Ordinary Greeks just shrug theatrically when you ask how they feel about their economic situation. Crisis is a good Greek word , along with drama, chaos, economy, schizophrenia and comedy, but just at present, the Greeks appear to prefer shrugs to words. These are old souls in a relatively new country – it’s only been going since 1829 - and they’re saving their energy.
All the World’s a Stage
Whatever happens over the next few days, the stage is surely set for a long drama, and like most classics, it all began with hubris. The only question is whose? Was it those sentimental northern Europeans, whose desire to include the cradle of democracy into the great Euro dream – helped by a bit of creative accounting - led them to ignore the obvious? Or was it the Greeks, who couldn’t resist temptation, or believe their luck? Either way, it was always going to end in tears.
Yet to a visitor, Greeks appear splendidly pragmatic. Whatever happens, all the borrowed money which transformed their wardrobes, houses, hotels and roads can’t be taken back. In Athens, it’s not the ‘70s any more. Even as they step gingerly around the uncollected garbage and yearn nostalgically for the 200 drachma cup of coffee, Athenians wear the finest leather shoes. There are few beggars in the streets, cafes are packed and even the most disapproving Eurocrat can’t take away the sun, which still shines even in November, over the Acropolis.
Trust is the Currency
But if you want to see the real workings of the Greek economy, spend a penny. For notices in every cubicle warn you not to put your paper down the loo. You see, however many borrowed millions of leveraged Euros it took to build your office or hotel, the publicly funded drains simply can’t take it. So please stick your paper in the bucket. Paying taxes in Greece really does seem to be a lifestyle choice and as the Greeks will tell you in stage whispers, you don’t get much back for your money!
Greece may be said to have two economies, the micro and macro, which live side by side with a soignée vivacity perhaps can only matched by Italy, another new nation with a flamboyant taste in mathematics. The micro economy relies on family, barter, obligation and old, old memories of whom you do business with. Trust is the currency, social capital the medium of exchange. Frankly drachmas or euros, who’s counting? On the ferry from Athens to the Cyclades we see the micro economy in action, as vans filled with cement and olive oil trundle on and off between the islands. Then there is the mighty macro Euro economy, which came bearing gifts the country never ever could afford, as well as swelling the numbers of public workers now demonstrating in Syntagma Square. It is a tragedy unfolding off stage in ordinary people’s lives.
The Big Society
In Mykonos on the last day of our holiday, we are caught in a huge storm, the Gods are clearly furious with Papandreou and the path around the cliff to our favourite beach is washed away, along with most of the beach road. We dodge foaming drains and dislodged concrete to be greeted by the owner of our apartment. She shrugs of course and tells us the people most affected will rebuild both. Either they will pay a proportion of the cost, or, if broke, they will give their labour. Absolutely no point ringing the Council. What a living expression of the Big Society! One feels David Cameron should applaud.