Greece: Hanging on, hoping for a better day
Fri, 10/25/2013 - 11:12am admin
Gary W. Meyer
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is the second in a series on Editor Gary W. Meyer’s tour of Turkey and Greece with the Inland Press Association in September.)
As our bus meandered through the very quiet streets of Athens, I asked a fellow traveler to describe, in one word, the city.
“Antiquated,” was his response.
Yes . Old-looking, dusty, hardly the appearance of a city that just years ago hosted the Summer Olympic Games.
(And going broke, which is too-often the scenario for cities hosting that expensive affair.)
Much has been written about Greece’s fall from economic grace over the past several decades - I’m afraid, much of it being true.
Athens, the cradle of civilization and a once-bustling city of 3.2 million, seems but a shell of its former self. Their economy is in shambles, many retail store fronts are empty.
Half of the industrial buildings don’t have their lights on.
In an attempt to make money, the country has sold off portions of its famous Piraeus gulf port, a most recent station to the increasingly-present Chinese, so they may dock their ocean-going vessels without a fee.
The Russians and the Israelis are also reported as having purchased lands for gas exploration rights.
It’s a discomforting collapse of a once-proud society far too long given to the notion that its people should be able to live beyond their means - and the government as well.
The worldwide economic collapse of 2007 has brought Greece to its knees more than any other country. Their European neighbors have tried to awaken them to the realities of living within one’s means, but that has been a political tug-of-war.
Unemployment ranges upwards of 40%; the younger generation, up to 64%.
Healthcare, education have been free, along with retirements at age 54 with full benefits, but when that, along with social security, became a scourged empty pot due to unproductivity and the government’s wasting of their few funds in bad investments, the outcome has been clear.
Greek government worker salaries have been cut by 50%.
There isn’t much respect for anything in Greece.
Why the Greeks bought into a European Unit requirement that forced them to give up many of their traditional industries to assuage (not compete with) other EU countries, I don’t know. Shipbuilding, wine production, cement, minerals and other farm products were essentially boycotted by neighboring EURO members.
A headline on a national newspaper emphasized their continuing spiral downward - they expect another four percent contraction of their economy in 2014.
Most of our days on mainland Greece were spent in the central valley, a rich farming region, where the people have a chance, living off the land.
Fields ripe with corn, alfalfa and cotton (in harvest as we passed by), olive trees, vineyards and family gardens all stood as testament to the hardy, live-off-the-land notions of those people. But agriculture has its limitations in Greece too - only 20% of their land surface is suitable for farming.
Many farms had small solar energy-producing units to provide electricity - a project supported by the government and local banks in past years.
But as we passed through one community of several thousand people, we witnessed the effects of a destroyed economy there, too.
Peugeot and Ford dealerships had gone dark. A Mitsubishi display floor was half empty.
Still, there was beauty along the way. We visited Pefkis workshop of Byzantine Icons in Kalambaka where an eight-member family did original paintings of Greek religious art. Some of the pieces have wound up in the Vatican. Remarkable detail - remarkable beauty.
And the monasteries atop the mountains in Meteora? They were built ages ago to afford the monks a safe place from the hordes of invaders in the valleys below.
As for Turkey? Our group spent but three days in the country, two in the bustling car-invested city of Istanbul, 10 million souls. They have no thoroughfares - only streets. It takes two hours to go 20 miles. And the taxi drivers are the world’s best crooks. Trust me. Two trips, two shakedowns.
I held out hope a Russian destroyer would float through the Straight of Bosphorus, through Istanbul, from the Black Sea to the north on its way to the Syrian problem in the Mediterranean below. That Russian ship came through a few days before we got there.
Turkey, the unique mix of Europe to the west and the Muslim world to the east, is in a very unique position to be part of the world. In fact, the world comes to them.
And they are taking advantage of it. Their economy seems healthy, their art and culture robust.
We’re not so sure we can trust their president, Abdullah Gul. who puts his competition on ice and serious lids on the media. But he’s leading his country, more than can be said for the Greeks.
There has been considerable press given to student riots in Istanbul this year. Kids have been killed by the government. What are they protesting for?
Desmond Butler, Associated Press bureau chief, suggests they are protesting for right of peaceful protest and a free press. In spite of sectarian clashes, they seem to be co-existing with the 500,000 Syrian refugees in their land.
The Turks seem to have the momentum - a robust economy fueled by a robust birth rate, 2.13 children per woman in 2012. Their life expectancy is 73 years.
The Greeks? A fertility rate of 1.39 children per woman in 2012 - a precipitously-declining birth rate; and a life expectancy of 80.
Greek Orthodox comprise 98% of the religious sector. Muslim comprise 99% of the Turkish people.
Turkey appears to be a brawling, bruising, elbow-stretching place. Greece, painfully limited.
“To be honest, it’s hopeless,” suggests Ambassador Paul Kuoboung Chang, Teipei representative to Greece.
But for all its issues - Greece is still a place to see. It is a place to be.
Maria, our tour guide, painted a bright lid for the pot: “This crisis has helped us realize things, how time is important, and to spend it with friends and family.”