... might not be as exaggerated as was the case with Mark Twain (was it? I can't remember).
And my day began in such a promising way! I woke up, relatively early, had a nice moment in bed with my cat (he is still in my lap as I try to type this entry), watched a fabulous episode of a fantastic series (I am not going to start advertising right now, it's unimportant) and was about to leave my desk and computer to return to my bed and readings, when I made the mistake to take a look at my e-mails. Two of them were from my mother and they were the reason that my oh! so great day has been derailed, once again. She wasn't saying anything bad in them; she just reminded me of one of the gazillion troubles that are currently in our lives – a problem we have grown weary of.
Now, I am aware that my preamble is already far longer than it should be, but please, bear with me. I think that I do have some important things to say (oh vanity…) It is the first time that an international audience might read me, and I am slightly nervous! For two reasons; first: the issue might be unimportant to an international audience; second: my writing may not be good enough (don’t you just love the fact that I am putting this as the second and not the first reason? How confident can a writer get!?)
Back to the problem: I will have to bore you with some historical details before explaining it, unfortunately. So here we go:
The State Conservatory of Thessaloniki, Greece, was founded in 1914, by the then Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos. Back then it fell under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Religion and National Education. In 1959, members of the Conservatory founded and staffed the Thessaloniki State Symphony Orchestra, an institution that still goes strong and has a good reputation (and a few very interesting recordings at NAXOS – couldn’t help that one, I just had to say it!). In 1987, the then Minister of Culture, Melina Merkouri, moved the Conservatory to the building that houses the institution to this very day – a lovely building, however, nowadays, completely inadequate for its job. Also, by her decision, the Conservatory changed jurisdiction and fell under the (not so) watchful eye of the Ministry of Culture. A huge mistake – as it turned out – no matter how well intended. The Conservatory has a long tradition of cooperation with a number of foreign Conservatories, being a member of the European Union of Conservatories. Also, since 1987 the Conservatory participates in meetings of the Conservatories of the Mediterranean, ensuring that compositions of Greek composers are performed in foreign countries and cultures, with great success. And what would a great Conservatory be without an equally great music library! Indeed, in its very vaults (quite right) the building houses an important music library that contains music scores, CD’s, DVD’s and books on the Science – or Art (take your pick) – of Music.
History lesson is over, now comes the serious part (indeed). The State Conservatory is what it says in its title: a Conservatory run by the State. As a result the students that study there (ranging from children to adults), can do so without paying any tuition fees. That, of course, is great for those families of talented musicians, who cannot afford to pay a private Conservatory for the lessons. The Conservatory prides itself – and rightly so – in its excellence in both practical lessons, as well as lectures in music theory. So why am I bothering you with pointless information, when all seems well? Simply because all is not well anymore.
Problem No. 1: I will state the obvious – even if you are not aware of it from the news. It’s the financial crisis. The State of Greece… (come again?) Yes, the State of Greece is unable to pay the Conservatory its money. Big surprise there! No, not so big. When you have to cut money, you cut it from Culture. Who needs Culture anyway? Redundant! Ergo, the State Conservatory of Thessaloniki – oh, and, did I mention that it is the only State Conservatory in the whole of Greece, where music students study for free – has to go! Well, they do not state it quite like that, they give us fake promises that they will keep it open and running, but who believed a politician and his words in the first place? (ok, there are people who believe what these individuals – for lack of a better word – say, but I sure as hell do not!) The result of this first problem is this: The Conservatory, right now, as we speak, is run by only 18 permanent staff members – most of them pianists, two singers, a few strings and a couple of theory teachers – who (still) get paid; some more teachers that are under a permanent employment status that is however a different permanent employment status than the first 18 and these people have yet to be paid since last February; and the remaining 90% (yes, you read this correctly) are instrument teachers that have to renew their employment status every year. This hasn’t happened in the last year or so and therefore they are unemployed and their students at the Conservatory are falling back on their musical studies. I remember years ago, one would simply pass in front of the building and from early morning, till late in the afternoon, music would pour out from every corner of it. If one passes in front of it today, they will believe that the building is vacant. It is even eerie to walk into it! You could think it were haunted… well, maybe it is. By the ghosts of musicians past, lamenting the current state of their beloved school…
Problem No. 2: Remember when I said in the history part that Melina Merkouri made a well intended mistake of transferring jurisdictions from the Ministry of Education to the Ministry of Culture? There you have it. The Conservatory is – legally speaking – a cultural and not an educational institution. As a result the students studying in it are not recognized as students. Because students have certain benefits, like a reduced bus ticket, theatre ticket etc. Also, because it is not an educational institution, the students that complete their studies and get their degrees, cannot find work as musicians with just that degree. They have to continue – or start anew – their musical studies in one of Greece’s Music Departments (those might soon be history too the way things are right now in Greece) or leave the country and try their luck in an Academy abroad, again as beginners, not accomplished musicians who would only need to do an MA or a PhD. Let me point out that the theoretical knowledge they receive at the Conservatory is equal to the knowledge of any Music Academy, that gives out BA’s and MA’s. Talk about repeating yourself over and over again! It’s a terrible waste of time for all those talented young people who want to do great things with their talents. Funny thing about Greece and politics is that even when you give them the solution written in black and white for this particular problem – because some people at the Conservatory have done just that – they ignore it and send you packing… So, for this second problem, even though the Conservatory has a way of fixing it, our leaders (now there’s a euphemism!) turn a deaf ear.
