Athens, 9 November. Voula is a smart district of Athens for rich citizens who want to live by the sea. Sleek white apartment blocks with big balconies face the Aegean, which undulates like a lake of mercury under a cool grey sky. Set some way back from the coast is the local public hospital, Asklepieia Voulas, made up of low-rise buildings of plastered brick spread out among grass and trees and partly unmetalled tracks. You can wander in; there’s no security.

In a brightly lit room decorated with photographs of cross-sections of the living brains of unwell Greeks I meet Graeme Hesketh, an English radiologist married to a Greek cardiologist. He’s lived in Greece for thirty years. He’s a tall man with a sardonic expression, in a pale blue tunic and trousers and orthopaedic sandals. He hurt his foot recently and it hasn’t brightened his outlook.

‘The Greeks are getting what they deserve,’ he says. ‘The lifestyle in Greece for the last twenty years was entirely artificial. It’s not based on any actual production or actual capabilities of the Greek economy. It’s based on borrowed money.’

He moved to Greece because of ‘sun, beach, archaeology. Greek mythology. All the things I read as a boy.’ Now he’s thinking of leaving. The financial crisis hasn’t affected hospital supplies, he says, apart from occasional blips with stationery. But his wages have been cut by 30 per cent. His basic salary, with 22 years’ experience, is €1350 a month, rising to a maximum of €3000 a month with overtime. If he moved to Austria he reckons he might bump it up to €4500.

I ask about corruption in the health system. ‘Doctors have two techniques,’ he says. ‘One is to explain what they expect to receive. The other is to let it be implied that the amount can be decided by the patient. “I didn’t ask for anything, he gave it to me.”’

But he’d never taken a bribe?

‘I wouldn’t swear to that. When they bring you whisky or chocolates or money you’re in a difficult position. It’s easier to refuse money. There was an elderly lady who repeatedly came here and brought me chocolates.’

Had he taken the gifts? Had he taken money?

‘Gifts, without a doubt. I won’t answer the second part of the question.’

Even allowing for the low season, the coast has a desolate air. A few heads in bathing caps bob in the water. The seafood restaurant where I have lunch with the novelist Efrosini Camatsos, recently made redundant from her job as a university lecturer under an edict requiring all departments with more than 20 tenured staff to sack all teachers on short-term contracts, is almost empty. Disposable income is plummeting but prices aren’t. You can easily be charged three or four euros for a coffee.

The Greek financial pages have a story about the shrinking of local bank accounts. Fearful of a sudden government exit from the euro and reintroduction of the drachma, which would, it is assumed, immediately fall in value against the rump euro – fearful, indeed, of banks themselves popping like yesterday’s party balloons – Greeks have been shifting their money abroad. The cash held in Greek banks has shrunk steadily since its high of €238 billion in December 2009; it’s now down almost a quarter. In the circumstances this seems closer to sangfroid than panic.

As we drive through the Haifa-to-Tarifa-strip mall that the Mediterranean hinterland has become, the top story in the radio news bulletins is Italy. There’s a sense of relief that the country on the other side of the Adriatic is, for a change, winning the daily jeux avec frontières for euro-related political buffoonery.

We arrive at the local council building in Saronikou, a cluster of settlements just beyond the edge of Athens’s urban sprawl. The council’s spiffy new building is elegant, light and spacious, all marble floors and veneered partitions. The mayor, Petros Filippou, an amiable veteran of local politics, has the patriarchal desk set-up I saw so many times in former Soviet countries: a big chair and a broad, high desk for himself, two much lower chairs for visitors, facing each other, so that any petitioner who visits is physically obliged to look up and squirm.

Behind him are furled Greek and EU flags, a painting of the Virgin Mary and child and a painting of the adult Jesus got up in Byzantine bling. I remember how Hesketh mixed his talk of corruption with complaints about his sons being pampered by their Greek mother and grandmother, and wonder if there is something about Orthodox countries: societies using patriarchal methods to fulfil matriarchal desires.

