It was one of those natural confusions, the sort that occur when the taxi driver doesn’t speak much of your language and you speak less of his. When I got into his cab at Venizelos Airport, I had asked for the Hotel Herodion, a tourist hotel at the southern foot of the Acropolis. My intention was to observe the intermingling effect of sunlight and smog on the Parthenon from either or both of the Herodion’s rooftop jacuzzis. The driver took me to a slum near the bus station whose residents demonstrated the intermingling effect of state failure, human trafficking, and incompetent border policing. Two men of Bangladeshi mien sat on the step, observing us with the fearful hostility of those whose papers might not entirely be in order.
“No hotel,” the driver observed.
I dug out my Rough Guide, and found a map. The jabbing of the finger elicited the slapping of the forehead. How we laughed as we sank back into the coagulated traffic of late afternoon Athens. As he unloaded my bag at the Herodion, he said something which I took to mean, “After all these years of driving a taxi, I can’t believe I confused you with them, and this with that.” He refused to charge me for the detour, even though it was as much my fault as his. He seemed genuinely pleased to have delivered me into what we both considered to be the good and desirable part of his city, a city of which he could be proud and I enamored.
There are two kinds kinds of encounter in Greece these days, the desired and undesired.
Over the next two weeks, I experienced frequent variations on this episode. There are two kinds of people in Greece these days, just as there are in every European country, the legals and the illegals. And there are two kinds of encounter, the desired and undesired.
In good times, it takes some effort to obtain an illegal or undesired experience in Europe. You have to go looking for it, by booking a cheap hotel by the railway station, or attending one of those spontaneous urban festivities which culminate around sunset in a little light rioting, or visiting a peripheral neighborhood and telling people that you are Jewish. But these are not good times in Europe, so you never quite know what you’re going to get.
Last summer, I took my family to Italy. One morning, my children and I were sitting at a cafe in the Adriatic resort town of Fano. A young African man wove through the tables, and silently inserted a tray of cigarette lighters between my chin and my Americano.
“No, thank you,” I said. “I don’t smoke.”
“How can you treat me like a goat?” he shouted.
Clearly, he was not referring to being petted or milked, or exploited by artisanal cheesemakers in Vermont. He felt like a synecdochal male of the species: the scapegoat, the “goat of sacrifice” in the wilderness, the Satan. He was, as male goats often are, at the end of his tether.
I could see that my children were scared by his anger, and the idea that their father would defy the canons of children’s literature, and take people for animals. Fortunately, as the lighter vendor turned to the next table, a much older African man manifested into the same spot, offering collapsible fans with the crushed courtesy of someone who had grown up in a French colony. I bought three.
He was from Senegal, had cataracts in both eyes, and looked a hundred years old. His vision was so bad and his legs so weak that when he bent down to pick up one of the fans, he nearly fell over. Only after he had shuffled off did we realize that in bending over he had dropped his money.
This time, my children really were upset. We walked around the town until we found him again, sitting in the gutter, his wares laid out on a piece of cardboard. It felt good to give him his money. It made up for the goat business.
I came to Athens alone, to lead a dozen members of the Patrick Leigh Fermor Society on a two-week tour called “In Paddy’s Footsteps.” We had the sense not to follow the great pedestrian’s actual footsteps, so much as stretch our legs while visiting key sites in his legend by air-conditioned coach. The first two days were in Athens. After that, with the exception of Heraklion in Crete, we would be avoiding the cities.
Greece remains a rural and regional society, in economy as in outlook. Sophisticated urbanites refer to “my village,” as though they still reside in spirit on an island or a mountainside. Since 2008, while immigrants have swollen London’s population to its largest yet, the population of Athens has fallen from roughly 6.5 million to 5.5 million. Some have returned to their families and farms, for lodging and food as the welfare system disintegrates. Others, especially the young and the qualified, have emigrated. I heard the words “lost generation” several times. Lost, that is, in the sense of wasted skills and energy, rather than drifting around Europe like Gerald Murphy.
In the Eighties, Tel Aviv was like Athens without the antiquities. Two old-new cities for the Levant’s middleman minorities. Dust and construction drills by day; the massed whine of mopeds at night; thin-walled concrete apartment blocks thrown together for survivors of massacre and refugees from imperial collapse. Now, with high-tech Herzliya generating more money than oranges and avocados ever could, Tel Aviv is rebuilding itself as high-rise apartments and offices, organic restaurants and hip nightclubs. Athens is dirty, and coming apart at the seams.
Shop windows are boarded up. There is graffiti everywhere, reviving the old double act of the swastika and the hammer and sickle. No one wears new clothes: this season’s look, as it has been for the last eight years, is Spring 2008. The official unemployment rate has more than doubled since 2008, and is lodged around 23 percent. The employment prospects of young people are catastrophic. Fifty percent of young Greeks cannot find work.
