The cheerful, nattily dressed Englishman checking out at my hotel in Mykonos as I was checking in with my daughter looked shocked as he scrutinised his bill: 'What's the VAT? Twenty-four percent? How can that be?'
I instantly violated my pledge to my daughter not to embarrass her by talking politics on vacation. 'You can thank Wolfgang Schäuble and the Germans,' I told the man. 'Austerity politics and all that.' My new acquaintance pondered what I was saying -- 'Is that so?' he said, or something to that effect -- then quickly changed the subject to the charm of cobblestone and the local nightlife. I didn't ask him how he had voted on Brexit, but I wish I had, for an incendiary political idea was beginning to form in my mind. Greece badly needs help, and right now the only potential saviour I see on the horizon is a reinvigorated Britain with a bold foreign policy to match its declared independence from the Eurozone.
All through our trip to Greece this August, beginning in Athens and ending in Crete, I was struck by the grim expressions on the faces of so many of the people, even on the most prosperous islands and in the most upscale neighbourhoods. This didn't stop many of them from smiling through their weariness. The restaurateurs and shopkeepers certainly were glad to meet anyone with money to spend, but I also sensed genuine courage and determination, beyond mere neediness, to survive the fiscal screws now being applied by Frankfurt and Brussels.
Greece's history of resistance to foreign domination had already seized my imagination when we visited Athens, where I paid homage to Lord Byron in Vyronos, the street named for him near our hotel in the Plaka. It's difficult to feel romantic about Greek rebellion against Ottoman tyranny in the vicinity of so many cheap trinket shops, graffiti and beggars, but such is the poet's power that even the shadow of Lord Elgin's vandalism of the Acropolis couldn't dim my excitement about Byron's political footprint. Earlier in the day, our excellent but visibly demoralised tour guide to the Acropolis had done her best to persuade my daughter and me that a terrible crime had been committed against the Greek people, and I didn't dare disagree. But for me Elgin's offence paled in light of contemporary German cruelty. As the guide put it, 'We're not our own country anymore.'
Later that night, a modest-sized demonstration of several hundred people passed below our balcony overlooking Dionysiou Areopagitou Street. I couldn't read the Greek slogans, but the laconic front-desk clerk told me the march was 'anti-capitalist'. It was a little more complicated, in fact. I later learned that the demonstrators, as peacenik as they were hard left, had been protesting 'the crimes of imperialism' and the atom bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki under the banner of the Greek Committee for International Detente and Peace. But in keeping with the sad state of the Greek economy, the U.S. Embassy website, under the rubric of 'Riots/Civil Unrest', inaccurately identified the group as the 'Greek Committee for International Peace and Depression'. A Freudian slip, perhaps, but the Greeks are most definitely depressed.
Yet it was on the island of Naxos, the prosperous-looking administrative capital of the Cyclades, that Greece's actual depression hit me. And I was not in the presence of angry, embittered leftists but rather among successful, uncynical adherents of the right. As it happened, we were staying in a hotel owned by the New Democracy governor of Naxos, Ioannis Margaritas, and supervised by his charming wife, Maria Polikreti, also a high school classics teacher. High winds had delayed our ferry from Mykonos, and not long after we arrived, the power failed all over the island, possibly due to the weather. With no running water, no lights and potential chaos in Naxos town, I started making escape plans on my cell phone. As a businessman and a politician, Mr. Margaritas behaved impeccably, assuring me that electricity would be restored within the day and trying to persuade me not to leave his beloved island precipitously. His word was good -- after many fits and starts power was restored -- and we stayed for a tasty, unpretentious dinner in the hotel dining room. By now the wind, up to 50 knots, was howling, violently shaking the glass doors of the hotel dining room. Maria presided unperturbed, wearing a deep-red, Ukrainian-inspired ankle-length dress. I asked her the name of the designer, who turned out to be American. 'How did you get an American dress on Naxos?' I wanted to know. 'I couldn't pay for it directly because of capital controls,' she said. 'But I had a little money left in my Paypal account.'
The Germans again. Even hard-working, pro-euro capitalists were penalised by the European Commission's economic orthodoxy. Maria didn't absolve Germany of blame, but she was more critical of the prevailing orthodoxies of the Greek political establishment -- in particular, too many unmotivated public employees. 'When I tell people I want to quit teaching to work more in the family business, they are astonished,' she said. 'Why would anybody give up the security of a civil service job?'
I don't doubt that Greece's public-employment sector is bloated, or that tax collection is corrupt, or that Greek politicians, both left and right, have been lying to their constituents for decades about the state of public finances. Everywhere I went people spoke about the left-wing government of Alexis Tsipras with cynicism and a sense of betrayal. The beleaguered prime minister, meanwhile, sounds increasingly desperate about Greek's impossibly high debt payments and EU strictures on his government's freedom to spend, tax and hire under the terms of the 2015 bailout. In a recent interview with Le Monde, he denounced 'the EU's neo-liberal intransigence' regarding debt relief, and made a pretty good rhetorical joust: 'We need to decide collectively if we're a European Union or a German Europe.' However, with a stagnant GDP, an unemployment rate of 23.5 percent, and no important friends outside of renegade economists like Joseph Stiglitz, it's hard to see how Tsipras can avert further humiliation for his country.
Which is where Britain could step in. While the foreign office negotiates new trade terms with the EU, why not request a special trade relationship with Greece on humanitarian and historical grounds? This would infuriate the Germans, of course, so the UK could counter with an invitation to Tsipras to join the Commonwealth -- a symbolic gesture that would acknowledge Greece's status as a de facto German colony as well as Athens' ambition to once again be independent along with all the former British colonies. Absurdly romantic? Lord Byron would have approved, and so might have Sir Arthur Evans, whose generous gift to Greece of the Knossos archaeological dig in Crete stands in brilliant contrast to Lord Elgin's thoughtless greed.
Thus might Brexiters be magnanimous in victory and lobby the British Museum to return the Elgin Marbles to Athens, at least on the basis of a permanent sharing agreement -- say, three years at the Acropolis Museum and then back to England for three years. It is a sort of historical crime not to reassemble the British-held pieces of the Parthenon frieze with the smaller sections I saw mournfully displayed in Athens. With that act of diplomacy might begin the reassembling of the broken pieces of Greek democracy and pride.
John R. MacArthur is the president and publisher of Harper's Magazine