Thursday, October 11, 2012

Why Greece Will Survive the Economic Crisis

This is Symi, Greece:

Symi, Greece. To the left is the main harbor. The bay on the right is Pedi.
This is what the main harbor looks like:

Symi harbor. The house colors are strictly regulated by the municipality.
Notice how all the sailboats are nicely lined up at the Symi wharf. More of that, later.
Symi harbor is a tourist destination. And, over time, that mission has replaced almost all else. Think Provincetown, if you know Cape Cod. In a few days from now, almost every single shop in Symi will close. 

This store sells fashionably casual clothes to tourists who come in by the ferry loads.
This is another angle of the house in the previous shot. It is a jewelry shop that is already closed for the season.
Symi harbor is beautiful and photogenic. And because of that, it seems romantic. But ultimately, I found it too much like a film stage for tourists.

We got lucky by misfortune. (A repetitive theme in my life.) We didn't dock in Symi harbor. The way to dock in Symi is to drop your anchor in the middle of the harbor (almost inevitably having to untangle it later from the anchor spaghetti when you leave) and then backing into an available slot. Almost always, there is a steady cross-breeze blowing in the harbor just to add fun to the exercise. The combination of the HC33's renown poor backing performance combined with my lack of experience in this procedure led us to decide to head for Pedi bay. That turned out to be much better anyway in so many ways.

We made our way from Pedi to the harbor by a bus and once by a scooter we rented. But you can also do the trip by foot. It takes about an hour. You set out from the back row of houses in the harbor on a street called the Kali Strata. It is comprised of a series of steps interspersed with flat inclines. It is said to have been the traditional road traveled by foot, but also with donkeys pulling wagons. 

We walked up the Kali Strata for a bit and saw evidence of the harbor's thin veneer. Some long-abandoned houses have their harborside facades painted, but are nothing more than shells inside. For instance, go back to the second photograph in this post and look closely at the white house. You will notice it is an empty shell.

A house on the Kali Strata, Symi. I wonder why they filled the doorway and windows. For stabilization? More aesthetic than fences to keep the rifraff out?
Some old estates still had their original, stunningly beautiful wooden doors.
How can you not fantasize about renovating one of these grand homes and living part-time in Greece? A number of the homes had founding dates of the late 1800s engraved in entrances, just like this one.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not throwing Cupid out with the bathwater. While I might find the village too seasonal and too touristy, I appreciate the veneer. I applaud the Greek pride which makes them paint their abandoned buildings to keep the harbor pretty.


(My fingers were prasseling the keyboard at incredible speeds while we were talking. "What? Are you recording my words exactly?" Jennifer asked at one point.)

JENNIFER: "I don't like that you're panning Symi."

MATHIAS: "I'm not panning Symi, I'm just asking you for a word or some description that would characterize that it lacks depth; that's is not really 'real.'"

JENNIFER: "I wouldn't want to ink it in as overtouristy. It is a beautiful Greek island. Of course it's going to have tourists. That's just the way it is. To single Symi out and say it is touristy, but not Datja ... Every single place we go, is the same." 

MATHIAS: "What about Fourni; how do you describe the difference? That had NO tourist shops. Isn't Fourni more authentic?"

JENNIFER: "Yeah, but Fourni is not as pretty."

MATHIAS: "But don't you think that's because there aren't tourist bringing in money to make it pretty?"

JENNIFER: "I think it's a chicken and egg thing. How did Fourni escape that? I don't know."

MATHIAS: "Because it doesn't have a deep water harbor for the huge ferry boats."

JENNIFER: "I don't know why I'm being so rabid about this. There just aren't that many tourists shops in Symi." 

MATHIAS: "Yeah, but still 90 percent of the shops are tourist shops."

JENNIFER: "They're not as eager to make money. It's just not the vibe that I get. We visited half a dozen places with a more sell-out vibe. How about Bodrum? That's a sell-out with its discos and trinket shops. Symi doesn't have any discos and all those stupid shops. Symi's quiaint. And outside of Symi's there's nothing. So all the locals know they have only a short time to make as much money as they can from the tourists that visit."

