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Monday, April 01, 2013

Greece's Casual Outlaws: Indicia of Empiric Decline?

When I was a kid I used to dawdle at dinner sometimes casually reclining in the corner of our breakfast booth (where we had all meals), getting lost in my imagination, and always being the last one left at the table. In an effort to institute some kind of mealtime protocol, my dad told me that the reason for the fall of the Roman Empire was that everyone did whatever they wanted to and didn't follow any rules. My dad illustrated his theory by noting that the Romans ate lying down, you know, the classic pose of relaxing in a toga, wreath of leaves around the head, reaching for a grape from a bunch dangling above ones head. As a result of this casual dining stance, the Romans, my dad explained, ultimately died of digestive disorders. That story stuck with me, although I occasionally I still resisted sitting up straight at dinner.

History buffs, I am no Greco-Roman expert and the following historical summary is highly simplified, but bear with me: The Greeks eventually conquered the Romans and the Byzantine Empire combined elements of both Roman and Greek culture. From my observations and experience over the last two weeks of March, this amalgam of cultures in the origins of democracy forever incorporates a casual disdain for the law. Before my class traveled to Greece to study of the interaction of the law and the people under conditions of economic collapse and vis-à-vis the contract with the European Union, we learned that, as a culture, the Greeks tended not to be inclined to follow either rules or laws. Our first lesson regarding law avoidance came in the form of the record of payment of income and property taxes and the exposure of tax evaders via the (immediately disregarded) Legarde List. I found these things hard to imagine until I spent some time in Greece. During my two week visit I noticed that small and seemingly insignificant rules were obeyed religiously, while important rules were either disregarded intermittently or completely.

In addition, unlike here in the U.S., many important rules are non-exsistent. In the first category of the small stuff, rules regarding taxis are strictly enforced. If you need a taxi it is impossible to wave one down on the street. You need to go to the cab stand, a long, sometimes many-block long, string of taxis and walk all the way to the front of the line to take the first cab. You cannot just hop in a cab that is closest to your location. If you call a cab you pay a service fee of at least 2€. In the category of disregarded: thinking of parking in Athens, Thessaloniki or Santorini? Feel free to park "in the Greek way," (as one local described it) either perpendicular to or parallel to another car. Don't worry about paying for parking - the Greeks view parking as a "fundamental right." (Get that, Chicago?) When taking the Metro in Athens you can either go to the kiosk and pay for a ticket, which you insert into a ticket-taker station to ride the train, or you can just walk right down to the platform and ride without ever purchasing a ticket because there are no turnstiles to prevent you from doing so. By way of illustration of a general disregard for the concept of order, there is some level of pushing and shoving in lines. People don't hesitate to cut in front of you (happened to me in the customs line at one of the airports) or to just push you out of the way (on the Metro). Regarding non-existent laws, my story takes a serious turn.

One of my students tripped on a broken walkway and sustained a small fracture to her foot. Her treating physician appeared at the hospital clinic sporting a motorcycle helmet, jeans and rock-star boots. With no form of HIPAA in place, anyone can visit any patient at any time and learn of the patient's condition. No approved list of visitors, no hospital hours. Worried about MRSA? Maybe you should think about it if you become ill or injured in Thessaloniki, as nursing procedures (at this particular hospital) were performed without any evidence of hand washing. My student was discharged without written instructions for aftercare. U.S. laws are imperfect, of course. Healthcare and medicare still require major reforms (I spoke with another traveler who settled her mother abroad for enhanced and more affordable senior care). Neither is bureaucracy to be exalted (See, e.g. security at Heathrow). Greece is a beautiful country and we had a wonderful and meaningful social and educational experience. Nevertheless (with the exception of the TSA), after my travels I feel protected by many of the rules and restrictions about which we consistently complain. Sit up straight; feed your parking meters. Acropolis Panorama
Panorama from the Acropolis, Athens, Greece

Posted by DBorman on April 1, 2013 at 01:13 PM | Permalink


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The Byzantines were self-described as "Greeks" and had Greek names. In a sense then the Greeks survived the fall of Rome & even reconquered parts of Italy under Justinian.

Posted by: Basil Bulgar-Slayer | Apr 2, 2013 8:04:39 PM

That's what I heard. History, like current politics, is open to a variety of interpretations.

Posted by: DBorman | Apr 1, 2013 8:00:09 PM

I think you're describing general Mediterranean culture. You will find it in South Italy and Israel as well.

And the Greeks conquered the Romans? That's a new one.

Posted by: AndyK | Apr 1, 2013 7:52:05 PM

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