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PostAmorgos Report (Gilbert Doctorow, Belgium, 04/25/12 3:26 pm)
While Nigel Jones (24 April) and I may agree on little else, my impressions from my last six days in Greece are very similar to his own with respect to voter mood in an EC country awaiting elections (parliamentary) in the coming days: the voice of my interlocutors representing a sprinkling of islands-based and Athens-based folks of various ages was consensual--apathetic, cynical and, in the end, looking forward only to confusion and drift. In particular, there is the expectation of very low voter turnout on election day, especially from among young voters.
The opportunity of the political elites to take advantage of the dire economic situation arising their own corruption and failure to lead over the past 30 years, the opportunity to renew themselves by co-opting the young, has gone unheeded. The major parties are hemorrhaging and small splinter parties will lack the numbers to influence policies. Greece looks likely to be even more ungovernable and incapable of the fundamental reforms it needs to survive in the Eurozone.
My trip was related to a tourism and culture-oriented conference on the Cycladic island of Amorgos which is at the end of the marine logistical tether--a nearly 9-hour ferry ride from Piraeus and has a year-round population of only 1800. The local economy is almost entirely dependent on tourism, and a niche eco-tourism at that, on a very small scale. The tourists are drawn here by unspoiled rocky hills with walking trails.
My conference companions being mostly culture workers, people in and around the arts, their political allegiances were, predictably, with Passok, the Greek socialist party. And they uniformly pronounced themselves bitterly disappointed with their party for its having institutionalized corruption and taken it down from the level of the big bosses doing contracts with the state to everyday bakhshish demanded by the lowest-level officials for routine administrative procedures.
Tourism reservations in Amorgos are promising this year, and the feeling was guardedly optimistic. But anyone expecting crisis-related discounts to lure in visitors would be misguided. My impression is that the crisis has made the hospitality industry less rather than more generous. Price gouging, which I had not noticed before on previous visits, has encamped in the Amorgos cafes and bars. The food, which was never worth any culinary stars, has become still heavier and greasy-spoon, as owners are cutting costs and going back to their roots, literally. The free shotglass of raki or ouzo has been replaced by some ubiquitous herbal flavored cheap wine. Visitors are advised to bring their own tinned food or stock up in the grocery stores and avoid the restaurants if they want to stay healthy.
Do not get me wrong. The pathways are as glorious as ever. The azure skies and wildflower-studded meadows, the scents of herbal bouquet, the cute goats roaming free in the hills, and the absolutely clear waters even in the port remain as attractive as on my previous visits. But what we eat has an undeniable impact on how we see the world, and the Greece of the island I know best has taken a slide backwards. The quality is down and the courtesy items are gone.
In Athens the extended recession/depression has left its mark especially in the city center around Omonia and Syntagma squares: many shuttered storefronts and ubiquitous "Wake Up" and other graffiti covering every imaginable surface. The mood of our hotel keeper in the Plaka was downbeat, as he complained that the tourist season, which should be in full swing, is off to a meager start. From our 2nd-floor balcony overlooking the pedestrian street leading to the main restaurant areas, we could see for ourselves that the large currents of the past have been reduced to a trickle.
And the demography of the tourists in Athens has changed. Yes, the Americans are still there, though in reduced numbers. The Brits seem to have disappeared completely, and we detected only a very few Germans. On the other hand, there were groups of Spanish youths and French intellectuals-teachers, as always. The biggest contingents we encountered among the visitors to the Acropolis were Russians and Chinese, the former as individual tourists (special essentially visa-free rules have been put in place by Greece for the duration of the tourist season) and the latter as groups. Our hotel keeper is particularly hoping for more Chinese. Judging by the sales personnel/owners of souvenir shops, both Chinese and Russians are moving in for good, just as they did in Venice some years ago.
Bravery, fatalism, indifference to media reports--surely these factors weigh on the decision of Russians and Chinese to keep coming and and of most Western Europeans not to come to Greece now. BBC reportage on the misery of Greece even in the past week would have been enough for many of their compatriots to flip past the country when perusing holiday package brochures.
We had our own doubts and fears that the ferries would be on strike, or that the traffic controllers would stage a walkout and our tightly timed visit would go haywire. However, in fact all transport services worked to schedule and even the storm and rough seas at the time of our ship's sailing from Pireus only caused a two-hour delay in departure. The taxi drivers who may have been up in arms earlier this spring over the opening of their ranks to newcomers and devaluation of their medallions all served us well and honestly, according to the meter or zonal fares.
Yesterday on the morning of our flight back to Brussels, we took the metro over to the Archeological Museum, which is a must-see on each of our visits to Greece and whatever disparagement of the Greek situation may otherwise have clouded our thoughts now was instantly vaporized. The enchantment of Greek history, which hits you frontally as you enter the main room displaying the Mask of Agamemnon and other treasures from the Schliemann finds in Mycenae, washes away all other thoughts. And if you go into the room to the right, you will find on display the nearly life-size stylized statue of a woman, the most glorious archeological find from the early Cycladic civilization, dating back to 2,800 BC and coming from the island of....Amorgos.
JE comments: A most interesting note from Gilbert Doctorow, joining the historical, the exotic, and the nitty-gritty of globalization. WAIS-o-rific, I'd say.
I'm intrigued by Gilbert's report of price-gouging on Amorgos. With the economy so bad, higher prices go against basic macroeconomics. Are similar things happening on the Greek mainland? In Spain and Portugal?