Being Part of the European Union (EU)
It wasn't too long ago that a Greek village was, well, Greek. If there were any outsiders, they were transplants from the other side of the island.
But now that EU membership has made it easier for residents of other countries to buy property in Greece, properties that have been in Greek families for generations are suddenly vacation getaways for Klaus and Gudrun and Colin and Priscilla.
It's common to hear grumbling that the foreigners are snapping up property that's the birthright of Greeks, but no one seems to be complaining about the new influx of cash the newcomers are pouring into local economies or even the rejuvenation of dying villages that had been fatally hurt by the massive urbanization wave of the past 50 years.
In a case of good things coming to those who wait, Greek women are coming out ahead in many land deals. By tradition, sons inherited flat, farmable land, while daughters received unusable parcels on hillsides—that is, the "view property" that's now going for top euro.
And with EU membership, English, the language of tourism, has grown in popularity.
That noted, you should still have on hand a list (such as the one at the back of this book) that transliterates the Greek alphabet. It will be helpful in deciphering street names and road signs that are only in Greek (and many signs on country roads still are).
Government and Politics
Greece, it's worth remembering, has only been a bona-fide democracy since the mid-1970s (not forgetting the fact that it invented the concept back in 5th century BC Athens).
After years of civil war and military dictatorship, many Greeks aren't so much interested in the politicians who come and go as they are in the resolution of age-old issues.
In surprise October 2009 early elections, the country put its faith in socialist PASOK party head George Papandreou. PASOK won with a significant 10% lead over their moderate conservative rivals, vowing to resolve an ever-deepening economic crisis and uneasy relationships with its neighbors.
In fact, names not to mention unless you have a couple of hours to listen include: Albania, from which a million immigrants have flooded into Greece in recent years; Turkey, which for much of the 20th century seemed about to pounce and invade Greece and did indeed persecute minority Greeks in Turkey; Cyprus, still uneasily divided between the Greeks and Turks; and the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, which Greeks think has no right to use the name of one of their country's most historic regions, Macedonia, birthplace of Alexander the Great.
It's a good thing Greeks are optimistic by nature, because the economic news is not particularly sunny. Many believe, in late 2009, that the country is on the verge of bankruptcy, but hope that the new government will manage to streamline the economy at the last minute.
Greece has a huge deficit, currently heading toward 10% of GNP, according to Bank of Greece statistics; unemployment is high; shipping—the mainstay of Greek wealth for centuries—is flat; and both tourism and agriculture remain volatile.
Despite protests, and prompted by EU directives, the state has been trying to get leaner by selling off companies such as the emblematic Olympic Airlines, which was founded by Aristotle Onassis in the 1950s, nationalized in 1975 and, for decades, symbolized a new, dynamic Greece. The privatization sale of the airline to investors was finalized in October 2009 and the new owners have promised to bring Olympic Air into the 21st century.
The average Greek is likely to gripe about increases in the cost of living, being in debt, and the struggle to find a decent job.
Credit cards, personal loans, and mortgages were unheard of in Greece until about a decade ago, but today seem to "plague" the majority of the population, while house- and car-confiscation stories are becoming the bread-and-butter of office gossip. At the same time, many Greeks are enjoying cars, second homes, maids, and other bourgeois perks they've never had before, in an economy still largely fueled by black market transactions.
Result? As a traveler to Greece, you'll find that the country is much more expensive than it was even a decade ago.
You don't have to be a sociologist to note some pretty stellar qualities of the Greek character. For one thing, Greeks are generous, even to the tourists who besiege them—they will often offer a plate of cookies or a bottle of home-brewed raki, just to establish a level of comfort.
If you are late catching the boat from the island and can't find a taxi, they will willingly drive you to the port and refuse any mention of the word tip. They are family-oriented, to say the least—it's still common for men and women to live with their parents until they marry. Actually marriage is not necessarily a reason to move out, with extended families living together all their lives, which brings us to the complex relationships between men and women.
Greek men might swagger around in what outwardly can seem to be a male-dominated society, but women run the home, often take a partnership role in family businesses, and—now that the Greek birthrate is one of the lowest in the EU, freeing women to pursue careers—are an increasing presence in the white-collar workplace.
As for children, Greeks spoil them rotten: among other privileges, kids can wander freely around restaurants, play safely in many squares, and stay up late (it's not unusual to see a family enjoying a round of ice cream around midnight).
Culture and Other Pursuits
Opa!, Mamma Mia!, My Life in Ruins, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, 300 … Hollywood has been mesmerized in recent years by the history and beauty of Greece and the joie de vivre of its inhabitants.
In fact, the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding (who is so quick to point out the Greek roots of any English word) is not really Hollywood hyperbole.
Proud of their language and its precision in capturing the complexities of emotion and nuance, Greeks often discuss etymology—as well as the Peloponnesian Wars, Homeric descriptions, and other aspects of their illustrious heritage.
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