Filippou’s council is one of up to a dozen in Attica encouraging citizens not to pay a new tax imposed by the country’s desperate government as it tries to pay off its colossal debts. All taxes are contentious, but this one has created anger of a particular intensity. It comes on top of a series of public-sector pay cuts, lay-offs, claw-backs, retirement age increases, tax hikes and a one-off ‘solidarity tax’ on property. Like the poll tax that did so much to bring Margaret Thatcher down, like the head tax the Ottoman Empire charged Christian Greeks, it takes little account of people’s ability to pay. It comes in two whopping instalments of hundreds of euros each. And it comes as part of the electricity bill. If Greeks don’t pay it, the government says, their power will be cut. Just as Britons used the phrase ‘poll tax’ rather than the government’s preferred ‘council tax’, Greeks have started referring to their new burden by the same name as the hated Ottoman levy: kharatsi.

Filippou’s council is teaching people how to reject the tax by paying their bills via cash machine and only paying the amount they owe for electricity. The indignation is particularly fierce among state employees. ‘The only people in Greece who pay taxes are those who work for the government,’ said the mayor. ‘The money can’t be hidden. Self-employed people, doctors, lawyers, mechanics, civil engineers, builders, plumbers – no one pays taxes. From the shipowners all the way down.’

In using tax evasion to make his case against the kharatsi, Filippou inadvertently explains why the government has taken such a drastic step. It isn’t the first time it has pinned a tax on the electricity bill in an attempt to make it harder to dodge. Greeks already pay for their TV licence this way, and their local government tax, which presumably contributes to Filippou’s wages.

When I begin asking Filippou about the new tax, he frames his opposition in terms of the issue that most vexes him: houses built in his district illegally, without planning permission. It isn’t that he’s against illegality, exactly. People building houses without permission don’t seem to bother him; it’s the bribes involved in getting permission afterwards that wind him up.

There are more than a million illegal homes in Greece, he says. He gets up, goes to the window and points to a white concrete shack on the roof of a five-storey apartment block. ‘That’s illegal,’ he says. ‘And that shop down there is illegal. Over there on the hillside’ – he points to a cluster of houses on a slope in the distance – ‘they’re all illegal. They’ve been there for ten years.’

I suggest that as mayor for twenty years he must know who is on the take.

‘Everybody knows, and nobody knows,’ he says.

Below the Acropolis, the residential centre of Athens looks as if it was demolished and rebuilt in the 1960s and 1970s. This is, in fact, what happened. Few laws can have determined the appearance of a city as absolutely as the antiparokhi of Greece. Under antiparokhi, Athenian families who lacked ready cash but owned an old house or allotment did deals with builders where, without any money changing hands, a five or six-storey apartment block would be put up. The owner of the demolished old house or the land would get a couple of flats in the new building; the developer would get the rest. The result is street after street of small grey modern blocks, no two quite the same, their outlines softened by awnings, graffiti, boughs laden with bitter oranges, the leaves of plane and black locust trees, and by the crookedness of the streets themselves. It is ownership of these flats that has enabled many Greeks to endure their shrunken incomes, and it is to these flats that many have retreated to watch subtitled Turkish soap operas and curse at the TV news, leaving the shopscape a quieter, emptier place. In districts like Kolonaki, where multinational chains offering standardised luxury for the masses recently thrived, stores are becoming empty husks and the red and yellow for sale/rent stickers proliferate.

Pawn shops and precious metal buyers are a growth category. Through a clothes shop and up a flight of stairs I enter the new establishment of Kostas Manos and son. In a poky room with a desk and a set of scales they buy gold and silver.

Manos senior was a jewellery maker until recently, when the market collapsed. He quantifies the drop in demand: 80 per cent.

‘Most of the stores I sold to have shut down,’ he says. ‘It’s free fall. I had 1600 different styles: one day, overnight, the shops cancelled orders for all of them.’

He reaches into the pocket of his jeans and brings out a flat cardboard box with a red gingham pattern. He opens it and yellow metal gleams. He hands me a Byzantine medallion bearing an image of St Constantine. It is 22 carat, he says; genuine, perhaps. He’ll get it checked and if it turns out to be a reproduction, he’ll melt it down.

‘Someone came in today with silver 30-drachma coins. He sold three so he could get 20 euros to put petrol in his motorbike. Another one sold a gold coin so she could repair the clutch of her car.’

