Monday 3 January 2011

January 1st, 2011

My first purchase of 2011 occurred in the Superfast XI Ferry bar on 01.01.11 at 7:21. I ordered and paid for a cappuccino, costing EUR 3.15, with 0% value-added tax, presumably because we were already in international waters. The bar is empty—the lounge silent except for one TV transmitting blurry images of Italian morning shows at the far end of the room. Outside it is still dark. Inside, it is quiet, as the roughly 150 passengers sleep off last night’s revels.

This anecdote captures both the benefits and costs of globalisation as we know them in Greece and perhaps elsewhere in this 11th year of the third millennium AD. Today, we can travel on New Year’s Day in a well-outfitted, comfortable high speed ferry to Italy. It is an early morning normality to order a cappuchino from a menu listing exhorbitant prices and the forced enthusiasm of two badly-dressed but hip members of the younger generation brandishing Coca Colas.

This extraordinarily material sense of affluence and convenience was unimaginable only 10 years ago. In 2001, Greece entered the Eurozone. Prices switched from Drachma to Euro inflation fell from the 18%+ to a more manageable level (at least theoretically). Ten years before that, in 1991, the ferries to Italy were exercises in discomfort. Laptops, Wifi and cappuchino were unknown. A trip of this sort would usually mean making friends with a group of travelers at the bar. The waiter would probably have been shabby, unshaven and chain-smoking cigarettes; while the toilets would be stinking into the corridors.

If I were asked to clarify the difference between 1991 and 2011, I’d have to say that in 1991, our world was somehow still new. The vast range of comforts and conveniences we enjoy today were less pronounced; the sense of a share national identity and spirit were much stronger. The vast wave of immigration from the collapse of Albania and the Soviet bloc had not yet begun. Greece was a much more ethnically homogeneous place: language was the passport, the shared sense of identity which differentiated Greek from foreigner. Foreigners were not despised or feared. “Where are you from” was typically the first invitation a Greek extended to a stranger. The sense of adventure was stronger: we had less, but were no worse off for it. It was a brave new world.

Fast forward 20 years, and Greece has changed, as have we all. We aspire to creature comforts but often shun human contact, except with those people we know. The sense of spontaneous mixing which would have occurred on a voyage on New Year’s Eve is gone: people stick with whom and what they know, rather than taking the social risk of speaking a common language with strangers, even of the same social class. Our social interactions are stratified. In the past, one could expect the bar man to launch into a soliloquy on Greek history. Today, his role is to serve the coffee and disappear.

In this, I sense that we have achieved a form of convergence with the West. For those unfamiliar with this European Union term, convergence describes the increase of living standards between the newly-joined countries of the European periphery compared with those of the 6 core EU founders, expressed primarily in terms of GDP per capita. We have indeed converged, although the moving target that is GDP growth means that the 6 core countries have continued their development, and today remain far ahead in areas such as social development, public services, private sector careers and education. Our convergence has been one of the poor relatives joining the party, only to find that the sophisticated set have fled the hotel ballroom for a private party far away.

The convergence has been much more pronounced in terms of social attitudes. In the brutal social and political upheavals of the 1990s, over 1 million uneducated and often starving immigrants flooded into Greece. Society, perceptions and attitudes changed massively as a result. This process repeated itself again in the first decade of the 2000s, with the added wrenching change of an explosion in information technology, communications and media which destroyed Greek traditional values forever.

Today, I believe that we have become something like a limited form of suburban America in the 1950s. I say the 1950s, because in Greece we are clearly before the socio-political upheavals of the 1960s, and long before the integrationist 1990s, which made it possible, in 2009, for an African-American of racially mixed marriage to become President of the United States.

The dream of our middle-aged middle classes in Athens today is a three-storey maisonette in Halandri or Vouliagmeni. We aspire to a secure but unchallenging job which allows us the means to accumulate a middle-class lifestyle and enough money to enjoy a vacation on Mykonos. The fierce, breathing idealism which allowed a society to survive the brutal Nazi occupation and the collapse into equally brutal civil war has been replaced by a sense of bourgeoisie vulnerability. Let them riot in Syntagma, but keep the stores on Ermou open. Let them rage against the system, but don’t interfere with my ability to meet my monthly mortgage payments.

