The isles of Greece,
The isles of Greece!
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,
Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, has set.
~ Lord Byron
This just in, no more than a thousand years ago. Greece’s greatest days — millennia actually — are behind her. The country’s signature monument, the Parthenon itself, is so day-before-yesterday. Overdressed in reconstructive scaffolding to the extent that it has difficulty posing for a decent photograph, the Parthenon presides over everything, a dead god.
The country is like its most famous ruin. So many conflicting currents course through Greece now that it is not easy to form a clear picture of the country. Much of the scaffolding that covers Greece is provided by the European Union, which resents Greece and is in turn resented by the Greeks. Germany in particular has been hectoring the Greeks, and the Greeks hector right back. “The Germans give us forty euros in aid and take back sixty in trade,” an Athenian businessman who exports wool complained to me one morning as he ate something called galatopita, a kind of milk pie that he poured something like grape molasses on. “And yet,” he added enigmatically, “our problems are not recent but ancient.”
What do you want to believe about Greece? The Greeks, in my partisan view the warmest, most generous people in Europe, tell seductive stories about themselves. In these stories they are the fountainhead of western culture, the victims of northern countries that prey upon them, the victims of immigrants from Middle Eastern poverty and war – Greece is only one country away, troubled Turkey, from the internecine horror the United States helped to create in Iraq – the authors of their own problems, the people most perfectly poised to make a global comeback, and so on. They are the little nation that could. And did. Stories have always sustained the Greeks, going back to the time, at least 2,500 years ago, when history, myth, philosophy, religion, art, literature in the form of epic poetry and theater, if they were not identical, all fed from the same trough.
Even today, almost anywhere in a country where sunlight displays a full range of hues, the majesty of antiquity combines with a fresh immediacy to empty one’s lungs.
Trying to find out what precisely is going on in Greece, I took a modest little journey recently — Athens and the mainland, parts of the Peloponnesus, a few islands such as Hydra, Santorini, Crete. Tough work but someone had to do it.
Like the rest of the EU, Greeks voted at the end of May for representatives to the European Union Parliament in Brussels. On polling day, after weeks of noisy electioneering, Athens awoke with an audible yawn, though a conditional one. No one was expecting an electoral or economic miracle. Sipping his nuclear powered coffee at breakfast, the Athenian wool exporter said, “We’re already bankrupt. How much lower can we go?”
Athens was not much more vibrant on election day than Delphi, where the only oracle I ran into was a German tourist who said of the voting, in the catch phrase of his country’s great continental antagonist of the Twentieth Century, “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Friends at last, Germany and France slouch toward a Europe where old enmities are buried by common interests. But they may slouch alone, and in France one party opposes any slouching in that direction at all. “The trouble in Greece,” the German traveler at Delphi said, “is that this country has a history even more turbulent than ours, one so turbulent that legend hangs upon it as fact. I don’t say others don’t share blame.”
The EU parliament is a fairly toothless institution, and what few teeth it had before the election pretty much disappeared with the results. “Euroskeptic” nationalist parties triumphed in many countries, parties that don’t want to cede any prerogatives to an international organization that aspires to be a United Nations writ small. Powerless as the Parliament may be, the election still showed which way the political wind is blowing across Europe.
Greeks I spoke to seemed surprised the hard right outpolled even the Conservatives currently in power in Britain. In France, the hard right is much harder, and the big winner was the nativist, anti-Semitic National Front of Marine Le Pen. Bucking the trend in Britain and France, the party with the most votes in Greece was the leftist SYRIZA, which shot from 4.7% of the vote in 2009 to 26.5% in 2014. But SYRIZA, subtitled a “coalition of the radical left” in its pamphlets, has a leader as opposed to European integration as the right wing parties are. A neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn, whose emblem is a virtual Swastika and whose leaders are in prison on criminal charges, came in third with 9.4%. With its own support growing though still far behind SYRIZA, Golden Dawn is basically a not very distant mirror of Le Pen’s National Front in France, vehemently opposed to a United Europe.
Was there perhaps a hint of apology in what the German tourist at Delphi said? Not far from Delphi is the village of Distomo. When the Nazis occupied Greece during World War II, they committed what even some of their commanders admitted were war crimes. In the case of Distomo, 214 men, women and children were murdered by the Waffen SS in reprisal for what the officer in charge called an ambush of his unit by some of the town’s citizens. It turned out, as the Greeks tell it, the ambush had happened some miles away from Distomo, but pregnant women were stabbed, babies were bayoneted in their cribs, and the village priest was beheaded.
