Is Anyone Honestly Surprised That Greeks Don’t Pay Their Debts?

AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis
AP Photo/Yorgos Karahalis

As you can tell from the byline on this story, I’m part Greek, which is why I’m currently lifting your wallet while we have this conversation. No offence to my Hellenic brothers and sisters, but we don’t exactly have a reputation for financial honesty.

Greece is in a mess, and it’s tough to overstate the scale of the problem. It looks increasingly likely that we will have to leave the European Union and go back to the drachma, which will be followed by a calamitous drop in the currency’s value. Great news for tourists, not so good for Greeks.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Greece is a barren, inhospitable land of strange liquors, blazing rows and underdressed but overweight hairy middle-aged heffalumps. (And that’s just the women.) It’s as close to Lord of the Rings as you can get without actually larping.

We’ve gone from scaling the intellectual heights of literature, poetry and philosophy – not to mention basically inventing democracy – to dreaming of moving to Chicago to open a small kebabbery. In the process, we’ve become lazy, corrupt, entitled and petulant. The EU wants austerity, and frankly my southern European family deserves a taste of the lash.

Sorry, no offence, but it’s true. Acting like an indolent and self-destructive child is so much part of the national character that I’m wondering if it might be genetic – some sort of of awful evolutionary mistake that has left the once-proud nation of Greece awash with petty crooks who throw their toys out of the pram if anyone dares hold them to their word or – horror of horrors – present them with a tax bill.

You probably know the story of Pheidippides who ran from Marathon to Athens with news of a great military victory against the Persians. He dropped dead after delivering the news. What you probably don’t know is that he didn’t die from all that running but from shock when one of the receiving archons asked him to settle a gambling debt.

Pheidippides is the only Greek man known to have put in a full day’s work, and he was killed by it. Ever since, his descendants have pondered his fate and been loath to take the chance. We sell fish, cotton, pistachios and marble, and we work barely three-quarters that of the European average, which is already itself pathetic by global standards.

It’s a symbol of how hopeless the country’s priorities are that when the ECB said on Friday that it would raise the ceiling on emergency liquidity assistance, Greece’s banks put in an order for ouzo.

The government cares so little about our national pastime, tax evasion, that it lets the Greek middle classes self-report that they spend more on debt repayments than they earn.  €30 billion a year in tax goes uncollected in Greece as people stomp their feet rather than getting out their cheque books.

We Greeks invented rioting and, as with indolence, corruption and sodomy, we do it bigger and better than anyone else with more looting, more destruction and more existential despair afterwards.

Yes, I speak from personal experience. I don’t think I have a single friend I don’t owe money to, even if it just a fiver because I “didn’t have any change” or “my card didn’t work.” I’m not a miser or a bad person, I’m just absolutely terrible with money, like anyone who has a surname with that many vowels.

And I, too, hate settling my debts. I break out into a sweat. Anxiety grips my chest. Finally, eventually, after a fake suicide attempt and a four-page self-pitying email, I hand the tenner back. You don’t have to take my word for it: ask anyone with Greek friends and they will tell you, we’re all the same.

We’re into paragraph nine, and if I’d been writing this in the offices of a Greek newspaper not only would I have been offered two alcoholic drinks by now but I’d have had an hour-long nap and paid off two tax inspectors in crisp euro notes kindly provided to me by the blood, sweat and tears of Volkswagen factory workers.

It’s like Plato’s cave allegory. We can see the shadow cast by the ginormous debt our profligate spending and corrupt national life have caused, but we refuse to step out into the light and see reality for what it is. Or we can’t, because we can’t see over our own monstrously fat bellies.

Quite what Greece is capable of contributing back to Europe at this point, beyond cheap package trips to Thessalonika for low-ranking Brussels bureaucrats, is not clear. (Don’t bother, by the way. You can’t even go to Mount Athens without booking ages in advance, which no one knows until they get there.)

Greece has a progressive left-wing government, because of course it does. Its government is resisting calls from the European Union to institute a programme of austerity to meet its international debt obligations.

Austerity is the least that Greece deserves. I mean, quite honestly, the society that perfected buggery should be a bit more open to a good financial rogering. Yet I read in one report that “Greek ministers maintained a defiant tone on Saturday, vowing to resist ‘blackmail’ from creditors.” Creditors asking for their money back is to blackmail what mean tweets are to violence.

The problem with “let daddy fix it” as a national budget strategy is that sooner or later, no matter how pretty and accomplished the daughter, daddy is going to get tired of handing out pocket money. One day, Tiffany is going to have to get a job.

Sadly the situation may be irrecoverable because not only did Tiffany skip school and fail to show up for her apprenticeship but she’s been putting it all around town without using protection and now wants her long-suffering father to buy her a Boxster to replace the TT she crashed into a wall while high on mushrooms.

Honestly, Greece as a 17-year-old girl having a temper tantrum isn’t that far off. Greece is basically shredding its own bedsheets until it gets a new iPhone – with all-too-predictable results. Let me tell you – again, from experience – Germans love playing the stern father. At some point, you have to cut the little cow off.

Greece might have, in Thessaloniki, the world’s fifth-best party town, according to Lonely Planet. But it also has the EU’s highest proportion of digitally illiterate citizens. In 2013, 39 per cent of Greek citizens had never used the internet.

The country has been resting on its laurels. Possibly literally, since we used to make crowns out of them when we had our shit together in, what, 650 BC?

Greece is like Jack in Titanic if Jack had grabbed Rose by the hair, screaming, “COME WITH ME! POSEIDON DEMANDS US BOTH AS TRIBUTE!” As for every Greek man at some point between the ages of 20 and 25, a taste of the salty trident is sadly inevitable.

There’s an old Greek proverb that goes something like: “A lucky person is someone who plants pebbles and harvests potatoes.” Greece’s national government has planted scorpion eggs and left their toddlers to play in the sand with no shoes on.

The EU’s strategy to date has been like giving money to a junkie. You do it because you’re a good person and you can’t bear to see their miserable little face, and you do it knowing that they’re going to break all the promises they make to you.

Sooner or later you realise you’re just enabling them, and sooner or later they are going to have a heart attack. Well, Greece just did.

Anyway, look, let’s leave it there, because if I write for any longer Greece may not even be a country any more, and then I’ll have to change the headline and all sorts. My point is: Greeks are Greeks, and there was never anything that anyone could do about that, which is why fiscal union was such a stupid idea in the first place. What a mess.


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