Friday, August 17, 2012

Greece: Part 2

Greece is liberally scattered with half-completed buildings and empty hotels ... but that's not the whole story

I had only been in Greece for a few days when I started laughing. It wasn’t a giggle or chuckling kind of laugh, but a deeper kind of gut rumbling, thigh slapping laugh that went on and on. I was sharing a bottle of wine with Dmitry, an ex-footballer, and we were talking about the situation in his country as bats flitted around above our heads in the twilight and the distant sound of bouzouki music wafted through the hot pine-scented air from the local taverna. We were talking about the politicians, or ‘comedians’, and the more Dmitry mentioned them the more he laughed.  

But enough of that, let me start by apologising for the piece of dramatic fiction I composed for my last post. I’ll admit that I couldn’t resist poking a bit of fun at the idea that the only alternative to economic ‘prosperity’ is total collapse and all-out lawlessness. Let's face it, that's what some in the media have led us to expect, but Greece, to all intents and purposes, is still a modern-looking European country and the casual observer would be hard pressed to notice any difference compared to a visit made a couple of years ago.

Anyway, let me get straight to what I think of the ‘Greek situation’ and be done with it. Here it is in a nutshell: Greece is okay. It’s a bit stale around the edges, like a piece of pitta bread left out in the sun, and the young university-educated career minded folks I sat on a roof terrace with in Athens one evening don’t like it one bit. This wasn't the country of opportunities they had studied so hard at university to take their place in. But it’s a country where suicide capitalism has been stopped in its tracks, leaving half-built concrete eyesores at the edge of every town and empty nightclubs and fast-food bars in places where they should never have been built in the first place. If your idea of ‘okay’ is the endless construction of new shopping malls, roads and airports, where everyone works in an office and has a mortgage and a new car every three yearsand kids are placed on a conveyor belt which processes them and turns them into worker/consumer drones, then I’m afraid to tell you that Greece is in a very bad way indeed.

But if you’re not that way inclined you might well ask what’s left now that the festering boil of suicide capitalism has been lanced. Well, the heart-breaking beauty is still there, the 1,400 islands with soils so fertile that the tables are laden with more fresh produce than people can eat haven’t gone away either, and nor have the 10 million or so adaptable souls, some of whom are actually unaware there is a crisis and still sacrifice bulls in a pagan tradition going back millennia. In fact if you view the world solely through the distorted lens of economics and power politics you might think that Greece should just jump onto a sharpened bronze spear and be done with it. But if you’re of a romantic bent and have the a bit of an appreciation of history you might just realise that this economic crisis has been whipped up by a media that is beholden to the power of what we may as well call The System, for want of something better.

It’s pretty hard to sit, as I did one evening, gazing out across Athens and the nearby Acropolis, reading a potted history of Greece and not come to the conclusion that this economic ‘crisis’ is a mere blip that will barely register on that country’s timeline. Financial doomsters may spew forth frothy talk of Eurogeddon and Grexit, but really if you can only see the world in terms of economic statistics and indicators then it probably does look doomed. True, it seems impossible for Greece to hang onto its euro membership – everyone I met said so – from waiters to a bank manager. But were they gnashing their teeth and pulling their hair out and begging to be allowed to stay in the ‘privileged’ Eurozone club? No, most of them just shrugged and said that at least they’d got quite a few infrastructure benefits from it (such as the superb Athens transit system pictured below) but now it was time to go back to the drachma. It’s the kind of intransigence that infuriates free marketers and talking heads on CNN.

A gift from the gods? Athens' super clean and efficient mass transit system

The party was over. The party was just beginning. From several people I heard it said that they had friends and colleagues who had ‘gone back to their island’. Many Greeks were turning off the office lights as they left and returning to their ancestral island homes in what Homer called ‘the wine dark seas’.  Foreigners,at least those that like to be called ex-pats, were leaving like rats from a sinking ship. They didn’t want to be in a country with ‘no future’ (although quite which country with a future they were returning to remained to be seen). Other foreigners, let’s call them immigrants, were getting one way tickets back to their home country courtesy of the police.

We, for our part (and this was a holiday, so you’ll forgive me for not spending my time cruising the back streets of Athens seeking out stories of people selling their mothers’ kidneys for pennies) stayed in Athens for a few peaceful days before driving across the Peloponnese and catching a boat to the island of Zakynthos in the Ionian Sea. Athens, if you will forgive me for being sentimental for a moment, has a special place in my heart. It was here that I travelled when I was 18 and fell in love for the first time. We had slept on a flat roof, crammed in with hundreds of other cheap-as-chips backpackers, and walked up to the Acropolis by day to sketch the caryatids (I was studying classics at the time – sorry if that sounds pretentious). Athens is now just as it was then: dirty, chaotic, ancient, romantic, and unpredictable - and still a great place in which to fall in love. It’s a mixture of the first and third worlds, and is dotted with ancient ruins and little green parks filled with snoozing lazy cats and old men playing backgammon.

