The latest political joke here goes like this: A beautiful young woman claims she remains a virgin despite three marriages. "My first husband was very old and died," she explains, "the second was a homosexual and the third is a Pasok militant who keeps saying 'I will, I will.' "
The joke has two points:
First, Pasok--the acronym for Panhellenic Socialist Movement, has done little so far to implement its campaign promises for rapid and radical action in foreign and domestic affairs since becoming Greece's first leftwing government in elections last Oct. 18.
The second is that most Greeks appear just as happy.
The seeming paradox reflects the seriousness of the changes proposed by Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou, the founder and unquestioned leader of Pasok. For the first time since Greece's war of independence from Turkey in 1827, an election was fought on economic and social issues.
Taken at their most extreme, the changes would transform the structures of Greek society, much of it mired in the 19th century, and end Greek membership in the European Community and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Without Greece, NATO's southern flank would be seriously weakened. Without membership in the European Community, Greece would abandon something archrival Turkey does not possess and cut itself off from an important source of funds and a sense of belonging to the European club, which Greeks so prize as a kind of moral security blanket.
And without many of the fundamental reforms Papandreou wants to implement, the future of democracy in its birthplace remains open to question. Ten coups in the past century and a half--the latest being the military dictatorship from 1967 to 1974--serve as reminders.
Papandreou has signaled that he is willing to negotiate on the differences with NATO and the European Community. But even the optimists in Western embassies here read no more into that willingness than an encouraging omen.
Indeed, in foreign affairs, Papandreou has combined caution in his actions with a well-orchestrated campaign at home and abroad, putting the United States and Western Europe on notice that he intends to be taken seriously.
Negotiations on both the European Community and NATO have yet to begin, but the Greeks are delighted not to be taken for granted and their Western partners have signaled quietly that they received the message.
On the domestic front, the prime minister is stymied by a lackluster economy so heavily dependent on general Western European recovery that all thought of major money-spending reform has been abandoned for this year.
A postelection promise of an emergency economic package during the government's first 100 days was not honored, and the budget and other crucial economic policy statements have yet to be published.
Indeed, the specter of a totalitarian machine crushing everything in its path, the image that that the right-wing government tried to give of a Papandreou government during last fall's campaign, has given way to growing impressions of foundering, incoherence and drift.
Despite Pasok's control of 172 of 300 parliamentary seats, the government's accomplishments to date have been meager:
The voting age was dropped from 20 to 18.
The government officially recognized the largely Communist nationalist resistance against the German occupation in World War II.
Film censorship has been ended so that Greeks may now see "Emmanuelle" and other soft-porn movies as well as "Z," the long-banned film exposing the military dictatorship.
The state-controlled radio and television now tolerate the presence of the right-wing opposition--just barely, according to some tastes, but in any case more than was true for Pasok when the right-wing New Democracy party was in power.
Civil servants in the lower ranks were given up to 45 percent pay raises and were promised partial indexation in the future.
In a controversial gesture aimed at social justice, the government has cracked down on tax fraud and even publicized two telephone numbers to encourage denunciation of suspected tax cheats.
If much of what has been done strikes Greeks as peripheral, there is, nonetheless, an unmistakable pleasure in ushering in a new generation of politicians, many of whom come from backgrounds far more humble than of those they replaced.
"At least the new parliamentarians have names that don't sound like they come from an Athens street map," remarked a young woman, noting the Athenian penchant for honoring their political leaders in that fashion.
Fewer Pasok politicians speak English or French than did their New Democracy rivals. But the new men, no matter how formally opposed to U.S. foreign policy, are said to express themselves less as Europeans than as people thinking in American terms and concepts.
The opposition politicians fume and charge Pasok with massive telephone tapping--indignantly denied by the government.
But many Greeks seem angrier with the government for abruptly ending local television soap operas in favor of uplifting, but boring, round-table discussions of Pasok's version of the brave new world.
"We never found out if X was going to run away with Y or who married whom or if the baby survived," a middle-aged woman said in echoing similar complaints.
Nonetheless, the public has not forgotten Pasok's often derisive campaign criticism of the ousted government's failings and is taking note of its own inability to implement practical solutions promised often down to the most minute detail for problems ranging from the economy to Athens' parking or pollution.
At this juncture, the government has little to worry about from the parliamentary opposition because the New Democracy party is in a shambles and shows no immediate signs of pulling itself together.
