After long stays on my travels, I often come back with some big, general impressions about a place and its people: Chinese are practical, Arabs are hospitable, Latinos are polite. Even though these generalization are based on my own experience, I question whether they’re true. So reading the headlines about Greece, a country falling apart and threatening to take the EU down with it, if we are to believe what we hear, I wonder if my cultural experiences can provide any insight.
The last time I was in Greece was 20-some years ago, but I recently found myself comparing Greece holidays with an acquaintance who had been there ten years ago and another who had just been there recently. We had all experienced being stuck in Athens for several days because the ferry workers were on strike and therefore, we couldn’t get to the islands. It’s not scientific, I know, but it seems like if something is happening to random people at regular ten year intervals- well, maybe it happens a lot. (Note to anyone planning their Greece holidays, budget some extra time for this. You can plan on going to the islands before seeing Athens, that way if you’re stuck, you can see the sights in Athens while you wait.) I ended up leaving Greece and returning a few weeks later. When I came back the ferry workers strike had ended, but now the postal service was on strike. Was this mere coincidence or does it reflect something about their work ethic?
My other source of cultural experience about Greece comes from the Greeks I know best- the ones I’m related to. I’m half Greek. If you saw My Big Fat Greek Wedding (an excellent film, which contains no exaggeration) you’ve pretty much seen the story of my family. Based solely on the Chobans, I can say that yes, we do tend to be whiners and that I would not be surprised if Greeks as a whole have been resting on their collective laurels. After all, not without reason, they view themselves as the culture that invented Western Civilization. Problem is, that was 2,500 years ago.
My grandmother embodied this pride. She came to America as a young bride to a Greek man who had immigrated about ten years earlier. I remember that we stopped to visit her in her house near Portland, Oregon on the way home from a trip to Seattle to see the King Tut exhibit. We showed her the book with glossy color photos of the Egyptian marvels. She scoffed. To her, nothing could compare to the treasures of Greece. Later that year, our family, my grandmother included, went on a camping trip through Europe. My jaw dropped at the beauty of St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. But she only shrugged and said, “Wait until we get to Greece.”
When I visited Greece then and later as an adult, it (as well as its immediate neighbors) did strike me as less modern- a little more “third world” than other parts of Europe. Now, wading through a New York Times article, trying to figure out what happened, I understand that joining the EU propelled Greece into becoming a more “developed” state. But development is a mixed bag.
I’m all for improved health outcomes and infrastructure (I wish everyone in the world had access to clean water). But sometimes a simpler life is more stable. The subsistence farmer in a third world country is subject to the whims of nature. Floods and draught can be disastrous. But he will be less shaken by a crashing stock market or the end of oil, than those of us in the first world.
There are problems we all have, but some seem to be more prevalent in developing countries- pervasive corruption, lack of transparency, lack of accountability, etc. On the other hand, some of the greatest challenges facing the world today definitely stem from a “first world” mentality. After all, if Greece gave the world the blueprint for democracy, America provided the blueprint for consumerism (and consumerism beyond one’s means). It appears that Greece wound up with the worst of both worlds.
I don’t think the events in Greece should deter a prospective traveler from going there. It is the mother culture. The antiquities are incredible, the cheese pie scrumptious, the Mediterranean stunning. But also, maybe we should all go to Greece to get a good look at what’s to come if we decide to keep trying to have more than we can pay for.