I have a rule about not talking to taxi drivers who pick me from the airport. They are the first person you meet on a trip, when you are at your most anxious for information. You begin to ask questions because you are stuck on their back seat for an hour and try as you will there is nothing to infer from the billboards, the lanes of tarmac, the construction junk at the side of the road that are the more or less the same wherever you go in the world.
The problem is that they are taxi drivers. And like the globalised sameness of the airport road, taxi drivers have the same life everywhere: they spend their days and nights waiting for fares and in that time they do whatever the local version is of listening to talk radio and finding information that corroborates their windscreened view of the world. They talk to other cabbies and stew in their discoveries and the slights they have suffered in their lives. They drive and wait and stew some more. Often they drive and stew simultaneously. So by the time you ask them a question about the country you have just landed in, you normally get an answer that has been boiled three times over and distilled into a description of reality that you never hear again.
George Nicholas – the anglicised name my taxi driver at Eleftherios Venizelos Airport in Athens gave himself – didn’t give a shit about any of that. He drove a Mercedes. He was dressed in a blazer and loafers, like he’d just stepped off a yacht, and was doing me a favour by giving me a lift into town. Once he had made a show of working out where my hotel was (he never fully knew) George Nicholas ignored all of my careful reticence and demanded to know who I was and what I was doing in his country. We weren’t even out of the airport yet. It was about nine o’clock on a Sunday night and the roads were empty. This enabled George Nicholas to turn around and look me straight in the eye when asking questions. I said I was a writer. “A rider? What do you ride? You ride horses?”
A writer. “A reader?” George Nicholas began to list things that I might read for a living. “You read books? A reader!” He had not heard of this. He seemed impressed. He drove faster as if to spur his thinking. We accelerated past the five illuminated rings installed for the Athens Olympics of 2004 which is now regarded by many Greeks as the very high point – both blissful and delusioned – of their country’s modern history. “What are you reading about?” I am writing about Greece. George Nicholas finally understood. He took his hands off the wheel and turned round to shake my hand. The car moved to the left. “Well what do you want to know? You should talk to me. Taxi drivers are always in the middle, always at the core.”
There was no stopping him. I didn’t want to listen and I soaked up every word. There was no crisis in Greece. I shouldn’t believe what I had seen on the TV. I would see it with my own eyes while I was here: the cafés were full, people were out, having a good time. People have money. Greece is a rich country. Okay, so things aren’t as good as they used to be. Yes, there had been some protests. Did I know how many immigrants there were in Athens? A million. Refugees. Yes, a million. Did I know about Dublin II? (The EU’s regulation on the free movement of people, and something you hear a lot about in Greece). This was the real cause of the crisis. They were the ones burning down buildings. But even that it is not a real crisis. Because it’s all been constructed by the politicians. “It is technical theatre!” said George Nicholas, delighted with this phrase. “Technical theatre!”
He nodded and drove and talked. The logic of his explanations was like his driving: fast and full of swerves. George Nicholas said the problem of the Greek people was not that they had become terribly, irredeemably indebted as a nation but that they had become too rich! They had just been getting to the point of throwing off centuries of dependency: to the Ottoman Turks, to the Americans, to the families of politicians who have ruled them for generations. “If you are earning €5,000 a month for many years and you only need €2,000 to live on then you are a dangerous man,” said George Nicholas. “Independent.” He nodded. “You can say to your boss, ‘Fuck You!’” George Nicholas yelled this in the taxi. He took his hands off the wheel and slapped one into the other elbow and yelled it again. “Fuck you!” This is what had been about to happen: Greeks got so dangerously close to prosperity and individual fulfilment that the international order – represented by the IMF, the EU and, of course, their puppets in the Greek government – had done the only thing open to them: which was to impoverish the population.
I asked George Nicholas why this was necessary. We were descending off the main road now, in among the lit streetfronts and sporadic columns of downtown Athens. He acknowledged that this was an important question. “I tell you something,” he said, solemnly. “You write it.” Then he turned to face me, and George Nicholas fixed me with a particular look that I had not encountered before I went to Greece but which became familiar because it recurred in so many conversations that I had over the following days. The look, if it needed to say anything, said this: Wake up. Forget whatever pleasant assumptions you might have been operating under about the way the world and society works because the sooner you realise that the only organising principles in this life are deceit and power and screwing the next guy the easier it’s going to be for you to get along here. I received this look from many Greek faces, and in many forms. It occurred on George Nicholas’s face as one primarily of concern. He was helping me out. “You know who controls humanity?” He asked. He waited for a reply. “You are not a boy. You are a man now. Who is controlling the planet? Tell me now, who is controlling this planet? Who?”
