Two years ago, we packed for a month-long trip abroad, with two teenage girls. We spent one week in London, and three weeks in Greece, the homeland of all my ancestors. The trip was more inspiring than I could have hoped for and harder than I could have imagined. When we returned, I tried to put the dichotomy of Greece into words. Greece, at the time, was in the news daily for its financial crisis. It had not yet had to deal with the thousands of Syrian refugees arriving on their shores. We had not yet learned though, in real time through social media and on the news, about the generosity and humanitarian efforts of the Greek people. However, in 2014, I caught a glimpse of the unique and genuine Greek spirit. Here is what I wrote.
Greece is such a mixed bag of blessings and tragedy. The landscape is simply breathtaking and the connection to thousands of years of history is overwhelming, as you’ve seen in thousands of pictures that try to capture the light. (On a separate note, as a Greek-American woman, it is wild to walk through a museum and see my very own “Greek” profile on every statue. Some genes are just pain stubborn.)
But the economy has put the people through the wringer. There are the very rich, but you don’t see them. Most are the struggling middle and lower class, working low paying tourism jobs often 7 days a week, 15 hours a day. Really good people in survival mode. The Olympics and the Euro devastated the country in one huge swoop. Gorgeous stadiums built for the Olympics are boarded up and graffiti is layered all over the biggest cities like wallpaper. There is simply no money to clean it up, much less to fix the growing cracks and dangerous potholes in the sidewalks. In one particularly deep hole in Athens, someone had stuck a doughnut box as a warning. Greek citizens don’t even see the decay anymore; as happens in our own homes when our rug has a small stain or our paint gets a little shabby, they just live with it. Older men can still be found in the cafes, with their worry beads or playing backgammon, surrounded by these paint-stained walls. One young concierge even told me that he thought some of the graffiti was “lovely.” Hmmm. A tiny bit might be considered “art” on its own, but overwhelmingly, buildings were covered with destructive doodles and hate messages.
Our hosts in our favorite B&B described what it was like to just pay their taxes. They don’t mail them in. The husband must leave early in the morning, because it is likely to take all day long. He must go a fair distance from his house, from one office to the next, getting this paper stamped and that one traded in for another, until he finally finds himself in front of the person responsible for actually taking his money. The wife explained that there are no real schedules or due dates, not much predictability in the way the government operates. Talk about stress-inducing!
Of course, they are the lucky ones. They have a small business (their B&B) which is the highest rated in the area. They built it because the family had the land — and it still took them over four years. They work from early morning, greeting guests over breakfast until late at night, when the last guest has been served. She bakes every day, multiple pastries and muffins, for a most delicious morning, and he presses his own olives for olive oil and makes his own wine from the grapes on their property. But they have his mother, stricken with Alzheimers, who lives with them and who they care for completely on their own. Yes, the strength of family is impressive and enviable — but they have no respite from the tremendous responsibility and their exhausting efforts. There are no services for the elderly and hospitals are some distance away. In order for them to attend a wedding in September, her own mother and father (her mom now in her late 70’s and her dad is 92) are coming to care for the mother-in-law. The hosts are my age — mid-fifties. There is no easing up in their future.
I don’t know what the answer is for Greece. I am not even close to being an economist (math can give me hives). Tourism is up, but even I know that they simply cannot survive on tourism and the low-paying jobs it generates. They must have business and innovation. As my aunt told me, Greece is slowly becoming a country of old people as the young are getting their education and then going to the places that have jobs waiting. There is not much left for them in their own homeland.
We saw solar farms and windmills generating electricity. And there was also trash along the highways — windblown and gathered in clumps. More “no smoking” signs now exist and there are fewer people smoking than I ever imagined there might be in Greece — but smoking is still crazy popular and some people think nothing of dropping their cigarette butts on the ground. Every hotel room we stayed in had a key fob that turned on all the electricity in the room. Put the key fob in the small outlet and *voila* you had air conditioning and light! This is probably an economical decision, but one that conservationists could support. (I’m wondering if I could put these in each room in our house — maybe it would stop the girls from leaving the lights on.)
All that said, get out of the cities and there is stunning beauty and history. In spite of their lots (or maybe because of the struggle that has always been Greece), the people are warm and inviting. In three weeks, we only met one nasty ol’ taxi driver and one young, disenchanted and angry one. Everyone else was happy to talk story, to laugh with us, to show us the hidden gems of their beautiful country. Some people, like our b&b hosts and one incredible taxi driver in Athens who became like our very own driver (and who told me, when I asked about a fare, “whatever you want — we’re friends now”), became people I would love to keep in our lives. Our own family in Greece has dwindled — only my Thea Lula (spirited and lively Thea Lula, 85 years old) remains. I would love for there to people to visit the next time we go. Getting to know the people was the real treat for me.
Don’t get me wrong — the sea, clear as crystal and wonderfully warm, is something I will miss terribly. The constantly changing skies; the twisty, narrow roads that had me white-knuckled and deep in prayer; the archeological ruins we discovered around quiet corners; churches and monasteries with frescoes that come to life by candlelight — are embedded in my memory and in my photographs (over 3000 photos and I don’t think I took enough!). But it’s the people I am missing this morning — the ones who opened up to us about their lives and who I must keep in my prayers.
What an amazing trip we had . . . I might have enjoyed it most of all — but the girls have each said that they want to go back on their own someday. Maybe they’ll take me next time.
2016: For the record, I still miss Greece and the people.