the young are leaving

Some of you may have noticed the silence here on Athenster. I haven’t posted in a long time because I returned to the US and started graduate school, and I am still trying to decide what to do with the blog. I think I may keep posting, but just on a less frequent basis. If anyone has any thoughts or ideas on what I should do, let me know.

Anyway, what’s prompting this post is this article in the New York Times about young Greeks leaving Greece (thanks to Janet for forwarding it to me). Coincidentally, I went to high school with two of the people mentioned in the article. I also know the writer; she works for Athens Plus. It’s an interesting article, and not really news to me…though I wonder whether it’s only privileged Greeks who get to leave Greece to study or work abroad. It would have been good if the article mentioned some statistic on this, especially since I know people (young people, I should specify) who have chosen to move back to Greece after studying abroad and who have found work.

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beware the psixi

I returned from Prague on Monday (it’s absolutely gorgeous and amazing) with a bit of a cold, which I’m attributing to the change in climate (Athens has been dependably hot; Prague was rainy and the weather kept shifting from cool to warm) and to traveling factors in general, such as the change in timezone, a ton of walking, and my increased consumption of beer (it was really good and really cheap).

Anyway, being sick made me think of psixi — what Greeks call the sickness you get from air-conditioning, the fan, or a draft. It’s sort of equivalent to believing in the evil eye. My friends and I have had a lot of laughs about this one, but then secretly, deep-down, we think it’s true. A few weeks ago my sister got sick with a cold and said she thought it was from air-conditioning. I’ve had a friend tell me to shut if off because it was making her feel like crap, and at various points in my life, I have woken up certain that the air-conditioning has somehow given me a cold. I’ve also heard people express concern about fans blowing directly onto them, but I draw the line there because, you know, I’m rational.

Still, I wonder if there’s something to it. Certainly if the AC filter isn’t changed enough or isn’t working properly it can introduce mold into the room. I also read something about air-conditioning making the air dryer, and therefore making your respiratory system more susceptible to germs. Could the dreaded psixi be real? Anyway, beware the chill.

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off to prague

I am going to Prague today to visit a friend who just moved there, so I’m taking yet another break from the blog, and a break from the mother country. Back next week, my final week in Athens.

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how to earn $$$ and relieve an economic crisis

Julia Alexandratou -- Play as you are!

Athens is covered in billboards advertising the gambling website One of the billboards shows a guy with a swollen face and a black eye, another shows a man in a Zorro-esque hat. On the boards appear the words “Play as you are!”. The most common of these billboards shows Julia Alexandratou–a twenty-three year-old Greek model–doe-eyed, in a pink tank top with her name scrawled across it as if it was written by a five year-old. Seriously, this billboard is everywhere.

Alexandratou, who competed in Miss Star Hellas when she was younger, just came out of scandal here in Greece: She recently made a porn DVD that sold in Greek kiosks for a while, until it got pulled for ambiguous reasons. Before left the kiosks though, 240,000 copies of it sold in ten days, raking in about 5 million Euros.

Julia initially claimed that it was an amateur video released without permission, no doubt because she wanted to receive the money under the table. My dad told me he read that it was also labelled as ‘Educational Material’ so that it wouldn’t be taxed as much. The tax officials thought all this was a little strange and decided to investigate her anyway.

But Julia’s true success is that she managed to make at least a quarter million Greeks forget about their economic problems for a while and run out to buy her porno. As Greek politician George Karatzaferis said, “3,500 people came out to protest the harsh and cruel measures of the prime minister while 150,000 sped to buy the DVD of Julia Alexandratou.” Good job Julia!

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what greece can learn from barbados

I was listening to the This American Life episode called “Social Contract” a few weeks ago, in which they noted the disparity between the economies of Barbados and Jamaica. Jamaica and Barbados have had similar economic histories, but today Barbados is in a much better position than Jamaica.  NPR explained the difference with this story: In the 90s, Barbados’ economy began to go into recession and the government requested help from the IMF. The IMF agreed to help under the condition that Barbados limit the amount its citizens spend on foreign goods (because it is an island, Barbados was forced to spend a lot of its money on bringing foreign things in). The IMF’s goal was to implement a policy that would ensure more money stayed in Barbados in order to avoid a bigger recession. Towards this end, the IMF proposed devaluing the Barbados currency, so that people wouldn’t be able to afford foreign goods.

Wary of devaluing the currency, Barbados decided to propose a different measure to the IMF. Barbadian workers and businesses held meetings with the government to discuss the IMF’s measure and agreed on a different strategy. Workers would take a 9% wage cut, with the understanding that devaluing the currency could have potentially more long-term and deleterious effects, such as inflation. The Barbadian government proposed this plan to the IMF. They accepted it, and the Barbadian currency remained untouched.

Jamaica also suffered a recession and requested assistance from the IMF, but instead of cutting back it allowed its currency to be devalued several times. In the end, Barbados’ economy bounced back, and today is prospering, while Jamaica remains very, very poor.

So what can people and particularly Greece learn from Barbados? “Trust,” was the answer in the This American Life episode. It’s a simple concept, and it may sound like a trite answer, but trust between the workers, business owners, and government was really at the core of Barbados’ strategy and allowed it to survive its recession. Barbadian workers voluntarily accepted less for the collective well-being of the country.

