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Greece: Is This Where We’re Headed?

But this is Athens, the epicenter of the protests. Surely things are more placid in smaller cities and towns. In a sense that is so, for there is less in the way of brazen property destruction going on with the police standing by and watching. Not as much spray paint, not so many promenades that reek of urine. Yet all is not well in Greek “flyover” country. If anything, in the hinterlands one can more readily observe the pernicious effects of the government’s irresponsible policies.

The View from Greek “Flyover Country”

Most of our time in Greece has been spent not in Athens but on an island in the north Aegean. It bears a striking resemblance to the fictional isle in the film Mamma Mia. Getting there requires a healthy drive from Athens or Thessaloniki to a port town, followed by a few hours on a Flying Cat or one of the other passenger ships that ply the Aegean.

Steeply mountainous and heavily forested, the island’s beautiful beaches are complemented by orchards and olive groves along its roads and on its many hillsides. There are modern conveniences of the usual sorts, but inland one can find monasteries and churches that are centuries old, and terrain challenging enough that it provided concealment for resistance fighters during the Nazi occupation. It is not uncommon to see traffic on the country roads blocked by herds of goats.

The permanent population of the island is around 5,000, so it’s really a small town that happens to be in the middle of the Aegean. From our annual visits we know scores of residents, spanning the generations and socioeconomic strata. Over the past couple of years we’ve talked with many of them about the situation in Greece. We’ve learned a great deal from discussions with a diverse group that includes a retired and formerly very successful businessman about 70 years of age, several small business proprietors, and an assortment of locals who work in various restaurants, hotels, and other enterprises.

On the island we’re far from the tear gas and spray paint of the nation’s capital. The wind brings us smells of pine, dill, mountain oregano, and the sea -- not the urine and tear gas of central Athens.

Yet, although the pace is slower, we hear echoed some of the same themes sounded by friends in Athens. Chief among them, and often stated with exasperation, is the complaint that “nobody wants to work.” The young adults, it is said, have ambition only for “public function” jobs, which offer (at least before this year!) great security and benefits and are not so demanding as to interfere with going to the clubs at night.

Thus, a small business proprietor we know says he is unable to hire young Greeks when he and his wife want to harvest their olives. As a result, the jobs and the pay go to Albanian immigrants. Incidentally, these are not illegal immigrants (that’s another story and a serious one for Greece). Rather, these are legal immigrants, generally already working at other jobs the local Greeks have spurned. So, the Albanians who “moonlight” picking olives for our friends are doing jobs that could be done by young Greeks on the island.

Similarly, many of the servers and other employees at the local hotels and restaurants are not Greek. Most of them come from other and less affluent Balkan countries. A young woman who supervises the wait staff at a very fine local restaurant tells us she finds this frustrating. Given the local character and cuisine of the restaurant, she would prefer to have a Greek staff. She tells us she cannot find Greeks who want the work, especially with the lure of “public” jobs and government benefits.

Some other friends own a taverna at one of the island’s beautiful beaches. This past summer they told us that the Greek economy is stagnant in part because of overwhelming uncertainty. No one will hire. Employers are paralyzed by uncertainty -- about new regulations, new taxes and fees as the result of austerity measures. No one can predict the cost of taking on new employees. People are “depressed” and “feel helpless” about the situation. As a result, they say (while acknowledging that the work ethic is not robust) for those who want to work, “there is no work.”

Another acquaintance, a very successful businessman from Athens who has retired to the island, says frankly that for much of his adult life he was on “the left” and “very anti-American.” Now, however, he confides that if he and others had learned from America in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Greece would be in a different and better place. Of course, he smiles and chides us that we Americans seem not to have learned from the sad experience of Greece in recent years.