Day 16: Vrachati to Megara (55km) 31 October 2017
We stopped for the night in a mid century hotel, built long before the new road scored into the cliff above. That morning we’d visited the ancient ruins at Corinth. It was a grey day. Amongst twenty English pilgrims, I’d sat under the pines near the main street. I could see the imposing fortress walls of the Acrocorinth above, occupied through history by the Macedonians, the Byzantine Empire, the Venetians and Ottoman Turks. Afterwards we cycled through the modern city. A steel Pegasus about to take flight, stood above a fountain there. It was only a couple of km to the canal, where we crossed to the mainland leaving the Peloponnese behind.
Near Isthmian we passed an industrial plant. Smoke rose from the factory chimneys. The air was foul, the earth between stony and bare. I thought I’d had enough of cycling. But further on, once the port was out of view we were revived by the vision of clear, sea-green water. The hotel was not far. We met a young German man cycling home. He said while camping one night he’d seen a bear. We laughed about our fear of dogs, now put in proportion. It was our last night by the sea, before Athens. We’d booked the hotel as a special treat. It had a restaurant, there was a beach and the room looked over the water.
The others were upstairs. I had intended to sit on the terrace overlooking the Megara Gulf, but as I exited the lift and entered the lobby I changed my mind. I thought to ask the man behind the reception desk a few questions. On the sofa next to him, beside a potted plant, sat a younger man wearing a t-shirt with the hotel’s logo on it.
I put my book and notebook down.
‘Ah, Varoufakis,’ said the man behind the desk.
‘He is for the people.’ The younger said approvingly. ‘What do you think?’
I was not sure. I had seen Varoufakis speak at an event in the spring, and had thought him then a textbook Marxist. I had a growing suspicious also, that his idealism was too self-serving. But I did not say this, for the men seemed to like him. When I asked about Europe, the young man jumped to his feet.
‘Europe is a catastrophe!’ He cried. ‘You are from Britain right? You are doing the right thing. You have power, money, lots of jobs, so I ask you why do you want to be a part of Europe? The EU kills everything. It is a problem for everyone. For the Germans, the Dutch. There is no truth. Europe destroyed all the economies, because they want to make a United States.’
I was taken aback by the sudden strength of his hostility and unrestrained anger. I disagreed with him over Brexit and was irritated. But although I felt uneasy, I wanted to listen to what he had to say.
‘There is more power in the north, less in the south,’ he continued. ‘We grow the vegetables for you, like in Spain, Portugal and Italy. The EU destroyed the economies. So kill the EU!’
As he paced backwards and forwards he clarified that it was not the people he had a problem with but the politicians and big companies.
‘Normal people are on the same side.’ He said. ‘The difference between the UK and Greece is you voted to go out and you left. We voted to leave and we are still here, even more so. We have no rights. There is no insurance. Now work is cash in hand and the money in our pockets is not ours.’
I tried to voice my fears about Brexit, but in contrast to his conviction my concerns seemed trivial. Later in London I carried out research at my desk into the causes of the financial crisis in Greece, the Troika and bailouts, the referendum as well as the problems with how the Eurozone is structured. This young man, combined with what I saw in Athens later, made me realise that if I wanted to understand Europe’s current crisis I would have to look at the EU more critically.
The young man had sat down. The other, calm behind the desk, took the opportunity to speak.
‘I used to have my own hotel,’ he explained. ‘In the second year we started to make money. But then the government introduced capital controls and the taxes doubled. That year the referendum was held in the middle of the tourist season. At the end of September we had an election. It destroyed by business. When I worked out the maths it was better for me to give up the hotel and work instead. My wife and I worked really hard, but for nothing.’
‘You know it is bad to be 25 years old and not see a future,’ said the younger man agitated. He stood up again. ‘I don’t want to work for you cleaning rooms. Yes sir, no sir. I want to work for myself. If you work for tourism it is hard for you soul. You are European, the guests are European, they eat out, they lie on the beach, while I can’t afford the petrol to visit my mother.’
‘I used to be a musician,’ said the man behind the desk. ‘We had gigs any time we wanted. When the crisis came, it finished on the same day. It was strange, hard, very sudden.’
‘It was a paradise here before. We didn’t grow up like this. You know in 2004 there was work. We had the weather, the beaches. It makes you feel very bad to be chasing money. The depression of the economy is bad for the culture. If you are laughing more you are living more. If you are crying you make a bad chemical in you and you get ill and destroy yourself.’
I asked the men what Europe meant to them.
‘Nothing,’ said the younger. ‘You have to work so hard, much longer hours. Why should I? I want to see my son. I want the opportunity to make my life better. I feel strangled. And one more thing,’ he said. ‘You can write down – bring the marbles back.’
He seemed exhausted. ‘I’m going to smoke a cigarette.’ He said excusing himself.
When he had gone the older man turned to me.
‘Not everyone feels the same about these things. Not everyone wants to leave. It is more expensive with the Euro. Three times more expensive and things need to change, but I like being a part of Europe. You know here we have never had more than 30 years of peace. Now we have the financial crisis. Before we had dictatorship, after the Second World War we had civil war. Before that Turkey was here for 400 years. We lost our relationship with Europe. Culturally we are different. We never experienced the renaissance. When there was war in Yugoslavia - we were cut off from the mainland. Now North Macedonia is an issue. Putin has been interfering.’
The following spring I returned to Athens. The events, the manager described stayed in my mind and I wanted to find out more. They also instigated in me a growing awareness that many Greeks do not consider themselves to be European and as a result have a stronger sense of what it might mean than those who take their inclusion for granted. In Athens I met an artist. I asked why Greece’s exclusion from the renaissance had been so significant. To this end his answer was simple. ‘Because of this, for me the Russians are more European than the Greeks.’
The young man walked back into the lobby. Before I left he told me. ‘Capitalism is in crisis. We are living in a historical time - the end of capitalism.’
The older man disagreed.
‘The earth is always moving, you can’t control it. The world, humanity is like music, an orchestra. Now we have lost the harmony between the people and the planet. But I believe it wouldn’t take much to change it.’
I went outside. A small kitten came looking for food. On the sea, I saw the light of the moon reflected.
 The steady growth of tourism in Greece has come about since the height of the economic crisis. Private takeovers of Greek assets (largely by international investors), has been a primary strategy for the country’s glacial economic recovery, but the tourist industry has also played an essential role. Eight out of ten new jobs created last year were in the service sector. Over 30 million holidaymakers visited in 2017 (Greece’s estimated population is around 11 million). According to the World Travel and Tourism Council nearly a quarter of all jobs in Greece are linked to the tourist trade.