Ten random observations about Greece

GreeceWhile researching my travel series on Greece I noticed some interesting things that didn’t fit into any of the articles. Some of these observations may be obvious to those more familiar with Greece, but odd first impressions are one of the fun things about travel!

1. Flying low over the Aegean as we made our descent into Athens airport, I swear I saw dolphins playing in the blue waters. We were still high enough that they were only visible as dots, but there was a whole group of these dots appearing and reappearing in the water, as if they were coming up and diving. Has anyone else seen this?

2. Like many countries, Greece has a smoking ban in public buildings. It’s often ignored, especially in bars and cafes. Some places even have ash trays on the tables.

3. I always like hearing the local music, in my hotel I tuned into MAD TV, a music video station. I discovered lots of Greek stars I’d never heard of (is DEMY hot or what!?) and noticed a strange thing–cans of Red Bull appear in almost all their music videos. Even the lovely DEMY knocks one back in her latest video. Did Red Bull buy up Greek music or just MAD TV?

4. Greece is very visitor-friendly by having bilingual signs in all the touristy areas. This is a bit of a trap, however, because as soon as you get used to them and go someplace a bit out of the way, you’ll be staring at Greek-only signs.

5. Have no fear, you can always learn the Greek alphabet. Many of the letters are the same as our alphabet and you’re already familiar with some of the others. Learning the Greek alphabet takes less than an hour and you’ll discover so many words that are the same or close enough to English that the hour will be well spent.

6. Greek can still throw you some curve balls. For a while I thought “ne” meant “no” since it’s similar to so many other “no” words (nein, nyet, non). In fact it means yes.

7. Athens has a large and active Couchsurfing community. Get in touch before you go and they’ll show you some awesome nightlife!

8. Small Orthodox Christian shrines can be found everywhere. Some are the size of a mailbox with only room enough for a little icon and a candle. These are often found beside roads. Others are little buildings that can fit a dozen or so people. They’re tucked away wherever there’s room. Dealerships for these these ready-made churches look like mobile home lots.

9. I saw a lot of graffiti, especially in the smaller towns, that was actually advertising for local businesses. I’m not sure if the businesses themselves are tagging concrete bridges and blank walls or if it’s their loyal customers, but I suppose it’s a cheap way to advertise during times of financial cutbacks.

10. Speaking of graffiti, my neighborhood in Madrid is covered with the tag “farlopa”, which is slang for cocaine in Spanish. Walking through the Exarchia neighborhood in Athens one night I saw the “farlopa” tag. Same word, same style. I guess the tagger went on a road trip!

For something a bit more adventurous, check out my ten random observations about Ethiopia!

The Acropolis: Greece’s most famous monument weathers the crisis

The Acropolis, Athens, Greece
Visiting Greece and not visiting the Acropolis is unthinkable. Set atop a high rock overlooking Athens, the temples here were built primarily to honor the city’s patron goddess Athena in all her attributes. The buildings here are some of the best examples of Greek architecture and have had a profound effect on the architecture of all the Western world. While I have a preference for medieval sites like Acrocorinth, and I’ve visited the Acropolis before, I couldn’t help but go back.

The last time I was there was 1994, and a lot has changed. There has been a great deal of restoration and the world-class Acropolis Museum has opened up.

Here’s one attraction that the Greek government needs to preserve as it passes through its worst economic crisis since World War Two. People still flock here and it’s a major reason why Greece is an important tourist destination. Tourism accounts for 18 percent of the Greek GDP and tourist numbers went up last year. Several sources told me there were two reasons for this: budget-conscious Europeans are traveling closer to home and people are staying away from North African favorites like Tunisia and Egypt.

Even though sites like the Acropolis generate billions of euros a year in revenue, the Ministry of Culture survives on just 0.7 percent of the national budget, and that budget is shrinking faster than the supply of Greek olives I brought back from this trip. In the past year the ministry has seen its budget slashed by almost a third, with warnings of more cuts to come. Museums are already feeling the pinch and now ministers, archaeologists, and site directors are scrambling to find ways to maintain their their heritage. There are even plans to lease the Acropolis for film backdrops and photo shoots to help raise funds.

%Gallery-146241%This last bit is actually nothing new. Archaeological sites have always been available for rent, but costs were enormous and most projects were rejected out of hand. Now the Acropolis will go for the bargain-basement price of $1,300 a day for a photography session and about $2,000 a day for filming.

Despite Greece’s financial woes, restoration and conservation are continuing. Funds are still coming through from the government and from the European Union. The most visible is the restoration of the pronaos (front inner porch) of the Parthenon shown here in this image by flickr user dorena-wm, who obviously had better luck with the weather than I did. This image was taken last year and now there is considerably more scaffolding obscuring the front. The photo I took last Sunday is in the gallery.