The migrants are not coming in the same numbers as last year. The dubiously legal deal in which the European Union forcibly returns paperless migrants to Turkey has driven the human traffickers to seek alternative routes into Europe. But some 55,000 migrants are still hopelessly stranded here, in camps around the country. The Greek state cannot afford to house or clothe them, and it lacks the administrative capacity to process their asylum applications. The European Union states have committed to accept them, but are doing their utmost not to. Both parties are pushing the problem out of sight.
The pop-up shanty town at Victoria Square in central Athens has been erased, and its inhabitants shunted into camps on the city’s periphery. More than two thousand people are living in the Hellenikon stadium, built for the field hockey events of the 2004 Athens Olympics. Others are warehoused at the industrial suburb of Scaramanga. Another depository, a terminal at Athens’s old airport, has been emptied, pending the site’s redevelopment. While the name Scaramanga may evoke cartoon villainy, the camps have become incubators for the worst kinds of criminality, including the prostitution of children. Early in the morning outside Scaramanga, families of migrants sit on the curb waiting for the bus, to commute into Athens to beg.
The Greek economy is a satire of its former disorder. The fringes of Athens are littered with unfinished buildings, their bare concrete frames poking skywards like upended chairs. On a shabby strip on the old road to Eleusis, site of ancient Mysteries and modern refineries, the new stock exchange is the only finished building on its block. The expansion of the city stopped overnight in 2008. The stock exchange is stranded in the middle of nowhere, an irrelevant relic, like the Brothers Grimm hunting lodge across the road that Otto of Bavaria built so that he could pretend that Greece was really Germany.
In 1832, the British and French gave Otto the crown of the modern Greek state because he looked like a safe pair of hands, and because the son of a chieftain from the Mani, a lawless peninsula of the southwestern Peloponnese, had murdered the other claimant. Since the crash of 2008, the presidents of the European Union and the ministers of Angela Merkel’s government have repeatedly pressed the bill for Greece’s debts into the unsafe hands of the Greek government, along with some sharp advice on how to restructure the Greek economy. The optimists in Berlin and Brussels say that Greece will take thirty years to pay off its debts.
This life sentence is euphemized as “austerity,” but it is killing Greece. In 2012, Greece made the largest sovereign debt default in history. In 2015, it became the first developed country to default on debt repayments to the International Monetary Fund. By then, Greece’s public debt of 323 billion Euros was equivalent to 176.9 percent of gdp—enough debt for each Greek to owe about 30,000 Euros. The state has defaulted on retirees’ pensions. The banks limit personal withdrawals to 400 Euros per week. Most of the railway network has been shut down. As for getting the trains to run on time, the crisis has turned the candidly fascist Golden Dawn from a fringe group of street agitators into the Greek parliament’s third largest party.
How did this happen? As they used to say at Eleusis, it’s a mystery.
The mystery lies less in how it happened, than in how it was allowed to happen.
Greece entered the Eurozone in 2001, under the leadership of Konstantinos Simitis and the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (pasok). In 2004, Simitis’s successor and rival, Konstantinos Karamanlis of the center-right New Democracy party, announced that Simitis’s government had falsified its application. Under E.U. law, states using the Euro must keep their deficit to less than 3 percent of gdp. Greece claimed that its deficit was less than 1 percent of gdp. In 2011, an investigation by the E.U. Commission found that Greece had failed to meet the 3 percent condition every year since 2001.
Greece has two economies, the official and the unofficial. The official economy belongs to the state and a clique of oligarchic clients. Between 1995 and 2015, government spending averaged 49 percent of gdp; the opportunities for corruption are extensive. The unofficial economy belongs to everyone else. The state and its clients use the law to limit competition from the unofficial economy, and to force it to pay taxes. The result is that small everyday transactions are challenged by obstruction and stupidity.
A notice at the airport informs tourists that taxi drivers cannot charge more than thirty-eight Euros for the ride to central Athens, and that the meter must run throughout the journey. The second of these provisions suggests that the government is less interested in protecting tourists from being ripped off, and more in taxing the cash income of the drivers. When my driver went to the wrong neighborhood, the meter was at 37 Euros. To get me to the right destination without breaking the first law, the one about not charging me more than 38 Euros, he had to break the second, the one about running his meter.
Everyone, vendors and clients, is in the grip of a hostile system, so heavily legislated as to criminalize both parties. The only way to get things done is to sidestep the law, and enter a parallel world of nods and winks, blatant illegality and legal gamesmanship.
