Greece has seen better days, and that appears evident to all of us, whether on the inside or the outside. However, Greece seems to be thriving and hanging on to what they still have left in the center of Athens-Plaka.
Plaka isn’t an epicenter of commerce for the Greeks, but it is for tourism – comprising Greece’s livelihood in recent decades. Tourism contributes to 18.2% of their total GDP, almost ⅕, making it their lifeline currently for recovering from the debt crisis, of which has caused for around 24% of Greeks to be unemployed.
As I was there in Plaka, the atmosphere was lively, ambient with an atmosphere of a unique Greek festivity, and relaxed. When I went to Greece, I expected to see more poverty and rundown buildings than I did, but surprisingly, I found the center of Paris – Île de la Cité – to be dirtier than the center of Athens-Plaka.
I did drift away from Plaka to the more local markets on the outskirts, and there *still* was no fulfillment of that expectation. In total, I had only seen one homeless man, and that was by a Greek Orthodox church while on an epic journey to find an ATM (there aren’t many).
Some buildings had shown wear, but I hadn’t seen any that were falling apart. Everything appeared relatively new and in the process of being constructed.
One interesting observation I had made about everything, though, were all the German products and German advertisements on Greek TV. With the new bailout money Greece has received from Germany, it seems clear that Germany isn’t helping Greece without an expectation of reward.
Which makes sense, since Germany has bailed out Greece on two separate occasions now, and remains Greece’s second main import partner with 9.2% behind Russia’s 12.6%. If a friend of yours had asked to borrow money on one occasion to pay off a friend of theirs, blown it all on candy or going to theme parks, then asked a second time for more to do the same thing, you’d do so cautiously and distrusting, expecting a return for your money.
So, while much of Greece has a long way to go, Plaka is a strong example of the Greece we may yet see in the future when they recover, and with Germany continuing to aid Greece with bailouts, we may see that day soon, however possibly with more German influence in Greece.
Paris is in a much better spot than Athens, but even in Paris, there are struggles. This last-second picture I took here during my trip to Paris captures the current situation in the city better than many out there, I believe. The homeless lady in the background is the main focus, of course, but how little she is in the photo and how the guy stares into my camera as if to say, “She’s homeless, just carry on like the rest of us,” appeals as dystopic to most of us. It’s in fiction books where we see tyrannical overlords turn a blind eye to the poor, but now it’s the common folk that are turning the blind eye. A large group of people in the city are poor, and the homeless lady in the photo is more than likely just poorer than the men walking by her. I imagine the man staring into my camera is really saying, “We know her situation. We see this every day.”
Unemployment in France has reached an all-new high of 10.2%, according to Wikipedia, coupled with France 24 news, who reports that 3.59 million French are currently looking for work and 5.48 million are part-time workers looking for full-time work. Paris’s unemployment, though being the 6th most GDP-rich city in the world, still has a 6.6% unemployment rate, worse than the national unemployment rate of the United States of 4.9%.
France isn’t as crippled as Greece is in unemployment, but as I noted with Athens, I noticed more homeless in Paris than in Athens. This is probably because the homeless in Paris like to hang around the touristy spots like Notre Dame and the Quays, hoping to see some money from the wallets of generous foreigners. But those foreigners may be holding their money close in reaction to warnings against gypsies.
The stereotype of gypsies is that they enjoy pickpocketing and pulling their schemes, and there are multiple signs in the area warning you of them, along with armed gendarmes who stroll these kinds of areas. But none of that seems to stop them. One of the more popular gypsy schemes going on right now goes like this: A fake surveyor/petitioner would ask you to sign their petition, and as you’re distracted signing, a gypsy comes up behind you and takes your wallet. While I was leaving the Eiffel Tower, exactly this had happened, and the only person who tried to do anything was a old Frenchman, and yet all he could do was yell out, “Pickpocket!”
It seems as if nothing can stop the clever pocket vultures. After the old man had yelled out and I realized what had just happened to a poor victim, I found myself walking through the streets with my hands in my pockets, not because I was cold, but because I was afraid.
Paris still survives, however. That Parisian atmosphere and ambience still remains, and always has, despite what revolution or crisis they’ve had to overcome. As I went through the catacombs, I realized this. The skulls, though so grim and horrifying, were neatly organized and stacked, and in one case in a oval vase-like sculpture. It was almost like looking at a normal, random abstract piece of art you’d see in the Musee d’Orsay. These were skulls from the Medieval era at the time of the Black Plague, so it was clear there that the French and their style, through dark and light, have always persevered. Francois Hollande, as mentioned in the aforementioned France 24 article, has stated that he will not run for re-election unless he “…fails to secure a ‘meaningful’ fall in the jobless rate.” With his career and honor at stake there, France may yet carry on as they always have.