Marriage and annual trips to Greece for over 15 years, including a visit right now, give me some perspective on the lives of tourists and residents.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/7/2015 (2302 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Opinion

Marriage and annual trips to Greece for over 15 years, including a visit right now, give me some perspective on the lives of tourists and residents.

I'm an atypical tourist given the benefits of a Greek wife, including a home and many Greek acquaintances. We also prefer a basic Greek lifestyle to standard tourist fare. Nonetheless, here's my thoughts for people considering a visit.

Many things are unchanged. The weather is wonderful, the sea inviting and numerous sites inspire awe at the accomplishments of ancient builders. Cheap beer (order Fix!) and wine cap wonderful meals comprised of exceptionally flavourful dishes, some long associated with Greece (calamari, bifteki, souvlaki, moussaka, gemista), and some not (great pizzas, wonderful pastries, delicious ice creams). Innumerable cafés provide comfortable settings and excellent drinks, a personal favourite being Freddoccino.

Access to money is slightly more challenging than in the past. Limits on bank withdrawals apply only to Greek accounts, and I have readily withdrawn larger amounts, given ATMs have sufficient funds.

Find ATMs off the beaten track, go in the morning and use less popular banks that accept foreign cards. Before visiting, ensure your daily limits are adequate and obtain multiple cards.

My experiences with credit cards are mixed, even at businesses that historically accepted them. Some purchases (grocery stores, bicycle store) went fine, others (a gas station) did not. Some owners probably prefer euros right now amid concerns about banks and currency. Check ahead that major expenses, such as hotels, can be charged and carry backup funds.

One potential bonus for foreign tourists is domestic tourism may be down due to limited bank withdrawals, which could mean smaller crowds at popular sites. It also emphasizes the economic importance of foreign tourists visiting Greece despite the current crisis.

Over the years, I have experienced many aspects of Greek life that were already challenging, such as getting married, coverage for health care, managing an inheritance and building a home. They are much more so now. Most tradespeople work for cash, but people cannot access sufficient funds right now, adding more barriers to a system that at times was already vexing (disposing of a derelict truck was a Herculean bureaucratic task!).

There is little doubt about the economic challenges for average Greeks, especially pensioners. Modest pensions have been cut back. A lifetime of equally modest salaries does not allow much saving for retirement, and employer pension plans are rare. Add to that a banking situation that makes it more difficult to access money on a regular basis, and frustrations abound.

To fully appreciate the impact of recent austerity, recognize many aspects of Greek society were already underfunded. The public health-care system was deficient, hospitals being a notable example that we experienced with my father-in-law. Lack of staff, for example, meant family members substituted for orderlies, sometimes even sleeping in the hospital. Not surprisingly, a parallel private system exists.

Perhaps the greatest psychological strain is uncertainty. When the crisis started, friends predicted a "cure" within five years. Five years later, austerity has made the crisis worse, as predicted by some economists. Yet the EU promises more of the same, and Greeks were faced with harsh terms to remain with the euro and, in some Greek minds, the West, or with going it alone and perhaps turning to potential saviours elsewhere in the world.

There is much anger that Greece has been turned into a Third World country to the benefit of foreign banks and companies in Germany and China. The loans Greece owes (the bailout?) went primarily to foreign banks.

Dictated privatization means a state-owned Chinese company now operates much of the port of Piraeus with poorly paid workers (about $20,000 a year), enabling the cheap flow of goods between Europe and China.

And there will be much unrest, divisiveness and hardship to come. People I've asked were divided between voting Yes or No, with some doubt that either serves the interests of Greece. Most people believed it would be close, either was a considerable gamble and the years ahead promise little relief.

If you sympathize with Greeks, buy Greek products (Greek wines, olive oil) and come visit a wonderful country and people.

Jim Clark, a University of Winnipeg psychology professor, wrote this from Zevgolatio.