Crazy Driving in Southern Italy

June 29, 2012

Driving in Southern Italy is challenging and exciting.  It requires me to be on my toes, constantly ready to react. It stresses Diane out.  I’ve written previously about driving in Europe, but driving near Naples takes this to another level and is not for the faint of heart.  Here are some of the challenges we face…

Most people here drive small, maneuverable cars much faster than the posted speed limit.  They rarely stay in their own lane, often spanning two lanes or crossing into an oncoming one. They pass whenever possible, even on hills or blind corners when it seems unsafe to do so, expecting that the oncoming cars will make way.

Some of this erratic driving is necessitated by parked vehicles blocking the roadway.  Despite the fact that the cars are generally small, the parking spaces are even smaller, and people frequently exceed the boundaries.  They will park wherever possible, including on sidewalks, at corners, and in crosswalks.  They will park nose-in to a parallel parking place, with their tail hanging out in the street.  The drivers of parked cars often open their doors without looking, requiring one to be constantly on the lookout for motion in parked cars.  They will often double park (parking in the street beside cars that are parallel parked) as if putting their 4-way emergency flashing lights on magically turns wherever they happen to be into a legitimate parking spot.  Sometimes I’ve seen them triple park, blocking not only one lane, but part of the oncoming lane too!

A narrow street flanked by colourful buidlings that is filled with people and shops with good spilling out onto the street

Try getting a motorhome down this street!

Most shocking is a peculiar practice in Naples where drivers will shop from their cars.  They stop in front of a small store, usually double-parked, and honk their horns.  The shopkeeper will emerge, get their order and their money, then disappear into the store to return a minute later with their purchase and their change.  This is happening while other cars stack up behind or attempt to pass, without any apparent concern for them, as if this is completely normal (well, I guess it is in Naples).

Diane standing beside a tiny yellow car an night witha brick wall behind

Yes, this is someone’s real car!

If the cars are bad, the motorcycles and scooters are worse.  The majority of them are scooters (a lot of Vespas but now many Asian manufacturers too), so I’ll refer to them all as ‘scooters’.  Lane splitting by this plague on wheels is normal.  They drive between the other cars, passing on the left and right while traffic is moving, on blind corners, and in busy intersections.  At stop lights they worm their way to the head of the line, often performing major acrobatics to get to the front, or as close to it as possible, wedged in between the other cars and/or the curb.  When the light turns green, they race off ahead (they’re quick off the line), but they sometimes get passed again if the roadway has a higher speed limit, in which case they repeat the procedure at the next light.

Crazy scooter driving was commonplace in Asia, but I wasn’t behind the wheel there.  It’s much more exciting when one is in the thick of it.  A particularly shocking example we’ve seen was a man driving his scooter with a very young child, perhaps 3 years old, standing between his legs while he drove.  The child wasn’t wearing a helmet, wasn’t secured, and appeared to barely be old enough to hang on to.  The child wasn’t tall enough to reach the handlebars, even while standing, so was holding on to something lower, behind the front console.

Many scooters parked together

Scooters Everywhere!

On the other hand, we did receive a very nice favour from a scooter driver.  A scooter behind us started honking and drive up beside me so I slowed down and eventually stopped.  The driver reached over and gave me my swim goggles, which I’d forgotten to bring in off the rear rack of our camper where they’d been clipped with a clothes pin to dry.  Although she didn’t speak English, she must have seen them fall off while we were driving, retrieved them in the middle of this crazy traffic (at no small risk to herself), and then chased us down to return them.  Perhaps scooters are good for something after all?

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The Blue Grotto

June 28, 2012

One of the items on my Dreams List is to swim in the Blue Grotto.  I saw this on a television show years ago, and it looked incredible, so I added it to my ‘bucket list’ without knowing how I might achieve it, or even where it was.  So it was with great delight that I learned it was on the island of Capri, just off the western coast of Italy, a place that I could visit on this trip.

