Rousfeti and Eleni

Earlier this year I tried to write a book about the human experience of the European financial crisis. It didn’t work out. But my mind was turned back to the subject this weekend by a fine story in the International Herald Tribune about the crazy difficulties of selling off Greece’s state-owned assets and then talking to a friend today who spent last week in Spain on business. “Grim,” she said. Here is part of the chapter I wrote about Greece and some its social specificities around capitalism and a girl called Eleni:

“After a couple of days in Greece, I began to pay attention to customs and traits that no one thought were outrageous but were suspected nonetheless of being part of the economic edifice that had brought the country to where it was. This is what people talk about when they talk about Greek culture, and the Greek way of life. It constitutes an approach to living that ranges from the way that the entire property market works – there is an acknowledged, tax-dodging difference of about 30 per cent between what Greeks call the “objective” (false) and the “commercial” (true) value of their houses – to the way that people I met insisted on asking me round for dinner, or offering me wine at lunch. If we could not talk over food, then cups of coffee or frappés would always be magicked up from somewhere. If I was in an office – or once, a hospital – these would normally appear on a tray carried by a liveried waiter from a nearby café. I never saw money change hands. This was the world often denoted by the word rousfeti – literally, “spoils” – favours, gifts of patronage, a socialised way of doing business that extends from the most awful political corruption to the way that everyone in Greece gets their jobs.

One afternoon in Peristeri, a large working class neighbourhood in western Athens, I met a young woman who explained how an office position in a nearby municipality was arranged for her through rousfeti. It was an election year, a customary period for the trading and swapping of favours, and her boyfriend’s father – in exchange for roistering twenty votes for the local Pasok [socialist party] mayor – was offered a back-office job for the girl who might turn out to be his daughter in law. “‘The month goes in, the month goes out, and you get your money.’ That’s what they said,” said Eleni. “I remember it like it was now. It was so easy and simple.” To the anger of her boyfriend’s family – and the amazement of her own – she turned the job down. She did not know why, but she had decided that she wanted to make her own way in the world. Five years later, Eleni worked as a secretary in a shoe company, and was supporting the rest of her family as they prepared to close down her father’s autoglass repair shop. He had worked as a mechanic since he was fourteen years old. She wore t-shirt that said: “While I breathe, I hope.”

“People in Greece disagree about the origins of rousfeti. Some blame the Ottomans, of course. (The word has Turkish roots). But most people acknowledge that it is basically the remnant of a face-to-face, village culture, built around the family and bonds of friendship. It is as obviously incompatible with 21st century capitalism as it is a logical defence against it, an injection of blood and emotion in order to control things that are not supposed to be controlled. Since the economy began to unravel in 2009, rousfeti has been the virus that Greeks have blamed loudly for the sickness of their country and the vaccine that they have quietly searched for to help them survive it: a measure of protection in their jobs, support from their friends and relatives. It stands for human weakness and human strength at the same time, and it shows its different qualities according to your predicament.

“Over lunch one day in Athens I talked about this troublesome dose of humanness with a young Greek photographer called Eirini Vourloumis. Eirini’s father is an economist who used to run OTE, Greece’s national telephone company. He oversaw the company’s transformation from a loss-making state-owned rousfeti machine to a privately-run, salvageable enterprise 30 per cent owned by Germans. Naturally, he was pilloried for it, another Greek traitor. Eirini shook her head thinking about the screams and thunder her father went through to achieve what would be regarded as a rational business project in any western European country. “He almost went to prison,” she said. “It was like the mafia.” Partly as a result, Eirini had decided to try and capture this state of mind in her own work, when she came back to Greece to start documenting the economic crisis in 2010. She had started taking pictures of public buildings and offices, seeking out the markers of behaviour that make Greeks different, more resistant to the impersonal norms of markets and rules that have ended up governing other places. And in describing these signs – a huge, ultraviolet altar to Jesus in the office of an Athens police detective; a large fish-tank, backed with an image of a leaping cat, in the city’s fraud department – Eirini could not help smiling at the humour, the individuality, the imprint of personality on system which they characterised. Her favourite, she said, was a portrait of Che Guevara that she came across hanging in the ministry of development. “I looked at it and I thought, ‘Nowhere else is this possible,’” she said.”

I got an email this afternoon from the talented young Greek journalist, Nikolia Apostolou, who introduced me to Eleni (“While I breathe, I hope”) and helped me during my reporting. “How’s the book going?” She wrote. “Eleni was asking me. She just got fired from her job.”