There are a lot of contrasts that I can make between Greece and Britain. Cold and wet (GB), Hot and dry (Greece); Soft earth and round hills (GB) Craggy mountains and hard red ground (Greece); traffic that pays attention (GB) traffic that is just looking for a chance… (Greece). Irritation if you don’t speak the lingo (GB) appreciation at even trying one word (Greece). But that last comparison is just part of the tragedy of Athens; that for all their natural warmth, humanity and quick wits, the Greeks of the city are often seen by tourists as little more than extras on the stage of their own history.
The magnets of the Parthenon at Athens and the beaches of Pireaus mean that we tourists overlook the Greeks themselves; summarising them as either “friendly” or “unfriendly”, “generous” or “mercenary”. It’s not that these terms don’t fit a small number of workers at restaurants and hotels, with whom we exchange more than a “hello”, (though that could be anywhere) but we so easily miss the easy banter of the groups of men and women in the street-side cafes (I saw few that mixed, except the young) the placard bearing agitator, on his own in the traffic by the parliament building, or the harassed and friendly, earnest civil servant who tries to explain just how screwed he and his country are.
This last comment refers to my new friend, George. Even the manner of meeting him was wonderfully Greek and definitely not British – I had stopped to ask a man at a street stall about the makeshift banners hanging from the front of a building. Using four of my seven words of Greek, I asked if he spoke English. “No”, he replied, but immediately stood up and waved at a passing man. A quick stream of Greek and the man stopped his fast paced walk to speak to me. About 45 minutes later, over the coffees that he bought, we paused in our conversation long enough to do the introductions.
George is maybe 5’9”, with black wavy hair, a half-goatee that is flecked with just a few grey hairs, an engaging smile and quick hazel eyes. Like many Greeks, he speaks quickly and a lot, with humour but great intensity. As a civil servant and a trade union man, he is in a good position to tell me some interesting stories.
And what he tells me is that, basically, Greece has been screwed over three times, already. That while the press in Germany, Britain and Holland castigate the Greek people for not paying their taxes, he and anyone else in employment is paying 50% tax on the final part of a salary of 2,000 euros a month. But the rich, the self-employed professionals and the friends of politicians are declaring as little as a tenth of his income and thus evading tax altogether. They then bank their undeclared euro income in Swiss, German and British banks, waiting for the economy to collapse. That’s the first screw – now the second.
At the same time, the government is being forced by the IMF, the World Bank and the ECB (the Troika, as they are locally known) to sell off public assets at stupid prices. George gives the example of the bank over which I saw the banner. “Last weekend”, he says,” the government agreed a sale of the good assets of that bank. It is likely to go for about 1 billion euros. But any rational study of that bank shows it will likely make 500 million profit next year. So, chances are, the new owners of the bank will have been fully repaid inside three years and the bank could be worth around 10 billion, to the new owners. And guess who is buying the bank – a consortium headed by a member of the government!”
And third? After three to four years of austerity measures, the average Athenians have so little in savings that they can be easily scared by their political leaders into agreeing to all of this, because of the constant threats as to what may happen if they take their only alternative to further cuts; an exit from the euro.
But as I write this, I am aware that a fourth screwing is being prepared. Having already endured a 35% fall in their national income, a doubling of taxes and the sale of major public assets at fire-sale prices, the Greeks are still going to get forced out of the Euro. And the suspicion is growing in the minds of people like George, that it has all been part of a well-executed plan to rescue the money and assets of the rich Greeks (and Germans, Brits and Americans) by dropping the entire country’s debts into the laps of the rest of the Greek people, and then dump them, with all the debts, out of the euro.
Now, I am not a one for grand plots and schemes. I tend to believe that most of the sh*t that hits the fan comes from cock-ups and not conspiracies. But with all the rich Europeans trying to cover their arses from the mess they originally created, I shouldn’t be surprised if the result is the same. And, as patient and enduring as the Greeks may seem, they also have a long history of resistance and rebellion. If the powers that be really do dump them out of the euro and worse, into the fires of hyper-inflation, how long do they think it will be before the desperate Greeks give up reliance on the rule of law and reach for the only other rule available?
And what of George? George is not a violent man; he is well educated, a strong believer in democracy and knows his history. He tells me that violent revolution will not really change anything (because other, greedy traitorous b*stards will take control before long). Between sips of coffee, we talk of Ghandi, we talk of justice and injustice, pride and honour and care for our fellow man. I hope that we will keep talking. For the consequences of greed and mendacity in politics and banking are not just his problem; not just a Greek problem, they are a world problem and thus, like it or not, my problem. Neither of us has any answers yet, but we are both men in the same world and we need some new ideas – and soon.