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What Americans in Athens Think About These Elections

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American elections are always a global event, but this year, more so than ever. In the birthplace of democracy, elections are nothing new. But there’s one group of residents who will be watching these elections with particular interest. These are the Americans living in Athens, a long-established and vibrant community from across the Atlantic.

Americans have been arriving on these shores in a steady stream for decades, engaging in elaborate word of mouth games to root each other out in the days before social media, and dealing with the consequences of American policies which sometimes breed anti-American sentiments in Greece. They’ve learned to love loukoumades as much as donuts and eat their pumpkin pie savory instead of sweet.

And they’ve left their mark. There’s the private American Community School established in 1946, which currently occupies a sprawling space in Aghia Paraskevi and makes you feel like you’re looking at a school in California rather than Athens. Election fever saw them host their own mock presidential debates among students. Head to Kolonaki, and you’ll find the Hellenic American Union, established in 1957 while in Pagrati, there’s the Athens Centre, running since 1969, where you can enjoy culture, Greek lessons and more.

And there’s also IKEA. Yes, IKEA. I know it’s Swedish, but several Americans I spoke to said they go there when feeling a little homesick, because “IKEA looks the same everywhere!”

The Americans in Athens have been talking, debating, encouraging friends to vote and arranging election parties as they wait for November 8. Now when I speak to them, they find themselves in a quiet period, the eye of the storm so speak, as they prepare for what comes next.

“I feel like I won the lottery!”

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Marty Eisenstein is a guitar teacher from Boston who has been living in Athens since 1993 after following his wife here. He’s been teaching music lessons at one of the city’s private schools, Campion, for 23 years now, and has a daughter who just started state university.

Marty is a rare breed because he’s also Jewish and a guy! “There aren’t that many American guys here!” he says with a laugh. He’s hoping Hillary Clinton wins, but “I don’t want to jinx it.”

The difference between how Greeks and Americans view these elections is pretty distinct, according to him. He was in the US a few weeks ago, and says that while in America, people might call Hillary Clinton dishonest, in Greece they call her “a monster, a warmonger. That’s the first thing many Greeks say.”

He doesn’t think much will change to his day to day life, since he’s not had much hostility anyway. He does remember one moment of anti American sentiment so sudden and so strong that it made him cry. “The lowest moment in my 23 years was during the bombing of Serbia. My local bakery owner turned to me and said ‘We’re not the same, Greeks and Americans.’”

Whatever happens, he’ll still be here, teaching guitar the next day. “I lived in Israel for a few years and I think Greece appeals to that Mediterranean gene I have. In that sense I like it here, that’s what’s kept me here I think. I love the place in a lot of ways.

“If you think what Greeks have been through economically and politically, anywhere else, people would have taken guns on the streets already. It doesn’t happen in Greece. To me that’s an amazing thing. and now that my daughter is going to university for free, as an American I feel I won the lottery!”

“Trump? He’s a faflatas!”

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Stacey Harris-Papagioanou moved from Chicago to Greece in 1985 and divides her time between the glamorous island of Mykonos and Athens. Both sides of her family as Mykonian, which is why she can still afford to live on an island the rest of us can only dream about.

“The summer romance with my ex was the catalyst for moving here, but my real love was Greece.” she says.

She has two children, and has always cast her vote as an absentee. The moment she realized how important this was was during the Gore-Bush elections of 2000. “That election was so close. So not only did I make sure I was always registered to vote, but I made sure all my friends were too.”

Stacey is a very active member of Democrats Abroad, and when we speak, she’s just spent the week calling everyone to make sure they are ready to vote.

There is a big buzz around this particular election. “Everyone is saying vote, whatever you do, go and vote, and a huge percentage have already taken part in early voting and absentee voting.”

She’s only ever experienced anti-American sentiment twice, once during 9/11 when she heard people saying that America had it coming, and now when Greeks ask her “What’s wrong with the people in that country? How can anyone vote for Trump?”

