What better way to ring in the new year than watching fireworks explode over the Acropolis?
Athenians braved the rainy weather, forgot their woes, and came out with their umbrellas to celebrate.
The photographs are from the daily paper Kathimerini, and provided some distraction from the otherwise continuing dismal news. What do we have to look forward to in 2019? Yet more rising taxes, elections, and a continuing and unmanageable refugee crisis.
However, a brand new year always brings with it a glimmer of hope. And the feeling that here we are, alive and kicking—we made it through another year!
A bigthankyou to all who follow, read my rants, and especially those who take the time to comment. I greatly appreciate it. All by best wishes for a wonderful2019!
The Carlos Acosta interlude proved to be short. We were lucky the performance was not cancelled, since the next day Xenophon, our local cyclone, struck in earnest, with gale-force winds and intermittent showers. Schools were shut for a day, and the fire brigade has been busy cutting branches that threatened to crush all beneath them. Plus Xenophon is now scheduled to meet with a buddy, Zorba, and they will no doubt be dancing a syrtaki in the skies.
Meanwhile, in a report published in the daily KATHIMERINI, it appears that the Greek state is holding back tax returns of 1.83 billion euros which it owes to taxpayers and businesses. This tactic is aggravating the cash flow problems in the market and in households. To add insult to injury, taxpayers are not allowed to offset what they are owed with what they owe, but are still required to pay their own taxes on time or incur hefty fines. The law requires the state to return sums owed together with interest if the delay is over 90 days but, according to accounting firms, this has in fact never happened.
By the end of this year, Greeks will have been working for the government for a total of 198 days. Greek taxation is equal to that of Germans, but higher than in Sweden or Finland. However, Greeks feel they are getting a lot less bang for their buck, as the saying goes. At least, in the aforementioned countries, the roads are not full of potholes, nor are the pavement slabs cracked, and the streets often strewn with rubbish. Greek pensions are tiny and threatened by further cuts, and hospitals and schools in dire need of improvement.
Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras hailed it as a ‘day of liberation ‘ and the ‘end of a modern day Odyssey’: after about nine years of unbearable austerity, Greece has exited the bailout program.
“Greece has managed to stand on her feet again,” the prime minister’s office announced last week, describing receipt of a final €15bn bailout loan as “The last act in the drama. Now a new page of progress, justice and growth can be turned.”
However, celebrations are premature: not only in my opinion, but according to several experts, the bailout was a disaster for Greece, since the loans were designed to help Northern European banks, not the Greek government, nor the Greek people.
If their purpose was to support the Greek economy, the emergency loans must be considered a failure. Greece is now the fourth poorest country in the EU behind Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania. In an economy that has contracted by 26%, a fifth of the working population – two-fifths of young people – have been left unemployed, while about 500,000 people have fled, mostly to EU member states in Europe’s wealthier north.
Although Greece might be now able, after many years, to borrow again at market rates, and Tsipras is at pains to play down outside supervision, we will still be subject to a regime of enhanced surveillance. Further pension cuts are in store.
Also, a return to borrowing has been made much more difficult because of market turbulence caused by financial problems in both Italy and Turkey. In the midst of his triumphant pronouncements, Tsipras has nevertheless warned of “fresh battles ahead” as the country prepares its first budget measures following the end of its international bailout.
The country faces decades of austerity since, contrary to widely held beliefs, less than €10 billion or a fraction of less than 5% of the overall programme went to the Greek fiscal budget. In contrast, the vast majority of the money went to existing creditors in the form of debt repayments and interest payments. Athens will be repaying a €322bn debt mountain for next 42 years.
Scary? If you talk to Greeks who’ve had to sell their house, whose kids have left for a better life abroad, whose businesses have gone bankrupt, who have zero faith in their leaders, I can assure you not many of them will be opening the champagne just yet.
The one thing still working in crisis-stricken Greece is tourism. Thus many Greeks, looking for ways to supplement their income, have started setting up their houses and flats as Airbnb accommodation. Whether in Athens, in the countryside or on the islands, this is good news for travelers, since they get to experience a side of Greek life not visible in a hotel. Strolling in an unknown neighborhood, buying a bottle of milk in the corner shop, having coffee or an ice cream in a local café. And this at a very reasonable price and, if one choses well, accompanied by a warm welcome.
Meet Ioannis Vasileiou, proud owner of an apartment in one of the cooler neighborhoods of Athens.
Tell us a little about yourself
I was born in Athens but after a while my family moved to my father’s birthplace, Eleousa, a village a few km outside the city of Ioannina in North West Greece, very close to the borders with Albania. In 1999 after finishing high school I went to Mytilini (the capital of Lesvos Island) to study Social Anthropology & History at the University of the Aegean. After I took my degree I spent one year in the army (there is no choice in Greece, you either go to the army or you leave the country until you reach your 40s or you must have a physical or mental health issue in order to avoid it) and then went back to Ioannina. I spent around 10 more years in Ioannina in various jobs (that were never related to my degree) ranging from the chicken industry to bookstores. For the last 3 years I’ve lived in Athens. Throughout my life (well, after the age of 9) what I mostly loved was to discover new music and collect it in every possible way (tapes, vinyls, CDs, CDrs, MP3s)—I never stopped buying music even after MP3. MP3s only helped me to discover even more music.
