The Moral Case For Visiting Greece This Summer

PatmosEveryone who can afford it should visit Greece this summer. That was the conclusion I reached after reading a heartbreaking story about malnourished children in Greece on the front page of Thursday’s New York Times. According to Liz Alderman’s piece, malnutrition is a serious and growing problem in Greece, where the unemployment rate has reached 27 percent and even those who are employed have seen their wages slashed due to austerity measures. Alderman interviewed Greek school officials and others who have seen school kids stealing food, fainting or appearing listless due to hunger and foraging through trash bins for leftovers.

Greece is very near and dear to my heart so I had a difficult time making it through the story. Last year international tourist arrivals to Greece in the first nine months of the year (January-September) declined by 5 percent overall at a time when Greece needed tourists most. Even worse, arrivals from the United States plummeted by 19.2 percent. Images of protests in Athens no doubt scared away plenty of American tourists and some Germans stayed away in part because of a perceived backlash over austerity negotiations.

Avoiding Greece because of safety concerns is silly. Athens has crime just like any other large city but the Greek Islands are as safe and idyllic as any place in the world. Even if you are concerned about Athens, you can fly directly to islands like Kos, Rhodes, Samos, Kefalonia, Crete, Zakynthos, Corfu, Mykonos or Santorini on Aegean Airlines, or on budget carriers like Ryanair or EasyJet.
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Greece is obviously not the only country in the world where there are children who aren’t getting enough to eat and it’s far from the world’s poorest country. Child poverty is a huge problem all over the world, including right here in the United States. In February, I visited Nicaragua and the poverty that exists there is sickening. But there may not be another place on earth where people’s standard of living has declined as precipitously as it has in Greece over the last couple years. There are desperately poor people all over the developing world but many of today’s poor in Greece are people who had stable jobs and incomes just a few years ago.

The reality is that most Americans aren’t going to plan a trip based on a desire to help alleviate poverty far from home. But Greece is actually an easy sell, regardless of the moral case for visiting the country. Great weather, tasty food, reasonable prices, historical sites, welcoming people and picture perfect beaches on dozens of islands where you’ll think you died and went to heaven. Greeks are proud of their country, regardless of its dire economic situation, and if you express in interest in knowing more about their country and its culture, 1,000 doors will be opened for you.
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I’ve been to Greece many times, including a six-week stint in the Greek Isles last year, and I’m always amazed at how few Americans venture anywhere in Greece outside of Athens, Santorini and Mykonos. On Kos, Patmos, Samos and Crete last year, we found plenty of bargains and I’ve been daydreaming about these places ever since I left Greece last June. I’ve traveled to more than 60 countries and I have deep family ties to Italy but Greece is the place I dream about on gloomy days in Chicago. It’s the one place that somehow stays with me after I leave.

In the shoulder season, it’s easy to find comfortable accommodation on most of the Greek Islands for as little as 50 euros per night. A good meal can be had for 7-10 euros, a half liter of house wine can be as little as 2 euros and if you need to get some work done, there are scores of beachfront restaurants and bars that have Wi-Fi all over the busier Greek Islands. Flights to Greece from the U.S. are pricey but you can save money by finding a cheap flight to London and then booking a discount flight on to the Greek Islands from there.

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But will it help?

How can you make sure that your trip to Greece will actually have a positive impact? Here are a few tips.

Spend Wisely. Stay at smaller, family owned hotels and bed and breakfasts, or rent apartments or rooms from local people. Spread your money around by patronizing local restaurants rather than eating at the hotel and buy handicrafts and art directly from the people who make them.

Use a Credit Card or At Least Ask for an Official Receipt. Tax evasion has long been a huge issue in Greece and it’s easier for businesses to hide money when they are paid in cash.

Hire Guides. A local guide can greatly enrich your trip and it helps funnel cash directly into the local economy. Even if you don’t like to tour archaeological or historic sites, consider hiring a guide to take you sailing or on a hike.

