Beware of Greeks Bearing Bonds

Author: Michael Lewis
Date Published: 10/01/2010
Publication: Vanity Fair
VOW OF PROPERTY: Father Arsenios at the Vatopaidi monastery, overlooking the Aegean Sea, in Mount Athos, Greece. He is considered by many to be Vatopaidi's C.F.O.,
VOW OF PROPERTY: Father Arsenios at the Vatopaidi monastery, overlooking the Aegean Sea, in Mount Athos, Greece. He is considered by many to be Vatopaidi's C.F.O., "the real brains of the operation." Photograph by Jonas Fredwall Karlsson

As Wall Street hangs on the question “Will Greece default?,” the author heads for riot-stricken Athens, and for the mysterious Vatopaidi monastery, which brought down the last government, laying bare the country’s economic insanity. But beyond a $1.2 trillion debt (roughly a quarter-million dollars for each working adult), there is a more frightening deficit. After systematically looting their own treasury, in a breathtaking binge of tax evasion, bribery, and creative accounting spurred on by Goldman Sachs, Greeks are sure of one thing: they can’t trust their fellow Greeks.

After an hour on a plane, two in a taxi, three on a decrepit ferry, and then four more on buses driven madly along the tops of sheer cliffs by Greeks on cell phones, I rolled up to the front door of the vast and remote monastery. The spit of land poking into the Aegean Sea felt like the end of the earth, and just as silent. It was late afternoon, and the monks were either praying or napping, but one remained on duty at the guard booth, to greet visitors. He guided me along with seven Greek pilgrims to an ancient dormitory, beautifully restored, where two more solicitous monks offered ouzo, pastries, and keys to cells. I sensed something missing, and then realized: no one had asked for a credit card. The monastery was not merely efficient but free. One of the monks then said the next event would be the church service: Vespers. The next event, it will emerge, will almost always be a church service. There were 37 different chapels inside the monastery’s walls; finding the service is going to be like finding Waldo, I thought.

“Which church?” I asked the monk.

“Just follow the monks after they rise,” he said. Then he looked me up and down more closely. He wore an impossibly long and wild black beard, long black robes, a monk’s cap, and prayer beads. I wore white running shoes, light khakis, a mauve Brooks Brothers shirt, and carried a plastic laundry bag that said eagles palace hotel in giant letters on the side. “Why have you come?” he asked.

That was a good question. Not for church; I was there for money. The tsunami of cheap credit that rolled across the planet between 2002 and 2007 has just now created a new opportunity for travel: financial-disaster tourism. The credit wasn’t just money, it was temptation. It offered entire societies the chance to reveal aspects of their characters they could not normally afford to indulge. Entire countries were told, “The lights are out, you can do whatever you want to do and no one will ever know.” What they wanted to do with money in the dark varied. Americans wanted to own homes far larger than they could afford, and to allow the strong to exploit the weak. Icelanders wanted to stop fishing and become investment bankers, and to allow their alpha males to reveal a theretofore suppressed megalomania. The Germans wanted to be even more German; the Irish wanted to stop being Irish. All these different societies were touched by the same event, but each responded to it in its own peculiar way. No response was as peculiar as the Greeks’, however: anyone who had spent even a few days talking to people in charge of the place could see that. But to see just how peculiar it was, you had to come to this monastery.

I had my reasons for being here. But I was pretty sure that if I told the monk what they were, he’d throw me out. And so I lied. “They say this is the holiest place on earth,” I said.

I’d arrived in Athens just a few days earlier, exactly one week before the next planned riot, and a few days after German politicians suggested that the Greek government, to pay off its debts, should sell its islands and perhaps throw some ancient ruins into the bargain. Greece’s new socialist prime minister, George Papandreou, had felt compelled to deny that he was actually thinking of selling any islands. Moody’s, the ratings agency, had just lowered Greece’s credit rating to the level that turned all Greek government bonds into junk