The further you go from Athens, the deeper you get. By the time you reach the southern extremities of the Peloponnese, you are through the looking glass. The shops still post the government mandated notice that customers are not obliged to pay for goods until they receive a receipt, but the receipt is neither offered nor requested. The till is kept open, so that cash can pass through without leaving a trace on the till roll. You are in the European Union, but you cannot pay for gasoline with a credit card. When I rented a car from a local agency in Rethymnon, Crete, the clerk politely refused my offer of a credit card for security, and asked for cash.
The eccentricities of the Greek economy are no mystery. They are obvious to every tourist. If the experts in Brussels failed to see them, it is because they choose not to look, and preferred to sweep as many countries as possible into the Eurozone, regardless of economic fitness or cultural compatibility.
According to Max Weber, Europe’s Protestant northerners manage their pocketbooks with the utmost propriety, while the feckless, lying, sex-mad southerners lounge around in the sun, playing with their credit cards. There is an obvious compatibility here between potential creditors and habitual debtors.
In the Nineties, when the European Union was in its phase of quasi-imperial expansion, the creditors in Brussels and Berlin offered the debtors of Europe’s “southern tier” a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to trade in their weak national currencies for the Euro. In those distant days, the Euro was the future, the currency which would become an alternative to the U.S. dollar and return a united Europe to its rightful dominance in world affairs.
The northerners who run the European Union were determined to gobble up as many new provinces as they could. They were, and still are, convinced of their moral superiority to the southerners. Since the Treaty of Rome in 1957, which laid the egg of a single Europe, economic collaboration has obliged the northerners to overcome their worst proclivities. Today, France and Germany can no longer go to war. The French can’t afford it, and the Germans don’t have enough tanks.
The northerners, in their end-of-history vanity, believed that once they had incorporated the southerners into their benign empire, the Euro-elixir would continue its work of moral reform. Prosperity would dissolve national differences. As with Bismarck’s Zollverein, the European Union’s economic borders would become its political ones.
The southerners could not believe their luck. They were being offered entry into a larger economy than that of the United States, and a stake in a major currency with an apparently limitless line of credit. Now, Greece is snared by the small print—the sacrifice of sovereignty, and the obligation to follow Germany’s restrictive terms on running a deficit.
We need a revolution!” Dolores Payas announces.
It is late at night at Kardamyli in the Mani. The tour group is sitting under the vines after dinner. Dolores translated Leigh Fermor’s books into Spanish, and wrote a short memoir, Drinks Time!, about the experience. She lives between Kardamyli and Shanghai, where her partner works: different time zones, different economies. With the official economy strangulated by Greece’s debt schedule, the unofficial economy is seceding.
“We can take 400 Euros out of the bank if we want,” she says, “but there’s nothing here to spend it on anyway. We live by exchanges, eggs for tomatoes, tomatoes for olives.”
That afternoon, we had visited Leigh Fermor’s house, a short walk through the olive grove adjoining our hotel. In the early Eighties, Leigh Fermor received an unscrupulous tax demand from the Greek government. He fended it off by bequeathing his house to the Benaki Museum of Athens. The Benaki was to run it as a writer’s retreat and conference center. By the time of Leigh Fermor’s death in 2011, the Benaki was unable to honor the agreement. In a microcosm of Greece’s fatal romance with the Euro, the Benaki had taken on millions of Euros of debt in order to finance a hubristic expansion. Meanwhile, the house decayed.
This summer, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation stepped in to fund the repair of the house. This is the cultural equivalent of one of Golden Dawn’s soup kitchens. Greece’s institutions are failing. Historically, pasok and New Democracy are the two pillars of modern Greek democracy. Since 2015, pasok has fewer seats in the Hellenic Parliament than Golden Dawn. The pillar on the left is now supported by the hard-left Syriza (“From the Roots”).
Syriza’s name is an acronym derived from Synaspismós Rizospastikís Aristerás: the Coalition of the Radical Left. Cometh the hour, cometh Yanis Varoufakis, the British-educated economics professor who became Syriza’s “rock star” finance minister. He wenteth on time too, though it is not yet clear where he is going. Varoufakis trained as an economist in Britain in the Eighties, and has taught in Australia and Texas. His analysis is standard-issue Euromarxist, but his prescriptions are almost Thatcherite.
In July 2015, Varoufakis, who had been leading Greece’s debt negotiations with the “Troika” (the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the imf), resigned after only seven months in the job. Varoufakis had argued that Greece had been insolvent since 2010. If Greece continued to take on new debts to finance payment on the bailouts of 2010 and 2012, it would keep defaulting. The priority had to be restructuring the Greek economy: setting up a development bank, encouraging public-private partnerships, and reducing the power of the oligarchy, which Varoufakis calls Greece’s “greatest impediment to growth.” None of this could be done without renegotiating the terms of the 2010 and 2012 bailouts, and Syriza had won the January 2015 election on a promise to do this.