MATHIAS: "Yeah, but that would argue more to my point that are using the town as a tourist trap."

JENNIFER: "But Symi just isn't. They have a beautiful old port town that they dump day trippers into, but it's just a few. I mean, you write what you want, but tell people that if they want a different view of Symi, to talk to me."


If you keep on walking up the Kali Strata, you come to the old town of Symi, on the hill. Then on the downside of the hill, you will come to Pedi bay. (We didn't do the walk, and the following shot was actually leaving town the other way on a scooter.)

Symi's Pedi bay.
At the village in the cove, you have not only arrived in Pedi, you have arrived in Greece. The differences between these two bays and their villages is day and night. More than that: False and real. New and old. Obsequensce and honesty. 

Symi harbor caters to what you want to see of Greece. Pedi harbor shows you what Greece is whether you recognize it or not. 

As I said, we arrived here by default: My humility in retreating from Symi harbor and proceeding to Pedi allowed me to discover a genuine side of the island (and Greece) we otherwise never would have known.

My first photograph introduced you to Symi. This one introduces you to Greece:

Greece as represented in an 8 foot by 12 foot room.
I love this shot of Greece. Before we move on, notice the rusted wheelbarrow. Notice the single (not multiple) wine bottle on the floor in the background. Notice the slatted wood on the windows. Certainly not tight enough to keep birds or even cats out, so why are they there? (Especially when the unfinished doorway is completely open?)

So why is this Greece? Let's pull out and take a look.

The above room is in this unfinshed marina house which was presumably designed to accommodate an office, a utility room and some bathrooms. Notice how the painting of the building was abandoned mid-stroke, half-way.
The room; the building was part of a plan: a marina. It was a dream, actually: to make Pedi as grand as Symi harbor. Let's pull out and take a look.

The abandoned marina at Pedi harbor on Symi, Geece.
If you zoom in, you will see the blocks stacked up on the quay wall that were supposed to act as mooring anchors so Pedi could have laid mooring lines, an improvement over Symi harbor, designed to avoid the anchor spaghetti. You might also see our boat alongside. But to make it easier, here is a shot of Phoenix.

Phoenix docked at the non-existing Pedi Marina. The trough in the foreground is laid with PVC pipes for electric and water lines.
Zooming in on the shot would not give you the delicious detail of just how finished this dock is, so I took some extra shots:

Our stern line. And why not? It has held Phoenix perfectly well for three days. 
Ok, I admit, I added an additional line a day later. A boat neighbor talked to a Greek resident who allowed me to lay a line to "his" rebar about fifty, sixty feet away. Do you like my chafe gear of a towel tied around my docking line?

So why is Pedi the real Greece? Where do I begin? How far do I go back? Who do I introduce you to first? The grocer? The emigrant homeowner? The "economic refugee" from Germany living on his boat?

Let's start with the last because he helped us dock.

The liveaboard "economic refugee from Bavaria" grows his own basil and tomatoes, makes his own bread and collects water via tarps in winter. Solar panels provide what electricity he needs, and books the stimulation of his brain.
We fell into talking and quickly found a common language in German. He was an "economic refugee" from Germany. He was living off his retirement money. Very economically. From the looks of his boat, I'm surprised he made it down here. I asked him about the rough condition of the dock.

It was a classic Greek tale that we heard confirmed from several sources in the village. An investor got easy credit from a bank. The bank got easy credit from the EU banking system when spirits where high. Then the crash of 2008 hit. There was no more money to finish the project. Bankruptcy. Lawsuits. Who knows? Who cares? Point is: It wasn't going to be finished. 

It was the same with the windgenerator, he said, pointing to the ridgeline. There was the windmill. Tall, modern, proud and without blades. A power company had built it. But then they needed a facility to coordinate the power generation with a plant in the valley. But by then America's economic crises (based on unreasonable housing loans) had hit Europe and no more credit was available; not to private marinas nor to utility companies. So now, on an island that desparately needs power, a windmill doesn't mill the wind.

In the town, the grocer charges more for his groceries than average. But only by a margin that makes one wonder why he isn't more coniving. Well, because he's Greek.