Volunteer or Donate Cash. Non-profits like Prolepsis, Desmos, Bourome, SOS Children’s Villages, The Smile of the Child and a host of others all do great work and you don’t have to visit Greece to make a donation. And if you can spare a little time to volunteer, you might find the experience to be a life changer.

Tourists can’t save Greece but they sure can help. And if you’d rather stay close to home this summer, think about how you spend your tourist dollars and who will benefit from your expenditures.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara]

What’s It Like To Live On Pserimos, The Remote Greek Island With Its Own Gmail Account?

pserimosIt only takes a minute to buy a souvenir from someone on a beach but if you stop to find out about that person’s life, you might take away more than just the memory you’re holding in your hand. In May, while visiting the Greek island of Kos, I took an excursion boat to Pserimos, a tiny little island with just a few dozen inhabitants, and bought a handmade magnet (see photo below) from a local woman who spoke English with an Australian twang.

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I was excited by the fact that she spoke English because all of the other people I’d encountered on my brief visit did not and I was curious to know what it was like to live on a remote little island with a tiny population. But almost as soon as I bought the magnet, the skipper of our boat called us back onto the boat, so I lost an opportunity to find out what it was like to live on Pserimos. I know that I’d hate living on a remote island but every time I take an excursion boat to these kinds of places, I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to not get back on the ship.

Weeks after my visit, I thought about the experience again and recalled that I’d seen a sign in Pserimos which read, “Welcome to Pserimos, Pserimos@gmail.com.” The fact that the island had its own Gmail account amused me, so I fired off an email to the address on the off chance that the person would be able to hook me up with my souvenir lady.

pserimos souvenirI received a reply right away from George Karaiskos, who, oddly enough, lives on the nearby island of Kalymnos, which is famous for its sponge divers. George wasn’t immediately sure of whom I was talking about, but he filled me in on his own interesting story. He was born in L.A., but at age 8, his father died in a car accident and his mother took him and his siblings and moved to Kalymnos, where he has worked for the municipality for the last 28 years.

A few days ago, George got back to me to give me the souvenir woman’s name and mobile phone number. Her name is Vaggelio Koukouvas and she’s 53 years old. She was born on Kalymnos and immigrated to Darwin, Australia, at 13. She married her husband, who is from Pserimos, in Australia and the couple returned to live on Pserimos in 1994. When I called her, she was initially surprised to hear from me. “Do you know you are calling Greece?” she asked. But once she understood the nature of my call, she was happy to share her thoughts on what it’s like to live on a remote Greek island. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Why did you and your husband move back to Pserimos?

We bought a sailboat, a day-trip boat and came back from Australia with our four boys, and started a family business. My husband grew up until age 10 on Pserimos, then moved to Kalymnos and then to Australia at age 17. He never forgot Pserimos for one minute when we were in Australia; every day he was talking about how much he loved Pserimos. So we saved our money to go back.

pserimosHow many people live in Pserimos?

About 35 people live here year round. Up until two years ago, we had a primary school here, but the kids grew up and moved on, so the school closed down. The nearest school now is in Kalymnos.

When your husband grew up on the island in the ’60s, were there more people living there?

When my husband grew up there, they had 150 kids. There were fewer houses than now, but everyone had a lot of kids – at least four. His grandmother had 11 kids, for example.

And your husband returned to look for work in Australia?

He left. We sold the boat because we got tired of it and there was too much competition in Kos with other boats. And you can only make a living doing that for five months out of the year. In Australia now, he’s working as a heavy machinery operator – something completely different. And my sons are all working in Australia, because there’s a crisis here and there’s no work at the moment.

I have my little business selling souvenirs that I make here in Pserimos and I don’t really want to leave because I’m happy. It was hard this year with the bad economy; even the tourists who are coming are really watching their money. It’s hard for me but I like this work. I’m fighting for my bread here but I want to stay.

Is it difficult to make it through the winter there?

