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Notes from a troubled and sunburned country | Wired Cola

Notes from a troubled and sunburned country

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It does no good for me to pretend to have a special insight into Greece, its economy, its national character, or its current role as bête noire of the Eurozone. But I'm here, I was recently delayed by riots, and if I was shy about offering opinions based on scant evidence, well, what kind of bloggery would I be engaging in? I'm not a mommy, after all, so I can't tell you what my kids or my appliances did.

The country, right now

Greece is a fine place to be. It always is. You get to eat well (though with the standard reservation: I hope you like Greek food. I haven't dived deeply into Athens' restaurants, but my impression is that while ethnic dining exists, it's a novelty, not to be taken seriously), and the weather is nice. I'm not a big fan of Athens itself: the commercial and political centre of a second-rate economy isn't that impressive, and where the islands are balmy, Athens is merely hot, even in May. It is worth a visit, but I consider it personally important as the site of ATH, the place where planes land, and Piraeus, the place where ferries dock.

The Cycladic islands are the Greece of your imagination. Quiet lives; beautiful villages; prosperous, worldly people who think the hilly 5 km trip between your house and downtown is a long way by car, never mind a bike; endless tavernas, where the food ranges from good to astounding (May 11: we ate lunch at a table under a tree. TLO ordered the moussaka, which she said she had been dreaming of since last year, and it was as good as her dreams); beer that is cheaper than soft drinks, and wine that is cheaper than water; glorious weather; more beaches than you can believe (and in May, practically abandoned while still being lovely to swim at); it's a nice place to be. Historically, a life on the islands might have meant a considerably larger sense of cultural and physical isolation, but at the risk of being an utterly nose-down nerd, technologies from the jet plane to satellite TV to ubiquitous mobile phones to the web mean this is far less of a consideration than before. I don't have Internet access in this house, but the next time I care to visit the web cafe 5 km away (same town as above; it's about 15 minutes by car), I'll put this post up. Hooray for offline blogging tools.

It's not a great place to try to make a living, necessarily, for the usual second-rate-economy reasons: it tends to underpay talent, relative to first-rate economies. Although English is virtually always enough to get yourself fed and handle the menial tasks related to being a tourist, you ought to learn Greek if you want to live here, and there's virtually no employment without it, of course. Also, I don't know if you've heard, but the Greek economy is headed for a near-certain short-term contraction, and the long-term trends (lots of old people, not many babies) are ominous.

When I think of the Greek character, I see many broadly accurate stereotypes to admire (gregarious, wonderful hosts, excellent cooks, notably stylish compared to Vancouverites, and excellent mariners), and one that most Greeks could stand to lose: paranoia. It's not a vice reserved to Greeks, and with about a quarter of their economy being, um, undocumented, maybe they come by their suspicion of conspiracies more honestly than other nations. But I talk to Greeks who are convinced that their recent troubles are a conspiracy by German interests against them. By comparison, look at California, a political entity with a similar combination of financial woes and lack of control over its monetary policy: I sense far fewer rumblings of dark forces conspiring against them (and the politicking against the probable government cuts is substantially more decorous).

For my own narrow-minded reasons, I often think of countries in terms of their personal transportation. Greece is, as far as I can tell, every bit as car-centric as most North American regions, only smaller. Cars, especially on the islands, are one or two sizes smaller than expected, and their engines are mostly variants not available in Canada: a VW Golf will tout a 1.4 or 1.6 engine; our rental Hyundai is a four-seat hatch about one size smaller than a Toyota Yaris, and our Atos Prime model has the 1000cc engine instead of the base Atos' 800. The 800 motor can only handle one of the following at a time: 10% grades, four passengers, air conditioning. The 1000 can handle two of those. If you're following along at home, a Kia Piccanto (the twin to our Hyundai Atos) starts at €8400, according to the ad I just saw. The Fiat Panda is a similar, slightly nicer tiny car, and the hot version of that hatchback advertises its triple-digit horsepower with a "100HP" badge. The rare Jaguar or even a Ford Mondeo looks out of place, almost comically oversized for the delightfully narrow and twisty roads. There's a Subaru WRX STi on the island, which is kind of cool, but even it must be a bit too big and a bit too potent for this place.

Greece also features a ton of scooters, motorcycles, and especially the strange quasi-mopeds that, in the course of their evolution, have lost their vestigial pedals and typically have 100-250cc motors. The occasional full-size sportbike (even a Hayabusa or two!) doesn't so much look oversized as utterly pointless: there is one section of road on this island that is posted as 70 km/h. It's about a kilometre long. A 250cc sportbike would probably be ideally nimble here; a 400 if you bring a friend, and probably a 150cc scooter is the real-world machine of choice.

In a land where gasoline hovers around €1.60/l, diesel cars are surprisingly uncommon, and electric scooters and small cars are an obvious untapped niche. This even on a reasonably prosperous island only 15 km long. I think I'll go write a business plan now.

