I was apprehensive, I have to admit. Not for the usual reasons one is apprehensive before going on holiday fear of the unknown, of mishaps, accidents, sickness, or unfriendly natives but, on the contrary, because I was going to a place I know only too well, and have loved, and it pains me to see her misfortune the way it pains me to see a friend who is ill and suffering.
I decided to avoid Athens; I have lived there, too, have seen her best sides and her worst. I have seen the ranks of ASTYNOMIA with their shields and truncheons and gas masks, back in the 1970s; I’ve witnessed mass demonstrations and strikes. But I never walked through the streets in the center to see nearly a third of the shops closed; according to a recent article in the Athens News, on Stadiou, one of Athens’s main shopping streets, 40% of the businesses have closed down.
So I took the bus which skirts Athens from the airport to Piraeus: even so I could see how many faded red signs were up in shop windows and showrooms: ENOIKIAZETAI, For Rent. The same generic sign as back in the days when I rented my own flat there in Nea Smyrni.
For a week I stayed in a part of the Peloponnese that is relatively remote and undeveloped, although easily accessible from Athens and a frequent inexpensive destination for Greek tourists. Taverna owners told us business there too is down by fifty percent. There was an unusual quiet about the place, although people went about their activities as usual, shopping, stopping for coffee on the waterfront, taking the time to live their lives rather than plan them.
Hydra, in comparison, seemed positively bustling, although in retrospect for such a pleasant time of year it should have been busier. I spoke to a few shopkeepers; they all said they were doing all right, that the tourism economy was keeping them going. There was no power all morning long; everywhere was open for business, however, replacing espressos with the Greek coffees they could make on gas burners, keeping supermarket fridges going with generators. I was told it was because of forest fires earlier that year that had damaged the power plant in the Peloponnese, and it was necessary to shut down from time to time to get on with repairs. I didn’t question this, despite media reports that rolling blackouts were a result of austerity measures. It meant I had to stay a few more hours on Hydra: no great hardship. I sat on a bench in the shade and entered an almost meditative state of observing other people’s lives: children as they headed home from school, stopping to climb a tree; muleteers driving brick-laden donkeys up the hill; old men with their shopping bags; gypsy women selling knives. A small black and white cat kept me company; from time to time I threw him a piece of leftover bifteki from my dinner the night before, too copious to finish. Restaurant portions have become gargantuan yet I have heard that old people rummage through the trash in Athens.
I stayed five days in Spetses after that, and it was almost as if my secret plea not to see the suffering face of Greece had been answered. I was like one of those tourists who would visit Sri Lanka, say, and come back claiming You’d never know there’s a war on.
Spetses has always been a wealthy island; I had visited in 1976 and remember the white walls and red-tiled roofs and bougainvillea, and its reputation as a weekend place for upper crust Athenians. But even today there is no conspicuous display of wealth: for one thing, cars are banned, and the rackety traffic of thousands of scooters and motorbikes give the place an almost adolescent, amusement park air. Especially when the passengers on scooters include babies and multiple children, or elegant local beauties in four-inch patent leather heels sitting sidesaddle, legs crossed Dietrich-style. Spetses still has its share of funky pantopoleions that sell everything imaginable: one of them goes by the name, If We Don’t Have it then You Don’t Need It. But around the corner and down the street is an elegant design shop that would not be out of place on the Fulham Road. There is also a Deli that sells smoked salmon and other luxury items; almost anywhere else in Greece this would seem extravagant, proof that they are catering to someone besides the kalamarakia crowd. The clean, white shop had the same vast empty feel as an old Soviet store, although the shelves were filled; I didn’t see many people in there.
Spetses has a remarkable museum devoted to Laskarina Bouboulina, one of the heroes the heroine, to be exact of the 1821 War of Independence, and the only woman in history ever to have been named an admiral (posthumously, alas). Among other treasures, you can see her gold-embroidered headscarf and her pistol, her Chinese sewing table and the letter from the Sultan authorizing her to build the ship that she sailed into battle (the Sultan assumed it was to be a merchant ship, his eternal mistake). The museum was started in the 1990s by her descendants in order to raise the money to save the rain-damaged Florentine carved ceiling of the beautiful old house. It is privately owned and run, with no help whatsoever from the Greek state, which these days is just as well. I wondered if it was because she was a woman that the State had never participated in her consecration.
I met a visiting doctor and her daughter; the mother had lived and practiced for many years in Hannover and only recently retired to Athens; her daughter is a lawyer in Cologne. They told me that, according to their taxi driver (taxis are allowed, as are horse-drawn carriages) many of the closed villas along the road to the beach on the other side of the island belong to shipowners and bankers. They ruefully agreed with me that the amount of unpaid taxes accruing to the villa owners would probably be enough to bail out the entire country certainly their wealth would. The problem, said the doctor, is not that Greece doesn’t have money, it’s just that the Greek state has no money.
I suspect Angela Merkel herself might have a villa on Spetses. If not, God forbid she ever visit the place, or she’ll call for even tougher measures on all those who can only ever dream of having a villa on Spetses.
On my last night, as I was packing, I switched on the television. A banner ran across the top of the screen on one of the public channels saying that the Greek Radio and Television was on strike due to solidarity with the impoverishment of the Greek people, or something to that effect. So instead of the evening news they were broadcasting a documentary produced by Arte in English and French (subtitled in Greek) about the 1929 Wall Street Crash. It was suitably ironic, and chillingly instructive. A host of pundits, including Howard Zinn and Joseph Stiglitz, reminded us of how the crash came about, and its consequences on the most unfortunate; and in case we had never realized, or had forgotten, how Hitler’s rise was due in part to Hoover’s recalling of the money lent to Germany for reconstruction after World War I and the subsequent hardship which befell the German people. The pundits also attributed the actual end of the depression not so much to the New Deal as to the buildup of arms manufacturing and the creation of a war economy in the late 1930s.
There are no conclusions to be drawn, no viable comparisons to be made. Or are there? I’m no economist. But it’s food for thought.
Yesterday at Athens airport I had lunch with a friend (who has taken a 30% cut to his retirement pay), and he reminded me of how much harm the media has done by overemphasizing the violence and unrest in Athens, which tends to scare people away; they should be coming to Greece in droves, instead. Many things are as cheap as they were ten years ago, especially rooms and tavernas; we should support the economy that is working, tourism. It is easy enough to avoid central Athens, as I found out; as for getting stuck somewhere, that can happen anytime, anywhere due to the strong winds in Greece’s case, or volcanoes in other parts of the world.
In fact, if I had booked my return flight for one day later, I would have gotten stuck. There is a general strike on today; all flights are cancelled. Hopefully, assuming the ferry company is also following the strike, I would have been stuck on Spetses rather than at the airport or in Piraeus. But that is all idle speculation, or even regret; instead I am stuck in cold, rainy Buchillon. In Athens there have been demonstrations and clashes with the police, depicted on the BBC in the very way my friend deplored, with suitable amounts of flames and menacing policemen, and empty airport halls.
But Greeks know how to get on with life, unfazed by power cuts or demonstrations. As the woman at the shipping office assured me, Eh, if they cut the power, we’ll just write tickets by hand. Or as a shop assistant in Hydra emphasized, We’ll survive. We Greeks always survive.
At the Bouboulina museum the guide gave me an old one-drachma coin, minted in 1992, with Bouboulina’s face on one side and her battleship, the Agamemnon, on the other. Perhaps it’s time the Greeks started looking for another Bouboulina in their midst or reconsidering the humble drachma.