“Trump, there’s a Greek word that describes him perfectly. He’s faflatas (someone who talks a lot but does little)! The difference between the candidates is night and day, and what that means for the rest of us will be night and day.” she says.

In stark contrast to the Greek way of doing things, Stacey says Americans have gone quiet and avoid political discussion as the election nears. “People don’t talk too much so as not to fight, unlike the Greeks that are very passionate and don’t mind telling their opinion to anyone. Americans a bit more reticent in that respect.”

And when she wants to get a flavor of America in Athens, she goes to the usual places one might suspect – the Hard Rock Cafe in Monastiraki, TGI Friday’s in Kolonaki and Applebee’s when it was still open. “Or a coffee with members of the American Women of Greece, of which I’m a member. We can talk about home, or where to find ingredients. We used to make tacos from scratch when I first came here, now you can just buy them in the supermarket! It’s so much easier for the new girls!”

“I was called a spy!”

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Christine Jackson has been here since 1972 after coming to Greece with her husband and arrived right in the middle of the Junta. “I was working at Deree college when the polytechneio events took place. I wasn’t there that day but colleagues heard the tanks go in.”

Christine is one of the longest established members of the American community in Athens. “Once I was called a spy! That was during the Cyprus crisis. It was totally unprovoked, I was on the street and my accent must have been wrong and a man called me an American spy.” She has one daughter, who played a caryatid in the Athens 2004 opening ceremony.

After working at the Deree college – “which I discovered wasn’t actually American,” she worked for the next few decades at the Fulbright Commission, advising Greek students who didn’t have scholarships but wanted to study abroad. “It’s an addictive job. I still do it.”

When she wants to get her American fix, she heads to the Athens Centre in Pagrati for cultural events and poetry readings. It’s a place where she’s met and become friends with other Americans in Athens over the years.

A fellow American who she very much admires is the former ambassador to Greece, Brady Kiesling, who resigned after America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, becoming the first of three US foreign service officers to resign in protest. “That’s such a rare thing for a person to be that principled.” she says.

Christine says she’s very concerned about the outcome of these elections. “I think it will be a tipping point if Trump wins.”

“You can love your country and see that it needs improvements. Greeks certainly do that with their country. Patriotism is hollow if it doesn’t embrace the fact that you want the country that you love to be its best self not its worst self.” she says.

“If you can’t beat them, join them”

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Anna Goritsa came to Athens nearly 20 years ago to marry her Greek husband. She has two sons who are going through the Greek public education system. As an event travel consultant, she works with US companies based in Greece, so she’s around other Americans frequently, along with charity work and embassy events which keep her in touch with the community.

This for her is an election that’s turned the status quo on its head. “We are living in trying times and I believe that many of us who live in Greece are insecure on what the outcome will be. I’m very concerned. I believe that many US citizens will not exercise their right to vote during these elections.”

“When I am able to watch the elections with my fellow US citizens here in Greece, regardless of their affiliations, it’s more fun because we know why we are arguing. And yes we try to avoid prickly topics because we respect each other’s opinions. When watching with my Greek friends who have never lived or stepped foot in the US we argue for the sake of arguing.” she says.

As for anti-American sentiment, she’s experienced it a few times, but that changed with Greece’s economic crisis. “Greeks are experiencing anti-Greek sentiments all over Europe and have realized that the citizens of a country should not be judged for the policies of one’s government.”

Despite the downs, there have been some funny moments too. Back in 1997, Anna says she couldn’t find good-quality deodorant in Greece and so would have family and visitors bring stocks of American deodorant for years!

The American community in Athens has been a vibrant and well-established one. They’ve been through a lot together. But, Anna says, it’s very different for the new generation. “They’re not surviving because their potential and options are very limited and many are moving elsewhere. The same challenges exist today as 20 years ago for the newcomers. The number one survival quote when you move ANYWHERE in the world is “if you can’t beat them, join them.”

“I can’t wait till it’s over”

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Nick Barnets, a freelance journalist, has been coming to Greece all his life. He spent his summers in a village in Halkidiki but moved to Athens full time in 2014 to strengthen his career as a journalist.