That kind of conversation and collaboration will never happen in Greece though. Greece has a long history of government mismanagement and distrust. Undoubtedly politicians have helped themselves to Greek coffers. As a result, workers in Greece seem to believe that any sort of withholding on the government’s part is a result of greed, and not of real economic necessity. But if Greeks accepted cuts to the public sector, insisted on privatization and lighter barriers to creating businesses — in other words, if Greeks worked with each other and with the government — there might be a positive outcome to the IMF’s austerity measures. Of course, that’s not easy. As of now, Greece has no economic pressure valves, no easy way for people to just go out and make money. People won’t want to let go of their government jobs, understandably.

What Barbados did is really unique. People working together and taking cutbacks for one another really stands out against the usual progression of human history. Everyone could stand to learn a little bit from Barbados.

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all dressed up, but no gas to go

We’re supposed to head out to the Peloponnese tomorrow, but truck drivers are striking, which means they won’t be delivering gas. As I was coming home today, the bus I was on got stuck behind lines of cars waiting to get gas. Apparently, this strike is ‘open-ended’, so there’s no telling when it will end. I also heard another rumor that gas stations are going to join in. That’s Greece I suppose, somehow always managing to maximize inconvenience. Anyway, the point is I may not be able to post until next week, since I’ll be away on vacation. Or, we’ll be stranded somewhere and have to trek back to Athens, perhaps by foot or donkey, in which case, the next post may take longer than a week.

Just for kicks, I’m posting a Greek commercial that I and my Greek American acquaintances think is hilarious. It’s donkey themed.

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greek graffitti–taking back the urban landscape


Graffiti in center Athens, near Monastiraki.


Athens is covered in graffiti. When I first moved here, I was shocked at the amount of graffiti everywhere. Even wealthier neighborhoods had a lot of it, though interestingly it never seemed as good as the graffiti in the working class areas of Athens. The graffiti in Kifisia is unimaginative, usually tags scrawled by bored rich kids. Pass through Moschato, though, and you start getting murals that are surreal and complex.

At first, I thought all of it was ugly and visually assaulting. The thought of bored kids tagging otherwise normal buildings was infuriating. It seemed like a sign of how backward Greece was. Now I feel differently about the graffiti here.

It’s not that I think the graffiti is exactly beautiful, but I appreciate it more now, somehow. I still hate the scrawled, illegible tags done by amateurs, but some of it–the work that has ambitions beyond egotism — has artistic merit. And, considering the other assaults to the Athens landscape– such as the hundreds of billboards and ads posted along highways, the disjointed streets and uneven sidewalks, or the skeletons of unfinished buildings–the graffiti seems like something distinctive, a break from the monotony of other visual stimuli. The more time I spend in Greece, the more I realize that a lot of the graffiti here isn’t just tags by roaming kids, but street art by people whose voices aren’t otherwise heard in society. The graffiti is an attempt to win back a landscape that is so often dominated by forces with more authority, like the government and big businesses that can afford to put up huge billboards.

Graffiti is a truly ‘Greek’ art in that it has its roots in protest. From an Athens Plus article: “As Greece has a long and turbulent history, political graffiti has played an important role at times, declaring the presence of underground opposition to an unpopular regime or foreign occupation with simple statements such as ‘Freedom’ or ‘Down with the Junta.'” Most of the graffiti I see isn’t explicitly political, though some of it is (usually in the form of ‘Down with NATO’ or something to that degree). But there is something deviant about the works that even sort of try to be good; there’s always something heated and forceful in the way they look.

I’m not saying all of it is nice to look at…most of it is messy. Whether it looks ‘good’ or not is besides the point. Once you’re used to the graffiti, it seems odd not to have it. The US looks unnaturally clean by comparison. 

The abundance of graffiti here, I think, harkens back to the idea that Greeks are more expressive and are more naturally poised against domination. Where there are pristine buildings and cities, there is some form of authority overseeing them that holds the majority of the power. I think of the rumored cleanliness and tidiness of Singapore streets, and of the dictatorship behind them that punishes the slightest act of vandalism. I think of the American teenager there who was sentenced to a caning for graffiting cars. Perhaps the comparison is unfair; after all, Athens would probably look more inviting with less graffiti. But between perfection and graffiti, I choose the latter.

More graffiti in center Athens.

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some quick thoughts

I would like to quickly mention the murder of Greek journalist Socrates Giolias, not because I have any answers or much to offer on it, but because it’s disturbing and sad. Giolias, a radio journalist and blogger, was murdered at his home in Athens in a mafia-style hit involving men pretending to be security guards. It appears that his assassination may have been arranged by a terrorist group. It’s truly a scary thing when journalists start getting murdered. 

