18 December 2019

Why Greece?

Yes, we've moved to Greece; Thessaloniki to be specific. On seeing this, a long-time friend sent me a message asking "But why move when the country seems in so much turmoil?"

It is a great question. Why would anyone move to a country that is in such a sorry state, after years of economic devastation and waste, where the pictures we see juxtapose ancient ruins with modern ruins and riots? Really though, the decision was easy.

Consider this the first, and not the complete, post on "Why Greece", and expect more posts to come. There is simply no way to say all there is to say in one post. 

Ivory figurine from the
tomb of Phillip II
(actual size: ~2cmx2cm)

When Francoise and I were considering where after Panama, which as you'll have seen is simply too corrupt for us to do anything meaningful, and the weather is too brutal to be enjoyable for other than a few months of the year, we considered several places. In Panama, the food is terrible, and the service culture simply does not exist, and "gringos" (any "white" or "European" looking person regardless of nationality, language or accent) are not welcomed other than as marks.

Greece is entirely different, in almost every way (other than corruption, but that will be a different story).

So where to begin? Greece is lovely, and the food is incredible. It is cheap, plentiful and fresh. Eating out is inexpensive (our meals out when there was no real kitchen where we are staying) have averaged Euro 35 (approx $40 for two people, with wine). And we have been over-ordering and over-eating. Since then, we have learned to order a third less.

And while it is possible to eat nothing but "classic" Greek food (tzatziki, souvlaki, fried calamari, fish, etc) is is also easy to find variations and experimentation, creating simply fantastic dishes and eating experiences. And all at very reasonable prices.

We have found a wonderful little place in the market in downtown Thessaloniki.
A small cafe on the market square, next door to a tourist souvenir shop on one side, and a bread shop and Orthodox icon shop on the other.

Greek people are famous for their hospitality and friendliness, and we see that around us every day, and in small ways. Certainly, there are rude people; they exist in every culture and community. But here it seems even the boy-racers in their (older) speedy kids cars, are polite and will wave a thank you as you let them merge ahead of you. I've had taxis wave me into traffic to merge ahead of them, and the natural response is, next time, to wave a taxi or other car into traffic in front of me. Simple politeness is contagious.

More important than simply being friendly, the people are good. What do I base that on? The way they treat animals. Complete strangers feed the stray dogs and cats, of which there are many. Every restaurant seems to have a cat or two, or three, wandering around outside. We joke that if the cats won't eat there, there you probably shouldn't either. Yet no one shoos the cats away, and the servers negotiate their way around the cats. Dogs definitely stay outside, but they lay around on the sidewalks and in the grass, waiting their turn.

Greece certainly has been through very difficult times and is still in that difficulty. But it has, I believe, turned a corner, and certainly, Europe has turned a corner in its view of Greece. After all, Greece carries a national debt of close to 200% of GDP (it was smaller, but the IMF/Troika's programme actually shrank the Greek economy, so the debt grew as a percentage of GDP). Greece has gone through a terrible depression, and many young Greeks have left the country in search of work. In addition, Greece is one of the countries on the fringe of Europe with a serious immigrant problem, fuelled by Turkey and the games that they are playing with Europe and the US.

Yet Greece has much going for it. For one, the terrible economic conditions have been buffered by the close family ties that exist in Greece. As families lost jobs and homes, the larger family welcomed them in. Children, including adult and married, moved back home with parents. The coffee culture ensured that the young unemployed could sit outside with their friends nursing a coffee for hours (at 1.20 Euro per, instead of $4 - $5 in the US or the UK).

As the difficulties really bit, shops failed across the country, more jobs were lost, and the cycle continued for years. But then something else began to happen. New stored opened, but with cheaper goods. New jobs were created at half the previous salaries. Rents went down, home prices dropped by almost 50% (they are beginning to rise again, but slowly). The economy "reset".

Of course, Greece is also on the front-lines of the Migrant Crisis, and its position in the Mediterranean and as a "front-line" state facing Turkey makes that inevitable. There are UN and EU programmes to help, but mostly common Greeks and international volunteers are filling the gaps.  

So why Greece? Yes, my own history and the fact that there are still friends here plays a big part. But another part is looking at the global, US and European situations. When we considered France, my comment to Francoise was that this is a country (just like the UK and especially the US) that is waiting for it's "Greek moment". I said that I would rather live in a country that had that moment behind it, and not in front of it. I want us to buy a property closer to the bottom of the market than near the top, even if we will be buying mortgage-free. 

5 seconds of the Thessaloniki waterfront

Remember also that part of the horror of the Greek depression, imposed by the Troika/IMF/Germany was a requirement that the Greek government run a 3.5% national surplus. Greece for a few years now has been running a budget surplus. Imagine what would happen in the US if Washington actually ran a surplus? How many jobs would disappear overnight? Almost all US economic growth over the past decade has come from increased government deficits. Turn off the borrowed money, and the economy would contract massively. 

Without the deep family ties that exist in Greece, and with the even greater social fracture that is happening in the US, the period of adjustment to a "new normal" will be even worse. Charleston and Portland will be remembered as the opening shots in a new civil war. Yes, I really do think that is possible in the US. Especially when China and the rest of the world stop buying US debt.

In all of this, I'm taking the long(er) view. Greece has better prospects simply because it was been through the worst, while other countries have not started down that debt imposed path.

The imposed reforms of the Greek economy are, finally, beginning to pay off. The Bank of Greece has projected a 1.9% growth in 2019, and up to 2.5% growth in 2020. Yet unemployment remains just under 20%, and is exacerbated by a lopsided annual business cycle, with high tourism-based employment for six months of the year, and cyclical unemployment the other six months. 

What else then?

Casket of Philip II of Macedon
There is more history here than almost anywhere we can go, and it is all around us. Athens is only 4.5 hours from away, with all its history. 1.5 hours from here is the tomb (and associated museum, one of the best I have ever been in) of Philip II of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. The tomb was discovered intact in 1977, and all the artefacts are in the museum that is built around and over the tomb. 

A 1.5 hours drive and we are at the base of Mount Olympus (which on a clear day/night can be seen from Thessaloniki where we are) - Home of the Gods. 1 - 1.5 hours away are some wonderful beaches in the holiday area of Halkidiki. Paris is a 2.5-hour flight away on discount airlines, and London, where I will continue to work, is a 3.5-hour flight, also on discount airlines.

That is why Greece, for what it has now, what it had, and for what it will be like in the future.

The economy is recovering, and house prices have been inching upward over the past year, though they remain 40% down from their peak.

So to summarise, yes, even though Greece remains in a perilous state, it remains a wonderful place to live, and it is improving every day.