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Clémence Weill
© Juan-Manuel Abellan
Athens – Paris. Terraces in the Fall | Clémence Weill





 

In September a photographer friend asked if I wanted to go to Athens with her. 'To see the country from a different angle than the media's,' she said in a whisper. She knows I can't resist that sort of argument. The news evolves so quickly these days that Greece has already been kind of forgotten, but over the summer it polarized Europe's hopes and outrage. Remember Syriza, the referendum and OXI ('NO')?
The issue that inspired me to go there is about the link between politics and everyday life. We keep hearing that French people are disheartened and no longer interested in politics - supposedly too far removed and cut off from their lives - especially my generation of 20-35-year-olds who are said to be indifferent. In Paris, we're considered spoiled, lazy and blasé. With everything that's happened in Athens since 2011, I thought the Athenian youth would have a totally different approach. People there must really know about the direct, concrete effects of governmental choices, about the crisis, loss and fear.

A few weeks after I got back I was asked to write an article about Athens.
It's going to be very subjective, I warned them. And cheery too! (the trip had oddly boosted my serotonin levels).
- Write whatever you want. For the middle of the month, okay?
No problem.
As I work better under pressure, I didn't start writing until the afternoon of November 13th. Then a friend asked me to meet him at a café terrace. I'm not very good about resisting that sort of thing, so I scribbled some notes on a piece of paper and promised myself to get up early the next morning to finish the article. We met in the 10th arrondissement, decided on some of our regular haunts, weaving between packed tables while swapping stories about Greece, Morocco, where I'd just returned from, trading jokes and matters of the heart, downing our beers and laughing our heads off like thousands of other people on an unseasonably mild Friday night in Paris. We were at Place Sainte-Marthe, 200 meters from the Petit Cambodge, the Carillon, Fontaine-au-Roi, laughing like we're invincible.

It's November 18th now. For the past five days all I've written are text messages to my friends and family. Dozens of them. As fast as I can. To make sure that ...
It's a matter of life and death. Literally. I've never felt such anxiety waiting for answers to my texts. Until now I thought 'having your blood run cold' was just an image. I've never written I love you so many times. I've never needed so many hugs. My mental and emotional armor are gone. I'm unable to produce any opinions, analyses or fine phrases. Some people are already discussing what the government is doing and how journalists are dealing with it? All I can handle at the moment is cartoons and cookies.
But I want to write that article. To manage to write it. To write that life is going on. To believe in it.
I try to remember the state I was in upon my return from Athens. To conjure up those cheerful memories.
The café terraces.
Athens – Paris.
I've always felt at home on café terraces, all over the world. Conversely, I've never known where to go in countries that don't have that tradition. What better way to interact with a city and its inhabitants than at a table right on the street?
That's what surprised me most in Athens. I had imagined a capital that was deserted, switched off, desolate. What I discovered was a huge and lively downtown area with people enjoying a drink and endless discussions. Half the city's shops had closed, and lots of restaurants too, but the café terraces were packed. 'It's true, people here have never reacted by holing up at home, says Y. as if that were obvious.
This is where life is played out, together, sharing the public space over an iced coffee. And despite their dashed hopes, people come alive, love and argue with each other as they talk politics. 'In Greek cafés, everyone's the Prime Minister!' says A., smiling.
People here debate with intensity, even gravity (but it doesn't stop them from laughing). They exchange personal stories rather than nebulous theories. Because they know. And that collective intelligence illuminates the city. Despite the visible marks of economic dread (abandoned buildings, construction sites left unfinished), despite the homeless (ten years ago there wasn't a soul living in the street here! not a soul!), and yes despite everything, the heart of Athens is thriving and its brain is working non-stop!
2,500 years later, Greece is still standing on the pillars it gave the rest of the world: democracy, philosophy and theater.

The minute we arrived, I was struck by the number of bookstores. (It's like the Latin Quartier before all the clothes stores popped up). 'Yes, books are doing pretty well here.'
'There were over 3,500 people at the last Philosophy Night, they told me at the Institut Français! The auditorium wasn't big enough but the audience stayed anyway. All night long they listened to philosophy symposiums rebroadcast in the adjoining rooms!'

They say that during the Second World War the theaters and movie houses in Paris were packed. Was it the same here? A need for entertainment?
'No, the cinema isn't doing too well here, explains M., a documentary producer. But the theaters are sold out.'
How?
With no money, that's clear. The subsidies vanished years ago (since one of the first 'debt' obligations always involves sacrificing culture). But even with no salaries and no financial guarantees, the artists and technicians keep on working (paid from box-office receipts, so often unpaid). Creating. Writing. And the audiences keep coming.
Why?
Undoubtedly the culture of theater has deeper historic roots in Greece than elsewhere (I was told that Athens has more theaters than London!) but in recent years it has become even more important. Tickets may cost 10 or 12 €, yet people are willing to sacrifice other parts of their budget. But not the theater. 'We need to spend time together, to experience something real. That's why theaters are even fuller than before', replies Mariana, director of the Art Theatre. Something real …
'In recent years many productions have tried to understand and bear witness to what has happened – often head on.' Lots of stage compositions and collective works have grown out of it. The pieces are often very tough. But the tide has been turning lately. ''In-your-face theater doesn't have the same impact nowadays: we've all taken a beating and we know. We don't want to hear about the Crisis anymore. We've come to realize that it's not a matter of a crisis but of a new era. Now we have to invent something new. In my opinion the main issue is: what do we need to talk about now?'
Really? Do you have the answer? Please, Marianna? Because since Friday we've been at a loss for words. At least I have. Words and images. Horizons. I don't see what there is to talk about anymore. Or how. Not as an actress or as a citizen or even as myself when my phone rings.
'Audiences – in other words Us! - are hungry for what has remained intact: love, justice … and what life is made up of. If we have a mission as artists, that must be it: preserving beauty, memory and hope.'
That's right.
For 2,500 years there, and for centuries here. On stages and terraces. Where we can gather together to tell each other stories. Where we can reflect on how to reinvent a new life. Where we can shake hands and love one another, with no screens or barriers. The reality of a vibrant life - more powerful than any 'crisis' or fear - that will continue to thrive.

 
  Clémence Weill
November 18, 2015 - Paris
 
 
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