?


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