The tragic public suicide in front of the parliament building a few days ago, of a 77 year-old man who felt he was a burden to his family after his pension was cut to nothing, has shocked Greeks even further as they continue to experience an escalating financial as well as sociological crisis. Until three years ago the suicide rate in happy-go-lucky Greece was the lowest in Europe, at 2.8 per 100,000 inhabitants, but it has now almost doubled and keeps growing; a Ministry of Health study reveals that in the first half of 2011 the suicide rate grew by 40 percent in just a year.
With widespread homeless and joblessness also on the rise, the stifling psychological climate has led Greeks of all backgrounds and of all ages to drugs. Whether they be tranquilizers, antidepressants and painkillers popularly bought over the counter and popped in the privacy of one's home, party drugs like cocaine and marijuana easily found in bars and clubs, or heavily addictive drugs such as heroin and crack sold on the street, Greeks are increasingly turning to narcotics as a way of getting through the day. A few neighborhoods in the center of Athens are slowly but surely turning into ghettos, where drugs are commonly sold and used. This is a key issue being currently discussed in the search for viable solutions; one project is Rethink Athens, a government initiative in cooperation with the Onassis Foundation to redesign and 're-humanize' the capital's center, and another recent initiative that has already commenced, involves the "sweep up" illegal immigrants (broadly blamed for the notable surge in drug and human trafficking over the last decade) from Athens and place them in detention centers before redirecting them back to their homelands.
As discussed in numerous texts by ancient philosophers, in classical Greece wine was used to 'receive' the spirit of the God of Wine, Dionysus, and allow oneself to be temporarily possessed; today Greeks are perhaps wishing to never awaken from such a state. The use of drugs of all varieties is not new to Greece, but has by today reached phenomenal proportions; alcohol and cigarettes too are hugely consumed in a nation where apparently by now any chance to numb down, dumb down, temporarily escape or experience an altered state of mind has seemingly become essential. Like an adolescent who experienced a relatively happy childhood and then lived through the divorce of her careless parents, physical and psychological abuse, poverty and bullying by those she is put in care of, with little prospect of hope, Greece's self-destructiveness is reaching a critical point.
Summer is around the corner but there is palpable pessimism in the air regarding tourism here this year.
Over the last few decades, Greek tourism suffered chiefly because of long-term greed and short-sightedness. Money that already existed or was injected into Greece for building and improving the sector, one of the country's major potential profit-bearers, generally led to superficial changes, often because most of the cash received was widely pocketed by politicians and business owners, or misused due to ignorance or lack of proper planning. The Greek National Tourism Organization (EOT) ran a series of inadequate campaigns to promote visits to Greece, one of which was ironically titled "Live your Myth in Greece." Hundreds of EU Leader Project agrotourism hotels sprung up around the country over the last few decades, many of which had little to show for all the money that had gone into them except certain architectural or landscape standards and a few jars of homemade jams, as abiding to Leader regulations.
As a regular and vigorous traveler through Greece's mainland and islands, what I never saw happening was a real, dynamic and resulting effective development in how the tourism industry operated -- something that should have been directed chiefly by the tourism ministry. How the visitor was invited, treated upon arrival and during their stay, how the tourism product was prepared, priced and provided, has overall never been good enough to make the tourism sector blossom as much as the country and its people deserve.
When foreigners began 'discovering' Greece in the '60s, it was a pearly paradise for them; not only because of the stunning pristine landscapes and beaches, and colorful, passionate yet simple, laid-back lifestyle, but also, importantly, because the Greeks were genuinely open, hospitable, generous and friendly. Within 20 years, this changed dramatically. Instead of properly estimating what it was that attracted tourists here and how this could be continued, crystallized and bettered in the long-term, short-sighted, greedy Greeks began to try and make as much money as they could there and then, regardless of the dire consequences.
It was common that a foreigner paid up to five times more for a taxi from the airport to central Athens because the taxi driver was a lying thief. Having grown up in Rome, another ancient, culturally rich (and aesthetically superior) capital flooded by tourists throughout the year, I could never accept the way a cup of coffee in Athens cost three times more than in far more cosmopolitan European cities and, was too often banged down on the table by a grumpy waiter, or how I could ever be expected to pay for an island room decorated with cheap, ugly furniture, hospital-type sheets and someone's hair on the floor.
