Greece. Western civilization’s wise old uncle. Ancient seat of science, philosophy and wisdom. Jolly and fun, too, with ouzo and feasts and dancing in circles wearing skirts and white puffy shirts. Lately though, broke, a bum, mooching off relatives: a sorry case even with an intervention underway (an economic bailout deal reached with the EU since I last wrote), with the imposed-upon family members rolling their eyes at every new excuse hinting at more problems. Stormy and I visited Greece once, the city of Thessaloniki. On the way back home to Pazardjik we stopped in the Bulgarian town of Sandanski. The two are closely tied together in history and commerce, and yet exemplified some interesting contrasts.
When we visited both places all I saw were the happy hallmarks of a lively and active tourist trade. Bulgarians sat and chatted in Greek sidewalk cafés just like at home, and Greeks sunned themselves in Bulgarian cafés looking very much at ease there too. Greeks came north for the famous Sandanski hot springs and rakiya and to visit the wine region of Melnik, the Napa Valley of Bulgaria, nearby. Bulgarians, the ones who could afford it, headed south for the fine Greek beaches and ouzo. In both cities, throngs of shoppers nudged along the broad avenues, and shops buzzed with steady commerce.
“Sandanski had a big pedestrian mall, as did most towns, with lots of shops and cafés. It was unusual, though, in that it wasn’t strictly pedestrian and cars were allowed. Even there though, the crowds of pedestrians predominated, moving around the cars in the street like water around rocks in a stream. The overhanging trees were so dense that the bright sunlight was only lightly dappled on the street, making it feel like a cool forest glade.” — Breeze, p. 175
There were signs of economic stress, if one were to look carefully. The cross-border indications of economic hardship, though, were not apparent on the Greek side. The Greeks were in fine shape. In Thessaloniki, I met a Bulgarian woman in the train station, commuting back to her home after a month’s work over the border. As I wrote in Breeze, her situation was typical of many in the tough Bulgarian economy of the time.
“She lived in Assenovgrad and she was a doctor, a neurologist. No work in Bulgaria. She had worked as a teacher, but that was not enough. She worked in a factory in Thessaloniki and visited home monthly…” — p. 173
Now, with Greece’s debt being extended and new waves of “austerity” being promised once more, things look different. I read an article a few weeks ago about how the decrepit Greek economy is hurting Greece’s even-poorer neighbors in the region. The headline sums it up: Across Bulgaria border, fear and gloating over Greek crisis. In a nutshell, “Countries like Bulgaria, Romania and Macedonia are particularly exposed to the fallout of the crisis as several of their banks are Greek-owned and economic ties are close.” As we have discussed before, a few might feel sorry for the Greeks but others feel that their neighbors — who are still much better off than they are — really need to start living within their means. A Bulgarian worker was quoted saying that his parents’ pension was 200 leva ($114) a month, while the Greek average pension is 833 euro, which is $925.
So Greece has a deal. Big news. To Bulgarians who work for less when they can get work at all, talk of Greek “austerity” rings hollow, more like “Yeah, big deal.” As my friend Dimitar the Economist said, “Everybody’s poor anyway, so what does it matter?” In all the former Communist countries people have “tightened their belts” for the last twenty or more years. Greece’s troubles just make it worse. According to one report (Bulgarian Border Towns Suffer Alongside Greeks), Sandanski had 150 bus loads of Greek tourists every weekend last year; now it’s two or three.
And that’s not the only big deal going down. Now there’s a nuclear deal with Iran, except some of my friends don’t like it. I don’t think they plan to approve it. They say the administration should do something else instead. What, exactly, isn’t clear. I thought this was a pretty good wrap-up of the case for it, in video form: The Iran Deal. I’m open to suggestions from anyone who has a better take on it, so I can advise my congressional representatives accordingly.
The video linked above is pretty slick — after all, we love getting our policy guidance from celebrities. It was picked up by Upworthy.com, which has a tendency toward rainbows and unicorns. This part, though, in an article linked from Slate, got my attention since it addresses the objection heard most often, the possibility that Iran could cheat and create a new secret location. After outlining detailed and specific inspection and monitoring criteria the writer summarizes…
“Iran might want to set up a covert enrichment plant, but where would it get the uranium? Or the centrifuges? Or the scientists? If 100 scientists suddenly don’t show up for work at Natanz, it will be noticed. If the uranium in the gas doesn’t equal the uranium mined, it will be noticed. If the parts made for centrifuges don’t end up in new centrifuges, it will be noticed. Iran might be able to evade one level of monitoring but the chance that it could evade all the overlapping levels will be remote.”
Well, whatever you think of the Iran deal, if you’re American you can call your member of Congress at (877) 630-4032. Apparently they need to be told what to do; I submit as evidence the fact that they haven’t done a damn thing for a long time. If you’re Israeli, you know who to call about the Iran deal. If you’re in a place where the thing to do is to solve it at a café over an espresso or a rakiya (you know who you are), go for it. In any case, you can leave a comment below and let us know what you think.