Greece

I am now so hopelessly far behind as to never hope to catch up, though maybe I’ll have some extra time in Denmark.  I’ve written several entries during my many train rides, but it’s been harder to upload them than expected.  I’ll try to get as many up here as possible now, although the accompanying pictures may have to wait for another day.

In the meantime, here’s a big chunk of pictures taken by my lovely guide Marnel on my trek on Hvar, an island a few hours off the coast from Split here in Croatia, this past weekend:

http://picasaweb.google.com/102535057799202679107

I’m currently in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, and if all goes well, I will be in Warsaw tomorrow morning to start the application process for my visa.  Kids are making a ton of noise outside right now because it’s the last day of school in Croatia.  Horns, whistles, cheering, trumpeting.  Ah, I love that some things are the same everywhere.

Okay, so here’s the entry about Greece.

From Mark Mazower’s The Balkans: A Short History:
“Historians of Britain do not, on the whole, spend much time wondering how much their country owes to its Anglo-Saxon, Norman, or Hanoverian heritage; but questions of continuity, rupture, and historical legacy are inescapable in the Balkans.”

Ah, Greece.  Even after long conversations with Greeks and American expats about Hellas, I left with a lot more questions than I came with.  A country with an extremely long history whose geographic position makes it, like the rest of the Balkans, highly coveted.  Literally at the crossroads between Europe and Asia and with a long coastline and few natural protective borders like the Pyrenees or the Alps, Greece has been under the dominion of non-Greek peoples for the majority of its vast history since the Classical Era.  You imagine Greece as easily boiled down to a handful of icons: ancient ruins, beautiful islands, olive oil, feta.  Greece has all these things, but they have not always been so obvious nor strictly Greek. (The islands and ruins have often changed hands, and did you know that half the ancient agora in Athens was discovered when a British railway company was laying lines about 75 years ago?  And that the Brits proceeded to tear up half of what they found, so they could finish laying the lines?)  Neither can these stereotypes–of course–explain the rich and confusing whirlpool of peoples and politics that is modern Greece.
The major mistake, I think, or at least the one I made, is that you usually think of Greece as being, well, European, just like France and Germany and Italy are.  It’s in the EU!  They have the euro!  They invented democracy!!  (These first two, it turns out, are currently very contentious issues in Greece.  I thought being in the EU was something highly coveted, since so many nations have clambored for it, and my understanding was introduction of the euro boosted the Greek economy.  Not so, say some Greeks).
But Greece is not European the way France or Germany or Italy is.  It is part of Europe, yes, but for the past 1500 years, it’s shared more history with Turkey and even Russia than with any of those countries.  (Italy a possible exception, as the Italians traded with and conquered some islands that are now Greek.)  At first the embodiment of the Byzantine Empire, then a sometime contented province of the Ottoman Empire, “Greece” as an entity has only existed for about 150 years, since the war of Independence in 1830.  True, Germany and Italy are younger than that.  But the cultural fabric out of which Greece gradually began to forge a nation differs vastly from Western Europe: Orthodoxy, not Catholicism or Protestantism; Mediterranean and Aegean, not Atlantic; Constantinople, definitely NOT Istanbul.
Furthermore, in the century and a half since its creation, Greece has hardly had a period of stable governance.  I’m no expert on Greek history, though my excellent host in Athens, one Mr. George Mesthos, did his best to try to learn me good on the past 100 years.  (Props to him for his lessons and the excellent books, including the one quoted above, he lent me.)  Its first king was a German installed by the Great Powers; it was ruled by various outside regimes during the World Wars; and from about 1965-1974, Greece was ruled by a repressive military junta, which, by the way, the US in the form of Richard Nixon gleefully backed, because–you guessed it!–they at least weren’t Commies.
In any case, government stability is still a goal and not really a reality for Greece today.  It was impossible to determine exact numbers, since these are not easily agreed upon, but my understanding is that Greek government officials regularly embezzle money from public coffers.  This is why the Greeks are so pissed that they’re the ones who will suffer for what they view, at the root, as government corruption and outright thievery.
This gets you a country where things are not still always, unfortunately, on the up and up for your everyday citizen.  Paying and taking bribes is still a national pastime–I was told doctors are frequent receipents of these, “so his scalpel doesn’t slip the wrong way”–as is dodging taxes.  When I arrived in Athens, George had just interviewed a pool company director about how many Greeks have been purchasing tarps and sheds to hide their pools, so they don’t have to pay taxes on them.  Why pay taxes, one Greek-American explained to me, if you’re going to have to pay bribes to get the goods and services you need anyway?  Especially since government officials are sometimes using your money to buy themselves planes and summer homes?
All this is not to say that Greece isn’t a lovely country with some very generous, kind and passionate people.  It’s just to say that I think most people assume those things, and they’re true, but the full pictures includes a lot more than I think your average American or Western European suspects.
Okay.  Few vignettes to illustrate the kinds of things I’m talking about, before this gets too long.
My notes on Greece from the train ride between the airport and Athens:
Is this really obvious to observe?  Everything here is really…Greek.  You sort of notice right away, when you get off the plane.  Like…everything is scrawled in these indecipherable symbols.  It looks like someone decided to redo the decor with math equations.  Also obvious: the lighting and coloring is different here.  More like the Middle East.  The sky is a different blue.  And it is dry as hell here.  The soil looks dusty.  It looks…yeah, more like Israel than France.  (Note: check a map.  Athens is closer to Jerusalem than Paris.)  Also, I feel like the metro announcer is a slightly more bubbly version of someone’s Italian grandmother.
First impression of Athens on Tuesday afternoon–before the protests on Wed.:
Seeing the Plaka, Athens’ main tourist square, and the surrounding Flea Market is what made me realize how much Greece is a place of East meets West.  In the square outside Monastiraki, dark-skinned vendors hawk trinkets and strawberries alongside newspaper kiosks selling Coke and Fanta.  A man sells me a stick of rolled coconut as roaming Bangladeshi youths try to sell me parasols, while a store behind me sells “I ❤ Athens” tee shirts and mugs.  I turn down a few alleys and find myself in the middle of what looks exactly like an Arab bazar, the square jangling with polished tea sets and squat gas lamps, storefronts set with used chandeliers and rolled carpets.  It’s like a 19th century Turkish garage sale.  I turn a corner and find a shoe store selling Converses and a shop selling designer purses.  The Byzantine church in Monastiraki is next to an Everest, the Starbucks of Greece.
On the ferry to Mykonos:
Shouting men board the boat at Syros.  Given my experience with shouting so far in Greece, I start, but it turns out they’re just selling something.  The kindly Greek woman sitting across from me beckons to one and asks for two of his packets, which are round and wrapped in white paper.  He shrugs and gives her a third for free.  After she pays, she holds one out to me.  I thank her in as many languages as possible, then study the wrapping.  Honey of Syros…sugar…”Oh, it’s nougat!”  Inside I find two paper-thin wafers glued together by the creamiest, sweetest nougat I have ever tasted.  The Greek woman is smiling and nodding.
On Mykonos:
I get to Mykonos late, after 11 pm.  My lovely host, a firebrand of a Greek lady named Danai, laughs at my apologies and says, “Late?  No, this is morning time here.”  We head back to the bar she’s been drinking and chatting at, where she fixes me up with some type of ouzo that has less anise but just as much alcohol.  She orders me a plate of incredibly fresh tomato slices served with a chewy, dried meat and a local cheese that is denser and sweeter than feta, and possibly even more delicious.  All this, of course, is drowned in a thick and zesty Greek island olive oil.
Conversation turns, of course, to politics, and I show everyone my pictures from the Athens protest.  Danai shakes her head.  “See?  All these people who came with their kids…they didn’t show that on the news.  They never show the real story on the news.”  I show her the picture of the sign with the EU flag’s stars rearranged as a swatstika.  “Ha!  That’s perfect,” she says, grinning.  “That’s absolutely right.”
While rolling an endless stream of cigarettes, Danai tells me how she feels the EU has screwed Greece; how if it was real Union, they wouldn’t have to send the much-hated IMF into Greece to “save” the economy, a move many Greeks believe will worsen the crisis; how much money government officials have stolen from the people.  “The Finance Minister took 5 million euro!  Where is he?  Not in jail!  Where is the money?  It’s in Switzerland!”
Their justified cynicism makes them somewhat susceptible to conspiracy theories, which come in varying degrees of…conspiratorialness.  Danai and her friend talk about marching in peaceful protests that got ugly only when one isolated protestor threw a Molotov cocktail–and that often, they say, it turns out this protestor is an undercover cop.  But this is never reported, because the media here is regarded as purely propaganda.  (“Journalist” is a dirty word in Greece.  The problem is, when you can’t trust any official sources, everything becomes myth and rumor, and basic statistics start to vary from person to person.)  Then they try to tell me that 9/11 was set up by the US government as a pretext for invading Iraq.  Danai says sympathetically, “It’s not just the US.  Governments do this everywhere,” but her friend goes further, reciting a rumor of a kind I didn’t think I would hear in Greece: “You know, the Jews didn’t show up to work the day of the attacks.  How come?”
Not all her friends seem so cynical or despairing.  At the next bar, I meet her quiet, puppy-faced friend who is a part-time musician and life-time resident of Mykonos.  “Why would I leave?  This is paradise!” he explains.  He asks where I’m from and where I’m traveling to, and after telling him my story, I add, “So after this I’ll go back to the US and become a real person.”
He smiles gently.  “Well…that depends on what you mean by real,” he says.  “Maybe you are more real now.”  He takes out a loop of worry beads, which I’ve seen clenched in the hands of many Greeks, and begins fingering the beads.  When I ask about it, he tells me, “It’s because I don’t smoke.”  They used to be used to count prayers, but for him, it’s something to channel nervous energy.  He passes them to me and I try it, rolling them in my hands for a few minutes.  Maybe it’s all the liquor and Mythos beer, but I start feeling like he’s got the right idea.
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2 responses to “Greece

  1. Wow! Very interesting post… I’m a little jealous of all your adventures! Have fun and be safe!

  2. Colin de Silva

    Ah, so you did make it to Borough Market! Glad you did. Fantastic place.

    The magazine in question is called “The Big Issue” (http://www.bigissue.com/). It’s a charity that exists to help homeless people, and vendors of the magazine keep half the proceeds.

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