“I don’t think anybody is.”
George Nicholas ignored this answer. “Who is controlling? The bankers controlling? The rich people control? For money, who?”
“I don’t think anybody is in control.”
“No,” he shook his head. “Somebody controls. Somebody is behind of them.”
This went on for a few minutes: George Nicholas suggesting, hinting strongly, that I give up my innocence and think of groups of people who might be playing with all of us like the hopeless marionettes that we are. (“I think you believe that everything, all of the crisis, is because some people like to make more money?” He probed). George Nicholas did this until he couldn’t stand it any more. “I won’t tell you too much. But for the last ten thousand years the same people control the planet. The same people,” he said. “Of course not the same people because people do not live ten thousand years. But these people ten, or twenty people…” And then George Nicholas gave me the essential information about the Masonic conspiracy that has been in charge of humankind for all this time, migrating from empire to empire, surfing the waves of wealth and continual destruction, dividing humanity needlessly for their own unimaginable gains, leaving their enigmatic symbols along the way. The financial crisis, the humbling of Greece, it was so plainly part of the Masons’ eternal campaign of domination that it barely needed to be spelled out. “London is the Mecca,” said George Nicholas with something like reproach. Was I sure I didn’t know about any of this stuff? “The Illuminati? White brothers and black brothers. You know these guys? You know these guys?”
“I don’t know them,” I said. “It sounds a bit like the Da Vinci code.”
George Nicholas nodded. I wasn’t a completely hopeless case. “Something like this,” he mused. “Da Vinci. Something like this.” We were in the neighbourhood of my hotel now, on the eastern side of Syngrou Avenue, the main drag that runs through the heart of Athens, not far from the Acropolis. George Nicholas was gunning his Mercedes up and down increasingly narrow and steep roads, asking directions from men sat on chairs outside empty bars and shops. He did this while expounding on the Masons, Nato (if the Greek people rose up, the war would be over within a month) and one-ness of humans and animals (George Nicholas was a vegetarian). Finally we got within sight of the sign of my hotel. It was up another tight street and I decided to get out and walk the last few hundred yards. George Nicholas and I said goodbye. He short-changed me by ten euros. I did not want to have a conversation about it.
I had half an hour to think about my ban on talking to taxi drivers. I had arranged to meet Joanna Kakissis, an American journalist based in Athens, for dinner, and she was coming to my hotel. I unpacked and went out on to the small balcony outside my room. There was a freshness, a fragrance of trees in spring that I was not expecting in a large city. Half a mile away, floating above the city, the Parthenon stood like bones floodlit upon a table. I did my best to put George Nicholas out of my mind. Surely he had been a one-off. But it was difficult to forget what he had said. The out-thereness, the complexity of his thinking – how far away it was from my own understanding of the economic crisis in Greece and how I had expected Greeks to talk and think about it – had caught me off balance. I went down to the lobby to wait for Joanna.
A television was on in the corner. It was showing a documentary, in Greek, about “Tourkokratia” (Turkish rule), the Ottoman occupation of the country from 1458 to 1821. Modern reconstructions showed Greek peasants running through olive groves, pursued by eastern soldiers. The only other person in the lobby was the receptionist. A Greek man in his forties, he had thin black hair in a bold, pompadour wave and strong glasses. After a few minutes, he asked me where I was from. “Is there really a city named Wolves?” Was his first question about England. He had been watching a football match involving Wolverhampton Wanderers. I drew him a crude map of the amazing clusters of football teams in the Midlands and Lancashire. There was a slight pause and then, in the mysterious way that it does in Greece, the conversation began to slide, like a stream towards a hidden sea, down into the crisis. Before I knew it, the receptionist was giving me the same look that George Nicholas had given me in the taxi just before he started talking about the Masons.
This time, though, the look was of simple surprise. I didn’t know about the oil under the Aegean Sea? As much as Saudi Arabia. I didn’t know about the diamonds in the mountains? The gold? I didn’t know this? Was I sure? Well, the Germans knew about it. And so did the Americans. They have known about Greek’s mineral wealth for years, for decades, and they have been waiting for just this moment – just a hint of vulnerability – to put the country on its knees and come and help themselves. Of course this was how it works. You can’t have a war in Europe. Especially not after Iraq. This is how you conquer a country in the 21st century: you pump it full of cheap loans, wait for it to default and then get all its assets on the cheap. “We will be like Nigeria,” said the receptionist. All you need is a certain amount of international organisation – Angela Merkel has a castle outside Berlin where she makes her plans. (I didn’t know this either?) – and few collaborators on the inside. And in Greece, the Germans and the Americans could not have hoped in their dreams for a better stooge than “Pappy”. The receptionist spat the nickname of George Papandreou, the country’s last Prime Minister.
