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.
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.
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 on that November day was like London on 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. One of those facts of life caught us, early on the morning of our departure. Dark. Train station: closed. Strike. No trains today. OK, the bus. The first run would be delayed until 9:00, two hours after our flight. OK, a cab (You can use Uber, but the app calls a cab.) Bingo! The cab driver was an interesting guy, and he offered his opinion transit strikes: 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.