7 tips for a Greek holiday

Daily we are subjected to weird headlines: 
* Greek PM Tsipras says no to speedy elections, but…
(His party is riven in half, so he might not have a choice.)
* First taverna  to accept Bitcoin is inundated with tourists.
(Can that even be true?)
* 50% of Germans want Greece to stay in the Euro.
(No comment.)
* Athenians have not left to go on holiday yet..
.(How can they, they have no money.)

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Meanwhile, travelers to Greece have been getting bombarded with advice: Bring thousands in cash. Do not get robbed. Keep away. Beware.

People have been bemoaning the lost tourist season, another stroke of bad luck for the stricken economy. It is said there are many canceled bookings and workers in tourism will have to be laid off. But then friends who did not cancel reported from a variety of islands to say they were having a lovely time. Also my friend Emanuele called from Italy to see how we were faring. He told me a lot of Italians are changing their destination from other countries to Greece in order to show solidarity and spend their money here. A message both touching and cheering.

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My take is the following:

1. COME! The sun still shines, the sea is turquoise, ancient temples beckon. Take a boat, or climb a mountain. Whether you want to party, veg out or sightsee, Greece is still the place to be. Best holiday ever.

2. Bring some cash (just in case). If you lead the simple island life, you won’t need much, especially if you’ve already paid for transport and accommodation. A few drinks, a meal by the sea – swimming and siestas are free. Except if you’re headed for Myconos – but that’s another story. About getting robbed? It could happen wherever you go. Greece is far from being the most dangerous place on the planet. All over the world, most people get their wallets stolen in their local subway station.

3. Go to an open-air cinema: nothing beats watching a film under the stars, surrounded by jasmine and bougainvillea. In Greece, films are not dubbed.

4. Check out open-air concerts (free), or the panigyri (traditional festival celebrated on saints’ name days) at the local church. A lot of islands also put on interesting art exhibitions.

5. Talk to the locals. Most people speak English. They will be more than happy to try and explain the unexplainable political situation – in their opinion, of course! It makes for lively conversations.

6. If things get fraught, just get out of the center of Athens. Everywhere else will be fine.

7. Last but not least, there are bargains to be had. A lot of places – shops, hotels or restaurants – have put their prices down.

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A book about music

imageThings are still festering in Greece, and no end in sight. The political scene is roiling as Tsipras tries to control his errant government, while the economy is suffering death throes and most people have had to abandon all thoughts of a holiday. The  fires are out for now, but the meltemi still blows and the danger is not yet past. The destruction has been immense.

As a relief from the constant stream of bad news, I thought I’d share some of the drawings I’m doing for a music book for children.  Written by two friends, pianists and music teachers Sia Antonaka and Roubini Mentzelopoulou, it’s a story about players of classical and modern music fighting with each other but finally ending up playing in harmony. It’s aimed at kids aged 6 – 10, and will be published by the end of the year. The book will include a cd and other teaching material, and hopes to encourage children to sing and enjoy rhythm.

It’s been very soothing as well as a lot of fun doing the drawings. For those interested, I used markers and aquarelle pencils.

 

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Greece on fire


imageAs if we didn’t have troubles enough, Greece is now, literally, on fire. Huge blazes have broken out concurrently: around Athens, in the Peloponnese, and on some islands. The gods must be angry with us, indeed. Or perhaps it’s not the gods? There is talk of arson; of a plan to destabilize the government. More conspiracy theories? Heat and high winds are a dangerous combination for woods that have seen no rain for months. Rubbish such as glass bottles can also play a part, as well as people’s irresponsible behaviour. But we had a similar situation in the summer of 2007, in another politically unstable period under the Karamanlis government, when forest fires caused the death of 84 people and 4,5 million olive trees were burnt. Be that as it may, it’s another disaster, more damages for people and a country that can ill afford them.

Having lived through two fires myself, some years ago, I agonize for the people involved and, indeed, for the huge destruction of nature. There is nothing more heartbreaking than watching a mountain burn.
In our case, luckily our house itself did not burn either time, but everything around it did. At night, the hillside across from us was lit by a wall of flame, against which black silhouettes of houses and trees could be seen. An apocalyptic vision of hell. Bringing coffee to the firemen, we had to fight our way from our car to the fire engines in a storm of swirling ash flakes.
For days, trees or bushes you’d thought had been put out would flare up again. The lawn was black. Inside the house, however much you cleaned and scrubbed, bare feet would be black with soot. And the smell of burnt just would not go away. We’ve had to replant our garden twice.