For him, the elections are not just a political event. As a journalist, they affect his livelihood too. His job involves covering international affairs, and that will be affected by whoever is the next president. “Since I cover Greece, and occasionally Cyprus and other parts of Europe, the way the next president’s policies affect these areas will definitely affect what I’ll be reporting on and where for sure.”

Like everyone I spoke too, he’s anxious about these elections and the way they have polarized politics in the US. “I fear regardless of the outcome, there will be now more than ever in recent history, lots of hate and anger. If Donald Trump wins, there will be fear and anger among those who did not vote for him. If Hillary Clinton wins there will be fear and anger among those who did not vote for her.”

He’s finding watching these elections less intense that the last ones, because the last time around he was working as an election researcher for CBS News. This time, he can take a back seat and observe.

“This is the first time I’ve watched a presidential election from across the Atlantic, but it’s not as distant an observance as I thought it would be. Of course I’m also a political junkie, so I’m keeping up with it vigorously despite how upsetting this election has been.”

Anti-American sentiment is not something he’s experienced, especially not since Obama’s presidency and Greece’s recent turmoils which have meant that Germany has taken the place of America for disgruntled Greek sentiment.

Nick says his Greek friends are terrified of Donald Trump becoming president and are disappointed that Hillary Clinton is his main opponent in these elections. “She’s never really been popular here herself. They just can’t believe that we could end up in a world with Donald Trump as President of the world’s most powerful country.”

Perhaps it’s because of his job, perhaps because of the relentless, vitriolic and divisive nature of these elections, but Nick has had his fill. The sooner it’s all over, the better, as far as he’s concerned. “I can’t wait till it’s over, November 8th can’t get here soon enough for me because on the one hand I am always excited for watching the election results but also want this particular election to just be over with so we can move on.”

As one of the new generation of Americans in Athens, Nick doesn’t feel the same pull as the previous generation for getting a piece of America in the city when he’s homesick. That’s partly thanks to social media which keeps him well-connected with Americans friends and family. “But I do feel like I’m right back in the US whenever I’m at The Mall, because despite the stores being different and everybody speaking Greek, it really feels more America than Greece there.”

“I haven’t voted in a while”

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I’d easily call Rhea my favourite American in Athens, since she’s the first one I ever met. It was in her bohemian dance studio, festooned with belly dance costumes and off-the wall souvenirs she’d picked up over the decades that I learned two important things: how to dance first with my heart and then with my body, and how to stop taking life so seriously. It was there that I made my first Greek friends with my patchy, faltering Greek. She’s been somewhat of a mother to me, having seen me grow from a new student shrinking into the back of the room, through motherhood, miserable life events and the crisis which meant I couldn’t afford dance classes any more, and she lost nearly all of her students.

She then did something which I felt at the time was the equivalent of a cancer patient cutting all their hair off before it falls out. She stripped her studio bare. Today, all the costumes have been given away, the zebra-skin wall hanging is gone, the swords and coin belts have disappeared. My heart sank the first time I visited her after she carried out this purge.

Rhea arrived in Athens in 1975, and of all the Americans I spoke to, she is the only one who had absolutely no connection to Greece. As a professional belly dancer in California, she had a dream that she was dancing under the Acropolis. So she upped and left, and has been here ever since. Her tales of life in Athens, including the time she chased down an aggressive driver and attacked his car with her dance sword are endless, hilarious and sometimes sad.

Is she voting? “No. I haven’t voted in a while. I’m not going to go to the American Embassy and lose an entire morning or afternoon. I hate to say it… but no actually I don’t hate to say it. I never talk about politics. I’m telling you because you asked me. We’re not going to hell in a hand basket. The world will go on as it is.”

Athens’ 12-foot American

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My final American is tall and stoic, clutching a scroll in one hand and staring quietly at the traffic and offices opposite him.

He doesn’t say a word to me, but I don’t mind. You see, he’s a statue. The statue of President Truman to be precise. This rendition of the 33rd American president, a known philhellene, is a lightening rod for anti-American sentiment. Since it was erected in 1963, it’s been rammed with a car, bombed, toppled over and splashed with paint.

