Greeks Try to Find Way to Ithaca
Athens. A city that has so much history and a past linked with the people who shaped western civilization. The world has always associated Athens with antiquity, philosophy, mathematics, art, and architecture, among others. But today, the city’s glory is mired in crisis.
So…how are people living in the capital of Greece now? Is Athens still as a vibrant city as it always was?
The truth is that people are still smiling despite the difficult moments that are undoubtedly upon them. The city center is full of people, particularly the younger generation, willing to spend their last euro to have a drink or coffee, or simply to walk in the streets in the footsteps of their ancestors. Day or night, the place is buzzing.
A Frenchman in Athens
Athens is a city of bars, from quaint to kitschy and from dark to dazzling. One night as i was having a drink in “56,” a famous jazz bar in Kolonaki that calls to mind the 1920s, a man asked me what time it was. From his pronunciation I realized he was a foreigner. I was very curious to know what attracted him to Greece. He said he came from France ten years ago for work. He married here and decided to stay. I was impressed when he told me he announced to his parents: “Mom, Dad I will not be coming back; I will die in Greece!”
He told me Greeks are so lucky to be born here. We have sunny days, the sea, beautiful islands, a storied civilization, peace … Some say Greece could become the Florida of Europe. It could be true, but we don’t have the politicians our country deserves. We never have.
Greeks are lazy?
The debt crisis has created a false opinion about Greece. We are not lazy or spend money recklessly. But we do know how to live: We want to have our family close to us, a house for our children, and to be able to dance, drink and eat. Is that so wrong? New data published last year from Eurostat shows that Greek workers actually put in longer hours than anyone else in Europe — 42.2 per week, compared to just 35.6 in Germany. To put it into perspective, workers in the UK are working 36.3 hours, about an hour a week less than the EU average.
Athens will be a ghost city
Yesterday, as i was walking in the center of Athens, I was thinking about all the young people leaving Greece for another country in hopes of finding work, lest they come back to their villages and live with their parents. It’s a bleak picture for young workers now. Greece’s unemployment rate in the 3rd quarter of 2012 was 24.8 percent compared with 23.6 percent in the previous quarter and 17.7 percent in the corresponding quarter of 2011. More than half of young Greeks are unemployed (with many more underemployed) and that figure is expected to rise in the coming months.
I am thinking of leaving too, and probably will do so in the next months. It’s a wrenching decision: How can I live without seeing that bright sun every day, the streets full of people at night, the Acropolis? How can I leave my life, my friends, my family? But to stay here with no promise of a future is unthinkable.
History is repeating itself. Greeks have been forced in the past to migrate, because of war or financial crisis, especially to Germany and USA. The American economy in the late 19th/early 20th century allowed for many unskilled urban jobs to open up, perfect for Greek migrants. Greeks move southward and westward, and there are large populations in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York and Florida.
So, will Athens be a ghost city? I hope not. The new government has expressed its desire to attract investments from many countries to establish businesses in Greece so as to reduce unemployment—but that will take time. The unemployed population in Greece is mostly educated with studies in the best European universities. So it is a pity that young people, who are eager to work, are being forced to leave the country.
Greece attracts 16 million tourists each year. Tourism provides 15% of GDP now from 18% in 2008. Responsible for tourism is the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, while Greece also owns the Greek National Tourism Organization which aims in promoting tourism in Greece.
In recent years a number of well-known tourism-related organizations have placed Greek destinations in the top of their lists. In 2009 Lonely Planet ranked Thessaloniki, the country’s second-largest city, the world’s fifth best “Ultimate Party Town”, alongside cities such as Montreal and Dubai, while in 2011 the island of Santorini was voted as the best island in the world by Travel + Leisure. The neighbouring island of Mykonos was ranked as the 5th best island in Europe.
I will end that story with a poem, which it is written by Constantine P. Cavafy (also known as Konstantinos Kavaphes). He was a Greek poet who lived in Alexandria and worked as a journalist and civil servant. In 1911, Cavafy wrote Ithaca, inspired by the Homeric return journey of Odysseus to his home island. The poem’s theme is that enjoyment of the journey of life and the increasing maturity of the soul as that journey continues….. It is about Greece, me, you, about all of us.
When you set out on your journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon – do not fear them:
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.
Pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.
Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.
Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithaca means.
By Eleni Stergiou