For years, I have lived with the illusion that I would constantly remember all experiences in my life with the accuracy and transparency of their inception. It felt absurd I could ever forget specific events I have personally lived: moments enveloped in emotions, intertwined with other moments and more emotions, the whole turning into a lasting remembrance forever orbiting in the frictionless liquidity of my consciousness.
During my short visits to Greece, while living abroad, I got the first glimpses of the myopic, fallacious, and recklessly selective nature of my memory. Friends and relatives would recall relics of our childhood, adolescence, or early adulthood, and I would stare back with a blank gaze, probing feverishly through the obscurity of the past in an effort to retrieve this tiny piece of life – my life – that, I was surprised to discover, was almost permanently lost.
Still, I was not prepared for the profound revelations I was to uncover in the rooms of the GR80 exhibition in Athens – an exhibition on the political, economic, social, and cultural developments in Greece during the 80s. Objects – many of which had been crowdsourced from the Athenians who dug them up from boxes full of memorabilia buried in closets, lofts, or cellars – were spread through the cobbled rooms of the old gas plant in Gazi that now acts a museum. As usual, the stone walls, the metallic pipes, and the smokestacks were adding to the ambiance, reinforcing the impact of nostalgia emanating from the displays.
There, pinned on walls, hanging from ceilings, standing on shelves, or broadcasting through screens was my own life. It could have been an exhibition about me: my childhood and adolescence. The bolt of cloth – carrying the brand of the most prestigious Greek textile company whose name, despite its bankruptcy, is still synonymous with high quality – had been spread on my grandma’s sofa for years. School reports, uniforms, notebooks, or essays – all could have been mine: even the handwriting was similar. I had the same pop-star posters – maybe I still have them, if they survived the hurricanes of numerous house moves; the same vinyl records lie unused next to my old turntable; the fer forgé furniture with the orange-blossomed pillows could have been taken from my family home’s veranda; the books and encyclopedias with the discolored pages were mine – I still have them in my childhood room. I stood next to a couple who exclaimed: “These are our magazines; we brought them here,” and, looking at the covers, I recalled having bought the particular issues myself, and I felt an unspoken connection floating through the simultaneous breathing of all visitors: a heart beating in synch.
Everything was carefully curated in themes; everything was mixing up with our individual memories: the first Greek songs’ video clips; retro telephone apparatuses; the first TV series produced by the new stations after the opening up of the so-far state-controlled broadcast market; lines of pop hits that were too commercial to survive the test of time, whose slogans though miraculously got incorporated into the everyday language and are used to the day; the first rock concerts with foreign bands; the prototype of the first car to be fully manufactured in Greece (a dream that never came true); the locally famous green-colored bus number 040, so firmly imprinted in my memory that I thought it still circulates in the streets of Athens; plastic bottles of shampoos and detergents; drachma banknotes and coins; a battered black radio similar to my grandma’s; memories of national pride like the 1987 EuroBasket victory; moments of national embarrassment with political, financial, or even sexual scandals. Political posters – many of them quite creative – marking the various elections of the decade; ballots; trials; multitudinous political demonstrations; the economic crisis of 1985; the enforcement of the first VAT tax; the mediating role of Greece in the Middle East crisis: photos of the Greek political leadership with Muammar Gaddafi and Yasser Arafat during negotiations to ease the turmoil in the Mediterranean; numerous terrorist attacks with significant number of victims – the spillover effect of the boiling Middle East; raids, strikes, outbreaks; assassinations executed by our local terrorist organization that was only recently wiped out – maybe just because its members got too old, or their cause aged along and became pointless in the context of the present era.
With misty eyes, I ambled from building to building, reading notes, recalling details, my fingers secretly caressing the exhibits, exclamations of excitement, awe, or wonder occasionally escaping my lips. But, once I had tasted to the fullest the saltiness of the first wave of nostalgia and its impact was finally absorbed, I realized there was something more, something deeper, affecting me. In this defined space, my life had become tangible: from something vague floating in my subconscious, it had been confined into something I could examine closely as an independent observer. All those items and events belonged to me, but they also belonged to someone else: someone with whom I was not connected. Inspected now with the serenity that only distance instills, I felt weirdly detached from this part of myself which seemed to come out of the pages of a historical novel.
Despite the bumpy road, the evolutionary trend was visible – the way it always is when monitored from afar. There had been mistakes which still cast a heavy shadow, and there had been successes which are now taken so much for granted we refuse to be grateful for them anymore. There were revolutions, and there was rigidity. There was corruption, and there was development. There were financial collapses and economic recoveries. In short, the decade included everything every period in history includes, putting the occasional challenges of the present into a different perspective. I had forgotten the financial depressions; the terrorist attacks; the insecurity; the controlled economy; the fashion in house decoration, hair styles, or clothes which, I am sure, will never come back; the wobbly steps of a conservative society during its entrance into the European Union and the open markets; the lack of technology; the ignorance. Although I could always retrieve some of these facts from the chest of memories, the related feelings had been dulled, and I could feel now only sympathy and compassion – remote and lukewarm, similar to the empathy we momentarily feel towards the story of someone else.
Memory seems to be awfully discriminatory. The tangible representation of a decade of my life highlighted the fact that everything we clutch on tightly as “the one and only reality” is practically an illusion: a choice. In our 40s, my generation has chosen to remember the 1980s with the passion of adolescence, the first frisks of love, and the flood of new experiences. The challenges – which were not negligible – have faded away. Along the trajectory of unification which summarizes the millennia of human history, everything that happens has a purpose; all events – even the most appalling ones – reveal something that we, the human race, needed to bring to the level of conscious awareness. Despite our destructive predisposition which seems to date back to the cognitive revolution, we are also resilient, creative, and compassionate. Looking back, I did not just get an emotional rush, shedding a few romantic tears over some pages of my individual story. Instead, I gained a better understanding of life today – at personal, national, and global level; I felt profound gratitude for the abundance I am surrounded with; I grasped the magnitude and the accelerated force of every contemporary thought and action for it will soon project into the future. And I realized that the past cannot define us, but can help us comprehend and, hence, redefine ourselves.
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou (except the Eurobasket photo which is of unknown credits)