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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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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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No News is Bad News

 

pensioners4_web-thumb-largeI turned on the car radio the other day, as I do most mornings, to listen to the talk shows, which usually involve two or three people shouting at and talking over one another in the universal Greek style of discourse, employed whether in a debate on the parliament floor or in discussing the weather with a friend. But it is great language practice, so I listen faithfully. But on this day, I found none of the usual talk on my regular station, only a steady stream of ’80s pop hits. I tried another station and found more of the same. Eventually, I heard the announcement–due to a strike by broadcast personnel, there would be no live radio until Friday evening. No talk shows, no news.

A few days previous, our attorney informed us that he couldn’t file our long-awaited petition regarding my residency status because the court personnel were on strike. The following day when I tried to take the train into downtown, I found that the train personnel were on strike. Fortunately, I didn’t have any important doctors’ appointments because the health and medical personnel were all on strike.

In the last week or so, thousands of farmers have occupied the country’s only main high-speed roadway with their tractors, in protest of the proposed changes to the country’s pension and tax systems, which would result in them paying in substantially more and getting out less. Tens of thousands of public employees and independent professionals have taken to the streets of Athens in protest of the same measures, causing closings of downtown streets and government and private offices.

farmers2-thumb-largeAt some point in the Greek crisis, an enterprising group set up what is probably the most useful website in the country–www.apergia.gr–“apergia” meaning strike, the site offers a one-stop look at everything you need to know about current and upcoming strikes, work stoppages, demonstrations, office closures, etc.

Checking out the site today, I see that the metro, tram, and bus employees will be striking on Tuesday and Thursday this week, so no going downtown on those days. I guess I won’t try to get away from it all by taking a last-minute trip to the islands, since the ferry workers are also going on strike. Fortunately, I don’t have plans to bring any shipping containers in through the Corinth Canal because those folks are going on strike too. At least we can always attend a nice concert or play to take our minds off the chaos–or maybe not–the employees of the city’s major concert hall are also going on strike.

Farmers, pharmacists, notaries, municipal employees, national government employees, doctors, court staff, teachers, taxi drivers, and engineers, among other groups, have all carried out work stoppages in the past two weeks or so, as the national government attempts to push through pension and tax reform legislation demanded by the Eurozone creditors.

When Tsipras was elected, I said that I pitied him for the impossible position in which he would inevitably end up, having to try to please both the nation’s creditors and the masses of Greek people opposed to further austerity measures. Now he and his Syriza government are at the critical point of trying to push through the massively unpopular pension and tax changes that formed a central part of the deal that kept Greece in the Eurozone.

farmers1-thumb-largeCan the Syriza government survive this challenge? Tsipras’s personal popularity has kept the government afloat until now, the Greek people having shown a remarkable degree of patience with new austerity measures thus far. But this latest challenge may be too much–a recent poll has the until recently much-reviled and discredited New Democracy party leading Syriza for the first time since Tsipras came to power.

For Tsipras and Syriza it’s a no-win situation–push through the unpopular reforms and lose the support of the majority of Greeks or fail to do so and lose all credibility with the Eurozone lenders.  As I said before, I’m glad I’m not in his shoes.

 

 

Refugee Crisis Update: From Bad to Worse

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Refugees waiting in the harbor of Mitilini, Lesbos

For some weeks now, I have been wanting to write a follow-up piece on the refugee situation in Greece, but I have been overwhelmed by the pace of events, which has exceeded my capacity to absorb and comment on them. To summarize what has happened since our trip to Lesvos, which I last wrote about a month ago:

1) The expected drop-off in refugee arrivals from Turkey due to the onset of colder, wetter fall weather and rougher seas did not occur. In fact, the flow increased dramatically. The hundreds of arrivals per day that we witnessed in September turned into thousands per day in October despite rough seas, with a concomitant increase in deaths in the crossing. On October 20, to pick one day, over 8,000 people arrived on the Greek islands. Total migrant/refugee arrivals in Greece have now reached a staggering 700,000 in 2015. The Greek Coast Guard and emergency service personnel have been working 24-7 trying to rescue people from the sea, but they are completely overwhelmed and understaffed. Despite their efforts, some 500 people died on the Turkey-Greek island route in October.