I pray for the people fighting the blazes; firemen, volunteers, neighbors, even old ladies passing buckets of water. And for the fearless pilots who fly into the smoke and flames to dump water – that is how our house was saved – and then back down to the choppy, wind blown surface of the sea to fill up their tanks. A dangerous job indeed; and in these strained financial times, one can only hope the planes and helicopters have been properly maintained.

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Capital controls: 15 ways in which they’ve changed our life

1. We have to wait in long lines at ATMs to get our daily cash allowance (€60 which has become €50 since the banks have run out of €10 and €20 notes.) Many people have acquired a ‘secret’ or ‘favourite’ machine – one that is more reliable/less crowded that others.

2. Public Transport is – temporarily – free, only a lot less buses are running. A friend arrived at work late yesterday because she had to wait one hour and two minutes for her bus (usually there’s one every ten minutes.)

3. Any subscriptions to foreign sites (such as extra iCloud storage) are frozen, since Greek credit cards cannot pay money abroad. Same goes for Amazon or other online shopping.

4. Venues booked for weddings or christenings – there are a lot of those at this time of year- ask for part of the money in advance, preferably in cash, so they can pay for the food, etc. People are being creative about their ‘big day’: flowers from the garden, a cousin will do the bride’s hair, sister takes the photos etc.

5. Funerals can be paid for in installments.

image6. Amongst my friends, the only people who have gone on holiday are those who have houses on the islands, or those who had prepaid for a trip somewhere. People trying to book rooms are asked for money in advance, in many cases in cash. Sometimes a friend on the spot can lend a hand.
However, tourists are OK since ATMs still seem to disburse money to foreign credit cards.

7. Some flights have been cancelled and many airlines are not accepting bookings from Greek tourist companies. However, around 15.000 internal flights will be available for around €10.

8. Businesses that deal in cash pay their employees in cash and get praise. Those that don’t can’t pay at all and get complaints. A lot of people have been asked to take unpaid vacation until the banks open (and are hoping that by the time this happens, their companies will still be operational.)

9. Dentists report cancellations for cosmetic appointments such as teeth cleaning or whitening.

10. Pharmacies report a rise in sales for medications used in chronic diseases such as diabetes as patients stock up, fearing a future lack.

11. People are paying with credit cards wherever possible in order to save what little cash they have. But some retailers are already refusing plastic.

12. Meanwhile, people who had money in the bank are trying desperately to spend it, fearing future haircuts. They’re buying up things they consider to have a resale value, such as jewels, cars, and electronic gadgets. To take advantage of this trend, luxury clothing retailers have started early and generous discounts (summer sales in Greece normally start in August.)

13. Generally people are trying to spend any money they have, so bills and taxes are paid promptly!

14. Imports and exports have become very complicated.

15. A lot of shows, especially those with expensive tickets, have been cancelled.

The big picture

“It is never too late to be what you might have been.”
― George Eliot

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A sigh of relief? An all-night marathon ended in ‘white smoke,’ as Greece and its creditors managed to reach an agreement that secures the country’s place in the Eurozone. From Grexit to ‘Greekment’, as Donald Tusk, head of the European Council, dubbed it.

Of course, a lot of work remains to be done, since Greece has an obligation to immediately implement draconian reforms. There is political uncertainty because this implementation depends on the cooperation of all parties. For the Greek people, more hard times are ahead.

There is a feeling, abroad as well as in Greece, that the terms of the deal are punitively harsh. Nobody is celebrating. However, I think one must remain positive. Catastrophe has been averted, given that it appears the government had no plan B in case of a return to the drachma.
I hope Greece will take this chance to put its affairs in order, something which is long overdue. It’s sad and humiliating to accept, but maybe the political system will finally be obliged to break out of the vicious circle they’ve been in for so long, and bring about a real change in mentality.
Let’s hope this will be the making of a modern, self-sufficient new Greece.