Kostas Manos, born 50 years ago, is tall, with enormous fingers and a mass of greying brown hair that seems made of fine wire. He’s wearing a Sarah Lund sweater and looks as if he’s leaped out of some tough black and white world of chainsmoking and bare light bulbs and bread for supper. His son Alexander is not just young; he seems made of smoother stuff, with a downy beard and gentle eyes.

I ask if he, too, makes jewellery. ‘I want to be a designer,’ he says. ‘I don’t have the hands of my father.’

Darkness has fallen, and with it, a dynasty. George Papandreou, the prime minister, is on the car radio, making his parting speech. Since 1944 he, his father Andreas and his grandfather Georgios have been prime minister six times between them. Papandreou 3.0’s premiership was blighted from the start. On 20 October 2009, only 16 days after his mild-soup PASOK socialists had come to power, his finance minister piped up at a meeting with European counterparts in Luxembourg. Reminding them of Greece’s already high budget deficit, he confessed that, actually, it looked like being about twice as high. Sorry! It’s been downhill ever since, as the assortment of Greek and foreign lenders who allowed the country effectively to run up a huge mortgage jacked up the interest rate on that mortgage to fantastic levels. George Papandreou, who came to power promising to spend, found himself enacting extreme austerity.

The Greeks have never been quite sure what to make of him, with his less than perfect grasp of the language after years abroad in the time of the Colonels. There’s a video on YouTube of what was supposed to be a grand televised pre-election rally, all swooping cherry-picker camera shots and waving flags and Papandreou the motivator, pepping the troops with a mike from the big bright stage. ‘Gia tis kalpes!’ he was supposed to say. ‘To the ballot boxes!’ What he said was ‘Gia tis kaltses!’ – ‘To the socks!’

Now he is saying goodbye, reading his lines in a mellow voice, anticipating the coalition government that is due to replace him. But something’s wrong with the coalition-making machinery. He doesn’t name the new PM. Greece will go to bed leaderless.

I’m listening to Papandreou in Gazi, a fashionable district of Athens that was too industrial for the antiparokhi wave but whose small factories and warehouses made perfect fodder for smart developers with an eye for the taste of aspirational young Athenians. After the speech I visit an old industrial building being converted into lofts – lofts on each floor – by Konstantinos Politis, civil engineer and scion of a construction dynasty founded by his grandfather. We sit on sofas lost in the space of a 175 square metre loft, its ceiling high as the nave of a church. Politis smiles, remembering the clients who asked for exposed brickwork in buildings that weren’t made of bricks. But that already seems like nostalgia. ‘Two years ago this was worth €4000 a square metre. Now it’s very difficult to sell for €3000. It was a bubble. People would sell for €6000 a square metre, I sold one for €4500. Now I don’t want to sell for less than I paid to buy and renovate it. It cost me €2500.’

If Greece quits the euro he’ll be in trouble. ‘I’ve borrowed in euros and I’d be earning in drachmas,’ he says. ‘If we left the euro it would be a catastrophe.’

He isn’t as angry with the politicians as he is with the public for electing them. ‘We’ve been re-electing them over and over again because they’ve been throwing us crumbs. “Please put my son on the public payroll, get me a job and I’ll vote for you …”’

I mention my visit to Mayor Filippou and Politis points out that it’s virtually impossible to build anything legal. Germany’s building code, he says, has 50 pages; its Greek equivalent has a thousand. A recent survey found that most municipal planning departments were in buildings that in one way or another broke the rules they were supposed to enforce.

Politis once looked into opening a restaurant with music. He found that the regulations insisted on one permit if he had a band with three stringed instruments, and another, completely different, for a band with four.

It’s late evening and still there’s no prime minister. I go for a drink with Elias Maglinis, the novelist and culture editor of the daily Kathimerini. ‘Everyone’s stunned that we’re on the verge of collapse and these assholes can’t behave with common sense … They’re trying to save their parties. They don’t have in mind that they have to save the country.’

The staff at Kathimerini, the Greek Daily Telegraph, are still being paid. Journalists at Eleftherotypia, the Greek Guardian, haven’t been paid for three months. Somehow the paper is still coming out, despite the last-minute collapse of an €8 million deal to mortgage its premises to finance redundancy payments. When the editor asked the head of the bank what had happened, he hung up on her.

