An image can often help you realize a lot of things all at once. Having stopped recently at a traffic light, I noticed the bus beside me, where the driver was smoking a cigarette, tapping the ash every couple of drags onto the street from a small open window. It shouldn’t have surprised me because I’ve often seen bus drivers smoking or talking on cell phones. But the fact that we tolerate it – and even more so are no longer shocked – shows that we are sliding back again.
Such signs of unprofessional behavior have become a daily occurrence in the broader public sector. Since its birth as a modern state, Greece has always had one foot in the West and the other in the East, with the image of the smoking bus driver obviously being more suitable to the latter. Right now, the country is leaning further in that direction, and the reason is that when Greeks start to “relax” or get lax, there’s no stopping them. Without rules or a leadership that sets a good example by working hard and following the rules, Greeks can sink very, very low.
We are capable of the best, but also the worst. I am sure that that same driver wouldn’t have been smoking on the job in 2004, either out of fear or perhaps because of a collective desire to be our better selves.
When I become despondent about where the country is heading, I think back to the 1980s. I have a memory from that era that remains deeply imprinted: I was in the arrivals hall of the old airport, where there was no air-conditioning and the baggage carousel was not working (either because the baggage handlers were on strike or no one had repaired it), surrounded by smoking cab drivers offering rides to Athens at exorbitant prices. If you were to switch off the sound to the memory, you’d have no idea in which hemisphere it took place. Today this is a bad memory that helps me stay positive about the progress we’ve made. But we musn’t forget that we live in a competitive world where there’s little room to relax. Our neighbors Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and others are making great strides as they try to reach our level.
Greece needs national targets, stricter rules and more discipline, but also a leadership that ceases to condone laxness and wrongdoing in general. The adverse effects of this mentality with be long-lasting and may not be fully felt for several years. The sad truth is that the Greek state survives thanks to around 20-30 percent of workers who do their jobs properly and efficiently – at no small personal cost – but this won’t continue forever.
The real nightmare is that one day you’ll take off from the current airport and return to old one, that you’ll go to sleep with the euro and wake up with the drachma.