“Look at how we celebrated our result,” urges Toula, a political science student, “beautiful proud Greek women dancing traditional dances in the squares, not tattooed hooligans with prison haircuts telling their neighbours to ‘go home'”.
On the streets of Athens this week, Greeks are forgetting their financial woes for a moment to bask in the unmistakable glow of smugness, as the surprise result of the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum throws the country into turmoil. Commentators have noted the parallels between the Brexit referendum, and the “Greferendum” of exactly one year ago, but the result appears to have confounded everyone, including the Greeks. Sick of being maligned as the lazy, disorganised and politically immature teenagers of Europe, they are now revelling in the spectacle of the notoriously phlegmatic northern European nation coming spectacularly off the rails in a slow motion train wreck after voting to leave the European Union.
The Greek Prime Minister quickly seized the national mood with a series of tweets celebrating last summer’s NO (OXI) vote (“Our people’s NO, paramount act of resistance to the Euro-priesthood of austerity”), with which Greece similarly rejected the sinister embrace of the Brussels elite.
Greeks have been watching the fallout from the UK’s Brexit vote with the kind of shocked bemusement normally reserved for viral videos of an anaconda swallowing an elephant, or a small child falling head-first into a piranha tank after being hit by a frisbee. For generations the “Egglezos” (the Englishman) has stood as a byword for gentlemanly good manners, common sense and punctuality. Now they watch the nation they associate with the Queen, Winston Churchill and James Bond descend into the more familiar territory of Benny Hill and Mr Bean, but with a distinct flavour of the Weimar Republic.
Greeks by and large maintain a grudging admiration for the British, whom they regard as cultivated people with a sophisticated political culture, marred only by their colonial snobbishness, their propensity to steal antiquities and the fact that they have a “rod up their arses”. Except for the ones who holiday in Faliraki, who have exactly the opposite problem. While most would consider them a curious race and demonstrably inferior to the Greeks, many expressed surprise at their inability to read a simple ballot paper. “Where on the voting chit does it say ‘immigration’?” asked Makis, a bright thirteen-year-old kicking a football against a palimpsest of faded election posters reading “Hope is on the Way”, “OXI” and “Antifa – no bosses”. “Do they think that was a tough question? They should see what my grandad had to deal with last year, it had a 30-page bibliography. Plus, they had months to prepare and revise. We had to cram overnight. Mind you, that’s how my cousin says you pass exams. Although he did flunk his, but he blamed Merkel and the Euro-priesthood of austerity.”
And what of the fallout from the result? “Here we were told that if we voted OXI there would be no toilet paper, that there would be riots in the streets. It would appear that our British friends’ planning for the day after was, as they say, ‘wholly inadequate’. Now where have I heard that before?” asks Mr Thrasyboulos, a retired lawyer with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “Maybe after their success in Iraq they should reorganise their own country ‘along sectarian lines’? That has always worked out well for them, hasn’t it?” his friend, Mr Babis, added, leaning over the backgammon board. “Say what you will about our lot, but it sounds like they had contingency plans coming out of their ears: plan B, plan X, the mint heist, you name it. We are a creative race. Odysseus was a Greek, you know.”
Greeks have even less respect for the UK’s political leadership. “What kind of jokers are these? Running for the hills and leaving the women in charge? I remember that Mrs Thatcher and her handbag. Mark my words, this will end in tears.” The trope of Odysseus, the Homeric hero described in the epics as “much suffering” and “man of twists and turns”, resurfaces in their comparisons as they recount how Prime Minister Tsipras was able overnight to convert the proud NO into a YES and secure a further bailout from the country’s creditors.
Meanwhile, some are starting to ponder how Brexit might affect Greece. The “systemic” media here have been quick to promote doom and gloom scenarios, however Greeks are defiant. With the same proud classical illiteracy that their leadership has displayed on many occasions, they insist that “the Cassandras will be proved wrong”, referring to the mythical soothsayer whose curse was that her (generally pessimistic but accurate) predictions were never heeded.
As we ended the interview, Mr Thrasyboulos had a more constructive suggestion. “We hear that the UK will need to hire foreign trade negotiators to help extricate them from the EU. We have plenty of internationally acclaimed expertise in this department, and would be happy to lend a hand to our British brothers in the proud negotiations that lie ahead.”