10 November. I walk with Efrosini Camatsos through the streets of Omonia, where Chinese-run shops selling cheap Chinese goods – Kinezaka – have nudged in between old Greek grocers selling corks and hibiscus tea.

‘Fifteen years ago nobody had a credit card,’ Camatsos says. ‘There was a rush right before the Olympics. They gave them out like crazy.’

The abundance of fish, fruit, meat and vegetables in Athens’s main market is gladdening. This, I want to believe, is the real market, not ‘the market’, the abstract financial construct increasingly referred to as if it were a curmudgeonly deity. Here, I suppose, Greece’s natural wealth is on display, eternal, ancient, a thing to fall back on in hard times. The gleaming golden eye-rims of the fish seem the true jewellery of the Aegean.

‘Salmon from Norway,’ Camatsos says, reading off the scrawled placards pinned to the fish. ‘Small squid from India, big squid from New Zealand, Atlantic octopus.’

In one part of the market, like a future educational exhibit explaining 2011 to schoolchildren, is a tiny stall selling just garlic. There are two kinds. There’s garlic from Argentina, ghost-white, firm in tight-fitting skin, unblemished: international supermarket garlic, skinny androgynous pan-ethnic teenage-model garlic, a marketing man’s Platonic ideal of garlic. And there is Greek garlic, from Arcadia, local resident garlic, grubbily plain, brown, earthy, flaking, peasant garlic. The Greek garlic from down the road is 50 cents a head; the Argentinian from the far side of the world, 33 cents. A woman comes up and buys some of the Arcadian variety. I ask the reason for her choice. She’s a patriot, she says.

‘Look out for metaphors,’ Jason Manolopoulos warns in Greece’s ‘Odious’ Debt, his recent analysis of what is happening to his country. He is describing the process by which powerful people – bankers, politicians, journalists – appear to be using figurative speech to make a concept easier to understand, but are in fact diverting attention to the image and away from the underlying sense. The underlying sense may be no sense at all, as with the repeated use of train metaphors by campaigners to get the highest possible number of European countries to join the euro when it was launched. The train was about to leave the station, sceptics were told: you don’t want to miss it.

‘The choice of the train is revealing,’ Manolopoulos writes. ‘If you are on board, the implication is that you will inevitably keep the same pace as the leaders. If you are left at the station you will never catch up.’

In retrospect, it is baffling that Greece ever entered the euro. Manolopoulos comes up with a plausible explanation: certain European officials, in a banal, masculine way, were obsessed with size. They wanted the euro to be as ‘big’ and ‘strong’ as the dollar.

There was a lot of talk about ‘convergence’ in the run-up to Greece joining the euro, as if swapping a weak currency for a strong one would magically turn a corrupt, nepotistic economy of olive groves and tourist beaches into a transparent, meritocratic Bavaria-on-the-Aegean. It seems obvious now that letting Greeks borrow, spend and import in what was taken internationally to be a pan-European Deutschmark would delay, rather than speed up, the kind of changes to Greece the North Europeans always said they wanted.

When the West Germans reunited with their compatriots in the east, the conditions of joining the Deutschmark zone were a mixture of ruthless privatisation, targeted spending on infrastructure and bottom-up democratisation, tightly controlled from the west. Those East Germans who still resent the way Bonn took East Germany over, rather than uniting with it, need look no further than Greece to see the results of going to the other extreme: currency union without controls or obligation to help between one part and another.

The other metaphor that vexes Manolopoulos is the expression ‘bailout’, implying rescue, when the bailouts for Greece have involved new loans to the country which, with unemployment rising and the economy depressed, it is somehow expected to pay back. Given that nobody forced foreign banks to lend money to Greece, and given that Greek governments haven’t invested the money but spent it on hiring extra civil servants, increasing wages and raising pensions, Manolopoulos argues that there is a case for regarding the money as ‘odious debt’ – a legal concept that suggests the people of a country shouldn’t have to pay back money their government borrowed and wasted.

I see vans scurrying all over Athens with METAPHORIKI written on them in Greek letters. Look out for metaphors! Is the crisis affecting my mind? It is explained to me that it means ‘removals’.

