I arrive in Athens from Italy on July 1, a significant day for Greece as new laws banning smoking in bars, nightclubs, restaurants, airports took effect.
As soon as I get into the taxi, the driver does his civic duty and reminds me of the fact.
“It doesn’t bother me. I don’t really smoke,” I replied. “Besides, I live in Australia and the same laws have been in place there for some time now.”
“Ah, but that’s different,” he says. “Australia is a country with a system and good welfare similar to Western European countries.
“I wouldn’t mind laws that infringe on my right to smoke if we had all the good things that those countries have. But we have none of their good laws, and we cop all the shit laws. Where’s the justice in that?”
This is the kind of twisted logic of which the Greeks are masters. It’s in the same vein as finding seat belts restrictive.
So let’s not restrict ourselves and have the highest road fatality rate in all of Europe.
The next day, on the street near my cousin’s house, a man stands outside his shop smoking, talking to a woman in exasperation.
“I was on the phone for half a day trying to get an answer from the council about whether I am allowed to have an ashtray in the shop. And no one could tell me! I don’t want to get fined.”
I’m not sure if it’s my age or whether this is symptomatic of a general mood, but most friends and relatives appear worn out due to the lack of a proper functioning state.
The charm of anarchic Greece seems to have worn thin and the vast majority of people struggle on a daily basis.
Educated Greeks, many of them with post-graduate qualifications are leaving for opportunities that don’t exist in their own country.
Dimitri is a case in point. He returned from the United States eight years ago with a Master’s in IT and after months of searching, finally secured a job way below his skill base with very ordinary pay.
Six years later, with very little progression and not much hope for anything better, barely keeping up with his daily expenses, he packed it in and moved with his wife and children back to the United States.
“There are only a few jobs in each sector at a certain level in Greece. You need either contacts or luck to get them.”
Populist, right wing politician Yiorgos Karatzaferis, (think Pauline Hanson or Jean Marie Le Pen) has jumped out of this pit of malaise and dissatisfaction, seeking to blame migrants from impoverished countries for all the ills of the Greek state.
“Jobs for Greeks,” the LAOS leader proclaims to loud cheers from supporters.
Jobs for Greeks: It sounds so simple and straightforward, doesn’t it? Except that in this globalised world, Greeks are living and working all over the world, but nobody can come here and do it.
The argument that is presented to me goes like this: Greece is not a strong economy that can afford to look after these people.
We can hardly look after our own’ is the oft repeated phrase.
The migrants who arrive are desperate and prepared to accept low paid jobs and substandard conditions. Tritokosmikoi, (Indians, Africans, Pakistanis and lately Afghanis) are singled out and mistreated.
It is laughable to believe that in Australia we have an illegal immigrant or refugee problem. Compared to Greece, it is an issue of miniscule proportions for us.
One night, a friend recounts an episode in a Peloponnesian village where agricultural workers from Albania, Africa and Pakistan on 15 euro a day, were accused of stealing livestock.
“It was probably a few chickens and a goat to feed themselves,” he said. “Who can live on 15 euro a day?”
As punishment and without having secured a confession, the landowners decided to tie some workers to motorcycles and drag them through the village.
To teach them a lesson, presumably and to show the villagers what gallant, brave lads they were.
It is early evening in Zakynthos when he tells me this story.
He and his wife and I are sitting in the square drinking beer and ouzo, surrounded by stores stuffed with designer brand cosmetics, handbags and clothes.
The locals (farmers and hotel owners) shop with gusto, not thinking twice about spending 70 euro on a bottle of perfume.
When he finishes, I shake my head, contemplating this horrible tale of exploitation and racism. I am speechless. So are Yannis and Angela. “It has come to this,” he says. “I wonder who we are and where we are going?”
Yes, where have the qualities of filotimo and filoxenia gone? Do they still exist?
“No,” he says quickly, but then remembers something. “Well, maybe there are some small instances. There were some young people who went to that village from Zakynthos after they heard about it, to show support to the workers and to stand up to the farmers.
Yes, Angela and I agree, that is something.
“We clutch at these examples to give us hope,” he says.
And hope is much needed. Any hope in what government can deliver has perished.
There is widespread disillusionment in that regard, hence the imminent civil disobedience that is bound to occur with the new anti-smoking law.
“We have plenty of great laws in Greece,” shrugs another taxi driver referring to the same topic. “But getting them enforced? Well that’s another matter altogether.
“Never mind. We still have some good things going for us. We beat the Italians in sex,” he says. “Where it counts.”
I am bewildered at what he’s referring to and ask him. “The survey the condom makers did,” he said. “Greeks use more than any other country in Europe.
“At least we have that going for us.” His tone is suggestive of a cynical joke.
“Kati einai k’auto.”
Yes, I agree. That is also something.
Jeana Vithoulkas is a freelance journalist and a published author.