On the Road in Greece: Life in 2017

 

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Scorpios, Aristotle Onassis’ former island in the Ionian sea.

Hospitality, kindness, generosity, courtesy and respect for seniors were my experiences with the Greek people on my May/June 2017 Trip. Our approximately three-week trip encompassed Athens, the islands, Peloponnese, Epirus, Albania and Central Greece. Prices in hotels, restaurants, taxis, shops and excursions have been reduced. The economic war has not affected the warm welcome of all.  They have problems. It does not affect their genuine interest in making the tourist happy. Now is the time to come to Greece!

Learn the Greek culture, not by hanging out with tourists. We lived and communicated with the working middle class, youth and seniors.  Do not believe the News, guidebooks and internet information. The TRUTH is different. The biggest MYTH is tips. The guide books recommend giving a certain percentage. Persons in the tourist industry depend on it. An Athens Venizelos Airport snack bar has a tip tray. “Years ago, tourists would give tips,” said a snack bar worker. “No longer.” The #93 bus from the airport takes you to the Ktel bus depot at Kifissos Street for 6 euros. Living like a Greek opens a new world.

I have been travelling for the past three years in Greece. 99% of the time tips were not given to excursion guides, taxis, restaurants and hotel staff. We were the exception, following the American standard of a 15 – 20 % gratuity if pleased. Our philosophy: give directly to persons having economic difficulty, not an institution.

The stereotype promoted by certain politicians of the “unindustrious Greek”, no longer applies in 2017. Greeks know how to work hard. When work is over, they leave it behind. They go out and know how to have a wonderful time, talking, singing and dancing. Being in a Greek speaking environment, whether you are fluent in the language or not, is fun.

When we arrived in Athens, May 20th, we had a great stay at the Amalia Hotel at Syntagma Square. The staff helped us sightsee and solve cell phone issues. Remarkable in all our requests. The breakfast was great. Pavlo, our taxi cab driver from Tripolis, Arcadia, drove up to Athens to take us to Tripoli. This is our third year at the Mainalon Hotel. The entire staff treated us as a family.  My husband, John, stayed at the Mainalos Hotel, overlooking the mountains for 21/2 weeks, while I travelled. The Manchester Massacre at the Ariana Grande Concert in London took place during our stay in Greece.

I had an encounter with a gypsy, tripping on cement. Fortunately, I survived with a swollen left face.  The local merchants helped me up and showed sincere concern. This is the Greece one doesn’t see on the news. I wanted to go to Corfu and take an excursion to Agia Saranta and Greek Epirus in Albania. I wanted to understand the roots of Billy Litos and former students. I opened a line of communication with Hara Armeni of Charitos Travel agency. She took personal care of my itinerary, giving me the best price. Hara arranged a stay at the Cavalieri Hotel in front of a beach in Corfu town. Hara personally arranged my airline boarding passes. Travel agent Hara and her network watched over a senior citizen travelling alone. She visited me at the Cavalieri Hotel for coffee. “My son, Panos Giochalas, is studying the clarinet as a musician in Athens University,” she said. She personally answered all my needs.

The miniseries “The Durells in Corfu” was filming in Corfu City in late May. I toured the major sites of Corfu city, such as St. Spyridon Church, saw a religious procession, the Asian Museum, Mon Repos and other sites. Shopping at Sophia Foka’s store with Presvitera Krina Elena was a cultural experience.

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Pontikonisi, Corfu.

I had a minor incident at a Kiosk. The owner did not give me back my cheap phone, claiming it was hers. Beware of kiosks and only deal with authorized cell phone dealers. The Wind store dealer helped me. The young Greeks have a respect for tourists aiding them in all incidents.

The excursion to Albania went very smoothly. The coordination with Hara and her associate Natasha was exceptional. They accommodated my need for a bland, salt free diet. The Albanian tour guides Matilda, Tomi with the Greek bus driver Lambi, showed us the entire country side. The Butrin Archaeological site was memorable. Hara and her associates in Corfu and Albanian supervised an extraordinary tour.

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Achilles dying, Achilleion, Corfu.

The day after I left Corfu, an upsetting incident occurred on the island. “An unprecedented challenge occurred by high school students from Albania who had taken an excursion to Corfu. They sang a nationalistic song that talked about “Great Albania”. They claimed that Corfu is Albanian! The incident was immediately known on the island, with the result that no hotel would accommodate them. They returned to their country… At the same time, Albanian nationalists in the villages of Northern Epirus carried out an overnight vandalism business. They downloaded Greek flags, burned them and then sprayed all the Greek inscriptions in the villages of Moursi, Livadia and Alyko…. targeting Archbishop of Albania Anastasios…”We ask the Albanian state to designate” persona non-grata “as the agent of Greece, Archbishop Anastasios, who holds the Albanian Orthodox Church hostage in order to revive Greek chauvinistic plans.”1 Politics destroys people. I had a great time in Corfu. I plan to contact Hara of Charitos Travel Agency in 2018 for another excursion.