On the day I meet him, with hours to go until polls open, Mr Truman is looking pretty good, but a closer inspection reveals little specks of red paint clinging to the bronze and larger splashes generously flecked on the surrounding ground.

In an election campaign where both sides paraded childish statues of each other, at least this statue of an American leader retains some dignity, even when he’s brightly decorated with pink and red paint. It could be worse. He could be a statue of Donald Trump.

A condensed version if this article appears in Greece Is. 

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Did you go to Pakistan? It only counts if you went to Pakistan

Last week, courtesy of one of the companies I’m currently freelancing with in Athens, I got to attend the Europe edition of TBEX 2014.

It was another event that made me feel my age and the fact that I was firmly on the wrong side of 25. Not so long ago, I was asked at an interview why I didn’t have an Instagram account. At the risk of shooting myself in the foot here in case the person who asked me this is reading (hi!) the real reason I didn’t have an Instagram account until recently is because I have no time. The average selfie takes 16 minutes to perfect. If I had 16 free minutes lying around, I can think of a lot of other things I would be doing with them.

Anyway, suitably chastened, I now have an Instagram account. What I don’t have is a MacBook. I was absolutely surrounded by these at TBEX, while I bashed away at my trusty old Toshiba. It’s nearly 10 years old now. It’s not stylish and weighs a lot, but it gets the job done.

 

Me and my lemon in an orchard of Apples

For those of you who don’t know, TBEX is the world’s largest travel blogger exchange. I admit, I had no idea it was beforehand. It was a strange experience finding myself among so many bloggers, and it had me wondering – at what point will the travel market become saturated? How many more accounts of twenty somethings travelling the globe does the blogosphere still have room for?

Plenty, it would seem. I’ve always loved talking to the well-travelled and picking their brains about their experiences. At TBEX, I met people who had been all over the world, and heard outlandish figures like 3o countries in two years, 100 countries before I turn 30, and so on.

I listened with interest, and the question I found myself asking again and again was “So have you been to Pakistan?” The reply I kept getting again and again was “No”. The only person who responded in the affirmative was a Turkish doctor who had not only been to Pakistan, but had spent a month in my God forsaken hometown of Bahawalpur in 1990. By even more freakish odds, he had studied medicine at Nishtar college, Multan, the very same college that my own father studied at. I couldn’t get over it. There are seven billion of us on this planet, but sometimes it feels so small.

Back to my question, I was sitting at one point with Laurence of Finding the Universe fame, and I asked my standard question. He hadn’t been to Pakistan either. He asked me “Is it beautiful?” I answered truthfully “It’s stunning. It’s one of the most beautiful places I have ever lived in.” Because terrorism, corruption and general misery aside, I honestly have not lived anywhere more beautiful than Pakistan.

Then he asked me “Is it safe?” I tried to reassure him that if you stick to the right places, it’s perfectly safe. Someone with blue eyes and waist length blonde dreadlocks would be best off avoiding the less well-trodden tracks of the land. Did I succeed in convincing him? I’m not sure, though he did say he likes a challenge, in answer to which I told him to Google the Kalash tribe of Pakistan. Not only are they a photographer’s dream come true, they are located in an area that is hard enough to get to even for Pakistanis, let alone foreigners. So, you want a challenge? There you go.

Here, I did it for you

It is a little sad. Back in the day, Pakistan formed a trinity of countries that had to be visited along the hippie trail – Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. At TBEX, practically everyone had been to India, and no one had been to Pakistan, at least no one I met.

I’m not saying you’re not a true traveller if you haven’t been to Pakistan. I’d place the country somewhere in between North Korea and Syria. Travellers get major brownie points for having a North Korean stamp in their passport, but you would have to be mad to want to visit Syria at the moment. Somewhere along this compass of major street cred and absolute insanity would lie a visit to Pakistan.

