Greece 1. Modern Day Olympic Challenges
2016 and what a wonderful Olympic year. Oh to have been in Rio during August. The next best place for me to be was Greece, birthplace of the Games, and thankfully I found myself on the wonderful island of Crete in the South Aegean, on the eve of the opening ceremony. Rather sadly, due to the time difference with Rio, and the fairly low number of present day Greek Olympians, there seemed to be little public interest in the event. Still, by the end of the Games there were six Greek medals, with the high point being Ekaterini Stefanidi sailing over the pole vault bar at 4.85m to win gold.
Ekaterini Stefanidi, winning gold for Greece in Rio, photo (c) Laurence Griffiths
Setting aside the fun and games, there are some major social, political and economic challenges to be overcome. In this first part of my Greek trilogy, I set out some of the things that seem to matter most away from the medals, the beaches and the tavernas.
As one might expect from a holiday, my experience of the Greeks was somewhat limited. I came into contact with airline staff, hoteliers, waiters, shopkeepers, bus drivers and conductors, museum administrators and a few members of the general public. The vast majority were friendly, welcoming and spoke English, and this gave me a warm feeling, augmented by the daily 35 degrees of heat and consistent sunshine that has so sadly been lacking in Britain this summer.
On arrival in Greece I was feeling somewhat sheepish given that dreadful Brexit vote back in June. The result sent out completely the wrong message, implying that we were turning our backs on our European neighbours, and letting ourselves down badly as a collective. That’s not a nice position to be in, and I hope the split never actually happens.
I should not have worried where I found myself, though. My friendly hotel manager put me at ease, telling me that he thought the decision was for the best, for Britain. I didn’t agree with him, but I was touched by his generosity of spirit. I should have realised, of course, that many Greeks are not fond of the European Union at all. In particular, they dislike the way they have been treated by the Germans. Now, I would quite like to have Angela Merkel as the leader of my country, in contrast to the lack of leadership in Britain, but I can sympathise with those who feel belittled and punished by much wealthier states.
Fellow Europeans having a dig, via the Independent
My new friend went further, adding that he thought the EU was not worth supporting or trying to keep together. His wife was also unhappy that young people, graduates especially, have to leave Greece to find jobs. So, better for GB to go it alone. Better for the whole of the EU to collapse. I was not at all comfortable with this position, but I understand why they feel that way. I also felt quite ashamed that I have never really challenged the mean-spirited slur by the British and probably many others in Europe that the Greeks are most famous these days for not paying their taxes.
Many Greeks regret swapping drachmas for Euros
Our hosts at the hotel were delightful and hardworking people for whom no item of service was too much trouble. Even at 4am in the morning when we arrived, courtesy of anti-social airline practices. Here, in Giannis, was a man who had toiled hard in the fields, in the boiling hot sun, for decades, before purchasing a plot of land in 1986, whereupon he quickly began implementing his vision for the future. He raised the ground level by a staggering four metres in order to provide a view of the sea from the property.
Classic Apartments, Anissaras
A spectacular view enable by the ingenious elevation of the property
Giannis designed every feature of the hotel with his wife Mara. Along with his family, he continues to develop and oversee the estate with skill, ingenuity, and determination to provide a thoroughly relaxing location for visitors.
One of the many delightful features of the hotel, captured in mid-morning sun
Add to this their generosity, decency and friendly professionalism and you get a sense of the kind of people who go a long way out of their way to make you feel welcome. Even more so, when you get to indulge in several complementary bowls of special Cretan olives, you really get to enjoy the status of favoured guests.
In an attempt to leave politics and the economy far behind, I was eager to ask exactly how contemporary Greek society views the ancient gods and goddesses. This was a big ask. Mara told me that she believes the Greek gods are sleeping, and have been for a long time. But given the problems suffered by modern day Greece, the economy, the politics, the lack of any real leadership or a solution, the gods are bound to wake up at some point and will put everything right. The gods and goddesses putting everything right is also a big ask, since when they were first awake and actively in charge of the universe, they toyed with humans, made mischief, created havoc, and caused considerable grief. In the myths, of course. The slightest hint of provocation or disobedience was enough to bring about destruction and shame.
Could it be that the ancient gods are sleeping in the hills?
Still, in this very small sample, modern day Greeks seem to want to believe that the mythological beings were real. Mara pointed out that the Greek gods came well before Christianity, and transcend this and other more recent world religions.
I tend to think that as in many cultures and religions, there can be a mixture of reality and fiction, and after thousands of years it is often hard to discern where the truth lies. I’m not prepared to say that I believe in the gods and the myths, but I am impressed and enthralled by the wonderful stories. Many of them are shocking. Shockingly graphic. But they are stories. There is a concept that there could be even greater powers at work, and at play, in controlling the universe, or indeed in letting it slide. If the ancient Greek deities ever do wake up, there will be an almighty rumble and great fallout.
Getting back to a bit more reality, Greece has a prime location in the world, being bang in the middle of Europe, Africa and Asia.
A prominent location, with great but challenging connections
No wonder, then, that thousands of refugees find themselves heading in the direction of Greece across the Libyan sea. According to the International Rescue Committee, more than one million people in search of sanctuary have travelled through Greece since 2015. The population of Greece is only eleven million. Tens of thousands of refugees remain stranded. So here's another reason why the Greeks deserve understanding and political and economic support, rather than Euro-sceptic derision and smirks. Desperation for the refugees, almost unbearable hardship for the Greeks at times. We simply do not have anything like this in Britain.
On the move? In search of better lives. Photo via the IRC
A few final thoughts on the people I encountered. I am convinced that along with my hosts on this industrious, fascinating and exhilarating island, there are many people like them in Greece. Friendly, welcoming and hard-working. Both ordinary and quite extraordinary people.
The country seems let down by poor leadership nationally and by the European fiasco over the years. This might seem like an impossible situation in many ways, but the Greeks keep going somehow, and surely better times must come.
Respecting the flag and our European partners
As for the British contribution to Europe, and our formal social, political and economic partnership, I would like to say ‘Can we have another referendum please?’ It’s surely not too much to ask ourselves for a change of heart, to stop being a bitter, cynical and mean-spirited society still bearing past grudges, unwilling to vote in the interests of the younger generations and the wider community. We can be so much more, together, in partnership with our friends and neighbours beyond the waters. We shouldn’t have to wait for Zeus to wake up and start knocking our heads together.
See My Favourite Myths (Connected Cultures - Greece part 2)
See A Tour of Crete (Connected Cultures - Greece part 3)
© Eddie Hewitt 2016
"Greece's stranded refugees fear being forgotten" BBC news