On the Greco-Turkish border 19 May 2012
People keep asking me about Greece, whether it’s as bad as it seems, a zombie state heading blindly for the abyss. It’s an extraordinary time to be here. I’m in Western Thrace, up against the Turkish border, and I’ve spent the last three weeks to-ing and fro-ing between here and Istanbul.
The view seems calm enough. Yes, people complain of growing unemployment, increased taxes, decreasing pensions, house prices and rents falling, but the streets are still full of cars and motorbikes whizzing back and forth. Akis, who owns a small hotel in which I’ve just stayed on Samothrace, doesn’t hesitate to drive the 500 metres between his office and the hotel at least ten times a day. He wouldn’t contemplate walking. In the small Aegean port of Alexandroupolis, where I am now, the dozens of cafes and tavernas are busy enough. Ok, so maybe people sit over a single kafe elliniko all morning, but the Greeks seem to have maintained their buoyant capacity for enjoying themselves. Akis worries that tourism will be down this summer because of Greece’s bad press, but so far things are ticking along OK.
As for the infrastructure, the dozens of buses and ferries I’ve taken over the last three weeks have all run efficiently and on time. Public parks are gardened, museums open. In posh Kolonaki in Athens, spring saw a sprouting of ‘To Let’ signs on shop windows, but here the glossy jewellery and clothes shops along Alexandroupolis’s main street are open for business. Even in a remote backwater like Soufli, on the Turkish border, there’s a smart pharmacy selling expensive Korres products – hair conditioner at over €10.
Perhaps people haven’t faced up to the crash that’s coming. Some are confident that the EU will continue to bail them out because of the knock on risk to other economies. Others think the crisis has been exaggerated. Others tell me that the rich will always be rich, if a little less so – especially in Greece where they undoubtedly have fingers in all kinds of pies. Perhaps the kind of people in a one-horse town who can afford €10 for a small tube of hair conditioner will always be able to do so. I don’t know.
What really upsets people is the uncertainty: no one knows what’s going to happen next. Everything’s on hold. My friends wonder if they should leave the sinking ship and find jobs or fellowships abroad – but they’re hard to find, especially when the whole world’s in recession. They wonder if they should take their Euros out of the bank, but are afraid of provoking a run on the banks. Now everyone’s waiting for the re-run of the elections.
Many of my friends were appalled by the May election of 21 neo-Nazis to parliament. Half the police force voted for them. It’s as if they seek someone else to blame for their woes, and turn on the most obvious target, so I came north to find out more. Every day the train and bus station in Alexandroupolis is full of young Asians, Africans, Kurds and Syrians who have made it (illegally) from Turkey across the Evros river. Last year 54,000 people were arrested here, and given the right to remain for 30 days. They head for Athens, where most hope to make it to another West European country, but many end up staying on without work or papers. It’s ironic that so many people sacrifice their family’s worldly goods, and possibly years of their lives, to get to a country almost as chaotic as their own, but I came out of one interview with a harassed – swamped – police chief, and saw a café parasol emblazoned with the word ‘Paradise’. However crumbling Greece may be, it’s certainly paradise compared with the squalor of downtown Dhaka or the violence of Khabul and Syria.
It may be a headache for the Greek police, and yet another problem for the state, but people trafficking has become a good business here, more profitable than smuggling drugs. The café opposite the train station is rumoured to be where the traffickers hang out, and it’s said that in a good year they can make €100,000. People make money not only from arranging to move people across borders, but also from driving them in taxis and buses from the detention centres to the station. Sometimes prices get marked up, and in their ignorance and vulnerability, the new-arrivals pay what they’re asked. As summer approaches and the dangerous Evros river falls and gets safer to cross, numbers will go up. And so, I suppose, will the number of black shirts on the streets of Athens.