There’s a Greek presenter called Mayia Tsokli. She used to present a travel show on the now-defunct ERT TV channel. She used to go absolutely everywhere – she even did one show from Afghanistan. A travel show. For Afghanistan. Who does that? No one except her, probably. But even she didn’t go to Pakistan. We’re like the South Asian travel arc’s booby prize – nobody wants us.

If travel is all about broadening horizons and pushing boundaries, then travel bloggers reading this, you should go to Pakistan. Seriously, email me if you want to find out more. If you can get past the hell of getting a visa, it’s totally worth it.

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Trichonomics

When bonds get haircuts, women don’t

Trichonomics. I’m quite proud of this term. In the modern age, when you think of a concept the very first thing to do is to Google it and see if anyone has come up with it already. And so when I coined the term trichonomics, that’s the first thing that I did. So far and much to my delight, I am the first to use it.

The idea behind trichonomics was born out of a throwaway comment by my husband one afternoon. We were out and about, driving around Athens (him behind the wheel, not me) and he said “Have you noticed there are less blondes around since the crisis hit?” I remarked that I had.

Since the crisis first sank its claws into Greece back in 2008, there has been a noticeable decline in the number of blondes in circulation, along with an increase in the length of the female population’s hair.

This is where the idea of trichonomics comes in, combining the Greek word for hair, tricha, with economics. The concept is as follows — the state of a country’s economy can be gauged by the length and colour variations of its female population’s hair. The shorter and more chromatically diverse the hair, the better the economy.

Being a Mediterranean country, natural blondes are a rarity in Greece. On my very first trip here during the Athens Olympics and staying with a dear friend of mine, she smirked wryly at the sea of flaxen heads around us as we rode around Athens by bus.

She herself had just returned to her home country after a rain-sodden hiatus in Cardiff, where we had been students together. “I don’t remember these many blondes when I left. You’d think this was Sweden.” These bottle blondes were locally referred to as Duracell batteries, for reasons that I can’t go into on a blog that my mother reads. Let’s just say the curtains don’t match the carpet and leave it at that.

Greek women take great pride in their appearance. Competition in the aesthetics industry is fierce and as a result, prices for haircuts, colour treatments, manicures and pedicures are quite reasonable. Since the crisis hit, however, Greek women have opted for the more affordable option of letting their hair grow out (pixie cuts are difficult to maintain without regular trims) and reverting to their natural hair colour, also cheaper than having your roots retouched every six weeks.

Pre-crisis, my husband’s niece worked at one of the most exclusive hair salons in Athens. She used to relay stories of the rich trophy wives of Athens who thought nothing of getting a full head of extensions at EUR1000 plus at a time that would need to be done all over again in a few months when they started to grow out. These days, there is far less of that sort of extravagance. She could tell how bad the crisis had got by the free time she suddenly had in the salon on Saturday afternoons.

The effect of my trichonomics theory on the female population of Athens is a notable absence of blonde heads in the general population. I’m also seeing much more long hair than I was before. Among Asian women, a head of long hair is a source of great pride. Various oils and potions are lavished on the tresses and tips swapped over how to make the hair grow stronger, faster, darker. I know of friends whose mothers wept when they chopped their long hair off.

The power of hair, especially female hair, is well documented throughout history into today. Samson lost his powers when Delilah cut his hair off, and there are religions and sects extending well beyond Islam that require a woman’s hair to be covered. When women experience personal tragedy, they most often take it out on their hair. Good hair days make us feel invincible and bad hair days make us wish we were invisible.

So it seems only natural then that a woman’s hair be an indication of so many things — how she feels, whether she’s having a good or bad day, and in Greece’s case, the state of the economy she is living in. When Greece’s bonds got a haircut, the female population started cutting back on their own haircuts.

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Two Songs

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Emotions are a funny thing. Sometimes all it takes is a taste or smell to bring back a memory. And suddenly it’s like you’re there again, reliving every moment.

After my son was diagnosed with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy last year, my world view went within a few seconds from being positive and rosy to realizing just how infinitely cruel life could be. I went through the opposite process I had gone through when I had fallen in love as my heart broke into pieces so tiny I don’t know if I’ll ever be done picking them all up again. Songs began to make sense, and listening to them would hurt so much I would be left in tears.

