I first landed at the human grill pan that is “Macedonia international airport” in the summer of 1990 believing that the plane had accidentally put down at a bus terminal. The doors were opened and a rush of heat, the like I’d previously only experienced opening the oven to see if my frozen dinner was finished, poured in. The captain and crew wished me and my fellow milky white travelling companions a pleasant holiday and I emerged into an alien landscape lettered with characters I had only seen in mathematics and physics at school and populated by a people who spoke incessantly to each other in the same tone that my mother would if I hadn’t tidied my room for a month. If you asked me what I knew about Greece on my arrival I would have pondered a while and told you that they ate kebabs, drank something that resembles paint thinners, had a penchant for large moustaches, oh and discovered some stuff years ago, while us British were still in the trees, as I was later to be told once or one hundred times.
I was instantly besotted, this was not a country but playground for the terminally immature. This was the place I had always dreamt of, a place where the schoolyard ethos of “all rules apply, just as long as it’s your ball you’re playing with” had been taken to national proportions. In the sleepy villages of Halkidiki I could instantly understand why Greeks, Cretians especially, had the longest life expectancy in Europe, somebody could easily pass on over a quiet afternoon glass of “tsiporo” and no-one would realise for years when it was his turn to get a round in and even by the time a doctor was called and eventually arrived his grandchildren could have children of their own so the death certificate would officially show a time of death decades after the actual event. The same, of course, would not apply to women, how long would a man wait for his glass to be refilled.
Motorbikes, Greeks totally understood the idea of the motorbike, internal combustion’s answer to the horse. Some being mules, abused and over laden, in Britain we thought it fun to get 50 people in a Mini in Greece it was essential to get at least that many on a Vespa. Why should 13 year olds ride a BMX when a brightly painted “duck” with a Pringles tube for an exhaust was so much more fun, in Britain they are only to be found rusting in barns or ridden by eccentric vicars in countryside villages. I figured that rear tyre sales must have outweighed front by 10 to 1 as the majority spent more of their time with the front wheel economically in the air saving rubber. Helmets were a phenomenon rarely seen and usually, if at all, worn fetchingly on the elbow or adorning the head of a police rider. I learned to ride in Greece, not that I didn’t have a licence in England, no but here my instructor’s slogan of “a driver will only see you when you are under his car” was true, too true! I studied other riders and soon realised, as they had so many years before, that motorbikes and safety have no business in the same sentence. That’s not the point of them, 100 horses between your legs is not meant to be safe and the quicker you realise that the quicker you can get on with things.
Thessaloniki was the capital city of chaos, a place where organisation was stopped at the border and politely refused entry. Nobody ever had need for organisation; everyone knew exactly what they were supposed to be doing, and went about making every effort to not do it. Nightlife was lived like the last and tomorrow a concept that existed like a myth. Tomorrow was something that would be dealt with the day after.
Eurocrats are putting the screws on Greece to “grow up” and we are even spending the same money as Fritz and Pierre. The banks are using loans to enslave us to not just to tomorrow but 72 interest-free monthly payments and 30-year mortgages on a flat that we can’t wear, drink, ride fast or crash. The authorities are hell bent on us paying taxes on what we actually earn, going to bed early and not looking cool on our CBRs. But who’s to blame, is it the bored-bald Eurocrats who would rather fast food and wide-screen TV killed more than the roads or the spies within collaborating with John, Johannes and Jean to make the oldest civilisation in Europe “mature”. If you asked me today what I know about Greece I could tell you infinitely more than I could but remain as confused and ignorant as the moment I stepped off the plane that microwaved summer afternoon in 1990. Greece is not a country, it’s an enigma that was never meant to be solved, Fritz and Pierre wouldn’t understand the answer anyway.