2) The Greeks have been giving people free passage through the country after a cursory registration process on the islands. They have been criticized for failing to screen adequately arriving migrants, but anything more rigorous would create a massive bottleneck, leaving thousands of people in cramped, inadequate facilities on small islands that are completely unprepared for and incapable of handling this. News reports today say that European ministers in an emergency session in Brussels are focusing on the need to strengthen border controls on the periphery of the EU, that is, on the Greek islands. But, let’s face it, this isn’t going to happen without a massive influx of resources from the EU.

3) Most of the migrants arriving on the Greek islands have moved quickly through the country, but a small percentage, most of them Afghans, have been stranded in Athens. The New York Times had a story recently describing the increasingly common journey of impoverished Afghans out of the country, via a hostile Iran, where guards routinely shoot at the migrants, then on to Turkey and Greece. They often leave with only enough funds to get them as far as Turkey or Greece, where they end up stranded. If you go to Victoria Square in Athens on any given day now, you will find it filled with Afghans and other migrants who appear to be stranded here. They are surviving on charity from aid organizations now, but how long will this last? What will happen to these people when the aid agencies move on to another crisis? The Greek government certainly can’t support them.

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Syrian refugee child in Pikpa camp on Lesvos

4) The Paris attacks, involving at least one terrorist who made his way through Greece on a stolen Syrian passport, suddenly changed the entire conversation on the refugee problem. Every country looking for an excuse to close their borders to refugees (Poland, Hungary, etc.) now has the perfect one. Who can argue with the right of those countries to secure their borders from terrorists? Conveniently, this will also allow them to evade their responsibility to share in the burden of taking in the legitimate refugees many of whom are, in fact, fleeing from the horrors of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

5) The Americans, who had previously agreed  to take a minuscule trickle of Syrian refugees over the next several years, are now poised to shut off completely that tiny opening.  We are being offered many useful suggestions by a variety of American politicians, such as Donald Trump’s brilliant idea of requiring all Muslims in the U.S. to register in a national database.  Should we also require that they all wear a patch with a yellow crescent to identify them? Or maybe just round them all up and put them in detention centers?

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Refugee dinghy in Molyvos, Lesvos

The refugee crisis, vastly complicated now by the horrific attacks in Paris, is, nonetheless, here to stay.  Can the Greek government do more to police their borders? Probably. But not without a huge infusion of resources from the EU—asking a country in the midst of a massive economic crisis, with a steadily declining GNP and 26% unemployment to carry the burden as the border police of the EU is simply not a realistic solution.

 

 

 

Finally, some people have asked about how to donate to the volunteer refugee assistance efforts in Lesvos. The wonderful organization that we volunteered with is now incorporated as a non-profit in Greece and it is called the Starfish Foundation. You can connect with them via their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/HelpForRefugeesInMolyvos/ either to donate or to volunteer.

And…a nice video from Lesvos by the charitable organization Samaritan’s Purse, showing the volunteer efforts there and the many challenges they face.

A Close-up View of the Refugee Crisis on the Island of Lesvos

Children at Pikpa Center, Mitilini

Syrian children at Pikpa Center, Mitilini

We had been on the island of Lesvos, the epicenter of the refugee crisis now swamping Europe, for a few days and were enjoying a relaxing late-night dinner after a long day of volunteer work at an emergency aid station, when we heard the frantic phone conversation.

“Try to stay calm, Christo! Yes, we will have a doctor waiting here! Try to keep the baby warm and just get them in here to the port as quickly as you can! Yes, the doctor will be here!”

Melinda, the de facto coordinator of the all-volunteer emergency relief effort in the tourist town of Molyvos, had received the call from a Greek Coast Guard official who had rescued yet another group of refugees from the sea on their short but tumultuous journey across the strait from Turkey.  A baby’s life is hanging in the balance as the distraught Coast Guard captain races his boat into the port at Molyvos. Our group of volunteers rushes out from the restaurant armed with metallic warming sheets to wrap the arrivals, while others run off to bring in the medical team.

Within a few minutes we see the lights of the boat and hear the chaos of screaming and shouting passengers and crew. The boat docks, the baby is rushed off the boat and onto the port, and the remaining passengers, in a daze, disembark among the café and restaurant tables in the heart of the tourist center. We wrap them in sheets and watch anxiously as the doctors frantically perform CPR on the infant, who looks to be under a year old.

