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The matter of trust



My son’s Athenian flat was burgled last month. I had been visiting Athens for the first time in more than a year, and so was with the family when they arrived back, after a fairly brief evening absence, to sheer chaos. Anybody who has had this experience will be able to picture the scene: every drawer and cupboard had been opened, with the contents spilled and strewn everywhere. Even the loft had been checked.

The thieves knew precisely what they wanted: gold and cash, and they found small amounts of both in the shape of my daughter-in-law’s few good pieces, my son’s wedding ring, and my grandson’s presents of money from his doting grandfathers. The gravest loss was that of the children’s crosses, as every Orthodox child receives this very valuable present at his or her baptism. The crosses are always gold, for gold is the symbol of eternity.

The worst part of this episode was the children’s terror. Baby Margarita naturally carried on regardless, but George (8) and Julia (5) were deeply shocked at this first betrayal of their assumed security, for entry had been gained via their bedroom door, a sliding glass one, much of which now lay in smithereens on the floor. It took fairly sustained efforts and quite some time to calm them.

It was interesting to note, however, the reaction when the police arrived after about an hour. Julia, in particular, was very reassured. It seems she has learned to trust the police. ‘They’re here for us,’ she said, a statement that led me to ponder briefly the effects of time and change. When I was five in that long-ago Australia, policemen wandered about in their navy-blue uniforms and directed traffic. We had a vague idea they had truncheons in specially designed long pockets at the side of their trousers, but we never actually saw one. The three Athenian enforcers of law and order were very different. Dressed in deep black with matching masks, they were armed to the teeth, a fact I did not find reassuring at all. Nor was I comforted by the fact that they all looked about 18. But they were courteous and efficient, took particulars, gave instructions about not touching anything before another visit next day, and left.

During the boring and protracted business of cleaning up, I began to ponder the matter of trust. When I first came to Greece and began living in tribal village society, I found the lack of trust and the level of suspicion disturbing. There was a complicated system of in and out groups, which I never really succeeded in understanding: I was, for example, confused by the fact that some people might have the family name, but had been consigned to an out group, anyway. There was certainly no trust in authority. A well-known Greek proverb states this suspicion, comparing those in power with fish: The rot starts at the head.

I had to learn, very often the hard way. And I had to learn that there were historical reasons for various groups’ attitude to trust. Australians’ friendliness and apparent naivete have often been mocked in the past, but we needed to trust and co-operate outside our known circle, for it would quite often be strangers who would help us through fire, flood and drought. But in troubled Europe different experiences had taught generations about exploitation and betrayal. It is a privileged society indeed that can believe in the maxim that a gentleman’s word is his bond.


'We needed to trust and co-operate outside our known circle, for it would quite often be strangers who would help us through fire, flood and drought.'


Still pondering, I happened to read an instructive piece by English writer Matthew Syed. In a recent edition of The Observer he argued that we need to relegate economics and politics to some lower level, since the West’s real problem is the moral one of lack of social trust. He suggests that a high level of social trust aids economic growth: it was, for example, a marked degree of co-operation between the genius inventors like Scottish James Watt and the canny businessmen such as Birmingham’s Matthew Boulton that did so much to kick-start the Industrial Revolution in Britain while the rest of the world lagged behind.

Syed maintains that there is a ‘tragedy unfolding under the surface of western societies: trust has screeched into reverse.’ Surveys show that trust in government and trust in fellow citizens keeps falling, and Syed points out that Donald Trump’s presidency ‘fits snugly into this pattern.’ Trump views duplicity as something to be proud of, and considers the trustworthy to be ‘losers’ and ‘suckers.’ In Syed’s view, Trump repudiated the moral foundations of his nation.

Alas, it can be argued that the same tendency is evident in Britain and Australia, countries currently led by men who have scant regard for truth, who foster inequality, and who are concerned first and foremost with their own image, and with clinging on to power. All these factors contribute to the erosion of trust.

To return to the Athenian break-in and my grandchildren’s rude awakening to the fact that not everybody obeys the rules or the law. We will never know what motivates such burglaries. The need for drugs, I suspect, in many cases. But perhaps the thieves were desperate because of hardship, prevalent in these very troubled times, for Greek society is also marked by inequality. The only certainty is that George and Julia were forced, perhaps prematurely, to learn a hard lesson.



Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an expatriate Australian writer who has written several books, stories and articles, many of them dealing with her experiences as an Australian woman in Greece.

