Germans and Greeks

The Germans arrived by Mercedes; the Greeks by bicycle. They checked in at around the same time.

The six cyclists occupied the dormitory room on the top floor. Helmut and Magda took the ground floor suite, looking onto the terrace through French windows that offer a pleasing view of distant mountains.

Cheerful and polite, the cyclists were on a tight budget. When I asked if they’d like a late lunch they explained that they had brought their own supply of bread and cheese. Not music to the hotelier’s ear, but I was nonetheless taken by their unselfconscious and commendable commitment to no-frills touring.

The Germans were of a different vintage.

Helmut was a short, grey man in his fifties. Magda was as colourful as her husband was grey. She wore a red and blue trouser suit of a kind last fashionable circa 1975; an Hermes scarf was tied around her head turban fashion and her large tinted spectacles made her look a bit like Sophia Loren.

“I would like you to tell me where I must walk,” Magda said.

“Where you must walk?”

“Helmut has to work.” She looked at her husband with a combination of exasperation and indulgence.

I glanced down at Magda’s feet. Peeping from beneath her flared trousers were white patent leather shoes that looked better suited to dancing than walking.

She followed my gaze and said. “Just a little walk.”

Helmut went off to the room. I accompanied Magda onto the terrrace and pointed towards the path that winds through the meadow to a stream half a mile from the hotel.

“Follow the stream and it will bring you back round,” I said. “It doesn’t take more than half an hour.”

Before she set off, she lit a cigarette. Not the average hiker.

“What is it that he does anyway?” I asked Ana when I returned to the reception.

“He’s an economist.”

“With a German bank?”

“The European Central Bank. He has to draw up a strategy paper while he’s here.”

We looked together along the corridor at the end of which Helmut might at that very moment be saving the Euro in bedroom number three.

“They’ve booked dinner for seven,” I said, “I hope he can fix the debt crisis by then.”

Magda gave me a wide smile when she came back from her walk. “So refreshing!”

She was still smoking.

The Germans had the restaurant to themselves until eight, when the Athenian cyclists trooped in.

Magda had drunk quite a lot of wine. Her cheeks were red, like the jacket she had put on for dinner.

“It’s such a shame you have to work when you are here,” I told Helmut as I served coffee. I spoke as one harassed professional to another (though he was rescuing the European economy while I was just filling in for Dino in the kitchen – so, not absolutely comparable).

“Oh, it isn’t work,” he said. “It’s very satisfying!”

“He loves the endogenous zones!” Magda remarked with, I felt, an almost disconcerting degree of playfulness. She exhaled and gazed at her husband through a plume of smoke. He had lit a cigar.

“But I imagine things are rather difficult at the moment,” I said, “ what with the Euro and so on . . . there isn’t enough money to go round . . . ”

Helmut smiled. “No, no! There is enough money!”

I wondered if the ECB wasn’t being a tad unrealistically bullish.

“There is enough money,” he repeated, “but it isn’t going anywhere. It isn’t going up; it isn’t going down; it isn’t going round.

I hoped our middle-of-the-range Dalmatian red wasn’t about to reduce economic theory to a series of insupportable assertions. “Well, what’s it doing then?”

“It’s waiting!”

“Waiting?”

“In the banks.”

Ana was attending to the cyclists. They had ordered plain water. Magda, who, I was fairly sure, was four sheets to the wind, smiled at the Greeks in a beguiling way.

“And how are you going to get the money to come out of hiding?” I asked Helmut. A seasoned TV anchor could not have put it more succinctly.

“That’s what I’ve been considering all afternoon,”Helmut said. “And I’ve come up with a plan!”

I waited.

“But I will need your assistance.”

I’ve never been called upon to help rescue a whole economy before. I was rather gratified.

“If you can oblige us, we’d like to stay another day,” Helmut said.

So, he wasn’t after my Keynsian insights – but of course I was happy to oblige on the booking front.

“And if you could bring us some more wine . . .” Magda added.

When I returned with the wine, Helmut raised the bottle in an affable and courteous way and called over to the cyclists, “Will you share with us?”

At some stage in the evening, Helmut and Magda moved to the cyclists’ table, and as is the way of things, Ana and I joined in due course.

“Consumption!” Helmut concluded over a multilingual cocktail. “We must get people to spend!”

“Ah,” I nodded sagely. “The German propensity to save?”

Helmut looked at me with surprise, and then at the cyclists with expectation. “Not the Germans!” he said softly. “The Greeks!”