Greece: A traveler's perspective
Greece is liberally scattered with half-completed buildings and empty hotels ... but that's not the whole story
I had only been in Greece for a few days when I started laughing. It wasn’t a giggle or chuckling kind of laugh, but a deeper kind of gut rumbling, thigh slapping laugh that went on and on. I was sharing a bottle of wine with Dmitry, an ex-footballer, and we were talking about the situation in his country as bats flitted around above our heads in the twilight and the distant sound of bouzouki music wafted through the hot pine-scented air from the local taverna. We were talking about the politicians, or ‘comedians’, and the more Dmitry mentioned them the more he laughed.
But enough of that, let me start by apologising for the piece of dramatic fiction I composed for my last post. I’ll admit that I couldn’t resist poking a bit of fun at the idea that the only alternative to economic ‘prosperity’ is total collapse and all-out lawlessness. Let's face it, that's what some in the media have led us to expect, but Greece, to all intents and purposes, is still a modern-looking European country and the casual observer would be hard pressed to notice any difference compared to a visit made a couple of years ago.
Anyway, let me get straight to what I think of the ‘Greek situation’ and be done with it. Here it is in a nutshell: Greece is okay. It’s a bit stale around the edges, like a piece of pitta bread left out in the sun, and the young university-educated career minded folks I sat on a roof terrace with in Athens one evening don’t like it one bit. This wasn't the country of opportunities they had studied so hard at university to take their place in. But it’s a country where suicide capitalism has been stopped in its tracks, leaving half-built concrete eyesores at the edge of every town and empty nightclubs and fast-food bars in places where they should never have been built in the first place. If your idea of ‘okay’ is the endless construction of new shopping malls, roads and airports, where everyone works in an office and has a mortgage and a new car every three years and kids are placed on a conveyor belt which processes them and turns them into worker/consumer drones, then I’m afraid to tell you that Greece is in a very bad way indeed.
But if you’re not that way inclined you might well ask what’s left now that the festering boil of suicide capitalism has been lanced. Well, the heart-breaking beauty is still there, the 1,400 islands with soils so fertile that the tables are laden with more fresh produce than people can eat haven’t gone away either, and nor have the 10 million or so adaptable souls, some of whom are actually unaware there is a crisis and still sacrifice bulls in a pagan tradition going back millennia. In fact if you view the world solely through the distorted lens of economics and power politics you might think that Greece should just jump onto a sharpened bronze spear and be done with it. But if you’re of a romantic bent and have the a bit of an appreciation of history you might just realise that this economic crisis has been whipped up by a media that is beholden to the power of what we may as well call The System, for want of something better.
It’s pretty hard to sit, as I did one evening, gazing out across Athens and the nearby Acropolis, reading a potted history of Greece and not come to the conclusion that this economic ‘crisis’ is a mere blip that will barely register on that country’s timeline. Financial doomsters may spew forth frothy talk of Eurogeddon and Grexit, but really if you can only see the world in terms of economic statistics and indicators then it probably does look doomed. True, it seems impossible for Greece to hang onto its euro membership – everyone I met said so – from waiters to a bank manager. But were they gnashing their teeth and pulling their hair out and begging to be allowed to stay in the ‘privileged’ Eurozone club? No, most of them just shrugged and said that at least they’d got quite a few infrastructure benefits from it (such as the superb Athens transit system pictured below) but now it was time to go back to the drachma. It’s the kind of intransigence that infuriates free marketers and talking heads on CNN.
A gift from the gods? Athens' super clean and efficient mass transit system
The party was over. The party was just beginning. From several people I heard it said that they had friends and colleagues who had ‘gone back to their island’. Many Greeks were turning off the office lights as they left and returning to their ancestral island homes in what Homer called ‘the wine dark seas’. Foreigners,at least those that like to be called ex-pats, were leaving like rats from a sinking ship. They didn’t want to be in a country with ‘no future’ (although quite which country with a future they were returning to remained to be seen). Other foreigners, let’s call them immigrants, were getting one way tickets back to their home country courtesy of the police.
