I grew up visiting here as a kid in the 1960s and 1970s (yes, I am that old). I’ve always loved it, and the Greece I love is still here. Of course the Greece that makes the headlines these days is the Greece whose debt cannot be serviced, whose citizens are protesting in Athens, and who will pull-apart the Euro.
We are not in that part of Greece, for the most part, we’re in the islands, and from out here, it seems to me that you can get a birds-eye view of what’s going on.
First of all: the Greeks have done an AWESOME job of preserving the beauty of their coastine and villages. We sailed up and down the coast of Spain and whereas I can assure you the Spaniards have RUINED their coast, Greece is beautiful. Here are some pics that we’ve taken along the way (in Greece). Somehow, despite the craziness of Greek bureaucracy, they have avoided concrete monstrosities and palatial holiday resorts. Of course some exist, but for the most part you can easily escape it all.
But there are so many things here that are crazy: for example, the government offices are only open from 8am to 1:30pm 5 days a week. The schools (more government employees) are only open from 8am to noon. If you are a government employee in some cases, you can PASS YOUR PENSION ON TO YOUR CHILDREN. Talk about stifling the desire to work. And no one enforces any rules! For example, there are rules on the books that ban smoking in restaurants, require motorcyclists to wear helmets, prohibit parking in certain areas, etc. NONE of these are enforced. Talk about money waiting to be taken.
And then there is the corruption. Out here in the islands, a couple of years ago all of the bureaucrats in Syros – the island that is the administrative center for the Cyclades – cleaned house by firing all of the administrators because it was discovered that the only way to get a permit FOR ANYTHING was to have a “special relationship” with one of the employees in the appropriate department. The result? Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose. Today the situation is exactly the same. My sister owns a house here and there’s no way that she can get building permits because she doesn’t know the right people. The result? She’s going to build illegally and because she knows the right people locally no one will tell. More government money not collected.
And all the more shameful because the private sector thrives. Every person I’ve dealt with (marinas, restaurants, laborers) work hard and at relatively reasonable wages (for Europe). They are on time, on budget, polite and efficient. So it’s not like the Greeks don’t know how to work. In fact they have a great history of entrepreneurship (think Onassis and shipping).
The demonstrations that you read about in the media are isolated in Athens are and the results of government employees protesting because they are going to loose their overly-generous employment terms. Where else could you get a bonus for showing up to work (I’d probably just not show up and take a second job and forgo the bonus, but then I’m a workaholic). Of course the government employes 40% of the workforce, so the demonstrations are huge. The private sector is just plain pissed off with all the antics. Their taxes are going to go up even though they get none of the benefits of the other half. They just laugh when I’m shocked at what goes on (it’s 2pm on Tuesday, what do you mean I can’t go to the post office?!).
My favorite experience here was going into a bank because I had to withdraw 4,000 Euros (oh, the joy of owning a boat). Once inside, I picked a number that said 524 and they were currently serving 362. Not wanting to wait, I marched up to someone who was on the phone and bothered them until they would deal with me. After she got off the phone, she helped me, though I had to get signatures from four different people all of the building. I was even told to go into their back office to photo copy my passport (they were too lazy to do it themselves). I can’t tell you how bizarre it was walking through these bank offices and no one seemed to care. What about security?? Some of these people still had rotary phones. It was like a Kafka novel. And then at the end as I was waiting to pick up my cash (from person #6) I was in a line of people with massive amounts of cash they were depositing ranging from 10,000 Euros to 150,000 Euros. And amazingly these people didn’t have to fill out anything like the paperwork that I did. In other words, the cash (black/tax free) economy is thriving. And the banks are doing nothing to report on it: more tax revenue missed. And the bank I was in was THE NATIONAL BANK OF GREECE: a nationalized (government owned) bank.
I love Greece.
They are in a pretty pickle at the moment, but they’ll get out of it.