I Am Backing Greece: By Philip Mudartha


Udupi Today

By Philip Mudartha, Qatar

Tuesday, 03 July 2012:
For two years and six months, Greece is in the news, for all the wrong reasons.  In the European debt crisis, Greece seemed to be the baddie.  The Greek want to have good life without paying their bills, said the citizens of lender nations, especially Germans.

I was forewarned not to include Greece in my European tour. “You are brave”, said a good friend, “Hope, you are not naïve”. He knew I have my own ways of doing things.


Western media had brought thousands of such images of violence, arson, street riots and armed robberies in two main cities of Greece: the capital Athens and the second most populous northern Greek city, where 2 of 3 Greeks live. None of this had escaped my attention, given that I am a self-styled student of Evolution of European Union and Euro zone ambitions.

 
I timed my stay in Greece, expecting the second Greek elections will tire people out and take them out of streets to take rest, sleep and recuperate to face the looming storm. That is why I flew into Athens from Rome on 25th June on a budget airline flight. Will I find my Athens to be as beautiful and enchanting as it was six years ago? My first and only visit to Greece was in May 2006, which left an alluring impression on my mind, making me promise to myself that I will return to savor the delights of a rich, relaxed and laid back way of life.

 


 To my pleasant surprise, I found the Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport at Spata chic, spit and clean, shining and warmly welcoming.  I found it as shiny as in 2006. Is this really in Greece, a rich country living beyond its means on borrowed money and its public treasury is about to be bankrupt?

 
My baggage arrived even as I reached the beltway, and within 15 minutes of landing, I was looking at the familiar sight of the grand motorway that emptied more than sixteen million tourists without clogging up terminal exits. Oppa!


The X95 bus that runs between airport and Greek Parliament Square was waiting. For 5 Euro, I could ride it to reach city and then board any other form of public transport within Athens Metropolitan Region for a total duration of 90 minutes once I validated my ticket on the bus. But to reach my hotel, which was 35 Kms away, I chose to ride Attiki Metro, opting to spend 7 Euro, for the experience and joy of travelling in one of the best maintained and punctual mass transit system on tracks.

I met young and beautiful Maria, a native of Sparta, and her husband on the platform. They were returning home after a weekend shopping holiday in Rome.  Maria said she teaches Greek language in primary school and taught me Greek alphabets in 26 seconds. Her husband has lost his job as a sports instructor. Do not give up on him, I said. “I won’t” and to prove she leaned over and pecked on his cheeks. “We Greeks have no money” she informed me. “Yes, especially after shopping Italian Hand-made Fashion Shoes in Rome”, I quipped. She laughed, with such feminine charm only Greek goddesses are capable of.

The Syntagma Metro Station residing under several floors below the Greek Parliament Building, it seemed to me, was as I had left it six years ago: clean, polished and chic. Each of its ticket validation machines looked as if installed new, though they were in service for twelve years!  And, do not be under the impression that it is a privately owned and operated station. As I left the station using its German-made elevators and escalators, I passed by the janitors and sweepers and knew why. Please be reminded that these public servants took several wage cuts during the past two years, due to several austerity measures enacted by cabinets led by successive Prime Ministers. They hid their pain and anguish within; yet, did not shirk from their duty of keeping the Greek pride in private and public hygiene.

 
I lived at a 4-star hotel under which the Metaxourghio Metro Station has built. The hotel and the Karaiskaki Square are famous landmarks in Athens. Lugging my bag up the escalator and steps from the deep underground, I found myself on the door of the hotel. The hotel served delicious Greek cuisine and irresistible happy hour offers on finest local beers, not to mention complimentary Ouzo shots, on its rooftop garden restaurant, with a splendid view of Athens skyline, and the majestic Acropolis. Ouzo is a local aperitif, very sweet yet dangerously intoxicating. Later, I discovered Mastiha, an equally potent competition on the Greek Islands Sprouting out of Aegean Sea.


I went back to Syntagma Square to watch the Evzones guarding the Tomb of Unknown Soldier in front of Hellenic Parliament. At the stroke of hour, the guards exchange positions with a ceremonial marching routine, bemusing to hundreds of tourists who flock to film, for a photo-op with guards and the playful pigeons inhabiting the grounds in front of the front façade. I walked a mile through the national park, the ancient Roman Bath Ruins, The Temple of Zeus, the modern imitation of it in Zappolin, the Panathinaiko Stadium (the site of 1896 Olympic Games) and returned to sit and gaze at Hadrian’s Arch at about midnight. When I returned back to Karaiskaki Square, it was deserted but for a few taxis flying the night trade. None of the signs of the recent riots were visible except for the graffiti on buildings and their compound walls. The two hour walking trip drained the Ouzo fire from my system, and slept blissfully during my first night in Greece.

