By John F. Di Leo -
The poor relative of Europe contemplates his choices, with just a little help from beyond…
In debt up to his eyeballs with a grubber list that no amount of income could ever cover, he had turned to the biggest loan sharks on the continent: He got hundreds of billions from Madame Angela and Slick Nicky, back when Slick Nicky still had a say in the matter. Now that he’s heard of a change in management up at Mob Headquarters in Brussels, he’s beginning to fear for his life.
Greco thought he’d tried everything before turning to the loan sharks. He’d nicely recommended to his grubber list that they cut back on their spending; they said no. So he nicely asked them to contribute a bit more to the pot; they said no.
So he thought perhaps it would help if he nicely reminded them that with life expectancies growing, they could consider postponing the recommended retirement age into the 60s; they said no, and in fact, the number of early retirements started to grow. Before you knew it, people were retiring in their mid-50s, on the theory that if they lock it in now, Greco couldn’t take it away later. Logical… but not remotely helpful.
Greco, frankly, was flummoxed. He’d gone back to the Bosses at Mob HQ in Brussels so often they had named the revolving door after him. The old doorman would say “You may enter the Greco now, sir” and push the automatic button to start it turning. A year now, and minor bosses, supplicants, and other apparatchiks alike still chuckled at the reference. The last time Greco had been to Brussels, the old doorman had to suppress a chuckle himself as he started to say it, then caught himself just in time. “You may enter the Gr…. um… the revolving door now, Greco, sir,” he stammered as the Greek entered the building. The doorman couldn’t stop giggling for quite some time. And then Greco came out, empty-handed again, and the poor doorman started up again.
So Greco was baffled. What to do, what to do? Well, here he was back home in Athens, broke and desperate, so he did the only thing he could think of to do: he sat down at an outdoor café, the one he frequented most, with a reclining chaise on the balcony and a forgiving tab, and he ordered his usual bottle of ouzo and a lamb dinner, and watched the sea lap up on his once happy Aegian shores.
Hours went by, and he still had ouzo left, so he added some pita… then some fried shrimp… then clams, just the appetizer… as he drank, and watched, and worried. He stared into the water, the sun setting in the distance, the magnificent Mediterranean shining the reds and purples and whites back into the evening sky, and he drifted off, still in his chaise, in an uneasy slumber.
He awakened with a start. A short, stocky, clean-shaven man in beige robes was strumming his fingers on his table, across from his half empty plate of squid and empty bottle of ouzo. Greco worried at that, for a moment – he didn’t even remember ordering the fried squid, he must have been hungry indeed – but he was quickly brought back to the man in beige.
The stranger sneered. “How COULD you?” he demanded, softly enough so as not to bother the other diners, but with enough sentiment that his fury was unmistakable. “How could you let a noble nation sink so low???”
Greco immediately began listing the villains from far away, as he and his people had for decades. “It was the IMF, and the World Bank; they sucked us in with their easy money, years ago. It was the prior generation, not mine, you know… it was back in the 60s and 70s, that’s when it started. We just needed the loans for a little while, just to get us by… but then it grew, and we could never quite pay them off, and then we needed more… So you see, it wasn’t our fault, it was our fathers, and our fathers before them, not us!”
Throughout, the stranger had been slowly stroking the hilt of the sword that he wore at his side. Funny that Greco hadn’t noticed it right away; it was polished bronze, shining in the twilight… it must have been hidden at first in the folds of the robe, or toga, or whatever it was.
The stranger wasn’t holding it, not like he was going to draw it, just like he always kept it at hand, as much as a part of his body as an inanimate object. He was almost petting it, in fact, like a pet. Could a man become so attached to his sword that he treated it like his cat? What kind of warrior might this be?
The stranger let Greco wind down. The stranger had silently let him talk until even Greco himself knew that his explanations were as lame as a child’s unfinished homework excuse.
“Tell me of Greece,” the stranger asked. “What is Greece, to you?”
Greco wasn’t sure what he meant. “Um, it’s a peninsula, for the most part – the southeast corner of Europe, south of the old communist nation of Yugoslavia. Mostly hilly, even mountainous, with beautiful bays and hundreds of islands in the Ionian, Aegian, and Mediterranean Seas.”
“No,” the stranger softly said, shaking his head. “Describe it, tell me what it is. What is the country of Greece, how do people think of it?”
“Oh…” Greco nodded as if he understood what the oddly dressed young stranger meant, though he really hadn’t a clue. He looked into his eyes, trying to divine his meaning, and was confused yet again… Was one eye blue, the other brown? How odd. Must be the evening twilight playing tricks. He tried again. “Greece is an agricultural and manufacturing economy, though both agriculture and manufacturing have been dropping in comparison to tourist dollars for decades… It’s a proud member of the European Union, so it shares in the great benefits of Europe, and the peace of the post-cold-war era, though we’ve had some financial problems lately, of course…” He looked expectantly. Perhaps this was what the stranger was looking for?
