A Trip to the Messinian Coast

 

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Sunset over Navarino Bay in Pylos

It has been a very long time since I have posted anything to this blog, for a variety of reasons, mostly due to feeling depressed about the state of affairs in my home country of the USA and in the world in general and feeling bored and tired of the same news day after day here in Greece of negotiations with the EU powers over austerity measures.

But when you are feeling down, a quick trip to the lovely Messinian coast, on the far southwestern tip of the Peloponnese, is just the antidote. We had been hearing for a long time that this region was particularly endowed with natural beauty and we were not disappointed.

Navarino Bay and the town of Pylos which sits above it, is one of Greece’s little known gems–one of those places that every Greek will agree is one of the country’s most beautiful spots, but which has little fame among foreign tourists.

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The “New Castle” in Pylos

Despite its rather remote location, the region is easily accessible from Athens, thanks to the relatively new highway that connects the capital city with Kalamata, the gateway to the region. In three hours’ drive or less, you cross the Peloponnnese and arrive at the Messinian coast.

Pylos has more than just the beauty of Navarino Bay, which is surely one of the most “grafiko” or picturesque bays in all of Greece. It also boasts the impressive “New Castle” (built in 1573) which is the central focus of an entire complex, including a wonderful new museum (which had opened only three weeks prior to our arrival) and the lovely and completely restored Church of the Transfiguration of the Savior.

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The Church of the Transfiguration of the Savior, on the site of the New Castle

The church, formerly a mosque in the times of the Ottomans,  benefitted recently from a major influx of funds, the results of which are very impressive indeed.

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Interior of the Church

The castle itself is a joy to meander around, a walk along the parapets offering spectacular views of the surrounding seas and islands. In early spring, the mild climate of the zone produces a plethora of wildflowers on the site, supplemented by some lovely landscape plantings. Add to that a comforting canopy of tall trees lining the entrance to the site and you have a place that is both of great historical and cultural interest as well as a beautiful environment in which to take a springtime stroll.

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I guess graffiti has been a problem for a long time in Greece…

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Ancient aqueduct in Pylos, 

Astonishingly, the local authorities have not managed to put up a sign on the town’s main road indicating where to turn off for the castle complex, but asking around, you will have no trouble finding it.

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The verdant land around Navarino Bay

Pylos town itself is one of the most picturesque you will find in Greece, with a lovely central square shaded in plane trees and filled with tavernas and cafes. Nearby Gialova lagoon offers nature lovers even more spectacular coastal vistas, as well as some of Greece’s best birdwatching. (We went too late in the morning to see many birds, but we heard hundreds of them, as well as some extremely vocal frogs!) The profusion of wildflowers in a palette of purple, pink, yellow, and white, was a joy to behold. A lovely spot for a spring walk.

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Sea view from a walking path at Gialova

All in all, Pylos and the Messinian coast is a region well worth a visit and easily done from Athens for a night or two.

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World got you down? Escape to Hydra

A lot of people around the world right now may be looking for a place to seriously escape from reality and I can’t recommend a better place to do it than the famously picturesque little island of Hydra, off the coast of Greece’s Peloponnesian peninsula. I made a brief visit there with friends recently and, though I had been there many years before, I was charmed by the island more than I expected.

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View of the port from a church to which we hiked.

Hydra has two great advantages for would be escapees from reality: 1) It is a very quick and easy 90 minute boat ride from the Athens port of Piraeus (okay, maybe not so quick and easy if you have to fly from, say, Australia, or San Francisco, but that’s another issue); and 2) Because of the absence of motor vehicles on the island, it is wonderfully, magically serene.  Yes, the wise people of Hydra have chosen to preserve the island’s unique character by prohibiting all motor vehicles, with the exception of a few small garbage disposal vehicles and a volunteer fire department truck. All other transport is carried out with the aid of the island’s famous corps of donkeys which, we observed, put in some seriously hard labor hauling everything from large sacks of construction materials to joy-riding tourists.

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It’s a donkey’s life on Hydra.

Hydra, with its narrow, winding alleyways, lovely whitewashed stone homes, and brightly painted shutters, has the same charming character as more famous Cycladic islands like Mykonos and Santorini, but feels more grounded in traditional Greece and less overrun by big money tourism. (Of course, we were there off season–I’m sure it is much more overrun in the summer.)