On Zakynthos we stayed in almost monastic calm in a stone building on an organic farm with few concessions to the modern world. No TV, no computer, no mobile phones and no other mod-cons (except an aircon unit, which I must admit I found it very hard to sleep without as I’m not accustomed to 40 degree centigrade heat). Some mornings, before the fearsome heat of the day took hold, I would go for a walk through the nearby countryside, ogling the numerous smallholdings with their strutting turkeys and staring goats. I would reach a cliff and look down on a wide sandy beach where, if I was lucky enough, I might just see the shape of a huge loggerhead turtle hauling itself back into the sea after a night of egg laying, just as they had been doing for the last 150 million years. The air everywhere was suffused with the smell of wild herbs and myrtle, and the music of birdsong was always audible.

A typical smallholding in the early morning with inquisitive ram

It is a truly magical island, tenaciously hanging onto its charm despite the best efforts of the legions of young holidaymakers who tear around its coast during the day on quad bikes, partying all night and tolerably often ending up flying home in a black zip-up bag. Attempting to stay away from them wasn't too hard (tip: stay away from infrastructure if you want peace and quiet) and I spent quite a few days swinging in a hammock on a remote beach re-reading Homer and snorkelling with my daughters. Such a state of calm came over me that I even started writing poetry (I know, I know ...). In fact, as a survival technique for countering the toxic effects of media overload and peak oil over-contemplation I would highly recommend something similar. It doesn’t have to be a sun kissed Greek beach, just away from most humans and electricity will do.

I soon learned indeed that the island was girted with concrete and the seas filled with banana boats, party cruises and jetskis, but that the interior was more or less how it has been for centuries. Here, farmers rode donkeys, old women sat in the shade weaving baskets and people laboured in the fields bringing in melons, tomatoes and lots more besides. Roadside stalls were buckling under the weight of fresh bread, olive oil, wine feta cheese, fruit and eggs. Some had erected small signs that said ‘Supermarket’, perhaps because they didn’t know what a supermarket was.

Fresh produce was available wherever you went like at this 'supermarket'

Greeks, on the whole, are a friendly and talkative bunch (apart from the guy in the Athens souvenir shop who refused to serve us because he thought we were German). Between us, my wife and I have a good handle on eight languages, but Greek isn't one of them. So it’s a good thing that Greeks tend to be very good at speaking English and love to shoot the breeze with strangers. What most of them seemed to be saying was this: economically speaking, things are bad, but they are not half as bad as they are being made out to be in the foreign media. Madonna was a case in point, and her comments about starving Greeks did not go down well.

Still, the Greeks care about what people think of them and their country (as they well might with so much depending on tourism) and it was with some amusement that one night, on the television in our Athens hotel, I spotted a grizzled American talking about how friendly and nice everything was in the country. He looked familiar and on closer inspection it turned out to be Robert De Niro on some kind of hospitality PR offensive. Next to him sat John Travolta, who was making similarly encouraging noises. This, it was hoped, should be enough to convince jittery tourists to come back (I did speak to a couple of heavily tattooed English yahoos in a bar but they hadn’t watched the news for several years and were unaware of any ‘crisis’ or otherwise so they don’t really count).

Here’s my disclaimer: yes, I know that lots of people are hard up in Greece right now and we see and hear lots about the country on the news. We can even see people lobbing bricks and wearing face masks on the evening news (but tell me, what country in Europe doesn’t have a sizeable contingent of anarchists? – even Denmark has them). Greece has a debt problem and how did it get into it? It got into it because all sorts of dubious development was rammed down their throats in the form of loans to build the swanky new airports, highways and other things that are deemed necessary to be a global player in the 21st century.

Yes, a lot of people were willing to swallow it and get wildly in to debt and, yes, the politicians and officials are sometimes crooked, just like they are in any other country that has passed its 500th birthday. I’m not saying it isn’t hard for a lot of people in Greece right now, but in my opinion it’s going to be a lot harder for people in other countries soon enough. Greece, at least, still has members of what we might call a peasant class (and I’ll never tire of pointing out that peasant means ‘country person’ i.e. one skilled in making a non-exploitative living from his environment, and not a term or derision). In Denmark, for example, I doubt most farmers would even be able to start up their combine harvesters if the control software failed to boot up.

