The eye of the xenos

The eye of the xenos

The Oxford historian Roy Foster suggested I should write a book about my life here, saying, “Greece is a country I love and mourn.” So “love and mourn” became the theme of my book. Since I had lived in Ireland for many years, and the two countries have been through similar experiences in the past decade, I wrote “Greece Through Irish Eyes,” drawing on the monthly column that I write for The Irish Times.

“Love and mourn”: one would have to be an imbecile or a politician to love Greece without realizing how grievously it suffers as much from self-abuse as from the cruelties of others. So we tolerate the imperfections amid which we live our lives.

Living and working in a country which is bankrupt, politically chaotic, in hock to international moneylenders and at the center of the worst refugee crisis since the implosion of the Roman Empire isn’t a barrel of laughs. But Greece is so much more than the sum of its tragedies.

What is there to love about Greece? For me, the unchangeable keywords are: “filotimia,” “oikogenia,” “estia,” “oikonomia” and above all “eleftheria.” These constitute “Greekness” – “ellenikotita.”

What is there to mourn about Greece? First, the self-delusion that Greece can somehow regain its classical glory – a form of irredentism that just isn’t credible or realistic. Second, the way in which politicians, especially Andreas Papandreou and PASOK, created a “welfare state” based on clientelism and cronyism. How do I recognize it? Because we have it in Ireland too.

Third, the inferior education system which forces parents to spend billions on “frontistiria” if they want their kids to have any hope of a decent future. And then… what future? The lack of opportunity for enterprise that sends those kids abroad, usually never to return. An ever increasing, ever spreading diaspora that brings credit to Greece only because it achieves greatness elsewhere.

Fourth, the lack of planning in the most important industry, tourism. Fifth, the absence of a profile-driven one-stop export agency for Greek products.

Sixth, compulsory thieving – “klepsia.” It is not surprising that ordinary folk should resort to tax evasion and bribery. Greekness includes not only eleftheria but “favlokratia” – unprincipled, unscrupulous, profligate government. And in a democracy, if the majority indulge in tax evasion and bribery, it must be OK, mustn’t it? That’s what democracy means!
When I was writing my book, I felt inhibited about describing this favlokratia until I read Yannis Palaiologos’s book “The 13th Labor of Hercules.” If a Greek could expose these design faults in the Greek system, so could a xenos.

And what causes this mournful condition? The Greeks have not failed. The state, which they sponsored, has failed: It has failed the Greek people and it has failed itself. Ever since its foundation, the Greek state has been in debt and subject to the geopolitics of the greater powers which allowed it to come into existence in the first place.

But the callous and inappropriate way in which the European Union and the International Monetary Fund attempted to address the economic collapse was unforgivable. The chicanery employed by the highest authorities in Europe to evade their responsibilities to Greece remains culpable, while the Eurocrats’ inability to understand the lack of systemic reforms shows how incapable they are of recognizing the qualitative difference between the cultures of Europe.

A Westerner, trained in linear thinking, will be exasperated by the difficulty in making connections between cause and effect. Quite often, what I see does not correspond to what I would call “reality.” The West still does not understand Greece, because it insists that Greece belongs to them, when in fact it is a pivotal joint between East and West.

In the days when Greece was anxious to join the (then) European Economic Community (EEC), Prime Minister Constantinos Karamanlis announced, “We belong to the West.” Was it a can of worms that he opened, or a Pandora’s box? West, East, or both?

What puzzles me most (I’m thinking in straight lines again) is that Greeks have never decided what kind of country they want. The monarchy-versus-republic argument from 1827 to 1974 has become terrorism, anarchism and fascism strutting their stuff on the streets.

I live in a village. As the writer Alexandros Papadiamantis wrote in 1892 (and it still holds true today), “the smaller the village, the bigger the evil.” We would do well to bear that in mind when looking at the “villages” of Greek politics, including the “Vouli.”

When Odysseas Elytis said that “Western modernist models are sensitive only to the ways of logic and surface reality, and thus unreceptive to the mystic voice” of Greece, he could be accused of sentimental evasion. But poets like Elytis and George Seferis were striving to find in this “mystic voice” a possible route to a new society, which would reflect Greekness in all its aspects and prioritize it above Western notions of identity.

That may be fanciful, but what Elytis wrote about ellenikotita is not. He said: “Don’t go searching elsewhere for the Golden Fleece. The Golden Fleece is within you – find it there.” Alexis Tsipras should follow that advice, instead of holding the begging bowl in one hand and Greece’s dignity in the other. Anyway, that’s what my xenos-eye tells me.

* Richard Pine is director of the Durrell Library of Corfu (where he lives) and author of “Greece Through Irish Eyes.”

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