I swing by Athens University’s law faculty, decked with red flags and anti-capitalist banners. Inside the lobby, tables are set up with student representatives of various political groups sitting behind them ready to explain their ideas, but I am the only taker. One of the sleek, well-fed stray dogs that wander the streets of the city pads in and rolls on the floor.

Yiannis Petroulakis, a fourth-year law student and avowed Marxist Leninist, is there as a representative of the Radical Left Intervention of Law Students and Coalition of Left Students of Law School, or RAPaN-SAFN, to give the 30-year-old organisation its Greek initials. He and his group are protesting against the EU and IMF’s pressure on Greece and against the government’s new education bill, which lifts the immunity universities have against police entering the campus, makes it possible to expel students who have spent more than six years on their course, cuts some student perks like free books and brings in managers alongside academic staff. The changes were mooted before the crisis but Greece’s financial crash has given their proponents leverage. At the same time, rebellious students wield tremendous disruptive power on campus. Of the nine terms Camatsos taught, only one was free of a strike or sit-in that shut the university down.

‘Greece is an experiment,’ Petroulakis says, in mild, polite English. ‘If the IMF and the EU succeed in having all these miseries in Greece where there is a big public sector, where we have public education, where we have a public health system, where workers have rights, it will be easier for them to succeed in Italy or Spain.’

We talk for a long time. He exists in two mental spaces; in a utopian dream of revolution and a Communist society, and in a glum, pragmatic expectation of unemployment in the real Greece if he graduates next year. ‘Now I’m down to earth, talking about unemployment,’ he said. ‘I’d like to be a journalist. But journalism in Greece is a dirty job. It’s like our political system. Journalists are brothers and children of journalists and friends and wives and husbands of the newspaper owner.’

It’s not that Athens has nothing to show for the fat years. The metro I take to the western suburb of Egaleo in the evening is clean and bright and the new stations are grand and spacious. The old order paid tribute to the notion of a splendid common space for the people as a whole. On arrival I’m back in the world of commerce. Development around the new station produced gleaming files of small, chi-chi shops – imported clothes, imported kitchenware, candles, knick-knacks. All are open, brightly lit, full of goods. Almost all have no customers. There must be hundreds of proprietors and shop assistants on duty, waiting for trade that doesn’t arrive.

I’m meeting a set of protesters some way removed from Yiannis Petroulakis and his acquired visions of Paris in 1968. The Egaleo People’s Assembly is an ad hoc group of citizens about fifty strong, held together by indignation, mobile phones and a blog.

I’m picked up from the station by Dimitris, an accountant, and Georgia, unemployed but able to live off the rental income from a couple of buildings her family owns. Both are in their forties. ‘We’re political,’ Dimitris said, ‘but this doesn’t belong to parties.’

They’re going to protest at a regular meeting of Egaleo’s local council about two injustices: the new tax, and the fact that some of them worked for the council on short-term contracts, were fired, and are now owed months of back pay.

I wonder what sort of crowd they’ll draw at a small council meeting in a quiet, prosperous suburb at nine o’clock on a chilly night, but as the hour approaches there are, indeed, about fifty demonstrators there: a few students, many middle-aged people, pensioners, men in suits. The meeting begins and we file into the council chamber, filling the seats in the public gallery and spilling out onto the debating floor. The councillors, sitting in a c-shape below the benches of the council chairman and the mayor on a dais, look hangdog. The roll-call of councillors is completed and one of the protesters holds a bullhorn up to his lips.

‘The people: present,’ he says.

The rage begins. The rhetorical power and bellowing skills of fifty seemingly docile Athenians is unleashed on the councillors. They yell, shout, cheer, jeer, mock, gesture, strike poses. I feel I’m on the Pnyx in Periclean times when the fancier rhetoricians have had their say and the less exalted speakers get to weigh in about the price of bread.

‘You need to decide if you’re going to be with the government or with us, the people!’ one protester shouts. ‘We are demanding right here, right now, that you take a position!’

‘We will pay what we owe you in stages,’ comes the nervous answer from one of the pale faces on the high chairs. ‘Then we’re going to pay our suppliers. Over the next few years.’