After arriving by ferry in Bari, Diane and I drove across Italy in just a few hours to the famous Amalfi Coast.  This is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Italy, with beautiful seaside villages set into a chain of steep rocky cliffs looking out over the Mediterranean.  The incredible drive from Salerno to Sorrento hugs the spectacular coastline and is a testament to Italian civil engineering.  It was fifty kilometers of the most challenging driving I’ve experienced on this trip, with narrow roads, tight corners, and hazards on both sides of the route.  More than once Diane had to fold in the passenger door mirror to squeeze through between a rock (the cliff) and a hard place (an oncoming bus).  When we arrived at a campground in the village of Seiano, I told the manager with a mixture of relief and pride that I’d done this drive, and only then learned from him that motorhomes are prohibited on this road, though we didn’t see any signs to this effect.  I recalled passing several police officers, but he said that they don’t enforce this rule as they should.  Lucky for us.

The next morning, with little idea of what to expect, we caught the expensive ferry to Capri.  It stopped first in the seaside town of Sorrento to board additional passengers, many of whom appeared to come from a cruise ship docked offshore.  The high speed ferry made the crossing to Capri quickly and disembarked hundreds of people into the island’s main port of Marina Grande.  We got a map at the indifferent tourist office, and decided to take the local buses across the island rather than attempt to negotiate with the taxi drivers requesting outrageous amounts, and rather than join one of the many boat tours offering passage to the Blue Grotto either directly or as a stop during a circumnavigation of the island.

On the first bus we met a beautiful blond named Courtney, the wife of an American military officer stationed in Naples, and her nephew visiting from Georgia.  They were here on a day trip from Naples.  On the steep and winding road up to Anacapri, a village above the island’s main town of Capri, the talkative Courtney shared her recommendations for Naples with us while Diane did her best to write them down on the swaying bus.  We all changed to another bus for the short ride down to the Grotta Azzurra (Blue Grotto).  I still had no idea what to expect, but we lined up with the others who appeared to be waiting for the same thing.

The queue wound down some steep steps to a small, wet platform at water level.  From the stairs we could see a lot of boats jostling about in a small cove.  Some were tour boats bringing visitors from the main harbour while others seemed privately owned.

6 large white boats in close quarters surrounded by small rowboats on blue water

The Cove directly in front of The Blue Grotto

Skirting between them were many small wooden boats carrying tourists, each piloted by a standing boatman with 2 oars.  It became apparent to me that this would not be the mystical cave swimming experience that I had imagined.

Diane in pink shirt and white visor waiting on steps with others below, and a white boat floating near the platform at the bottom

Diane waiting on the steps

We soon began to see a pattern emerge from the insanity.  The small boats collected tourists from either the landing at the foot of our stairs or from one of the larger boats and then jockeyed for a place to gain access to the Grotto.  The fee was per person, so they crammed the boats as full as possible, with a minimum of 4 adults or up to 6 East Asians in each.

A small white row boat with standing pilot and 6 Asian people crammed in to it

A full row boat

Entry was gained through a small opening in the cliff, just over 1 meter wide and with a height that varied from a maximum of less than a meter to almost nothing, depending on the rise and fall of the waves.  Courtney commented that the boatmen weren’t typically Italian but instead had some muscles, which they used to manhandle their boats into position and then to propel them through the gap in the cliff.

8 small white row boats pushing for entry into the Blue Grotto

Jostling to gain entry

We finally reached the foot of the line and got our chance to board.  We shared a boat with Courtney and her nephew, and were arranged with them and Diane in the stern facing forward, me in the front facing backwards, and our captain standing in between, his tanned feet slotted in between our tangled legs. We did the compulsory circuit past the cashier boat (yes, a floating cashier), paid our fees, received our change, and noticed that our boatman immediately got his cut for this journey.

Two men in white shirts, one smoking, handling cash, on a small boat covered by a white awning

The cashier’s boat

We then battled our way into position to gain access into the Grotto.  In addition to thwarting the other boats seeking entry, we needed to wait for those that periodically burst forth from the fissure in the cliff.  Entrance and egress to the grotto are via the same hole in the rocks.