On following two days, I made exploratory visits to various ancient ruins that Athens is famous for, and to which every tourist flocks. For most, these are photo-ops to share with friends and to some these are serious academic trips. For me, these visits are aimed at learning and formulating my views on civilizations, their through processes through ages including the present day, and the ethos that lives on.

 
I took a day long cruise to three major islands: Hydra, Poros and Aegina. I swam in the Aegean Sea.  I played with horses waiting to carry tourists up the hills, stoked stray dogs watching time go by idly with their semi-closed eyes, and stray cats lazing and blinking at people. I watched as sparrows, crows and pigeons made a meal of leftovers, fighting for their share, but careful not to knock down wine glasses and not to create a mess around the dining table. The Greek horses, dogs, cats, crows, pigeons, and sparrows seemed civilized and giving space to each other, even as they respected the ethos of private and public hygiene as much as their human co-inhabitants of the lands.


Where did the nearly 4 million citizens, nearly half a million illegal immigrants and a million tourists milling around ancient ruins around Acropoli and Plaka relieve themselves? The sun is unforgiving and the heat is unbearably punishing unless one takes a noon break under the shade of trees and the licensed restaurants on select pavements. People drink liters of water and tens of liters of chilled beer before, during and after the strenuous walking forays. I did not spot a single person irrigating anywhere in the open. People were throwing an empty bottle, can or cup only in designated trash bins that were systematically placed and emptied regularly. I did not spot any public toilets in squares, metro stations and public places. I did go looking for them now and then.  Only, within Acropolis Hill fenced off area, fee paying tourists had access to free and hygienically maintained toilets. Besides, restaurants and shops provided free access to their own toilets after ordering food or buying something. The coin operated public toilets could be in public parks and open spaces but I did not find visible directions likein Italian cities of Venice and Rome.

I lived for two days in the coastal town of Glyfada. A three bed room luxurious apartment can be purchased for a price for a same sized basic apartment in an ugly suburb like Kurla in Mumbai. As I left the town, the only mess I noticed is the dry leaves falling from the trees lining the motorway, and strewn by the coastal winds onto the pavements.   The city sweepers will come early in the morning and late in the evening for routine mop up.

Of over two thousands of digital photographs from Europe, I will provide one I took of the Modern Olympic Stadia the Greek Government built to host the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. It is located between majestic hills at Irnia, a low income resident neighborhood, 20 miles from Athens. I felt sad to see that the massive investments made have been not capitalized but allowed to remain unutilized. Graffiti decorates every conceivable space. Fountains are idle. The pigeons are shitting all over the place, and janitors cannot keep pace with them. They are trying with hard toil, and the place is not exactly dead. The Greeks should emulate the Germans, who in Munich have turned the 1972 Olympic Games Village and Stadia into a money-spinning leisure spot. I know because I spent hours watching the revelers at that place. I returned from Greek Modern Olympiad with a heavy heart!

(On positive note, I must say no human urine and excreta could be found, even under seemingly disused and an unkempt appearing place)


 

 Besides buses, trolleybuses, trains and metro, trams are convenient to get around in Greek cities. I rode them in both empty and jam packed conditions. There were poor soliciting alms, handicapped selling wares, and the odd illegal immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh travelling with their trinkets-laden bags to and from beaches and city squares to run shoulders with on trams. There were pretty girls and well-built boys, like Greek goddesses and gods, groomed well, dressed in two piece bikinis, polka dresses, Jeans hot pants and cotton blouses and casual wear. What they wore appeared brand new despite the sweat trickling down the foreheads and arms. One of the begging girls, bonny and blonde, was a princess; she sang well too. My wife proposed to kidnap and adopt her. Her beauty and poise could put our own powdered Bollywood kids to shame because of her sense of dress and persona. Should I think they scrub themselves really well, take care of their clothes and dresses, discard the washed down and soiled immediately, and live really well?

I asked a couple who run their family business selling souvenirs and antiques inside Plaka. It was all rooted in their culture that had withstood centuries of conquests by various plunderers including Romans, Macedonians, Turks, and others. Now, the Germans are doing to them, some felt. The ancient Greek philosophers including Aristotle and Socrates have taught them that the goal in life was to develop habits of character so that one would pursue activities that yielded the purer pleasures and maximum enjoyment of good. This Greek wisdom is the fountainhead from which the nation would draw inspiration in its current challenge of a debt ridden public treasury.

 
I must tell that I watched Germany play England in the company of two 19-year old university students. One of them was studying political science and international relations. They were cheering the English team, and booing the Germans as they scored. I asked why? I don’t like Angela Merkel, he said. Germans have it today, but we will come back and prevail, he said.

 

That is proof. The young are not bitter though they are angry. Their values are in place. Therefore, the storm will pass. The Greek wisdom will stay to enchant us. I am backing Greece. Oppa! Let me down Ouzo to second that!

 

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