Greece Again

Fifteen years ago Stormy and I visited Greece, taking the night train from Sofia to Thessaloniki with friends over a long weekend. It’s in the book, of course…

We walked around the city and marveled at the markets, the shops, the architecture, and the international feeling of the place… busy with souvenir and snack stands, children playing… students on excursion…. We looked at a place where Roman ruins were being excavated, and an amphitheater. There were ornate churches, ancient and modern, some in ruins. Part of a fortified section of the old city had been turned into a park.
      — Breeze, p. 172

Three and a half years ago I wrote about The Deal (July 30, 2015) that the EU made to bail Greece out of its economic crisis. Things had been looking pretty grim for the Cradle of Western Civilization, with high unemployment, a failing economy, low productivity, and a failure of government to take the severe economic measures that were seen (at least in the other EU countries) to be necessary for recovery. This was while tourists were crowding the usual spots making it all seem busy and happy.

Then last week Stormy and I went to Athens. You could say it was an economic research project. The economics of it were that we found a really screamin’ deal on a flight through justgetoutoftown.com (JGOOT.com for short). Thanks to the economies of that arrangement, I am pleased to provide an update on the Greek situation.

Tourists are still crowding the usual spots, even as deep into the off-season as we were. The Acropolis and Parthenon, the old town area of Athens and the Roman Agora, the Temple of Hephaestus, the hallowed ruins at Delphi, the museums and the coffee shops have customers, on sunny and cloudy days alike. The ferries and the sleek fast catamarans still run to the Greek islands, and on the island of Agina the archaeological museum and adjacent Temple of Apollo are drawing visitors, not crowds but not deserted. Same for the innumerable cafés and ice cream and pistachio kiosks along the island shore, though some button up in the intervals between arriving and departing ferry boatloads.

The Greeks we met are still grousing about “The Crisis” and life goes on. The B&B proprietor we stayed with (in one bedroom of her two-bedroom apartment) blames the economic malaise on the government, and she is optimistic that a groundswell of discontent will rise up at the next election and throw the criminals out. It starts at the top, she explains patiently, with greed and corruption. How else could it be?

A restaurant owner said he’s doing fine, despite The Crisis, because he is near the tourist attractions and they provide most of his traffic. Most Greeks, he says, are in a depressed economic state because when the EU banks came in they flooded the market with cheap credit and everybody got in over their heads. Easy credit, new cars, iPhones (everybody’s got one!) even mortgaging their houses to buy consumer goods. The people were so naïve, he says. What did they know of banks and credit? Historically, they never had to buy a house; it was just in the family, the same for generations. Now that’s all lost, crashed. It starts at the bottom, he avers, with materialism and the desire for “something for nothing” taking hold among people not used to a transnational economy.

I mentioned our flight was really cheap. How cheap? It was so cheap that it had crazy long (oh so inconvenient) layovers. Who wants to travel that way? Ha. Us! Bonus! On the way over we stopped at London Gatwick with a 7-hour layover. We took the train to London Waterloo Station and headed toward the London Eye. You may recall it from the book:

…the huge Ferris wheel that took a half hour to go around once. It had egg-shaped glass cabins that held about 20 people, big enough to walk around inside to look in any direction and high enough to see for miles.
      — Breeze, p. 339

On the way there this time, though, it became clear that it wasn’t clear, at least not clear enough to see much of anything. Visibility in London was like a November day. We poked around a bit instead, got some breakfast, and headed back to the airport. On the way back our layovers were in Milan and Copenhagen. In Milan we took an express bus to the central station, strolled around the plaza and a few blocks of shops near there, and had a real pizza. In Copenhagen, with the luxury of a 10-hour layover, we slept in a nice little seaside hotel and got back to the airport for the early morning flight back home.

So, really, how cheap was that flight? It was so cheap that if you wanted to check a bag, on one of the three airlines involved it would cost $260. On another, a normal carry-on size bag was not allowed to be carried on but had to be checked to the next destination (and then retrieved and re-checked!) but a smaller backpack-sized one, about the size of some purses, could be carried on. On the third airline, they allowed a normal carry-on size, but no “additional personal item” like a purse: one item only. Combining all three sets of rules was a challenge, but we did it.