Patrick in red shirt visible under the oar and beside the jean pant leg of our boatman

Me in the bow

I made conversation by asking whether it was always this busy.  Our pilot said, “Yes”, then added that today was very dangerous because of the high seas.  I relayed this to Diane, who started to stress out further, but was generally enjoying the crazy tourist frenzy of the whole experience.

Diane holding on and looking worried in the stern of the row boat

Diane realizing what she’s gotten herself in to

Our pilot told us to lay down in the bottom of the boat — not just to duck down, but literally to get our heads below the gunnels.  This required a fully prone position, and created a soggy mosh pit in the bottom of our row boat.  He grabbed a chain secured to the cliff and carefully studied the swells.  It is essential that he time his pull just prior to a wave trough, allowing us to shoot through the opening without being crushed into the roof by a rising swell.  As our boat surged forward, he lowered himself backwards to lay on the bodies of his passengers, squishing them further.  Diane still smiles when she talks about it (something about his beautifully tanned legs).  He did all of this admirably, and we arrived suddenly into the dark grotto.

Diane and others laying prone in the bow of our roatbat with other boats in the background

Getting to know our new friends

The cave itself was relatively small, perhaps 15 x 25 meters.  The ceiling and walls were dark and difficult to make out.  The air inside smelled clean and fresh and lacked the typical cave odour of bat guano.  From the water came a bright blue glow, the ‘Blue’ of the Blue Grotto.  The glow is caused by the sunlight from outside shining through an underwater opening and reflecting off the white sandy bottom of the grotto.  It causes the water to glow a surreal blue, like viewing a blue-bottomed swimming pool with underwater lights at night.  The blue fades the farther one gets from the entrance, but casts sufficient light to see the outline of the many other boats milling about in the darkness.  This effect is interrupted periodically by the strobes of camera flashes.

A blue glow in a black space

Not the best picture, but you get the idea

Each boatman made what appeared to be a couple of laps of the cave, deftly avoiding collisions with walls or other vessels.  Between the waves lapping, oars splashing, and tourists talking, it was noisy in the close quarters of the cave.  Like Venetian gondoliers, many boatmen sang a few phrases of Italian classics like ‘O Sole Mio’, apparently a requisite part of the job in an attempt to secure tips, but which only added to the cacophony.  After about 5 minutes, we headed once again towards the cleft in the cliff to queue for our departure from the cave.

In the boat beside us a young woman pulled off her clothes and jumped into the water wearing a bikini.  It was a dangerous place to do this, in between boats rising and falling on the swells near the gap that provided the only entrance and exit.  Apparently she shared my dream of swimming in the Blue Grotto.

In synch with the waves, we burst forth into the bright Capri sunlight, once again barely avoiding grazing the roof of the opening.  We gave our pilot a small tip, something he was sure to remind us of, and climbed back onto the tiny platform.

The Blue Grotto was not what I had expected, although I must admit that I had few preconceived notions.  It was far more chaotic and touristy that I had anticipated, but in a unique way that added to the excitement and charm of the place.  I had hoped to swim inside, but a quick dip in that craziness wasn’t the dream I had in mind, so I decided against it.  Apparently it is possible to swim there in the evening, something that requires an overnight stay on the beautiful but touristy island, so perhaps I’ll go back some day.

Diane in pink shirt and Patrick in red shirt with arm around her, with sea cliff, water, and boats in the background


Ghost Ship – Our Semi-Private Cruise

June 27, 2012

We didn’t book a private cruise, but we had the entire ship virtually to ourselves.  It was a pleasant surprise, but strange nonetheless.  In each room the staff stood around attentively, watching our every move in the hopes that we might need something.  They outnumbered us 10 to 1.  Each time we walked past the empty cafeteria, with a full assortment of hot and cold food prepared and on display, I felt the eyes of the staff willing me to stop and purchase something.

