Ax, Ellada! Ah, Greece! The vacation spot of lovers and dreamers encapsulating never-ending blue seas and skies has changed quite a bit in the last 27 years. Don't worry, the scintillating warm sand, the inviting crystal-clear water and the healthy Mediterranean diet have not changed a bit, thank goodness, as these draw visitors back to Greece time and time again. So far, the changes I've seen are quite good - lovely improvements that make living in Greece quite comfortable.
As I return to live in Greece after 27 years of living in the United States, I reflect on changes that I've noticed and ruminate on how-it-used-to-be-when in 1988, I lived here. I kept a journal, of sorts, when I lived in Greece from 1986-1988. It was more like a sounding board that I turned to when I was frustrated or down, but the topics are proving to be great for comparisons to present day.
My husband and I lived in Aghia Paraskevi, a northern suburb of Athens from June 1986-July 1988, and we both worked close-by at the American College of Greece. We again live in Aghia Paraskevi and I still love this suburb. I have to begin my reflections on the biggest strength of Greece: the breathtaking scenery. The best change from 27 years ago is that now I can actually see the scenery without the smog or nefos.
From my work vantage-point I look out over Athens everyday admiring the beautiful mountains surrounding Athens. From the side of Mt. Imittos I see the Olympic Stadium, its two arches powering over the city as if Winged Nike. With binoculars I can even see Piraeus and the sea. There were rarely such vistas with the Athens smog of the late 1980s.
Cars and buses have a special place in my memory in the '80s. I'll never forget the diesel smell of the buses of the time. I'll bet most Athenians over 20 years old remember the smell well and even my young son knows the smell. Once in Kansas, we happened to be behind a large cargo truck one day, and our son said, "Hey Baba, this smells like Greece!" Now, I observe that 99% of the cars are energy efficient and most are equipped with the proper child restraints, which were then non-existent.
Being from the Midwest in the U.S., my people have a reputation of being somewhat folksy and naive. We are very friendly, welcoming and trusting and I bring that demeanor to Greece. I always liked that feeling about Greece, too. I always felt safe in Athens in the 1980s and every time I traveled and vacationed in Greece. I still do feel safe but after we were robbed in June 2013 in our apartment in Aghia Paraskevi, I take more precautions.
In the '80s I remember a rash of motorcycle thieves driving by and ripping bags off women. Now there is a rash of apartment robberies. In the '80s I knew friends whose apartment was robbed, too. I think the economic situation has exacerbated these thefts, but thieves, too, have evolved in 27 years. This is a big city and crime will happen. The good news is that the crime is still mostly non-violent.
Isn't everyone friendly! I had a social conversation with a professional psychiatrist the other evening. I told him I was writing about my reflections after 27 years of being away from Greece. When I offered him my perception of the demeanor of the Greeks, he finished my sentence. Now the Greeks act more civilized. His opinion was that education has played a pivotal role for the Greeks, which is part of the reason. Influence of other cultures and being a member of the EU has helped as well.
Almost gone are the days of people huddling next you in horizontal queues and everyone pushing to get to the front of the line. I recall confrontation was an everyday occurrence in the 1980s between shop owners and customers. It appeared many people needed and enjoyed raising their voices to be heard. The Greeks are still loud and passionate conversationalists but usually the topics are not personal grievances.
In 2015 in Greece, customer service is great. Shop, cafe, restaurant owners warmly greet customers and conscientiously attend to your needs. Again, increased education in running a successful business, along with the hardship of losing customers because of the economic crisis, have increased these positive customer service skills. Online ordering of products is growing (I used online shopping with great success) and food ordering and delivery is huge. Unfortunately, this type of food consumption might lead to a crucial change in the Mediterranean diet for Greeks.
Modern superhighways and the Athens Metro system have changed the daily life for Greeks. In the past, I dreaded the four to five hour bus ride to our home town in the Peloponnese. The buses were not air-conditioned and smokers were allowed (at the back of the bus just like they used to be allowed on airplanes at the back). It has taken time, and construction is still in progress for the highway to Olympia, but traveling by car and bus is actually pleasant and less stressful because the roads are modern. Many private cars still go too fast, and parking seems worse, but the majority are law abiding and courteous.
In the 1980s, it was said that the fastest period of time was between when the light turned green and the first person behind you honked for you to go. Now I rarely hear car horn honking. I was driving up Aghiou Ioannou Street, notorious for traffic, the other day and we were stopped in a line of about six cars for over one minute. Other than the elderly man in the car in front of me, no one honked. Road directional signs need to get better, but the Greek drivers are more patient, courteous and evolved. They don't seem to 'sweat the small stuff' anymore.
I'm old enough to remember the telephone party line system in the U.S. in the 1960s where you shared a phone line with some random person and when you picked up the phone to call, if they were using it, you politely hung up and waited until they were off their call. Having a phone seems like such a natural necessity that NOT having a phone in my home in Greece for two years in the late 1980s was truly the worst inconvenience during that time.
I don't know all the ins and outs of the phone technology in Greece at the time but we were told that there was a 10 year waiting list for a phone so we bucked up and did what we needed which was to use the nearby kiosks and the common office phone at work. When I wanted or needed to communicate with my family in the U.S., I had to go to the phone company and make an overseas, extremely expensive call. This didn't happen very often because of the time difference and the fact that the phone company was open limited hours.
Now of course cell phone technology has flooded the market since the first flip phone was introduced in the late 1980s. Ironically, I first learned how to use a phone to text while I was in Greece during the 2004 Olympics, way before texting was popular in the U.S.
When I entered COSMOTE recently in my city to sign up for internet service, which was non-existent in the 1980s in Greece of course, the process was streamlined. They had me verify the address where I lived and fill out other paperwork. Turned out they required me to have a home phone, which I really didn't want since I have a cell phone, to able to get internet service. And by the way, "How much time will this take to get the phone?" "We'll be out in two days." Wow, two days! Now that is definitely progress.
What was the turning point for Greece? Entry into the EU? The Olympics in 2004? Natural evolution of time? Probably all of the above, but for whatever reason, Greece continues to evolve into a wonderful European country where the behaviors of the citizens are as beautiful and uplifting as the gorgeous scenery and it is a delight living here again.