On the farm where we stayed, the owner, Dionysios (it seems almost every man on Zakynthos is called Dionysios after the island’s patron saint, including their celebrated poet Dionysios Solomos.) was a case in point. He might be a farmer, but he was also internet savvy and knew how to network with like-minded organic farmers across Greece, and I noticed an organic cooperative operating on the outskirts of the island’s main town.

Empty concrete shells were on the outskirts of many towns and cities

Oh yes, and those unemployment figures people keep talking about. What is it – 30% youth unemployment or something? Well, I can tell you that those figures are certainly wrong. Unemployment, you see, is relative and the kind that gets mentioned all the time is the kind of Anglo-American statistical unemployment beloved of economists. Greece, like other countries in southern Europe, has millions of invisible employers known as parents and relatives. No matter how idle or unemployable their offspring they can usually be found something to do stacking shelves in a shop or helping out raising children or lending a hand with the cash-in-hand cleaning business. And, yes, they probably claim unemployment benefit while doing so. Urban sophisticates in Athens would be horrified by this, but in truth it is they, when they lose their jobs, who are the truly unemployed. It must be particularly galling having left one’s family for a career in the bright lights of Athens only to find yourself coming back, tail between legs, and moving back into your childhood bedroom.

But perhaps more worrying is the rise of the far right. We made friends with Yannis, a veterinarian professor who lives in England but was on holiday in his own country, who expressed concern that the Golden Dawn party were on the ascendant. The cause of their recent popularity, he opined, was people’s fear that the destiny of their country was in the hands of foreign powers. Greece has no desire to be a client state of Germany, and neither does it go down well with the populace at large when the papers are filled with talk of selling off the islands to the Chinese. People, it seems, are being offered a choice between lifelong poverty and national bankruptcy on the one hand, or salvation in the form of foreign overlords on the other. Does it really take a genius to figure out why nationalist sentiment is being aroused?

It wasn't too hard to find signs of decay if you looked for them

So Greece has a lot of natural capital, is thinly populated, and has a bountiful supply of free energy in the form of sunlight. Why doesn’t it just declare itself bankrupt, devalue its currency, and get on with life (and get to keep the goodies, such as that nice metro system)? Life would be a lot easier without all that debt, plus the tourists would return because it would be much cheaper for them to be there. Well, the reason it doesn’t do an Iceland is because it’s not allowed to by its ruling political classes aka the Comedians, who are clients of the Eurozone central powers. Germany won’t allow it because of the feared domino effect which will result in quite a few northern European banks disappearing in puffs of smoke. Perhaps that’s why I encountered this in a field as I was passing through a town.

Putting China into the mix, it seems that the vast country hasn’t thrown in the towel over Greece either. Knowing that Greece has the world’s largest merchant fleet, China has pledged $5 billion in loans to its container shipping industry, allowing Greece to execute a coup that has left a lot of red faces in Germany. Greece sold many of its larger ships to Germany five years back when the good times were still rolling, but now Germany has no need for them because of the global slowdown in freight shipping and Greece is buying them back at bargain basement prices.  

But how long can the Comedians who currently have the power hold this act together? At the moment the crowds which occasionally gather outside the parliament building are kept at bay by the police – but when the government can no longer afford to pay them … what then?

The only thing to do is wait and see.


  1. My takeaway from this is, that life will get on with the business of living, as soon as we gut the power of the bankers. Global jubilee. Otherwise, we will be in hock to them, until such time as they drag out their final kleptocratic maneuvers, before the whole bloody edifice comes crashing down, for maximum effect, apparently. The world is run by monstrous criminals; the world cannot be "run" by anything but. Beware of the money makers. Look to the earth.

    1. Wise words William!

      I first realised the same when reading about the history of Laos. The people there (and probably just about everywhere else) subsisted fine with, well, subsistence farming, until the World Bank and IMF came along and made the government slap massive taxes on farmers. This forced them to grow two harvests a year instead of the usual one, and soon enough they were short of money and needed to borrow. Foreign banks moved in and in a few short years you had a country that was basically controlled by a few powerful organisations. Farmers fall into poverty and their kids move to the cities to work in the new factories and get paid slave wages.

      It's been the standard model of imperial control and capture for generations now - although usually it's dressed up as 'modernisation' and 'aid'.

