Athens is the dirtiest, foulest, most-disorganized city I've visited in decades. The capital city of Greece is ripe with pollution; there isn't a motorbike that doesn't snort emissions far worse than cars. I can't get enough of it and you can sense the excitement in every section of town. Each person wants to help make this nation great again.
I am drawn to the pact the citizens have made with each other to do whatever it takes to improve the bad scene that scares everyone I've met. (Bizarrely, there is nonstop graffiti on every pubic available space that appears to be an encouraged outlet!) Still, if you ask any Athenian he will tell you "I have no idea how to fix this. I just know doing it will be painful for us all." To fix this place there must be some consensus on what went wrong, and this Government can't even say that its decisions have been bad for decades.
Not a political reporter by trade, I have spent four decades running towards cultural happenings before their awareness is widely known for magazines, newspapers, TV commentary -- and via fiery blog posts. Here in Civil War Athens I blanched when I was first told about the Government's policies on getting away with it -- there isn't anything the Greek Government won't do for its friends -- and I wonder if the organized strikes the world witnesses so casually are only the first spark of hell for this godforsaken place.
The entire town sat still for 48 hours while protesters took over the city square, forcing every business that sold anything to shut down in solidarity. (It's wild to find everything here being unionized while none of these groups are, to the naked eye, connected by ideals.) The local pharmacy closed to protest a law that says anyone with a permit -- even an optometrist -- can naturally pass it down to his next of kin. This is madness. If you own a taxi medallion you can hand it to anyone you know at a price set -- by you.
This is a place that, since the torturing junta was thrown out in 1974, turned to a definition of democracy that says "Here!" Public sector jobs are given to whoever the giver knows. There are no standards here -- a recent census proved every family has an unwarranted worker among them. There has been a general acceptance of tax evasion for anyone who has a cash business including service pros, General Contractors and any smart ass who could take cash. The only people who hate these facts are the ones in the streets now. Does this sound familiar? A relatively small percentage of the nation makes a lot of money -- and everyone is under- or unemployed. Sound familiar? Made a lot of people rich -- and the rest of the people unemployed. It is such a known fact how Greece has been bilked by its childish leaders and "those in the know," in its shamelessness it renders Bernie Ebbers and that Tyco freak petty thieves. Only thing that surprises Greek citizens is how long it took for these outrageous backwards laws, a known house of cards, to bankrupt the whole nation.
Patronage is a word that you don't hear much in the "first world". Here it is a matter of record. The citizens are asking millions of Greeks with work paid for by Government to stop their selfishness and think of the whole: They want workers to work in jobs that are sanctioned; they know some of them will be unemployed and sacrifice is the word everyone throws around. It may seem comical to the British or American, but no one in Greece has ever been "made redundant" and yet there are more than two people doing every public sector job. So this is political nightmare that can only be undone when tough, swallowable rules are voted upon. Don't forget: two years ago when the I.M.F. asked leaders how many Government employees existed the answer was no one had ever counted!
Older people and young kids are holding placards in the city center alongside those you expect at a loud protest. (Police are reticent to act; they appear to recognize friends in the crowd.) All the people are asking, from where I stand, is that jobs are kept by the ones who work their asses off and pay correct taxes -- jobs that are unnecessary must cease. And, yes, union heads must agree to take concessions in order for the European Union to loan Greece all the funds it needs to keep it from losing incoming travelers.
After a week here I believe that these leaders are childish and scared to change; and that Greek professional workers will never accept those in power. A lady I like here said: "You have laws in your country and we don't. I'd hope Americans realize how lucky they are every day."
I am proud of all Greeks in what I am calling the European Fall because although it is hard to breathe the air and the trash guys still refuse to budge, no one is fleeing -- I haven't met anyone who wants to abandon what they started. "Something has got to give," a lively store clerk said with a sudden sad expression. "I have a job today and am lucky; tomorrow I probably will not. Who can know!" There is a sense Greeks will accept what may come -- even if it means the worst. Like all Mediterraneans, at night The Plaka is packed with partiers. I don't see a lot of Athenians staying home eating takeout -- they need to converge. When I asked a new friend in a trendy café in Gazi -- once a slum, now a super-busy Soho--he shrugged. "We will get through it--but we'll be hard to recognize on the other side."
It's difficult to sleep. The hotel window is open and the buzz outside is palpable even as the daily The New York Times claims Greece is turning a corner I think not: The nation will fall hard before its revival because no one on any of the multiple sides wants to budge. The next time I come here I'm certain nothing will be the same. There will be many people out of work. Taxes will be paid by people who have never filled out a form. Undeserved funds handed by the European Union--which Greece should never have joined--will have been spent and a hand will be out again. Garbage will be collected by private entities. Each union will ask for concessions and most will be thrown a bone. Yes, strikes will occur every day. The tourist areas will be separated and likely overseen by troops. There will be many people to blame, and a whole country to thank, for the changes. The Ancient Greeks will be proud.