Greeks lost the plot when, without sufficient guidance from the state, they decided to make ends meet in the only way they could muster, and focused more on making money than anything else. When the movie Mamma Mia came out I had tears in my eyes watching it because of how pure and beautiful it made Greece appear; there are still a multitude of stunning places around the country like those shown in the film, and a lot of them are fortunately not known to mass tourists, because if they were they would be destroyed by the deck chairs, bars, hotels or restaurants built on them overnight. Mamma Mia's location scouts picked some magnificent spots for filming, and on a recent trip to one of the islands featured I visited a beach that was used in the film; sadly, I was not surprised to discover that it had been completely ruined by a noisy beach bar, a wooden deck and... astroturf! Clearly the locals who destroyed that beach (and this is just one example amongst a myriad of other ugly acts that have been carried out) thought they were making a place that was already perfect in its pure state even more attractive to visitors, and thus more profitable to them, but what they failed to comprehend was that what most visitors to Greece dream of is the intact natural glory that was originally there. What Greeks, with their low self-esteem that anthropologists, psychologists and historians alike put down to hundreds of years of oppression by other nations, don't realize, is that this is their country and thus it is up to them to make the rules, but also that those rules must carefully and intelligently honor, celebrate and make the most of the rare and inspiring beauty of their country and its people.
It's true, there have been days when I've sat on my sofa watching the live TV news and feeling anxious about the chaotic events unfolding a few blocks away from my home -- hearing blaring police sirens and shutting my windows to keep out the ghostly clouds of teargas as a tense presenter gives accounts of smashed shops and cars, violent clashes, fires.
This happens once every few weeks, usually in the Constitution Square (Syntagma) where the Parliament building is located, and in its surrounding streets, and usually lasts between one and seven hours with fits and bursts of truly news-worthy events. The following day, everything goes back to normal, except for those whose property has been destroyed or body bruised by police or anarchist protestors, and of course a fresh wave of media buzz. Watching it on TV is far worse than walking by it, as I sometimes have in order to get from A to B, because when I've walked near violent protests I have felt sure that apart from the horrible effects of teargas or the likelihood of being beaten up by a baton-happy police officer, I am generally safe. Unless I were to choose to plunge into the heart of the action, which would be foolish for obvious reasons.
Yet the media, and particularly the foreign media, enjoy generating the impression of a very different reality.
The journalists and crew sent over by news networks to cover and produce the story cost quite a lot with flights, accommodation, food, transport and equipment -- so time is money, and that money better be worth spending. Interesting is not good enough; the story has to be sensational, at least visually. According to expected political or other developments, news stories are carefully researched, planned and organized, and then shot once the journalist and crew arrive in situ. Relevant twists and turns are always welcome, but basically it is a set, time-limited operation. This is why we often see long and short reports alike by foreign journalists that in terms of content may be informative but not saying anything particularly profound, yet visually often give the viewer the overpowering impression that the journalist is in a battlezone, and that battlezone is no other than the city of Athens.
Yes, there is an overriding sense of disappointment here, as there would be anywhere in the world if seemingly overnight a country goes from a regular way of life to financial, professional, social, psychological and political turmoil. Yet what the media presents is often not only deceptive, it is professionally dramatized especially for television, the box of images, an artfully created show.
The unfortunate fact of the matter is that this has already led to a significant fall in tourism arrivals, as potential visitors are scared off from traveling to a country where they fear for their safety. This year there are several tourism campaigns to promote arrivals to Greece by major operators locally and abroad, but the images on TV news still manage to put people off. This only further threatens the livelihood of millions of well-meaning, hard-working Greeks, creating a vicious circle in which they are losing out twice. The city center may be the occasional stage for dramatic protests, and with the rising tensions over upcoming elections we are certainly bracing ourselves for further drama on the streets, yet for those who want to avoid even being in the city when trouble ensues, flying directly to an island or other Greek destination overrides any risk of danger. In these places you may find an atmosphere of solemnity amongst locals, but prices have fallen, people are eager to offer as much as they can, and the country's natural glory shines on.