We were blessed with fabulously warm, sunny weather on our early November visit and took advantage of it to do some easy hiking. A very pleasant surprise on Hydra is the infrastructure of well-marked walking trails that crisscross the island. You can take a pleasant amble for several miles along the coastline, enjoying fabulous sea views and passing through small villages, or you can take a more rigorous hike inland up into the mountains. Either way, you will find it wonderfully peaceful and picturesque.

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Local fishermen and the ultra-rich on their luxury yachts mingle at the harbour.

We spent only a couple nights on Hydra and, unless you are truly wanting to escape the world, a few days is probably enough. But I look forward to going back again to enjoy the pretty harbour, the fine seafood, and the cute little nooks and crannies to be found in the main town’s alleyways. Highly recommended for anyone with a couple days to spare in the Athens area.

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Lefkada

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View from a hike in the mountainous central region of Lefkada

In my last post, I write about a visit to the Ionian island of Kefallonia. Here I will share a few pics and observations from the second part of our trip, to the island of Lefkada.

One of the great advantages of Lefkada is that it is actually connected to the mainland by a bridge, making for easy access from Athens or Central Greece. Unfortunately, we learned that this is also a big disadvantage, since the land connection means that anyone in continental Europe can drive to Lefkada and, believe me, they do. From a perusal of the license plates on the island it would appear that half of Romania heads for Lefkada in early September. Along with large numbers of visitors from Serbia and Bulgaria, the Eastern European tourists filled the beaches and tavernas of the island, in this post-high season period that we expected to be relatively quiet.

We had been warned by our guidebook to get out of the town of Nydri, where our ferry from Kefallonia landed, as soon as possible, and this proved to be good advice. Nydri appears to be heavily oriented towards package tourism, with little of interest to offer. We made our way north to Lefkada town instead and found a picturesque harbor area and a unique architectural style, unlike anything I’ve encountered elsewhere in Greece.

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Lefkada town’s waterfront

Because of the frequent earthquakes throughout the island’s history, the townspeople developed a method of construction which uses sheet metal reinforcement over the masonry, which is then painted in bright colors, giving the downtown a distinctly tropical look. As we wandered the alleyways of the old town, I felt as if we could have been in the South Pacific or the Caribbean. The impression is enhanced by the jumbled, incongruous nature of the architecture, with lovely tall houses painted in bright yellows and blues set among a jumble of grey, rotting bare wood structures with porches that appeared ready to collapse upon unsuspecting pedestrians. Could not be more different than the Cycladic villages with their strict architectural codes, every building perfectly whitewashed, the shutters all painted in the same shade of deep blue, green, or red.

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Earthquake-proofed home in old town Lefkada

One does not expect to encounter rain on the Greek islands in early September, but the weather gods were not smiling on us. Fortunately, Lefkada town has a nice little archaeological museum that is perfect for a rainy day. It was there, however, that I learned something that to an oenophile and even occasionally practicing oenologist such as myself, was very disturbing. You’ll notice that, although the modern Greek word for wine is krasi, I don’t say that I’m a krasophile–the ancient Greek word for wine was, of course, oinos.  I learned from an exhibit at this little museum that the word krasi is actually thought to have come from the word for “mixed,” as in “wine mixed with water,” which, apparently, is the way that wine was generally consumed  by the ancient Greeks. It seems they enjoyed quaffing rather large quantities of the stuff but still wanted to be able to impress their friends with their rhetorical skills and poetry and whatnot. So I guess I can no longer scoff at the modern-day Greeks who often put ice cubes in their wine, a practice that I have always ridiculed. It is well-grounded in history, it seems.

By the way, I also learned at this museum that a symposium was, in fact, a guys’ drinking part, presumably mixed in with some intellectual banter for respectability’s sake–keep that in mind next time you’re invited to one of those academic gatherings.

