You can count on an Athenian taxi driver to let you know what people on the
streets are saying, or at least what the other taxi drivers are saying. Take
the Olympics for example. On what should have been a short journey from Athinas
Street to Kypseli I got to spend some time with a particularly informative driver.
Right away he knew I was a foreigner. "Are you German?" he asked.
"American", I replied and then added "Greek-American". There was a time in Athens when any foreigner was assumed to be American. Now they seem surprised that I am here. Since 9/11 Americans have been nervous about coming though it has not stopped the Greek-Americans.
"Very few Americans are coming", he told me. "It is because of all the bad news in the American papers about Greece".
I had noticed that the American media was very quick to exploit the negative stories coming out of Athens while ignoring any good news. A couple bombs in the district of Kalithea (which were as powerful as the one my nephew used to blow up a neighbor's mailbox in North Carolina) made the headlines and was even on NPR's morning edition, bringing up the question for the millionth time "will Athens Olympics be safe from terrorism." Who cares if nobody was hurt, the target was a bank in the middle of the night and that it was the kind of 'terrorism' that is caused by kids with nothing better to do and really don't want to hurt anybody. They just like to make loud noises and stir things up a bit. But you would have thought Osama Bin Laden had decided to follow up the Twin Towers with an attack on Kalithea the way the media handled it. The public reaction was emmediate. The next day a traveler wrote to ask me if the Hotel she was staying at was anywhere near Kalithea and my travel agent friends had several cancellations. And yet when the Greek National Soccer team pulled off the miracle of the century and won the European Cup my friend in San Francisco finally found it on page 8 of the Chronicle. Very strange for one of the world's biggest sporting events and a team that was a 100 to one shot to win it.
So I asked my taxi driver what he thought about this.
"It is very obvious what happened and maybe it is not exactly as I say but probably something like this. It is true that there are probems with the preparation for these Olympics, but there are always problems and never before has so much attention been paid to it. Greece is the smallest country ever to host an Olympics and these are the biggest Olympics but instead of having people cheering for us it is as if they are rooting against us and this is the fault of the media."
"So you think the negativity about the Olympics is media driven?" I asked him.
"Of course!" he replied. "For a couple of reasons. First of all things going smoothly and a successful Olympics is not news. It is just sports. But if the Olympics fail then it is a big story. But this is just normal media behavior. If you ask me why the media is so anti-Greek I will tell you what I think. When it came time for the advertising companies to submit their bids for promoting the Olympics most likely the American companies had the best offers because let's face it: they know how to do the job well and can probably do it more better for less money. But probably the American bids were turned down. Maybe not even considered. Why? Because in Greek business any company that puts in a bid is expected to return a portion of the money as a sort of gift of gratitude for their bid being accepted."
"Oh. Like a kickback," I said in a way that implied that I knew this is normal.
"Yes. Exactly, only they could not ask the American companies to do this because they know this is not how things are done in America and they would be reported and it would be a big scandal. So they politely turned down the American offers and went right to the Greek companies who know how business is done and got the deal which was not the best for the Olympics and Greece but was the best for the individuals involved."
I thought about this for a second. "And this is why for the entire year before the Olympics I did not see one ad for the Olympics on American television or in any magazines?"
"Yes" said the taxi driver. "Because first of all a good portion of the money for these purposes had gone back to the people involved in the deal and some was siphoned off by people in the advertising company. Probably there was not much money left to do anything but even if there was, the advertising company might not have had any idea how to get a commercial on American television or make one because the company chosen was not nesessarily the best company but the one willing to give back the most money or accept the terms of people in charge of publicity."
"So you think that the problem is corruption in Greece?" I asked.
"Corruption is the biggest problem in Greece," he replied. "Anyone with any power steals and those who do not steal are set up so it looks like they are the only ones stealing. We could have the most beautiful, clean, city in the world except the people who are supposed to represent us are only in it for themselves and they steal everything in sight while they act like patriots. In reality they are traitors. Unfortunately this is accepted here as one accepts the weather. Until Greeks say this is enough and throw the crooks out this will continue. There is a Kurdish proverb: A thief not caught becomes a king.
"But this is not the end of the story. The American advertising companies are not stupid. They know their offers were worth consideration and they probably all spoke with each other and figured it out and decided to teach the Greeks a lesson. The media is all owned by the same people and so it was not difficult to make sure that the bad news coming from Greece was given full attention and the good news ignored. In other words the Greeks did not want to play by the rules so they were going to be taught a lesson about how things work in the rest of the world."
I reflected upon this. Was it possible that the US media was going to make an entire country suffer because of a few crooks?
"Look around you" said the taxi driver. "Look at what is happening to our city. Everyday there is something new and beautiful appearing before our very eyes. Things are happening so quickly that what happened yesterday is already old news. One day Athens has a new tram that takes people to the beach. The next day a big highway opens that takes people around the city instead of being stuck in it. The day after two more metro stations open and by the end of the week there is even a train to the airport. In the meantime sidewalks are enlarged, streets become parks and one after the other all the Olympics buildings they said would never be finished are completed and suddenly there are thousands of gardners instead of workers doing construction. This is a miracle. Like winning the Euro-cup was a miracle and gave us hope that we could do this too."
We sat in silence for awhile and waited for the light to change on Agia Melitiou street.
"And at the end of the day the people who come will have a fantastic time and the people who did not come will feel like they have missed a wonderful opportunity to be a part of something very special while they watch us on TV. When the Olympics are over and our guests leave we will have our beautiful new city and Greece will begin a new era. There will be investigations and the people who took money for the Olympics to enrich themselves will be punished because this is not only a crime against Greece, it is a crime against the future of Greece. Those who are out of range of the law will be humiliated and this story will come out and people will know the truth about the media and stop trusting it and realize they made lies and exagerations about Greece to keep people away who really wanted to come and should have come." He stopped to catch his breath. We had arrived at my destination. I reached into my pocket to pay him and then added a tip that was perhaps too generous.
"This is too much, and anyway it was my pleasure." said the taxi driver. "But when you go back to America tell people that they are welcome in Greece by the Greek people and don't believe their newspapers. And tell them that there are many more good taxi drivers than bad ones." He smiled at me and shook my hand as I left the car.
As I started across the street he called out to me. "And remember that you can find out things from a taxi driver that the newspapers will never tell you. And some of it is even true!"
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