Thursday, 7 June 2012

Safe (Ασφαλής)

Greece has been a scapegoat these last three years for many of Europe's and the world's ills. Because Greece has received so much attention these days in the global mass media, with images of rioting and burning Athens, and angry people involved in demonstrations, most people's ideas of what is happening in Greece are distorted. They are not to blame of course: it's the immaturity and ignorance of the press that is mainly at fault, both inside and outside the country, not to mention the opportunity to catch people's attention with sensational news.

The international headlines I have been reading about Greece lately don't have to do only with the exaggerated topic of whether Greece will exit the Euro - they are scaring people away from the country. The BBC is discussing Greek holidays using the sensational question:

Is it wise to holiday in Greece?

The article notes holidaymakers' worries:
"I can't be the only person to be worried about this. We have two holidays booked this year - as we usually do - and the first is in just a few weeks' time. If Greece exits the euro I've read that an 'emergency drachma' will be worth only about 10% of the euro's value. What currency do we take?"
Imagine if someone told her to take drachmas: her next question will be "Where can I get them from?" Whether she would want to take euros is contestable, as another potential Greek holidaymaker laments:
"Just wondering if anyone knows what would happen if we were on holiday in Greece/Greek Islands and they a) went bust or b) left the euro? I guess potentially our euros would be worth nothing! Would our insurance cover us if we had to leave?"
Her euros would be useless because, presumably, they are Greek euros and not French or German ones (or maybe she simply doesn't want to holiday in France or Germany in the near future)...

Just last week, the notable Which?, a consumer-interest magazine (which in the past has tested cheap supermarket olive oils in the UK and found them to be quite satisfactory despite their low quality) ran an article with the following headline:

Is it safe to holiday in Greece? 

The word 'safe' conjures up images in your head of fear and security. But the article itself is concerned solely with the economic situation - a sensational headline was attached to a completely unrelated topic. The article mentions the economic woes of UK prospective holidaymakers (most of whom come on a package tour to Greece backed up with insurance).

Worse still, from the very start, the article tells people about how to cope with a GREXIT. So tourists who don't want to cancel their Greek holiday are now being swayed into adjusting their holiday plans according to an action that the locals in the country don't even want to consider possible: if you are 'planning' your Greek holidays around a GREXIT, you may as well try to remember what you did about the infamous Year-2000 problem (remember that fiasco, where nothing happened and you wasted your hard-earned cash stocking up on bottled water and radio batteries). 

Athens is usually seen as the model for non-Athens trips to Greece: whatever is happening there is believed to be happening elsewhere too. But what is actually happening in Athens? Apart from a few central streets where protests invariably always take place, and an increase in house robberies in the suburbs, the only real safety issues for tourists that I can think of in Athens would be similar to the ones I take precautions over when travelling in any capital city. My protection tactics to keep me (and my whole family) safe can basically be summarised in one phrase: act street-wise.   

Coincidentally, if you can bother yourself to find video footage of police and rioters at Syntagma Square outside the Greek Parliament, you will probably notice demonstrators breaking off bits of marble from various points on the street and throwing it at the police. That's what I call dangerous - I wouldn't want to be a policeman standing there, even if I were dressed up in riot gear.

*** *** ***

A reader recently asked me if it was 'safe' to travel in Greece. He has booked a few days in Athens, an week-long guided bus tour, and a 5-day cruise:
"Do you believe we should be seriously concerned about our safety in Greece? We do not plan to be near universities or the business district of Athens."
Mention of the 'universities and business districts of Athens' in conjunction with 'safety' shows how influenced people abroad are from what they see on the mainstream media. Athens is IN Greece - but Athens is not Greece in her entirety. (And one other thing: Greeks are tired of strikes - they don't demonstrate in the middle of an over-heated city in the middle of summer like they used to - something to do with the weather - but that's another issue.)

A facebook discussion revealed that tourists ask Greek residents if it's safe to walk the streets, if there is enough food available in Greece and whether there is cash in the ATMs. Apparently, prospective travellers to Greece have been asking similar questions for many years, about whether it's safe to come to here - the fear of the unknown causes reactionary sensationalism.  

If you asked me about whether Greece was 'safe' to visit on a summer holiday, here is how I'd reply:

There is no problem with safety in Greece. There may be strikes which may 'stuff up' your holiday in the sense that things won't go completely as planned, but it will probably still be an entertaining, interesting and above all safe holiday. Strikes may affect your actual travel time: carry some reading material with you! If it's important for you to get back to your own country on a certain day at a certain time, make appropriate plans: I always pretend that it will be snowing or foggy when I am at a Northern European airport, so I never plan anything important or urgent upon immediate arrival from a holiday.

Despite the political turmoil in Greece, there have been no such things as killings in public, politically related murders, people being rounded up off the streets or taken out of their houses forcibly, and led to prisons where they are interrogated and/or tortured. The racist attack reported in Patras recently is simply the outcome of problems in a specific area among a specific group of people (similar to race-motivated attacks in the area of London where I was staying this year, and was constantly being warned by locals about the social problems of the area - I personally felt quite safe there myself). All that there is in Greece is a politically-motivated economic slowdown with protests in the very central streets of Athens and a few other urban areas, where you'll see lots of closed-up businesses.

In large urban areas, you may encounter homeless people, drug addicts and prostitutes (if you go past places where they congregate). In small rural or island destinations, such sights are rare: I am more likely to see gypsies in large numbers than I am to see homeless people, drug addicts and prostitutes, because my daily routes take me past gypsy settlements. Wherever you encounter these sights, don't forget that they were always there to begin with, and instances have risen, given the effects of the economic downturn. Generally speaking, people whose daily life takes them past these images try to brush past them in order to get on with their life. I know this sounds horribly insensitive, but it's a survival tactic all over the world to do this; it's not a new way of coping with global problems, except in Greece, which was relatively untouched in general terms by such problems until their exacerbation with the economic crisis. When we saw homeless people sheltering in doorways with their dogs and blankets on our recent Northern European trip, we did the same thing.

The Greek islands and the countryside remain relatively stable places. Nothing much happens here. Food is distributed to people in villages, just like it always has been: apart from the migrants who are now out of work and need economic support, there have always been old people who are unable to prepare meals for themselves; churches have always provided this kind of home help and σισσίτιο.

It's sensible of foreign governments to provide travel warnings to their citizens. That's one thing I admire about organised regulated economies, and it pays to heed such advice in times of crisis. But I really don't believe that any travel advice about Greece is actually based on Greece - it's based on a few individual examples of skirmishes in large urban areas that received too much attention from the press, as well as speculation about what could happen when a country changes currencies overnight (which of course will never happen, unless you think Mark Pragnell is a genius to state the obvious). You won't hear reports in the global press about Greek primary school children going on a day-trip by coach before school breaks up for the summer to the same places that tourists go. My nieces who live in a remote Athens suburb recently went to the island of Aegina without their parents, on a school trip - surely their parents wouldn't have allowed them to go so far away by coach and ferry if it weren't considered safe to do so in the first place!

As the BBC recently reported:  "This nation - tired of recession and perpetual crises - has its arms wide open to tourists." See you in Greece then.

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