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Profiles of Greece
Nicholas Econopouly

September 8, 1963

We left Syros last Friday (August 30) at about midnight. The loukoumia salesmen were there again but this time they were hugging James and saying something like "Goodbye Jeemie." That afternoon we had closed up the schools, said farewell to the students and attended a farewell party that evening. Quite a place. Suggestion: if you ever visit the islands, make your headquarters one of the less tourist-frequented islands -- and from there visit Mikonos, Paros, etc. It is difficult to describe the friendliness of the people, their many acts of wonderful generosity (one boy gave James the gold cross which was hanging around his neck, other brought out priceless family photographs -- rare on the island -- and insisted that we take them). The month was a moving experience and we felt at least a little relief upon arriving in cosmopolitan Athens. (The crossing was easier this time, too; we woke up at 8 to find ourselves at a dock in Pireaus.)

Saturday we found ourselves housed in a tourist hotel near Constitution Square (in the tourist section) -- an area to be avoided by all Americans except those in Greece to spend money, see little. The first order of business was to look for a house -- we looked Saturday morning (unsuccessfully). We saw magnificent marble palaces with marble columns -- the place looked a little like some sections of Garden City --at rents ranging from $140 - $175. We almost took one, reconsidered, returned to the hotel for naps and then made a decision: to locate an apartment in Athens. In the meantime we had to move out of the tourist hotel -- we did on Sunday morning. We found one in the Plaka, the old Greek section of Athens: kind of decrepit but with a couple of large rooms (one huge with a balcony). The balcony looked over a small square, a focal point in the Plaka. From the Square, in all directions, narrow streets jammed with people and tiny shops (clothing, food, furniture -- everything). And from the room, a magnificent view of the Parthenon, only a short distance down the street. We spent only two in the hotel but we found it a wonderful place from which to explore the old section. And perhaps the nicest thing about it (despite the three-story climb, lavatory facilities at the end of the hall, strange sounds and activities at night) was the rent: $5.00 per night for both rooms. We learned our lesson quickly: whether on the islands or in the city -- get out of the tourist section FAST!

We found an apartment on the fourth try Monday. It was pure luck. It is a huge apartment in a new building: three big bedrooms, kitchen, two bathrooms, maid's room, living room, dining room and a balcony on both sides (it is a corner site). Across the street, a five-acre park with trees, benches, tables and chairs (you can order anything from a soda to a full course meal at any of the tables). All around, a strange mixture of city and rural: a wide variety of shops (including a movie and taverns) -- and dirt roads. The bus to the heart of Athens (five routes away) stops in front of the apartment (a trip costs about four cents). And the rent? -- $75 a month. We signed the lease Tuesday morning, moved in (four suitcases) Tuesday afternoon. That evening there was a government-sponsored free movie in the park *outdoor): a German film about Africa with Greek subtitles -- and the Three Stooges. Wednesday evening: a government- sponsored band concert. Saturday: a farmers' market.

The only real problem with the apartment is that it is (was) unfurnished. We bought six beds ($50) Tuesday afternoon, a three-burner petrol stove ($20) Wednesday (no-oven - roast in Greece is done at public ovens) and an icebox ($20), and this morning (Sunday), a trip to the Athens flea market to dicker for dining room furniture -- we got six chairs and a table (that opens up to a football field) for $35. So, we are finally situated!

Something should be said about the bus transportation in Athens. It is still startling to see buses moving in clusters of 20 or 30, all filled, down a main thoroughfare of Athens. Bus transportation is fast, waiting time is rarely over 2 or 3 minutes and the fare is low (10 cents to Piraeus, the other city in the Athens megalopolis -- 8 miles away). There is also a stretch of subway from Pireaus-Athens-northern suburbs that will soon be expanded. In other words, the almost three million people in the Athens area are moved around quickly although the population is highly concentrated.

The other most impressive thing about Athens has been the building. With the surge of population from the rural areas into the city (depriving the rural areas of the more educated, more energetic, by the way) there has been a huge need for housing. It is going up everywhere -- most of it ugly, haphazardly located -- the sense of expansion that the visitor gets is as strong, for example, as that in New York. The difference is that housing and roads are the only major areas in the Greek economy that have experienced rapid growth; manufacturing, desperately needed, has actually declined. (So has the amount of money that has gone into education -- except for lawyers and doctors, who are everywhere in the Athens area. The country turns out very few engineers.)

We saw poverty in the rural areas (average annual income: $65) but it also exists in Athens (15% unemployment despite $500 annual income). The Communist Party is strong in Athens (Constitution Square was the only part of mainland Greece held by the British for a time at the end of World War II) -- its political appeal is such that it can still count on 25% of the votes. (It will be interesting to see how well it does in the present election campaign.)

There has been a steady immigration of skilled labor and technicians, desperately need if only there was enough energy and imagination to build industries around them, from Athens to Germany -- this, according to a man we spoke to the other night, has been the only concrete result from Greece's associate membership in the common market. (Greece's population is declining, by the way: 1.9 growth rate (LOW); a .8 death rate -- and emigration also drains Greece of population.)

A large part of the problem, I guess, is the Greek himself. Scandinavian socialism is not going to develop here -- the Greek is still too much of an individual for that. He functions well as an individual -- he has done remarkably well in the U.S. where opportunities are abundant. But put him in a group framework and he has trouble -- the result is either fierce arguments, or, as in many areas of government work, indifference and despondency. There are individual little shops by the thousands and thousands -- shoe shops after shoe shop, followed by a whole line of pottery shops, followed by tiny copperware shops, etc. But the big-scale industry is rare *and even then, a family affair). (We heard the comment that twenty Greeks working in the American Express Bank see themselves each as the owner of his own little booth -- and communication between booths sometimes isn't too smooth or easy -- or frequent.) There has been an explosion in individual creative areas -- Athena is the center of exciting things, just now happening in art, poetry, music, drama. But few corporations. And in rural areas Greeks work 12 hours a day, seven days a week -- or, more likely, not at all.

Other things? Attended an embassy party at the home of the minister. I told him about the fiesta -- the man who is in charge of expenditures for Greece and eastern Mediterranean got excited, as did several others. What else? -- a beautiful botanical garden nearby, with a zoo. Evzones on guard at the palace look very big and very impressive.

So when will the new high school be ready?

Time to hang up.

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