We left Greece from the Peloponnesian port of Patras, heading to Italy by ferry.  We arrived in Patras in late afternoon, and like so often seems to happen to us, virtually everything was closed.  Another Greek holiday, in this case Whit Monday, the holiday celebrated the day after Pentecost.   Down by the harbour we did find an open ticket office for Superfast Ferries, so we went in and learned that there was a ship leaving in short order.  To make it, we needed to be at the dock in under 30 minutes.  We decided to go for it, and booked passage for ‘camping on deck’.  This is a unique option provided by some ferry companies that allows you to sleep in your motorhome on the deck.  The use of gas is not allowed, but they do provide an electrical connection to operate the refrigerator, lights, and electric cook top (if your camper has one).  Thankfully we do have one electric burner, allowing us to cook onboard, but we didn’t have any food having just spent several days free camping on Greek beaches.  We were told that there was an open grocery store near the port if we hurried.

After a blitz through Carrefour, we arrived at the dock in a scramble, and were turned back when the ‘tickets’ we’d been given were actually vouchers that had to be converted at the Superfast office.  Diane did this while I kept the engine idling, and we raced back through the security check and up the ramp onto a ghost ship.

Empty grey deck on a ship with white railing and tower, with ocean and sunset in the background

Ghost ship

We were directed to park near the rail, and a crew member pulled an electrical cable down from the ceiling to connect us.  We were under cover for some protection from the sun and or rain, but still had a view onto the ocean.

Camping car alone on a metal deck near the starboard wall with windows in the background

Our cabin on the S&M Cruise Line

The weird thing was, there were almost no other vehicles on board.  At the very far end of the deck there was a single semi-trailer. Parked behind us were a few cars which appeared to be owned by the crew.  And that was it, on a ship so big that a crew member used a motor scooter to get around our deck rather than walk.  It was basically empty.  I assumed that more vehicles would arrive, but at the appointed time we set sail empty.

An empty metal deck on a deserted ferry.  Covered with windows in the background.

Our private deck

We went upstairs to peruse the ship.  There was a beautiful main deck with several lounges, a bar, a cafeteria, and a casino, all empty.  Above this were 2 deserted decks of staterooms.  There were two external terraces surrounded by waiters to provide table service to the non-existent patrons.  Collectively, spread over the entire ship, I think that there were less than 10 people, excluding the staff who were far more numerous.  There was a deck crew, a full kitchen with restaurant staff, a bartender with servers, an information desk with 2 staff, and a variety of officers and other attendants.

Empty hallway and lounge area with seating and lights

Our Private Lounge

The cafeteria was the most shocking.  They had a full selection of hot entrees (fish, meat, etc.), side dishes, and cold dishes.  I spied at least 10 beautiful salmon salads waiting in the cooler, but I did not see a single person eat.

Empty cafeteria counter with food and display but no patrons

Our Private Cafeteria

We did our best to support the Greek economy, drinking a pricey beer on the upper deck as Greece faded into the distance.

Diane sitting at a white table with two beer glasses on the table

Doing our part to help support the Greek economy!

Despite the guilt-inducing looks from the staff, Diane cooked us dinner in the camper.  We used the terrific shower facilities on board.  Who puts marble floors and sinks on a ferry?  When we went to bed, I was still in a state of shock about how vacant the ship was.  How could they possibly afford to run such a big ferry empty, especially on an international route?

We got our answer at 1 AM.  We were awakened by the loud noise of large trucks and other vehicles.  It seems our ferry wouldn’t be completely empty for the whole voyage after all.

In the morning, we peered outside and found that we were completed hemmed in by large trucks.

Cabs of many truck side-by-side

No longer alone

Our empty deck was now full.  The trucks were so tightly crammed together that we couldn’t walk between them.

Narrow gap between two white trucks

No wiggle room

Even though our private cruise was over, we still enjoyed the rest of our voyage, arriving in Bari,  Italy in the late morning.  We still had a nice view, and Diane even hung out the laundry in the Mediterranean breeze!

