By Akhil Sharma
Fall is coming to Greece. The men who stand in the middle of the street in the beach towns near Athens are now selling batteries instead of towels and plastic bottles. I went to Greece this summer to try to memorialize what the first summer after the near collapse of the Greek economy was like. I wanted to see if one could feel the weight of the history that was occurring.
When my taxi pulled up before Periscope, my hotel in Athens, a semi-truck with loudspeakers on the roof was driving by announcing that the driver was ready to buy scrap metal. Hearing this I was reminded of India and my childhood in Delhi. I wondered if this scrap metal collection was based on the challenges that the Greek economy is facing or whether it was a long standing aspect of life in Athens?
When I asked the concierge, he laughed and said that this had nothing to do with the economy.
Periscope is something of a boutique hotel. It is small and intimate, and it is in a neighborhood that is less touristy and more like where a rich friend might live. Staying in hotels like this gives one both a sense of what a city or country is actually like while simultaneously providing the service one needs on a business trip.
The goal of my trip was to memorialize what Greece to outsiders looked like; to me it seemed there were already enough experts. When I went for long walks in the neighborhood, what I saw over and over again was an ease, a relaxed attitude which might be sensible, but might also explain some of the problems that Greece is running into. Often I saw shop workers, young women in elegant jackets who stood outside their shops smoking while the occasional customer wandered around unattended inside. Athens was the first city on my trip and I didn’t want to extrapolate too broadly.
From Athens, I went to Rhodes.
The medieval old town is a UNESCO world heritage site, and normally the cobblestoned streets are crowded through the day. When I was visiting, only the very heart of the old town, several lanes and plazas, were crowded. Rhodes also has some gorgeous jewelry shops. I decided to buy my wife a ring, and I asked the shopkeeper whether I could get a receipt for a VAT refund. She said, “I don’t pay taxes.” I asked the woman if she thought her not paying taxes was bad for the country. The woman glared at me and, without saying anything, shoved the jewelry box across the counter.
The Avalon is a hotel that is built into the old stone walls of the town. Because Rhodes’ Old Town is also where many of the government offices are, the Avalon has more than its share of business travelers who arrive for appointments with government regulators. One of these businessmen, a man who asked me not to use his name, said, “You make an appointment. You show up on time. They tell you to come tomorrow.” The businessman lived in one of the small towns of the island. “The best part of coming to Rhodes,” he said, “is that this hotel is so nice.”
One of the strange aspects of being in Greece and being both conscious of the crisis that the country is undergoing and also, constantly, being pressed on by the physical beauty of the Greek islands is that one begins to think that one is small minded for thinking Greece might need to be more like Germany or America. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Santorini, probably the most beautiful of the Greek islands.
Coming in and out of my hotel, on my way to and from appointments, I kept thinking I was mad for trying to pack so much work into any one day. The hotel that I was staying in, Katikies, is built along a cliff wall so it seems to be hanging over Santorini’s famous caldera. While I was racing about the island in a taxi, I passed people sitting in little roadside bars watching soccer on television. Seeing them, I began thinking, how much money do I need to be happy? One evening I sat by the hotel pool and drank a glass of wine as the sun set and the waiters began to be erased by the dark, and I felt that I had been too judgmental up till then.
The island of Patmos is where St. John the Divine is supposed to have written the Book of the Apocalypse. It is an island which is off the beaten track even for the Greeks. Small and dry, most of its water is shipped in. This is not dramatic beauty the way that Santorini is. Instead Patmos has a quiet subdued loveliness.
The manager of the hotel I stayed in, Petra, is an artist who built a vacation home for his family and then, because the home was beautiful and it cost a lot to maintain, began renting out rooms. Then slowly, only adding what he wanted to add on, the hotel became the hotel to stay at in Patmos and is now considered one of the best in Greece.
This story of how Petra succeeded made me think that perhaps the Greeks are fine the way they are.
I asked Christos Stergiou, president of True Greece, the leading luxury travel company in Greece, how tourists are reacting, and he had the same response that I eventually began to have: People would mind if Greece changed too much.
**** Akhil Sharma, a writer based in New York, is the author of An Obedient Father.