Athens is a wonderful city for a visit. If you lived there Though, you would probably get tired of the incessant strikes by transit workers, garbage workers, street workers and everybody else, but only the first of those caught us, early on the morning of our departure. Dark. Train station: closed. Buses: first run 9:00, two hours after our flight. Adjust. The cab driver was an interesting guy, and his take on the transit strike was that they do it too often. For taxis, the train strike is good for the first few hours, until the streets get all choked up and then nobody gets anywhere. I asked him if the cab drivers ever had strikes. Once, he said, about four years ago. Bad move: people learned to use the bus. Now they take the buses but (as we had observed) no one pays. In the 6 or 8 bus rides we had taken from place to place around town, we did not see one person tap their fare card to pay. It’s obvious enough, to the driver and everyone around, since there is a loud chime that announces when a fare is paid. It was silent except when we dumb tourists got on. No one pays, no one cares. Something for nothing, good deal.

Bus fares. I think that’s what’s wrong with the Greek economy. Bus fares.

Water Flowing

Stormy and I joined the Peace Corps, not because our own country didn’t need anything (it did) but because it would be an adventure to work in another place and learn about a different part of our great big world. That turned out pretty well.

When we went there in 2002 one of the driving factors for Bulgaria wanting the assistance of the U.S. Peace Corps in the first place was to complete its alignment with the West. The goal was to join the European Union and step into the world of modern commerce and democratic states, after the big change from the former system of government in 1989. That happened. Bulgaria was accepted into the EU in 2007.

It was a few years after that, in July 2013,1 when the Peace Corps mission in Bulgaria ended. There was some unrest and dissatisfaction in the air around that time, with people demonstrating against cronyism and corruption. They were demanding the kind of good and honest government they deserved. (Well, no one ever said it wasn’t a work in progress.) The people were clearly oriented toward that very Peace-Corps-like goal of attaining a fully functioning modern society. At that point the Peace Corps said, in effect, “OK, ’bye. Good luck!” 

I enjoy finding things in the news about Bulgaria, even though it’s been a while now since we were there. The other day I found an article with a disturbing headline, “Welcome to Bulgaria, the world’s fastest shrinking nation.” 2 There were signs of that danger when we were there, and there was some effort in academic circles to encourage bright young minds to stay and “make Bulgaria better” with their talents and skills, rather than taking it all abroad. True, we saw Bulgaria as having a relatively low standard of living compared with Western Europe and the US, but with thrift and ingenuity most people lived very well, requiring little and wasting nothing.

So what’s wrong with that? The EU, that’s what. Ever notice, when you want something for so long and then get it, it comes out way differently than you thought it would? So now it seems that no one thought about the long-term effects of having open borders between an economically depressed area and a prosperous, busy one with chronic worker shortages. People move, like water flowing.

Song Khon Waterfall, Loei Province, Amphoe Dan Sai, Foto: Martin Püschel 14:23, 29 December 2006

Photo from Wikimedia Commons, Martin Püschel

Reminds me of the news lately, closer to home (and getting closer every day). I wonder what will happen with those thousands of people flowing through Mexico from Guatemala and points south. Of course it’s a different situation but there are parallels. Coming from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the people in that desperate, flowing stream — many of them at least — are escaping deadly gang and government violence. Others are just trying to escape hopeless (really, really hopeless, probably like you can’t imagine) grinding poverty by coming to the Land of Opportunity. In an article from CBS News,3 most of the travelers said they were fleeing extreme poverty. As the article noted, though, that is not a condition for asylum or refugee status in the U.S.

A similar caravan, though smaller, was in the news earlier this year (remember that?) Only 300-some made it through the journey and the process, and were admitted for asylum. That process, and the outcome to date, is described in an informative article in USA Today, here.

I’m no dreamer, in the John Lennon sense. I don’t Imagine there are no countries, no borders. In the same way I don’t imagine there are no dams, reservoirs, or channels. We need water, and it has to flow.