Lefkada’s proximity to Italy also offers the advantage of a substantial number of genuine Italian restaurants on the island, something we don’t often find in Athens. We stumbled upon one–a little hole in the wall that proved to be a gem. The owner was a Napolitana woman who, despite having lived in Lefkada for two years spoke barely a word of Greek and only a few words of English. She seemed particularly pleased to be able to chat with us in our broken Italian and was delighted at the fact that we wanted our pasta al dente (having learned in our time in Florence that the word scotto! —always with an exclamation point–conveyed the worst possible culinary sin–overcooked pasta.) Despite the rain dripping through the flimsy plastic sheeting above us and the cramped sidewalk tables on a not particularly picturesque city street, we spent a lovely afternoon, enjoying our pasta with swordfish and eggplant, pasta with mussels, caprese with basil cut from the plant in the corner, and, of course, substantial quantities of white wine.

Having learned from our guidebooks that the island’s most remote and nicest beaches were on the east side of the island, we booked a room on that side, just outside of Lefkada town. We stayed at the absolutely lovely Mira resort, near the town of Tsooukalades, which I would highly recommend.

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Mira Resort

We took a drive down the beautiful coastal road on the island’s east side, making our way all the way to the southern tip to the spectacular beach of Porto Katsiki. Unfortunately, every other visitor to Lefkada had also been apprised of the beauty of this beach and, even in September, we were confronted with a mass of umbrellas, blankets, and people.

 

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Porto Katsiki beach

 

We had better luck with our visit to the mountainous central heart of the island, despite the iffy weather.  We took a lovely drive through the mountains, mostly on good roads (although we did end up, at one point, on what is probably the most narrow, winding road I have ever encountered–more of a paved goat path than road–thank goodness we never encountered another car or I don’t know how we would have managed to get by.) We enjoyed a nice hike through olive orchards and fig groves, sheltering occasionally from the sun showers, enjoying gorgeous views at various points of the mountains and the sea below.

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Central Lefkada

 

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My bottom line impression, then is that Lefkada is a great natural beauty but, unfortunately, much of Europe has already made this discovery.

 

An Ionian Island Adventure–Kefallonia

Throughout all my years as a tourist in Greece, and in the two-plus years that I’ve lived here, most of my island visits have focused on the Cyclades–the island group south of Athens famous for its iconic villages of blue and white cube-shaped buildings, tumbling precipitously down rocky, bone dry mountainsides. Santorini and Mykonos are the best known of these but others–Paros, Naxos, and Syros, to name a few–are all uniquely interesting, while sharing the characteristic Cycladic look.

I had  been interested in exploring the Ionian island group–the islands on the Italian side of Greece–ever since I read Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, set in Kefallonia, back in the mid 1990s. We finally got the opportunity when friends invited us to stay with them at the home they built many years ago in Kefallonia. Like most Athenians of middle class or higher economic status, they maintain an exohiko spiti–an “outer” house, a home outside of Athens to which they can escape the summer heat. The exohiko is, in most cases, not a luxury vacation home, but often a simple place where extended families can gather. As in the case of our friends, it is often actually a family compound–in this case, two adjacent small houses, one occupied by our friends and one by her parents. The exohiko is usually located in the village from which one branch of the family originates and to which they return, keeping close to their roots despite their residence in Athens.

We decided to take advantage of our visit to Kefallonia to see the neighboring island of Lefkada as well. (We did not visit the best known island of this group–Corfu, or Kerkyra as the Greeks call it.) I was pleased to finally have a chance to get to know this part of Greece but my bottom line feeling about these islands is mixed, with some distinct pros and cons for the independent traveler. While the natural beauty is fabulous, with stunning beaches, mythically turquoise, clear waters, and lovely green mountains and forests, there is not a whole lot that is attractive about all that is man-made on these two islands. Both islands have been pummeled by earthquakes repeatedly throughout their histories and, therefore, have little in the way of historical architecture. Further, Lefkada, in particular, is overrun with tourists, even in the shoulder season of early September. I can’t imagine what the crowds must be like in July and August, but I know I wouldn’t want to find out.

In this post, I will share a few photos and observations about Kefallonia and will follow-up with another post about Lefkada.