Congestion on the island, by the way, is surprisingly high around the port city. Even in the last five years the problem has grown to the point where parking (really, the worst aspect) is rising in price and the authorities are experimenting with dynamically-changing parking prices, a bit of a surprise for a small island.

There is virtually no cycling culture to speak of. There is a nice little bike shop on this island aimed at the kids-and-mediocre-MTBs market, with little or no road machinery last time I checked. The few bikes being ridden for transport are all the same class of terrible fake mountain bikes that you see on the streets of Vancouver. In fairness to the locals, there are some nasty hills on the island, and it's too hot to sanely ride for most of the day during much of the year: I start all my rides before 0700 and end before 0930, and even that's pushing it, and it's May! I have seen one decent road bike: it was being ridden by a generously bearded young man, probably a hipster or a cyclo-tourist or both.

Riots and economics

This year, as we left Vancouver for Frankfurt, we knew our Frankfurt-Athens flight was cancelled by the general strike (owing to the participation of ATH's air traffic controllers). Last year, as we left the country, a planned demonstration was being prepared for in the usual way: riot squads and road closures around the main square in Athens (Syntagma, or Constitution Square). This is apparently a standard part of Greek civic life. Note that the KKE, unrepentant Communists, poll solid single digits in every election (and in a country where a genuine post-war Communist revolution was narrowly avoided), are at the forefront of most of these demonstrations, and this time hung a banner off the Acropolis for fun and publicity. The universities are another source of unrest, partly because they are traditionally sanctuaries against arrest, allowing fleet-footed rioters to retreat to the campus to escape justice. I won't try to counterbalance my propaganda here with the historic roots of these traditions: I'm just saying that if you wanted a civic tradition of violent protest in your capital, you could hardly structure your civic institutions more perfectly. And the effect is that you get riots (or, generously, protests with tear gas and window-breaking and firebombs) on a pretty regular basis.

But that's Athens for you. It's not the rest of the country, by a long shot. I don't see that level of civic unrest infecting any of the outlying regions, especially the Cyclades, with which I am by far the most familiar. You might as well ask whether Vancouver's 1994 Stanley Cup Riot spread to Saskatoon.

Is Greece's economy going to the dogs? Maybe it never left, except for a brief drunken interlude where a shower of EU money was used to build an airport, pad the civil service, and leave the country with an economic hangover and a bill past due. Result: yes, it's going to the dogs. It can probably recover pretty quickly if Greece does the right thing. If you have a good idea of what the right thing would be, I'm sure Mr. Papandreou could use some advice. It would be helpful if Greece got its underground economy down from 25% or so to maybe UK levels, in the range of 10% or so. Of course, it would also be helpful if they discovered gold in the Peleponese, and unicorns in Crete.

Living there?

It's true, I'm plotting to move here, soonish. Remember all that stuff I said about not wanting to work here? It stands. What I want to do, and plan to do, is telecommute. See the bit above about reduced isolation. I'm fortunate enough to possess God-given talents (and heaven help us, perhaps self-motivation in adequate quantities) that work well over a wire, and with some retraining (ongoing...) should be able to pay the bills by working on a computer in Greece, but not in a way that's dependent on the Greek economy.
Call that what you will. As a plan, it's as much a hedge against my ability to learn Greek as it is a hedge against the future of Greece. In any case, I do think that Greece may emerge from this crisis...not poorer, but at their real economic state. And I think that state will be near the bottom of the EU result tables, but still a stable first-ish world economy. In such a state, Greece would still be a lovely place to hang out for the simplest of reasons: good weather, good food, good people. It will take far more than Athenian firebombers to make those go away.

Comments

But I talk to Greeks who are

But I talk to Greeks who are convinced that their recent troubles are a conspiracy by German interests against them.

While I would buy that Greece's problems aren't entirely due to outside forces, there are arguments that - as you suggest a sentence later - the lack of control over the exchange rate really is hurting them. (see also here)

By comparison, look at California, a political entity with a similar combination of financial woes and lack of control over its monetary policy: I sense far fewer rumblings of dark forces conspiring against them

Because they can blame illegal immigrants and the poor? (the latter for the housing bubble even if reality doesn't line up -- if the problem was subprime, then why are prime mortgages also in trouble?) Doesn't have to be the same boogeyman to be a similar situation...

Regarding the exchange issues...

...it's not a conspiracy if you danced joyfully into the arms of your situation, all the while with Euroskeptics saying that exactly this sort of thing could happen! The bigger problems are the Eurozone did a lousy job of enforcing its rules, and Greece did a lousy job of living within its means.

I'm not a per-se Euroskeptic. My bias is that it's convenient for tourists like myself. Also, what must be said is that the kind of devaluation that you'd normally get from monetary control can occur through other means, they're just less hidden and thus more viscerally infuriating: businesses giving all their employees a devaluation-equivalent pay cut, commensurate retail-price cuts....

There's trade-offs both ways on monetary union. Nova Scotia seems like too small a unit to want monetary independence; Europe may be too large. Heck, the USA might be too large, but they're a lot more politically cohesive than Europe, at least in the last decade or two.