When I reached Distomo after leaving Delphi, an informal memorial was under way beneath a plaque describing the killings. Unlike the usual upbeat dancing quality of so much Greek music, a slow dirge was playing from a tape recorder. “My grandmother had her throat cut,” a middle aged man said as he inhaled on his Marlboro. “No reason, no reason.” He didn’t seem angry, only sad. He had never known his grandmother. The rest of the family, including his mother, had gone off to another village for safety, but his grandmother returned to Distomo to gather some belongings. Several other people sat silently with the middle aged man under the plaque commemorating the massacre. “There were never any reparations,” he said.
In Chania, a picturesque small city on Crete, another reprisal killing by Nazis is still recalled and resented. Like Nafplio, a seaside community in the Peloponnesus that has been held by the Spanish, Venetians, and Turks, a kind of pentimento town sporting remnants of all its rulers, Chania’s winding medieval lanes remind you of its history while inviting you to stay awhile. Either Nafplio or Chania would be a place, if you were in your twenties, or wished you were, where you might rent an apartment for a summer while you postponed getting serious.
Using the name of a Greek god, the Germans launched Operation Mercury to conquer Crete in 1941. An initial airborne attack was at Chania, and the resistance of Chanians was repaid with mass executions after the Nazis successfully occupied the city. In certain Greek accounts, the word “holocaust” is used. On a hill above Chania a quiet park, with its attendant descriptive plaque, has something of the feel of the 9/11 memorial in New York.
And yet. Germany and Greece have a problematic relationship as hard to solve as a Rubik’s Cube, and it is hardly all negative. The Greeks complain about the Germans, and an amazing number of them, including those not born until a generation after World War II, “remember” and refer to the war. But the Greeks also need the Germans. Two million three hundred thousand Germans visit Greece each year compared with only half a million Americans. Greece exports $2.2 billion in goods annually to Germany, almost twice as much as to the United States. While I was in Athens, the German ambassador returned a matchless piece of marble Cycladic statuary to the National Archeological Museum. This was a goodwill gesture the British are not likely to emulate with the Elgin Marbles, extracted like teeth in the 19th Century from the Parthenon and other buildings on the Acropolis.
Another British lord bitterly opposed the expatriation of the Acropolis statues by Lord Elgin. Lord Byron, who revered Greece, wrote a poem in which he denounced Elgin as a “plunderer” and had the goddess Minerva condemn him: “First on the head of him who did this deed/ My curse shall light, on him and all his seed.” In Childe Harold he addressed the Parthenon directly: “Dull is the eye that will not weep to see/ Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed/ By British hands.” Byron remains a hero in Greece, widely celebrated as having lost his life fighting for Greek independence. Medical archives contradict this narrative, showing that he died of an infection contracted in a Greek hospital where he was being treated with bloodletting to cure a fever.
The German archeological record in Greece is notable. Heinrich Schliemann preceded the Nazis in Greece by a century, excavated Troy (now in Turkey) as well as Mycenae, the ancient city in the Peloponnesus from which Agamemnon set out to capture his adulterous sister-in-law Helen and return her to his brother Menelaus. Though Schliemann’s methods were crude and have been criticized by contemporary archeologists, he loved Greece, married a Greek woman, and is buried in Athens. Even before Schliemann, his countryman Goethe wrote, “What the mind and the heart is for a human being, Greece is for humanity.”
The Greek narratives take shape wherever you go. At the Lion’s Gate in Mycenae, through which, in Homer’s account, Agamemnon rode on his way to begin the Trojan War, I asked an Athenian cab driver taking his family on a weekend outing what Greece’s biggest difficulty is. “The Germans are our problem,” he said. “All they want is money. It’s in their DNA.” But then, out of nowhere, he added another story, “You people should know 9/11 was not done by jihadists but was an American plot to justify wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Just inside the Lion’s Gate an Australian woman who lives in Dubai was debating with a British woman. “The only cure for this country’s economic woes is to sack Troy again,” the Aussie said jokingly. “No,” said the Brit, more earnest than her traveling companion, “just get the rich to pay taxes. Until they do that, beware the Greeks. They’re a Trojan Horse to the rest of Europe.”
Corruption and tax evasion are hardly subjects confined to foreigners. The complaint that the rich pay no taxes in Greece is not even a complaint; it’s a litany. “Tax flight is what the rich do best,” an unemployed accountant told me. “Corruption is not part of the game; it is the game. All governments have corruption leaking into their fuel hose. Our system has no fuel except from corruption. We’re running on empty.”
