About Greece

The Greeks understand the gospel better than most other Christians, and therefore Easter is a much more important feast in their Orthodox Church than Christmas.  All of Easter Sunday they congratulate each other that Christ has risen, and in the afternoon they celebrate the salvation of their souls with a meal that mainly consists of roasted lamb.  At my friend Kostas’s farm in a small village called Faneromeli, located at the foot of the Idi mountain range on Crete, the lamb is prepared in a traditional way: they cut a wooden stick precisely to size and shove it through the lamb, which is subsequently turned around for a couple of hours over a charcoal fire until the stick breaks, the sign that the lamb is ready.  The job of turning the lamb is often delegated to the guest, who is taught to move the stick slowly, and who is given plenty of Raki to drink and little pieces of the lamb’s organs that have been roasted separately to eat.   Once the stick is broken everybody sits down at a large table for a meal that consists of a salad with tomatoes, lamb, and lots of homemade red wine, with a spectacular view of the Psiloritis, the highest mountain on Crete, where according to Greek mythology Zeus was born.

At Christmas time there is another fascinating ritual to observe on Crete.  In every village the men, who have worked long hours in their stores, tavernas and hotels during the tourist season, get together in a local bar and play card games for the money they have made that year, until most of them are broke and all the money has been collected by one of them, usually already the richest man in town.  This self-destructive habit stems from an earlier stage of development of the local communities, when it performed a social function.  The amounts of money lost and won were smaller, but at the end of the gambling season the winner could afford a new TV for his house, bar or restaurant, where all the losers from then on could come watch soccer games or political debates.  Although that social function has evaporated and the amounts of money have gotten too large the ritual has remained, with as a result that halfway January many Cretan men and their wives start praying that the tourists will come back soon to provide them with the income to sustain their family and their business, while they temporarily live of the meager proceeds of a small farm or olive yard.

Of course the Greeks are partly to blame for the current crisis.   Tax evasion was long their national pastime, and with primarily cash-only businesses an easy hobby at that.  Most houses look unfinished, with the foundations for another floor already visible, because as long as a dwelling has not been completed no property tax has to be paid.   There used to be a government bureaucracy for which the words hidden unemployment were an euphemism, and civil servants could comfortably retire after a very limited number of years.

But as much as the Greeks are to blame so is Europe.   When the financial crisis broke in 2008 and Greek government debt became unsustainable the EU forced the country into a downward spiral of loans and more debt while simultaneously imposing austerity measures that precluded the Greek economy from ever recovering, and for months now the so called troika has been offering only more of the same.

Whatever the outcome of the current crisis, I hope that it teaches Europe that there can be no unity without solidarity and no common currency without a fiscal policy that works for every member state and not just for Germany and Holland.  In the meantime I’m sure that next year there will still be lamb at Easter on Kostas’s table and card games in the bars at Christmas.

Hugo Kijne

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