HESIOD MIGHT HAVE written the script. The 2004 summer was Greece's last Golden Age. The Athens Olympics focused the world's attention on a small but thriving country in the Mediterranean. In no other nation could the Olympic flame be lit and returned home, as though Zeus's eagles had once again found the centre of the earth. A brilliant opening ceremony reminded the world of Greece's ancient glory. The marathon began in the outer-lying suburb of Marathon, exactly 42.195 kilometres from the finish line in Athens (provided you took the old road). Medals awarded in gold, silver and bronze even replicated Hesiod's hierarchy of Ages that befell humankind.
Added to this were supporting acts like Euro 2004, when the Greek soccer team flew back from Portugal, victorious, and was garlanded with laurel at the Pan-Hellenic Stadium used for the inaugural 1896 Olympic Games. Commentators drooled on TV: 'May this axehasto – unforgettable – summer never end!' When Eurovision and Miss World success came promptly after, it only brightened the glow.
Departing Athens for Buenos Aires as the clouds rolled over Mount Lycabettus, my Argentine amigos put it to me bluntly. 'Is there anything Greeks haven't won?' they said in unison, as though a tragic chorus, minutes prior to the hero's downfall. How different the two countries were. Abandoned shops with graffiti sprayed over boarding, a devalued peso, and social and industrial unrest were the norm in Buenos Aires's once-fashionable streets. Athens, by contrast, was scrubbed up, its art-deco buildings renovated and freshly painted. Newly planted trees in Syntagma Square sprouted over tiled walkways that led to an underground station doubling as Metro and Museum of Archaeology, due to finds made during excavations. Even the steel scaffolds had been removed from the Parthenon, as though the Acropolis's tenant – a senior citizen known as Athena – had been freed of her Zimmer frame, and was proudly standing upright.
As recently as early 2004 George Papandreou, then the Minister for Foreign Affairs, boldly announced that Greece had thrown off the Ottoman shackles and was no longer a Balkan country in Europe: the country had blossomed into 'a European nation in the Balkans'. Greece had become a regional power, exporting expertise in telecommunications, transportation and agriculture to its poor Balkan neighbours – so the mantra went. Greek modernity had reached a pinnacle: a new international airport, fast highways, swanky bars and restaurants. And its privileged position at the crossroads of East and West made it a vital commercial hub for global trade. The stock exchange, advancing like a rampaging bull, proved Greece had acquired economic clout to match its cultural capital.
AS HESIOD MIGHT have predicted, there was an almighty fall. In Syntagma, where the Greek parliament beams a bright golden yellow, there has been a running battle between the riot squads and their tear gas, anarchists and their Molotov cocktails, the aganaktismeni (indignant) and their flags scrawled with Kleftes!(Thieves!). Even senior citizens like the traditional yiayia are railing against the failures of the political class, left and right, in bankrupting Greece.
Just as Napoleon believed that whoever controls Paris controls France, so the contemporary media thinks that if Athens is burning, the rest of Greece is too. The images of clashes juxtaposing ancient statuary with urban warfare have been a boon to the media. Daily popular assemblies that use a lottery for speakers to address the indignant camped in Syntagma reinforced the connection, but also the distance, between ancient and modern. Not even Aristophanes could have come up with this scene: portly politicians audaciously deflecting Greece's ills onto all Greeks because 'We all ate from the same EU trough.'
The failure of democracy was best articulated by the besieged, and now former, Prime Minister George Papandreou holed up in parliament, rustling up ballots to enact legislation demanded by the European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. 'Not only are these measures an affront,' one dissenting MP said at the dispatch box, 'they're embarrassing to even read.' Cutbacks on welfare, wages and other entitlements have been forced through. The 2010 bailout came with stringent conditions from the European Union: the GST was upped from 19 to 23 per cent and the holy trinity of Greek pleasure – fuel, cigarettes and alcohol – has been significantly taxed. The 2011 austerity package underpinned by the IMF called for even harsher measures: a one-third reduction in public wages, a one-tenth cut in public spending, pensions slashed by almost one-third and the retirement age raised by two years. The late Tony Judt called these draconian measures an attack on the very idea of the welfare state. Papandreou assented to harder work and longer hours, with a minimal safety net – perhaps he used Hesiod as a model? In Works and Days'men who never rest from labour and sorrow' must accept their backbreaking struggles as the price for falling from the Golden Age.
AMID THE CARNAGE of 2011 my parents decided to undertake a voyage sentimental to their homeland. Another face of Greece emerged. Yes, there was turmoil in Athens, but the riots were a spectacle seen by Greeks on TV, just as they were for the rest of the world. Family feasts, religious fetes devoted to saints and apostles, and swims at pebbled beaches in the Peloponnese all ran counter to the media narrative.