Helen Vlachos, the acerbic editor of the conservative newspaper Kathimerini, mockingly suggested in an interview that "on day one the government announces something, on day two postpones the decision and on day three cancels it outright."
In part, the spotty government record so far reflects the inexperience of a Cabinet in which only Papandreou has had previous ministerial responsibilities. Pasok loyalists also complain that the new team spent valuable time digging into the archives to understand the full implications of the mess they inherited.
Vlachos described the government's performance as that of a "very small bull in a very large China shop." She added, "The only thing that has happened is that nothing has happened." She spoke with evident relief.
But such so-far-so-good thinking masks very real uneasiness about the future of Greece's foreign relations and promised domestic reforms.
The delicate state of Greece's economy hampers many of these reforms.
Gerasimos Arsenis, governor of the Bank of Greece, said in an interview that public-sector spending will be reduced this year--a policy that is hardly the hallmark of socialist governments.
Such Draconian action is dictated by an inherited inflation rate of 25 percent that Arsenis, Papandreou and Economic Coordination Minister Apostolos Lazaris have decided must be contained. "A high-inflation government is very vulnerable politically," Arsenis said.
Short of cash, the government realizes that its promises to "socialize" some key industries--the Pasok equivalent of a nationalization that appears to stop short of full government ownership--may have to wait until next year or perhaps longer.
In a country where the banking system was already nationalized, the government understands that it can take over any number of money-losing enterprises but does not have the means to acquire healthier firms.
One case in point is the government's suspicions surrounding an Exxon offer to give up a refinery in Salonika thought to produce a low profit.
"They have seized the commanding heights of the economy," a Western diplomat said, "only to discover they don't command much except for a few promontories which long since have been occupied."
Beneath the campaign rhetoric lies the fact that 80 percent of Greek firms employ fewer than 10 workers each and that 1.5 percent of all enterprises account for more than half of Greek exports.
Hamstrung by Europe's recession, which has reduced foreign capital inflow from tourists, remittances from emigrant workers and shipping receipts, the government remains committed to structural change to bring Greece into line with the rest of Europe.
What Otto von Bismarck did for German workers a century or more ago, and the rest of Western Europe accomplished in the 1930s and 1940s, in large part is still to be done here.
Nowhere else in the European Community is a government battling with established religion the way Papandreou is fighting with the Orthodox Church over instituting civil marriage, the first step toward separation of church and state.
Also in the works--a process that Arsenis suggested might take as long as eight years--are such projects as decentralization, educational reforms, imroved rent-control laws, freeing labor unions from government supervision, removing one of the two television networks from Defense Ministry authority and modernizing the farm cooperative system to cut out middlemen.
Confronted with a bloated and inefficient civil service, the Socialists want to force bureaucrats to retire at age 65 or after 35 years of service.
That practice, in the central bank alone, would clear the way for appointing 18 of the Bank of Greece's 22 directors, according to Arsenis.
Pasok is also trying to make government-run corporations more efficient and is discovering that previous administrations have packed the payroll with their friends.
One television network employs 1,400 persons--300 more than is judged necessary--including 300 guards.
Amid Pasok's protestations of injured innocence, the opposition has charged the party with infiltrating its own people into key ministry positions. Pasok says it has moved fewer than 200 persons and maintains that it has done nothing that the right did not also do when it was in power.
Still, so-called "green guards"--green is the Pasok color--have been depicted as party apparatchiks overseeing the work of nonparty ministers. This Eastern European vision is enhanced by Pasok's disciplined organization topped by a Central Committee and an Executive Committee, sometimes called the Politburo by its detractors.
The criticism seems to have struck home, judging by the lecture Papandreou delivered earlier this month to 4,000 party cadres. The message was simple: Stop interfering with the government.
Vlachos dismissed the cries of anguish emanating from her conservative, well-off friends. She does not believe in a left-wing coup.
She says she is convinced that the Army has learned its lesson from its botched performance as a dictatorship and in the field during the Cyprus crisis in 1974.
"It will still take Pasok a year to be as bad as New Democracy," she concluded airily. But beneath such feigned badinage lies the hope that Papandreou and Pasok, even if they if they fall short of their ambitious programs, will not fail to provide Greek society with an honorable alternative to the right. Even more conservative Greeks realize that the future of democracy very likely will depend on it.