Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The way we... (Όπως ήμαστ...)

John Lucas was forty-seven years old when, in August 1984, he began a year of living in Athens. His memoirs do not tell us anything that we do not know already:

"Bureaucracy, of which I encountered all too much, was, as it remains, a nightmare. Nothing was ever done as and when it should have been. Half the time you couldn't even locate the official who was supposed to deal with whatever case you were required to present to him. Either you had just missed him or he would be in tomorrow. (Oh, no, he wouldn't.) And if you did track him down, he would tell you that you had the wrong documentation... In every other country... bureaucrats are likely to be soulless, but after all they're not paid to have souls. They're paid to be efficient. And for the most they are. You may not like them but they get the job done. They take pride in their work. But in Greece, nobody wants to be a bureaucrat. You go to see one and he's not interested in discussing the reason you're there... He'll be OK as long as you keep to every subject but the one you came to him about, but as for the goddam money you're owed by his department, or the piece of paper you need to get some work done, forget it... A refusal to follow approved or orthodox procedure was, I soon came to understand, commonplace, and could be infuriating. "

Very few people who have dealt with Greek bureaucracy will disagree with Lucas' views. But they may be surprised to find out that, for Lucas, this was "the price to be paid for something I grew to love: a deep-rooted sense that individual lives are of paramount importance and not to be held to account by, let alone made the victim of, some god almighty officialdom".

He paints a very bleak picture of the world he left behind:

"When I arrived in Athens in August 1984 I left behind me a nation that was growing increasingly cowed by such officialdom... By 1984 something pretty horrible had begun to infect public life in Britain. You could smell its presence in the very language used by politicians... It was the language of sadism masquerading as masochism. It was about pain. 'We must take some painful managerial decisions' - meaning, we're going to sack you... 'We must grasp the nettle' - meaning, you're the one who will be stung... Nor can it be a coincidence that this was the moment of 'nouvelle cuisine' - pay more, eat less - nor that those who knelt at the altar of the new orthodoxy tended to wear the 'executive' shirt... whose collar and cuffs were white, although the body of the shirt came in gamey reds, blues, or greens... it said, I may look like fun but don't try messing with me. 'What kind of prat wears a shirt like that?' a friend asked... Answer: the kind of prat perfectly happy to sack a few hundred men before settling down to a fruit juice and a slice of rye bread (unbuttered)."

Lucas says that he doesn't remember ever coming across the executive shirt being worn in Athens at the time. He remembers other things instead:

cretan wine in karpenisi

"I do remember, however, asking myself how many men it took to give you a piece of bread. In Babi's taverna... the answer was three. One to cut the bread, one to put the slices into a basket, and one to bring the basket to your table. I don't imagine Babi gave any of them much if any money, but they all got fed."

Lucas's book (despite its serious misgivings, especially concerning the transliteration of some Greek words) transported me to an Athens which I was fortunately very unlucky (sic) to see when I arrived in 1991; although many people will argue that nothing has really changed, what is about to come will clearly eradicate even the tiniest memory of those strange times.

"Μια νύχτα θα 'ρθει από μακριά, βρε αμάν αμάν, αέρας Πεχλιβάνης να μην μπορείς να κοιμηθείς, βρε αμάν αμάν, μόλις τον ανασάνεις θα 'χει θυμάρι στα μαλλιά, βρε αμάν αμάν, κράνα για σκουλαρίκια και μες στο στόμα θα γυρνά, βρε αμάν αμάν ρητορικά χαλίκια."  
Pehlivanis (Fighter) - Thanasis Papakonstantinou

Even my own memory has been tainted. I find it hard to remember how I felt when I had spend a lot of my time waiting in a queue all morning, crawling up the steps of a decrepit building in Voukourestiou St at the (now defunct) DIKATSA to get some documents officially translated; "Why didn't you just use Google, mum?" I am sure my children are bound to ask me if ever I recount this story to them.

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