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Dr. John Siolas remembering family roots at Paleopyrgo, Arcadia.

I returned to Tripoli and enjoyed the company of Prof. Spiro and Evangelia Vardouniotis, Dr. Alexios Vardouniotis and his spouse Kanela Karampela Vardounioti, Psychologist/Ph.D. candidate with their children Spiro and George. Tripoli is cool and in the middle of the mountains. The provincial cities are where a person sees the Greek soul. Philologist Pitsa Gerou Macarouni with her husband Christo Macarouni took us on a tour of Levithi and our village of Palepyrgo. Her historical narration was memorable. We had a great traditional dinner at “To Hani tis Kandilas” is a family tavern restaurant operated by Niko Xiroyanni. “Seeing the village church built by your family is a religious pilgrimage to a Holy Place,” she said. Poor villagers created a religious edifice better than their homes, to uplift their souls. KEM bags are comparable or superior to designer labels. I bought three bags from KEM Tripoli.

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Corfu

Kapogiannis Tours in Tripoli arranged a three day stay in Heraklion, Crete in the heart of town at the “El Greco” Hotel. I missed my flight. Kostoula and Maria Kapogiannis saved my trip, along with my Koumbara Evangelia Vardouniotis, arranging for a later flight. Maria, my friend of two years, guided my entire trip for three days with advice on the phone.  Dr. Ioannis Papadakis, told me not to worry about my teeth problem, from my accident in Tripoli. He was there in Heraklion to help me. The El Greco Hotel is in the heart of Heraklion close to all attractions. They have a great breakfast, clean rooms and hotel staff. I could walk to all sites. The bus to Knossos cost 1.25 euros one way. At Knossos, I shopped Greek dresses and novelties at Vergina Sun, the corner shop opposite the bus stop with destination to Heraklion. Aristea was my saleswoman. She is an international saleswoman who works with Gonitsa and owner Giannis Voulgarakis. Crete is known for its raki, that a person can only bring through customs labeled. The best raki is home made. Giannis and other businesspersons kept offering me raki. Quite an experience. Makrina’s shop” at Dedalou 23, Iraklion had a fascinating novelty store with olive wood icons and Cretan made products.

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Knossos, Crete

I explored the real side of Crete with guide/driver Simon of Safari Club. For 75 euros, we visited interior villages, olive groves, the Lasithi Plateaus, Zeus Cave and Tree and a great barbecue at Taverna Zorba. I watched with interest that not one tourist in our group gave Simon a tip. These guides depend on tips. I gave a generous tip. I kept buying Cretan products that I did not need and could not get through customs, just to help the villagers. Everyone kept treating me raki. Crete is the raki paradise of the world. A great trip. Just if you are 69 years old, like me, do not attempt to climb a rocky mountain to Zeus Cave. Walk up the paved road or use a donkey.  I fell two to three times.

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Ioannina Island, Ioannina, Epirus.

I was very slow and needed two men to help me get on a donkey for the return trip. We were at the edge of the mountain trail. I was petrified with fear. George, my donkey trainer told me “Maria is my beloved donkey,” he said. “I have a younger donkey called George, Jr. I cultivate olive groves.” He relaxed me, making this a memorable experience. I also over tipped because I made it off Zeus’ Cave. The young professionals were upset over my lateness. They wanted the fabulous barbecue with unlimited raki and wine. I had to apologize. They were English tourists. Everything went well after dinner at Taverna Zorba.

In my remaining time, I visited north, east and southern Peloponnese in one day tours with taxis and excursions. My last full evening in Tripoli was at the Theatrical Group of the Primary Education Teachers Arcadia. They presented the comedy “Lie in Lie” at the Malliaropoulios Theatre from June 1st to 15th, 2017. Professional, hilarious and enjoyable. A digital presentation of key scenes was shown on a screen in the theater’s entrance.

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“Lie in Lie”, the Theatrical Group of the Primary Education Teachers Arcadia.

My final three-day excursion was of Lefkada, Epirus and Central Greece with Kapogiannis Tours of Tripoli. Kostoula Kapogiannis was the tour guide. For 160 euros, I saw places I never dreamt of. At Lefkada, we took a boat ride and saw Onassis former island of Scorpios. We stayed at the “Asteri Metsovo” overlooking the Pindar mountains, near the Albanian border. This was my year of seeing Albania. The second day, we went to Ioannina, learning about Ali Pasha, a famous historical figure. The third day was spent at Greek Benefactor Tositsa’s museum, famous Vrellis Wax Museum and Cemetery of MesolongiGreece (Aitolia kai Akarnania) of Fallen Greek Heroes.