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Kefallonia

We stayed near the pleasant town of Argostoli, a stone’s throw from the small airport. It was entertaining to see planes flying just overhead, seemingly barely clearing our umbrellas, as we sat on the local beach. But the quantity of planes bringing visitors directly from the UK and other northern climes explained the presence of the long stretch of package tourist-oriented shops and restaurants all along the coast. Argostoli itself was a happy surprise, with pleasant pedestrian walkways throughout the downtown, a lovely palm-lined main thoroughfare (also closed to traffic at night), and a good supply of fine restaurants. We ate very well there, particularly at Casa Grec and Oinops, both serving fabulous sea food accompanied by good local wine.

The beaches on Kefallonia are lovely, especially Mirtos Beach, which boasts the very definition of turquoise waters alongside stunning white cliffs. Unfortunately–very unfortunately, given the spectacular setting–the beach is also the home to a massive colony of wasps, who may not sting often, but are a tremendous nuisance. I don’t know if this is a constant problem, but traveler forums suggest that it is a frequent concern on both Kefallonia and Lefkada.

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Mirtos Beach Kefallonia

The Ionian Islands are not particularly known for their wines, but the Gentilini Winery on Kefallonia offers both nice wines and a very pleasant environment in which to taste them. Friendly staff, nice wines featuring the local Robola white grape, accompanying platters of cheeses and olives, and picnic tables under the shade of pretty trees makes for a great outing. The only disappointment was discovering upon examining the bottle of their “Red Blend” that most of the grapes were Agiorgitiko from the famous Nemea region just outside of Athens, where we buy most of our wine, with only a trace of locally sourced fruit. Oh well…it was still very tasty.

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Gentilini Winery

We took the ferry from the pretty, but unremarkable, little harbor town of Fiskardo. It is known as the place on Kefallonia where historic buildings still stand, having not been hit so devastatingly by the 1953 earthquake as the rest of the island. So, yes, there are a few old buildings there, but it is mostly a collection of tavernas catering to those of us getting ready to hop on a boat to Lefkada or other spots, with the sort of mediocre food and surly service that one expects from such places.

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Fiskardo

Next up…Lefkada.

 

And Now for the Good News

I have been away from this blog for a long time due to a trip to Mexico, a visit to Germany, a large contingent in town for a family wedding, and a general malaise caused by the steady drumbeat of bad news around the world. But I always find that my volunteer work at the Caritas soup kitchen lifts my spirits, despite being around desperate immigrants and refugees and impoverished local Greeks.

It encourages me about the future of humanity because I encounter so many young people from around Europe and the world who come here hoping to help out a bit–whether for only a day or two or for an extended period. Like the group of minority and immigrant youth from Paris with whom I worked the other day (pictured below.) These were young people whose parents had emigrated to France from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Pakistan, and other countries. Now they were doing a summer program learning about and helping to serve refugees from other countries who have made their way to Greece and are now stuck here.

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French immigrant youth group volunteering at Caritas

 

The Caritas volunteers make up a little United Nations–on one recent day I struggled to speak Italian with the kids from the church group from Trieste, English to the Czech medical students, French to the French college student volunteers, Spanish to my regular co-volunteers Adriana and Veronica from Mexico, and Greek to Caritas staff members. Sadly, my aging brain is no longer so nimble as to manage such a task and I’m afraid I ended up speaking an incomprehensible babble to all.

But with all the terrorist attacks, the crazy election campaign in the US, the never ending wars in Syria and Afghanistan, and the endless flow of general bad news every day, it warms my heart to see these young people coming from all over the world to try to do something positive. Some are organized by church groups and come out of a sense of charitable obligation, but most seem to be self-motivated, just wanting to do some good.

The refugees who have now been stuck in camps here in Greece for months, with no sign of a solution to their problem–no way to move forward and an absolute determination on their part not to go back–are getting visibly more weary. But in my brief conversations between washing dishes, I continue to be amazed at their calm and determination to reach a better life.  I commiserated with a middle-aged Syrian man the other day who had been stuck for six months in a camp here in Athens, telling him that his situation must be very hard, indeed. “Life is hard everywhere,” he said to me, with a resigned smile. “It’s hard for everyone.” Don’t feel particularly sorry for me.

I have observed that more and more infants and small children are coming to Caritas these days, which always makes the volunteers happy. I often wonder what will become of these kids, hoping that at least some of them will find a better life somewhere away from war and danger.

