My Greek Army Service Summer ’13: talented people in failed institutions

There is a scene this summer during my Greek army service that I won’t forget.  About 200 of us had returned to Kalamata Military Base, after a four-day break at our homes and having completed our five-week basic training.  Today was the day we were going to get our transfer papers, to be redeployed: some would be sent to the border with Turkey, others to the Greek islands, perhaps an inland army base or to Athens- where the cushier postings were, back in the capital. After our 7AM roll call, a sergeant began to call out the names of the first group to be sent off.  Most of us were a bit anxious, because we had no idea how far and for how long we would be gone for.  On that list was our destiny in the surreal adventures of Greek military life. The first few soldiers of this first group gathered in a small circle, in front of the rest of us as they heard their names.  I quickly recognized a couple faces, a mental connection sparked in the back of my brain, and I recollected a new word I learned this summer: “visma.”  Visma is not one of those eloquent Greek words that a Philhellene professor at an American university will ask you if you recognize its ancient Greek roots.  Bit less sexy.  Visma means plug-outlet.  But it wasn’t being used in reference to where you charge your iPhone.  A visma, in the world of the deep Greek bureaucratic state, is your connection, your contact, that “plugs-you-in” to the connected world. The sergeant called out a few...

Deciding between Mediterranean lifestyle or expat career?

I met up last Sunday with my Greek-American friend, Evi.  She, like myself is from the US, but has now made Athens her home.  Fresh from her two-month trip to Boston, I was looking forward to hearing some new perspectives from New England.  I haven’t been back to the US in a year, and after my surreal 3-month army experience at Kalamata Military Base and the Defense Ministry in Athens this summer, I am getting a small dose of Greek cabin-fever. I barely let her take a sip of her coffee before I started with a barrage of questions: “So, what is the vibe like in the US right now?  Did you want to stay more or are you glad you’re back in Athens?”  I asked her, like my one-year stretch in Greece had given me amnesia to thirty years of living in America. “Yeah, I’m glad to be back here.  But it’s really good over there too.  You know; everything works. Everything is easy.  Customer service is good.  You do things online.  You run errands in like fifteen minutes.  It’s not like here, where you spend a half-day, running from office to office, paying bills in-person, getting signatures, asking for sealed-stamped certificates, like we’re still living in a 1970’s cult TV comedy series.” “I took my mom to General Mass Hospital to get an x-ray on her wrist.  When I asked the nurse when we should come back to get the diagnosis, you know what she said?”  My lower lip quivered and I raised my eyebrows in anticipated fear, not so much for the results of her mother’s...
What’s Next For Athens Center: Next Berlin or Next Beirut

What’s Next For Athens Center: Next Berlin or Next Beirut

[slideshow]Athens Center: Cheap rents, junkies, artists, homeless, hipsters and start-ups, mixed in with a splash of anarchy and a sprinkle of fascism – the recipe for next cool urban, European hot-spot or the next explosive civil conflict zone? The center of Athens has a bizarre, almost bipolar identity.  The city could probably win the award for graffiti capital of the world; it also has a visible increase in homeless and junkies and many of the retail corridors of the city have an eerie feel to them, as relics of the splurgy consumer-era.  Behind these disturbing images though, on side-street after side-street, across Athens, bustling city life continues and Athenians are living, working and playing in Athens 2.0. I was relieved to hear a similar account reiterated by a non-Greek journalist, Feargus O’ Sullivan, who is based out of London/Berlin and writes for The Atlantic. http://www.theatlanticcities.com/jobs-and-economy/2012/10/athens-still-athens/3409/. He describes how he was taken aback by the exaggerated images from the international media and the reality of what he saw on the ground on a recent visit to the city- “given how dire Greece’s situation is, one of its paradoxes is that it still appears so normal, with cafes, bars, museums and theaters still full as if nothing has changed.”  He adds, “the city’s often narrow streets are attractively alive day and night almost year round with people of all ages, making Athens still surprisingly safe and well monitored for a city supposedly hurtling towards Armageddon.” This past weekend, I got the chance to see some of the neglected neighborhoods of the center on a stroll organized by urban volunteer and advocacy...
The Greek Psyche: Going through Rehab Phases of Denial to Acceptance