At the same time, this crisis has shaken the foundations of Europe considerably, and exposed its flaws. There is an immediate need to look at the bigger picture. Today Europe is faced with huge problems, starting with its failure to alleviate the poverty of many of its citizens.
Amongst other things, it has to cope with wave upon wave of immigrants seeking a better life within its borders. It has to deal with the threat of terrorism. And it has to compete with emerging markets where labor is still both cheaper and willing to work much longer hours.
Europe has shown it is not united, nor has it found a way to accommodate the differences, cultural or other, between its members. Changes are needed; rifts must be healed and hard questions answered if the European machinery is to keep moving forward smoothly in future.

 

 

It ain’t over yet…

How better to start the day than with an ironic take on events by one of my favourite cartoonists, Matt.

image imageOn to the news:

In a turbulent all-night session, Greek PM Mr. Tsipras managed to get Parliament to ratify austerity terms previously rejected by his government, in a desperate bid to secure the country’s future in the Eurozone.

Mr. Tsipras explained his about-face by saying he did not get a mandate from the people to take Greece out of the Eurozone, confirming his pre-referendum assertion that a NO vote was not a vote against Europe. He has recognized that the pain of capital controls and economic collapse is too much to bear. Mr. Tsipras had promised voters a miracle which he was unable to deliver – the only way he can now redeem himself is if at least he achieves some restructuring (or what Mrs. Merkel calls re-profiling) of the debt.
He got 251 votes, bolstered by opposition parties, but lost the majority within his own party. The left faction of SYRIZA voted against, which is understandable from their point of view. They have been against all along. They accuse the ECB of using ‘liquidity asphyxiation’ to bring a rebel democracy to its knees. And they accuse the PM for not having a Plan B if Europe did not give in to his demands.

Major architect of the whole fiasco, ex Finance Minister Varoufakis, did not vote. He left for his holiday home on the island of Aegina, citing ‘personal reasons’ – a bizarre turn of events that was widely condemned by all parties. Readers’ comments in the press have vilified him as a rat leaving a sinking ship which he himself helped scuttle.

New Finance Minister Mr. Tsakalotos admitted that the measures proposed will reinforce austerity, but insisted we had to look at the big picture and promised to aid the weaker members of society.

However, Mr. Tsipras warned that the battle is not won yet, since it is far from certain the new proposals will be accepted by the lenders.

Conclusion: We will – should? – be happy if we manage to achieve a new agreement which will be similar to, and tougher than, the one we nearly got before the referendum.

To end on a lighter note, yesterday farmers in Thessaloniki rolled up image
with truckloads of watermelons which they proceeded to distribute to the pensioners waiting in line in the heat outside banks to get their money. They thought they could do with some refreshment.

A garden full of treasure

imageWhile waiting to find out our fate, I decided that life must go on, as pleasantly as possible. And what better way to soothe the soul than with art. So we descended upon my friend Alexandra, a sculptor whose studio spills out into her garden.

Alexandra is a versatile artist who works in many mediums: wood and rusted metal, resin, cardboard and paper. But she mostly starts her pieces with found materials – driftwood discovered on beaches, fallen branches or logs collected in woods, rusted bike frames and other bits of iron. These she assembles into her chosen shape, often horses’ heads or entire, life-size horses. Then she casts them in bronze.image

This means her garden, enchantingly wild and overgrown, is a treasure trove of found pieces, as well as finished sculptures. Bits of metal left out to rust, piles of what she calls ‘rubbish’ but which no doubt will come in useful at some point. Works-in-progress, blocks of wood in weird shapes waiting for the next burst of inspiration. In the midst of all this is her studio. Welding equipment is stacked in a corner, and works on paper litter the tables – her latest passion is making books. Materials and tools spill out into the garden, where in the winter she can be seen hard at work, wearing multiple layers of clothes!

I love the way Alexandra scribbles and paints on every available surface.image She flattens old cardboard boxes to draw on, uses tea and coffee to create subtle stains, tears things up and reconstructs them in layers.  One of my favourites is this drawing on a broken flowerpot- she calls this work ‘Fragmented Self.’

 

Another recurring theme are the torsos made out of hammered sheets of imagemetal. They are very evocative – they remind me of the Ancient Greek Kouros statues, but at the same time they suggest suits of armour.