Since last summer I own an apartment in the center of Athens that I offer for rent to travellers through Airbnb.
What were the major difficulties you’ve faced in the last five years?
I thought a lot before answering this question. I could easily write several pages to answer. If I had to answer with just one word, this word would be Depression. Not just my depression but the whole country’s depression. How would you feel if suddenly you were not able to do all the things you loved and enjoyed doing and especially if this was not caused by your choices but other people’s choices? I loved to wake up every day and go to my work and meet my colleagues, I loved to go to a record store and browse for hours until I bought something, I loved to go out with my friends for a drink, I loved to plan my holidays. After a few years of the crisis I was not able to feel the same. I started to hate my work, because my boss was not paying me on time, and when he was paying it was always less than it should be. I could not make jokes with my colleagues, they were all uncertain about their future, and the future of their kids. I remember one specific colleague saying everyday, ‘What will I do? I have two kids to take care of.’ I could no longer go to record stores and buy music, instead of that I had started selling (piece by piece) my collection in order to pay my bills and my rent. I had friends I wanted to call to have a coffee with them, but sometimes I wouldn’t because I knew they had no money in their pocket, not even for a coffee. Holidays?
Did anyone in particular inspire you or help you?
I get inspiration from everyone and everything that can “touch” me. It can be a behaviour, a book, a song, an artist, a friend, a teacher, a family member etc. But if I need to answer in particular no one has inspired me and helped me as much as my parents did. Thanks to them I learned to be frugal. Thanks to them I always had money in my pocket (even in the most difficult times) not just for my coffee but for my friend’s coffee too. Thanks to them I now own a flat that offers me a monthly income good enough so that I will not have to work for a boss or a company that treats its employees like slaves.
What are your hopes/plans for the future?
My only hope is that I will continue to be able to maintain my personality. That I will be able to resist to anything I find not fair. I don’t have plans for the future. Greece is still a place where uncertainty is the only thing you can be certain of.
What are your hopes for Greece? What changes do you hope to see happen?
Greece since the very first moment that it became a nation is a country where corruption rules. I don’t mean that Greeks are corrupted. The only people who are corrupted in Greece are those who are in to politics and critical positions. Corruption is not something in our DNA, all the corrupted Greeks became corrupted by forces outside of the country. If anyone wants to discuss this further with me it will be my pleasure. This is what I hope and wish will change to the better. Some tiny changes have already started to happen but this is a very long road…
Have you considered leaving? If so, where would you like to go, and why?
Thankfully I never seriously considered leaving Greece. Even though I could and even had a job offer from abroad (my brother is living abroad, he did not leave Greece because of the crisis, but because of the crisis he is not thinking to return. When I visited him in the early years of crisis, his boss offered to take me in his company too.)
The fact that I do not have a family of my own yet, saved me from this thought. All the friends I have that started a family and are now outside of Greece are not considering coming back and I can understand why.
If you have already decided to leave what would make you stay?
“There’s nothing like the Sun,” would be my answer to this question.
Are you actively doing anything to help with the situation? Is there something you would like to do?
Am I? I don’t know. One of the things that the depression I mentioned above did to all Greeks was to make them inactive. Can you imagine that there were (some still are) people working in jobs without getting paid at all for a whole year? Do you know what the majority of them did about it? Nothing! Because they were all afraid that they would lose their job and they would not be able to find a new one. Do you remember my colleague with the 2 kids? We were also friends, I was trying to convince him and my other colleagues to demand our money when our boss started not paying us properly. His answer was always the same “I have 2 kids…”. A few months later our boss started to ask us to put our signature for monthly payments that we had never taken. I refused to sign and I was fired. After one year and a half I managed to get paid in full the 3 month’s salary that he owed me. My colleague continued to work on the same job for a few more years until he was fired too. Our terrible boss owes him now the salaries for almost a year. I saw my colleague a few months ago in his new job, he has no hope at all that he will ever get these payments. He was such a good employee, anyone would give him a job, but the uncertainty and the fear he had could not let him understand it and take a risk for his own good. If I am doing something actively it is that I try to respect not just my rights but everyone’s rights. If I see something that looks to me unfair, I will point at it instead of looking the other way.
How do you see Greece in 5, 10 years?
I really can not look that much forward. Greece has the finest tourist product to offer, but tourism as much as it can help a country to recover from a financial crisis, can also bring disaster. So I think that in 10 years we will know the answer. I only hope that we will not become the poor local servants of the wealthy foreigners.
How do you cope with obstacles and frustrations in your everyday life ?
