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The Greeks Are Not Lazy
Not everyone has been this blunt in assessing the Greek crisis, but the country and its people have been taking a beating in the court of world opinion over the last year. Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, implied that Greeks needed to be more like Germans in how they saved, how many hours they worked and how frequently they vacationed. This, despite the fact that according to the OECD the Greeks work longer hours than anyone else in Europe – a full 40 percent more than Germans, for example.
Next, "60 Minutes" got in on the "Greeks Are Lazy" innuendo with a story that stated, "In the past, when the Greeks found their accounts overdrawn, the country simply printed more money, or devalued its currency, to accommodate the relaxed Greek lifestyle." The clip to accompany the narration showed a pair of young Greeks laughing and embracing.
I think the main reason why there seems to be so little sympathy for the plight of the Greeks is this persistent stereotype that the Greeks have been partying a bit too hard and need to put their noses to the grindstone and get to work.
I've been traveling to Greece for more than 15 years and have had the pleasure of getting to know lots of Greeks in the U.S. No two are exactly alike but the common thread I've noticed across this culture is their love for and pride in their country, and their strong work ethic. They travel the world in search of work but retain their culture and always strive to return home to Greece. Let me introduce you to a few of the Greeks I've met while traveling in Greece the last few weeks.
Sofia Tsatsa works at the City Market along the harbor in Kos, an island in the eastern Aegean that was home to Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine (see first photo). I was in Kos for ten days and shopped at this market every night, and Sofia and her co-workers, Barbara and Sotiria, were always hard at work. One night, I asked them if they were looking forward to the weekend or their next day off.
"Day off?" Barbara said, looking at me as though she was unfamiliar with the concept. "We don't have days off."
At the moment, there is no real minimum wage in Greece, no mandated vacation time and many employers are using the crisis as an excuse to slash workers' wages. Sofia and her colleagues work seven days a week, ten hours per day, usually until 2 a.m. and they make only 800€ per month for their efforts.
Think they're an aberration? Walk out of the City Market, take your second left on Themistokleous Street, and meet Bogdana Petrova, a Greek of Bulgarian origin who runs the Easy Laundromat. Bogdana works from 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. every single day with no days off. I brought a mountain of laundry to her shop one day and was almost embarrassed when she asked for just 6€ to wash, dry and fold the whole travel wardrobe of our family of four.
Duck out of the Easy Laundromat and head to the Kosta Palace Hotel along the harbor. Amble up to the front desk and you'll find either Kotsifakos Manos (see photo below) or his wife, Elena on duty. Each day, one works the early shift and the other works the late shift, so they don't see each other until 11 p.m. each night. Their next day off? Not until November 1, the start of the slow season in Kos.
These are the people you'll meet when you travel to Greece. Take the time to talk to them, learn their stories and you'll see the Greek work ethic in person. Trying to dissect exactly how Greece got itself into this mess is tricky, but if you want to try to apportion blame, start with Greece's politicians, who have allowed the country's oligarchs to evade taxes on a grand scale, while allowing Greece's public sector to mushroom, all the while trying to pretend as though their government's profligate spending was somehow sustainable.
Ask Dimitris Kalaitzes, the owner of Jimmy's Balcony, a restaurant that overlooks Patmos's glorious harbor, how Greece is viewed in the world and he'll tell you about what an NYPD officer asked him after pulling him over on the Verazzano Bridge earlier this year.
"He said, 'Greece is this small little country, how is it possible that it could bring down the entire world economy?'"
Greece is going to the polls again on June 17, and according to many I've spoken to, Syriza, a leftist coalition that wants to renegotiate Greece's austerity deal with the E.U. and the I.M.F., may very well win.
"They are suffocating us," said Anna Avgouli, the editor of Stathmos, a weekly newspaper in Kos, referring to the EU/IMF austerity deal. "The Greek people are ready for change and that makes Europe afraid. Greeks are ready to stand on their own feet."
If you travel to Greece this summer, and you should, have no doubt that you'll receive an even warmer welcome than usual. Greeks are angry and embarrassed by how their country has been portrayed in the international media and they are eager to show the world what their country and their culture are all about.
And if you want to put the current crisis in perspective, visit the Holy Monastery of St. John the Theologian, built in 1088 near the site where St. John the Divine wrote the Book of Revelation. I asked the Monastery's Abbott about the Greek crisis and his response summarized for me the capacity of the Greek people to endure just about anything.
"Crisis?" he said, looking a bit confused by my question. "We've been here for 10 Centuries and we will continue on."
(Photos by Dave Seminara)