Time and money

The beginning of every new year is an opportunity to leave behind many chores that we never got the time or the will to complete, while making promises that this year we will be better. We move on through time – inexorably, collectively, individually – just as time runs through us, whether we are standing still or running, happy or sad, learning to walk or dying. Time is like the signature that sets the tempo at the start of an empty score. It is there because we need it to be there and it is nothing without the notes. And we, being the measure of all things, are the notes that determine – by our will, routine or chance – whether the result will be a drone, a symphony or cacophony. Time is artificial but it exists because we need a measure to determine our relationship with each other and with our own bodies. We measure it in summers, or in coffee spoons, or by the aches and pains that accumulate upon us, or by the number of loved ones who now exist only in our memory. Each year, New Year’s Day comes like an automatic milestone of custom to make us think of what we had, what we left, where we are and what we want. This year, the New Year brought with it another artificial invention, which, like time, will run through our lives and will play a leading role in running our lives, whether we want it to or not: the euro. Much has been written about Greece and the new European currency, about how it will help Greece but also how it will demand great changes to the way our economy functions and the way we behave. Even more is being written about how much the tangible new currency will help push forward the cause of a united Europe. We all know that the euro is now one of the world’s three great currencies, rubbing shoulders with the dollar and the yen. We know, also, that each euro is worth 340.75 drachmas, meaning that 1,000 drachmas are now equal to just under 3 euros, 5,000 drachmas are 14.67 euros and 10,000 are just under 30 euros (29.35 to be precise). Although both are similar in that they are artificial standards of measurement, the great difference between time and money is that you can accumulate lots of money and you can run out of it, but you can only run out of time. You cannot save time for a rainy day unless you do so by living healthily in the hope that your batteries will last a little longer. You can only buy time by paying doctors to help prolong your life or kidnappers to spare it, in one of those diabolical confluences where abstract values join to erupt in violence. In that way, in certain instances, time can be measured in terms of money, hence the equation «Time is money.» Time, in other words, has to be used to earn money which can then be used to buy time, to the extent that this is possible. (There is a great moment in a Fellini film, I think, where an elderly feudal lord maliciously trips a young urchin as he runs by, declaring jealously something along the lines of, «Look at him, he has nothing in the world but he has time.») At the same time, both time and money are measures whereby we all rank each other in our collective existence. But the adoption of a new currency brings a new set of questions that go beyond the generalities in ways that touch each of us separately but at the same time. We may all quickly learn the drachma/euro exchange rate, but, if I may judge from myself, it will take a lot longer to learn the true value of the personal currency – that feeling in our gut that we know what something costs, what it is worth. And these are the units that build up our everyday lives. We know that we can give the squeegee man 100 drachmas and we are both happy. We feel that we know what unit of charity that large round coin is equal to. Anything less would be miserly, anything more would be silly. What do we do now, collect cents to be able to offer streetlight kids 30 cents after carefully counting them out? In buying things, we could feel the differences in prices in units of 5,000 drachmas and 10,000 drachmas. In parts of town such as Monastiraki, you could make deals with merchants by discussing the price in terms of units of 5,000s, such as «It costs four talira (5,000-notes).» «I’ll give you two.» «Give me three and take it.» Now, unused to the value of our currency, we will count out every cent and demand that we receive each one due, forgetting the largess with which we would round off drachmas to the nearest hundred. Maybe we should judge the value of our new money by that most ancient of currencies, a day’s work. The Social Security Foundation (IKA) sets the minimum daily wage for an unskilled, unmarried laborer at 6,830 drachmas, or 20.04 euros. My grandfather, telling me once how good things are in Greece today, once reminisced that when he was young most of the day’s wage would go toward paying for a loaf of bread, and that it would take months of savings to buy a pair of boots. «Today, with one day’s pay you can buy bread for the whole village and with two days’ work you can buy the best boots. And you can’t find anyone to do any work,» he said. Perhaps this can be our anchor as we set off in our new currency: Twenty euros is what you would be paid if you were doing an honest day’s work digging a field or wielding a shovel on one of the construction projects that we all talk about in the context of «infrastructure projects» and «Olympic construction work.» Think about it when you pay 60 euros at the supermarket, or to buy sports shoes because of your New Year’s resolution to start jogging.