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Crisis, What Crisis?

A sojourn in Greece.

12:00 AM, Jun 16, 2010 • By TONY MECIA
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Nafplio, Greece

Crisis, What Crisis?

It’s afternoon and the Greeks are having one of their lately quite regular national strikes. From behind the register at his parents’ souvenir shop, Vassili Thomas is assigning blame for the country’s economic problems.

Don’t get him started on the international banks, which he says are charging Greece unfairly high interest rates. The media get him riled, too: After the series of strikes and riots, the international press, he says, is falsely portraying his country as violent and dangerous, which threatens to scare tourists away from this sleepy port town about two hours southwest of Athens. Meanwhile, Greek journalists are conniving to convince the public to accept the government’s plans for austerity measures, which are required for the $132 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.

“The TV, they’re trying to lull everybody to sleep and not protest,” complains Thomas, 29, who was born in New York but has lived in Greece since he was six-months-old. “When something is not good, you have to talk about it.”

What about Greece itself, I ask him? Does it bear any of the blame for nearly defaulting on its loans? Thomas moves toward a nearby table to help a tourist find the right-sized T-shirt, but he spins around and points his finger in the air to make a point: “The government,” he says. For too long, he says, the government has added workers as favors, so that politicians can win reelection.

I encountered plenty of Greeks trying to come to grips with their country’s financial woes. Many chalked the troubles up to spineless, corrupt politicians in Athens. Others portrayed Greece as a hapless victim of international forces—a “local manifestation of the global economic meltdown,” as the Greek daily newspaper Kathimerini put it in an editorial.

Few seemed to appreciate that the financial crisis has placed Greece’s entire easygoing way of life—characterized by early retirements, generous pensions, and heavy-handed state involvement in nearly every industry—on trial. Since Greece started attracting international headlines this spring, the country has become synonymous with the perils of an overregulated, overspending, cradle-to-grave welfare state, one infested with a kind of crony capitalism in which every economic sector seems to have struck a special deal for itself.

Yet, on the first night I was in Greece, sipping a glass of ouzo and gazing at Santorini’s famous caldera at sunset, I was tempted to ask: “What crisis?” Indeed, to the average tourist, there are few visible marks that the country is in turmoil.

My wife and I took a long-planned a trip to Greece in late May. In the weeks before we left, friends and family members kept asking if we were still planning to go. We read the news accounts closely and figured out two things: first, nearly all of the demonstrations were in Athens and in the northern city of Thessaloniki; and second, that the labor unions always announced plans to strike ahead of time. Our itinerary called for us to spend most of our time on the islands and on the mainland outside of Athens. We figured the biggest threat to our trip would be a strike that grounded planes or ferries, or that closed some historic sites. As it turned out, things went off without a hitch.

What struck me in reading the Greek English-language newspapers before we left, was how much more the country’s regulations sounded like what you’d expect in the Third World than in a Western market economy. In May, for instance, the country’s health ministry released guidelines legalizing cremation, which had previously been banned at the behest of the Greek Orthodox Church (and probably some union). This being Greece, the crematoriums are to be run by municipalities, which would, the article said, “have the sole right to issue a license for someone to be cremated.” Even in death, you can’t escape the Greek government’s vast licensing regime.

An article on opposition to some of the austerity plans noted that Greek law currently requires scuba diving instructors and English-language teachers to speak Greek—“even if they do not need it for their jobs.” And days before we left, the country’s pharmacists’ union went on strike to protest reform legislation that would abolish the industry’s guaranteed 35-percent profit, remove caps on the number of the country’s pharmacies, and allow foreign pharmacists and corporations to operate in Greece.

It’s no wonder that a 2007 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranked Greece last in the eurozone for having competition-friendly regulations. The report also warned that the country’s economy was being hamstrung by high minimum wage rates and strict employment protection legislation, which bars private companies from laying off more than 2 percent of their workforce each month.

Then there’s the pension system, which the OECD said “provides strong disincentives to continue working.” Though the nominal retirement age is 65, there are plenty of special carve-outs that allow certain professions—hairdressers, pastry chefs, and trombone players, for instance—to retire as early as age 50 on grounds that certain jobs are “arduous or unhygienic.” An estimated 40 percent of all male workers are eligible for early retirement, the OECD found.

There’s no doubt that large parts of Greece move at a slow pace.

One morning in Santorini I woke up early—by early, I mean 7:30—to find some pastries to bring back for breakfast. The stray dogs I passed on our town’s main walkway were still asleep. Restaurants—even those serving breakfast—were closed. Only the bakery was open. And if you’re hoping to get an early start to the next island on your trip, you’re out of luck; the first hydrofoil to leave the island departs at noon.

Europeans we encountered tended to grin and roll their eyes at the Greeks’ leisurely schedules. (“Rather civilized, isn’t it?” a British woman joked to me at breakfast one morning, referring to the ferries’ late starts.)

Throughout our trip, I tried to engage the Greeks we encountered in discussions about the economy and its problems. I figured that people in the tourist industry would be angry with the demonstrators who were attracting plenty of negative publicity to Greece—particularly after the May 5 protests that led to the death of three bank workers after rioters firebombed a bank branch.

But I didn’t find much anger. A poll found that two-thirds of Greeks support further strikes and protests. Many seemed generally indifferent, as though the problems were a world a way. When you live on a Greek island, maybe everything really is. What about the strikes and protests, I asked our innkeeper, a tall, white-haired man who was born on the island. Are they hurting your bookings? Without looking up from the paperwork he was filling out, he paused and replied: “This is always a problem in the big city. Here, no.”

I didn’t fully understand this reaction until a discussion a few days later, on the island of Hydra, when a Canadian charter-boat operator named “Captain Steve” enlightened me. The two dozen travelers on his yacht had arrived at the restaurant where we were having dinner. It was the yacht’s “pirate night,” and they all had fake swords and bandannas. We started talking about Greece’s problems.

“You have to understand that the Greeks have been dealing with problems like this for years,” he explained. Living with turmoil is part of the national fabric. There were the devastating fires on the Greek mainland in 2007, which killed 64 people. There are continual strikes and demonstrations, long predating the financial storm. And then there’s the usual European soccer hooliganism, which occasionally turns violent and deadly.

Greece’s history, too, has been far from stable. There were a series of coups and counter-coups in the 1960s, and a military junta ruled the country as recently as 1974. Go back even further, into a history marked by conflict with marauders and foreign empires, and it’s easy to see how the Greek psyche believes it can outlast this crisis, too.

That’s what Thomas, the shopkeeper in Nafplio, believes. In his mid-20s, he had taken a high-stress job with Lehman Brothers in New York. But he felt like he was “always running.” So he moved back to Greece, where he can live at a fraction of the cost, take up to four months off in the slow winter months and enjoy good weather and beautiful vistas.

Although we spoke on the day of a national strike and an estimated 20,000 people marched in Athens at the time, there was no sign of agitation in Nafplio. Life goes on as usual. The 18th-century fortress above the town is open and attracting tour buses. Two cruise ships are perched offshore. There’s a short line at the post office. A kid kicks a soccer ball against a wall in the town’s main square.

“We’ll always have tourism,” Thomas says. “In Greece, what you find is unpredictable. Some things are bad. Some things are good.” 

Tony Mecia is a freelance business writer in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is a former business writer and editor at the Charlotte Observer

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