Problem No. 3: Greek spirit (not alcohol). We have an interesting way of resolving our problems. Greeks are egotistical, self-centered, obnoxious. We only care about our own little self and hate it when people ask us to do something that will benefit others and not ourselves. Because the Conservatory brings no actual income to the State – it only costs them money – they don’t give a damn about what happens to it. It’s not a museum that sells “greek – art”; it’s not a concert hall; it’s an Academy, and a free one at that! Also, because each and every one working and studying in the Conservatory has become tired and lost faith in their just cause, their “battles” are not as strong as they were last year. The general public that could support the cause is immersed in its own problems – stemming from the ever-present crisis. Let’s just say that, we don’t actually care about the whole matter anymore. We would rather forget about it completely.
I could go on listing problems, some without any obvious solution, some with solutions that we know of, but are unwilling or unable to put to good work. But I am certain that you have got the grasp of the general idea and that you are quite tired of reading on… So I will simply try to finish this entry as quickly as possible.
I said in the beginning, that I feared the problems of a Greek Conservatory would be uninteresting to an international audience. I am probably right when I assume that the rest of the world has problems of its own and the issue of one Institution in the country the majority of the world blames for its current predicament, is the last thing you need to concern yourselves with. You would also probably be right. I am not going to blame you. But since you are reading these lines, you have also read the previous lines, which means that some part of you is either curious – in that case you will not do anything about the whole thing – or truly cares – in which case you might just do something (even if that “something” is simply spreading the word to your friends and relatives), or you simply have enjoyed my writing so much, that you desperately want to finish reading (vanity, again…).
I will be honest with you, my dear reader. I am tired. Not physically, for I am young and healthy (barring the cold I am down with right now) and therefore cannot complain of physical exhaustion, when I am not feeling any. But I am tired. I am tired of having to remind myself every single day that the country I was born in, once cradled the whole of Western civilization. I am tired of having to restrain my own hopes and dreams, for as long as I live in this country, because the things I want to do with my life are things nobody cares about in Greece. I am tired of seeing my parents worn down from their every day struggle with the system. I am tired of seeing fear and hopelessness in the eyes of every one I meet. I am tired of listening to false promises. I am tired of political conversation that brings no result whatsoever. I am tired of trying to push for more. I am tired of everything.
I will not claim to be particularly talented, not with words, nor music, nor – as it were – diplomacy. Especially diplomacy! If I were not the coward I am, I would be writing libels right now, and not desperate pleas for help. My irony is old fashioned, few people understand it. I am used to being misunderstood. But what I hope, with this entry, is to make you aware of a phenomenon that is not only restricted to Greece, the object of a lot of international hate lately. I am only trying to begin 2012 with hope. A task seemingly impossible. Hope, not for myself, for I do not need it. But for those people I know and care about – the teachers and students of the State Conservatory of Thessaloniki. I hope that my little entry (yeah, right!) will help lift their spirit. Will help them understand that they are not alone in this. That some of us care whether the Conservatory closes.
Before closing this, I will ask some rhetorical questions. How would you, my American friends feel, should the New York Metropolitan Opera close? How would you, my British friends feel, should the annual Prom season be stopped? How would you, my German friends (and compatriots) feel, should the Bayreuth festivals end once and for all? How would you, my Italian friends feel, should La Scala stop performing? How would you, my French friends feel, should the Paris Opera declare bankruptcy? Let’s not forget that a number of important cultural institutions have already done so… The comparison of the State Conservatory of Thessaloniki to all those great Houses of Culture may not seem fitting to some of you. But it is, because it explains simply and drastically the important position the State Conservatory of Thessaloniki holds in the lives of numerous Greeks. It is a symbol, an idea that must not die!
I do not have any tangible solutions to offer to this problem, simply because I am a dreamer. I believe in the “Live long and prosper” thing, or the “to boldly go where no one has gone before” (ok, I admit, I love Star Trek!). If I were a realist, my reaction would be different I guess. But I am not and I can’t help it. I just hope that someone, out there, might come up with a plan to fix the problem (pro bono, I might add… We are in a financially precarious position!) and not hesitate to inform us. We will be forever grateful.
I have finally reached the end. I hope that you enjoyed the reading, despite the miserable things I had to write. I also hope that, after finishing this entry, you will take a moment and listen to some of your favorite music (I know I will), no matter what that music is. Or maybe you might want to read a book (although, why read a book, when you can have my fantastic entry!). Or go to the cinema and watch a movie. Perhaps visit a ballet or your local concert hall. You might even wish to go to the museum. All that simply to remind you that Art is not redundant in our lives, but a necessity. Not a commodity for the aristocracy, but destined for the entire human race! And maybe, when you see something Greek, an ancient vase, a theatre play, a word that has been borrowed from our language, like “theatre”, you will feel some sympathy with that small land. You can go back disliking it after you’ve done that, you don’t have to become “fil-ellines” – “Friends of Greece”. Before I bid you farewell, I will quote a personal favorite of mine, Albert Schweitzer: “There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats.” I know both things to be true. So, keep the music playing, keep supporting it and spare a dime or two for your local animal shelter! Thank you again for bearing with me!
Best wishes for a truly happy and blessed 2012!
P.S.: Everything I wrote are personal opinions, not dictated by anyone. I have no intention of harming anyone’s feelings. I am just stating facts as I see them. I take full responsibility for my writings.