Against the backdrop of the Dutch EU Council presidency, OneWorld.nl has sent Reinier Vriend on a mission to identify the everyday European values and concerns. In the interview series #ThisIsMyEurope he speaks with colourful individuals in and of the continent, trying to find out what ‘Europe’ means to us. This edition he speaks with Achilles Peklaris from Greece.
“Europe is… a place far, far away from my country.” Achilles Peklaris (43) laughs. During his years as a political correspondent in the Balkans, Middle East, New York City and several places in Europe, he came to realise that the EU harbours two separate cultures. “Let me ask you, what does a Northern European understand as happiness? It’s about being successful in his job, working hard, be professionally appreciated and earn money for a comfortable lifestyle. A Greek is happy when he can live by the beach totally carefree, drinking raki, having fun with friends. And this counts for the whole Mediterranean area. I’m not saying one or the other perspective is good or bad, but here you have a fundamental, central lifestyle difference that is causing so much havoc in the EU right now.”
Greece’s financial crisis and the role of the EU in it are getting different responses at home in Greece. “Lots of people think we should just try harder. Other people think that the capitalist EU, focussing on the free market, is not the best option for Greece. I feel like we’re just trying to fit in with something that is totally different to our cultural identity. I’m leaning towards realizing we can’t play according to these rules. It’s like asking a fish to dance and then eternally criticise its failure.”
When I’m somewhere in the world and I tell them I’m Greek, they ask me if they should buy me a coffee
Now the country is world famous for being broke. “When I’m somewhere in the world and I tell them I’m Greek, they ask me if they should buy me a coffee”. But the effects are real. “Grown up men need to borrow money to go for a drink with a friend, living like teenagers.” Achilles nevertheless takes his time to nuance the effects of the financial crisis. “There’s not a neighbourhood where you can’t find a doctor that won’t treat you. If you don’t have money, you’ll be fed. The Solidarity Movement is very strong and vivid since 2010. And family ties are strong, a cousin or an uncle will take you in, you won’t have to sleep in the street.” Another factor of relief is the tourism money. “Everyone picks the fruits from those three months in summer. A small tavern on an island might be the source of income for a large family for most of the year.”
With these circumstances, the massive influx of refugees is going surprisingly smooth. “A recent survey showed that 85% percent of the Greeks think that we should support the refugees. Even the most optimistic onlooker didn’t expect this much positivism.” It is a subject that affects Achilles. He has been attending rallies, volunteering in hospitality centres and has used his public profile to support the refugees. “Initially it overwhelmed our capacity, but now there is a system in place and it is running smoothly. And it’s nothing short of amazing. You might say that, despite the financial situation we’re in, we proved that we are good at something: being humane. And how badly we needed that as people, to feel good about something we’ve done”.
And what about the future of Europe? “I support a friendly divorce. This is not to say that either of us is a bad person, but we should acknowledge that we simply don’t match. Realising someone is not the person you want to live your life with is not rejection, it’s acting according to the reality.” A solution could be two different currencies within the Euro zone. “I imagine two blocks under one federation, each with their own currency. Obviously the north and the south. Still there will be freedom of movement and trade, but each bloc will have their own fiscal rules. That might be good for everyone involved”.
I imagine two blocks under one federation, each with their own currency
To underscore how fundamental the differences are, Achilles dishes out an anecdote about a domestic scene featuring him and his German-Hungarian ex-wife. “We moved into a new apartment, and we were going to hang the paintings. In Greece, this means inviting all your friends, getting some weed, some wine, some music, and celebrate with a small party. Everyone gathers, you have a great time, and if everything turns out well, maybe even a few painting will be on the walls by the end of the night. When it comes to where the paintings go, you trust the good eye of your guests. However, my wife had totally different ideas about it. When we decided that it was time to hang the paintings, she had already put together a list, that noted the sizes of the paintings, and had combined it with the floorplan, to identify the different wall sizes. So with 80% of the work already done beforehand, I was a bit disappointed that instead of a party it would be more like a task. But then I thought, OK, let’s put them up, so I grabbed a painting and held it up against the wall. My wife asked: “What are you doing? Where is your tape measure?” I told her that the Greek way is that one person holds it, and the next says whether the painting has to go to the left or to the right, or a little up or down. Then, it’s centred according to the eye. No-one will come and measure afterwards! I understood that for her, the idea of having to hang a painting while drunk was completely horrifying.”
For us there’s surprise at the utter thoroughness of all the fine print in the fiscal policy. For them it’s mounting frustration. So I understand it when Schäuble gets mad every time he has to deal with us Greeks. Sorry Herr Wolfgang, but you should have seen that before you decided to marry us. Now it’s too late. Or is it never too late to save a marriage?”
This interview is part 13 of the series #ThisIsMyEurope. Join the conversation on Twitter [@OneWorldNL] and read the other interviews on the special #ThisIsMyEurope Oneworld page.