To my mind, until this point, Papandreou had occurred as a slender, rather hapless man who had admitted to the world a few weeks after his election in October 2009 that Greece’s finances were roughly twice as appalling as anyone had previously realised. For the next two years, Papandreou had traipsed from crunch summit to crunch summit, wearing a thin moustache and begging for international assistance while managing to convince very few people that he would able to able to sufficiently reform the Greek economy to be able to pay them back in the end. Eventually, in November 2011, he had been forced from office after a bungled attempt to put the country’s second bailout from the European Union – and the host of accompanying tax increases and budget cuts – to a national referendum.
The receptionist could not believe I had been taken in by all this detail. “We have big heroes,” he explained, “everybody knows this about Greece. But we also have big enemies, big villains. And this is Pappy.” The man was, simply, a traitor. Then the receptionist repeated the phrase that hangs around Papandreou in Greece like a shadow that he will never throw off: “We have money.” Papandreou, who used to lead Pasok, the country’s socialist party, said this during his election campaign in 2009 and he will never be forgiven for it.
“Why did he say there was money when there was no money?” The receptionist asked. He was becoming furious just thinking about it. Maybe Papandreou didn’t find out how little money there was until he became Prime Minister, I said. “Of course he knew.” When was I going to grow up? “His blood is American blood,” said the receptionist, referring to Papandreou’s transatlantic upbringing and doing an alarming impression of slashing his own wrist. (Papandreou grew up in exile in the US while his father, Andreas, helped lead the movement that brought down the Greek military dictatorship in 1974). I told the receptionist that there was a chance I would be meeting Papandreou later in the week. I asked if there was anything he wanted to me to say on his behalf. “If I could, I would kill him,” said the receptionist quietly. “I am not the only one.”
The man’s only hope, it turned out, was this fury. “The CIA, the FBI, they have files on every country,” he said. “Germany, France, UK…” as he mentioned each nation, the receptionist mimed the thickness of each file between his fingers. “Greece is like this.” He used both hands to signify the biggest file of all. “I told you,” he said. “We are crazy. It is very difficult to plan for us. They don’t know what we are going to do.” He went outside for a cigarette. I was eager for Joanna to show up, but there was no sign of her. So I followed the receptionist out into the street. He smoked and considered the quiet, small smells of the night. Today had been Greece’s national day. For the first time that he could remember, even during the military rule that lasted from 1967 to 1974, the ministers in the procession had been separated from the people by thick ranks of riot police. “A revolution is coming,” said the receptionist. Every now and again the Greeks rise up, he said: two hundred years ago, they rose against the Turks, in the Second World War they rose against the Nazis. “This is what is happening now,” he said. “The middle class is being destroyed. Right now he still has some money in the bank, under the bed, but when this is run out, he will be on the street. He will destroy everything he sees.”
Finally Joanna called. She had been delayed because she had to file a last minute story on Greece’s subdued national day festivities. Now she was on her way. I went inside and watched the documentary on the television. Every now and again, English-speaking academics would be interviewed, and the programme became suddenly comprehensible. “Travellers who came to Greece,” said one of the professors, “were struck by the corruption of the local Ottoman officials.” The receptionist went back to his desk. I decided not to continue our talk. Clearly my taxi driver rule didn’t hold in Greece: they were not so unrepresentative here. I was going to have to prepare myself for a week of wild interpretations, for descriptions of politics and economics that I had not heard before.
It was not long before midnight by the time Joanna arrived. She was small, tough reporter for NPR. We searched for somewhere to eat. When we found a hotel that would serve us, I told her about my two conversations in Greece so far – about the Masons, the CIA, the oil under the Aegean and Merkel’s castle outside Berlin – and Joanna gave me the “wake up” look for the third time that evening. This time, it was a look of consolation. She had been reporting on the Greek crisis for more than two years, and it hadn’t got any easier. The intensity of the blame and the distrust in people’s minds made for a continual labyrinth of explanations for what was happening in Greece that often left her in despair. Last week, she said, when a taxi driver had started out on the Masonic treatise for the hundredth time this year, she had asked him, please, to stop. When he did not, she gave up and started to cry.