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Greece is Hell?!!

Athens, Acropolis view"Moving to Greece? You are so lucky!"

How many times have I heard that this month? Yeah I guess I am lucky. Anyone is lucky who can break out of their daily routine and do something completely different for a year. And you can have a rich and fulfilling experience in some of the worst places on earth, so a year in Athens looks pretty good no matter how you slice it. But I have some anxiety about it. I am not moving to a beautiful little village on a Greek island, I am moving to Athens, the only place (besides Thessaloniki) where my daughter can continue her schooling in English. In this case she is going to ACS, the American Community Schools of Athens where I graduated, my wife graduated, all my brothers and sisters graduated, my father taught, Andrea's mother was the school nurse, and even my mother was a substitute teacher. They give a 25% discount to alumni but the way I figure it with all the connections to the school I have my daughter should go for free. But that's not gonna happen. Anyway I digress....

Greek post officeAs any foreigner living in Athens will tell you there is a lot to love and a lot to hate about the city. The same with Greece really. My father retired from teaching in New York and moved back to Greece. He loved it for the first few years. I remember that when he got his voting card and actually took the bus to Agia Paraskevis to vote he was so pleased with himself. This was in the eighties and traffic was just starting to get really bad but he had developed these driving routes from Pendeli, where he lived, to downtown, using back streets and avoiding all the traffic jams on the main roads. Eventually the rest of Athens discovered his secret routes too and that really annoyed him. He had girlfriends like Lily Christianson, the painter on Mykonos who I thought he would marry, and Angela Stamos, who he actually did marry. He was living the life of a carefree bachelor at the age of 60. He used to tell me funny stories about the Greek bureaucracy and how hopeless it was and how nobody cared about anything except getting paid for doing as little work as possible. He treated it as an amusement at first.  Little by little my father found himself butting heads with this bureaucracy more and more, and doing anything, going to the bank, buying a stamp, paying a bill, became an all day adventure that often led to frustration and anger. One day he packed his bags and left Greece and moved to New Mexico. Why New Mexico? Because it looked like Greece but there were no Greeks there. In other words his 10 years of living in Athens had destroyed one of this greatest loves. His love of Greece.

MonasitirakiI see a lot of my friends who stayed on in Athens when the rest of us had moved to America and England to go to schools, get jobs, raise families, and I see that they are torn. Athens can really drive you down. But there is so much about it that you can't live without once you get used to it. Sitting at an outdoor cafe drinking a frappe, going to tavernas at night with your friends, the sea, the mountains, the Acropolis, and the inherent good nature of most Greeks which you can sometimes forget after having daily interaction with people who you can only describe as selfish immature jerks. My foreign friends struggle against the same bureaucracy that the Greeks have to struggle with, but as foreigners they may have it worse because every Greek knows someone, a cousin, a friend of a friend, or an old army buddy who can pull a few strings and make things happen (some would say grease a few palms-you have to know who to pay). Foreigners may be dealing with someone behind a desk who not only does not feel like working today but is wondering why they should lift a finger to help someone who is not even from Greece.

The Greek mentality is a weird thing (really?). Just ask Pandelis Melissinos, son of the poet-sandalmaker who has written me pages on what is wrong with us (see I include myself and I am only half Greek) which I would put on my website if I was not afraid he and I would be run out of Athens. But let me tell you a couple stories about the last time I was going to move to Greece which have me in an elevated state of pre-Greece Travel neurosis which is bad enough when I am just going for the summer.

Matt Barrett at An Club, Athens, GreeceIt was sometime in the eighties and I was playing guitar and singing my songs all summer in the Old Captain Bar in Sifnos, and then in a club called Arditos Hill in Mets, and another called Surubaja Johnny's in Goudi. I had already put out a couple records in the states and the people I had been playing with were already famous when I walked into the office of a record company (I think it was EMI) with my records, press and resume, and one of the main guys sat me in his office. He was definitely impressed and he let me know. He was a hip guy. Don Dixon, my producer had just produced the first REM album and it had sold something like 100,000 copies in Greece which is an amazing number or was back then and Mitch Easter was one of his favorites. He said to me "I like your music alot and your press is very impressive and the people you play with are amazing, I am a big fan of many of them. But as I listen I keep asking myself what is this person doing sitting here in front of me at my desk?".

I asked my friend Emilios who had a small label called Hitch-Hyke and he explained it to me. " The attitude here is that if you are a foreign musician and you are trying to make it here then you must be some kind of loser. Like you were not good enough to make it in the states so you came here". OK, true maybe. But is that really the Greek attitude? If a foreigner is living in Greece he must be a loser?

