On an early morning bike ride this week I saw a grumpy-looking older man walk out of his house, reach into his pocket, pull out an empty pack of cigarettes and toss it out onto the street.
The extra endorphins that were flowing through my body at that moment helped quickly replace my initial anger with a whole bunch of reflection. That grumpy-looking man's act felt so uncomfortably familiar. It reminded me of all the disillusionment I used to feel as a dreamy teenager growing up in a very selfish, immature, unbalanced and fundamentally undemocratic society. It reminded me of why I chose to leave Greece and move to Canada thirty years ago.
Back when I was a kid my birth country wasn't the land of debt defaults and massive layoffs, but it was already a very strange and extremely individualistic society. Modern Greeks have a unique reputation for their passion, pride, resourcefulness and entrepreneurialism; but they've also been notorious for their intense self-righteousness and their perpetual inability to hold themselves accountable. In the country I grew up in, you were often laughed at if you were courteous to others, if you obeyed all the traffic rules or if you paid your taxes. You had no chance of success if you didn't know how to cheat and how to look after yourself first. There was no sense of common good -- in fact, the "what if everyone else did this" line hardly made any sense to most of my compatriots.
Fast-forward three decades and now that society is in a full blown crisis -- affecting not just them but, in many indirect ways, the rest of us as well. Their "us first" mentality; their superficial and twisted interpretation of democracy; their Teflon pride and intense desire to blame anyone but themselves -- it's all caught up to them and they're having an impossibly difficult time understanding why and how it all happened. A majority of Greeks are still asking their government to back away from the painful austerity measures, despite knowing that it would put their nation on an express route to a disorderly bankruptcy. The pain and humiliation of the past few years don't seem to have had an effect on their national mentality yet -- they still think and behave as if they deserve more, as if their well being does not depend on anyone or anything else around them...
Even in their happier days, when everything seemed to be going their way and they had become a nation of experts at living beyond their means, the citizens of Greece weren't necessarily any happier than the rest of us. Finding a way to toss your pack of cigarettes onto the street, where the rest of us will have to pick it up doesn't necessarily make life any easier for you -- because in that kind of world you're probably also having to worry about your neighbors dumping their garbage on your lawn. Having to stay one step ahead of the system and one trick ahead of the next guy might be stimulating but it doesn't actually make life any more rewarding. That grumpy-looking man this week didn't appear to be all that happy, even though he was beating the system.
And, most ironically or perhaps appropriately, that grumpy-looking man came out of a house in Toronto's Greektown.