‘Maybe We Are Ruining the World’

An elegy for the Greece of my Uncle Thanassis, a Greece I only barely knew.


ATHENS – My Uncle Thanassis is 81 years old. Over the course of his long life, he has weathered every Greek identity crisis since World War II: the bitterness that divided and impoverished the country after its bloody 1946-1949 civil war between communists and conservatives. The painful postwar years that sent his friends to Australia and the United States for work. The 1967-1974 military junta that smothered free expression and movement. The rise in the 1980s of the populist socialism pushed by former premier Andreas Papandreou, a mercurial, Harvard-educated economist. The good-time 1990s, when even the souvlaki-shop owners in Athens seemed to be making enough money to buy new Alfa Romeos and island vacation homes. The Europeanization of the last decade, when espresso freddos replaced the traditional sweet, grainy coffees in cafes — and when a white-haired man who wore three-piece suits and liked dancing to wailing clarinet music seemed hopelessly out of place.

Through it all, my uncle maintained that being Greek was a gift. "Greeks make people feel good," he used to say, his eyes twinkling. "We show people how to live in the moment, to appreciate the scent of lemons and jasmine in the summer, to dance instead of cry when the stress of life gets to be too much. Whatever is wrong with this country, we always have that."

Not anymore. When I recently stopped for an afternoon coffee at his little house in a crowded Athens neighborhood, his eyes were no longer twinkling. Like many Greeks, he is paying higher taxes and higher utility bills on a reduced pension. He is distressed to see that his once-homey neighborhood, where he has lived for 50 years, has become a run-down warren filled with empty shops and scarred by graffiti. By dusk, the main drag where he buys his feta cheese and Italian salami is now filled with forlorn Nigerian prostitutes as young as his teenage granddaughter. A few weeks ago, when he was walking home after a midday trip to the grocery store, he stopped to talk to a young Greek couple who claimed to be lost. When he got home, he realized they had picked his pockets clean of cash.

"Is this what it’s come to?" he said, as downhearted as I’d ever seen him. "Stealing from each other in broad daylight and under the guise of the friendliness that has made us who we are?" He sipped his coffee and turned on the TV news, which was blaring yet another BBC report about how the Greek economy is ruining the world. "Maybe they’re right," he sighed. "Maybe we are ruining the world."

Before the great debt crisis of 2010, the outside world knew Greeks as fun-loving, big-talking extroverts with unreliable schedules and great tans. In incarnations from Zorba the Greek to My Big Fat Greek Wedding, they lived in the long shadow of the ancient past but still managed to embrace the spontaneity of the present. The world loved the Greeks not only for Pericles, Hercules, and the Acropolis, but for the tavernas, the beaches, and the kindly grandmothers bearing syrupy walnut cake and homemade raki. Even the so-called kamakia, or "harpoons" — the swarthy men with open shirts and soap-opera English known for sweet-talking young, blond tourists into bed — have a special place in the hearts of many Northern European women.  

But today, no one loves the new, post-debt-crisis Greeks. As the narrative now goes, these Greeks are irresponsible, big-spending welfare babies who evade taxes and see the European Union as a giant ATM. These are the Greeks who are taking down the global economy and throwing petrol bombs at Parliament, not rice at weddings. The debt crisis sparked by Greece has revealed deep cracks in the cohesion of the European Union, which was already on shaky ground. Europeans have lost faith in the euro; some have proposed excising Greece like a cancerous tumor in a misguided effort to save themselves. A recent poll showed that half of Austrians think Greece should exit the eurozone, even though most analysts agree that such a move would actually hurt the other countries; Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann said this spring that Austria’s GDP would shrink by 5 percent if Greece left. Still, Ilias Diamantidis, a 33-year-old ophthalmologist in Augsburg, Germany, tells me his patients regularly lecture him about this irresponsible, profligate new behavior. Diamantidis, who’s from the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, says he never knows how to respond. "They are right to criticize the way we as a country have handled our finances," he says. "But that’s not a complete picture of who we are."

His childhood friend Nicholas Ventouris, an economist trained in London, is not so generous. "Greeks have tolerated a corrupt political system for so long that this society has grown corrupt, too," he says. Ventouris says being Greek means feeling suffocated — especially as a young, educated person with big dreams. He is especially put off by the natural anarchy in the culture that celebrates the mangas — that crafty dude who circumvents the system — and snickers at the suckers who are actually paying their taxes. Diamantidis says it’s just survivalism. The way Greece currently runs, with its closed, clientelistic economy and nasty politicians, you have to be a rule-breaker to get good medical treatment, build a house, or get a job or even a driver’s license. "It has long been the price to pay if you want to live in this beautiful country," he says. 