11 November. A chill wind began blowing from the north overnight. I head for the city’s Panteion University, where one of the previous night’s protesters, Thomais Stasinopoulou, works as a librarian. I get there early and while I wait I wander into one of the lecture theatres. Somebody has sprayed the anarchist symbol in red on the bottom of two of the upturned seats and the entire surface of the teacher’s table has been used to write, in thick black letters, THE FAMILY IS A PRISON. Two Communist students are sticking fresh posters up at the back of the hall, showing a muscular young construction worker gazing off towards something fine in the distance. Meanwhile a woman is going from desk to desk, placing flyers on each one. GERMAN LESSONS, it reads.

Stasinopoulou seems a gentle woman, and it was disconcerting to see her, the night before, break off from quietly explaining something to me and yell ferociously across the debating chamber.

Last week, she says, the people’s assembly forced the power company to restore electricity to four homes that were cut off for non-payment. ‘If they can’t pay the electricity now, how will they pay the new tax? We put a sticker on the meter that said: “The people of Egaleo are here, there will be no house without electricity.”’

The time of political parties was over, she said. ‘We don’t believe in structure. All these years we had structure, and look at us now.’

‘We care about this country, and ourselves, and we don’t want to leave. We want to live here. So we are trying to take our lives into our hands.’

She earns about €800 a month after tax and has to pay a mortgage of €790. She squeaks by with the help of her husband, an electrician. Even before the new electricity tax, the government cut the tax-free allowance from €12,000 to €8000 and then to €5000, backdated each time. Women have seen their retirement age jacked up from between 50 and 60 to 65. On top of that, her salary has been cut.

The assembly doesn’t reckon that Athenians are starving. But, Stasinopoulou tells me, ‘there are people who have meat or fish just once a month, or just eat rice and pasta. That’s not good. My friend works at a kindergarten and the children stay there from eight in the morning till four in the afternoon and bring food from home to eat. She tells me that with some children the food gets a little less from week to week. One has toast and an apple, then it’s just toast.’

Athens is drifting back to how it was in the 1950s and 1960s, Stasinopoulou thinks. Old support mechanisms are being activated in a way unimaginable in Britain or Germany. ‘My father’s going to send me oil and olives for the year. One aunt’s going to send me a chicken or eggs or cheese. My mother-in-law has a garden, she’s going to send us apples.’

As we talk, George Papandreou’s replacement, Lucas Papademos, an unelected economist who ran the country’s central bank when it took the fateful step of joining the euro, is being sworn in in front of a cluster of Orthodox priests.

I’d already asked people whether there was a Greek Milosevic waiting in the wings to take advantage of popular disaffection and they dismissively mentioned Georgios Karatzaferis, leader of the anti-immigrant Popular Orthodox Rally, usually referred to by its Greek abbreviation LAOS. LAOS got 5.63 per cent of the vote at the last election, winning 15 seats. With the Communists and radical leftists standing aloof from the new cabinet, LAOS was given portfolios; the first time the far right has been in government since the fall of the junta in 1974.

Later we walk past Athens Polytechnic, where on 17 November 1973, the Greek dictators – supposedly democratising – suppressed a student protest by force, killing 24 people. The episode has become a rallying point for anarchists, radical socialists and the established left, and was the origin of the status of universities as sanctuaries from arrest that the authorities now want to end. It is term-time but for some reason the building appears deserted. Down one street is a line of plane trees that have just been brutally pruned back to the trunk, like a file of amputees. Against the wall of the polytechnic scores of drugs users mill around, skin weatherbeaten a dark red-brown, their clothes shiny with dirt. Some are shooting up openly. The bitter boreal wind gusts, blowing clouds of red dust in the air.

12 November. Before leaving Athens I pay my respects to Manolis Glezos, a living Greek hero. I find him at home, eating yoghurt in front of a wall of books. He’s 89 and his thick white hair and moustache and head eagerly jutting forward seem to put him in a kind of permanent slipstream. As the member of a resistance cell in Nazi-occupied Athens he became famous for climbing the Acropolis and tearing down the swastika after the Germans invaded Crete. Later, he joined the Communist Party.

