Life in Athens, Greece 2008
A friend of mine went on vacation to a Caribbean country. Maybe it was Jamaica, I forget. He stayed at a beautiful hotel resort on a white sandy beach where waiters came and took your order for colorful drinks served in coconuts and there were all sorts of activities to keep you occupied on the grounds which covered acres of property.
But one day he veered from the manicured garden paths and wandered in the forest and came upon a giant cyclone fence topped with barbed wire. Obviously this was not meant to keep the guests in like a prison for Wall Street executives. It was to keep the islanders out. People who went to this island would fly in, take a cab or hotel shuttle to the resort and spend their holiday there, never realizing that outside the grounds there was a society that was not sharing in the benefits of tourism, in fact they were
Sometimes I feel like that cyclone fence. People come to Greece and stay in Athens for a few days and they experience the Plaka, Psiri, Gazi, Monastiraki, Syntagma, Kolonaki, and the archaeological sites and coastal suburbs and then head out to the islands. They really don't see these other areas unless they are staying on the other side of Omonia Square or take a shortcut down Sokratous Street one night or even in the day. That's when the reality hits
them that Athens
is not some happy paradise of a city but a real place with people with problems and a government that for whatever reason does not deal with them. When you read my websites I keep you mostly within the fenced in areas. That's not to say that there are not nice places outside the fence. There are. Fokionos Negri is a beautiful area as is the giant square in Nea Smyrni and dozens of other places where you can find cafes and shaded parks and sidewalks without cars parked on them. But you also see that
unlike places like the Plaka where people's livelihood depends on the tourists feeling comfortable, many other areas of Athens people don't seem to give a shit.
The other night coming home to my neighborhood in Psyhico I was behind the garbage men who were emptying bins of the plastic bags that people had put their garbage into. They threw the plastic bags into the truck and then continued down the street, leaving a trail of garbage behind. If they happened to drop a bag they couldn't
be bothered to pick it up. Then a car would hit it and it would be all over the street and maybe someone would come by the next day and pick up the more obvious pieces, leaving whatever had blown into the grass or bushes. Further down the street there are a couple Polish guys who sit in the shade by the side of the road and drink wine from these little cartons of which there were about thirty empty ones laying around which nobody can be bothered to clean up. Across the street there is an island in the middle
of the intersection that has some trees and plants and weeds and an automatic watering system that just pours water into the street, even when it is raining! People park anywhere they can even on the sidewalk in places where it causes anyone unfortunate enough to be a pedestrian to have to walk in Kifissias Ave which is like a busy highway with as much traffic as your local interstate. When you walk on the sidewalk there are holes and places where they dug to fix a pipe and never bothered to fill it up.
And this is an affluent neighborhood. Can you imagine what the bad areas are like?
I can tell you. The other day I was down on Diplari street searching the Asian grocery stores for some kind of herb Andrea needed for curry and there was a wreck of a human, more animal than person at this point, practically crawling down the street, snarling. He pulled himself on to the steps of a building and began to shoot up. Right then
a cop car came down the street and I put myself in a position where I could see the cops and the junkie. They looked right at him and just kept on driving. Its shocking but not if you realize that just a few months ago there were junkies shooting up right behind the city hall where the mayor's office is. They were literally using the building to lean against while they did their thing and it took the neighbors and the hotels in the area raising a big stink before the mayor did anything about it.
The city is falling apart. The officials who are responsible for keeping it together don't care and do the bare minimum, just enough to justify their paycheck and whatever they happen to steal or get in bribes. The people have a sense of hopelessness and just accept it and it goes on. So where does it end? Will it just go on until all of Athens becomes intolerable and the people rise up in rebellion or will they elect new leaders and just get screwed by a new
set of faces waving a different color political flag? Obviously the government is not going to do anything and it is up to individuals to talk to each other and work together to clean up their own neighborhoods if they want them cleaned up. Someone overheard a cop talking to a shopkeeper. The shopkeeper asked the cop why the police didn't do something about the junkie problem in his neighborhood. The cop said "If it was up to me I could clean up this neighborhood and all of Athens in a day. But the
next day I would be in some God-forsaken post on the Turkish border, or dead." I told this story to a friend of mine and asked him how this could be. Doesn't the Greek government know that this problem could destroy their tourism. "They don't care about the tourists. Tourism is for the little people. They are going for the big money".
