Saturday, November 5, 2011

"So, What's Happening in Greece These Days?"

I really didn’t want to be writing about Greece this week.  It seems every email I receive these days starts off with, “What’s happening there?” or some more or less energetic (vituperative?) variation on that general theme.

I certainly don’t fault anyone for showing interest.  After all, how can sane people not want to know why the birthplace of reason and democracy is running a Grand Kabuki length production of classic Greek_____ [Ed. Note: Here’s the audience participation part of this week’s rant.  Choose and insert “drama” or “comedy” here­—as much as that choice might seem a distinction without a difference vis a vis the performance under review].

Forgive me for not jumping right to my answer for “what’s happening.”  You see, I’m pining away at the moment for the good old days, ones I described just a couple of books back (Assassins of Athens) when “[T]he rest of the world doesn’t give a damn about what goes on here.  Unless something is burning, Greece doesn’t make the international news.  Even then, not for long.

Greece's Parliament
Not sure when those days will return, but that failing puts me in the illustrious company of every politician in Greece, because if one of them has any sense of when that will be, it (I’m purposely using the “neutered” pronoun) sure as hell is keeping that wisdom secret from its government colleagues, the Greek people, and the rest of the world.

So, let’s forget about gaining any meaningful insight into how Greece will weather its crisis from a national, macro-economic point of view.  The place to find such a clue is at the micro-economic, down home level; for history has shown that no matter what law or system is imposed upon them, Greeks find a way to survive and flourish. 

Any such analysis, of course, must start with Greeks who (still) have money.  That narrows the size of the group considerably, since it generally excludes most public employees these days, as well as luxury goods and other industries facing shuttering taxation—as in closing their businesses.  And the word “industry” in Greece does not include any meaningful manufacturing base for that fled the country long ago.

Today, industry in Greece means just one thing: tourism.  It’s the only game in town.  It floats everyone’s boat.  It puts psomi on the table.  It…well, you get the idea.

In other words, when tourism works things happen.  Let’s take Mykonos for example.  The tourist season this year wasn’t great.  But nor was it as bad as many feared.  And since Greeks are by nature optimistic, when they see an opportunity they jump at it. 
Themis, ancient goddess of Justice

Enter the Greek government with a recently passed law having an admirable purpose.  It allows landowners who built illegally on property they could have built on legally, but failed to obtain the necessary official approvals and sign-offs (for various reasons), the opportunity to legitimize what they built.  They simply pay a fine roughly equivalent to what it would have cost had the structure been built in compliance with all applicable laws.  For example, a 100 square meter (1,076 sq. ft.) home built without legal permission on an otherwise legally zoned spot is legitimized upon payment of a 36,000 euro fine ($50,000).  It was intended to be a win-win situation.  The owner avoids further official harassment and can now freely sell his property without complications, and the government raises much needed cash. 

But there’s always a wrinkle.  And where there’s a wrinkle you can be sure that the Greek entrepreneurial spirit of some (both private and public) will find a way to iron it out.  

A key requirement of the new law is that the structure to be legalized must have been built on land that was legally zoned for such construction at the time it was built.

In Mykonos, for example, a change to its zoning law did not allow construction to proceed in certain areas after 2005.  In other words, no structures could be erected legally after that date.

Mykonos is currently in the midst of a building boom.  (Like I said, it wasn’t that bad a season).  There’s not a carpenter, plumber, or electrician to be found, and I hear many of them are working on property where new construction is forbidden by the 2005 zoning law.

So, why are so many building so frantically in places where even legal construction is forbidden?  Simple answer: Someone hit on the idea to build now and say you built before 2005.  Ingenious, huh?  Well that’s one word. 

I’m sure you’re dying to ask how could anyone expect to get away with that on a small island where everything you do is someone else’s business?  And why bother to build at all in the face of such dire financial predictions for your country?

My answer to those questions is the same as the one I have to “what’s happening there?”  Don’t bother trying to figure it out unless you’re born and raised there.

Accept it world, some things are meant to remain incomprehensible.



  1. "Don’t bother trying to figure it out unless you’re born and raised there."

    I loved these comments, especially the sentence above. It applies to small towns and small places everywhere.

  2. Right, so here's my theory. Economic armageddon is slowly striking the different regions of this blog. First Iceland, now Greece...who's next?

  3. This whole week, I've been wondering what you were thinking of what's going on. I love the example of the building. People can accomplish much if they remain optimistic, and just take care of their little piece of the pie. Too bad our government seem to have forgotten that.

  4. The way things are going, Joe, we may all be moving to a small town, have Lil bake the pies, and pray wherever we are doesn't end up on Dan's hit list.

    Frankly, I think the subject of Greece's Armageddon is wearing people down, sort of like all the SARS coverage did. But apparently there still are some who remain interested. I just received a telephone call from a major Midwest radio station asking to interview me during "prime driving time" Monday morning for my take on the what "regular" Greeks, not politicians, think of what's happening to their country. Before getting into that sort of discussion on air, I better check on the FCC's current position regarding the use of four-letter word answers in a translation.

  5. Jeff, despite all the turmoil, due to your posts and wonderful photos of Mykonos, I'm eager to visit there. Perhaps other tourists will feel the same way. I'm rooting for ANY country trying to sort through the economic mess.

  6. Despite all the angst and agony, Greece is still a paradise for tourists. And you'll love it, Charlotte.