We view our Georgian cleaning ladies or Pakistani street buskers as symbolic aliens, to be interacted with as minimally and antiseptically as possible. Social justice, yes, but for the white, ethnically-Greek class. Equality has been defined as a financial transaction rather than a sense of shared humanity.

In writing these observations in an empty ferry lounge, I conclude that today we have become very similar, if not indistinguishable, to the white middle class most other European and North American countries. For a country which still prides itself on its humanity (ανθρωπία) and hospitality (φιλοξένια), and who’s past exemplifies the summit and the depth of human achievement, such a revelation will no doubt be disappointing.

We are no longer an Εθνος, or single ethnicity: today we are just another multi-ethnic European country, characterised by the familiar problems of immigrant integration, growing social stratification, increasing child obesity, illegal immigration, religious equality, and a host of other symptoms of a society in change.  

The sooner we recognise this and come to terms with it the better. There is no going back to an imagined past where everyone spoke Athenian Greek and attended Church on Sunday. The village priest is no longer the arbiter of rural life; Aliki Vougiouklaki no longer stars in black-and-white films with happy endings. We must make a wrenching mental adjustment, and by we, I mean both the diaspora Greeks who retain an image of an idealised past, as well as the Greek middle class which determines the political life of this country.

We must build a society where fundamental equality before the law drives social mobility. Where anyone talented or hard-working, whether their parents came from Trikala or from Tirana, is able to succeed without discrimination and hindrance, providing they obey the laws. Where a career in government is no longer the sinecure of the past, and where politicians are no longer objects of veneration, but ordinary individuals fully subject to the law.  

Where the university is no longer about the title of your degree, but about the extent of your learning, and your ability to evolve in a fast-changing, challenging global economy. Where a Muslim or a Jew or a Hindu can worship with dignity in his own church, be married by his own priest, and be buried in his own graveyard, just as a Christian can.

Where the past is honoured, but not revered or worshipped at the expense of the future. Where we all understand that we live in a fluid present, and that 10 years from now Greece will have changed all over again. Where extraordinary social and political stagnation is a recipe for disaster, such as the one we find ourselves today. 

Most of all, a society which favours the young and the future. Without investing in the current generation in school, as well as the generation which has just entered the workforce, we have no future.

I firmly believe these changes are within our power to make. They are found first and foremost not in any new laws or budgets, but in our own hearts and values. There is no cost to making them, apart for the cost of challenging our own stereotypes and preconceptions, and the cost of investing a little bit more time and energy caring for the people and environment around us. We have everything to gain from this, and nothing to lose.

As this ferry plows the seas towards Ancona, our destination, I reflect that life itself is a journey, where the only sure thing is that no sooner do you arrive in one place than it’s time to leave again. I hope that in this year 2011, this journey for all of us will be cherished and loved for its intensity, its fair weather and foul, and for the destinations and the friends we will reach along the way. 


  1. Philip,
    i think your analysis of Greece's past and present situation is very well thought out. For all of us that grew up in Greece, then left for a few years and saw our counrty from a distance, and then came back to live this "uncomfortable" situation, it is very true. These next few years we all need to be wise and careful of our every step in order to survive these difficult and unique times.
    Ivan Sakellariou

  2. Thank you Ivan. Let's do everything we can to make 2011 a positive, unique year.

  3. Some of what you say is good (like "Where the university is no longer about the title of your degree, but about the extent of your learning, and your ability to evolve in a fast-changing, challenging global economy)" but much of is dangerous as it seeks a "Greece" which is deHellenised and deChristianised. Thankfully, that will never happen.

  4. Religious freedom and ethnic diversity are hardly guarantors of "deHellenisation" or "deChristianisation" (whatever these mean). Greece's history since antiquity demonstrates the remarkable diversity in the underlying ethnic and religious mix of the country, as does its present.