So let me put out a hypothesis in the form of a series of questions. Lets say you are a member of the government, or part of a cadre of officials who want to make some extra money in a 'legal' way or even a wealthy guy with good connections. Do you find a neighborhood, preferably downtown close to where the drug addicts are and tell
the cops to stay out of that area and let the addicts come and do whatever they want? Then when people move out because the neighborhood is being destroyed by scum and riff-raff and property values plummet do you buy up the choice pieces and when you have enough tell the police to crack down, clean up the neighborhood find new tenants and create the next Psiri? Would the end justifies the means? You have given the city a new neighborhood of bars and cafes and entertainment. The
people who were uprooted from their homes and businesses may not be happy but they are just being selfish. Right?
So how would you get away with it?
People don't care. Is a society that is indifferent to garbage on the street, holes in the sidewalk, plastic in the sea and cigarette butts on the beaches going to fight city hall? Not likely. There is a Kurdish saying: A thief, uncaught, becomes a king. Athens is full of these kings, and lots of princes too. Not just in the government but in the neighborhoods and on every street and many apartment buildings. Every petty tax official who shakes down a business
and pockets the money, and every bureaucrat who demands a bribe to do what the government and the Greek people pay him to do is a thief uncaught and the behavior of the thieves above him justifies his own crimes. The only hope is the youth but they are kept on the sidelines by an educational system meant to keep them there. The best and the brightest who go abroad for school tend to stay there if they can. Those who make a name for themselves and want to return out of nostalgia are often rejected by their
Greek 'peers' who are insecure about having someone in their midst who will work hard and make them look bad.
About twenty years ago I wanted to stay in Greece and play music and have a career. My friend Emilios at Hitchhyke records said to me "Forgive me for saying this because I don't think this way, but you will never have a successful career here because the Greeks believe that if a foreigner chooses to live here he must be some kind of loser."
You take any Greek and put him in a different society whether it is in the USA, Australia, UK or Zimbabwe and even if he starts at the bottom he will become successful through hard work, perseverance and a drive to survive. The Greek people are not 'losers'. They just live in a society where those in power make them feel like losers, that to resist the forces that shape society or try to improve their lives or surroundings is hopeless so sit back, root for
your football team, put food on the table and send the kids to frontesterion so maybe they will have a better chance. But you can't expect the next generation to change things unless you set an example. Right now all I see is a new generation of sports fans rooting for Panathiniakos, Olympiakos, Pasok and Nea Demokratia. I do see a handful of people on the fringes of society trying to awaken everyone else to the problems around them and that they can take an active role in changing things for the better. I see
leaders among the people. But I don't see leaders among the leaders. Just kings and princes and more than a few jackals.
And no sooner did I finish this last line when I looked in my mailbox and found this:
We cordially invite you to attend the 10th
Annual Capital Link Forum GREECE: THE NEW REFORM AGENDA - INVESTMENT
& BUSINESS OPPORTUNITIES IN GREECE TODAY on Thursday, October 30th,
2008 at the Metropolitan Club in New York City.
This is a complimentary invitation extended by the sponsors.
We look forward to your participation and contribution to the success
of this annual event. Below, please find the invitation, agenda and
sponsors of the event published by Barron`s as well.
Talk about bad timing. The world economy is falling apart and the Greek Minister of the Economy and Finance is going to NYC to tell people why they should invest in Greece. I am sure the Greek princes of finance are licking their lips at the prospect of new capital like an Athens taxi driver eyeing a confused tourist at the airport, but I think people have other things on their mind. It looks like a fun day with some of Greece's biggest names in business and government
but I think I would have rescheduled this, maybe for 2020.
So last night I took a bus to Patission to my friend Dorian's favorite taverna, Spiro and Adonis way down where Galatsia Ave intersects with Patission Street and tourists rarely venture. It took 40 minutes on the #14 trolley and it was filled with Greeks, Pakistanis, Indians, Phillipinos, Albanians, Russians and even some African women
in colorful native dress. It was like a mobile United Nations with all different languages spoken and cell phones going off every few seconds all with different songs and rings. An old Greek woman sat next to me and complained that she could not see if the machine had stamped her ticket and why they couldn't just tear the tickets like they used to 50 years ago. I told her they had to stamp the time so you know when your 90 minutes of travel are up. She kept asking people which stop we were at and everyone
was helpful and answered her until her stop came up and she got off the bus. I got to the taverna and met Dorian, Michalis and Pamela. Michalis has been the drummer for Theodorakis and some other people associated with him and has played with everyone including Dalaras and Savopoulos. Pamela is an artist who has been painting in Greece for the last thirty years. Neither of them own or know how to use a computer. We drank wine and talked and laughed and did not mention the economy once. All around us
were other working class people having a good time. There was a football game on that some people were interested in. The taverna was full. Life goes on despite the world falling apart and the city being a mess.