At the Erechtheion, where Poseidon and Athena competed for possession of Athens, the interior of the famous south porch with its caryatid columns is screened off as the ceiling is cleaned with an innovative laser system developed specifically for this project. In ancient times it was believed that Poseidon, the sea god, struck at the ground here with his trident and a salty spring gushed forth. Athena created an olive tree, the first in the world. The Athenians judged that the olive tree was more useful and so dedicated their city to her. The city continued to honor the sea god, though, and the Erechtheion is devoted to his local aspect Erechtheus. Athens owed her power to her great navy, and so it was smart to honor the god who rules the waves, even if he did come in second place in the competition for the city.

No reconstruction was going on when I went, though. I took advantage of Sundays being free to revisit the Acropolis. It was low season and bitterly cold and overcast, but there were still large crowds exploring the ruins. One family from Crete entered at the same time I did and took the same route through the monuments. The father gave a long lecture about the place to his young son and daughter. It was heartening to see how much they enjoyed it. They asked questions, told him some things they’d learned in school, and were obviously having a good time. They took dozens of pictures and I offered to take one of them all together. That got us talking. The father’s English was limited, but his national pride was obvious even through the language barrier. As we talked, his kids went off to take more pictures.

The Acropolis Museum was opened in 2009 to much fanfare and became an instant success. Between between June 2010 and May 2011 more than one million and three hundred thousand Greek and foreign visitors passed through its doors. The museum explains the importance of the site from earliest times through the Classical era and beyond. It’s probably best to see this museum before you see the Acropolis as it will give you a much deeper understanding of that most historic of attractions.

To combat museum fatigue, take a break at the restaurant or café. Prices are remarkably reasonable and floor-to-ceiling windows give a splendid view of the Acropolis and two of its buildings-the Parthenon and the Sanctuary of Athena Nike.

The museum is not free on Sundays but that didn’t stop the crowds coming out in full force. The restaurant, café, and gift shop were all doing a brisk business. Most popular was the third floor, where a reconstruction of the Parthenon sculptures can be seen. As the labels make clear, most of these are plaster casts because between 1801 and 1805 Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire that then ruled Greece, got permission to remove about half of them. As you can see from the display at the Acropolis Museum, he took the best ones. Now they are in the British Museum in London, while several other sculptures were taken by other antiquarians and ended up in other museums.

The Greeks want their sculptures back. The British Museum says they took them with permission of the government that was then in power. Here is the official Greek position and here is the British Museum’s position.

The economic crisis has added a new dimension to the struggle to return the sculptures. While the plaster casts in the Acropolis Museum are very well done, seeing the real thing is always better. Getting them back would be a major coup for a country that has only had bad news for far too long, and it would help bring in much-needed tourism revenue. But with both sides dug in, it looks like the Greeks won’t be getting good news like that anytime soon.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: The Athens War Museum

Athens nightlife: desperate pensioners on the hustle

Athens nightlifeGiorgis looked like he didn’t have long to live.

Aged about 70, he was a tall man who appeared shorter because he stooped so much that his head hung almost below his shoulders. He was thin and walked with a limp that showed he suffered from sciatica. His clothes–yellow sweater, gray trousers, and brown dress shoes–were old and faded but immaculately clean. His gray hair was neatly combed over watery blue eyes that scrunched up when he coughed, which he did often.

“It’s this cold weather,” he told me. “People my age always cough like this when it gets cold.”

Giorgis was in denial. I know plenty of old people who don’t cough like that. There was death in that cough.

I met him on my first night in Athens while standing in front of the Parliament building watching the Evzone Guards. A few other tourists gazed at the guards’ famous uniforms of a white skirt, white hose, and shoes with big pompoms. Their costumes may look odd but there was no mistaking that these were real soldiers. I’m six feet tall and every one of them towered over me. They looked in the prime of health.

Giorgis did not.

“I’m an oil engineer,” he said. “I work in Saudi Arabia for a big company.”

Looking at his clothes I doubted that. I acted interested, though, and answered the usual questions about where I was from and what I was going to see in Greece. He made some hints about knowing some good spots for Athens nightlife. I doubted that too. After a time I was thinking of saying goodbye and moving on. Giorgis must have seen something in my body language.

“What, you don’t like talking to Greek people? We don’t have to talk.”

Ah, The Line! I’ve heard it from La Paz to Damascus. It’s a guilt trip. You go wherever they want just to prove you don’t hate their people. Well, as usual I wasn’t fooled but went along anyway. I’m too curious for my own good. Falling for The Line has never gotten me into serious trouble and has led to some interesting stories. Giorgis didn’t look dangerous. I wouldn’t follow him down any dark alleys, but other than that I’d let him take the lead.

“We’ll go to a bar,” he announced. “I know a good one.”

He limped off at a remarkable pace. I hurried to keep up as he coughed his way down the street. I figured him for an alcoholic. He sure looked in a hurry to get to that bar.I decided I’d get Giorgis a couple of drinks and then say goodbye. He was a nice enough guy and the elderly in Greece are having a hard time of it. Pensions have been slashed. Some people who were earning 800 euros a month, a decent amount, are now receiving 400. That’s almost impossible to live on. Even worse, properties they worked so hard to pay off are now subject to steep property taxes. What was supposed to be a bit of security has now turned into a liability. I’d be hurrying to a bar too.