On a more mundane note related to my last post on the Greek publishing industry, someone pointed out to me that a high percentage of Americans aren’t reading books either. It’s a good point; I tried to find a hard statistic on it but the closest I could come to one was through a National Endowment of the Arts article saying something like 50% of Americans don’t read literature. It seems like Americans might read slightly more than Greeks, but not by much. Perhaps I took a biased view of the Greek reading statistics then…it could be that more Greeks read than I expected. That might explain why a day or so ago there were two people reading next to me on the Metro. I suppose the Greeks are proving me wrong. Anyway, if anyone has conflicting opinions or statistics, please do bring them up. They will keep me honest and on my feet.

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the majority of greeks don’t read…so why is the book publishing industry so big?

Out of the five years I lived in Greece and the many summers I traveled there, I have never seen my Greek relatives read. I don’t, for the most part, ever see Greeks read. In fact, out of all my time on Greek beaches, I think I’ve only seen Greeks reading magazines, with someone reading the occasional newspaper. But certainly never a book.

Greeks aren’t big readers. It makes sense in a country that places such a high value on social life. According to a 2004 National Book Center of Greece, 43% of those surveyed said they hadn’t read a book in the last year. Why, then, according to another survey by the National Book Center of Greece, are there 841 book publishers?

In the 2004 survey, the National Book Center of Greece writes,

Are the books that are being purchased actually being read? According to the second Survey on Reading Behaviour carried out by the National Book Centre and the V-PRC Institute in 2004, there is a close interrelation between consumer behaviour and reading behaviour. All the same, only 34.0% of the population over 15 identified themselves as “book readers”, and only 8.6% stated that they read more than 10 books a year. The proportion of medium to systematic readers represents a number of about 700,000, who, it is calculated, consume approximately 7 million books per year, while the 2.4 million “weak” readers are calculated to consume another 8 million books, according to conservative estimates.

Apparently 8.6% of the Greek population consumes almost half of the book publishing market, while another 25% is responsible for the other half. The total reading population of Greece, not counting those who said they only read professional or ‘how-to’ books, is about 34% of the population, much lower–the National Book Center points out — than other European countries. Italy’s readership falls at 42% of its population, Spain’s at 45%, and France’s at 75%.

Why do so few Greeks read? Again, I suspect it’s partly because of the culture’s emphasis on social life. But I also suspect that Greeks have little access to books, since they probably can’t afford to buy many, and there is dearth of public libraries in Greece. The National Book Center points out that there are just 962 public and municipal libraries in Greece, and that “The library network is still, to a great extent, rudimentary and has not adapted to provide modern library services.” People don’t check books out of libraries, probably because they can’t.

But again, the question remains, why is the publishing industry so large? Certainly these publishers aren’t making money. The 2004 survey describes the typical Greek publisher as “a traditional, family-based company, often under-capitalised and under-funded, facing distribution problems and lacking economies of scale, necessary if one is to take advantage of the new technologies.”

The survey goes on to offer this weak explanation: “Nevertheless, the preservation of cultural diversity in the field of publishing, the survival of small publishing houses and the in-print maintenance of less popular books correspond, perhaps, to the degree of pluralism and democracy in a country.” I don’t know if I buy it. Clearly there is an elite, book reading minority in Greece, and the publishing houses are relics more than anything else, infused with old money and a sense of intellectual prestige. One publishing house, Hestia, has been in business for 120 years and has remained in the same family. The number of publishers has fallen slightly since 2006, but there are still almost 200 more than there were in 2000. It’s a mystery how all those publishers continue to survive, and why their owners didn’t go into some other line of business. It would be interesting to talk to one of those elusive, mysterious Greek readers. Except for a family friend’s fifteen year old cousin who likes to read Agatha Christie, I’m still waiting to meet one.

The Greek book chain Eleftheroudakis, another family-owned business

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it’s good to be greek

Greeks like to stand up to the man

Greeks have been getting a lot of flak lately from the media and, admittedly, from me. I think I’ve always operated under the notion that criticism is more interesting than praise, but that can get boring and predictable. So — since my posts have been mostly carping Greece, I’m going to point out something good about the Greeks that I’d normally call out as a flaw.

As the abundance of strikes here demonstrates, Greeks aren’t ones to take things quietly. They believe that authority should be questioned, which, while problematic, also seems to me to be pretty healthy. Their willingness to cause a stir sets them apart from other countries. The other day I got on the HSAP, but it didn’t leave the station for about twenty minutes. Ten minutes into the wait an old man got out and started yelling at the conductor from the platform, asking him when the train was going to leave, and saying that they couldn’t just let people stand there without telling them anything. It occurred to me that this would never happen in the States. People in the States accept the status quo willingly and quietly.

In a New York Times article, a Georgetown professor compares New York women’s stories of being harassed or groped on the subway to those of Greek women. She found that the New York women tended to say they felt humiliated and had done nothing, while the majority of the Greek women either yelled or put up a fight. A few girls threw rocks at a man who exposed himself to them.  The writer explains the difference in terms of culture, noting that, “For one thing, most Greeks, like their Mediterranean neighbors, place value on expressiveness, whereas American culture is influenced by the Northern European and British emphasis on public decorum. That’s why Americans often mistake animated Greek conversation for argument.” Greeks are more likely to get in your face about something or to help you. This has its downsides, but it strikes me as a more honest way to live. So there it is. Here’s to the Greeks, expressiveness and all.

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