Near the center of Athens you can walk through large tracts of public land covered in rocks, ruins, wooded areas, and dry-land vegetation. Go in one direction and you’ll find the Hill of the Muses. It’s a cool place to take a break from news of global economic decay.
My family wandered there one afternoon during a recent trip to Europe. On the hillside facing the Parthenon we could hear the roar of 100,000 citizens outside the parliament building, protesting cuts in worker pensions, reductions in the minimum wage, increases in taxes, and other bloodletting demanded by eurozone financiers.
The other side was quieter, facing the Mediterranean. There I scanned the ground requesting some sign to mark our presence, a practice I acquired as a boy while hunting for flint arrowheads. What was the significance of our being there at a time when world news outlets were focused on Greece?
That’s when I found the baby turtle – a χελώνα, or “chelōna” in modern Greek. Smaller than my palm, the creature was so tucked into the rocks that she could have easily gone unnoticed.
Since our first day in Europe I’d been thinking of my family as turtles. Living out of our backpacks brought to mind the claim that turtles carry their homes wherever they go. Like all creatures, of course, a turtle’s home is her natural habitat. Regardless of how self-contained we feel, all of us depend on the sharing of resources and the hospitality of strangers.
Greek folks are as generous as any people I’ve met. You appreciate this when you’re traveling on a fixed budget with a family for five weeks. Hoteliers gave us discounts. Restaurateurs brought us complimentary starters or desserts. Retailers added bonuses to our purchases. People gave us information, ideas, good advice, and more than a little good humor.
I’ve heard jokes are going around about Greek generosity, linking it with laziness or inefficiency. Such tales always reflect on the tellers. I saw no evidence of those other traits while visiting Greece. The businesses were well-organized; the restrooms were clean; the trains ran on time.
It was noteworthy that our being there coincided with Greece’s Independence Day, an occasion that marks the country’s resistance to fascist occupation during World War II. Greece paid dearly in blood and resources for that decision. Fascists invaded, killed, and plundered; but it took them much longer to occupy Greece than elsewhere. In part because of Greek resistance, Hitler missed his timeline for invading Russia and thus fell prey to winter.
The world owes Greece our gratitude for that historic sacrifice, which was never fully repaid. It appears that old debt never factored into the accounting of financiers who drive current economic deals. The so-called “haircut” agreed to by European lenders hinges on radical policy changes that will transfer Greece’s public assets into the hands of private speculators (like selling off public land to real estate developers, for example).
Returning from our walk, it made some Athenians smile to hear how much an American family loved their native turtles. This was a welcome shift from the topic of global money problems, which some would have us think stem from generosity rather than greed. Pay no attention to those who’ve made killings off individuals and governments, encouraging both to borrow and consume beyond our means.
Hailed as the earth’s oldest democracy, Greece also has a primal place in the history of money. I met a shop-owner near the Acropolis who informed me that some of world’s first coins — known as “mna” — were minted in her country around the late seventh century B.C. They were stamped with the images of turtles, creatures apparently held in high esteem.
“Our ancestors made the first coins heavy,” she said. “That way, one person could only carry as much as they needed. We had real philosophers back then.”
She asked me what the first money looked like in America. I told her shell beads were used by the original inhabitants of my homeland, which some natives called “Turtle Island.” But as I understood it, they didn’t think of them in the same way Europeans thought of money.
“Shells were exchanged to memorialize a collective bond or obligation,” I said. “But the economy of the first people was based on giving rather than profit-taking. A person’s social position was judged by their ability to distribute wealth, not hoard it for themselves.”
The woman’s eyes lit up when I described an American Indian potlatch — the traditional giveaway ceremony that anchored the economy of many native people.
“We have a special word in Greece that cannot be fully translated into any other language,” she said. “It is ‘filotimo.’”
She wrote it out in Greek and English along with the words “friend of your honor,” an approximate meaning. As she handed me the slip of paper, I gave her a coin that will some day be as widely used as mna is now (the destiny of all such trinkets in human history).
“This will be for good luck,” she smiled, putting the euro aside.
The little exchange was a beautiful blend of philosophy, faith, goodwill, and wit, like many I experienced in Greece. It made me feel good about the hard-earned cash I spent there. Better than I do about most of the transactions that define the habitat of today’s global commerce.
Perhaps a word for this feeling still rocks in the cradle of western civilization. If so, “filotimo” points to an ancient wisdom that’s been ignored in pursuit of quick growth, yet is essential to civic trust and our shared obligation to steward resources.
Moneylenders who think they hold Greece in the palms of their hands might benefit from a walk to the Hill of the Muses. If they go quietly, they may encounter something there that reminds them how humans with a long-view of community behave.
Maybe one or two would even have a change of heart, look around them and see more than real estate.