Thursday, April 29, 2010

Debt crisis fuels clash of cultures in Europe

ATHENS — It's known as the cradle of Western civilization, but these days cash-starved Greece is viewed as more of a miscreant.
This nation where ancient infuses the modern, where buses and motorcycles whiz past stone remnants from classical times, has become a symbol of fundamental cracks in European unity.

At the opposite pole lies Europe's economic engine, Germany, whose people vehemently oppose bailing out the Greeks.

The turmoil over Greek debt has hammered the markets, hinting at another round in the global financial crisis just as it seemed to be fading. It also raises fears that troubled Portugal and Spain are next, highlighting a North-South divide in Europe that challenges the viability of the European Union and its common currency.

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Even if Greece avoids the worst — no sure thing, with some predicting it will be forced to restructure debt even after a multi-billion dollar infusion of European and IMF funding next month — the cultural rift will stay. Germany and France are European Union linchpins; Greece is generally viewed as problematic, relying on its partners' largesse and loose with statistics.

"They apparently treated their capital like waste," said Ilona Reichelt, a German retiree standing Wednesday near the Brandenburg gate, the Berlin landmark. "It's not like they've suffered an earthquake or a natural disaster. It's a man-made disaster."

Greeks, Germans clash

Modern Greeks take pride in their ancestors, pioneers of law and politics that shaped Western society, while also relishing a good life of carefree spending, lax enforcement and early retirement.

The retirement age in Greece is 65 for men and 60 for women — similar to Germany, where it's 67. But the Greeks shave off an extra 10 years for a wide range of jobs considered physically strenuous or hazardous. These include miners and port workers, as well as hairdressers (they have to stand all day and are exposed to potentially harmful chemicals), musicians, bakers and radio presenters.

In trying to explain how Greeks think, some point to Zorba the Greek, the fictional, free-spirited figure of dance. He's not the type to get his finances in order.

"I wouldn't say that all Greeks are Zorba, but part of every Greek is this love of life and this love of enjoyment," said Nikos Dimou, a 75-year-old Greek author. "The Greeks have a rather negative view about the Germans because they work too much."

Dimou attributes the differences between southern and northern Europe to the lack of a "Protestant work ethic" in the south — as well as the sun-splashed Mediterranean climate, which slows the pace and encourages corner-cutting.

Associated Press writers Juergen Baetz, Verena Schmitt-Roschmann, Daniel Woolls, Shawn Pogatchnik, Colleen Barry and Bradley Klapper contributed to this report.

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