The Greek Psyche: Going through Rehab Phases of Denial to Acceptance

Since I’ve been in Greece I’ve made an effort to look for positive movements in the country: entrepreneurs who want to remain in Greece and build innovative businesses here, young community activists who are trying to be the change they want to see in their society, and a silent majority that is persevering, despite their frugal budgets, with dignity, respect for the law and an optimism in their daily lives. Although on an individual basis, there are good examples happening in Greece, the collective psychology of the country hasn’t come to terms with the real issues: how will Greece be rebuilt, what is the vision that will motivate its youth, entrepreneurs and citizens, and how will the country establish a relevant identity for the beginning of the 21st century.    The big questions remain in the background: What is causing business after business to shut down and companies to relocate abroad?  Does the tax system and bureaucratic process give incentives to independent professionals, small business owners and large corporations to invest, hire and be productive? How large does an efficient civil service need to be to serve a country of eleven million people?  Can the state afford to pay all of these workers without winding up in the never-ending circle of more taxes and more debt?  Is the role of civil servants to help their country or to be a burden to its taxpayers? Can any of the tens of thousands of professional Greeks scattered across the globe and working in shipping, law, finance, media, technology and academia be lured through incentives to work in Greece part-time, seasonally, or permanently and...
Old Athens Airport: An Evening of Interactive Theater

Old Athens Airport: An Evening of Interactive Theater

[slideshow]Last weekend, I went to the old Athens international airport, Elliniko, which stopped operating before the 2004 Olympics and was replaced by the more modern, Eleftherios Venizelos Airport.  I ended up at Elliniko Airport, not because I was feeling an overwhelming sense of nostalgia to visit the old smoking halls of Olympic Airlines, nor did some dazed taxi-driver take me there by accident, but I went to watch an interactive performance by a theatrical group called “Nomades” or Nomads, http://nomadesartcore-project.blogspot.gr/p/blog-page_28.html. I didn’t know that the dilapidated and abandoned Elliniko Airport was occasionally used for exhibitions and artistic performances.  This “Nomades” group incorporated the old, main terminal as the backdrop to their experiential exhibit that we began “experiencing” as soon as we entered through the sliding-glass, entrance doors.  The “security guards”(uniformed actors) pointed us to the reservation desk, where we checked-in, got our boarding passes and proceeded towards the gates.  As we waited for the next instructions over the intercom, we even had time to go over to the old Olympic Airlines snack bar for a coffee, prices on the menus in drachmas. The whole feel was like going through an American Halloween haunted house, only instead of chainsaws, masked monsters and shrieking screams, we were greeted by tanned, good-looking attendants dressed in their classic, navy blue Olympic Airlines uniforms, while the airport beeping chimes echoed in the background and we listened to instructions over the intercom of an authoritative male voice guiding our next steps through the terminal. The atmosphere was Mediterranean, urban surreal.  If you threw in an animated customs agent flinging a Marlboro cigarette behind his desk,...
Greek Hospitality at a Mountaintop Village

Greek Hospitality at a Mountaintop Village

[slideshow]Every time I come to my grandparent’s village, Efira, one of the most captivating images of the terrain is a mountain off in the distance- Mount Skoli.  There isn’t something tremendously special about it.  But for my brother and I, when we would visit here in the summers as little kids, it was a guiding point during and also a stunning backdrop from where we would orient ourselves during our nature expeditions around the terrain of eastern Ilia. The only info that I knew about Mount Skoli is that it is 960 meters in elevation and it is in the northeast direction towards Patra- not too far away from the village where the Papandreou political family originally hails from.  Also, during the Greek civil war in the late 1940’s many left-wing, communist rebels were holed up here, which makes sense due to the rugged terrain of the area. A few of my aunt’s neighbors told me I should visit the main town at the foot of the mountain, Portes.  Although it was about a thirty-minute drive away, no one in the neighborhood seemed to have been there in ages, since it wasn’t really on the way to anything. It ended being a fairly easy and straightforward drive besides a couple forks in the road.  When I got to the village of Portes, I got out of the car and walked around a bit to get a better angle of the mountaintop and the landscape.  I then made my way to the town-square.  A man in his fifties, Kosta, who I had asked for directions on the road into town...