Raw figures conceal richness of life behind Greek economic collapse

Wed, Jan 9, 2013, 00:00

Corfu Letter:A recent study, Understanding the Crisis in Greece, by two Greek economists, Michael Mitsopoulos and Theodore Pelagidis (both of whom have been advisers to the Greek government) tells us the Greek economy is dysfunctional.

We do not need an academic treatise to tell us that. Greece’s relations with the EU have made that clear over the past three years at least. The 114 bar charts, pie charts and graphs in the book are unnecessary: we can observe all of them by looking around us.

Anton Chekhov used to say that he got the ideas for his searing dramas by looking out of the window and seeing all human life going by. Brian Friel showed us much the same in his essay on his mother’s home town, A Fine Day at Glenties.

I sit on the esplanade of Corfu town, absorbing the last of the autumn sunshine, and I look across the straits at an Albania already going into winter: a country consisting almost entirely of unhelpful snow-clad mountains.

We live in a world of microclimates, each of which disobeys the laws of economics, meteorology and citizenship.

What I see in town (really a small city rather than a large town) or in the village where I live, is living proof of this book’s thesis: that the political parties are undemocratic in nature and “everyone participates, more or less willingly, in the shadow economy”.

Hope and helplessness

I see poverty, tax evasion, ostentatious wealth, despair and joy. Hope and helplessness. I see widows collecting wild greens (horta) on which they live almost exclusively because they cannot afford meat (although they buy chicken carcases to make stock). But I am also told that one of the poorest-looking widows owns five houses and has thousands of euro stashed away. A microclimate indeed.

One of the strongest indicators of Greece as a divided society is the contrast between town and village: the mutual suspicion of the people. The townies look down on the peasants (not too strong a word for subsistence farmers), who in turn regard the townies as crooks – and have done so since at least the 18th century.

A new dimension to political life has been the rise of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn, which in Corfu polled much higher than its national average in the last elections, and which is suspected of having organised an arson attack on its last synagogue.

It’s a country where women use the genitive of their husband’s or father’s name (the singer Vicky Leandros is known as Vicky Leandrou here) and still adopt an all-black wardrobe as widows.

It’s also a country of immense beauty: Corfu town has been declared a Unesco world heritage site because its arcaded streets, built mostly during the 400-year Venetian occupation, and the evident signs of building during the British administration (1815-1864), make it a city of appealing uniqueness.

Rue de Rivoli replica

Sitting on the esplanade, I look at the miracle of the two arcaded blocks that form a replica of Paris’s rue de Rivoli - they were built by the father of the man who constructed the Suez Canal. Miraculous because when the French were routed from Corfu the British finished the job. It’s the social centre of “le tout Corfou”.

But the simplicity of village life and architecture complements and adds to that beauty – even though the inhabitants of village and town are as different as chalk and cheese. How can I reconcile the beauty of the environment – and the added value that inheres in the tourist industry – when Mitsopoulos and Pelagidis document so thoroughly that Greece is so resistant to the sort of reforms demanded by the EU?

I see the kaleidoscope from the opposite end, simply because the economists cannot look at the everyday lives of ordinary people. It’s possible that they may never have seen villagers dunking their local bread into their own olive oil – or seen the sacks of olives going to the oilery where the growers pay 80 cent per litre for production, or spit-roasted lambs at the local panegiri (saint’s day).

Celebration of life

It is the celebration of life at the most basic level, even if it does involve bribery and corruption, that the economists can’t see: they may hold the view that Greek people are inured to the grey economy and to dealing with the problem of balancing responsibility to the state with the demands of family, but in a country which last year lost 1,000 jobs a day, and where young people look to emigration as their only hope of survival, the claims of the individual are bound to trump those of the state.

And if, as is rumoured, the local taverna decides to open for only three days each week, due to declining spending power, we will all have to learn more than just dunking bread in oil.