Interview with Colin Clement
|Colin (with tiny man on his shoulder) and Rick at the site of ancient Mycenae, Greece.|
A Greece tour guide's perspective on the country's financial crisis
Colin Clement spends about three months of every year leading two-week Athens & the Heart of Greece Tours for Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door. Born and raised in Scotland, Colin earned a university degree in philosophy and politics, then spent the 1980s traveling the world (Europe, Middle East, North Africa, Pakistan, India, Southeast Asia, Australia) working odd jobs and teaching English. For the past twenty years he has called Alexandria, Egypt his home. When he's not guiding tours, Colin directs a small publishing company and serves as a translator and communications officer for the French state archaeological mission, Centre d'Etudes Alexandrines.
For this interview, we thought we'd focus exclusively on the financial crisis that Greece is going through today, how it's affecting the Greek people, and how it may impact travelers as well. It's natural we would turn to our friend Colin for this. To quote one tour member, "Knowledgeable, personable and wonderful are just three of the adjectives I would use to describe Colin. His knowledge of Greece is incredible."
Colin, do the Greeks have a particular word or name for what their country is going through this year?
Actually, "crisis" is a Greek word. The origin of its meaning comes from "decide" — and that is very much what the Greeks are having to do. They must decide whether to stay in the Euro zone, and at what cost. And they must decide how they can reshape their political landscape, which...to put it frankly...is pretty much rotten and twisted.
You've led several of our tour groups through Greece in recent weeks. Has anything gone against what they've expected?
Tour members have been surprised that our tours have gone off without any major difficulties whatsoever. The odd strike here, the odd change of itinerary there, but we have not missed any significant visit or site in the past three seasons of industrial and economic strife. If anything, the experience has been better, in that the present troubles have underlined to tour members that Greece is not just about a distant "Classical" past, temples and mythology etc., but also very much about a small, poor republic in the far south-eastern corner of Europe that is actually younger as an independent nation state than the U.S. Greece, effectively, is a new country still in formation, and the troubles of today are part of that process of formation.
From a traveler's perspective, how would you sum up the changes of the past couple of years, both good and bad?
The differences from a couple of years ago would be: the archaeological sites are far less busy (a good thing); there are perhaps deals to be had in hotel accommodations (a good thing); more beggars and pickpockets in Athens (a bad thing); evening "tavern" life in the villages is much reduced (a bad thing). Generally, however, Greece is still as beautiful as ever and the Greeks are very keen for people to return.
People who run small hotels or restaurants in Greece, what challenges and fears are they facing today?
Taxes have increased, bookings are down. There are fewer visitors to help support that part of the economy. Businesses are simply grinding to a halt.
Looking back, do you recall anyone in Greece during the boom years sounding out a warning?
There was perhaps a sense that the fat times were too much so, in that conspicuous consumption had become flagrant. Too many big cars, too many private swimming pools, an inflationary building boom, and huge amounts of money spent on the 2004 Olympic Games — an event always previously staged by much bigger, wealthier countries. Certain more sensitive elements in Greek society voiced concerns that the country was losing its "soul," but many were just happy to have access to credit, and be able to buy consumer durables.
All things (degrees of economic pain) being equal, do you think Greeks would prefer to keep the euro as their currency?
The majority of Greeks would like their country to stay in the euro zone. Whether this is a "done deal" is far from certain, however, and ultimately depends on decisions in Berlin and Paris.
If the euro is a good thing gone bad, why hope to hang on to it?
Membership of the EU and the euro zone has an existential significance for the Greeks. They are very aware of their Ottoman/eastern past — a love/hate relationship if ever there was one — but being in the European club is reassuring. It underlines their European identity, and even gives a sense of superiority.
How is all this affecting Greek politics?
The New Democracy party just scraped through in the June election — largely because of a rule by which the leading party in terms of members elected is awarded an extra 50 seats in the parliament. So, the majority has not been squarely won. This party is led by Antonis Samaras, who's had a checkered career in terms of party loyalty and what he actually believes in. He initially stood against the terms of the EU bailout when he was part of the minority opposition. Then he became pro when he was invited to join a caretaker technocrat government. He was then largely responsible for forcing this past general election when he saw a chance for himself to be a clear winner, which he wasn't, thus intensifying the crisis. Samaras represents the old model of politician in Greece; i.e. self-serving.
Many hoped the June election would forge a greater sense of unity in Greece. Have you seen signs of that?
I feel the Greeks are still far from putting their divisions aside. The Greeks are a charming and hospitable people — but they are also very argumentative and disputatious. This present crisis has polarized political thought in the country and given a boost to more extreme forms of political representation — including a very ugly neo-nazi party called Golden Dawn. I don't think these tendencies will quickly disappear because many Greeks are literally desperate. Most people feel that the old political system is broken and corrupt, and the old political actors need to be dumped.
United against the system — that's the extent of unity in Greece today?
Not quite. For anyone who follows soccer, this coming Friday (June 22, 2012) will see Greece play Germany in "Euro 2012", the European Championship. I will be in Athens and am looking forward to watching the game. The Germans, and particularly their chancellor, Angela Merkel, are seen in Greece as the villains of this particular financial fracas.
I dearly hope Greece wins.
Editor's note: Greece lost the soccer match to Germany 4-2. Some philosophical consolation comes from Monty Python.