"I'm making enough," he would probably say. 

But try and take advantage of him, and you will be treated as a tourist. We heard one "tourist" sailor complain to us: "He won't sell me just a loaf of bread. He forces me to buy more."

I can't even imagine how it came to that face-off. The grocer and his wife are friendly. They have been patient in teaching us new Greek words. And the first time we bought from them, it came to no more than a few Euros. 

We met an original Symi resident, George, who emigrated to Australia in the 1950s when he was 18. 

There were two mass emigrations from Symi. One following the occupation of Symi by the Italians following WWI. Then another in the 1970s. All in all, about 20,000 to 25,000 islanders left, leaving only one tenth of the population behind. About half went to Australia. The other half to Florida because there was sponge fishing there, a famous skill of Symians.

George was, despite living in Australia, classic Greek. We got into a conversation with him at a gas station and mentioned that we had a hard time finding water for our tanks. He invited us over to his house in which he had built a rainwater collection system. Since he was leaving for the winter (back to Australia) and had plenty of water left in his tanks, he said we should come and get some.

George, like several other Greeks we have met, repeated the same story to us: Why should Greece be blamed for being Greece? Yes, it is true that Greeks don't work 9 to 5. But if you have ever spent time here, you will know that is not possible. In the height of the day, it is just too damn hot. But talk to anyone (and we have) and you will know Greeks work just as many hours as anyone. Starting at six or seven, they will work until midnight.  

That was confirmed last night for us again at the restaurant where we were told that most Greeks don't come in for dinner until about ten. In Rhodes, the live music performances don't start until midnight.

No doubt, there is an attitude of "tomorrow." But so what? That has served well for thousands of years. The problem now is that modern imperialist capitalism wants "Today!" 

The reason I like the photo of the room with the concrete bags as the epitomy of Greece is this: The bags are still there. No one has stolen the concrete even though the project has been abandon for several years and poverty in the village could certainly find other usages for the material. The room's only evidence of "oh well" is one single bottle of wine. In America, the concrete would have been stolen. In the neighborhoods I have lived (both urban and rural) there would have been multiple, smashed bottles of beer and wine. 

We have talked to a number of Greeks about the economy in three different ports so far. All seem to have the same feeling: They are being blamed because they are an easy target. The Americans began the financial crisis and Europe became infected. The Europeans began looking for the weakest link in the chain and turned to Greece. 

"Why not Italy?" our Australian immigrant asked. "They owe much more than Greece."

What is particularly hurtful is that Greeks know that it is the rich people in their country that are causing the most trouble.

"They refuse to pay taxes," said the owner of scooter rental place. 

"Of course, the rich never pay," said George.

Echoing their voices was the New York Times story this week that the Greek goverment has "lost" a list of 2,000 rich Greek citizens who have bank accounts in Switzerland. 

The reason why I think the Greeks will survive this economic crisis is, well, because they have survived many a crisis for thousands of years. They pre-dated the Romans and outlasted the Romans. They have been invaded by the Ottomans and have repelled the Ottomans. Symi was occupied by the Italians for decades and eventually rid themselves of the Italians. 

Not many countries have experienced the rollercoaster that Greeks have and yet endured. 

Pedi is a great harbor. Better than Symi, if you ask me. Quieter. Easier to dock. Nicer people. People who give you free water if you make friends with them. And grocers who teach you Greek. Pedi will survive a developer who didn't finish a marina. 

Pedi will do just fine. 


Today is just too hot. Economically and otherwise.
Most of these houses in Pedi along the "marina" are vacant. Invest today if you have an American entrepenuial spirt. Tomorrow if you are Greek.
A close-up of the same street.


judymac said...

I can see a retirement/vacation home for you two to
spend the winter months.....

Anonymous said...

Retire? From What? Best, Hans, Ingrid, Martin

abbot said...

where's the pics of the fooood ?

feta.... fishies.... burek.... oleeeeves !

... perhaps some octopus ???

c'mon now, I'm (in my vicariously through you guys Mediterranean tour), startin' to get a bit peckish