In the winter, Pserimos is nice and quiet, especially if you’re a pensioner and have enough money to get by. But if someone gets sick, there are problems because we have no doctor on the island. No one has died though because we can always find a boat out to Kalymnos or Kos, but it isn’t always easy in winter. If the seas are bad, we can go two weeks without a way to leave the island.

resident of pserimosWho lives on Pserimos?

We have a priest, some fishermen, pensioners and me. Pserimos is known for producing sea captains – one family can have three captains in it. There are some families that have goats and sheep. That’s all you can do on a place like this. There aren’t very many young people.

How do people pass the time?

If you have animals to care for, there is always something to do. The old people watch T.V., talk to each other, and have coffee. If we get bored, we go to Kalymnos.

But you have to be careful not to make enemies on a small island, right?

(Laughs) That’s true. Almost everyone here is related in some way by blood.

And do you all get along?

We have arguments sometimes. And there’s gossiping too, just like any small village. But this makes life a little more interesting, doesn’t it? Otherwise, we’d be really bored.

But if you get into an argument with someone on an island with only 35 people, it’s pretty hard to avoid them, isn’t it?

You can’t avoid anyone here, that’s for sure, so we do have to get along. People are busy and our houses aren’t that close to each other though, so in some ways, we are on our own, especially in winter.

pserimosI didn’t see much in the way of shops. Where do you buy food?

There is no supermarket, that’s for sure. We have a minimarket that’s open in the summer. In summer, the boats come every day from Kalymnos, so there’s plenty of food available. In the winter, the boats come three times a week, or less if the seas are bad, so it’s harder to find products – that’s why people stockpile food here.

Is it lonely living there on your own?

Yeah, it is sometimes. Now, it’s September and it’s already quiet. Most of the tourists are all gone. Sometimes I go down to the beach and I feel like I’m the only one living on the whole island. It’s really quiet – people come out of their houses when the boat arrives from Kalymnos to see what’s going on.

Is your husband planning on coming back to Pserimos?

He does come back to visit and he’ll return. He’s in Australia for work – a lot of men do that now, because there’s not much work here. He’ll come back one day because he loves it here.

How has the crisis in Greece affected Pserimos?

A lot of the people who live here are pensioners and their pensions have all been cut. And they used to get a bonus in their pension, an extra 50% payment that would come at Christmas and Easter but that’s gone now. It’s hard to live on what they get now – impossible I would say.

What do you like about living on Pserimos?

Every day is a new day. It’s quiet. It makes me happy to see the sea. I don’t care if there are people. I enjoy it here. Everybody loves Pserimos. If people could make a living here, we’d have so many more people living on the island.

During the summer season, how many hours a day do you work selling the things you make to people that arrive on the excursion boats?

About 12-14 hours per day, seven days a week. I start at 6 a.m., making the items I sell, and getting my stand ready. I’m there in the sun, the wind, with the sand blowing in my face all day. By the time I get to sleep, it’s 2 o’clock in the morning. This is how I make a living for five months of the year. People think it’s fun, but it’s not.

Will you go off to Kalymnos to look for work this winter?

I might, but there’s not much work there. If I can clean some houses that would be good but I need time to make the items I sell to get ready for next summer. You always have to be ready.

I love the little souvenir I bought from you because I can look at it in my home here in Chicago and it transports me back to Pserimos.

That’s why I make these things. I don’t make much money, but I don’t care because life isn’t just about getting rich. I know that people like the things I make and that makes me happy.

[Photos of Pserimos provided by Phillip Roberts Photography, Venetia Koussia, Fotograaf John, The Sparkly One, and Marite 2007 on Flickr]

Hospitality: What We Can Learn From The Greeks

greeks giving directions greek hospitalityTwenty minutes into an uphill walk on a sizzling hot day on the Greek island of Syros, we gave up and decided to take a taxi. My wife and I were pushing a 2-year-old in a stroller, and cajoling our 4-year-old to brave the heat, much to his chagrin, but realized that our destination, the Catholic neighborhood of Ano Syros, perched high above the city, was too far away.