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Informal Molyvos camp organized by volunteers

We lead the refugees, many of whom are women and young children, into the emergency aid station set up by the local volunteers, just a hundred meters or so from the port. Priority number one is to get them dry and warm—despite mild temperatures, the water is cold and the refugees are soaking wet. We rush them towards the area where clean, dry clothes are laid out in boxes and fit them up as best we can. But it isn’t easy—several times a day this scene is repeated and the neatly sorted and stacked boxes of clothes become a chaotic mess each time, the refugees’ wet and dirty clothes mixed in with the clean and dry, and children’s and adults’ and men’s and women’s clothes all mixed up. It is full-time work for several volunteers just to keep the clothing boxes stocked and sorted.

As we lead the group towards the food table, one of the refugees, a handsome young man of about 21, approaches me. “Thank-you,” he says in very clear English. “All of you are human. We are not human.”

“We are all human, of course—all of us,” I say, indicating refugees and aid volunteers alike.

“No, we are not human,” he insists. It is a simple fact, in his view. It is not the only time I heard this sentiment from the Syrian refugees. They are in despair over their country and their people and have lost hope for their country’s future.

The refugees politely and calmly line up and we pass out simple white bread and cheese sandwiches (made by the thousands by a remarkably dedicated crew of volunteers in Molyvos), bananas, and bottles of water. It is not much, but it is something. The refugees are incredibly grateful for this meager repast, each one offering their heartfelt thanks. The children come in crying but once they are warm and dry, are scampering around the camp, laughing and smiling. Their parents prompt them to say thank-you and each one does so with a shy smile.

After the initial rush for dry clothes and food, we begin to talk with the group and hear their stories. They are all from Syria (“Soo-ree-ah,” I quickly learn, is how they pronounce it), except for an odd group of four young men from Afghanistan, who sit off by themselves, completely isolated from us and from the Syrians by language barriers. The Afghanis had simply been thrown by the smugglers into the boat with the Syrians on the Turkish side at the last moment. The departure scene was nearly as chaotic as the arrival, they told me, as the group of 50 or so was pushed into the rubber dinghy that was designed for 15. Remarkably, the smugglers do not accompany their customers, simply picking out one of the group at random and designating them to operate the tiny motor and steer the boat towards a set of lights on the Greek side.

Even on a relatively calm night, the waves quickly becomes too much for the overloaded and underpowered dinghy. Halfway across, the motor stops working and the boat begins to take on water. “At that moment, I thought I had made the biggest mistake of my life,” Minas, a well-educated, middle-class, 30-something man with fluent English told me. “We were going to drown, I was certain. But, thank God, the Coast Guard found us and saved us.”

Minas (second from right) and friends)

Minas (second from right) and friends

The Syrians are exhausted from the ordeal but also exhilarated to be alive and on European soil, the first step of their journey successfully completed. They are remarkably calm and remarkably unconcerned about the details of their future life. “Where would you like to end up?” I ask several of them. “Anywhere,” they all reply. “Maybe Germany, maybe Sweden, but anywhere that will take us.” They aren’t picky.

After getting officially registered here on the island and receiving an official transit document that will allow them to go through (but not stay in) Greece, they will board a ferry boat to Athens. “Do you know how to get from the port in Athens on to the border of Macedonia?” I ask them.

“Not exactly, but we’ll figure it out,” they tell me, not the least bit concerned about these little details. “Many people are doing it and they post the info on Facebook. We’ll find our way.”

Living through war, months in Turkish refugee camps, and a harrowing journey across the sea instills resilience and confidence. They are survivors.

They are among some 400,000 migrants and refugees who have arrived on the Greek islands this year, many of them just in the past several weeks, completely overwhelming local authorities, who simply do not have the resources to host and process this enormous number of arrivals. The Greek Coast Guard, now assisted by crews and boats from Norway, Portugal, and other European countries, are doing their best to rescue those whose boats fail along the way, saving thousands of lives.