An Athenian with an advanced degree in business works as a parking garage attendant in Athens because he can’t find another job. The unemployment rate in Greece is the highest in Europe, an astonishing 25%, the same figure the United States had at the height of the Great Depression. The garage attendant speaks almost perfect English. “Germany sucks Greece dry,” he said. “But a lot of it is our own fault. Our system is completely dishonest, and that’s why we’ve become a vassal of Germany. The rich in Greece simply do not pay taxes. Who can blame them? I wouldn’t pay taxes either if I could get away with it. And the government lets the rich get away with it.”
In his story about America, he likes President Obama as a person but hates him as a politician. I asked why he hates him. “Obama is trying to wreck your Second Amendment,” he said. He added, unnecessarily, “I love guns.”
None of the Greeks I spoke to, regardless of what party they voted for in the EU Parliament election, thought the system was about to improve. The story Greeks tell themselves, a sustaining narrative in its way, is that the rest of Europe, especially Germany of course, is fleecing them. It is hardly Golden Fleece to begin with. But even bronze fleece, even regular lamb’s fleece, is worth something on the common market that is the EU today. The Greeks don’t feel they’re getting what their fleece is worth. Greece is not an unhappy country. In many ways it’s joyous. But it is a country where fatalism runs deep.
In an inexpensive taverna on Santorini, a Greek couple told me their children may not be able to finish school. The husband had lost his job as an archeologist when the government eliminated his project due to the austerity program the rest of the EU, led by, yes, Germany, had forced on Greece in order to get foreign aid in the form of what amounted to a bailout. The wife, also being paid by the government, had been laid off as a teacher due to budget cuts. They were joined by a man in his thirties who complained that he can’t afford to marry. This man, with an advanced degree in history from the University of Manchester, has found a part time job as a tour guide. He has relatives in Brooklyn, Staten Island, Florida, and San Francisco. He could join them, but he prefers to live in Greece. “Where else is the sky this blue?” he asked.
I was interested in a boat ride to an island with hot springs and what turned out to be volcanic crumble, rocks as light as cheese puffs. “Don’t take my tour,” the tour guide said. “My competitor’s is cheaper, gets you to the island quicker, and you don’t have to sit around pretending to like the other passengers.”
What to make of an honest citizenry whose ruling class is systemically corrupt? Whose fault is it? The citizens don’t care enough? The electorate in the country where democracy was born doesn’t believe in it anymore? They’re resigned except at the fringe left and right extremes?
At the end of the meal in the taverna, the others ordered dessert but I was stuffed. The waiter brought me two desserts anyway. When he brought beakers of raki to the others he also brought one to me. When I protested, he said, in almost the only English he spoke, “It’s on the house.” He meant the desserts as well as the drink. Raki is worth a moment’s reflection. It is a ridiculously vile drink that they press on you. The first time you taste it you shudder at its loathsomeness. The second time you identify it for what it is: paint thinner. After a week of these free beakers you may be addicted and start to wonder why they don’t serve it with breakfast.
For the foreseeable future, the relationship between Greece and the world will remain an uneasy one. Back in Athens, a website designer said she was guardedly optimistic. “Things are looking just a hint better now if only psychologically,” she told me. “Our leaders tell us we’re about to turn the corner economically. I don’t see that, but Greece is in fashion now. I think the world is watching us.”
An American friend is watching intently. He loves Greece and spent an entire post-college year there; he pays return visits frequently. The Elgin Marbles are his template. “I’m glad the Greeks have most of the statues in their own great museums,” he told me. “Also the impeccable copies still on the Acropolis. But the world should hedge its bets. Keep the Elgins in the British Museum. Don’t trust the Greeks.”
The wool exporter in Athens, who had puzzled me with the enigmatic remark that his country’s problems are not recent but ancient, might have agreed. “Nothing will change because the gods are against us,” he said when I saw him on my last morning in Greece. He was again eating the milk pie with the grape molasses on it. “You know where we went wrong?” he asked, and paused before he answered his own question. “The gods have never forgiven us since we stupidly invaded Sicily.”
That was a little more than twenty-four hundred years ago.
Peter Davis is an author and filmmaker who covered the war in Iraq for The Nation Magazine. He received an Academy Award for his film on the Vietnam War, Hearts and Minds. His novel, Girl of My Dreams, will be published later this year.