It sounded like a very sweet assignment: go to five different bars in five different European countries and hang out with the locals for a while. Have a drink. Chew the fat. Shoot the breeze. But the assignment was not as cushy as it seemed. For the theme of my saloon bar conversations was to be a subject that has been driving us all mad here for more than three years. The most complicated, tedious, exasperating and yet vitally important topic in world economics: the eurozone debt crisis.
Anyway this was the plan: visit a bar in each of five key countries that use the euro and find out what the ordinary citizens feel. Watch them unwind with a drink and in the words of my colleague Jeremy Hobson: test the “liquidity” of this crisis.
This is not scientific, of course. As an opinion survey the sample is pitifully small — about a dozen people in each of the five bars. And the sample was hardly representative — comprising, as it did, only people who like a drink, who can afford a drink and who happened to be in that particular bar, on that particular day when I walked into it.
Nevertheless it was an intriguing exercise. Over the space of 10 days I dipped briefly into five different watering holes in five different countries and saw afresh how varied and different these people are that share the same currency. Perhaps that is the problem; they are too varied.
What I found was this:
In Ireland, real anger and a whiff of rebellion. Some of the drinkers at a small rural pub in County Cork spoke of their fury that the Irish government had bailed out the country’s banks and saddled the taxpayer with huge debts.
In Spain, at one of Madrid’s tapas bars, people expressed alarm about the growing poverty in Spain. One of the drinkers spoke of her shock at seeing elderly, white-haired women dressed smartly in black begging in the streets.
At a café/bar in Paris I encountered the usual French insouciance, although a student fretted about his job prospects. Like many French people, the bar owner — le patron — blames the euro crisis on “wicked” speculators. But the French love affair with the euro continues.
The Germans have been bitterly criticised in some quarters for insisting on budget cuts and economic reform in return for bailing out the most heavily-indebted countries; they have been blamed for deepening the eurozone’s recession. In a Berlin bar I found contrition and sympathy for the Greeks.
Meanwhile, in Athens a jobless actor has shown real enterprise and is now profiting from the depression. He set up a cabaret bar and business is booming as his fellow citizens flock to drown their sorrows.
Oh, and in the midst of all this gloom I found some humor at work. I heard slightly different versions of this joke in Ireland and in Spain:
A man goes to an ATM outside a bank to take out 20 euros, but the screen says “insufficient funds.” So the man shouts into the bank: “Is that you or me?”