The terms of the 2012 loan were due to expire on February 28, 2015. Varoufakis had exactly one month to reconcile Syriza’s election promise with the payment demands of the creditors. In late February, Varoufakis returned from Brussels believing that he had succeeded. The northerners had agreed, he said, to extend Greece’s credit for another four months. In that time, Syriza’s government was to propose alternative solutions for reform and debt payment. He believed that the northerners had acknowledged the reality: Greece was bankrupt, the debt schedule was fantastical, and its economy had to be rebuilt.
If the northerners ever agreed, they changed their mind. The four-month period of grace turned into a sequence of sour negotiations. Although the Troika had different ideas on how to recover the loans, the northerners all agreed that Greece must pay. Germany preferred to fit Greece into a fiscal straitjacket than to risk a Weimar-style madness of hyper-inflation. When the Syriza prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, accommodated the Troika, his cabinet split. In June 2015, Tsipras called a referendum, only the second since the 1974 vote to form a republic.
Varoufakis campaigned against Tsipras’s deal. Sixty-one percent of voters agreed with him, and defied the European Union, the ecb, and the imf. Nevertheless, it was Tsipras who stayed in office, and Varoufakis who resigned. Tsipras called another election, and retained Syriza’s lead. Greece is still committed to the impossible repayment schedule that Varoufakis calls a “fiscal waterboarding.” The biggest loan in history is loaded on the people least able to pay it. The title of his memoir of his brief but instructive time in office says it all: And The Weak Suffer What They Must?
“We are prisoners of the Germans,” our tour guide says over lunch in Heraklion. “If we don’t pay them and do what they say, they will cut us loose. Look at us: we’re a small country, next to Turkey. If the Turks see that the European Union won’t protect us, they’ll open the gates and flood us with refugees. We’re alone.”
On the last day of the tour, I drive through a pass in the White Mountains, to the southern coast of Crete. The mountains slide into the sea. Stray goats and spindly, windswept olive trees cling to small pockets of soil. On the road near the foot of the Imbros Gorge, an old woman carrying two large baskets waves me down. She climbs into the passenger seat, the baskets on her lap, and starts talking.
Her name is Maria, and her Greek sounds almost Italian. Her dialect is a relic of the four centuries in which the Venetians occupied Crete. She is on her way to catch a bus over the mountains to Rethymnon on the northern coast. Her son is a doctor there, so she is taking a four-hour bus trip to deliver two baskets of cooked food. She tells me to drop her at Frangokástello, a town whose name, “The Castle of the Franks,” dates to an earlier occupation. I am on my way to the beach at Rodákino.
“Leigh Fermor! Kreipe! Bravo!” she says, and claps her hands.
In 1944, Leigh Fermor, a fellow British officer named William Stanley Moss, and a group of Cretan partisans kidnapped Heinrich Kreipe, the commander of the German garrison. Dressed as German soldiers, Leigh Fermor and Moss drove the general through twenty-two German checkpoints, then dumped his car and headed into the mountains. Hundreds of ordinary Cretans aided the kidnappers; in remote villages in the Amari Valley, we met old people who as children had risked the lives of their entire village by running messages and food to the fugitives. After several weeks, a Royal Navy motor launch extracted the party and Kreipe from the beach at Rodákino, and carried them to Egypt.
“Brexit?” many Greeks asked when they heard my English accent. “First Brexit, then Grexit!” Their thinking is that the European Union can bully a small economy like Greece, but must accommodate a major one like Britain. I fear this may be too reasonable, and too optimistic. The European Union may well accommodate Britain, but the bully’s logic would be to sacrifice Greece, pour encourager les autres.
Greece is the Micawber of Europe, perpetually hoping that something will turn up. Nobody I met thought that a democracy can sustain the current limbo of debt and unemployment. Nobody thought that Syriza could repair the ship of state in such heavy waters. Some thought that leaving the European Union was just a question of time, and that it was more dignified to jump than be pushed. There would be a few tough years under a revived drachma, but if the drachma was priced cheaply enough to pay down the Eurodebt . . . In the last act of a Greek tragedy, there is no clear path forward, only the certainty of more pain.
I drop Maria at Frangokástello, and drive on to Rodákino. In the cafe next to the memorial on the beach, I find the tour party, eating fried anchovies with a retired lieutenant-colonel in the Greek special forces. The sand is hot under my toes, the Libyan Sea a luminous blue. The coast of Africa is three hundred miles to the south, beyond a horizon dissolved by a heat haze. Somewhere on the other side, a smuggler steers an overladen boat into the current that will carry his human cargo to southern Italy. This is the southernmost coast of Europe, and the end of our road. I step into the water.