But taxis don’t randomly patrol the streets of Ermoupoli and I doubted there was a public bus that could get us there anytime soon. I saw a matronly woman in her 30s sitting on a second floor balcony and asked her if she knew where we could get a taxi. She seemed not to understand me, and disappeared momentarily, before emerging a few moments later on the street.

“Tell me,” she said, using a phrase you hear all the time in Greece.

“I think we need a taxi up to Ano Syros,” I said.

She said she’d call one for us and then went back into her apartment. I thought we’d never see her again but a minute or two later, she came back out onto the street, crossed to the other side and popped a phone card into a pay phone. We had no mobile phone and assumed that she had either a landline or a mobile in her home and hadn’t even entertained the possibility that she could afford neither.”Car number nine will be here for you in 10 minutes,” she told us after crossing back to the shady side of the street to meet us.

Her name was Uranus, and she refused to accept any money for the phone call. She told us that she had studied to be a hairdresser but was never able to find a job.

“The crisis,” she explained. “There is no work here.”

ano syros greeceShe had no job and no phone but like most Greeks, she hadn’t lost the tradition of hospitality. After spending a few hours exploring Ano Syros (right), we were again at a loss to find a taxi with no mobile phone. But on a whim, I asked a man who was getting into his car if he was heading our way, and sure enough, he was happy to drive us back to our hotel, or anywhere else we wanted to go for that matter.

Over the course of a six-week trip through Kos, Patmos, Samos, Syros, Santorini and Crete, we’ve experienced remarkable hospitality in Greece, despite the economic crisis or perhaps because of it. Like any where else, we’ve had a couple of run-ins here or there with unscrupulous or unfriendly people, but for every negative encounter, there have been dozens of positive ones.

On the island of Kos, we found ourselves stranded in the humdrum town of Kefalos, thanks to an extremely limited bus schedule, and I walked into a pharmacy and asked a woman named Sevy, a Greek-American who had moved back to Kos, how to get to a nearby beach. There was no way, she said, but she insisted on having one of her colleagues drive us there in her car. It was a good 20-minute ride and they refused to take any money.

Hotel managers almost everywhere have redefined the concept of customer service. In Santorini, the owners of Rena’s Suites gave our children a whole host of toys and some waffles with ice cream upon arrival, and a bottle of wine on departure.

Lila at Lila’s Guesthouse in Syros insisted on washing all our clothes, free of charge, and picking us up at the port, also free, despite our 2:30 a.m. arrival time. And Yianni at the Afroditi Hotel in Rethymno, Crete, picked us up, dropped us off, gave us a bottle of wine, a plate of fruit and some little gifts upon departure even though we stayed with him just one night at the ridiculously low rate of 40€.

Hotel staffs have a vested interest in keeping travelers happy but we met kind people everywhere we went. In Crete, a group of locals welcomed me like a long lost friend during the EURO 2012 tournament. On the island of Syros, I accidentally barged into someone’s kitchen in a remote village and was invited in for a meal and entertained with some live music. Monks in Patmos made me coffee, served me cookies and invited me to worship with them. And on Election Day in Naxos, the mayor of a small village offered to personally show me around and insisted on buying me drinks.

Aside from the Middle East, where hospitality is almost like a religion, and neighboring Macedonia, where guests are also treated like gold, I can’t recall such a warm welcome anywhere in the world. Greece has a lot of problems, and there are many things that Greeks can learn from Americans (for example, having some gas in the tank of a rental car when you pick it up would be nice!). But I think that anyone who works in the hospitality industry should be required to come to Greece to see how it’s done right.

10 Reasons To Visit The Greek Island Kos

kos town harborThere are more than 200 inhabited Greek islands and travelers can feel a bit overwhelmed trying to decide which ones they should visit. Most Americans stick to Santorini, Mykonos or Crete but there are scores of other viable alternatives that are just as alluring as these famous locales.