A Pelopennesian Adventure

 

Mani April 2016 190When foreigners plan a visit to Greece, they tend to think mostly of the islands. The names Santorini, Mykonos, Rhodes, and Corfu, are known around the globe, but Greece’s mainland destinations offer  a wealth of natural beauty that it would take a lifetime to explore fully. One region, the Peloponnese, with countless miles of spectacular coastline, dramatic mountains and gorges, alpine forests, mountain villages dotted with stone houses, and a mix of pebbly and white sandy beaches, is particularly well-endowed. Add to this a number of major historical sites, including the famous Olympia, Mycenae, and Epidaurus, and you have cultural riches for visitors of all interests.

If you any association with the Peloponnese it is probably with the long-running battles between ancient Athens and Sparta that you were forced to study in high school world history class. And, indeed, a visit to the Peloponnese offers many windows into the past, including the origins of many English words. In that little corner on the far southern tip of the European mainland, you can investigate whether the Spartans still live in spartan conditions, whether the Lakonians are truly laconic, whether the Arkadians truly live in an arcadian paradise, and whether the inhabitants of the Mani are still maniacal.

My wife and I took a short trip there this week, only enough to give us a glimpse of the wonders of this fascinating region and to whet our appetite for future visits.Our primary destination was the Mani, a remote finger of rocky land on the far southwest corner of the peninsula, whose warrior culture fiercely and successfully resisted occupation from the Ottoman Turks for hundreds of years. Their warlike nature was also manifested in violent clan feuds, the last of which in 1877 required the intervention of the national Greek army, complete with artillery, to break up. The Mani’s fortress nature is evident today in the remains of hundreds of ominous looking stone tower houses that dot the landscape.

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Remains of a tower house in the Mani

 

We stayed in the lovely small village of Kardamyli in the northern Mani, after a rather tiring drive over the mountains from the central Peloponnese. (The area can be visited on a fast highway from Athens to Kalamata, but we talk the longer, more scenic route.) While the Mani may be little known to most international visitors, the number of real estate offices and tourist-oriented shops in Kardamyli is evidence of a growing presence of British and German visitors (and home buyers) to the region. We stayed at the lovely Elies cottages, stylish stone houses set literally in the midst of an olive orchard.

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The restaurant amid the olive grove at Elies in Kardamyli.

The cottages sit just across the road from a lovely white pebble beach and just a short hop from the town.

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Other highlights of our brief tour of the Peloponnese included:

  • The mountain village of Exochori just above Kardamyli and the Virou Gorge in which it is nestled.
  • The Diros Caves on the Mani, in which nature created spectacular works of abstract art.
  • The ghost town of Vathia, a mountain village of ancient tower houses (but with electrical cables running to a few of the houses, suggesting that there are still a few inhabitants today.)
  • The drive along the southwestern coastline of the Mani, which affords fabulous coastal views and crystal clear waters.
  • The sweet little mountain village of Kosmas, famous for its delicious local goat soup and its four giant plane trees dominating the central plaza. (I got a kick out of the fact that on Holy Saturday, on which eating meat is verboten, the enticing smells of goat permeated the plaza, as the priest’s sermon was broadcast from the church.)
  • The drive through the dramatic Badron Gorge between the towns of Geraki and Leonidio in the Lakonia region on the east coast of the peninsula.
  • And for those interest in linguistics, the living presence of another language in the town of Leonidio, complete with bilingual signs–Tsakonian and Greek. Tsakonian , a descendent of ancient Doric Greek, is spoken fluently by only a few hundred people in the area, but we met a woman in Leonidio who showed us children’s books she had recently published in Tsakonian and Greek–Little Red Riding Hood and a basic vocabulary–with the goal of keeping the ancient language alive among the new generation.

We barely scratched the surface of the Peloponnese, but we left eager to return on a longer trip another time.

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The Diros Caves on the Mani

 

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Bilingual Tsakonian-Greek sign in the town of Leonidio

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The Virou Gorge

 

 

 

 

 

Two Years in Greece

Two years ago yesterday, my wife and I arrived in Greece. To commemorate this momentous occasion, all of Greece has taken the day off today! Public employees, doctors, attorneys, almost everybody who has a job is staying home today in our honor! Even the flights out of the Athens airport have been cancelled! Imagine that–the whole country came to a standstill just to honor our two year anniversary!

