Gordon G Hall
Writer and Neo-Philhellene

Articles about Greece
Lazy Geeks?

Eva sits, in the nonchalant way of cats the world over, upon the grey, plastic topped, inspection table giving scant attention to the white-coated Vasiliki as she concludes her careful diagnosis. Two pills twice a day for a week and this young tan and white feline should make a full recovery. Of course the pills are expensive. Everything is expensive here.

Nothing out of the ordinary one would imagine, except we are in a run-down suburb of Thessaloniki and Eleni, Eva’s owner, has brought her to the animal surgery at 8.30 on a Saturday evening. No, this is not a special appointment. Vets work long hours here in Greece. They have to. They need to make a living.

Eleni also works long hours. She and forty colleagues from schools around Thessaloniki have just returned from a coach trip to Mount Olympus where they have been busy all day collecting information that will help them to plan future lessons and perhaps, if they can manage the funding, allow them to take students on field visits. They, and hundreds of other ‘lazy’ teachers like them throughout this maligned country give up every term-time Saturday to do this, not just without pay, but funding it themselves with a hard-earned €20 for the hire of the coach and refreshments. And if that is not enough many of them will be in school tomorrow, on Sunday, working with their kids on cleaning up the neighbourhood or involving them in conservation tasks designed to improve the tatty environment of this run-down area.

Why do they do this? They do it because they care. They, and their pupils know that the only way out of the poverty that grinds at them and the muddle of politics and economics that has beset them of late is through education. These teachers are determined that if their young charges want to learn then no effort will be spared to achieve this. If this means not sparing themselves, then so be it, they are teachers and they have a responsibility to the young. It is a spirit that is hard to find in more affluent societies.

Eleni works seven days a week. She does so selflessly and without expectation of much reward, which is just as well! Surely she should receive some recompense for the long hours of her own time that she so readily offers to ‘the State’? She receives no such ‘overtime’, instead, as a direct result of the intervention of ‘The Troika’ , she has been battered by pay-cuts that would be unthinkable in the UK. In 2010 she was earning €1,400 per month, this being about half that earned by her UK equivalent, but if sensibly managed it was enough for a reasonable lifestyle. Two years and three pay-cuts later she now earns just  €900 per month, a reduction of over one third, and the pension that she had banked on to see her through her declining years is now almost worthless. As a government employee she has no chance of escaping payroll taxation whilst all the other taxes that she must pay are collected through her electricity bill. No payment means no electricity. In this harsh world of Greece candlelight is now a tough reality.

Eleni is not alone. Throughout this country people are working long hours, most days of the week and for little financial reward. Ask your hotel receptionist how many days she works. Talk to your taxi driver. Chat to anyone you sit next to on the Metro or the bus. Nearly everyone speaks English and will readily discuss with you the problems that beset their country and themselves. To a man, and woman, they will be working long hours and they will be anything but the typified ‘Lazy Greek’.

Yet, this is a people who know that however harsh life is, however tough the conditions of the moment, there should be friendship and laughter and good conversation. So after nine or ten o’clock in the evening the bars and the tavernas fill up, not with the riotous drinking louts of modern English culture, but with friends enjoying an evening together, appreciating each other’s company, putting the world to rights. And they are of course the masters of making just one beer, or one small cup of coffee last the whole evening, yet not one bar owner minds that in the least. There is an understanding here an empathy with the plight of one’s fellow travellers in this land of ruined hopes.

We are the lazy ones, not they. Laziness is what we are here for, and there is a leaden irony in the way in which we project our own sloth upon these Greek people.  The Brits and the Germans and the Americans come to Greece in their thousands, seeking a week or two of ‘Island Living’ – by which we mean slobbing around on the beach and in the resorts - indulging ourselves in every possible way whilst at the same time criticising those less fortunate than us. If we northern Europeans, were prepared to heave ourselves out of our sun-loungers for a moment or two and look inland, away from the sandy beaches and this inviting sea we might just change our minds about Greeks being ‘lazy’. The scales might just fall from our eyes as we witness a whole country that is desperately and blindly trying to pay its way yet sinking deeper and deeper into debt.

The popular myth of Greece being but a feckless nation was created by, and is now fed by, the media who would have it that Greeks do little work, pay no taxes, have large pensions and retire at fifty! This is so far from the truth. This proud, diligent and hospitable nation has been tarred with such a cruel brush. Of course, here in Greece, some people do ‘retire’ at fifty, but so do many of the men and women who comprise our armed forces here in the UK. The difference is that in the UK they receive a reasonable pension whilst in Greece the pension received by public servants is risible.

It is true that the lifestyle of Greeks, along with the people of other southern European countries, seems relaxed to our pitiless northern eyes. But the ability to relax, not to mop one’s fevered brow every time a problem presents itself, does not mean that those who appear so laid back are not working. Our ‘protestant work ethic’ would seem to be not just a matter of hard work – but also an assurance that hard work is being carried out. To be seen to be working hard is everything. I can recall a colleague who told his wife that he ‘had’ to work every Sunday morning, then made himself a cup of coffee at the office and read the Sunday Times. In Greece no such weird psychological hang-ups exist, there is a different, more honest attitude. If there is a need to work then work must be done, if not – then to hell with how the world will label us – we are going out to play!


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