Over the next several weeks, I’ll be reporting on some Greek islands you might want to consider for your next holiday. Our first stop is Kos, a bucolic island of about 30,000 year-round inhabitants that was the home of Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine. Here are several reasons why Kos is well worth a visit.

Direct Flights. Unlike many Greek islands, you can fly directly into Kos on Ryanair from a dozen European cities including London, Rome and Brussels, and a number of other discount airlines, including German Wings, Air Berlin and Easy Jet. We flew from Bari, Italy, for about $100 each, one way. Kos is also a convenient ferry hub where you can continue on to Patmos, Kalymnos, Rhodes, Piraeus (Athens) and a number of other ports.kos town cycling pretty woman riding a bike in greeceParadise for Cyclists. Kos is a flat island that is great for cycling. You can get from one end of the island to the other in an hour by car, so it’s just large enough for a nice long bike ride. You can rent a bike for about 4-5€ per day and there are well maintained bike trails all over the island. (But beware the mopeds and motorcycles!) Take a spin around the island and you’ll get amazing views of Bodrum, Turkey, Nissyros and other beautiful islands in the vicinity.

History. If you’d like to do a bit of sightseeing in between visits to the beach and excursions in the area, Kos town has a castle, some impressive ruins that date to the 3rd Century B.C. and a huge, impressively twisty old tree held up by scaffolding where Hippocrates supposedly schooled his students.

A Lively Port. For those in search of a lively base, Kos Town is a good choice, as it has a nice mix of bars, restaurants and shops. The streets are alive until late in the evening during the summer.

Boat Excursions. Kos is a great place to get out on the water without breaking the bank. For 35€ or less per person, you can visit Bodrum, which is just 20 minutes away, Nisyros, a lovely island with an active volcano, or a combination trip involving Kalymnos, home to Greece’s famous sponge divers, and Pserimos, a quiet little place with 15 families and a nice sandy beach. During the high season, there are even more day trip options, including Rhodes and Symi.

pretty girl on a beach in kos greeceBeaches. Just outside of Kos Town there’s a very long pebbly beach with dozens of beach bars that’s great for families. My favorite beach bar is The Artemis Paradise, which is just in front of a nice hotel of the same name (see photo). They have terrific frozen coconut drinks and iced cappuccinos for less than $3 in an idyllic setting.

Outside of Kos Town, you can find nicer sandy beaches. My favorite is Paradise Beach, which can be reached by bus from Kos Town in 45 minutes for €4.40. Tigaki is also quite nice, especially for children, given the shallow waters. Down the way from the main beach, there’s a clothing optional beach for the naturists and exhibitionists.

Good for Kids. Your kids will love the beaches and in the evening take them to Friends Junior, a terrific play place for kids above the Friends Café in Kos Town. For €4, they’ll supervise your kids while you have a coffee or surf the net, and the price includes a big balloon and a drink of their choice. We had to literally drag my 2-year-old kicking and screaming from this place, he liked it so much.

Nightlife. During the high season, and to a lesser degree in the shoulder season, the bars in Kos Town get quite busy. If you want to meet a good-looking Scandinavian, this is a good place to do it. But note that some of the bars trend toward the cheesy side – they play Top 40 music and employ gals dressed in booty shorts to lure in passersby.

Cheap Laundry and Other Good Stuff. If you’re coming to Greece for a short trip, getting your laundry done won’t be an issue but Kos is big enough to support a couple laundromats that don’t have tourist pricing. Easy Laundromat is my favorite. They did a mountain of laundry for us for just €6. The beauty of coming to a mid-size island like Kos is that you can find businesses like this one that cater to locals and have good prices.