In the immediate months after Hermes was diagnosed, there were two songs I couldn’t bring myself to listen to. The first was a Greek song, called Pio Psila (Higher). Listening to it, you wouldn’t think there was anything offensive about it. It’s an upbeat song about two young people falling in love. But this is the song I listened to on a loop with my son, trying to get him to nap just before we ended up in hospital.

When we came out and had a new world to face, it was almost a year before I could listen to it without feeling like I’d been stabbed in the heart. The reason was these lyrics:

The world around us is now changing

I’m not afraid, it doesn’t scare me

I won’t waste a single second

Whatever you want, I will do it for you

Our only enemy is time

In your arms, the pain goes away

Don’t leave me, hold me, embrace me, love me

The world around me had changed. And I was terrified. I ran around like a headless chicken trying to find anything, any shred of hope, any piece of wildcard research, something to get me out of bed every morning when all I could think was “100% fatal.”

But the line that killed me was that time is our only enemy, because it’s so true. We are happy, in our day to day lives we almost forget that somewhere a clock is ticking and it’s ticking against us. I so often look at my son and wish I could freeze time to now, that he would never get older than 2 years old, that he would always stay small enough for me to carry anywhere so that he wouldn’t feel his disability manifest, and that I could spare him the deterioration I know is coming.

The second song was People Help the People by Birdy. I always thought it was a beautiful song and once again I used to play it to my son trying to get him fall asleep. Even now, I can barely listen to it:

God knows what is hiding in those weak and sunken eyes
Fiery thrones of muted angels
Giving love but getting nothing back

People help the people
And if you’re homesick, give me your hand and I’ll hold it

I would wonder as I was stuck in traffic – how many of these cars contain parents who have lost a child? How many people did I walk past today who have a child that’s suffering? Are we the heroes? I’m told so often how brave I am but I don’t feel it. I’m just a mother that gets up every morning and tries to keep her family’s life rolling as best as she can, hoping for the best and planning for the worst. Is it brave when you are learning to live with the fear of the future, like a constant dull pain?

And yes, I am terribly homesick for a place that I know I can’t ever go back to. So homesick that I cry from frustration thinking about the alternative path I should have been walking, in a perfect world with a healthy child and such a simple future to plan.

But it’s the help of friends and family, the other people that helped me that gets me through. We can’t ever go back, but we can go forward, and maybe what’s around the corner won’t be as terrifying as the monster I imagine in my head.  They have held my hand as I’ve cried and emerged from the shadows with their own stories to give me courage. I think, in the end, they are the heroes because every day, they save me.

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New Pipeline set to Tap Greece’s Potential

Hot on the heels of the news of this year’s expected tourism boom in Greece comes another piece of good news. The decision to run the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) through Greece is being celebrated in the country.

The pipeline, which will carry natural gas from Azerbaijan via Albania and Greece to Italy and on into Western Europe, represents a EUR 1.5 billion investment and the direct creation of 2,000 jobs in Greece, with indirect jobs over the next few years expected at around 10,000. In a country experiencing its sixth consecutive year of recession and with unemployment at over 27%, this news could not come soon enough.

Compared to other forms of energy, natural gas is relatively cheap in Greece, but pretty unpopular. Greeks tend to be wary of doing things differently. There is an old story about how the potato was introduced to the country after its independence. A starving population was indifferent to the new vegetable until a governer, knowing the Greek mentality, ordered round-the-clock guards to be placed prominently next to the pile and turn a blind eye to stealing. Pretty soon, the public decided that something so carefully guarded must be worth having, and helped themselves.

Greeks have managed fine with electricity from the country’s only provider, the clunking, loss-making DEH, and seem happy enough with that.

Besides, my Greek husband is adamant that the widespread use of natural gas in Greece will lead to nothing but trouble.

“If Greeks all get natural gas,” he insists “They’ll be blowing up their houses left, right and centre. We don’t know how to use it.”

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