Sixteen countries off the list, eleven more to go. The order of countries prescribed that I visit Cyprus before Greece, which I think may be the reverse order. Anyway, Cyprus allowed me to get used to the Greek alphabet, to the Greek flag and the bilingual capacities that most Greeks and Cypriots share. Day one in Greece therefore starts off a lot easier than what I got used to in Italy. The following article is an overview of some things worth knowing about Greece before going into details.
When Greece joined the EU in 1981, it was an isolated country on the South-Eastern tip of the European continent. It could not be reached over land without crossing the outer borders of the EU until 2007, when Romania and Bulgaria physically connected Greece to the Union. But still nowadays, European travelers heading for Greece are more likely to fly in, with the overseas backpacker`s route from Italy as a back-up.
..expert in the Pink Scandal
Greece at a glance
Greece has about 11 million inhabitants for a landmass roughly one-third of the size of France. Greece`s territorial waters account for 80% of the entire country, with about 2000 islands plotted between the mainland and the coast of adjacent Turkey. The Turks are not very popular in Greece, which is claimed to be a result of the independence war against the Turks, back in 1821 to 1832. The Turkish occupation of Northern Cyprus has been of very little help in improving the relations. Recent signs of hope include the mutual help in earthquake rescues in 1999, and also, the visit of Greece`s prime minister to Turkey at the beginning of this year. According to Kostas (22), only few Greeks travel to Turkey. Main and pretty much only destination is the city of Constantinople, which anybody outside Greece and Cyprus would refer to as Istanbul.
Nelli (24) describes her country as very chaotic: `But we somehow need the chaos. It gives us something to talk about and something to complain about. The roads are bad, no-body knows who is responsible for what, nobody can ever tell you anything. If there`s a fire somewhere, or a flood, or an earthquake, people will all call the TV channel to report about how bad their situation is and how nobody is taking care of them.`
She continues: `When it snows in Athens, which doesn`t happen frequently but at least once every so many years, the airport closes down, the trains stop running and everything else stops working as well. The only thing we do organise properly are big events. Carnival is on the way, and it will be a massive part. The summer Olympics were another big success, even though most of the buildings no longer serve any purpose since the Games ended.`
Christina (26, photo) also tells me that recent snowfall in Athens has made headlines in the newspapers. Another subject that keeps people attached to the news is the Pink Scandal: `The former minister of Culture had an affair with his secretary, who recorded some material from their intimate moments together. She then blackmailed the former minister and ended up giving the video to a journalist, who in turn was promised five million euros by the Greek government for not disclosing the recordings.`
`Another recent event was the snow in Athens which forced the airport to close down. We also often have earthquakes. About once every two months, but the epicenter is always in a different place. Apart from some people who specifically fear earthquakes, the small ones are not much of a change from the ordinary. The roads can hardly be messed up more than they already are, and buildings resisted earthquakes in the past are likely to also withstand the earthquakes we will have in the future. If you`re outside, oftentimes you don`t even really feel it. When inside a building, yes, you will feel it shaking.`
Tania (22) tells me about last summers forest fires in the mountains, which were commonplace ten years ago. `Back then, people put arable land or forest on fire so they could sell the plot for construction. Less of that has been happening lately, with the exception of last summer. I think people have become more aware of the need to rescue our forests, but on the whole we Greeks still care more about the sea than about mountains and forests. Everybody finds a way to get to the sea in summer. Not everybody is rich enough to pay for a trip to the islands, but in that case they will have friends who own a small house near the sea.`
Taking it easy
Kostas (21) tells me that Greek people like to make money without working hard: `They prefer to sit around and get rich the quick-and-easy way. In reality, they need to work all the time and usually in jobs they don`t really like.` Also complying with the Greek desire not to work: masses of Roma-kids and Nigerian men who spend their days trying to sell illegal CDs and DVDs on terraces and beaches. One could argue that they are jobless, but they are working harder than most people in office jobs. And they are only allowed to keep a small part of the salary, since the mafia they belong to will take most of their daily sales turnover.
On this first day in Greece, I do notice something that is also very common in Cyprus: many men sitting or walking around playing with a metal chain in their hands. The object in question is called Koboloi. Twisting the Koboloi incessantly around is said to reduce stress, but men also seem to use them because they seem to have nothing else to do.
The desire to bum around also affects the travel spirit, which does not seem to be very developed among Greeks. Charis (20) surprises me by telling me that neither he nor his friends ? all students - really care about traveling: `I can`t say I`m really bothered to travel. Inside Greece: yes, outside Greece: not really. I did learn English just in case, and even some French because my parents told me to.` Olga (24) fits the same profile. She has never traveled outside Greece, but does speak English fluently. `I have never needed to get out of Greece so far`, she says. `If I did, I think that what I would miss most would be the energetic nightlife Greece is known for. And the food.`
Many young Greeks deliberately choose to learn foreign languages because of the small chances of anybody outside Greece learning their language. The Italians could use some of that linguistic modesty as well. My worst experience there was to pass a school for Political Science, where out of 20 students hanging around a square, not even one of them was able to talk to me in either English, French, German or Spanish. Of course, I could have taken the effort to learn Italian before arriving in their country, but learning 25 languages within one year is a little bit too much. I am therefore happy with the linguistic comfort Greece is offering. And I will need it, because the local language here is.. uhm.. All Greek to me.
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