It became clear to me that Greece would become my adopted homeland about three hours into my first visit to the home of my future in-laws. I remember nervously pulling up outside their small house on Chicago's South side. I think I already knew I would be asking for their daughter's hand, so getting along with the "Greek family" was rather important.
There weren't any parking spaces in front of the house, and the driveway had seven or eight cars squeezed together. After parking half a mile away, I walked to the front door and entered a world of Greekness that made me fall in love with my wife-to-be even more, but also with her family.
I was warmly welcomed, and then I started meeting people in all of the rooms. I do recall several Nicks and Nikos, enough to get me confused. I also remember asking about who certain people were and discovering that no one really knew: some kind of relative who had just turned up because it was a Sunday afternoon.
Once married, I inherited a large group of relatives. I remember seeing the movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and thinking that someone had stolen my story.
We've traveled to Greece at least a dozen times. I've dreamed of retiring there. Who wouldn't? Imagine some 6,000 islands, of which somewhere between 167 and 227 are inhabited. The Greeks, you might have heard, are not the world's best record keepers, so we can only get estimates of its number of islands and how many host humans.
My Greece is in trouble now. Serious trouble. The European Union is once again waiting for a delayed Greek decision detailing a new round of austerity measures.
The Greeks have rioted in the past when strict cost-cutting measures were announced by the government. But the rioting was primarily limited to Syntagma Square in central Athens because that's where the TV cameras are set up and because of its proximity to public transportation. One must be home in time for dinner in Greece.
The last riots were in 2010, when some serious austerity measures were introduced. Stones were thrown, and the news outlets made a big deal about it, but it turns out many of the "rioters" were actually hurling small containers of yogurt at the police.
This time it's serious, and by the time you read this, Greece will have given in to demands for another bailout with new austerity terms from the country's creditors. The alternative would be financial collapse and a return to the drachma.
The demands of Germany, France and their partners and the Greeks' initial vote to reject the terms had made talk of an exit from the eurozone the buzz on our various business news outlets.
The ancient Greeks were the first ones to say an unexamined life is not worth living. They don't tell you of course what we found out: An examined life is not that fascinating either. -- Colin Quinn
Now, clients are calling. They are worried. We're starting to see cancellations. They wonder if their cruises will be altered. If Greeks can only withdraw 60 euros per day from their savings accounts, how will they continue to be happy, to welcome tourists, to be the outgoing characters we all expect them to be? And what does a travel consultant counsel in these times?
Jon Stewart had it about right when he suggested that Greece was the land of our dreams. It's a place where a person can retire on relatively little, choose an island, eat the freshest food and catch fish in a turquoise sea. And this can be done largely without paying taxes. It is a compelling idea, but when the entire country tries to do it at once, trouble ensues.
I will be urging every client to go to Greece now. The country desperately needs tourist dollars, and if you bring your own cash, you're going to be fine. The crisis has devalued the euro, making Greece one of the world's great bargains. And it is safe. Greeks understand that the tourist is the country's lifeline to economic recovery. You can only export so much olive oil and feta cheese.
The secret is to enter Greece with enough local cash and dollars to avoid ATMs and bank lines. If Greece does the unthinkable and withdraws from the eurozone -- highly unlikely but possible at some point down its long, debt-ridden road-- it will be an even greater bargain.
Virtually nothing will change for tourists on the islands. Some supply routes could be affected, but when it comes to food, most of the islands are close to being self-sufficient. The sun is still shining on Paros. The church bells still ring on Santorini; the beach-side tavernas on Mykonos are as crowded as ever. And with, let's say, 200 inhabited islands, an American tourist has that rare opportunity to make one her own. That is, I think, the most compelling aspect of a visit to Greece's islands.
Aided by my favorite economist, Mark Blyth of Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, I'd like to offer you a fresh look at Greece and how it got into this spot. Blyth, a Scotsman and expert on world currency markets, recently appeared on NPR to discuss the crisis in terms our clients might never have heard. Here are some points about the crisis that I hope you'll share with your clients:
• When Greece was invited to join the eurozone, it was allowed to borrow money for seven years, and no one said a word because the banks were earning lots of interest funding the country's growing debt. Then the financial crisis hit. Europeans looked around and said "Uh-oh, this is the Greeks, not the Germans, who are in deep debt. This could be serious."
• In the five years prior to the financial crisis, the Greeks more or less flatlined their economy. There was no orgy of spending.
• It is true that the Greeks have been spending 16% of their GDP on pensions. But Greece also has the fifth oldest population in the world. They eat fresh fish, and they consume their yogurt, and they enjoy one another's company, so they live longer. Given that, their pension payouts are about on par with other European countries.
• They've accepted so much austerity that 50% of the country's youth is currently unemployed. That means everyone is looking for work.
• The Greeks got 249 billion euros in loans. But 205 billion of that went right back to their creditors, largely banks, in interest and payments. Very little of the money remained in Greece. The idea that the Greeks spent all the money frivolously is nonsense.
• Blyth points out that the only ones drinking too much retsina are the financial journalists, who "can't be bothered going to their computers and looking up some numbers." Think the Greeks are lazy? The Germans work an average of 1,350 hours per year; Greeks work more than 2,000 hours per year. So who is lazy?
• Now it is true that the Greeks have not been paying taxes as they should. But major U.S. corporations like G.E. and Apple pay practically no taxes here at home, so are we in a position to point fingers?
• In 2007, Euroweek, a financial publication, awarded Greece the title "Sovereign Borrower of the Year." If they thought Greece was corrupt, why did they recognize them for taking their cash on loan?
I will not let any of my clients cancel travel plans to Greece, even if I have to visit them in their homes to make my case. The Greeks deserve better, despite their obvious economic woes, many of which they brought on themselves: 80% of the population has been retiring at age 53, and Greece has accrued a debt of $480 billion.
That works out to a whopping $44,000 of debt for every person in Greece. Yes, that is a cause for alarm. Some might even call it scandalous. But is it a reason to cancel travel to Greece? I think not, especially given that our own national debt is more than $45,000 per citizen.