They say all publicity is good publicity. But can this truly be said of Greece recently? The country is blamed for the current crisis (a Greek word) of the Euro (named after the girl Europa who turned herself into a cow to escape the Greek god Zeus) leading potentially to a world economic catastrophe (another Greek word). The country's national office of statistics admitted to cooking the books, and the government has just made public a list of 4000 notorious tax dodgers to shame the country's wealthy to start paying their due tax. What's going on with the country that most of the rest of us know as the origin of western civilisation?
I've been reading Patrick Leigh Fermor's "Roumeli, travels in Northern Greece", and it is enlightening. Leigh Fermor is a bit of a hero of mine, and best described as a cross between Laurie Lee and Lord Byron. Having walked in the mid thirties from Hook of Holland to Constantinople he was recruited to work behind enemy lines in Greece during WWII and was influential in the abduction of the German general Kreipe with the help of the Cretan resistance. His character was subsequently played by Dirk Bogarde in the movie "Ill met by moonlight".
Leigh Fermor became a lifelong lover of Greece, and spent much of his life there. In "Roumeli" he discusses the Greek's own discomfort with their more recent history. At one point he quotes a train conductor (a refugee from formerly Greek Smyrna, now Izmir) who states he is sick of the obsession with the ancient Greek, as "it makes us feel inferior". Leigh Fermor then discusses the current fashion of the Greek to call themselves "Hellenes", when for a thousand years or so they called themselves "Romaios" or "Romios", meaning Romans of East Romans. This term however lost its lustre because it became associated with the practice of a subjected people trying to survive under Turkish rule. Hence even to the Greek the terms "Romaikes doulies" (Romaic doings, meaning Greek practices) became tainted with associations with the habits of a subject people to use clever but underhand practices to survive. Follows the post-independence bent for the word "Hellenes" harking back to classical Greece.
The recent turmoil and real suffering in Greece has everything to do with this recent history. Tax dodging and cooking books would have been a completely natural to a people who felt superior to their Turkish conquerors, and a habit hard to shake off in over a century of independence that saw ill-fated attempts to reconquer Istambul/Constantinople, civil war, conquest by the Germans, military coups and what not....
The Germans, who are presently resenting having to rescue the Euro currency, might understand the Greek predicament a bit better when they reflect on how much two generations of being under the Nazi and Communist yoke affected East Germany's citizens. I think the comparison is not idle.
In the mean time the rest of the western world could do with re-appraising the Byzantine (East Roman) world which, much more than the ancient Greek civilisation, lies at the root of modern Greece.