This morning at the gym, I turned on the news to see live footage of the riots taking place in front of the Greek Parliament building in Athens. Dark-haired Greek men and women faced off with tough-looking policemen bearing shields and tear gas, in an awkward dance where both parties tried to guess when or if the opposing crowd would make a move.
I recognized that square in front of the Parliament building in Athens–I had gone there with friends back in 2006 on a tour of Greece. My friend Sy and I had crashed a Greek wedding nearby, on accident (we walked into a church where a wedding happened to be taking place, and we couldn’t very well just leave–it was a Greek wedding!) Sy, my other friend Ileana, and I had also explored the market in the square and really enjoyed the laidback feel to the Greek capital.
It seems like the laidback feel also came with some risks. I remember a guide telling me in Greece that life there was great–you could retire super early and enjoy a generous government-funded pension, when you did work you received tons of government-subsidized perks, and you received a ton of paid vacation days. I definitely could not say the same for the U.S., and the Greeks definitely could not understand the concept that Americans barely get one or two weeks of paid vacation a year, if they’re lucky.
In the end, sadly, Greece faced major deficits and saw their economy spiraling out of control. Today, June 29, the government had to vote on whether or not to make serious economic reforms. People were out protesting because, naturally, it was difficult to even fathom the reality of all the benefits they were used to being taken away.
While trying to stay focused on my workout and burn off the ice cream from last night (red velvet ice cream if anyone’s curious–heaven in a pint), I thought about how much I had enjoyed Greece. Sy, Ileana, and I had taken our graduate exams at King’s College London and had gone straight to Heathrow Airport to catch a flight to Athens. We spent several days exploring the ruins of Athens, then took a cruise around several islands such as Mykonos, Crete, Santorini, and others.
My favorite memories from Greece were visiting Patmos (where the apostle John, according to historical analysis, wrote the Biblical book of Revelation); strolling through the amazing Plaka shopping district in Athens and buying way too much; having a Greek boatman say, “Parakalo” with a toothless grin when I tried to use my pocket dictionary Greek and told him, “Efharisto” when he helped me off of the boat; riding a donkey down the caldera of Santorini; and the food.
Oh, the food. I fell in love just with the Greek cuisine alone. Every morning I eagerly headed to breakfast so that I could enjoy a big bowl of Greek yogurt with fresh honey and pistachio, at lunchtime I couldn’t wait to dig into a heaping plate of moussaka, and about twice a day I had a craving for yogurt and honey ice cream. I remember making numerous trips to the market for fresh olives, stuffing my backpack with jars of Greek honey, and hauling away bags of fresh Santorini pistachio nuts to take back and enjoy in London.
When I snapped out of my reverie, the news reported that they had received word on the outcome of the vote. The government did indeed go through with passing austerity measures, and it looks like Greece will face tax hikes and spending cuts in order to secure bailout funds from the IMF. Things are about to change in major ways for the Greeks.
I hope that Greece is able to get its economic situation under control soon. It’s such an amazing, unforgettable place, and once you’ve been there, you understand why. Athens alone is unlike any other city in the world–once you’ve stood in front of the imposing Parthenon, all of those pictures in history books from your childhood come to life. And the islands…I could go on forever about the islands.
In the meantime, as a country with such an incredible history, hopefully Greece will write a new chapter. One with brighter days ahead.