We, for our part (and this was a holiday, so you’ll forgive me for not spending my time cruising the back streets of Athens seeking out stories of people selling their mothers’ kidneys for pennies) stayed in Athens for a few peaceful days before driving across the Peloponnese and catching a boat to the island of Zakynthos in the Ionian Sea. Athens, if you will forgive me for being sentimental for a moment, has a special place in my heart. It was here that I travelled when I was 18 and fell in love for the first time. We had slept on a flat roof, crammed in with hundreds of other cheap-as-chips backpackers, and walked up to the Acropolis by day to sketch the caryatids (I was studying classics at the time – sorry if that sounds pretentious). Athens is now just as it was then: dirty, chaotic, ancient, romantic, and unpredictable - and still a great place in which to fall in love. It’s a mixture of the first and third worlds, and is dotted with ancient ruins and little green parks filled with snoozing lazy cats and old men playing backgammon.
On Zakynthos we stayed in almost monastic calm in a stone building on an organic farm with few concessions to the modern world. No TV, no computer, no mobile phones and no other mod-cons (except an aircon unit, which I must admit I found it very hard to sleep without as I’m not accustomed to 40 degree centigrade heat). Some mornings, before the fearsome heat of the day took hold, I would go for a walk through the nearby countryside, ogling the numerous smallholdings with their strutting turkeys and staring goats. I would reach a cliff and look down on a wide sandy beach where, if I was lucky enough, I might just see the shape of a huge leatherback turtle hauling itself back into the sea after a night of egg laying, just as they had been doing for the last 150 million years. The air everywhere was suffused with the smell of wild herbs and myrtle, and the music of birdsong was always audible.
A typical smallholding in the early morning with inquisitive ram
It is a truly magical island, tenaciously hanging onto its charm despite the best efforts of the legions of young holidaymakers who tear around its coast during the day on quad bikes, partying all night and tolerably often ending up flying home in a black zip-up bag. Attempting to stay away from them wasn't too hard (tip: stay away from infrastructure if you want peace and quiet) and I spent quite a few days swinging in a hammock on a remote beach re-reading Homer and snorkelling with my daughters. Such a state of calm came over me that I even started writing poetry (I know, I know ...). In fact, as a survival technique for countering the toxic effects of media overload and peak oil over-contemplation I would highly recommend something similar. It doesn’t have to be a sun kissed Greek beach, just away from most humans and electricity will do.
I soon learned indeed that the island was girted with concrete and the seas filled with banana boats, party cruises and jetskis, but that the interior was more or less how it has been for centuries. Here, farmers rode donkeys, old women sat in the shade weaving baskets and people laboured in the fields bringing in melons, tomatoes and lots more besides. Roadside stalls were buckling under the weight of fresh bread, olive oil, wine feta cheese, fruit and eggs. Some had erected small signs that said ‘Supermarket’, perhaps because they didn’t know what a supermarket was.
Fresh produce was available wherever you went like at this 'supermarket'
Greeks, on the whole, are a friendly and talkative bunch (apart from the guy in the Athens souvenir shop who refused to serve us because he thought we were German). Between us, my wife and I have a good handle on eight languages, but Greek isn't one of them. So it’s a good thing that Greeks tend to be very good at speaking English and love to shoot the breeze with strangers. What most of them seemed to be saying was this: economically speaking, things are bad, but they are not half as bad as they are being made out to be in the foreign media. Madonna was a case in point, and her comments about starving Greeks did not go down well.
Still, the Greeks care about what people think of them and their country (as they well might with so much depending on tourism) and it was with some amusement that one night, on the television in our Athens hotel, I spotted a grizzled American talking about how friendly and nice everything was in the country. He looked familiar and on closer inspection it turned out to be Robert De Niro on some kind of hospitality PR offensive. Next to him sat John Travolta, who was making similarly encouraging noises. This, it was hoped, should be enough to convince jittery tourists to come back (I did speak to a couple of heavily tattooed English yahoos in a bar but they hadn’t watched the news for several years and were unaware of any ‘crisis’ or otherwise so they don’t really count).