Wait, what’s that? It’s not? Oh, sorry, apparently the national day of inaction today is not to commemorate our anniversary, it’s just another major strike. Darn.

Anniversary dates are always good moments for reflection, so I will summarize here a few of my bottom-line observations about life in Greece after two years here:

  • We had thought that the country was inefficient and somewhat chaotic before we moved here (we had spent enough time in Greece before our move here to know this much), but it turns out that it is far more profoundly dysfunctional than we could have imagined. A simple review of our family attorney’s detailed bill to us for work done over the last few years provides an overabundance of evidence of this dysfunctionality. Numerous trips to the same government office in order to pick up a simple document because the person who needs to deal with it is on vacation, or has a headache and doesn’t feel like dealing with it (yes, this really did happen), or is busy playing video games, or just hasn’t gotten around to it. Numerous redundant phone calls to various tax authorities because no one actually knows what a particular tax law says at this point in time or whether it might change tomorrow. I could go on and on, but I will save you the headache. Suffice it to say that the public sector in this country is a disaster.
  • The national culture around tax evasion is a fundamental problem that may be impossible to solve in this generation. It is an almost universal practice to offer one price with an official invoice or another without one and a 23% price reduction because the income won’t be reported and taxed. Even rather large businesses have not, up until now, accepted credit cards so they can avoid paying taxes on their actual receipts (this may change as the government has finally gotten the clever idea of requiring many transactions to be made by credit or debit card.) Freelance workers in this country report absurdly low levels of income for a country which is relatively cheap by European standards, but is not Bangladesh–I heard a radio report the other day that said that 8 of 10 independent contractors reported total annual income of under 10,000 Euros last year; 6 of 10 reported under 5,000. You cannot live in this country on 10,000 Euros, much less 5,000. A Greek friend of mine estimated that freelancers report about one-third of their actual income on average. Only one person’s guess, but it sounds about right to me.

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    Refugees and immigrants protesting the border closures that have marooned them in Greece.

  • While many of Greece’s financial problems are of their own making, the country is truly getting screwed by the rest of Europe in regards to the refugee crisis. Because Greece happens to be in the southeast corner of Europe, the international refugee crisis is somehow Greece’s responsibility to solve? We now have some 50,000 immigrants and refugees stranded in the country and the Greek people are somehow supposed to figure out a humane way to house and feed all those people, set up a complex system for quickly and fairly assessing each one’s asylum claim, and “humanely” round up everyone who’s not a legitimate refugee and ship ’em back to Turkey? This is powder keg waiting to blow (it has already started with violent fights breaking out among different immigrant groups, among the 5,000 or so people stranded at the port of Pireaus.) The double whammy of economic crisis and refugee crisis may well and truly be more than this little country can survive.
  • Aside from the minor problems noted above, Greece is a paradise. (Okay, I didn’t mention the endemic corruption, the anarchistic driving and parking behavior and general disdain for rules of any kind, or the fact that the concept of a “conversation” in this country generally means several people shouting at each other simultaneously at full volume, but those are small things.)  The clear blue skies and soft, dry air that caresses your skin for several months of the year; the seemingly endless miles of coastline with countless spectacular bays and beaches; the mountains and ravines, the vineyards, olive groves, and citrus orchards; the delicious food and wine…As a Greek friend said to me yesterday, when I commented on what glorious spring weather we were enjoying, “We have everything we could want in this country–we should be living like kings, if only we had political leaders who were capable and effective.” It is a refrain I have heard countless times. The Greek people know that in many ways, they live in a paradise, which makes it all the more frustrating when they so often feel miserable due to the mismanagement of the country by its political and economic elite. But one has to recognize that there is plenty of blame to go around–the general public has not only turned a blind eye to corruption and inefficiency for many, many years, it has actively participated in and benefited from these societal ills when it suited them to do so.

And to end on a positive note, on the topic of paradise–we were reminded of the spectacular beauty of the Cycladic islands on a recent trip to Mykonos with friends visiting from the U.S. Here are a few pics…

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