I think that we Greeks and maybe Mediterraneans in general know how to cope with all the obstacles and difficulties. We can have patience with them, but we can also put them aside for a while and have a nice time. To give you an example, I used to go out in bars like most of the people… when I could not afford it anymore I did not stay in depression in my house, I went out with friends having a nice time on a pedestrian street or a square, with a beer in our hand bought from the mini market.
What are the positive sides of living in Greece? Have you had any good experiences lately?
One good result of the financial crisis, was that all the independent and underground culture was raised to a new era. A lot of people stopped consuming whatever the TV was advertising and started to support DIY actions. Some of the best live music I have ever heard was free of charge or pay what you feel/can, the best theatrical performance I ever saw in my life was not in a theater but in a squat with the actors leaving a hat after the performance for the people to support them if they were able.
To finish off, since we are on such an interesting subject, can you tell us something about the Airbnb phenomenon?
Like everything else, it has its positive and negative sides. It’s a new proposition for travelers that has an impact both on society and on the economy. In many tourist destinations the locals are complaining because it has created a shortage of available rentals—for example, in the city of Chania in Crete, students found it really hard to find accommodation at the start of the school year. On the other hand, the Airbnb sector has helped to prevent a catastrophic downslide of property prices. Of course this has not stopped foreign investors from acquiring real estate in order to exploit it in this way.
In my own case—and in those of many others—it has been a life-saver, because it has allowed us to make a decent living without being at the mercy of unscrupulous employers.
And here I have a piece of advice for prospective travelers: to opt for places such as mine, homes with character and a warm welcome. Investors offer a standardized product, not much different from being in a hotel. In some ways worse, since these properties are totally impersonal, and many are now applying the concept of self check-in, where you never even get to meet your host.
Whereas nothing gives me more pleasure than to welcome my guests, and advise them about local shops, open air cinemas and even their next destination.
Choosing such a host is easy if you look at their profiles online.
Here would be a good spot to insert the link to Ioannis’ appartement, in case anyone is planning to travel to Greece and is looking for a place to stay, a warm welcome and some decent music.
We frequent our local fish shack all winter, too, when the interior is cosy and your clothes end up smelling of fried fish, and sometimes salt spray hits the windows. But now they’ve put their tables out, by the rocks.
Its name is Xypolitos, meaning ‘barefoot’.
Fishbones and wine. When darkness falls, they switch on the lights.
A blue evening. Around fifteen minutes away from where we live. Worth the drive?
Summertime living makes things seem less grim, especially if one can get away for a day or two. For Greeks, though, life continues to be a struggle, with ever-rising taxation, constantly changing rules and laws, and a failing infrastructure. A quick glance at the papers reveals the following:
– The dramatic worsening of the Italian economic crisis has put a damper on the government’s hopes to stage a smooth exit from the bailout program in August. The political earthquake in Italy has caused shivers in the whole of Europe, given that its economy is the third largest in Europe, and nearly ten times larger than that of Greece.
– In Lesvos, refugee arrivals from Turkey have not abated, resulting in the hotspot of Moria being inundated by 7.300 people (for 3.000 places). There have been clashes between migrants from Arab countries and Kurdish residents over religious differences, and hundreds of people have dispersed over the island, sleeping rough in parks and woods. Fearing for their safety, they are refusing to return to state-run camps. Plans have been made for the creation of more reception facilities, but the local authorities have reacted forcefully against these. It is true the islanders have borne more than their fair share of this burden, but nevertheless immediate solutions must be found.
-Meanwhile, the leader of the opposition Kyriakos Mitsotakis presented his business model for the country. His message was: No to more taxes and social contributions, yes to investments and new jobs, but also to healthy entrepreneurship. Amen to that? Well, I’m not getting my hopes up, we’ve heard this before. Many times, by all sides.
To end on a better note, there is something we can be proud of:
In its annual report, the European Environmental Agency has said that 95.9 per cent of all coastal bathing waters in Greece are of excellent quality. Off to the beach, then, to drown our sorrows in the crystal clear waters.
From most places in Europe, at least, Greece is a very accessible destination. A couple of hours on a plane (around four for the furthest countries) and you’re in Athens. Starting this month, there are even direct flights to some islands, such as Corfu and Crete.
June is an ideal month to visit: cool enough to wander about ancient sites, warm enough to swim. Still green, but with summer blossoms such as oleander and bougainvillea in full bloom. School’s not out yet, so it’s still pretty quiet and prices are lower than in the high season.
There are plenty of things to see and do in Athens itself, and there are many beautiful mainland sites worth a visit, such as the Meteora or Mycenae. However, one of the most fun things to do is catch a boat to an island.
Get a room by the beach.
Watch the sunset. Wispy clouds and lavender mountains.
Sit by an ancient olive tree.
These pictures are from Thasos, a large, wooded island in the North Aegean. But with a couple of hundred inhabited islands to choose from, there’s something for every taste.