Follow ysgotlieb on Twitter
by RSS
Issues of the Day Lessons from Greece

Last week, during a four-day visit to Athens on my first trip to Greece, I was unsure of what I would encounter there. In light of media reports focusing on that country's sovereign debt crisis, its indecisive elections and tenuous governing coalition and the rise of the far-right Golden Dawn party as a political force, I did not know what to expect.


On the drive from the airport to our hotel in central Athens, I was struck by the similarities of terrain and vegetation found in that part of Greece and many areas of Israel. That of course is hardly surprising: both lands are characterized by Mediterranean climates and ecosystems. There was another similarity between the two countries that was readily apparent as well: while in transit from the airport, we contended with a Tel Aviv—type of traffic jam in downtown Athens.


As we crawled along in stop-and-go fashion, I took the opportunity to ask the taxi driver about the "situation."


Smiles in Short Supply

I posed my question indirectly, asking whether any demonstrations were expected in the upcoming days. The driver said he was unsure: Following the spontaneous protests that began several weeks earlier when the government closed the public broadcasting network as a cost-cutting measure protests, he said, could arise at any time depending on developments. Wearily, he expressed dissatisfaction with the austerity measures that seem to have sapped the country of its vitality and spawned the ongoing protests.


On the streets, along the well-trodden tourist course from the Acropolis through Plaka, Syntagma Square and from there to the Monastriaki area, the local people looked dour and preoccupied and an air of uncertainty could be discerned. Homeless people appeared so depleted they could barely ask for handouts. Other poor scavenged through garbage bins. Smiles seemed in short supply.

The fiscal discipline imposed the economic crisis has clearly exacted a toll on Athenians.


A Wealth of Heritage


Their current economic straits notwithstanding, Athenians have an alternative form of wealth: the richness of their culture. The Athens and Epidaurus Festival was underway and as I looked over its program I was reminded that ancient Athens was the founding place of theatre which along with dance and musical presentations is presented there in abundance today.


After visiting the Acropolis, while savoring yet another slice of spanakopita, spinach pie, and Greek salad, I realized how extensively Hellenic heritage shapes the country's contemporary culture. The thirteen meter tall gold and ivory statute of the Athena, goddess of wisdom and courage might be missing from the Parthenon, but the legacy of ancient Greece is firmly imprinted and radiates outward from the most dominant point in the Athenian landscape.


 In a country as rich in history, philosophy and mythology as Greece is, the influence of the Acropolis is not merely historical but permeates the national consciousness today. Clearly, Greek heritage is the most salient aspect of the modern Hellenic nation-state and society and in this way it is strikingly analogous to modern Israel's roots in the Bible, Jewish history, traditions and peoplehood. In their modern revival, both ancient peoples share similar foundations: continuity with the past.


Greece's Timeless Islands

The most enjoyable part of my visit was a one-day cruise to the islands of Hydra, Poros and Aegina. Departing from the ancient city of Piraeus which is adjacent to the Greek capital and is the country's principal port and the largest passenger port in Europe, our ship carried five hundred passengers. It had its tourist program down pat. I was, though, less interested in the tired strains of the ubiquitously rendered theme from Zorba the Greek and the kitschy dances passengers were coached in to pass the time than in admiring the magnificent seascapes seen along the three-hour voyage to our first port of call at Hydra harbor.


Rich in ancient maritime history, the port played an important role in the Greek War of Independence in the second and third decades of the nineteenth century. As we entered the modest harbor a large Greek navy vessel visited the island and received the salute of cannons fervently fired by coast guardsmen. Hydra's center consists of a harbor-side strip of stores and restaurants and several side streets that are immaculately clean and maintained and cater to Athenian and foreign tourists. Other than trash trucks, there is no motorized transport on the island. The primary form of transportation is by foot or on mule back.


The largest of the three islands we visited was Aegina, which in ancient times rivaled Athens as a sea power. Approximately an hour seaward from Piraeus and with a population of 13,000 Aegina is lively and picturesque and epitomizes the popular image of a Greek island. Its marina is full of small craft, mostly colorful fishing boats that look as though they could only carry their captain, one or two crew members, and their catch. 


Sea, Sun and Quality of Life

As I boarded the ship for the final leg of the cruise back to the Athenian port, I passed near the cabin and watched as one of the senior officers in captain's whites and a crew member bent over a backgammon game on a deck table overlooking the water. Next to each of them was a glass of coffee and komboloi, or Greek worry beads. The officer and sailor were totally engrossed, not with a smartphone, iPad or some other digital conduit to virtuality but to the real thing: social interaction and basking in the glorious sun and sea breeze. They seemed impervious to the tyranny of modern regimentation and the incessant rushing and impersonality that is characteristic of our lives today. During that interlude, they appeared considerably more gratified and content than the herds of urban dwellers around the globe who are caught up in the rat race that has become the mark of dubious success in our age.


I am unfamiliar with how the Greek fiscal crisis developed and who bears responsibility for what. It seems unfair to me, though, that ordinary working people who have not cheated on their taxes or acquired luxuries should be squeezed to the bone by severe austerity. I have read that ex-urban Grecians, college-educated and others, have sought to make their livelihoods in agricultural pursuits after losing their jobs in Athens and other cities. This "back to the land" movement is not ideological but practical. I think it is also sensible and could represent a pattern that may spread to other places in the developed world.


This trend seems representative of the durability of the Greek people and their values. .


Ostentation on their Waters

As we prepared to enter Piraeus a huge and palatial yacht flying a foreign flag was anchored in the sea corridor. Equipped with several power boats, a large sailboat and a helicopter on its decks and along its sides, the Tatoosh, reportedly bought in 2001 for one hundred million dollars by a former Microsoft executive, floated ostentatiously in Greek waters and was gawked at by the international passengers on our ship who could only speculate about the luxurious facilities it contained. 


Its appearance on that stretch of sea and sky seemed surreal: One man's immensely costly playground outfitted with the most technologically advanced amenities was floating in the territorial waters of a country desperately trying to stave off bankruptcy.


What I thought about as we sailed past that haughty display of conspicuous consumption was that the sea floor is littered with the remains of ships; even the grand and unsinkable Titanic found its grave there. Obviously, material welfare is important, but materialistic pursuits and consumerism, the bane of our times, has led to the sinking of economies and endangers the welfare of individuals, families and communities and imperils the survival of hallowed ways of life in Greece and elsewhere. 


The luxury yacht, a symbol of temporal power and wealth seemed to me both a lonely island and a monument to self-importance that floats in splendid isolation and detachment from nature, history and enduring civilization.


I for one prefer the pleasures of the sea, the sun, fresh water, good food, close companionship and living heritage.


I have a feeling that many Greeks share that spirit. I imagine, Socrates would too.  

© Yosef Gotlieb, . All rights reserved