Just trying to help the Greeks back on their feet

Americans everywhere have been transfixed in recent weeks by the European sovereign debt crisis.

The unemployed stop their job search to review updates on the latest austerity measures. The uninsured ill worry that German banks will grow weary of bailing out neighboring Eurozone economies. Twenty-somethings who’ve given up on the American Dream join fantasy leagues to make a game out of which nation is most likely to default.

Not really.

The truth of the matter is that we don’t give two drachmas about economic problems on the Continent when we’ve got so many of our own. About the only time it comes up is when someone on the Right uses the crisis as an example of where “creeping socialism” is leading the U.S., or when someone on the Left wants six weeks of vacation.

The problems of Europe are centered for now in hot-headed countries like Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain (the so-called “PIGS” nations). The swarthy peoples of the Mediterranean have been spending beyond their means for decades, borrowing against their children’s futures so they can eat olives, attend bullfights and long for their fascist past. Now, bondholders who subsidized this lavish lifestyle are demanding repayment, and they don’t want it in oregano.

The Greeks have come in for the most scrutiny. Every day, it seems, there’s yet another boring headline that nobody reads announcing “Resilient Euro Edges Lower Over EFSF Confusion,” accompanied by a photo of Athenians engaged in sun-splashed rioting. Austerity is painful and Zeus forbid the Greeks should be uncomfortable.

I wanted to learn more about the underlying causes of the crisis, so recently I ate lunch at a local diner run by Greek-Americans. Maybe this meat-and-three-vegetables eatery could give me some insight into why the inventors of democracy, geometry and men-wearing-white-skirts have screwed up their finances so badly.

I got my first clue from the sign outside Charlotte’s Steele Creek Cafe.

“Try Momma’s Meatloaf,” it read. “More Than 22 Vegetables.”

I don’t know a lot about Greek cooking, but it seems like including that many vegetables in a meat loaf recipe is destined to turn out poorly. It wasn’t until I got to the counter inside that this apparent example of profligacy and waste was clarified for me.

“It’s two separate things,” said the cashier taking orders. “That’s why it’s on two lines.”

“The line-break alone is not necessarily sufficient, even in signage,” I countered. “There should be a period, or at least a comma or semicolon.”

“Can I take your order?” she persisted.

Much like the people of Greece have shown through their street protests that they need adequate time to get their economic house in order, so too did I need a minute to decide on my lunch.

The sign behind the counter was filled with more lunch choices than I could readily digest. I stepped back to join several other would-be diners stroking their chins and pondering the selection. There was certainly a lot of what I think of as Greek food — souvlaki, a gyro plate, the eponymous Greek salad — but there was also Calabash shrimp and Philly cheesesteak and French fries.

And there were at least 22 vegetables, assuming you count stuff like mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, and rice and gravy as vegetables, which we here in the South very much do.

I asked to see a printed bill-of-fare to better study my options. I grew slightly more optimistic about the health of the world economy when I noticed that “default” and “currency devaluation” were not on the menu. I also saw that several prices had been whited out, with new prices handwritten over them. This seemed to indicate the Greeks were getting serious about real-world costs, at least when it came to the Ultimate 8 oz. Hamburger with Cheese.

Finally, I decided on the “hot dog (all-beef) combo,” a meal that would include my drink and choice of fries or onion rings, all for $4.80. I’m guessing the raw ingredients cost about half that, and was confident the difference would make a nice dent in the nation’s €216-billion debt.

“I’ll have the number 13,” I told cashier Tai’Shiquá. “Hopefully, the profits will help your people in their hour of need.”

“Say what?” Tai’Shiquá answered. She sounded a bit put-out, but I knew deep down in her proud Greek soul that she was grateful for my purchase.

While I waited for the order to be ready, I looked around the restaurant for a table. A working-class crowd was quickly filling the joint, giving the appearance that this really could be a profitable business if a bit of fiscal restraint were in place.

They could start, in my opinion, with the ketchup. Not only were there individual bottles sitting in every booth; there were several more available at the napkin and condiment station. Plus, there were additional packets included with to-go orders.

Another bit of excess could be seen at the fountain drink dispenser. Diners tapped their own selections, and could easily choose not to fill most of the cup with ice, cutting severely into a potentially high profit margin.

In two corners of the room, up near the ceiling, a pair of televisions played non-stop. There was no fee to watch.

A shelf near the door held the day’s newspapers. Their wrinkled appearance hinted that an earlier customer had purchased them at breakfast, then left them behind for others to read. This, despite the fact that all three publications were being sold from newsstands just outside.

Over in the corner were the restrooms. These were also free, despite the fact that many patrons would be willing to pay dearly for bathroom privileges after finishing off a plate of deep-fried perch.

I vaguely knew the owner from a previous visit, and decided to seek him out after I finished my lunch. I wanted to congratulate Pete Kakouras for the tentative starts he had made toward economizing, and offer my suggestions for what more he could do to move his restaurant and his homeland toward prosperity.

But Pete is gone. I’m told he sold out about two months ago. The new owner, an Asian gentleman named Jun Park, would be glad to speak with me, as long as I knew Korean.

So that’s the way it is: the Greeks are in danger of pulling the rest of Europe down the (free) toilet with them, and all because globalization made it necessary that they sell out to foreign interests. No wonder they’re fighting against tough austerity measures so violently. The cuts are being imposed by outsiders from the Orient. Next thing you know, we’ll see kim chi on the menu.

Whatever. You try to step up and help a foreign country get its house in order, and this is the thanks you get — a mythological tragedy of epic proportions, and an undercooked wiener on a soggy bun.

It’s all Greek to me.

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