My plans to vacation in Greece in the summer of 2012 were made independently of the debt crisis. It’s not like I was going specifically to watch the beginning of the end of the Euro or be a witness to history on some grand scale.
I was going sailing with my boyfriend and his parents, a retired French couple. The trip had been planned months before the phase austerity measures blared from every other headline and NPR was informing people about riots and Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi leaning political party growing in popularity.
I was excited about the prospect of being in a country that was the focus of so much media attention. I felt bad about the economy, but not too bad. I was a little worried about the safety factor, but not too worried.
My boyfriend’s parents had been traveling off and on throughout Greece in the spring. They said that from a tourist perspective it was business as usually. Nothing dramatic to see.
I was sure they were wrong.
Shortly before the trip I read an article about the rise in burglaries. Criminals throughout Europe were flocking to Greece, bolding breaking into homes during the day to steal the money Greeks had withdrawn from the banks they were losing faith in. According to the article, some robberies occurred while the homeowners were casually relaxing on their verandas.
I practiced how to say “Attentions! Les pirates!” in case our sailboat was invaded in the middle of the night, while we were docked. I practiced saying it with my eyebrows raised in mock horror, and saying it while pointing at the imaginary pirates (in case I had to alert people on the boat near by, who, presumably, would also be French speakers).
When I arrived in Greece, in the taxi ride between the airport and the harbor, I was on the lookout for signs of a revolution. Most of the signs I saw were roadside stands selling watermelons.
During the week we spent sailing around the islands of Andros, Tinos and Kea, there wasn’t much to see in terms of breaking economic news. The tavernas were mostly empty, but the tourists among us kept insisting it was just the start of the vacation season, and the seats would fill up later.
Returning to the mainland for a few days, I started to see repetitive graffiti that I interpreted as political symbols. There were clovers, a number seven and half of a swastika. Usually, two or three of each appeared together, like a Democratic poster being taped up next to a Republican one. Sometimes they were ineffectively painted over, like the censor had run out of paint, and sometimes they were boldly crossed out, as if the person covering it up wanted you to know he was covering it, not erasing it from memory but emphasizing his disapproval.
This was the closest thing I saw to any native symbol that trouble was brewing. Was trouble even brewing? I was sitting at a café, drinking beer and reading a New York Times article about the desperate state of the tourism industry and the intense, unmistakable sadness pouring out from the Greek people.
The first line of the article was “Taking a vacation in Greece this year may feel a bit like intruding on private grief.” I looked around me and saw a group of children playing. Later that night the cafes in Methana were packed with people watching the Greece vs. Russia football match. Greece won, and the mood was festive.
On Sunday, June 17 we were in Athens during election day. Aside from a few TV cameras in front of government buildings and relaxed police outside of what may have been polling stations, it was hard for an outsider to tell that an election was going on.
When we arrived at the gate of the Acropolis it was clear there was an election going on because the ruins had a sign posted saying the attraction was closed because of the elections.
It was frustrating, but if that’s the biggest impact the financial crisis was having on tourists, that’s not really worth a mention.
It’s possible that the scenes of happiness I kept seeing were coincidentally linked together and nothing more. Like when I went to Africa and found that every meal was filled with mayonnaise, and Dolly Parton music filled the radio.
Maybe it was reality in a bubble, but it was the reality I saw.