Syrian girl resting by the port in Mitilini

Syrian girl resting by the port in Mitilini

The wonderful volunteers who have come from all over Europe and North America to help with the crisis are almost enough to restore one’s faith in humanity. David, a pilot for a regional airline based in Cleveland, takes his four days of vacation to fly across the Atlantic to work long shifts at a camp, before dashing back home and back to work. Alistair, an Aussie who lives in Istanbul and says he doesn’t really know a thing about cooking but has taken on the job of unofficial kitchen manager at the Pikpa camp in Mitilini town, cooking up huge pots of stew every day to feed hungry migrants. (When asked how long he would stay, he said he couldn’t leave until someone capable of doing the job appeared to take his place.) Nina from Denmark, a workhorse in the kitchen, who took time off from her job at a local recreation center to feed and clothe refugees. Kenny, a truck driver from the UK, who had been saving for eight years to buy a house, but who has spent all his accumulated funds to support himself while volunteering on Lesvos, spending the last of it on a jeep to transport the refugees so they wouldn’t have to walk across the islands. Charlie, a young TV producer at the BBC, who had planned a vacation but couldn’t bring herself to lie on a beach when she saw so much need for help with the refugees, so changed her plans to come to Lesvos and work. Ordinary people who saw a need and came to do whatever little bit they could. So many good people from Germany, Norway, France, the UK, the US, and the Netherlands (thank goodness for the Dutch—a lot of compassion in that little country.)

In the morning, the group prepares to walk to a bus organized by the local police, who will take them in for processing. (Having been rescued at sea, they are officially “under arrest,” which means that they will get a free ride to the processing center, rather than having to walk or find transport from volunteers.) We ask around about the fate of the baby from the night before, hoping to hear a happy tale of a heroic rescue by the medical team.

But there is no happy ending to this story. The baby did not make it, we are told.

As the group packed up their meager belongings, we took photos, exchanged handshakes and hugs, and got email addresses. I promised Minas to send photos and he promised to keep us informed of their progress. (They are on their way to the Macedonian border, he told me in an email today.)

There were many things that surprised me in our week’s experience working with the refugees, of which I will have to write more another day. But perhaps the biggest surprise was just how much I liked the Syrian refugees, who almost to a person struck me as kind, gentle, and extremely grateful to those of us who welcomed them.  “Thank-you for everything you are doing for our people,” Majed said to me as he and his family were departing. “But most of all, thank-you for your smiles.”

Banal, maybe, but true–just a welcoming smile can mean the world to a refugee preparing to start a new life.

You can learn more about the volunteer efforts on Lesvos and how you can help at lesvosvolunteers.org or at the Molyvos volunteer Facebook page.

Majed and family

Majed and family

A very good day for Syriza and Tsipras

The pre-election polls in the short campaign leading up to this important national election were remarkably consistent–it would be a very close battle between the current governing Syriza party and the party they had ousted in January, New Democracy. It was a toss-up as to who would come out on top and the likely result would be a fractured parliament with no clear mandate and no clear path to a parliamentary majority.

The polls were dead wrong. Tsipras and Syriza achieved a clear victory, with a comfortable 7.5% margin over New Democracy. Under the Greek electoral system in which the winning party is awarded a bonus of 50 seats in the Parliament, Syriza very nearly garnered an outright majority, needing only to ally with its previous junior coalition partner Independent Greeks to summon a majority.

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Source: Kathimerini

So there will be no post-election chaos, no need for long drawn-out negotiations among various factions, and no need for new elections.

How did the party that brought the country to the brink of disaster in its dealings with the European Union, that brought about a run on the banks and capital controls, and which ultimately made an abrupt about-face in agreeing to harsh bailout terms that it had previously rejected categorically–how did this party manage to get re-elected comfortably?

I think the answer can only be the personality of Alexis Tsipras, an earnest young man with a ready smile who you just can’t help but feel is a really good guy. I think my friend Dimitri hit the nail on the head when explaining the Greeks’ support of Tsipras: “Greeks love a ‘Glorious Defeat’ and Tsipras gave them exactly that.” It is a long tradition in Greek history, Dimitri explained, and the Greek people greatly respected their earnest young leader for standing up to the powers-that-be of the European Union even if it was ultimately–and inevitably–a losing battle. He fought the good fight–the Greeks were outmanned and outgunned, but they went down honorably under Tsipras’s leadership.

Dimitri’s analysis rings true for me and is echoed in many of the man-on-the-street interviews in the press here. After all, what is the biggest patriotic holiday in Greece? Not Independence Day, but Oxi Day, when the Greeks proudly told Mussolini to stuff it, eventually leading to a disastrous German invasion and catastrophic occupation.