Prime Minister George Papandreou has said over and over again that Greece must change this culture if it wants to survive in a competitive future. The debt crisis has prompted the fast-tracking of reforms such as the privatization of state assets, a crackdown on rampant tax evasion, and the dismantling of a bloated public sector — changes that should have been made years ago. "I promise you, we Greeks will soon fight our way back to growth and prosperity after this period of pain," he told German industry leaders in Berlin on Tuesday, Sept. 27. Papandreou’s quiet determination has won him fans abroad. Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, and educated in the United States and Britain, the 59-year-old premier speaks Midwestern-inflected English and looks just at home in Berlin as he does in Athens. But that cosmopolitan quality has never played well at home. Many Greeks complain that he’s not Greek enough, even though he hails from the country’s most storied political dynasty (his father and grandfather were both premiers). At rallies, protesters hold up hand-painted posters of Papandreou swaddled in an American flag or as a UFO. Public anger at him and his government has grown with the new austerity measures, which include pension cuts and a controversial new property tax that Parliament passed Tuesday.  

Although I was born in Athens, I grew up in the Dakotas and Minnesota and I like Papandreou’s deliberate personality. I have often criticized most Greeks as impulsive and unbearably fatalistic, but it’s unfair and untrue to describe them as lazy and petulant and to solely blame them for an economic crisis that is far bigger than this tiny country of 11 million people. My parents left Greece in 1974, but my father especially took his identity as a Greek very seriously. He read the poetry of Cavafy and Seferis to his friends at the Elks Club in Williston, North Dakota, and often mesmerized them with stories about growing up in a remote village in the Peloponnese. He told them about the broad, balding mountains and the cool blue sea, the goats he tended and the olives he helped harvest, and the nearby ruins of Messene, the Doric city-state founded by Epaminondas, that centuries of sun had bleached pearly white. He sent me off to college with a book of poetry by Odysseas Elytis. There are a few Elytis lines I turn to again and again whenever I lose my bearings: "My sky is deep and changeless/All I love is incessantly reborn/All I love is always at its beginning." 

Greece has changed, and not changed, since my father and his older brother — my Uncle Thanassis — were born. It’s no longer the impoverished country where many Greeks died of treatable illnesses, as my paternal grandparents did in the 1930s. It has transformed from a wild, agrarian land plowed by donkeys to a full-service, high-end mecca for sun-and-sea tourists. Half of the population now lives in Athens, the capital, a once-provincial city that is now a crushing, seething chaos of concrete apartment blocks and ancient ruins, Michelin-starred restaurants and screaming bouzouki clubs, suburban villas and inner-city ghettos. And the country now has about a million immigrants, many from Africa and South Asia, and the Greek-born, Greek-speaking children of those immigrants have sparked a separate identity crisis over what it means to "be Greek."

But Greece’s sky is still, in many ways, deep and changeless. Greeks have clung to the distant past and have sometimes managed to live very viscerally in the present, but they have never really welcomed the future. Now the future is so grim, no one wants to think about it. Austerity reforms have allowed Greece to receive international bailout loans to prevent it from immediate default, but the measures are also strangling the economy. The recession is now in its third year, and unemployment is above 16 percent. There has been a rise in homelessness, crime, and personal bankruptcies. The number of recorded suicides has doubled since before the debt crisis, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, which cited data from the Greek health ministry and the nonprofit Klimaka. "We can’t even make ourselves happy anymore," says my Uncle Thanassis.

My father died in 1989, just shy of turning 53. He was a quiet, bookish man who always seemed out of place in the prairie of North Dakota, talking in his musical, Peloponnesian-accented English to the 7-foot gas station owners who chewed tobacco and responded with wide, flat vowels. He was at his most graceful swimming in the sea near his village. He took our family on a summer vacation there when I was 9, and I remember how happy he looked to be home, amid the salty breeze and hidden coves. My Uncle Thanassis was there, too. He and my dad laughed as they swam into the waves, and I followed, desperate to be part of that joy. My uncle still brings up that day whenever the gloomy news reports or depressed Athenians seem too much to bear. His eyes always moisten. It’s what it means to him to be Greek, and as he watches his country tearing itself apart once again, for him that’s all there is left. 

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