My parents saw changes for the worse. They noted far too many empty stores with ENOIKIAZETAI (FOR RENT) scrolled in bold red, West African immigrants hurriedly selling contraband Versace and Prada before fleeing when police emerged, and the wildfires that scorched Laconia, an echo of the 2007 fires that killed fifty-three people around Father's ancestral village of Zaharo.
Other things hadn't changed. Mother's claim for resumed land in Neapoli, three hours' drive from Sparta, was still on hold. Given she filed for compensation in 1979, a mere thirty-year wait was considered fast processing by the slow-moving bureaucracy. The supreme indication of how inefficient Greek bureaucracy has become is the state rail system. It has run at such a loss that it would have been cheaper to transport every passenger by cab.
Costas Markos of the Greek Community in Victoria has observed a 'reverse exodus' streaming from Greece to Australia again. Those who were born in Australia and lived in Athens or Crete or Kozani are returning with their children in tow. Skilled professionals and tradespeople, including engineers, teachers, doctors and electricians, are arriving at Lonsdale Street in Melbourne's CBD, armed with their ticketed luggage straight from the carousel.
One such person is Kathryn Koromilas. Fed on a diet of Greek philosophy and drama, the books of Nikos Kazantzakis, Greek songs extolling golden summers and films depicting bleak winters, Koromilas was lured from Australia to Athens, as were many twentysomethings whose parents had emigrated here years before. A bohemian existence within reach of the Aegean sounded as inviting as the siren's call to Ulysses. These reverse émigrés, romantic to the bone, strapped themselves to an airline seat and journeyed towards adventure.
Greece gave Koromilas the place and space to write her engaging first novel, Palimpsest. Greece taught her life lessons, although she was never quite sure where she stood in society. Frustrated by the Byzantine bureaucracy and limited employment, Koromilas has now returned to Australia, as have many of her compatriots.
Previous generations of single men arrived by ship eager for opportunities in Australia's emerging economy. Hardly any of the current arrivals will find work in their more specialised fields. Archival photos line the interior of the 1920s Greek Community building in Melbourne: men in dapper suits wait portside with bouquets of flowers for intended wives. By contrast today's intake is restricted to young families seeking the security Greece cannot provide. As the poet George Seferis wrote prophetically: 'Wherever I go, Greece wounds me.' That wound, articulated in the 1940s, has reopened in the twenty-first century.
OF ALL THE coverage of the Greek economic crisis, one image most clearly revealed the ties that bind the country's power elite. In it two men, both around sixty, walk side by side. They wear identical blue suits and ties; they even have the same posture, curved at a slight angle to the world. As the scions of notable Greek families, they're on opposite sides of the political spectrum – meaning their party's remedy to the crisis is practically alike. George Papandreou, from the socialist party Pasok, is one figure. Antonis Samaras, from the right-wing New Democracy, is the other.
Both men led privileged lives as children of the elite. Both were educated at the same American college during the 1970s, when George preferred to strum protest songs on his guitar. The only real difference is that George – or Yioryaki, 'Little George', as he is called to denote his diminished stature – hasn't the respect commanded by his grandfather, who was prime minister in the mid-1960s, or the clout of his father, the charismatic spiv Andreas, who presided as an Ottoman Pasha throughout the 1980s, dispensing favours to associates and creaming off state wealth to buy a lavish home to keep his much younger girlfriend happy. To be fair, Andreas Papandreou pushed through progressive legislation: the abolition of dowries, the recognition of the Greek resistance, and solidarity with third-world movements.
In fact, the photograph is fairly ordinary if you consider Greece as a post-Ottoman society where dynasties control power. Transparency International monitors institutional and financial corruption, and ranked Greece last in Europe alongside Bulgaria and Romania – former Ottoman regimes paralysed by the nepotism that bloated their bureaucracy, and gave to a coterie with inherited positions in the public service the right to wield rubber stamps. Bulgaria and Romania can at least blame their lot on being post-Soviet states. What's Greece's excuse? Compensation claims for resumed land, like my mother's, have little chance once they enter the labyrinthine process of multiple approvals. 'Greece is not something you can rationalise,' Kathryn Koromilas came to understand during her decade there. 'Even its politics is emotional.'
Emotional, perplexing, and tainted by history. In 2004 Dora Bakoyiannis, scion of the Mitsotakis dynasty, in her capacity as mayor of Athens placed garlands on the Euro victors before speaking perfect German to the Greek coach, Otto Rehhagel. That scene illustrated the complex relationship between Greece and Germany. German banks underpin the euro and German investment is still strong in Greece. Some of the political elite benefited from the German occupation during World War II, a dark period that concealed collaboration – a taboo subject for the plutocracy.