A few other observations from the election results:

  • The Neo-Fascist Golden Dawn garnered a frighteningly high number of votes, with their roughly 7% putting them in third place. After a period in which the Fascist party appeared to be receding from the scene, this support is truly troubling.
  • The Popular Unity party formed from the hard-left, anti-bailout faction of Syriza fared miserably, apparently under the 3% necessary to get a spot in Parliament.
  • By far the biggest vote-getter was “No One,” with a record 55% abstention rate. Given a population that is obsessively engaged with politics on a daily basis, this is perhaps the biggest story of the election. The Greek people may have finally gotten burned out on politics after several intense years of it.
  • The centrist To Potami party, which was heralded by some of the intellectual elite as a possible alternative to the more ideologically oriented parties, failed poorly with only 4% of the vote.

A Greek newspaper had a cartoon the other day in which Tsipras wakes up in a fright, telling his wife he had a terrible nightmare. “I dreamt I got re-elected!”

For better or worse, the earnest young man with the big smile’s dream/nightmare came true. I hope he can survive the challenges to come.

Summer Vacation’s over, Back to Reality

My more observant readers will note that I haven’t written a single word on this blog the entire month of August, giving you (and me) a break from thinking about the latest twist and turns in the modern day saga of the Greek people. Why have I not written a word in August? Because nothing happens in Athens in August. Nothing. The entire population of the city puts up a “Gone Fishin'” sign on the door of their business and heads out to a private island on their yacht, if they’re rich, or to the home of their grandparents in a rural village somewhere, along with ten or twenty friends and relatives, if they’re not. (Yes, even our local BP gas station put up a hand-written sign saying they had skippered off on vacation and you could damn well find your gas somewhere else if you were foolish enough to stay behind.)

Yes, it’s true that during this time there was a revolt among the left-wing of the governing Syriza party leaving the government without a working majority, causing the Prime Minister to resign, and the reins were handed over to a nice elderly lady who no one had ever heard of to keep a watch over things until the country got around to voting in a new government, and there was general bafflement among those few people, like us, who, for reasons beyond their control, were left stranded in Athens like a handful of survivors after a particularly thorough and successful neutron bomb attack, as to how a new government would be formed with the Prime Minister announcing that he wouldn’t form a coalition government with the corrupt traditional parties that got the country into this terrible mess in the first place, and the Communist Party indicating that it would have no part in any coalition with the Euro butt-lickers of the governing Syriza party, and the current junior partner, a wacko nut-job right wing outfit, polling so low that it will probably not make it into Parliament, and no other party polling well enough to take a lead role, leaving a rather tricky, if not impossible, mathematical problem to be solved for anyone seeking to form a new government.

But since the entire population of the country was off on vacation, no one appears to have noticed this yet. Or maybe they are just tired of it all. Really tired. Which would be completely understandable.

I was going to go on and write about what has struck me as the most significant development observable from my perch in a northern suburb of Athens lately, which is that an alarming number of business owners around here did not just close up for vacation, but have closed up for good. The number of “For Rent” signs on storefronts in our area has multiplied to a frightening new level in recent weeks. The owners of a local kitchen supplies shop in our neighborhood are packing it up after 17 years, explaining that they have been losing money for awhile now and, with the latest debt negotiation agreement with the Eurozone and its accompanying austerity measures, they see no prospect of this turning around anytime in the foreseeable future. Like many Greek business owners, they are regretfully, but logically, cutting their losses and closing up shop.

I was going to write about this and accompany it with a dozen or two photos of bleak, empty storefronts in our neighborhood, explaining why this is a sign that things are heading downhill and are only likely to get worse. But that would be too depressing to think about, so I thought I would share a more pleasant tidbit–the meaning and origin of the word amethyst.

Amethystos

We went to the lovely Costa Lazaridis winery north of Athens yesterday and tasted, among other things, their very nice white blend and Rosé, both of which go by the name of Amethystos, or Amethyst, like the gemstone.  We learned from our friendly and knowledgeable host that the wine was christened such because in ancient Greek times it was believed that holding an amethyst stone in one’s hand while drinking wine would prevent the drinker from becoming inebriated.  His tale made sense–the word for “drunk” in modern Greek is methismenos and the prefix “a,” as in English, is a negation, so amethyst does, in fact, sound like “not drunk” in modern Greek. I looked it up in the dictionary and, sho’ nuff, there was the whole etymological story– amethystMiddle English via Old French from Latin amethystus, from Greek amethustos ‘not drunken’ (because the stone was believed to prevent intoxication.) 

There you go–hold an amethyst stone in your hand and guzzle all the Jagermeister shots your stomach can handle and you’ll walk out of the bar straight-up sober. Not sure I’d want to test that one out though.