Our last day in Greece was spent in Athens at the “Parthenon Hotel”, in the heart if the Acropolis. This is an outstanding hotel. I have been trying to get a reservation for two years. Each time it was booked. Mr. Koursiaris, Yiota and staff were exceptional. Yiota for two days tried to arrange problems with my return Delta flight. She accomplished it. They have a wonderful breakfast. My last evening’s touring was with my friends Erica Haralambithou, Doris Christopoulou, old friends from the late 1970’s. Erica was our guide at an Archdiocese Symposium program in 1977. We have an active friendship. Her Father, Dr. Haralambithou, was President of the Maraslios Pedagogical Academy (a 2-year Community College of Pedagogy), in Athens during the 1960’s. Her mother was a medical doctor. Doris was a trained opera singer married to the late Legislator Mr. Christopoulou.  Her daughter, Ioli, received her Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. A memorable evening in an authentic Greek atmosphere. We visited the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens in the Fix Building. Modern art was interesting and enlightening.  The Stavros Niarchos Park is a vital green space, a breath of life for Athens and an important addition to a city with the lowest per capita green space in Europe. A respite from urban concrete and a marvel of architecture.

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Lord Byron, and Cemetery of Mesolongi. Greece (Aitolia kai Akarnania)

In my travels the past three years, there exists a culture and political divide among Americans in group tours. Being with Italians and Greeks made the tour group experience with local guides enjoyable. Tour guides are unofficial ambassadors of their countries. The three days in Iraklion, Crete was a time of island and national mourning for a revered political leader, Constantine Mitsotakis of Chania Crete. The media described the state funeral as “The Last Farewell of Mitsotakis”. Kyriakos Mitsotakis, his son, and President of Nea Democratia, the opposition party, was seen constantly on air with his mother, Dora Bakogiannis. The tragedy of the “Manchester Massacre” took place. Horrifying! That time, I opened the Greek TV channel ANT1 to suddenly hear “America First” by President Donald Trump, regarding the United States’ was going to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. French President Emmanuel Macron replied, “make our planet great again.” The Greek news care only about one fact: cutting of pensions and the mortgage loans to the European Union.

I spoke to Greeks of all ages and vocations. They had a positive outlook on President Donald Trump. Comments included these thoughts: “He is a good man, a businessman who cares about his country.” “He is not a politician.” We need someone like Donald Trump not our current politicians who think of themselves first.” “What can Donald Trump do to hurt us? The damage has been done by the European Union and the previous U.S. President.” Not one negative comment expressed about President Trump. In fact, persons said “Our News is wrong from politics to the economy. They cannot even diagnose the weather correctly. Fake News! We close the news programs, no longer listening.” “We know we are walking off a cliff concerning our pension in one year.” The old are being abused with these cuts, that are causing a humanitarian crisis among the local population. Many said, “this is worse than any other period in Modern Greece.”  In late May and early June, students were taking exams for entry into universities. The cafeterias, restaurants and retail stores had personnel who were university graduates. Many were grateful to have a job.

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– Stavros Niarchos Park.

There was an atmosphere of melancholy regarding the future. Future cuts are being enacted on pensions. A retired university educator had a pension of 2,000 euros. It has been cut to (00 euros. Under the new austerity program, it will be reduced to 700 euros in 2018. A traditional restaurant owner said “we should not have rebelled in 1821 (Greek Revolution of freedom). We have never been free. They (European Powers) put our Revolution leaders in jail or paid fellow Greeks to assassinate them. Other Powers have controlled us.” On the other hand, an educated person said, “if you borrow for forty years, you must spend the n3ext 40 years repaying the loans.” Greeks are going to garbage cans searching for leftover food. They cannot afford to buy food to live. A housewife explained “The credit companies and banks called every day. They begged persons who were naïve to take out loans and credit cards. No one thought of how they were going to pay back loans when they were not making the correct salary. I never took out loans because I knew I could never pay them back.”

One morning at my Asteri Metsovo hotel room, I heard a bishop on Epirus T.V. say “We will endure this trial.” The Greek ship-owners complained that the “cutting of pensions is demoralizing the Greek people. The state sponsored Greek Orthodox Church and Ship-owners are wealth. They can solve the economic crisis easily by paying off the interest on the loans. As of now, only words and no action. As a woman traveler alone, because my spouse wanted peace and quiet in Tripoli’s Manalo mountains, I was aided in my travels by two travel agencies: Hara Armeni of Charitos Travel Agency, Corfu and Maria and Kostoula of Kapogiannis Tours, Tripoli. Local Greek travel agencies are unknown jewels. Using the local bus system of Greece helped me cut down on transportation costs. Local taxis have reduced their fares from ten years ago. Greek restaurants and hotels accommodated my salt-free, rice/grilled chicken diet.

