Author Archives: Herbert Ploegman

Stories, spaces, places

It was not only that I went back and found the people there. Yes, I climbed the stairs to the grassroots place where I conduct my research, and ended up on the roof of the building where a concert of the solidarity choir would be held that night. But simultaneously I was enveloped into a history that I had become part of earlier. We greeted after a long summer, and the story continued. “You look so thin. You should eat more”, one of the women remarked. I was in.

I am sitting at the long table in what is called the dance hall, a large living room of the apartment the group is renting. It is the first choir repetition after their concert, and some 20 people, mostly women but also 7 men are present. As always, some cigarette smoke is floating through the room and here and there someone drinks a coffee or a can of beer. I am breathing their air, sitting on their surfaces. I am inhabiting their social and material space, or at least until the extent that I can. I am present but also taken aback by the fast Greek conversations that I still don’t follow. Our conductor, behind the electronic piano, is kind enough to translate some of the song lyrics into English. The people are kind enough to smile at me. Yes I am in.

Here it is that I want to know how a place like this carries significance to the participating people. They, we are writing histories in this place, we are making and rewriting the space in our memories, in our bodies, in our shared presence. The place is a carrier of our stories − be it in cohesion with its own course of history. Should I understand it as physical as the way the walls of the structure are resounding with the sounds we produce during our presence? Should I understand it as literally as the drops of beer that spill unto the floor? Drops that can be wiped away, but still write history through the physical traces of moments that used to be and the labour of cleaning that is put into it over and over again.

The conductor calls on us to take part of more activities that are organised by the movement and next week’s activities are summed up. It is not enough to only sing in the choir, is what they are saying. It is not easy to keep the place going. Time and again, people need to be reminded of the objectives of the movement: the practice of solidarity. The space alone doesn’t make the people act like this, despite all the imperatives that are there through posters, books and texts. Still, it has to be made, it has to be enacted.

What does such learning processes involve? How is the story of the grassroots place rewritten and revived in relation to the historical and local narratives of the participants? What has the place come to mean in the bigger context of their other daily practices?

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On the threshold

By Herbert Ploegman, anthropologist, doing field research on grassroots movements in Athens through a research grant of the NIA

One night I am sitting with a Dutch friend and a new Greek friend at an Exarchia terrace, in the centre of Athens, while I am told: “the Greeks, they don’t know and don’t wanna know, but many of them are in fact Turks”. Which is quite a statement, considering the rivalry between both nations.

The night after that, I am talking philosophy with a Greek designer, who takes it for granted that Greeks are indeed European. He tells me that I shouldn’t forget that Greece is in fact a continuation of centuries-old flows and rhythms. “What you see here, is the Roman Empire. People like to link up with Greece’s ancient history from 500 B.C., but after that came the Roman Empire for almost 2000 years. The Ottomans came in 1453, leaving most of the religion and culture as it were. How could you expect Greece to act like a Northern-European country with a history like this?”

I am back at Athens, and I am thinking about what this place actually is: What is it that appears before my eyes? How should I understand all that is happening here? How could I peel off all those layers of meaning that are hidden behind the façades of various kinds, but that appear so much ironed out by popular discourse? Or rather, how could I understand the complex hotchpotch of cultural identifications, that seems to be challenged during these days of losing dreams and the confrontation with so many international flows of foreign power, money and people?

Foto: Herbert Ploegman
My Dutch friend tells about the many refugees she encountered on the island of Leros. She tells about the precious work many islanders are doing. But also about the incapability of the Greek state to act decisively. I hear about the decision to build two large refugee camps in Greece, but I know that the state is big and demanding; that there are many people between these words and the deeds. And still, what will it be like in the end?

She tells that she remembers the arrival of the first immigrants, Albanians, in the 1990s. The scapegoating that haunted them until others came. There will be Albanians voting for nazi-party Golden Dawn in the upcoming national elections on Sunday. Perhaps to consolidate the position in the Greek society that they have acquired by now. But Greece still has a whole lot left to deal with. Can Greece be expected to confront these issues without trouble? I remember the country where I come from, with its difficulty to swallow its colonial history in all its enduring facets.

I am here to do anthropological research about grassroots movements. People that try to pave roads that have not been there before, and where the State does not (anymore) offer a thing. People call Athens a testing ground for neoliberal policies, implemented by the European Union, which gratefully uses the vulnerability Greece finds itself in. It is also a testing, or a battle ground of opposition to these policies, and possibly a testing ground for alternatives.

I have no illusions that Greece has a panacea at hand. Nor does any other country or context. I will not find a new, more fair, Europe in Greece. Nor do I find it in my home country the Netherlands. But it might be in the dialectics between here and there that something new appears. I am studying Athens to get to know Athens. I will bring myself for that purpose: with my particular background. And I will try to speak about what I come to see, in my languages.

* this blog post was originally posted on