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.
- 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…