EMI did not sign me but the guy gave me a stack of cassettes that he wanted me to listen to and tell him if I thought they were any good, which I obligingly did (they all sucked).

University of Athens, GreeceA few weeks later I discovered a sports bar behind the Hilton, owned by a Greek-American basketball player who used to play for Iowa or somewhere in the middle of America. It was probably the first sports bar in Athens. There were TVs all over showing NFL football, basketball and whatever else was on (videos because this is before satellite TV) and the bar was full of 7 foot guys drinking heavily and smoking cigarettes and lots of hot slutty chicks. "What are you doing here, Matt?" He asked me. "Go home. The summer's over. This place is not heaven. It is hell."  A few days later someone broke in and stole all the TVs. "F***** Albanians" the owner told me. Next time I went by the sports bar was gone.

You may have read about this in the paper. There was a Greek professor, of physics I think, totally respected by his peers, he had published books, papers and traveled around lecturing. I think he taught at UCLA or Stanford and was something of an academic superstar, but like many Greeks he wanted to move back to Greece and so applied at the University of Athens. You would think the University would fall over themselves to get a guy like this on their faculty and they may have. But the professors were against it. Why would they be against having someone of his stature in their midst? Because he would raise the bar and make them look bad. They threatened to go on strike if the University hired him. So in other words the education system has the same mentality as the bureaucracy, that anyone who actually works is going to make the rest of them look bad. So someone who is hard working, creative, and responsible is considered a bad apple.

Parliament, Syntagma SquareA friend told me about how corrupt the Greek society is and described it as "Rotten to the core. No exaggeration". Greece is on the lowest level of the corrupt-o-meter with a half dozen African countries. Everybody steals. The government takes from the people and the people have to hide what they make from the government and then they have to overcharge their customers to make up for the money the government has taken from them. Its a total mess. It runs so deeply that you would have to dismantle the entire government and start from scratch, down to the lowest tax official and bureaucrat. The objective of most Greeks is to get a government job so they can do nothing and get a salary and a pension. Those with a higher purpose become politicians so they can steal with impunity. Those in the middle work for the tax bureau where they shake down businesses and split the money with those above them on the totem pole. Once I bought chestnut from a street vender who was selling them by the dozen. He gave me eleven. I got ripped off for a chestnut.

One night when I was hearing the kinds of horror stories that always come up at dinner conversation I defended the Greeks, (as I often do). "They are cleaning things up. I saw in the paper today that they busted a cop for taking a bribe."
"You fool. All the cops take money." My friends said. " When you see in the paper that a cop was busted for being corrupt it means he would not take money and the other cops had to get rid of him".

Syntagma SquareOK. Even if these stories are exaggerated and there are just a few rotten cops or politicians or tax collectors in the barrel, the fact is that people believe it. So whether or not it's true, a state of war exists between the people and the government in Greece. And a Greek would have to wonder why any foreigner would want to live in their system. The attitude is "We are stuck here in this mess. Why would you come voluntarily?" Of course don't you dare say anything bad about Athens because then they will defend it to their last dying breath. Like New Yorkers who will among themselves complain endlessly about it, but watch the sparks fly when some hick from North Carolina says anything critical about their city. Athens is the same and in a way they are right because Athens is a very livable city on one hand. But there are a lot of hurdles that you have to go over, under, around or sometimes crash through, (or pay someone to jump them for you) and that is one of the realities of living here.

Its a quandary for me. It always has been and it has made me live 2 lives for the last 20 years. I have my life in America where everything is orderly and sort of normal, and I have my job and I watch Keith Obberman and the Mets and I pay my bills and complain and go to the supermarket and the health food store and the mall and work in the garden

The Acropolis of AthensThen there is my life in Greece. My life and home in American enables me to live as an outsider and have the best of what Greece has to offer, sunshine, beaches, beautiful landscape, friendship, barbounia, without having to deal with the day to day hassles that the Athenians and the foreigners living in Greece have to deal with. And there is a part of me that does not want to throw this away and become so annoyed that like my father I leave forever and find some place that looks like Greece but has no Greeks. If I did not have Greece, and the Greeks to love, what would happen to me? My identity as a Greek-American is so wrapped up in this crazy country that it is both the blessing and the curse of my existence.

So when you say to me "You are so lucky to move to Greece for a year" you are probably right.

One of my travel agent friends "If you have to live and work within the system in Greece it is hell".
I asked him what if I do all my business in America and live in Greece like a year-long holiday. 
"Ahhhh. Then it is a paradise". He said.

So off I go to Paradise.

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