The hopeful side of reality

Poverty and uncertainty is the prevailing understanding of the current climate in Greece. However, Nick Dallas sees a light at the end of the tunnel

Thessaloniki, 19 Dec 2011:

The last time I met Maria (two years ago) she said, “Niko I’d love to catch up with you but it must be after 10pm as I have frondistiria [tutoring classes] until then.” This time around, when we met at her home, her tutoring sessions had dwindled to two to three hours per week. “I’m going to implode one day. I don’t know how many coffees and cigarettes I go through. How many times can I clean the house, how many kourabiedes and melomakarona can I bake. Our finances are stretched, my husband’s salary has been cut by 30 per cent, my son is studying in Xanthi and my daughter is in her final year of high school. I’m doing my best to keep a positive atmosphere inside our home for all of our sakes but I’m near breaking point”.

To make matters worse, last year Maria’s daughter won a two week trip to Australia through a school competition. On her return she gave her mum a big mountza in her face saying, “Mum, gee you were an idiot for leaving Australia.” Athens, 23 Dec 2011: I get off the metro at Syntagma Square and head towards a nearby upmarket cafe. I find it too warm inside so I sit down at a sidewalk table. As I was enjoying my coffee and entering notes in my diary, a frail elderly woman walks by and takes some sugar satchels from the canister at my table.

Kifissia, northern Athenian suburb, 26 Dec 2011:

I’m invited to a dinner party hosted by a very close Greek-Australian friend of mine. In attendance were some of Greece’s leading journalists. Everyone was quizzing me about life in Australia, how things work there and its ‘wonder economy’. They all described how awful 2011 was a real annus horribilis. Even more disappointing was that they all shared the viewpoint that 2012 would be a nightmare year. Yes the Greek government had pushed through some harsh measures but massive layoffs in the public sector were yet to come.

These anecdotes capture the extent of the Greek crisis. Wherever I went it was the most talked about thing. Turning on the television made things worse, it was the main news item and it only led to further pessimism. People were extremely open about incidents of abuse and corruption that they were aware of over the years. Everyone had a story, if not countless stories, to tell. In the end it was the culmination of all these incidents, with little effort to stem them, that has led to this crisis. At the same time it’s possible not to gauge the depth of the crisis when you walk the streets of cities. People are well-dressed and many cafes are full. It’s when you go inside people’s homes and hear about their circumstances you obtain a better idea.

The countryside is faring much better in relative terms. Its lower cost of living and the fact that many households have some degree of self-sufficiency buttresses the situation somewhat. But don’t get me wrong, my trip to Greece wasn’t a series of depressing moments like those that have just been described. I had a wonderful experience. I will never forget the time I was alone in my cousin’s apartment in Rafina. I’m soaped up in the shower and all of a sudden I hear the doorbell. Quickly I dry myself, put on some clothes and rush to the door with water still dripping down the side of my face. What do I see, three delightful school children singing Ta Kalanta (Christmas Carols).

In my part of Greece, Thessalia, the Gournohara (pig’s delight) is a tradition that still thrives. Several rural families get together and slaughter pigs that they have been fattening up all year. They then make loukanika and tsigarides while the tsipouro flows very freely on the day. I was most impressed by the highway between Yiannina and Trikala, there were some amazing bridges and tunnels, not all EU funds were squandered. This two hour bus trip took me four hours 20 years ago when buses passed through the dreaded, but spectacular, Katara Pass and Metsovo. When I think of how can Greece get out of this quagmire, the film Enemy at the Gates comes to mind.

There was a scene where Nikita Khrushchev, a military commander and later Soviet Premier, gave his political commissars a dressing down and asked for solutions to lift people’s morale. One commissar stepped up and said that the people need positive stories and heroes. “Do you know any such heroes, comrade?” asked Khrushchev. “Yes, there’s a sniper called Vasily Zaystev with incredible ability,” came the reply. In no time there were radio and newspaper broadcasts about the exploits of this young Siberian marksman. Vasily learnt his marksmanship from his grandfather while hunting for deer and wolf. When he was five he killed his first wolf.

Every young soldier wanted to emulate the exploits of Vasily and bring down German troops. The rest is history. Economists claim that two thirds of the challenge for an economic recovery is psychological. Without positive measures, without efforts to protect vulnerable social groups and without confidence building measures it is difficult to turn things around. Without the lifting of people’s morale, no one sees the light at the end of the tunnel. If people are to start spending, investing and looking for alternative pathways they must be imbued with a sense of optimism. This is where the dissemination of positive stories and exploits is of paramount importance.

I don’t know what the solution to the Greek crisis is, but I do know that we need to spread positive stories and celebrate heroes with the hope that this creates a contagion effect that will lead to an eventual recovery.