I pondered a great deal as to what to write in my monthly column. Given the events of January 25 (Greek election), there is certainly much to talk about. I prefer not to.
Instead, I offer a piece from my blog, www.alexanderbillinis.com, which I wrote in late 2012. No sidewalks and flimsy identification cards may seem like a strange thing to comment on, but I believe they are, rather, symptomatic of a society in need of an overhaul. Nobody in the kaleidoscopic spectrum of the Greek parliament seems willing or ready to do this, and unless something big is done about the little things, debt relief/forgiveness/EU or no EU/Euro or no Euro/ will not prevent the next crisis from being just over the horizon, regardless of how this current one plays out.
It was a brisk fall day in 2007, after waiting for 11 months, my wife’s US passport got her official Greek resident permit, as the spouse of a Greek citizen, giving her the right to work and to reside in Greece for five years, after which she could apply for citizenship. The office in the Athenian suburb of Maroussi was dusty and smoky; though the building was new, it looked decades old. My wife looked at me sadly and said, “If any country could go bankrupt, it will be Greece.”
I turned around, angry. Just another commentary about the Greek Reality, as people here so euphemistically call it. “Ok, why?” I snapped. “Look at the office we were just in,” she said, “two people to each computer, a dozen computers, and nobody working.”
We were walking in the street, yes, in the street, to get to our car, parked, in our case, legally in supposedly upscale Maroussi. It would be unfair to say that there were no sidewalks at all, because some blocks did have sidewalks, these following no particular pattern, but most did not, or sidewalks became the property of parked cars. The biggest reason we did not have our second child in Greece was because of sidewalks. Most parts of Athens do not have them, and I really do not want to compete with Athenian drivers for the narrow streets while pushing a stroller.
My cousins in Greece would laugh at my “sidewalk issue,” thinking it just another Greek American hang up. However city planners in places more enlightened than Athens have emphasized the importance of sidewalks, for health, safety, community, and commerce. They also are an expression of what a community thinks of itself, and how seriously the government enforces codes which do exist. In both cases, Greece comes up woefully short, not just vis a vis Western Europe, but even her fellow Balkan neighbors. For example, Sofia, Bulgaria, where I lived in 1994, had sidewalks, though they too are now, in all too familiar Balkan fashion, swallowing up their sidewalks with construction and parked cars, seeking, perhaps, to out-Athens Athens. Belgrade too, generally has quite usable sidewalks, notwithstanding similar Balkan games to Athens. Park illegally long enough in Belgrade, though, and a “spider” [large crane truck] will show up and take your car. Getting your car back will cost the equivalent of two weeks’ salary or more. Bucharest, Romania? Well, there is as bad as Athens, proving that Greek and Romanian ties go beyond just Byzantine Orthodox civilization, but include Ottoman rot as well. I have not been to Tirana, Albania’s capital and I simply would not have the heart to compare it to Athens.
Speaking of Ottoman, I have been to Istanbul and Izmir (Constantinople and Smyrna) in Turkey and in both places I found sidewalks. Sure I did not go into the poorer sections of either city, but in a seaside suburb of Izmir analogous to, say, Glyfada in Athens, I saw broad sidewalks spotlessly clean. Not so in Glyfada.
How about Greek Identity Cards, “Tautotites.” I got mine in my wallet, and the laminate is, typically, cheap and fraying. Mine is hand written, in Greek and Latin characters, and when I was waiting for my new chip style Greek passport, I used the ID card to travel throughout Europe. When we lived in Britain after living in Greece, I found British passport control and civil service people too polite to snigger at the state of my ID card, but elsewhere officials are far less polite. I tried to cross the Serbian-Hungarian border and the Hungarian customs people refused my ID card, looking at it with contempt and then searching my car from top to bottom. Thankfully I am American and produced my US passport. I travel that route constantly and I never used any Greek ID again, even my Greek passport. In Serbia I produced it in our bank and the teller laughed out loud, “My, yours are worse than ours!” I gave her a piece of my mind, but it hurt that it was true. My Serbian-American wife’s Serbian ID card is European standard, credit card shaped with digital photo and chip. The old Serbian ID cards were junky booklets, but they have since moved on. Not Greece. Turkey has just announced they will be issuing “Smart ID Cards” which can double as credit cards. Greece seems content with “Dumb Ones.”
I remember when I worked in Greece as a banker, and in a management meeting, I made the career-limiting point of laughing out loud when a colleague said that Greek state risk is rated (in 2006) the same as German or Dutch. In explaining (and defending) myself, I pulled out my Greek ID and said, “the state that produces this cannot be the same risk as Germany!” Other Greek friends have shared their own “Greek ID experiences.” This includes smirks, humiliations, extra searches, and often enough, an unwillingness to accept the card as ID.
This fall, back in America, I would flourish my Greek ID to Greek Americans as a prime illustration of “why Greece is where she is today.” A friend I went to high school with in Utah exclaimed, “I had more authentic-looking fake ID cards than this, back in the day!” It’s not finance, it’s civic culture, or the lack of it. Sidewalks and ID Cards, while seemingly unimportant, provide a key insight into just how severely damaged Greece is today.