In our high-end junk mail was a glossy invitation to an autumnal Aegean Odyssey, exploring Island Life and Ancient Greece aboard an Exclusively Chartered Small Ship (an intimate 110 suites and staterooms, 95% with private balconies). Closer reading revealed that only the western Aegean islands would be featured, giving a wide berth to those near the Turkish coast.In other nautical news, last August the Greek government chartered a ship large enough to evacuate several thousand refugees, mostly Syrian, from the islands of Kos and Lesbos, to mainland Greece. The first headlines called it a luxury ship, headed for Thessalonica, or maybe Athens. Later, the “luxury ship” was identified as a car ferry, which dumped the refugees among thousands of others thronging Athens’port of Piraeus, waiting for passage to more prosperous venues.
Last week, the port of Piraeus had 5,000 refugees who had crowded into its passenger terminals since the beginning of the year. Reports vary as to whether the new EU-Turkey migrant exchange agreement has made any measurable difference. Meanwhile, Greek anger at the influx has mounted, not least among the Athenian chambers of commerce and industry. President, Constantine Michalos said pre-bookings in Kos, Rhodes and Lesbos, the islands most overwhelmed by the waves of refugees, were down by 60%. “A perfect storm is brewing,” he said. “Tourism is our heavy industry, our only hope. If the refugee crisis, this global crisis, escalates, and tourism–the only sector that is booming — is hit, then frankly we are doomed.”
When Piraeus fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1456, it was known as the ‘Lion Harbor’ after its guardian beast, sculpted in the fourth century BCE. This noble feline was looted by the Venetians in 1687 and still flanks the gate to the Venetian Arsenal.
Viewing the Arsenal lions with a young Hungarian friend who had been on a humanitarian mission, before the Arab Spring, building a school and a library– in Burundi.
Yes, another Panama hat
Some three thousand years ago, delegations of Greeks, driven by famine and ambition, came to consult the current Delphic Sibyl about seeking a better life. Evidently, the oracle shrewdly directed them to colonize as far away as southern Italy and Sicily. The Greek colonists brought with them essentials such as the olive and weaponry, but also their Olympic gods and their alphabet.The city states in what was called Magna Graecia soon became as powerful as those on the Greek mainland.
Feckless students on winter holiday in Athens, we too made a pilgrimage north to Delphi and picnicked irreverently on the altar of the Sibyl above the laurel canyon. Somewhat later, we did the same with two of our grandchildren.
We happened to arrive in Athens that second time just as the Greeks, according to our local guide, were choosing to abandon the euro rather than tighten their belts.The Greek government was forced, as part of the bailout conditions, to cut nearly $10 billion from public spending in 2013. They had built a stunning new museum next to the Acropolis to house the Elgin marbles, which remained, of course, in London. There were strikes on Omonoia Square, and more were feared. Germany suggested that Greece might sell off some of its delightful islands to reduce their staggering debt. A Russian oligarch paid $100 million for the island of Skorpios as a birthday surprise for his daughter.
But on other islands…
Lesbos has seen other migrations. An estimated two thirds of the island’s 90,000 residents are descended from Greek Orthodox Christians expelled from Turkey in the 1920s. This heritage helps to explain their compassion toward today’s refugees. In any event, residents of the island are nominated for the Nobel peace prize, and the hotels are all full of NGO and UN humanitarian workers.
Another bulletin from the lively port of Piraeus: a majority interest in the port facilities has just been acquired by a Chinese shipping company, Cosco, which will put some 368 billion Euros into improving the shipyards and cruise ship facilities.
Has anyone suggested commandeering all available cruise ships (and car ferries) in the Aegean, for temporary housing of the refugees, to be financed of course by the European community? Cruise shipping lines might be amenable to charging less per capita, since the Mediterranean/Aegean cruise trade is down.
Meanwhile, another sort of boat people are helping Syrian refugees, in the Canadian community of Cape Breton. Vietnamese refugees, now educated and embedded, are giving real money to aid the new Syrian arrivals.
Back in Syria, survivors of the civil war have been forced across the seas into uncertain futures. Tourism was strangled by the civil war that has been destroying its ancient monuments as well as its population, forcing the survivors across the seas into dicey futures.In 2010, across from the most impressive of Syria’s Crusader castles, Krac des Chevaliers, we tried to sleep in a busy inn where they were scrambling to build rooms for the hordes of tourists expected in the next season. That was before the castle was taken over in turn by the rebels and the government.
In pre-history, as students wandering around in the bare hills behind Thessalonica, we were hailed by an old couple who invited us into their little shack for tea. Seeing our loden coats, they must have thought we were German. And in German the old man told us about his work on the (…) canal during the war and the old woman gave us dusty almond cookies. This was a strange feeling, suspecting that we had been welcomed for the wrong reasons.
Question: should we have admitted, as we never did, “Wir sind amerikanische?” And now, are Germans any more welcome than Americans, in Greece–or anywhere? Just wondering.