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Greeks in a jam

Are Greece’s financial woes symptomatic of deeper cultural problems? Nick Pappas reflects on the nation’s collective reaction to its current crisis

Let's not pull any punches - some elements of Greek culture can be difficult for the traveller to understand. Let me try to explain, by way of anecdote. Imagine a narrow single-lane road through a busy coastal town that is banked up with traffic in both directions. When the frustrated drivers reach the cause of the mayhem they are infuriated by what they see: two drivers travelling in opposite directions leaning on their open car doors in casual conversation. "But I haven't seen him for five years!" yells one of the two over the blaring sound of horns and obscenities as cars squeeze through.

This is a fairly light-hearted way to begin a short piece on a fairly serious topic - the malaise that is confronting Greece and the country's collective reaction to it. Most obviously, the story affirms the Greek penchant for placing private interests over the public good. Why worry about someone else's traffic jam when you are renewing an old friendship? And perhaps the most alarming aspect of the story is not the chaos that resulted, but the offender's unashamed response: that bringing the town to a halt was entirely legitimate.

The story is amusing not because it is atypical; to the contrary, we laugh precisely because we have all encountered similar episodes on our travels to Greece and can actually believe the event to be true. It is humorous because the Greek nootropía (in English, "mentality", but that hardly does the word justice) is based on the primacy of the individual, and this has been so for centuries.

Needless to say, the Greek financial crisis cannot be sheeted home to such simplistic generalisations. Greece's massive sovereign debt and the impossible situation in which the Greek banks now find themselves are complex issues with many contributing factors, including Europe's dithering approach and half-baked solutions, and the errors of some Greek politicians now long-departed from Syntagma Square.

But what interests me is the Greek reaction to the crisis, not the cause. We saw anger in the streets of Athens aimed at these Greek politicians who had let down their nation. And justifiably so. These were the politicians who had promised jobs in an already bursting public sector in exchange for votes. But did we hear any criticisms of those who had accepted these electoral bribes? No, instead we kept hearing how the unfortunate kosmákis (the diminutive of "o kósmos" - "the people", used as an emotive appellation for an oppressed underclass) had suffered again at the hands of greedy politicians, bankers, northern Europeans, Americans, Jews and anyone else whose name could fit on a placard.
This was illustrated when I encountered a woman in Greece who railed on and on about the corruptness of the political system with all the earnestness of an informed insider. But then, lowering her voice after glancing over both her shoulders, she confided with a smile that, luckily for her, she had managed to secure her public service pension at the ripe age of 45, before the laws were changed as part of the austerity measures. She was able to "get in quick because others are slow and stupid", she said with a mischievous laugh. She was "tromerí" (fearless), she boasted, like her father.

In the event, her compatriots were not as "slow and stupid" as she had gauged, and many more tromerí were to exploit the government's delay (caused by characteristic internal divisions and petty squabbling) in implementing long-needed reform to the laws regulating the pensioning of "retired" public servants. Greece is the loser again.

For Greece to emerge from this chasm of buck-passing and hubris, the nation's collective nootropía must change, and thankfully, many within Greece already acknowledge this to be true. Curiously, the origins of the word "nootropía" lie in an amalgam of the ancient words for "mind" and "manner" or "habit", literally "the habit of the mind". And it is this habit that must change. At the risk of sounding a trifle didactic (I can hear some Greeks scoffing at yet another word borrowed), I believe a greater collective consciousness needs to take hold, defined this time not by the traditional loathing of the Turk, the German or the politician, but by a new sense of the primacy of the common good over that hallowed Greek sanctuary - the private domain. Let's hope it happens real fast.

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  • oct 2011
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