“Greeks and the state…fehhh”. In Florus cafe on Exarchia Square, Stavros hovers over a cappucino and neatly demolishes my cherished illusions of a new Greek revolution.

It’s late afternoon, and the morning was taken up with two demonstrations, by the public service union and the left, kicking off a 24 hour public sector strike. ΠΑ.ΜΕ

Wow. It’s a long way from a cake stall and a benefit gig at the Tote.

“For what it was, they should have filled Syntagma several times over. Ten years ago…” He throws up his hands. Straight from Exarchia central casting – “I’ll be the one in grey hair and a black jacket reading the newspaper,” he said, when we arranged to meet, like that would narrow it down – seated near the window, he has the air of a Marxist professor who has decided, on reflection, not to blow up a bank.

In fact he works for PASOK, and is supportive of Papandreou’s efforts to reconstruct Greek public and economic life using the levers of the debt crisis. “Papandreou is not like your, um, Rudd,” he says. “He’s more progressive than that, trying to do more. On immigrants for example. But on the economy he has to do something.”

Indeed, one of the most bizarre things about the Grecian turn is the way in which perceptions inside and outside the country differ utterly about what is happening. Militant protest and an organised radical left having all but died in other areas of Europe, the spectacle of anyone getting out on the streets about anything is a shock.

In European minds, the current protests in Greece are of a piece with the demonstrations and riots that consumed the city following the police shooting of 15 year old Alexandros Grigoropoulos. . The notion that Greece would not stand for such impositions without a struggle in the streets has been the staple of Western coverage – aided by Papandreou’s canny remark at Davos that his own country was the ‘weak link’ in the whole Eurozone project. To be honest it was what persuaded your correspondent to hop a cheap flight from London, to see what the deal was.

“You know, everyone has been thinking about that since it happened – it came from nowhere,” remarks Apostolis, a sociologist and educationist, over coffee in an arcade off Syntagma. Looking around at the sleek men and women in one of the city’s most schmicked-up areas, I wondered if Greece’s deficit is not largely composed of spending on designer eyewear, an apparent Athenian passion. That, and thigh boots for the gals. They look like Gucci duck hunters. What’s that all about?

“There are elements of an armed tantrum.”

Apostolis’s argument is that Greece has undergone a more wrenching and rapid transition from traditional forms of family life, to a more individualised and atomised society, with the opening of the economy and the coming of the euro from the 90s on. That dislocation has lain across one generation, now coming of age.

Rather than being part of an older tradition of class-based political radicalism, it is a protest coming out of the new world, one not aligned to a specific vision. It’s an argument that suggests that Greece is being uniquely misread by a Western press eager to portray the place as a hotbed of crazy Mediterraneans. Is Papandreou using that perception to panic Europe, and use its mobilisation to accomplish the reforms he wanted to push through anyway? “That seems likely,” says Apostolis.

“The euro has made things possible, and people know it. But there have been winners and losers in the process, there always are. The stabilisation funds were meant to take care of that, but they haven’t been well spent. But no, it’s a genuine financial crisis. Without a backstop from the EU, the prospect of an April default is still real.”

A returned Greek-Australian, Skrekas has the disconcerting habit of sounding like Bert Newton in English, in between bouts of slangy Greek chat with the maitre d’ – disconcerting only because the analysis, from a financial journalist, is more imbued with politics than you’d hear in an anglo situation, an Athens sensibility in Moorabbin tones.

Where the country ends up on that spectrum will be played out over the next months and years. “The mobilisation of anti-capitalist forces here has already begun to spill over into other parts of southern Europe and it will spread even more,” Koumbinos told the Guardian – another thrill, the Communists speak like actual Communists – but others are less sure.

“It will depend on the trade union leadership,” Apostolis remarks, which appears to be a widely held opinion. For anyone coming from the jaded domains of Australia or the UK, what appears to many Greeks to be an unusually calm situation, appears alive with possibilities. But is that merely more proof that we are holding onto a certain idea of what Greece is?

Guy Rundle is an Australian author, script-writer and political satirist, best known for his work on Comedy Inc. and Keating! The Musical.