My miniature and somewhat odd Greek protest

Greece is the word!! Today Greece’s journalists are on strike to protest the latest round of the E.U.’s “austerity” measures. How right they are to stand up to this relentless torrent of Teutonic diktat.

But. Greece, along with Malta and Cyprus, opposes additional economic sanctions against Iran. Greece was historically always high on Persia’s to-clobber list, making this spineless stance doubly objectionable. As the birthplace of democracy and cradle of Western civilization, Greece should be the first nation to stand up to the Iranians.

I was in Syntagma Square the other day, and got a whiff of that nasty (danke, Germany) teargas…maybe it had a time-delayed effect, because in the spirit of protest, here’s my paean to Greece, masked. This is unfortunate because Greece needs tourists to spend their money there, but I withhold encouragement of such expenditure until Greece does the right thing. Following this sentence, my pro-Greek adjectives (which are many) are going on strike, too:

In a kinder world, the Germans would come to Athens strictly for fun, not to dish out diktat; the Elgin Marbles would grace the Acropolis; the Turkish troops in northern Cyprus would have been sent packing long ago and yes, Izmir would still be called Smyrna.

As a person whose chief vocation it is to evoke a sense of place, whether in writing for The New York Times or other publications, I often have to dream forward in order to step back and describe as best I can what I see in such a way that will persuade people who might otherwise go nowhere to actually go somewhere. Two recent forays to Greece, to Crete and Athens, leave me absolutely convinced that more people and particularly Americans need to come here. Not out of charity  — although no doubt the tourism dollars will be welcome – but out of cultural solidarity and to experience a place of immeasurable passion and depth.

            My trips of three days each, no more than two spoonfuls of Greece really, were roundly fabulous, and that includes the teargas that made my eyes sting during Ms. Merkel’s passage near Syntagma Square – I’ll say why in a moment. First the obvious, which is that Greece is by and large not just achingly beautiful, but almost incomprehensibly so: from Attica to Arcadia, from the urban hymns of Athens with its ancient secrets and bracingly clean (to a New Yorker) metro, to the islands and velvety chiseling embrace of the Aegean. There is so much that is right with Greece, and this is due to the fate by which the gods of Olympus and Parnassus bestowed such a marvelous landscape on the map of Europe, and because of the Greek people themselves.

The national dog of Malta, the Maltese. Sweet and tough, but tough enough?

            Everywhere I traveled, from the smallest Cretan village to the trendiest hotel in Athens, the welcome received was genuine, warm; not the ersatz sincerity that has regrettably become the international signature of so much American hospitality. Frankly, after gawking at the Dolphin Fresco at Knossos and standing in awe before the Temple of Aphaia on Aegina, gobbling up the best honey and pistachios on the planet, I would not have cared if people shouted at me in the streets for wearing the wrong color. But to the contrary: the Greeks, whether Athenian or Cretan, demonstrated only the most friendly, unaffected and accommodating service.  This is Greece, and it is a treasure that made me almost earful to leave. I have been all over Europe and nothing compares.

            In Aegina, I chatted with taxi driver Vangelis about where to find the best halloumi in Pafos. Near Elounda, in Crete, I got some hot gossip about Lady Gaga, who stayed there, from some local residents. Back in Athens, one driver I met explained to me how wages in Greece have not kept pace with taxes and the cost of living – and as a New Yorker whose full-time job like so many others was lost in the Great Recession, I expressed my empathy. I, like him, have a gut feeling that dropping the drachma for the euro was a terrible mistake.

On the day of Merkel’s visit, Spiros, a staffer at my hotel where no request for a frappé went unmet, advised me on where to go to dodge the imminent expected fracas in Syntagma Square. Having endured and indeed reported on (for MSNBC) the Paris riots in 2005, which were a good deal more dangerous, I wasn’t too concerned. In fact, despite the small inconvenience of the teargas wafting nearby my hotel, I didn’t mind: I respect the right of the people to voice their opposition to the antics of overpaid politicians, and also feel that the Athenian police by and large did a great job of maintaining the order that is vital to success in the tourism arena.

            Still, it’s not enough: as busy as the Plaka was during my stay, I know that hotel occupancies could be higher, the gorgeous new airport could be busier… Americans in particular are touchy about where they go on vacation. America may be the land of the free and the home of the brave, but at any suggestion of mayhem, they’ll swap Athens or Amman or wherever’s in the headlines for not-so-great reasons for Disneyland. In reality the situation in Greece, of course,  is less dangerous than it is fiscally precarious, so perception is key. 

            Journalists who focus only on the bad things in Greece are of the same ilk that reduce Israel to the Palestinian conflict or Cyprus to the sad reality of divided Nicosia. For each story about IMF this or Merkel that, there is a certain amount of deflecting attention from America’s own problems, which are pressing and in many ways worse than Greece will ever have. For one, everyone knows the official U.S. jobs reports are a super-politicized joke – real unemployment is much higher than 7.8 percent, and probably close to double for those just out of college. And there may be poverty in the streets of Athens – there is, I saw it – but it’s nowhere near as bad as the desperation, deprivation and violence that plagues so much of urban America beyond Fifth Avenue and Beverly Hills.

            Did I mention that the Greeks are a fiercely handsome people? Men and women, all:  just gaze at the tetradrachmas on display at the Numismatic Museum or the terra cotta tablet of a Hoplite warrior at the Acropolis Museum and see how those noble contours of yore linger in the cafés of Kolonaki and in the profile of your guide at Delphi. Apollo, Aphrodite, Artemis, Adonis: all very much still alive, if gasping for air under the weight of mindless E.U. bureaucracy.

  I have always advocated for the power of travel not just as an economic tool but as a force for education. The more people (of all ages) travel and behold the beautiful things despite the problems, the more we create a positive feedback loop that will bring in more people, attract more investment, and help build a stronger Greece. As a travel journalist, I will write about Greece as much as I can (let others tackle Turkey). As an American, I have always been and continue to be proud of Greece. I love the food. I love the heart-stopping musicality of the language,  though I will never understand it. The Greek mind is endlessly fascinating, the topography at its best could set the hardest Teutonic soul on fire. The Greek National Tourist Office should spare no expense to court tourists: that alone might not save the Greek economy, but it’s a very healthy, very necessary place to start.

Sunrise in Athens