Does anyone who reads this believe we shouldn’t have asylum and refugee programs? There are so many who need, and deserve by virtue of humanity, to be saved from the devastation of war and violence. Can we help them? All of them? Do they want to kill us? Do they want our jobs? Are these hard questions?

A Perfect World

In a perfect world, the ideals that America would exemplify would be a shining light, a bright star that could not be missed or misunderstood throughout that perfect world. Peace. Democracy. Freedom. Civic responsibility. Equality. Strengthening and spreading those ideals is a big part of what the Peace Corps was established for, and the mission is still carried on today. In the early 2000s, when Stormy and I worked in Bulgaria not long after the fall of the Soviet system, those ideals stayed discreetly in the background of everything we did, but they were always assumed to be a part of our work. Here at home, we sometimes forget to call them up. 

I met my brilliant and passionate friend Piper through a mutual acquaintance, shared interests, and my own good luck. She is a lawyer by profession, a lung transplant survivor, a highly visible advocate for CF research, and… well, she mentions some of her roles and avocations in her essay, which I feature here as a guest blog.

Photo by Nick Busselman, 2002 Fourth of July Party for Peace Corps Volunteers in Bulgaria

Piper posted this on Facebook on the Fourth of July, expressly as a thought for that celebration. Although it’s a few days later, the thought is enduring. It should not be just a one-day-only special. It guides us toward the highest and purest ideals to which we can aspire in healing this country. And healing is needed.

Guest Blog Article by Piper Beatty Welsh

I grew up loving every single thing about the US Constitution. I vividly remember in 3rd grade writing a short essay on an American hero and having my lawyer dad casually suggest a kids biography of Thurgood Marshall. From the moment I read about his commitment to rights and justice in the face of serious adversity — and his refusal to give up on a country of laws that at times failed to live up to its own promise — I was hooked. Avid reading about every Associate or Chief Justice I could find followed, regardless of his/her political leanings. By 5th grade “constitutional lawyer” or “Supreme Court Justice” was my standard reply whenever anyone asked what I wanted to do with my life (hey, dream big!). When my mom got her hair cut I tagged along just so I could wear one of the black smocks at the salon and practice my Sandra Day O’Connor impression in the mirrors.

Like most Americans, I believe in the fundamental promise of this country. I believe in rights. I believe in equality. I believe in standing up for what is right and good and honest and human, first and foremost, no matter what the cost. I believe in the fallibility of leaders and laws and in the responsibility of the citizenry to make our voices heard. More than anything, I believe that the pendulum of history swings always toward justice in the end, and that ultimately we will be judged not by the money we make or the structures we leave behind, but by the way that we treat other people. To me, the mark of civilization will always be found in its humanity.

I’ve been quieter these past couple months for a couple of reasons. The first is that, though I’m grateful for so many things, balancing cancer, radiation, a career, and a life is HARD. I’ve been staying afloat, but not without a couple of life rafts, and I just haven’t had the energy to dive into deeper waters. The second is that I, who love this country and its potential and its promise to the point that it physically aches, haven’t had the words or the voice to say much lately. But I think, I HOPE, that we can all agree on this much: people are people, no matter where we come from or what we believe. And people, as people and as fellow members of creation, deserve to be treated as such. If we can ever imagine a world in which we, too, would flee with our children to find somewhere safe(r) or kind(er) or less violent, it is up to us to reach into our hearts and treat others the way we would hope to be treated in such a situation. That’s not rocket science, it’s basic humanity.

So to ALL my beautiful friends this weekend, happy 4th of July. Enjoy the day as you celebrate the ideas, hope, and promise of this nation that has never been even remotely close to perfect, but that has slowly and consistently bent towards the notions of equality and human goodness. Remember our flaws, our errors, and our shortsightedness as you celebrate a country that was built to withstand change and political awakenings. And, if you feel so inclined, maybe pick up a biography of Justice Marshall or one of his colleagues in the fight to expand and celebrate the idea of justice. It just might change your life.

Happy Birthday, America. May your stars shine brighter every year.


You can follow Piper Beatty Welsh on Facebook.