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

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.

My new favorite show: Locked Up Abroad

If you haven’t had a chance, I highly recommend you check out my new favorite show, Locked Up Abroad, on the National Geographic Channel. I stumbled across it recently and have not been able to stop watching since. Each episode chronicles the real-life stories of young men and women who have been incarcerated while traveling in countries including Venezuela, Mexico, Nepal and Thailand. As you might guess, the arrests frequently involve drugs, although other incidents include a kidnapping by paramilitaries in Colombia and gold smuggling in Nepal.

Using first-hand interviews, each story unfolds as the protagonist chronicles a series of bad decisions and rationalizations that led to their eventual arrest. What starts in many cases as a free all-expenses-paid holiday, a chance for “adventure” and an opportunity to make a quick buck quickly turns into an all-too-real nightmare. They describe endless days waiting in isolated holding cells, confusing foreign justice systems and getting caught in the crossfire of deadly prison gang wars. Interestingly enough, not all episodes involve prison – in one of my favorite episodes so far, an American sets out on a motorcycle trip across South America, only to be kidnapped at gunpoint by guerillas in Colombia. Not only does he manage to eventually escape, he also refuses to be sent back to the U.S. after his ordeal, choosing to continue his motorcycle trip to its completion. Fascinating television to say the least.

What makes Locked Up Abroad especially compelling for a twenty-something like me with a bad case of wanderlust is that the situations hit very close to home. Granted, I will never be stupid enough to accept an “all-expenses-paid vacation” to South America or try to drive my motorcycle into an area controlled by Colombian guerillas, but I do understand the mindset. Travel can skew our sense of reality, making us crave opportunities to push our boundaries and have truly unique, memorable experiences. That is for most of us, a very healthy instinct – it’s only when it crosses the line between reality and fantasy that it can become horribly serious.

Check out Locked Up Abroad Monday nights at 9pm on the National Geographic Channel.