After a few blocks we made it to a nice-looking place. Dim lighting and plush couches. A giant oil painting of Marylin Monroe took up an entire wall. She was licking a set of lips longer than my arm. I’ve always liked Marylin.

The bar was empty except for the bartender and two Eastern European girls. They looked about twenty. They both gave me seductive glances as I passed them.

Oh so THAT’s your game, Giorgis, I thought. Well, I don’t play that game. One drink and I’m out of here.

We sat and ordered. I got a beer. He got a double ouzo. So at least I was partially right. A minute later the girls came up to us.

“May we join you?” the cuter one asked me. She was blonde and had remarkably blue eyes.

“Um, OK.”

She sat down next to me on the couch and introduced herself. She said she was from Poland and told me her name. Her friend started talking to Giorgis in Greek.

“So you like living in Athens?” I asked.

“Oh yes, but it’s been pretty hard lately,” she replied.

“Where do you work?” I asked.

“Here in the bar.”

“How has business been with the crisis?”

She shrugged.

“Pretty bad. Will you buy me a drink?”

“I’m not looking for business,” I said.

“Oh come on,” she gave me a smile that wouldn’t look out of place on a high school cheerleader being asked out by the star quarterback. “Just one drink. It’s for companionship.”

“No, sorry.”

“OK. Well, enjoy Athens.”

She shook my hand.

“Good luck,” I said. “And take care of yourself.”

I meant it.

She smiled like she was touched.

“Bye.”

After they left, Giorgis pulled a sports paper out of his back pocket and started reading. I finished my drink and left.

Giorgis hasn’t been the only pensioner to try hustling me here. Some want to give me a tour. Others want to take me to bars. Many simply beg. They’re the people hit hardest by the crisis, and when they aren’t protesting angrily and sometimes violently against the government, some look to make quick cash off the people who have the most to spare–tourists.

I find it impossible to judge them.

Two days later I passed through Syntagma Square in front of the Parliament building and saw a group of farmers handing out free produce. They were from a village near Athens and wanted to show solidarity to their city cousins. A long line of pensioners stood waiting to get a few bags of vegetables.

I didn’t see Giorgis there but I hope he got his share. Maybe that will keep him going for another couple of days and save him, at least for a little while, from pimping girls young enough to be his granddaughters.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Our Past in Peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis.

Coming up next: Greek museums face the economic crisis!

Pole dancing image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

New series: Our past in peril, Greek tourism faces the economic crisis

Greek tourism, Greek
This is a sculpture of a fallen Greek warrior from the temple of Aphaia on the Greek island of Aigina. Made in the 5th century BC, it’s an important example of Early Classical Greek art. This was a time when Greek artists began imitating life with realistic poses and expressions.

We owe so much to the ancient Greeks–our ideas of art, architecture, democracy, philosophy, theater, and a lot more. When Greece was conquered by the Romans three centuries after this sculpture was made, Greek culture actually flourished, finding new outlets in the receptive and expanding Roman Empire. Horace once said: Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit (Captive Greece took captive her rude conqueror). The suffering yet proud face on this fallen warrior reflects Greek history–cycles of tragedy and triumph.

Suffering yet proud. That’s the impression I get of Greece these days. An economy in shambles, general strikes, people being forced to give up their children. At the same time, an increasing number of Greeks are going back to the land and sea to revitalize the traditional cornerstones of the Greek economy. Meanwhile, Greeks from all walks of life are taking to the streets to protest cutbacks that threaten their livelihood.

The cutbacks threaten our past too. Not the Greek past, our past, because Western civilization is based to a large extent on Greek civilization. Regular general strikes against the austerity measures imposed by the IMF mean that seeing the physical remains of our heritage has become a game of chance. A minister’s suggestion to lease the Acropolis and other ancient sites was treated with scorn one week, and approved the next. Three important paintings, including one by Picasso, were stolen from the Athens National Gallery because cutbacks had left only one guard on duty. And it can get far, far worse. Allowing Greece to fall would be like burning an attic full of family heirlooms and photo albums.

For the next week I’ll be in Greece interviewing museum curators, archaeologists, and regular Greeks about the problems facing our collective past. How are the strikes inhibiting access to museums and sights? How much are staff cuts reducing opening hours and the nation’s ability to conserve and restore our heritage? I’ll also be seeing, strikes permitting, some of the nation’s greatest monuments such as the Acropolis and Agora, as well as lesser-known treasures such as Mistra, briefly the capital of the Roman Empire, and the Crusader castle of Villehardouin.

Unfortunately, this sculpture will not be among them. It’s now the property of the Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek in Munich, Germany. The same country whose banks currently own the second largest share of Greek national debt after France. The statue of the fallen Greek was taken by a German baron in 1811 when Greece was under the control of a different foreign power–the Ottoman Empire.

Next in the series: Athens nightlife: desperate pensioners on the hustle!

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.