Main image: A shattered glass window reflecting fragments of a street scene (Jennifer A Smith / Getty Images)

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, burglary, trust, social bonds, inequality, suspicion



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Existing comments

I admire your ability to write so rationally and perceptively after such a horrible experience. One can only hope that the children’s ability to trust other people will soon recover. What is most infuriating about such burglaries is that one knows that the proceeds will be shot into the burglar’s arm and the amount they received from selling possessions beyond price for their owners is likely to have been derisory. I feel for all the family.

Juliet Flesch | 20 August 2021  

Trust during my childhood days was a locked front door while the back door was almost always left open or unlocked. One trusted strangers to knock at the front door and NOT to appear at the back door! One's word was indeed one's bond and reputation definitely on the line if it were broken. An uncle signed my university scholarship bond - which if I were to suddenly break it would have left him with a considerable sum to repay. I did not. His trust was not misplaced. That your son and his family experienced such a break-in/burglary has huge psychological impact - friends who have experienced similar compare it to a personal violation. Yes, their safe and secure and private space is no longer any of those things. They have my sympathy. And the little ones alert enough to understand the situation and about the objects - the "things" taken (important as they are to moment and ceremony) have had to learn suspicion and alertness to dangers long before it should have been necessary to do so. I remember once being robbed on an overnight train from Germany, Switzerland - via Milano (the apparent scene of the crime) to Genova. I was so shocked. But in my sleeping back my money/TCs Passport/Eurail pass! Things. Replaceable! A lesson - never forgotten in 45 years.

Jim KABLE | 20 August 2021  

I'm sorry about this family trauma, Gillian and I hope your family recovers. We had an appalling home invasion recently in nearby middle class Coorparoo by two youths of 13 and 15 from out of the area, where Totai Kefu, a former Wallaby, was stabbed. The youths come from dysfunctional families. Well, we need to do something to restore that dysfunctionality. God save Australia! I weep when this happens. Inside.

Edward Fido | 21 August 2021  

That is a very frightening experience at any age let alone for very young children. At least your grandchildren learnt a good lesson about Police and how they can help. I couldn't agree more with the point about economic prosperity being encouraged by high levels of social trust. How do we get out of the mess we are in?

Stephen Hicks | 22 August 2021  

I often talk to my neighbour about cultural differences (she is from Brazil) and although there are differences that are, as you say, from historical reasons or taught from experiences, the similarities far outweigh the differences.
i think trust is so important in a civilised society and it is unbelievably sad that it is broken by our politicians and that promises are no longer seen as trustworthy.
Human nature is as it always was: good and bad and we must find more ways to foster the good and appreciate that the reasons for promoting and rewarding it are more lasting than focusing on ‘virtue signalling’ and condemning the poor,the ignorant and the mentally ill.

Maggie | 22 August 2021  

The statement that "... countries currently led by men who have scant regard for truth... etc" is also true for female leaders.

marita | 24 August 2021  

Trust? I experienced it in 1950s Melbourne when I had a summertime holiday job helping the local Ice Man deliver blocks of ice to people who had Ice Chests. These were the years before refrigerators were affordable. I was a fourteen year old school boy. I had free access to the customer' kitchen or back porch, wherever they had located their Ice Chests. Some customers paid weekly or monthly. The money was always there on the Ice Chest. Not once in my four years of ice delivering was there ever a robbery reported in my working class suburb. 25 years later the Ice trade was over. The houses now contained refrigerators, radiograms, televisions, washing machines, even if bought on Hire Purchase. And they had to be protected. There wasn't any spare money in the houses or precious jewelry but there were portable domestic appliances that could be easily stolen and traded for ready cash.
Economic stratification influences trust in a suburban community. The poor don't rob from the poor. But when some of the poor obtain valuable possessions through purchasing with credit, they become an easy target for the have-nots and/or opportunistic criminals. Crime at the suburban level leads to a loss of trust. And with a loss of trust comes a tendency to isolate. Sometimes Neighbourhood Watch is not enough

Joseph Quigley | 24 August 2021  

If they’re ever caught and convicted, you should visit them in gaol. A dwarf in bogeyman’s clothing is no longer a bogeyman. When the shadowy object of fear is revealed to be a shrunken absurdity blinking in the light, the fear should go away and you can then get on with the rest of the Christian stuff with them.

roy chen yee | 26 August 2021  

You're talking about a sense of honour and dignity as a man or woman created by God, Joseph Quigley. That is never, ever 'out of fashion'. We need it these days!

Edward Fido | 30 August 2021  

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