Russell Shorto

Greek to Me



What’s it like to be living in an economy, and a country, that is imploding?  That’s what I tried to get at in my story about life in Greece in this week’s New York Times Magazine.  We have had endless reporting of the Troika and the dysfunctional Greek political elites.  I was after another kind of reality.  Like the banker who told me a customer had come in that day and handed over cash to be deposited: a block of bank notes that were frozen together, from having been kept in his freezer.  Or the construction foreman who sat in his living room, surrounded by family, and described how the company he had been laid off from has had its payroll cut from 900 employees to 2.  But most surprising are stories of weird hopefulness: a winery and an herb business that have taken off in the very midst of the crisis. The suicide rate in Greece shot up by 40% in the first half of 2011. At the same time, the main feeling Greeks expressed to me was relief: relief that the weird fantasy/nightmare of their eurozone experience to this point is over at last.

5 Replies to “Greek to Me”

  1. Andrew Miller says:

    Hello! Your article “The Way Greeks Live Now” is very special. I have been looking for news about how Greeks themselves (and not just the EuroZone, Greek politicians or the banks speculating for and against them) were managing in this new world. I hope the Greeks continue to find their niche. There really is only one Greece.

  2. Eugen Freund says:

    …what a wonderful story, or rather,
    a wonderfully sad story – I am looking forward to the print-out, it’s still a little cumbersome on a smartphone – we (ORF, Austrian Broadcasting Co.) are airing a story on the Greek predicament tonight – I wonder how it will compare with your’s – you set the bar very, very high…
    All the best, Eugen

  3. rio says:

    Personally I never noticed the difference a journalist could make; to illustrate an event with a total different and realistic approach. It is really a great article to help me understand the Greece debt crisis.

  4. An overall very moving and wonderful article. However, it is striking to me how you fail to comment on the blatant irony of the fact of the wealthy businessman you’re driving with dodging the road toll, shamelessly and cynically employing a method he has apparently honed to perfection to do so. I am Greek, and left Greece several years ago precisely because I could no longer tolerate living in a society where such anomie is the norm. What would make this really amusing if it were not so tragic, is that in all likelihood, should Mr. Evmorfidis be confronted regarding this behavior, he would be genuinely unable to recognize any problem with it or to assume any responsibility for his actions. He would instead probably start hectoring about the corruption of the greek state, the exploitative nature of which he and his ilk think they are heroically resisting by engaging in their antisocial acts.

    This is what is at the heart of the greek crisis: the financial bankruptcy of the country is just the logical conclusion of an all-encompassing moral bankruptcy (in terms of everyday behavior, things taken for granted in non-failed states, such as paying the toll). The tragic flaw of modern Greeks is their utter inability for self-criticism, and for recognizing that a society is an interconnected organism, where one’s actions, no matter how seemingly trivial or harmless, eventually have repercussions on all. Greeks have, in recent decades, been living life as if each person is an island unto himself. No doubt, people are warm and friendly on a personal basis, and family and friendship ties are much stronger than in many other cultures, as you so beautifully demonstrate in your article. But there is a singular failure of imagination in recognizing that the community is not just the people one interacts with personally, but also comprised of many, many others one may never meet, but who still may be affected by one’s choices. Does someone like Mr. Evmorfidis (and his behavior is not the exception but the rule, as he himself gleefully asserts) realize that, by not paying the toll (which indeed would be a drop in the ocean for him) he is further bankrupting the Greek state? And, much more importantly: does he realize that, once such flouting of the law becomes so normalized, it becomes a small step from not paying the toll to not paying one’s taxes? Greece would not be bankrupt if the so-called shadow economy was not as gigantic as it is.

  5. EBL says:

    I linked to you! A very good article! I am a big fan of your Island at the Center of the World. Unfortunately, I suspect we are fully abandoning our Dutch libertarian capitalist roots to go down the path of the Greeks.

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About the Author

  I was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. I have three children (Anna, Eva and Anthony) and three step-children (Reinier, Hector and Benjamin).  I write books of narrative history; I believe history is most meaningful to us when it manifests itself through individuals in conflict. My books have been published in fourteen languages and have won numerous awards.  I am senior scholar at the New Netherland Institute and a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. My interests include the past, the present and the future, not necessarily in that order.  

photo by Keke Keukelaar