Saturday, 27 December 2014

From a Tourist's Point of View

Experts tell us the Greek economy has collapsed by 30% but signs of hardship and distress have not been obvious to me as a tourist in central Athens. The place is awash with busy bars, cafes and restaurants; the pavements are crowded with shoppers; and the roads are full of traffic nose-to-tail. There are beggars, of course, but no more than I would encounter in central Manchester. Mind you I’ve only been here a week, during which time I have been seriously distracted by long, leisurely lunches, early evening ouzo and – oh, a lot of other cultural attractions.

A week is a long time in politics, however, and this particular week is crucial to the Greek parliament: it must agree on its choice of president or face the possibility of a snap election which may return a majority for the Syriza party which, with its determined anti-austerity agenda, would seriously screw up the European Union’s plans. (This could explain why I have begun to notice buses full of riot police on so many of the streets).

Despite my initial observations, Greece is undeniably bust. We tourists are doing our bit towards replenishing the country’s empty coffers, contributing 13.6 million Euros in the past ten months alone - a 10% year-on-year rise - but, despite our efforts, this is not enough to repay Greek debt to the EU and other lenders. And, as a means of direct aid, tipping restaurant staff generously goes only so far. More must be done and Syriza has a plan: write off the debts. Lenders are not too keen on this idea but, weighing the woes of lenders against the pauperisation of a society, it is hard to sympathise with them. To put it another way, if you owe the bank 10k and can’t pay, you have a problem: if you owe the bank 17 billion and can’t pay, the bank has a problem.

And all this goes on against the backdrop of Ancient Greece which is impossible to ignore. The remains of classical buildings are visible everywhere, historic artefacts fill a dozen museums and the myths and legends of the gods suffuse the language. Understandably, the troubles of modern Greece are not usually the main point of interest for tourists. Even when taking a break from formal sightseeing, lingering at pavement cafes, it is the Greeks themselves who are the object of our fascination. With their loose interpretation of indoor-smoking bans, lax approach to wearing seat belts and helmets and their disregard for tidy parking you have to admire their minor rebellions against the EU.

I’ve tried to make the most of my visit. I suppose I could have spent more time on the history but it’s surprising how quickly museum fatigue sets in and, with five millennia to go at, the best I can aim for is an overview. In this context, a week is not a long time.

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