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Giving Those "Worry Beads" A Workout

It doesn’t take someone with a job on the Athens Stock Exchange to tell you that times are tough in the cradle of democracy—but don’t be spooked by the headlines. No, the Acropolis isn’t for sale, and yes, all the natural beauty and updated tourism and cultural sites are still open. Life goes on—in colorful Greek style—and having fun is of more national importance than ever.

With gloomy economic news a fixture on front pages, Greece faces a long period of reconstruction. But it is a proud country, with a glorious past and a long and winding road to restoring balance. So, just as Greeks cringe at making international headlines for all the wrong reasons while watching their paychecks shrink, they have fallen back on several survival mechanisms, with that timeless unit of Greek society—the family—coming to the rescue thanks to hearth and home (with generations living together and vacations now at Aunt Athena’s seaside villa). There’s an expression in Greece: "Poverty requires you have a good time." Greeks are trying to keep their spirits up by doing just that—today, you’ll delightfully discover, they will still await new travellers with a smile and a comforting glass of ouzo and a plate of mezedes. Greeks also know the secret of amusing themselves with little or no money. "They are," said one admirer, "the enchanters of themselves." You can see this in their timeless singing, dancing, and now, their political discussions.

Instead of visiting France, many Greeks will vacation in Athens, home, since it opened two years ago, to the biggest "must see" spot in town: the New Acropolis Museum, with what’s not in it generating as much interest as what is on display at the museum. For decades, Greece has demanded that the lion's share of the Parthenon Marbles be repatriated from the British Museum to Athens. From its inception, Greece made no secret that the new museum's raison d'etre would be creating a state-of-the-art home for the marble frieze sculptures that British diplomat Lord Elgin removed from the Acropolis in 1803. The gallery is ready. Will the fabled Marbles ever be returned? Stay tuned.

A Modern Greek Tragedy?

With a scary 329 billion euro debt hanging over the country, everybody has become an economist in today’s Greece. Talk of IMF/EU/ECB (European Central Bank) loan terms, credit ratings agencies, VAT tax changes and price hikes have spilled from breakfast tables to the modern Greek agora of the street, the café, the evening news, and even sometimes the beach. While many people will be happy to offer their take on the situation with you—usually blaming politicians for mismanagement and corruption in lengthy critiques—others may prefer to avoid the unpleasant pink elephant in the room, instead waving a hand in exasperation.

But if no two solutions are the same, and the country teetered on default as this publication went to press (fall 2011), everyone is feeling The Crisis’ belt-tightening. Most families have been hit by 16.5% unemployment levels, with major cuts in salaries and benefits for the country’s many public workers and pensions for the growing body of state pensioners, while new and unwelcome taxes churn out—it seems every week—for real estate owners, private sector employees, and even the struggling self-employed. In retrospect, policies of the past 30 years look not only decadent but downright toxic—with the generous public handouts of successive governments, an inability to curb the expansive black market, poor tax collection, price hikes after the introduction of the euro, and the costly buildup to the Athens 2004 Olympic Games all taking their fair share of the blame.

In 2011, the Greeks are facing their third consecutive year of economic contraction and the future doesn’t look too bright either. Widespread expectations of more austerity measures are leading to a further shrinkage of the economy, lower tax revenues, and the imposition of even more taxes to increase state revenue.

It is a vicious circle, many people fear, that hinders development and economic growth. One can almost begin to understand all the frustration and its ultimate outcome, the city riots.

Daily life is impacted in many ways: schools can’t afford textbooks, hospitals are closing down, ministries are occupied by disgruntled workers, and the welfare state seems to be crumbling. Feeble economic prospects, higher rates of unemployment, deteriorating government services, and a lower standard of living are already leading to lower birth rates, emigration, and unrest.

Home Is Where the Heart Is

Having survived many rough times in the past, Greeks have turned to their tried-and-true survival mechanisms. For one, the family unit remains fiercely intact. Never has it made more sense to have three generations living in the same home or apartment building, swapping childcare for extra attention to cash-strapped pensioners.

Those who can’t afford to go on summer holidays are welcome to stay at friends’ and family’s summer houses by the sea. Many Greeks still have a strong connection to their home village—and hearty, healthy goodies from the countryside, such as fruit or olive oil, have never come in so handy.

In today’s Greece, big purchases or long-term investments, such as buying a car or a house, or taking exotic trips abroad, are out.

Making the most of local bargains, gathering with friends at home or at inexpensive cafés/neighborhood taverns, and making the most of the country’s abundant charming local scenery is in. The Greek islands and the beautiful mountainous regions of central Greece continue to attract locals and foreign visitors alike.

This is good news for at least one sector of the Greek economy—tourism. While "for sale" signs are visible on businesses throughout the country and "for rent" signs dominate everywhere, a record number of 16.5 million foreign visitors were predicted by the Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises (SETE) for 2011, up over 10% from the previous years.

In an effort to welcome visitors from abroad, there are often slashed rates for accommodations and other major travel expenses (so don’t hesitate to look for bargains and special offers when booking your stay), while the prices of a coffee and local travel expenses have not shown any downward movements.

Happily, you will find that the beauty of the country and the warm heart of the people remain intact despite the hardships.

Updated: 01-2014

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