 

A lovely afternoon was spent discussing how things were put together, what inspired each piece – and it was great being able to touch everything, which you cannot do in a museum or exhibition. The children had a field-day pottering about and feeding Alexandra’s tortoises. We were given ice cream on the terrace, surrounded by her collections of stones and small sculptures. Then the kids were put to work making fish out of actual rubbish gathered on a beach. The result was declared super-cool.

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If you want to find out more about Alexandra Athanassiades, this is  her site: http://www.alexandraathanassiades.com

Frozen

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There’s a heat wave on, but everyone’s frozen: paralyzed, unable to plan or think of anything else than the situation we find ourselves in. Heads are buzzing and eyes are red from hours of watching television and computer screens, trying to make sense of the news pouring out.

There was an atmosphere of celebration after the referendum results on Sunday; but everyone I’ve talked to since Monday, from all social levels – and whether they voted YES or NO – is dazed and confused. Nobody’s spending any money, apart from filling the fridge and the car. That’s fine,  most people still have plenty to eat and enough clothes and other accessories to last them for years if need be – but what about those in retail? Business has fallen to zero overnight. Nobody’s shopping, nobody’s going to the hairdresser or even to the doctor if they can possibly avoid it. There is a peculiar exception to this: some are buying jewelry, expensive smartphones or tablets and even cars. This is because they fear a haircut will be applied to their savings, and they prefer to have goods they think will keep their value.

Immigrants from Albania and Bulgaria who have lived here for years and are well integrated, with families and children who go to Greek school, are returning to their countries. They don’t want their kids to go through the same things they experienced in their childhood. And this just a a law is being passed making it easier to get Greek nationality. Meanwhile, more than a thousand new immigrants landed on our shores in the last week. On Samos, there was a huge problem providing them with food, since the catering company had not been paid.

*

To kill time while waiting for the results of the European summit, we took ourselves off to our local open-air cinema. One of summer’s pleasures – watching a movie under the stars. Jasmine and bougainvillea climbing the walls, a bar selling popcorn, hotdogs and  nachos. Tickets €6.  Still an affordable evening out. The cinema was not full, but not empty either, with couples and families trying to forget their troubles for a couple of hours.

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Back home to another episode of science fiction, or shall I say, the theater of the absurd?

Journalists on all TV channels were commenting on the fact that the Greek negotiating team had arrived at the meeting without a proposal. Our new Finance Minister, Mr. Tsakalotos, was inadvertently carrying handwritten notes in such a way they could be – and were – read by all. Then participants of the summit started emerging, all with long faces. They made statements saying how committed they were to finding a solution, but that it was going to be extremely difficult, that time was running out, and that the ball was in Greece’s court. Some openly said it was time Greece left the Euro, and maybe the Eurozone as well.

Next, our PM came out, all smiles, and declared proposals had been made for an equitable solution for us and our partners, promising social equality and economic growth. He implied all would be well by Sunday.

What to believe? Commentators were describing rescue talks as having collapsed yet again. Most were pessimistic about a positive outcome.

Is there some plan behind all this? I wish our politicians would come straight out and tell the Greek people what it is they’re expecting to achieve, what their proposals are, if they have a Plan B and how that would work out. My greatest fear is that, by the time they’ve sorted something out, it will be too little, too late. Every passing day, another bit of the Greek economy dies.

The day after

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A quick roundup of today’s events:

Maverick finance minister Yanis Varoufakis resigns (to the relief of many in Europe). His place is taken by Euclid Tsakalotos, an Oxford-educated economist.

All party chiefs meet to prepare a ‘new’ proposal, which they will co-sign before submitting it for negotiation in Brussels.

The package under discussion is similar to the one proposed by Mr. Junker.[Statement from Washington: The referendum happened, and the situation remains the same.]
The question is: If we’re to go back to the same point we were at before the referendum, why was all this necessary, only with Greece now in a weaker position, with the previous program having expired, and a full-blown bank crisis going on?
Was it just a complicated piece of political maneuvering?

The government is trying to distil an air of optimism and presents an agreement as a foregone conclusion, to the contrary of the messages coming in from Europe, where the consensus seems to be dissatisfaction with the referendum result.
Tomorrow, the Eurogroup meets. Will the Greek team bring back an agreement? It appears difficult, and the terms will most probably be worse than before. And if they don’t succeed, what then?