Work-shy layabouts? In my Greek village, even the retiree works
Despite urbanisation, Greece is a conglomerate of hard-working villages like this one
Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras (r) and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. Photograph: Andrea Bonetti/EPA
The New York Review of Books recently carried a conversation between two American philosophers who concluded that everything we can see and do is indeterminate and unverifiable. If they had visited Greece they would have known this anyway.
In the fifth century BC, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus coined the expression “Everything is in a state of flux”, which seems to have been adopted as the motto of today’s Greek government. It is possibly the only truth we hear these days.
Heraclitus also said “You can’t step into the same river twice”, but on this score he was wrong. Greek politicians, economists, officials of the EU and the IMF continually step into the same river of facts, alternative facts, statistics, alternative statistics, suppositions, prognoses, guesswork and lies that demonstrate the unchanging nature of this modern Greek tragedy.
Greek premier Alexis Tsipras and finance minister Euclid Tsakalotos are pawns in a geopolitical game of chess
Every time they put their feet in the river, they regurgitate these undigested fragments of uncertainty. It’s called river-and-mouth disease.
Twenty-five centuries after Heraclitus, Brian Friel wrote that “Confusion is not an ignoble condition”. This is precisely what the Greek government is trying to prove: that the continual flux and prevarication, the obsessive revisiting of the same imponderables is perfectly normal and in fact an honourable – even noble – way of passing the time.
Given the world’s prevailing politics, while we wait for the upcoming German elections, the terms of Brexit, the latest diversion of Trumponomics, the state of the Chinese economy, or the next outbreak of terrorism, it is, in fact, the only thing to do: wait and see. Politicians are climbing over each other to get a seat on this particular fence.
Friel also said (in the same play, Translations) that “Uncertainty in meaning is incipient poetry”. Maybe that was an inspiration for two recent compilations of Greek poetry, Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry (edited by Karen van Dyck) and Futures: Poetry of the Greek Crisis (edited by Theodoros Chiotis). Maybe the poets are the ones to wring from the uncertainty of the crisis some sense of how to survive “the dilemma of learning to live with less amid the expectation of more”, as van Dyck puts it.
Poetry itself changes, but does it have the power to change others? Like the poets, the politicians are struggling with “new strategies to connect, speak, assemble, love and survive”, in Chiotis’s words. If anyone can get poetry out of this scenario, it isn’t the politicians, even though the social imperatives are the same. The state of flux precludes a single spindoctor who might snatch poetry from the jaws of prose.
Newspapers, for their part, faithfully represent the continuing flux of Greece’s negotiations with the EU and IMF, but they predictably fall into a pattern: there’s a deal around the corner; then someone changes the terms of the deal; then someone else moves the corner. “Greece’s debt is sustainable.” “Only if X agrees.” X: “Not my department, talk to Schäuble”. Schäuble: “It’s a matter for the commission.” The commission: “We have no political role to play.” “Greece is ready to return to the markets”. “That depends on what George Soros had for breakfast.”
Game of chess
Greek premier Alexis Tsipras and his finance minister Euclid Tsakalotos are pawns in a geopolitical game of chess dominated by the kings and queens of Wolfgang Schäuble and Christine Lagarde and their bishops, knights and rooks. And, as in chess, every piece moves in different directions, obeying different laws of necessity and strategy.
Knights, such as Jean-Claude Juncker, move sideways in order to go forward; bishops, such as the IMF’s Poul Thomsen, are holier-than-thou on their diagonals; rooks, such as Donald Tusk, plod up and down defensively, wishing they were somewhere else.
The glaring hole in this Greek community is the young, who have emigrated
In the middle of all this, the Greeks are frequently portrayed as work-shy layabouts. But in the village where I live, everyone works, even the retirees whose pensions have been cut in some cases by 40 per cent. There is no slack here; it’s an industrious community of farmers, carpenters, blacksmith, winery, and taverna-keepers. Even the widows raise poultry for market. And, despite urbanisation, Greece is a conglomerate of villages just like this one.
The glaring hole in this community is the young, who have emigrated: there are only two men between the ages of 20 and 40. Of the five or six schoolchildren, four will almost certainly emigrate.
There’s a Finnish expression for continuance in the face of hopelessness: “there is no future, there is only tomorrow”. So everyone gets on with the business of tomorrow, certain only that it will be followed by another tomorrow, without a future. Those American philosophers might even admit that that is verifiable, even if it’s also indeterminate.