By Dean C. Lomis, Ph.D.
I am 81 years old – or young, depending on how one looks at it, a native of Gary, Indiana. I just returned from a seven-week visit across Greece during which time I traveled in my very good rented car 2,512 miles across the land. It is my 13th visit to Greece, including my two- year stay as United States Air Force Officer in the late 1950s, having been transferred there from Germany along with seven other Greek American officers for reasons of linguistic ‘communication,’ since back in those days English was not yet the ‘lingua franca’ of Europe, and Greece was a very important component in the Western alliance confronting the dangers from the then-Soviet Union.
Due to my exposure to Greece, knowledge of its issues, and love for the country developed during my two-year stay, in 1982 I was elected Chairman of the American Hellenic Institute Public Affairs Committee (AHIPAC), serving four consecutive two-year terms until 1991. This involvement brought me even closer to Greece – and naturally to Cyprus – due to the dastardly Turkish invasion and subsequent illegal occupation of 37% of the Cypriot territory and the dangers to Greece.
The Beauty of Greece
Due to my travels during my Air Force military duty and subsequently to those as the Director of the International Center at the University of
Delaware, I have visited 50 countries and have seen some fantastically beautiful places; yet, overall, the Beauty of Greece is unsurpassed. No country that I have visited has the gorgeously curving outline of its mainland, nor the myriad bright islands with their fantastic beaches. Every time I fly over the Aegean Sea, I am reminded of Homer’s description that the Greek islands are like bits of bread dipped in wine.
Yes, Greece is a very hot land in the summer months. Yet, it is a dry heat, not the kind that makes one swelter unbearably due to high humidity. And, at night, it always cools down with very pleasant breezes that make evening strolls comfortable and night life exquisite. Visitors are always reminded of the pleasantries expressed by the Greek people toward them. Just like they did during the two years of my stay in the late 1950s, their untranslatable philotimo always being paramount. I have heard visitors often tell of their courteous reception by the locals. This time I was also truly amazed at the friendliness shown by young Greek children to the four of my six grandsons and to my 9-year-old granddaughter who accompanied us. They left with grand memories of new friends, with many of whom they exchanged email addresses to communicate in preparation for next year’s longer visit. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the entire experience was my granddaughter Angelikoula, who prides for her name, who, on the morning prior to departure, expressed that when she grows up she wants to marry a Greek. Now that’s what I consider developing bonds.
The entire scenery of Greece is like one of a painting rather than just photography. Photography by itself does not do it justice. The mountains, the gorges, the valleys, the rivers, the streams, the lakes, and of course the splendid colors of its vast sea waters, make it a remarkable sight with brilliance provided by the bright Greek sun.
It would be a pity if one were not to mention the Greek cuisine, the Greek ambrosia. The innumerable Greek dishes and deserts served in the different sections of the country leave such taste that one might not want to brush teeth or cleanse the mouth immediately after eating just so not to lose the taste too quickly. But along with Greek dishes, how can one not enjoy the aroma and taste of Greek fruits. In all frankness, never have I eaten more tasty fruits than those grown in Greece, and all five of my grandchildren who were with us always expressed their sentiments in similar manner.
Last -- but definitely not least, for the list is very long, there is also the Greek music. Sitting in a taverna very late at night with a few glasses of nectar – Greek wine -- not even noticing the changing of the day to the next at midnight, the venerable sounds of the immortal bouzouki singing like a lovebird in the night sky brings complete relaxation as if one had visited a guru or just completed a confession.
I have not mentioned the ‘historic’ richness of Greece by design. Greek history is everywhere, and visitors stumble upon it wherever they may go, the famous Acropolis being enchantingly inviting of course standing so majestically at the very center of the blue Athenian sky.
Visiting Greece must be a programmed plan for every Greek American family. Aside from the enormous experiences and enjoyment that such a visit will provide, it also a very significant factor in providing Greece
in its hour of dire need with both monetary and moral support. Furthermore, I very strongly recommend that every Greek American organization make immediate changes to its plans for its next year’s annual convention, and from now make arrangements to make its 2013 Convention in Greece, and in the locale of its background. The AHEPA certainly can have it in Athens, but the PanArcadians, PanCretans, PanLakonians, PanMacedonians, and all the rest of the topical societies whatever their correct names might be, will experience and transmit back to their offspring the beauty of their ancestral roots, while giving that helping hand that the region of their origin so desperately needs. It must also be realized that new bonds will be developed, just like those of my five grandchildren this year, and the remaining three that I hope will join them next year.
