THE following passage was written by John Humphrys of the Today Programme: "An old woman approached our table as we ate lunch and pointed to the basket of bread.
When I held it out to her she grabbed a chunk and started chewing. She found it difficult to look at us. God knows how she managed to swallow her pride.'
Humphrys wrote that passage about Greece ten days ago. It chimed with a snippet of Channel 4 News when Jon Snow spoke to a homeless, elderly man on his way out of a soup kitchen. "What was your profession?" he asked. "I was an engineer."
Snow was aghast. I could understand why. Destitution is destitution. It shouldn't matter to us how people led their lives before it struck. But it does matter. A question flashes through your mind: If last year he lived like us, could we be like him in a year's time?
And another: how can we help? It's a concern that has particular resonance now that the schools have broken up for the summer.
For alongside the awful news bulletins from Greece and Spain are advertisements for bargain basement holidays. For £259 it's possible to fly from Glasgow and have seven nights B&V by an economically stricken seaside.
Many families will be tempted, particularly given the wettest spring and summer on record. I've been looking too.
But it's a dilemma. Is it right to go and contribute the tourist euro? Or is holidaying in Mediterranean Europe this year the equivalent of shopping in a pawnbroker or buying at a bankruptcy auction?
Will families be grabbing a bargain at someone's expense?
Humphrys says it would be possible to visit Greece and think nothing had changed. There are still yachts with their bronzed human deck furniture. The upmarket shops in Athens are full. But just a few streets away it's another matter.
One man threw himself from the Acropolis the other day. Many more have ended their lives in the Corinth Canal. Families of the unemployed are living off their grandparents' pensions. People who are still in work have seen their wages slashed. Many can neither pay their mortgage nor sell their home. Electricity is cut off.
Public insurance is strapped for cash so people are having to buy their medication – even when the cost runs to thousands of euros.
Should we, the still solvent by comparison, even contemplate arriving in the midst of such misery to sight-see or to sun-bathe? Or should we stay here and send what we can as a donation?
If Greece sounds too distressing to visit, what about Spain? Just think of the vitamin D that could be absorbed lying on a sunbed on the Costa del Anything. For £289 per person you'll get a studio in September – flights included. Spain has just become football champions of Europe so the mood is upbeat.
It's a much needed fillip for a country where one person in four is unemployed. The figure rises to one in two of the under-25s and it may not have peaked. Ernst &Young predicts that it will be 2013 before the worst effects of the "ticking time bomb" of bad debt in the eurozone are felt. How much worse can it get?
In June manufacturing dipped all across Europe, even in Germany. China's growth rate is slowing despite government efforts to arrest the slide. Here the Bank of England is about to inject a further £200bn into the economy to try to ginger it up.
It's macro-economics and it will decide our individual fates. Should we therefore head for the sun while we still can just about afford to? But how will we deal with what we see?
I spent a week in Marrakech a few years ago. I was intrigued by how few people wore spectacles until I noticed how many were blind. They didn't have better eyesight than we do. They were just dirt poor.
After that, instead of seeing the country as colourful and exotic, I became distressed by the child beggars, Dickensian workshops and starved, whipped donkeys. In the Atlas mountains I saw village men dig a well to supply a rich man's Kasbah that was being built. The soil was little more than muddy sand and they must have been 10ft down without any wooden props to prevent a cave-in.
I didn't like the contrast between their circumstances and mine. It was an uncomfortable experience.
From this distance I can see that my reaction was misguided: the Kasbah was to be a holiday-let for rich tourists. It would bring money and employment to the village. It would change for the better the lives of those men and their children.
My error was brought home to me by the financial turmoil in Southern Ireland. I have friends whose businesses are untenable and probably unsaleable. I know people who are stretching to make ends meet and who have cause to be grateful for the strength of family bonds.
I also know without the shadow of a doubt that what they seek for the future is a hand up, not a hand-out. In similar circumstances, wouldn't we all?
Like the people of Greece and Spain, pride remains. For some it is all that remains, which only heightens its importance.
Tourism has been an important industry for all of the countries that have been worst hit. They are probably hoping that this revenue too hasn't deserted them.
So families should grab those cheap deals with both hands and a clear conscience. In Greece, restaurant prices are down by a third so it's possible to eat out every lunch and dinner.
Holiday makers can take taxis, buy souvenirs, have a massage or a manicure, to spread euros as far through the local economy as possible.
It will be, of course, a mere drop in the ocean. But drop by drop, water can wear away stone. So euro by euro we might help some of them back onto an even keel. And while we do so we can hope and pray that no one will need to do the same for us, before this crisis ends.
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