Till Debt Do the Greeks Part?
It is pronounced Hania, and lies north on the Cretan island of Greece. To most islanders Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s June 26 midnight announcement of a ‘meaningless referendum’ over the troika (European Central Bank, IMF and European Commission) felt like a morning-after pill, a future uncertain. The Greeks had seen it coming, but are still unsure if they should be paying for the sins of their fathers. German chancellor Angela Merkel is public enemy number one currently. The PM took the lead—by de-friending her on Facebook. Austerity, though, is yet to join the queue at Greece’s restaurants. The Greeks, as argumentative as Indians, a legacy perhaps of their ancient civilisations, are talking passionately over endless rounds of Raki about taxing the super-rich, cutting back defence spending and selling off public assets to the highest bidder. But the “evil troika” has other ideas; EU thwarted the selling of the Piraeus port in Athens to the Chinese. The blow instead comes with the restaurant bill, with an unpalatable 23 per cent value-added tax. It’s sure to hurt the Greeks, economically and culturally. Eating out is a way of life here; it’s common even for the factory worker to eat his dinner at a restaurant. Greece’s 22 million strong tourism industry is more than double its population of 10 million. The tax hike will break the back of an economy in metastasis. No one knows if this Greek tragedy is the doing of a failed nation, a failed currency or a failed Union. But in the week following the fallout in Brussels, the Greeks do know the Union has little option other than a bailout package. But at what cost?
Chania is the second most populous city on the island, inhabited by a little over 50,000 people. Crete was once the centre of the Minoan civilisation, the oldest in European recorded history. An island in the Aegean sea, it is surrounded by Asia, Europe and Africa. Its geographical location left it open to pillagers from all sides. To begin with, it was the Greeks from the mainland who came to rule the Cretans after the collapse of the Minoans, followed eventually by Roman rule. Crete then came under the sway of early Byzantine, only to see them unseated by the Arabs, which was followed by another period of Byzantine rule. This time the Byzantine rulers fortified Chania with thick walls, remains of which can still be seen around the city. The breathtakingly beautiful harbour at Chania was built by the Venetian rulers of the 13th century. The Ottomans ruled Chania from the middle of the 17th century to the end of the empire. Hitler’s paratroopers air-dropped and occupied Chania in the famous Battle of Crete in 1941, but the Germans faced the most hostile resistance movement in Chania. The people of this beautiful island are used to invasions, which historically they have fought from the White Mountains. But this time they are facing the Minotaur of a debt-laden economy, a fight that will last for at least a generation to come.
Looks like God pulled out all stops to create this island of plenty. Fruits, vegetables, herbs, fish and farm abound wherever you go. As you drive on the meandering roads along the hilly slopes of naturally growing thyme bushes, you glimpse stretches of a coastline that has the clearest aquamarine waters. Foamy waves lunge playfully at the rocks, providing a lacy hem to the sea. Olive trees glisten in the Mediterranean sun, blinding you with their reflection. There is tourism in Chania, but not so much that it cramps your style. Tavernas are aplenty along the beaches. Unlike elsewhere in Europe, you’re left with enough euros in your wallet for a tip afterwards. Don’t miss the Greek dahi, even the hard-to-please French like it. Greek food has strong Turkish influence, and hence is not as bland to the Indian palate as western fare is. The taverna owner is usually a modest fellow, ask him about the food he is serving, and he will ask you to try it at your own peril. A small bottle of Raki comes gratis with the bill.
For the islanders, perhaps given their long history of invasions, it is common to possess a firearm. These are mostly inherited. Though the Chania gentry is generally peace-loving, guns are fired on celebratory occasions like weddings. (The police have now banned the practice.) Our local host, an aristocratic gent, invites us to stay at his seaside cabana in Stavros, a pristine beach of finely crushed seashells. Stavros may not show up on the tourist guidebook, but you could see the cliff of Stavros in the last scenes of the Anthony Quinn classic, Zorba the Greek. As we pack up to leave Stavros, my wife finds a loaded 1913 vintage Mauser under the pillow on which our host had slept.
As an aside...
A French gentleman on our flight back from Chania pointed to his three-month-old grand-daughter on his lap and said, “She has already contributed 700 euros to the Greeks.”
Bishwadeep Moitra is the executive editor of Outlook; E-mail your diarist: bishmoitra [AT] outlookindia [DOT] com