The Greek financial crisis is on my mind this week. Not because I’m a European financial markets expert – far from it. Because something I learned several years ago left an indelible mark on my American brain.
In 1995, I took a Greek island cruise with two other girls, which included extra nights in Athens. I was reading Homer’s “Odyssey” at the time and jumped at the chance to see Odysseus’s hunting grounds at Mount Parnassus and visit the Oracle of Delphi. (Drive to Thebes, take a right. You can’t miss it.)
The sheer beauty, ancient history, stories about pilgrims making their way to the Oracle – it was truly worth the long ride. But I find myself stretching for that memory file. What stuck with me about that day was something that would have gone unsaid if I hadn’t picked a scab.
After the tour, the bus stopped in a mountain town for lunch. I was the only single among a busload of older, mostly American couples, and asked the tour guides if I could sit with them.
“We’re sitting over there with the bus driver. He doesn’t speak English, and we’re not eating what the tourists are eating,” one guide told me. “Sure.”
They directed me to the table where the bus driver was eating. Realizing this was break time for them, I ate and let them visit, recalling the day’s experience and pondering a question or two. What would it be? Coffee was delivered and I asked.
“How do you feel about us Americans coming over here and touring your country?”
I don’t know what I expected, but I wasn’t insightful enough to predict the answer I got. The less talkative of the two guides spoke first.
“You Americans have no idea what it’s like to have your home occupied by your enemies,” she said. She was referring to the German occupancy during World War II. “Oh no, we love having the Americans here,” said the lead guide.
“No, it’s okay,” I said. “I want to know.”
They spoke about the occupation while I sat dumbfounded and humbled. In 1995, the occupation had ended 50 years prior so I guessed they were children when their homes were invaded.
Our sources at Wikipedia (read more) write by that May 1941, “… Greece was occupied by the Nazis who proceeded to administer the most important regions themselves, including Athens … The occupation brought about terrible hardships for the Greek civilian population. Over 300,000 civilians died in Athens alone from starvation, tens of thousands more through reprisals by Nazis and collaborators, and the country’s economy was ruined.”
Back at home, many of our neighbors suffer from ignorance, starvation, poverty, illness. New York and Washington DC were occupied on and after September 11, as was the rest of the country, with the realities of foreign terrorism. But our enemy has not thrown us out of our homes, slept in our beds, turned the dining room table into a desk from which to order mayhem and murder.
“Belt-tightening” – something we hear across the board, even in our own country, and none of us like it. But given my naive encounter with Greek tragedy in 1995, it also struck me this week that Germany is the major debt-holder telling the Greeks how to manage its country.( “Greek humiliation” ) We don’t want our elected public officials telling us they are going to close schools, cut pensions, threaten Social Security. Imagine having to take orders from your one-time enemy.