The Greek Beast
Just like most things in life, there is also the other side of the coin. The Greek beauty is marred by the Greek Beast. The Beast is everywhere, and it begins with the political environment. Since 1981, the Greek political establishment has been uncontrollably corrupt, much more than at any time in the past. Greece’s entry into the European Union and then to the Euro monetary unit was to bring Greece to the 20th Century. Unfortunately, however, the corrupt political establishment, along with the unscrupulousness of many of the wealthy, mismanaged the European Union’s billions of financial assistance for development, using the funds to fill their pockets and to misappropriate for votes.
The Greek ‘labor unions’ deserve much blame also. Whereas labor bosses became wealthy at the expense of workers, at the same time they were instrumental in destroying what minute industries the country had developed. Suddenly, therefore, in 2008 Greece found itself over $454 billion in debt, and on the road to bankruptcy. Now, four years later, the end in not anywhere in sight, and the specter of bankruptcy is still on the horizon. Unemployment is very high – some 24 per cent, with that of under the age of 25 closer to 45 per cent. Since the beginning of this year, over 20,000 youths have left the country. In addition, the remaining young have no faith in the current system, are dispirited, and don’t care about anything other than having a good time. All this is of course very unfortunate, for practically an entire generation is on the verge of becoming lost.
The desperation of the Greek people has reached their environment. Whereas Greek homes and personal belongings, including themselves, are clean and orderly, their outside surroundings are terribly messy and downright dirty. The streets are always with garbage, and the public beaches are with trash and cigarette butts. Graffiti is everywhere. The streets are overfilled with parked automobiles, most on sidewalks, making it impossible to walk on them. Of course driving has always been difficult in Greece, but now with so many automobiles, and the enormous amount of speeding motorcycles, it makes it very frightful to drive. Greek drivers must be very good; if not, there would be many more injuries and fatalities than the high number they already have.
Other than wonderful agricultural products, Greece produces practically nothing. Even the famous Greek Yogurt FAYE is said to be about to be bought by the Turkish American firm CHOBANI. In one Home Depot-size foreign store, I noticed only a card table with a sign “Greek Products” containing plastic bags, wrapping paper, scrubbing brushes, and water pales for mopping. But in “super markets” and other stores, I noticed small knives, drinking glasses, plates, etc. marked “Made in Germany...Italy...France...China” and in one store I noticed good-looking cooking pots marked “Made in Turkey.” Even cigarettes – and Greeks are very heavy smokers – are mostly foreign, usually British. Very few seem to smoke domestic cigarettes. I bought baseball-like caps with Greek insignia for my grandchildren, less than four dollars each, all with markings: “Made in China.”
Unlike the friendliness and courteousness exercised by the people of Hellas to foreigners, and to their own families, relatives, friends, and perhaps other acquaintances, they have become unruly to each other. I suppose that the current and continuous financial crisis has made them ‘hard,’ but the fact remains that to see them and hear them treat each other in such abrupt and disrespectful manners takes away the ancient Greek motto for “quality and not quantity of life.”
The magnitude of the Greek Beast is very large, but to continue the inadequacies (a kind description) is very disheartening. I rather refer to what might be appropriate to consider.
First of all, whatever may have happened, the people of Greece deserve a better future. The hierarchy of the country must realize it, and the Diaspora must become eager to assist. All the elements are there; all that is needed is the will and the wheel to carry it out.
Domestically, Greece needs to lower its overbearing high-tax level, while it puts assistance funds from the European Union into infrastructure projects to create jobs. It is only by the creation of jobs that the market can be resurrected and taxes not overburden the people as they do now under the heavy austerity measures. Of course, the system must equip itself to make certain that the past national game of tax evasion ceases. But with regard to tax evasion, it is an absolute requirement that the tax cheaters of the past be brought to justice, both for the sake of justice and for them to pay the penalties due.