Then Dorian whizzed me through Athens on the back of his motorcycle to The Electra Palace rooftop restaurant for a glass of wine with my buddy George from Fantasy Travel and a friend. We talked about the banks and whether or not they would fail and if our investments or what was left of them were safe. It was a completely different kind of evening and while we were discussing economic Armageddon, above the rooftops of Plaka the Parthenon and
the Acropolis were lit up like a reminder of great cultures of the past that no longer existed. The restaurant was empty as was the hotel bar downstairs and the streets of Plaka where we later went for a drink at the Thalasea Restaurant which we had to ourselves. I was thinking of Reagan's trickle down economics where you give money and tax breaks to the rich and it trickles down to the middle class and the poor, same thing Bush claimed would happen but didn't. But here I could see this theory at
work and while the working class people were doing what they do every day, taking the bus, eating souvlakia and going to inexpensive restaurants like Spiros and Andonis as if nothing was the matter, those who have gotten used to a lavish lifestyle are tightening their belts and staying home to watch the news as they worry about what will become of their savings, if they have any, or their investments and how they are going to continue paying for everything. So lets call it trickle down anxiety. The
rich and middle class are looking at the prospect of losing everything. The poor have little to lose and will make the best of a bad situation as they are used to doing anyway.
The Parthenon has witnessed the rise and fall of the ancient Athenians, Spartans, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Ottomans and the Nazis and through it all there were people living in their homes below it, eating, drinking, buying, selling and dealing with the ups and downs of their everyday lives and whether they
were ruled by Athens, Rome, Berlin or Wall Street it was all the same.
So I am not that worried. Greece will survive. If people can't afford the fancy restaurants and ouzeries they will eat at the neighborhood tavernas and when they can't afford that they will eat at the souvlaki shops and when they can't afford that they will eat at home and invite their friends and family who have lost their homes, all the time drinking wine and talking about how they got into this mess and
whose fault it was and why this next election they are not going to vote for Pasok or ND even though they probably will. And eventually the rats will leave the sinking ship, the once powerful will be powerless and they can start all over again from scratch with Greek ingenuity powering the birth of a new society or a continuation of the ancient one that has been through it all.
Do I believe this? I don't know. But my friend Katya sent me a joke and it made me laugh. It also made me realize that like the Greek immigrants like my grandparents who left with nothing and went to America and prospered, the Athenians will rise to the occasion when it becomes necessary and will find a way to get by no matter how bad it gets.
Three Greeks, Costa, George and Niko as well as three Turks, Melik,
Alican and Bora are travelling by train to a conference. At the
station, the Turks each buy one ticket and watch as the Greeks buy only
a single ticket. "How are three people going to travel on only one
ticket?" asks Melik. "Watch and you'll see," answers Costa. They all
board the train. The Turks take their respective seats but all three
Greeks cram into a restroom and close the door behind them.
Shortly after the train has departed, the conductor comes around
collecting tickets. He knocks on the restroom door and says, "Ticket,
please." The door opens just a crack and a single arm emerges with a
ticket in hand. The conductor takes it and moves on.
The Turks saw this and agreed it was quite a clever idea. So after the
conference, the Turks decide to copy the Greeks on the return trip and
save some money ( the Greeks being clever with money, and all that). When they get
to the station, they buy a single ticket for the return trip. To their
astonishment, the Greeks don't buy a ticket at all. "How are you going
to travel without a ticket?" says Alican. "Watch and you'll see,"
When they board the train the 3 Turks cram into a restroom and the 3
Greeks cram into another one nearby. The train departs. Shortly
afterward, one of the Greeks leaves his restroom and walks over to the
restroom where the Turks are hiding. He knocks on the door and says,