The German remedy for the Greek crisis has been galling. 'Greeks must change their culture and society,' Berlin has declared. The stereotypical view is that Greeks are lazy, like their southern European cousins, the Italians and Spanish. A Protestant work ethic, allayed to fiscal prudence, it is implied, could remake Greece.
No one can deny that Greece cooked the books with creative accounting overseen by Goldman Sachs. But Greeks are not lazy – they just value hedonism. After all, Germans take their holidays in Greece; Greeks once went to Germany only as gastarbeiters – guest workers.
In The Tyranny of Greece over Germany (1935), the English scholar EM Butler analysed the contribution of Greece to German literature, philosophy and the arts: Goethe, Hölderlin, Winckelmann and Nietzsche. Nietzsche used Dionysus to make his point about the corroding effect of repressing instincts; Marx used Prometheus as the defining figure of rebellion. Greeks don't just see rebellion as a literary conceit. It's a call to arms.
Defying authority is celebrated in Greece. The Greek Communist Party, KKE, remains relevant because it trades on its oppositional ideology and its worship of rebels. That the KKE has a strict Stalinist ideology and is a dynasty is another matter. German thinkers valorise the rebel and so does the Greek left. Greece resisted the Persians at Salamis, the Crusaders in Byzantium, the Turks during the Ottoman era, and most recently the Italians and Germans – its identity has been forged by resistance and rebellion throughout its warring history.
Greece has cultural capital. The Acropolis is not simply a vantage point to unfurl a banner of resistance – 'THE PEOPLES HAVE THE POWER AND NEVER SURRENDER' – it is a reminder of the past and a provocation for the future. Greeks have fallen from this height, from gods to the mortals as German philosophers might put it, but any sense of enduring achievement contrasts with the grubby politics played out below the Acropolis. And here is the dilemma facing political groups dealing with the ancient legacy of the Greeks – the left draws strength from it, and far-right groups like Golden Dawn also co-opt the ancients to validate their nationalist agenda.
Greece, like Oedipus, always seems to be at the crossroads. The Greeks believe others include Greece when thinking of Europe, but the outsider status remains because Greeks see Europe as existing beyond their shores, especially since decisions for Greece are made by the European Union and European Central Bank.
WHEN MY PARENTS returned to Sydney they looked ragged, having missed a connecting flight in Dubai, but a day later they perked up. The scent of basil, the courtyard banter over cups of warm Greek coffee and the never-ending parade of families along the seaside agora had made for a nostalgic trip. Even the replacement of splintered wooden shutters with aluminium on Mother's ancestral home impressed.
But it was also a trip tinged with the sadness of funerals. The death that affected me most was that of her aunt, Thia Pota. Living to ninety-five with her mind '400' (the Ottoman weight of 400 dramia, making up a whole oka: that is, she possessed all her marbles), Pota's no-nonsense approach to life was not that far removed from Hesiod's portrayal in Works and Days. It was the lot of the farmer to cultivate his land, wait for the meltemi to arrive with rains and then harvest the results.
When I last visited Pota, in 2008, she lay in bed, her body infirm and her hair cropped to the skull. I felt privileged to hear her stories, especially as she referred to me as 'Yioryaki' often. She had tended her olive groves, watched every drachma, brought up a large family and supported her relatives with little fuss. She remembered the generation of young men who pushed Mussolini's troops back into Albania during the harsh 1940 winter, and hiding from German soldiers who patrolled the mountains around Cape Maleas. Her life had been a dignified one. But I also know of the ambivalence of Pota's milieu towards the Colonel's junta, from 1967 to 1974. The junta was tolerated in Laconia because they rid the debts of farmers, built roads to inaccessible villages and validated conservatism, a fierce trait of Laconia and Mani. This was one of the reasons the Menzies government sourced the Peloponnese: hardworking people, knowledgeable about agrarian practises and ideologically compliant.
My mother used to think the Greeks were lazy – a belief that came from her Germanic side, no doubt (meaning a Protestant work ethic that Max Weber identified years before). But this three-month trip tempered her view. Life was hard. Rating agencies, sovereign debt, hedge funds, contagion, derivatives, bonds, credit swaps and 'haircuts': all this economic jargon was Greek to her. Instead she bought numerous pairs of flannelette pyjamas at Kmart, stuffed them in an enormous Postpak and made me address them to relatives in black texta. Then she marched off to Australia Post. Mother knew a bleak winter lay ahead for Greece.