The stranger opened up a bottle of wine, and poured himself a glass. Hmm… Greco had been drinking ouzo, and wondered for a moment where the wine came from; he hadn’t seen it a moment before. But this was forgotten when the stranger began to speak.
“In my day,” said the young man with ages of wisdom in his mismatched eyes, “Greece would not have called itself a member of Europe unless she RULED Europe. Greece was a great land, home of culture, home of everything that is good, everything of which a civilization can be proud.”
He sipped his wine, and continued. “Greece was the home of theater. Not just of circus performers like other countries had, but of every genre, from comedy to tragedy, from morality play to farce, with narrators and choruses to help tell the tale. No one, in my day, would describe Greece without a proud mention of this great contribution to civilization.”
Greco started to apologize and explain that he was proud of her heritage too; he just didn’t realize that was what the stranger meant… but the stranger fixed him with a look, and Greco kept his mouth shut, as he continued.
“Greece was the home of language. No, not just of speech; everyone could communicate, of course. But in my day, Greeks were proud of our language, of our respect for the written and spoken word.”
“Yes, you just mentioned the theaters,” cut in Greco.
“Not the same thing at all!” thundered the stranger. Calming down, he continued. “Greeks wrote books of philosophy, of mathematics, of the sciences. Our astronomers studied the heavens; we contemplated life on earth. We wrote histories of what we accomplished. Have you read the story of the Peloponnesian War? We had leaders like Pericles and Demosthenes, writers like Thucydides.”
“Yes, certainly,” Greco said. “I remember that was assigned in college. I was busy with student council at the time, never got around to reading it. Thick book. Impressive that they managed all that before the printing press, huh?”
The stranger gripped his sword hilt again, and looked out to sea for a long moment. Perhaps to avoid looking at Greco? He gained control, and turned back to Greco, continuing.
“Mathematics. The great mathematicians – Euclid, Archimedes, Aristarchus – dozens of them, were all Greek. A proud Greek should be proud of them, should list them as what Greece is, what Greece is about.”
“I remember hearing about them in school too,” chuckled Greco. “Hardly any were really Greek, you know. They were from Sicily, from Turkey, from Egypt…”
“They Were Greek!” shouted the stranger. Odd, how none of the other patrons were upset; they just went on dining. Greco was upset, though, as the stranger continued, speaking in slow, diffident burn.
“We spread our culture throughout the world! We founded cities… we planned them, designed them, ensured that they would have theaters and schools and shops. We didn’t just conquer the known world, we civilized it! WE did that, we the Greeks! Don’t you see? Archimedes of Sicily and Ptolemy of Egypt were Greek. They were Greek in culture, in attitude, in dress and speech and thought. I don’t care where they lived. Greece civilized the barbarian lands and you don’t appreciate it a whit! It’s your heritage, sir!!!”
The stranger calmed himself, and softly said, “our doctors didn’t have your modern technology. But they worked out the philosophy that guides your modern doctors today. When a doctor anywhere on this planet gets his medical degree, what does he do before he enters the practice of medicine? He recites an oath that dates back to Hippocrates; before your time, before my time, the commitments of the sciences date back to the thinkers of the many independent city-states of Greece, ages ago.”
“But that’s the thing,” Greco jumped in. “The technology has moved so far ahead, what do the dusty old ideas of the ancients have to do with anything today?”
For a moment, the stranger looked ready to use his wine bottle to christen Greco’s head, but then he sighed, and poured himself some wine, sipped, and explained, “Nothing that you do today – Nothing – is done without the foundations of those who went before. This is not to take anything away from them, it’s just a fact. You build upon a foundation. And it was the Greeks who built the foundations. For Rome, for England, for America, for everyone. We were civilized, first.” He sipped again, and asked, “Surely you are taught this in school, right? Surely your teachers tell you of not only your heritage, but their own?”
Greco had never thought of this before; he rarely thought beyond his last meal or his next one, or how to pay for them… or, actually, how he’d get someone else to pay for them… so he shook his head, and watched the stranger’s eyes. Yes indeed, it was no trick of the light. Who was this man?
“Perhaps it would be overstating it to say that Greeks invented education, but if so, it’s not far off. Socrates honed a method of study that his student, Plato, refined and put down on paper. Then Plato’s own student, Aristotle, honed it further, using the method in his own teachings… From philosophy to practical political science, from the contemplative studies like rhetoric and dramatics to the hard sciences like mathematics, the methods the world uses today are rooted in the developments of ancient Greece. Twenty-four centuries after his death, when a Russian-born novelist writing in English in the United States wrote a book about politics, she relied on my teacher Aristotle for principles and even chapter headings. A is A, my friend. A is A.”