I must at this point bring out one thought that can produce a considerable income to the country on a daily basis. During my 2,512 miles travel in the Peloponysos, Aiteloakarnania, Epirus, Macedonia, Thrace, Thessaly and Attica I noticed every city, town and village overwhelmed with automobiles parked on practically every street. There must be thousands upon thousands of automobiles in Greece. Yet, by parking everywhere they create huge and unnecessary traffic jams, with more automobiles seeking to park without parking spaces. This anomaly forces ‘double-parking’ which clog the streets even more, creating more traffic havoc. If, therefore, parking meters were to be installed at say one Euro per hour fee, it is not inconceivable that hundreds of thousands of Euros would be would be collected daily. Furthermore, a certain percentage could be distributed to the local municipality and state, with the bulk of the income to the federal treasury. Greeks complain – and rightly so – of bad and insufficient roads, all due to insufficient funds. Here, therefore, is a manner by which the difficulty can be alleviated, while at the same time creating jobs.
The same can be said for cleansing the environment. As an example, ‘guards’ can be placed on beaches to ticket with a heavy fine – say 100 Euros – anyone tossing garbage and cigarettes. Furthermore, prisoners can be put to work to cleanse the beautiful beaches not only of human-created debris but also of rocks that cover the sandy beaches. There is also the matter of governance. The overwhelming number of both public employees and ‘elected’ officials is an unnecessary burden to the Greek society. For comparison purposes only, the United States Congress is comprised of 545 legislators to serve over 310 million people. The Greek Parliament has 300 legislators for its 10 million people. A revision of the Constitution to reduce the number to no more than half – 150 – would be most beneficial from a wide spectrum. Furthermore, an upper house could be created to be comprised of everyday common citizens only, elected by the people of each of the 52 states, one from each state, to serve for only one year. This body, which should exclude anyone having served in any political position, would exist only to evaluate parliamentary actions to accept them or to reject them, sending them back to the Parliament for ‘revision.’ Such a ‘checks and balances system’ would be closer to the true democracy envisioned by our ancient ancestor-founders of democracy, and should make modern-day ‘representative’ democracy more efficient.
There are of course myriad other matters that cannot be addressed in the limited forum of an article. But, with a start – an honest start -- more will come to mind as matters progress. There is also the matter of the Diaspora which must not be omitted. Dr. Theodore Saloutos, the Milwaukee native of yesteryear and then- Chairman of the History Department at UCLA, one of America’s prime tertiary educational institutions, included in his 1964 perhaps best history book on Greek Americans: The Greeks of the United States, the contributions made by the Greek Diaspora in the United States, and some from other parts of our planet, to the reconstruction of Greece following its freedom from the yoke of 400 years of Turkish brutal occupation, and on several occasions thereafter, including following World War II, during which Greece was severely destroyed.
Today, there are many more Greeks of the Diaspora with ample means, and with much higher amounts. Here in the United States alone the top 50 wealthiest Greeks are listed every year, each from triple-figure millions to single-figure billions. Certainly there are similarly successful Greeks across the globe, perhaps as many as 150 more, a number that can comprise perhaps about 200 in all, and inducing their Helladic acquaintances and counterparts to participate – perhaps another 50, the number could rise to perhaps 250. If these ladies and gentlemen were to provide one million each to be invested to assist Greece in an economic recovery through production activities, it would be an immense assistance to the country of their ancestry. To be fair, they should not expect to make their investment in terms of profit --although not to lose it either, but to assist in the recovery of the Greek market. Being cognizant, of course, of the corrupt nature of the current Greek business mentality, whatever efforts are made in developing an industrial base must be administered and supervised by persons of their own trust, including specialists from their own countries and industries, until such time that a new breed of Greek business generation adopts the globalized mentality of fair and honest dealing.
If Greece is to successfully survive the current severe economic crisis and financial turmoil, it must change its course from that of the last three decades. It is not that the Greeks have been always all wrong. They have survived for over four millennia, so they must have done something right. It is only that the current state of ‘globalization’ came too soon and was too much for their not-yet-ready limited society. Yet, the Greek spirit endures like its native Olympic Flame and it can be extinguished only by the Greeks themselves, something their patriotic psyche and never-dying philotimo will refuse to allow.
I certainly hope so!