There isn’t much evidence of mass support for his current campaign to get €1.5 trillion in war reparations from Germany, any more than he has intellectual support for his theory that proto-Indo European is a German fabrication, and all major European languages are descended from ancient Greek. But he remains a living monument to Greece’s recent past: the Axis invasions and Nazi occupation (which left more than a tenth of the country’s people dead), the civil war of 1946-49 and the dictatorship of 1967-74. Between the ages of 20 and 49 he spent 12 years in prison. His brother was executed by the Nazis. Last year he was tear-gassed while protesting against government austerity measures.

As we talk I notice that he refers to Germany, Britain, France and America collectively as ‘the West’. Isn’t Greece ‘the West’?

‘Greece is Greece,’ he said. ‘We are not in the West, we are not in the East.’

15 November. Half of Greece lives in or close to Athens. The other half is scattered wide over land and sea. From the capital it is 200 miles to Crete in the south, 230 to Corfu in the west, 285 to Orestiada in the north. I fly 170 miles east to Lesbos, just off the coast of Turkey.

The olives, misted blue, are thick on the branch, and across the island farmers spread plastic nets under the trees to catch windfalls as the long harvest begins.

Stefanos Vostanis, the Barbour-wearing, English-educated 28-year-old who runs the Catsacoulis oil bottling plant for his family, gives me Lesbian oil to sip from an ouzo glass – mild and golden, not like the peppery, greenish oil of Crete.

‘What I think is going to happen in the next ten years is a reallocation of resources,’ he says. ‘Someone working in a shop is going to close the shop and focus on things where the country has a competitive advantage. This is hopeful. Of course if you were working for so many years in the retail clothes market it’s tough to go from there to olives.’

I drive across the island, through pine forests where beehives line the lay-bys, their denizens fat on wild thyme. In the evening, in the hill village of Petria, its streets too narrow for cars, I chat over a glass of wine with Birgitt Naumann, a 64-year-old German who threw in her lot with Greece 25 years ago and married her bouzouki-playing sailor sweetheart Vangelis. I show her a picture I took in Athens of the cover of the Greek Private Eye, Pontiki, introducing Angela Merkel as Greece’s new prime minister.

‘I’ve seen worse,’ Naumann says. ‘In Germany we have daily papers like Bild and they’re not informing people. That’s really bad. The Greek newspapers are doing exactly the same. You could never accuse Angela Merkel of being a Nazi but they show her in a Nazi uniform and that’s not fair. German friends who come every year rang me and asked “Is it safe to come? We heard the Greeks hate us.” A German girlfriend was sending money and her banker told her it wasn’t a good idea to send money to Greece. “Think about it,” he said.’

The previous day it had become clear that France’s financial position was none too clever. All Europe, Naumann feels, is beginning to freeze up, and that is frightening for Lesbos, so dependent on tourists and on the EU. With a flood of infrastructure money, subsidies to olive farmers and the cheap private loans the euro brought, it transformed a dying island.

‘I owned three organic textile shops. Two years ago I closed the first one. This year I’m closing the second and I’m worried about the last … This year everybody wanted the money up front because they don’t have it themselves. It wasn’t just the Greeks, it was the Germans, the Danes. They said: “Please give us money, we also have problems.” And then I couldn’t get a loan.’

The rich sound of Vangelis practising the bouzouki comes from upstairs. ‘We have the olives,’ Naumann goes on. ‘The farmers have sheep. At least people from this island will have something to eat. Vangelis has a hundred olive trees. That’s enough for us.’

Two tourist charter flights from Britain have already cancelled for next year because they couldn’t fill the seats. The new wave of Eastern European tourists also face tough times.

I mention that I’ve heard good things about the Turkish tourists now coming to Lesbos in growing numbers.

‘The Turks?’ Naumann brightens. ‘Vangelis was playing for them in the restaurant and they are giving wonderful tips.’

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Vol. 33 No. 24 · 15 December 2011

James Meek claims that the official name of the hated poll tax was ‘council tax’: a fine example of Freudian slippage with its apparently unconscious reference to another levy for which many people claim to see no obvious benefit (LRB, 1 December). The poll tax was of course the ‘community charge’, just as the Falklands War was officially the ‘Falklands conflict’.

Harry Watson

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