Here’s my disclaimer: yes, I know that lots of people are hard up in Greece right now and we see and hear lots about the country on the news. We can even see people lobbing bricks and wearing face masks on the evening news (but tell me, what country in Europe doesn’t have a sizeable contingent of anarchists? – even Denmark has them). Greece has a debt problem and how did it get into it? It got into it because all sorts of dubious development was rammed down their throats in the form of loans to build the swanky new airports, highways and other things that are deemed necessary to be a global player in the 21st century.
Yes, a lot of people were willing to swallow it and get wildly in to debt and, yes, the politicians and officials are sometimes crooked, just like they are in any other country that has passed its 500th birthday. I’m not saying it isn’t hard for a lot of people in Greece right now, but in my opinion it’s going to be a lot harder for people in other countries soon enough. Greece, at least, still has members of what we might call a peasant class (and I’ll never tire of pointing out that peasant means ‘country person’ i.e. one skilled in making a non-exploitative living from his environment, and not a term or derision). In Denmark, for example, I doubt most farmers would even be able to start up their combine harvesters if the control software failed to boot up.
On the farm where we stayed, the owner, Dionysios (it seems almost every man on Zakynthos is called Dionysios after the island’s patron saint, including their celebrated poet Dionysios Solomos.) was a case in point. He might be a farmer, but he was also internet savvy and knew how to network with like-minded organic farmers across Greece, and I noticed an organic cooperative operating on the outskirts of the island’s main town.
Empty concrete shells were on the outskirts of many towns and cities
Oh yes, and those unemployment figures people keep talking about. What is it – 30% youth unemployment or something? Well, I can tell you that those figures are certainly wrong. Unemployment, you see, is relative and the kind that gets mentioned all the time is the kind of Anglo-American statistical unemployment beloved of economists. Greece, like other countries in southern Europe, has millions of invisible employers known as parents and relatives. No matter how idle or unemployable their offspring they can usually be found something to do stacking shelves in a shop or helping out raising children or lending a hand with the cash-in-hand cleaning business. And, yes, they probably claim unemployment benefit while doing so. Urban sophisticates in Athens would be horrified by this, but in truth it is they, when they lose their jobs, who are the truly unemployed. It must be particularly galling having left one’s family for a career in the bright lights of Athens only to find yourself coming back, tail between legs, and moving back into your childhood bedroom.
But perhaps more worrying is the rise of the far right. We made friends with Yannis, a veterinarian professor who lives in England but was on holiday in his own country, who expressed concern that the Golden Dawn party were on the ascendant. The cause of their recent popularity, he opined, was people’s fear that the destiny of their country was in the hands of foreign powers. Greece has no desire to be a client state of Germany, and neither does it go down well with the populace at large when the papers are filled with talk of selling off the islands to the Chinese. People, it seems, are being offered a choice between lifelong poverty and national bankruptcy on the one hand, or salvation in the form of foreign overlords on the other. Does it really take a genius to figure out why nationalist sentiment is being aroused?
It wasn't too hard to find signs of decay if you looked for them
So Greece has a lot of natural capital, is thinly populated, and has a bountiful supply of free energy in the form of sunlight. Why doesn’t it just declare itself bankrupt, devalue its currency, and get on with life (and get to keep the goodies, such as that nice metro system)? Life would be a lot easier without all that debt, plus the tourists would return because it would be much cheaper for them to be there. Well, the reason it doesn’t do an Iceland is because it’s not allowed to by its ruling political classes aka the Comedians, who are clients of the Eurozone central powers. Germany won’t allow it because of the feared domino effect which will result in quite a few northern European banks disappearing in puffs of smoke.
Putting China into the mix, it seems that the vast country hasn’t thrown in the towel over Greece either. Knowing that Greece has the world’s largest merchant fleet, China has pledged $5 billion in loans to its container shipping industry, allowing Greece to execute a coup that has left a lot of red faces in Germany. Greece sold many of its larger ships to Germany five years back when the good times were still rolling, but now Germany has no need for them because of the global slowdown in freight shipping and Greece is buying them back at bargain basement prices.
But how long can the Comedians who currently have the power hold this act together? At the moment the crowds which occasionally gather outside the parliament building are kept at bay by the police – but when the government can no longer afford to pay them … what then?
The only thing to do is wait and see.