Good Food & Cheap Accommodation. I stayed at the Kosta Palace Hotel right on the harbor in a one-bedroom apartment in late May for just €50 per night. I also spent my first two nights at the Hotel Sonia, which is significantly more expensive and the rooms are smaller, but they have better Internet access, a much better breakfast and renovated rooms. There are scores of similar places and the prices go up only a bit during the high season. Our favorite finds on the dining front were Broadway, an inexpensive Greek restaurant that is only a 10-minute walk from the port in Kos Town and Ararat, a really tasty and inexpensive Armenian restaurant, just off the harbor in Kos Town.

Caveats. Kos and especially Kos Town won’t appeal to everyone. Kos is a major destination for Europeans in July and August and from May-September, you’ll be hit with offers for restaurants, bars and excursions left, right and center as you walk around Kos Town’s harbor area. But if you want a quieter, low-key place simply go further out from Kos Town.

[All photos by Dave Seminara]

Touts Feasting On Tourists Like Hyenas Scavenging For Fresh Meat

tout on kosWalking through the harbor area in Kos, a Greek island that is part of the Dodecanese group in the eastern Aegean, it’s easy to imagine what a Playboy Playmate might feel like were she to take a stroll through a penitentiary buck naked carrying a sign reading, “Kiss Me!” A bit of exaggeration there, perhaps, but not much. Touts, who aggressively peddle meals, drinks, excursions and God knows what else, have long been a fact of life in the Greek isles and in numerous other touristy locales around the globe, but do they actually help increase business or do they scare away potential customers?

In many ways, May and June are the best months to visit the Greek Islands, because the weather is generally good, the prices are low and the crowds are manageable. But the one downside is that all the touts are in place but the crowds haven’t arrived yet, so early birds like myself are outnumbered by peddlers.

Our apartment is about a ten minute walk along the harbor into the center of town but during that 10 minute walk, we generally encounter about 20-30 peddlers accosting us with menus, brochures, excursion offers and “Where are you from” come-on’s. One gentleman’s mantra is simply “very good, very nice!” But the way he says “verrrrry nicccce,” he reminds us of Borat without the smelly gray suit.Even if I did have the patience to stop and entertain all the “Where you from” queries, I have no easy answer to the question. I was born in Buffalo, but left at 17 and have lived in six states and four foreign countries over the last twenty plus years. At the moment, all my belongings are in a storage locker in Virginia. I have no idea where I’m from and does it really matter anyways?

Everyone’s hungry for business and given the crisis here, it’s hard to fault entrepreneurs for trying to make a buck. But it’s also pretty taxing to have to fend off so many offers. After you walk through the gauntlet of hawkers you feel a bit like a piece of meat that’s been picked clean by a pack of hyenas.

I have no problem ignoring some of the salespeople but my wife is too nice, and feels like she has to stop and engage with them, making it nearly impossible to walk down some streets. On one occasion, I forgot something in our apartment and had to go back to get it. I dreaded the walk back because I had to deal with all the touts twice.

I’m biased against restaurants that employ touts to try to hook passersby. I have no proof, but my theory is that if a place needs to resort to these tactics, it’s probably not very good. So for me, the touts’ tactics backfire, because if they weren’t there, I might actually take a look at their menus.

Bars in Kos adopt the same tactics, but most of them employ comely young ladies from Scandinavia to lure people in. At the bar West, I asked one of them, a lovely young lady from Sweden who wears booty shorts that barely cover her backside emblazoned with the Swedish flag, if her streetside beckoning actually works.

“Yes, of course it works,” she said, more matter of fact than boastful. “The tourists get to know us and we become their friends, so they want to drink with us.”

greek girl in a sombrero in kosIt makes sense, I suppose, for bars but I’m still skeptical on the restaurant front. Every night we walk past a restaurant called El Paso and I feel a little bad for a pretty young woman who stands in front of the place each night, wearing a poncho and oversized sombrero. (see photo) I feel bad for her, but not bad enough to actually eat at the restaurant. Maybe I’m wrong and tourists really are like lemmings that want to be hooked on a spear and lured into bars, restaurants and excursion boats – but I doubt it.

(Photos by Dave Seminara)