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Saturday, 13 July 2013

The Plight of the Greeks - and the rest of Southern Europe

Most people are aware of the events of 20th century history causing the east-west political divide in Europe. However, I believe there is another divide that has gone largely unnoticed and has had major repercussions in the globalized 21st century.
At the Berlin Wall, the very centre of the east-west European political divide
This is probably the most interesting observation I made about Europe. It probably took my entire 10 months of travelling all around the continent to develop this theory of north-south division. I have since realized how bloody simple and obvious it is, yet I haven't met anyone else who has actually realized it until I explained it to them.

The root of what divides northern and southern Europe is the same phenomenon that determines almost every aspect of people's behaviour and culture all around the world - climate.

The climate in your environment infiltrates every facet of your lifestyle, affects every decision you make. And your decision will likely be different from the decision of someone living in an entirely different climate.

Europe's climate varies from north to south. See where I'm heading with this? Now if you will allow me to work backwards for one second, then I will explain the current state of affairs on this continent.

Europe is in troubled times economically. The EU currency is failing. Greece has filed for bankruptcy and youth unemployment is at 50%. Spain is also trying to save its skin and youth unemployment was as high as 75%. France and Italy are struggling, and little Cyprus is hanging on by a thread.

Wait a minute. Aren't all of these countries in the south?

That's right! So why are all of the southern countries struggling?
Peloponnese Mountains, Greece - 1 hour drive from my farmstay
I probably first noticed why when I was in Greece. I first arrived by bus in a small town, skipping the big cities such as Athens and Thessaloniki (which is unfortunate because I didn't get an urban perspective of the country). The first shop I entered looked like a cafe but, when I stepped inside, I was surprised to see up to 50 men all sitting around poker tables, gambling. And not a single woman, except the bartender. Shouldn't so many guys in such a small town be working right now? Certainly not risking throwing away their money in one normal afternoon!

Later on, my farmstay family would tell me more about life in rural Greece. They bring an outsider's perspective because they are Swiss-German but have lived on their farm here for 30 years. It was, and still is, incredibly backwards, although the situation has improved in the past 20 or so years. Men are predominantly out in town, while women generally stay home and tend to the house.
And if the women are cursed with immobility I guess it's the men sneaking into their houses, then their bedrooms. The host wife unfortunately got caught up in too many women only juicy conversations about who's doing who, even though everyone is married. Such behaviour, then conversation, it appeared, were not taboo and no different from talking about the weather.

People here are also laid back. Or lazy. Whichever term you prefer. In our olive picking crew there was myself, my Swiss German host, a French and Dutch helper, and an older Greek farmer. He was usually the last one ready, holding up the group, usually sitting at the table rolling a joint, and when finally got out into the fields, he was usually the first one taking a beer break.

So they're somewhat lazy and irresponsible. How can you blame them? The Greeks are blessed with a hot, hot climate, fresh food, and a snaking coastline of Mediterranean Sea and beaches, all just out their front door.
Nice, France - why would you live anywhere else?
Same with the Spanish with their all night partying and siestas during the afternoon heat, the Italians with their picturesque and inspiring mountainous cities and virtually unlimited supply of pasta and olive oil, and the French with their six weeks standard vacation and paradoxically healthy diet of wine and cheese. And don't even get me started on the Cypriots...

These countries for the most part share this desirable climate, great food, relaxed mentality. They also have a distinct, admired culture, and they know it, which leads them to be excessively proud, stubborn and resistant to change. They all have pretty low English speaking rates.

The northern European countries, by contrast, have colder climates and are as such more adaptable. Because they spend less time enjoying the outdoors they instead concentrate their time and efforts on education and innovation and learning the language of business - English. They have kept up with today's fast changing world by developing robust economies fuelled by an open-minded and creative work force.

But ultimately they are not blessed with good weather. So they spend their well earned money flying to southern Europe to enjoy the good Mediterranean life that they can't get back home but people like the Greeks and Spanish already have in their own backyard, if even for just a week or two.
Cinque Terre, Italy - 5 towns, car free, within walking distance, along cliff paths on the Mediterranean
This same divide can even be observed within individual countries. Italy is a prime example where the north and south are completely different, sometimes called different worlds that share only language in common. The north has a robust economy inhabited by orderly people, while the south is characterized by corruption, is run by the mafia and dragging down Italy's economy. Yet there's something beautiful in this chaos. No wonder that the southern island of Sicily is considered to be the romantic getaway to visit in Italy. There's an elevated passion mixed with ignorant bliss there you can't find in the north.

It's this passion for their land and yearning of the simple life that has prevented southerners such as the Greeks from keeping up with today's globalized economy. It's a game they're not adapted to play and win. They're happy with their little lives and prefer not to be interfered with. And I really do feel bad for them because the forces of globalization are tearing their means of living apart.
Elea, Greece - woke up to this view for 3 weeks straight
That's because I was there myself for 3 weeks, in this absolutely perfect situation, which I still remember as the best time of my trip. I woke up every day, peace and solitude greeting me in the form of a soft Mediterranean Sea breeze and a view, as if out of a painting, of blue sea on grey mountains on blue sky. I ate some of the best food of my trip, more than half of which consisted from the farm itself - a recently slain goat, lemons hanging from the tree, and from the garden which I helped till and spread the topsoil. And working outdoors in the olive orchard was its own reward.

Back home now, the divide from that Mediterranean life is great - harsh winters, bland olive oil, no beaches. My farmstay is making me seriously consider if I want to partake in the economic engine of Canada, or escape again one day to the simple life, to ignorance and bliss.

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