  2. Hi Jason, sounds like Greece is still a great place for chilling. I spent an idyllic 4 weeks sleeping on a beach under the stars near Alyki in 1979, birding and living on bread, feta, tomatoes, peaches and water melons. Used to get up when it was too hot too stay in the sleeping bag. I daren't go back in case of the concrete shells...On arrival we sat down in a lagoon side taverna and ordered fish and chips and a bottle of retsina. This was reed rooved with home made furniture from driftwood. The waiter said he was waiting for the fish. We waited and waited, after a couple of hours a boat chugged up and deposited a pile of fish. Ten minutes later it was on the plate, delicious. As you say, the Greek peasants are great people, very patient! and will survive the current troubles, heres to 'em.

    Not had a holiday this year but come September the wife and I are heading off on a Baltic cruise, calling in at Copenhagen for an afternoon on 25 September. Never been before, any recommendations for the top 3 alternative sights in the centre plus a decent caf?

    1. Hi Phil - I'm sure there are still many places in Greece that haven't changed much in the last 30 years - the trick is finding them. Ah yes, sleeping under the stars - I tried that on my first visit too (back in 1989) - but to be honest, you can sleep anywhere after a bottle of ouzo.

      Pity you only have an afternoon in Copenhagen! You'll probably dock at Langelinie Quay but don't bother going to see the Little Mermaid unless you want to be disappointed. It's probably better to just walk down to Nyhavn (perhaps via the palace) and sit outside one of the cafe/restaurants there by the canal. I recommend Cap Horn, which serves old style Danish food (think herrings and schnapps - all organic) - you won't find real Danish food easily, as elsewhere, it's mostly 'international'.

      Then hop in a cycle rickshaw and head down to the alternative commune of Christiania. You'll like it there, so set aside a couple of hours (there are also plenty of cafes there too). Don't get your camera out on Pusher Street (where they sell hash) otherwise you'll encounter problems.

      Better still you can get hold of a couple of city bikes and then the city is your oyster (you just insert a coin, like a shopping trolley).

      I wouldn't really recommend going down Strøget - said to be the world's longest pedestrian street - unless you like tacky chain stores and hordes of giggling teenagers. But otherwise just explore the centre of the city on foot or bike - it's very beautiful everywhere and full of interesting corners.

      My favourite square (where you can sometimes find me handing out) is the historic Gråbrødre Torv - a cobbled square surrounded by cafes and restaurants. There's a cafe here that is basivally an old city tram inserted into a building - that's a good place for a beer.

      If you want to try some proper Scandinavian (and Belgian) beers check out De Tatoverende Enke (The Tattooed Widow) - they have some great ones and it's only a few minutes from Nyhavn on foot.!/en/bar

      Drop me a line if you are around past about 4pm (when I get off work) - jasonhepp at gmail dot com

  3. Two thoughts. First the increase in GDP in western countries, and certainly the United States, since at least around 1990 (and you can argue about the dividing year) seems to have translated remarkably little into an increase in living standards for most people, or the addition of useful things like new metro networks. In the United States, there is one plausible explanation for this in that the entire increase, actually a little more than the entire increase, was appropriated by the 1%. But industrial societies probably also have run up against diminishing returns against how economic growth translates into material improvement in people's lives -once everyone has adequate food, clothing, housing, and entertainment what else do you need to add? Plus much of the new wealth was paper wealth, like all those phantom army units on the 4th Century Roman payroll.

    The point is that a fall in GDP to the level of 1990 wouldn't necessarily translate into a fall in material standards of living (unless the occasion was used to further cut benefits to the poor and plunder the savings of the middle classes), and could improve them.

    The second thought is that Greece, as you noted, is a thinly populated country and recently industrialized and so its entirely feasible for people to go back to their farms and fishing villages. This is what alot of Americans did during pre-World War II depressions. It doesn't work that way with a place like England, which can't conceivably produce enough food to feed its population! I don't see it working in the United States, where half the population lives in suburbs -formerly agricultural land which has been turned into very low density and mostly residential urban development, though with a notable absence of mass transit- and about a fifth of the population lives in the old central cities. I don't see how you get back to a nation of peasant farmers from there.

    Odin's Raven had a good comment on the Archdruid Report that put in mind of this, referencing the U.S.:

    "If the food producing areas are drying up, the industries have moved to China, and the big cities are inhabited mainly by bureaucrats, welfare dependents and financial fraudsters, and the whole culture is in advanced degeneracy, is there any region that could sustain itself beyond a rather low level?"

    Greece has the advantage of relative backwardness.

    1. Yes - casting my memory back to when I studied economics, the theory of diminishing marginal returns on investment comes to mind. That is, the first dollar or euro spent to satisfy a need (or want) will give a much higher benefit than the millionth or trillionth. You then eventually reach a point where more investment provides no benefit whatsoever. The US had been 'first world' for a good 50 years before Greece managed to borrow itself up to that status.

