The long history of mass immigration of Greeks to the United States began in the 1890s and ended almost a century later, so that when my family and I landed at JFK in 1980, we were among the last of our compatriots to seek a better life abroad. (The stream of college students from Greece, many of whom ultimately choose to stay in America, has never stopped.) Throughout that period, Greece used immigration like a pressure valve, exporting people in difficult times, but always welcoming their remittances. That long history of poverty seemed to me to have faded from the country’s collective memory over the last thirty years, replaced by visions of wealth and luxury.
The combination of relative political stability and European Union aid, which spurred both large infrastructure projects and much graft, began an unlikely transformation, at least in people’s imagination. Living standards improved, but what really changed was the national fantasy: a mix of American celebrity and neo-Russian excess, the country’s future was to be found on television reality shows, or in glossy magazine spreads of Aegean villas. Greece of the fishing boat became Greece of the yacht.
Earlier today, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund agreed to help Greece avoid economic collapse, offering $160B in loans over three years and a new fantasy: a period of deep recession followed by the triumphant emergence of an economy better equipped to prosper in the global economy. I say it’s time to redefine prosperity.