A middle-class businessman told me unbelievable information on the refugees’ economic status. “The Eu gives them free housing and a stipend of 440 euros a month,” he said. “Meanwhile, Greeks work long hours to earn the same amount of money.” My internet research unfolded the following facts at www.theguardian.com: “A sequence of events beginning with the record number of people who flowed into Greece in June 2015 and culminating in the photograph of drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi woke the world to the refugee crisis. The effect of that awakening was to tip the entire humanitarian complex toward Greece, sending resources tumbling out of the developing world into the European Union. It prompted an unprecedented number of international volunteers to descend on the country, the UN refugee agency to declare an emergency inside the European Union, and the EU to deploy its own humanitarian response unit inside Europe for the first time. In the process, it became the most expensive humanitarian response in history, according to several aid experts, when measured by the cost per beneficiary.

Exactly how much money has been spent in Greece by the European Union is much reported but little understood. The online media project Refugees Deeply has calculated that $803m has come into Greece since 2015, which includes all the funds actually allocated or spent, all significant bilateral funding and major private donations.

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View of Athens from the top of Stavros Niarchos Park.

Nevertheless, the $803m total represents the most expensive humanitarian response in history. On the basis that the money was spent on responding to the needs of all 1.03 million people who have entered Greece since 2015, the cost per beneficiary would be $780 per refugee. However, the bulk of these funds was used to address the needs of at least 57,000 people stranded in Greece after the closure of the borders on 9 March 2016, and on this basis the cost per beneficiary is $14,088.

Officials from the EU’s humanitarian operations directorate, Echo, believe the payout per beneficiary was higher than any of their previous operations. One senior aid official estimated that as much as $70 out of every $100 spent had been wasted….

For the established groups already working in Greece, the sudden influx of funds was both welcome and destabilizing. Metadrasi, a Greek organization known for training interpreters and caring for unaccompanied minors, had experienced staff poached by bigger new arrivals on the scene that could afford far higher salaries.

The head of Metadrasi, Lora Pappa, believes the tide of money transformed refugees into “commodities” and encouraged short-term responses. “They [international organizations] were looking at how to show a presence in Greece. This led to some wasting the chance to spend constructively.”

Her rueful conclusion is that “sometimes money can do more harm than good”.2

I saw an unhappy businesswoman in a small shop. I decided to buy. She unfolded a horrific story. “I have handicapped and sick family members,” she said. “I pay rent for my home and store. The gypsies and illegals open stands at 9 p.m. They undercut my prices. The worse is our government. I applied for housing aid. They refused. Only the refugees are supported. My religious faith is saving me. Everyday something positive turns up. I endure.”

The crowded cafes are now part of the scene of Greek life. An American said, “they all have money to go out and spend.” The truth is this: young and old spend 1 to 3 euros to socialize. They get out of their apartments to forget their problems. My refugee grandmother’s philosophy was “when you have problems, spend on a luxury item so you can endure. It creates a positive outlook and hope for the future.” Sound advice that helped us overcome and prosper.  That is what the modern Greek is attempting. I found Crete to be suffering economically. I kept buying small items, that I knew I could not bring through customers, to bring a smile on persons’ faces. A proud people, Cretans would give me raki, olives, olive oil and trinkets. It is a matter of honor.

Hospitality, kindness, generosity, courtesy and respect for seniors are why I keep going back to Greece. People make a place. The Greek culture welcomes all. Ask anyone what is their dream vacation? Going to Greece and the Greek islands. This is a dream of middle class Americans. Now is the time to take the economic plunge and see these extraordinary people. A Greek hospitality belief is that God is in disguise of a stranger. “God changes his appearance every second. Blessed is the man who can recognize him in all his disguises.”
― Nikos KazantzakisZorba the Greek

References:

  1. http://www2.star.gr/ellada/372325/prwtofanhs-proklhsh-albanoi-mathhtes-tragoydoyn-gia-th-megalh-albania-se-ekdromh-sthn-kerkyra
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/09/how-greece-fumbled-refugee-crisis

Links and Services:

Taxis:   Pavlo, Tripoli, pavlos.hliopoulos@gmail.com

Dimitrios Tsiogkas,  Tripoli,6983666366

Vasilis, Athens, welcomes all Arcadians, 6977774035

Cafes: Dimitsana, Spiros Sergopoulos Kafenio (Café), 3722522007

Mani – Areoupolis, Mikro Café

 

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