      This could be a blessing for countries like Greece, they really haven't had enough time for everyone to lose their useful skills. Granted, it's mostly the older folks who know how to make things work, but at least they are still alive and able to pass on their knowledge to younger generations. The UK and US don't have that luxury.

      BTW, it's true the UK can't feed itself at current population levels but I'm pretty sure that a severe shock to the energy supply would soon see the numbers reduced substantially.

  4. America is screwed because it turned in all of it's culture for convenient consumerism. All of the farmers stopped farming and suburban sprawl squirted it's malfeasance all over everything. What is America going to return to? Our young don't even know that there is a world outside of their cell phones.

    It's interesting how your life changes when you stop paying attention to all of the MSM's propaganda. I want to be a peasant. In fact, I'm trying my damn hardest to be a peasant, and with no help at that (well my wife has recently realized that she wants to be a peasant as well). Your level of fubar as a nation comes down to can you grow your food without petroleum. It sounds like Greece is better off than most industrialized places.

    I'm finding that the best policy is just to proceed in the world as you want the world to be. I want to be a peasant, and the MSM is not going to help one bit towards that end. I have realized that, and so I don't even bother with giving two farts about it. I could care less what the television has to say about anything.

    1. Lucid - it's a good policy to, what was the saying, be the change you want to see in the world. It's a messy process and some of us find it more difficult than others, but at the end of the day the world is going to change anyway and those who can't adapt will have trouble surviving.

      I've come to think of the MSM as a bit like the shadows on the wall of Plato's cave. That is, you can watch it with interest and glean some meaning from it if you are sufficiently able to decode the messages but when you think it is an accurate representation of the real world, that's when you run into trouble. It's good for conveying information about *some* things that it is impossible for it to apply its distorting filter to e.g. major disasters, but otherwise forget it.

      Far better to actually live in the world and not pay too much attention to shadow plays, methinks.

  5. Jason,
    Thanks for this. I've been trying to tell people I know that collapse is a perspective. The people who fear it the most are those who have the most to lose. The majority of people are suffering under the current order and a 'collapse' of a military, banking empire would be a relief in many ways. I suspect this has been true throughout history, history is similarly skewed toward the interests of those who have the wealth to afford literacy and education, and written for those who have the power to control what gets said. The dark ages also happened to coincide with the end of slavery, which was revived much later during a colonial era. The collapse of the great military empires of South America likely coincided with the greatest agricultural achievement in known history, the Amazonian rain forest.

    There is decay in that picture if you look for it. But there is also an abundance of green life if you open your eyes, and the welcome sight of a decommissioned tool of destruction.

    1. Justin -de nada. I think one of the reasons the narrative is so fearful right now is because most people have so little historical perspective. Throw into the mix the the fact that history is written by the victors - and right now the victors are the promulgators of neoliberal economic orthodoxy - and you've got a fearsome mixture of fearsomeness.

      Yes, I'm a bit worried about some things from time to time (primarily because I have young kids) - but otherwise I view the future with something like excitement. It's all the economic boom years that I've hated, to be honest. Good riddance to them.

  6. Jason,

    Thanks for posting this! I don't travel outside of the US so I really appreciate it when you and others who do travel share your impressions of the places you visit. Three cheers to the Greeks!

    Much of US suburbia is on good to excellent soil and most yards here are large enough to raise quite a bit of food if they were used that way. I'm in just such a situation, with an acre (a little less than a half hectare) of land, and I am learning how to use it well. Seed companies have been seeing good increases in sales in the past few years. While most folks don't yet know how to raise food, there is much info readily available on how to do it. I think we'd be surprised by what people can do when they have to do it - and it probably won't happen till they have to do it. I prefer to plan ahead, many others don't act till the situation demands it. I'm not saying there won't be many difficulties and unpleasantness, just that people generally rise to the occasion when necessary (and not till then).

    1. You're welcome, Claire. I always wanted to be a travel writer but then travel writing became a branch of marketing and lost all credibility. I grew up reading the likes of Norman Lewis (check him out) and the lesson I took away was that the writer should give a clear impression of the country with all the BS cut out.

      It's good to hear seed companies are doing well! What always amazes me is that when people start growing their own food then that passes under the radar of economists i.e. GDP contracts, all other things being equal, despite the fact that it's increasing what we might call the 'general good'. One of my worries for the future is that when a critical mass of people start growing their own food then some central authority will impose taxes or otherwise seek to control the activity. So far nobody worries because it is just a fringe activity.

      Yep - plenty of real estate is on fertile land. Perhaps now is the time to invest in companies that make jack/sledge hammers!


I'll try to reply to comments as time permits.