Greco didn’t catch the literary reference to yet another classic he had never read, but he did catch one phrase that started to make him nervous. He looked in his eyes and asked “Your teacher?”
“Yes, my teacher. I studied under one of the greatest thinkers of the ancient world. My father wanted me to be all that I could possibly be, and that meant the best of training. Leonidas and General Lysimachus, first, then Aristotle until I was sixteen. Leonidas may have taught me my letters and my history, Lysimachus my warcraft, but Aristotle taught me to reason. There are many approaches to education in the world today; some diverge far from the path of reason. It is those that hold most true to the classical system that produce the greatest result.”
“But if you were taught by Aristotle, then that means….” Greco’s voice trailed off, as he noticed that he could now see the other patrons, not just around the stranger, but almost… through him as well. Was he translucent? Transparent? Was it a trick of the evening light, or something else?
“Yes, when my father and mother, Philip the Great and his favorite wife Olympius, brought me into the world, our country, Macedon, was powerful but small. He was a great general, committed to grow his empire. After a few years of fighting alongside him – we led separate armies but worked jointly in Macedon’s interest – he was killed in 336 B.C., leaving me the uncontested king at a mere twenty years of age. I continued his quest to expand the empire, but I applied the lessons I had learned from Aristotle as well.”
Now, Greco sat in silence as Alexander the Great told the tale of his conquest of Greece, his voyages abroad, his largely successful effort to conquer all the known world. “And everywhere we went, we would build a city, teaching them our language, our methods, our manner of civilization. We may not have made the whole world Greek, but we left a mark, a positive mark, on the entire world!”
He refilled his glass, and gazed off into the darkening Mediterranean horizon, the moonlight, starlight, and hundreds of twinkling boat lights reflecting off the water. “That is your heritage, young man. If your country is poorer economically than it once was… if its role in the affairs of state are no longer that of the leader… then that’s alright; there is always the waxing and waning of different nations in the great world.”
“But never forget,” he continued, here raising his glass for emphasis, “that you are the Elder Statesman at the table. That you are Greece, the cradle of civilization, the founder of everyone else that followed you. Never forget to stand with pride, to protect your heritage, and proudly claim the legacy that you have inherited. Go not, hat in hand, begging for aid from Brussels, Washington or Beijing. Pay your own bills, poor but proud, and work to regain that role of leadership that once you held and could yet hold again. Be a leader, if not on the battlefield, then on the world scene, as you accept your fate and stoically commit yourself to the austerity that it requires. Show that it can be done.”
Greco was overwhelmed, but he worked up the focus to ask for clarification. “Do you mean we must postpone our retirement age to 64 or 65? Even 67 or 68 if needed? Do you mean we must give up our short workdays and short workweeks? Do you mean we must give up our practically unlimited paid vacations? You ask a lot, for a ghost.”
The ghost drew his sword, and pointed it at the sky. “I ask a lot???” he spat in disgust, and gestured in the sky with his blade. With each jab, a face appeared, familiar as the busts in a museum. “I don’t ask you to be killed at 46 like my father. I don’t ask you to drink hemlock like Socrates. I don’t ask you to practice speaking with rocks in your mouth like Demosthenes. I don’t ask you to do complex mathematics in your head without a calculator like Ptolemy had to. I don’t ask you to die at 32 like I did, on a June 11 in Babylon, far, far from home.”
“But in those short lifespans we accomplished things that people still remember and respect, over two millennia later! Because WE didn’t spend more time agitating for vacations than we spent doing our jobs. Because WE didn’t spend more time thinking about work schedules than we spent thinking of how to improve the world. Because WE didn’t waste all our time trying to find somebody else to pay our bills; we just paid our OWN bills and moved on!”
The ghost was beginning to fade away; his time was almost up. Before the image lost his voice entirely, he stressed the point again, as clearly as he could: “Greco, I don’t care whether you stay in the European Union or not. What your ancestors want – what we pray for – is that you honor your heritage; get off your knees and take responsibility for your situation. Work to outgrow this debt, pay it back and then prosper, as the cradle of Western Civilization should!”
As the image drifted away in the night breeze, Greco could make out one last plea: “Make your forefathers proud again!”
Well. The spectre was gone. Had Greco imagined it? Had he just had a bad batch of clams, a vivid dream? Perhaps just too much ouzo?
No matter, he thought to himself, such contemplation would have to wait. For Greco had a more pressing need at hand.
Greco had to take off his cap, and shuffle from table to table, to see if he could collect enough change from the businessmen and tourists still on the veranda to pay his dinner check.
Copyright 2012 John F. Di Leo
John F. Di Leo is a Chicago-based Customs broker and international trade compliance lecturer. As a student of history, he has no problem acknowledging that his Italian forebears learned from the Greeks who preceded them, and he just wishes that today’s Greek government would show the cultural pride that any rational onlooker would expect them to feel.
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