 

Towels hanging from our camper van window

Towels with that fresh ocean smell!

 


I let my guard down for just a second…

June 26, 2012

I was looking forward to seeing Athens again.  I was here for 1 day only when I was 17 years old, a stop on a whirlwind educational trip to the Mediterranean that I took with my school in Grade 11.  Diane and I got up early and drove from Delphi, the home of the famous Oracle, and arrived at Camping Athens in about 3 hours.  We had a quick lunch and caught a bus followed by the metro (subway) to the Acropolis.

We decided to beat the heat of the afternoon by first visiting the air-conditioned Acropolis Museum, a beautiful new facility at the base of the Acropolis.  It was built with easy money prior to the Greek debt crisis to house the treasures of the Acropolis, the temple complex on the hill above.  The Acropolis is the site of the famous Parthenon, a 2500 year old temple to the goddess Athena the Virgin and the finest temple of the ancient world.  This museum provides a good history of the Acropolis from ancient through classical to modern times, displays many pieces of statuary, and has a full-scale installation of the frieze of the Parthenon.

We headed up to the Acropolis around 5 PM, hoping that the majority of tourists would have vacated.  We hiked up through the Propylaea Gate, past the Temple of Athena Nike, then around the Parthenon and the Erectheion.  I took lots of photos, some of which were undoubtedly outstanding, but we eyed an approaching storm and headed down the hill.  The sky became grey and the wind picked up.  The marble steps and rocks were slippery enough on our way up and were likely to be even more so when the rain started coming down.

I climbed Areopagus (Mars Hill), a bare marble outcrop across near the base of the Acropolis upon which the Apostle Paul was supposed to have delivered his famous speech (Acts 17:16-34) to Athenians about the Christian god.  Diane needed to go to the bathroom, so she headed off to the ticket booth to find the loo.  The storm looked like it might bypass us.  I sat there with some brave tourists watching the storm sweep down on the city of Athens below us.  Diane soon returned so I stepped away from my choice bit of rock, leaving my backpack there to secure my spot.  I helped Diane up the final bit of stone and we returned to my chosen seat.  Streaks from the clouds showed us where the rain was falling.  Lightening arched down on the distant hills.  It was a spectacular show.  Luckily I brought refreshments.  Salted peanuts and a large can of beer to share.  I was really enjoying myself.  Diane didn’t like the look of the approaching storm and wanted to go down.

A grey rock outcrop viewed from above, surrounded by trees with houses in the distance

Mars Hill viewed from the Acropolis (source: Wikipedia)

I reached for my camera to take another amazing picture of the storm, but it wasn’t there.  I remembered setting it on the rock beside me, but it was gone.  A quick feel of my backpack confirmed that it wasn’t there either.  I said to Diane, “My camera is gone.  Stay here with the stuff” and I jumped up to see what I could see.  I had only set it down beside me one minute beforehand.

I didn’t see anyone obvious carrying it, so I headed for the steps.  There were two young guys there, one of whom was carrying a camera protectively, but it had a different strap than mine.  I ran down the steps and found 2 Greek cops at the bottom, sitting in a marked Smart Car.  I was eyeing the crowd retreating from the rock, but I didn’t see my camera.  I told the policemen that someone just stole my camera.  To their credit, one of them jumped into action, and I followed him up onto the rock.  By this time the rain had started falling, and Diane was packing to leave.

Because I hadn’t seen who took the camera, there wasn’t much we could do.  We scanned the crowd, but no one looked suspicious, until the cop spoke to 3 young men carrying plastic bags.  They started to scatter, and the cop started to chase them, so I started to chase them too.  The cop quickly called it off though, and said that they weren’t camera thieves, but illegal umbrella salesmen, operating without a license.

And so, my camera, 2 spare batteries, 2 memory cards, and the case were gone in an instant.

I am an experienced traveller (48 countries and counting…)  I know better.  In all my travels, the most valuable thing I’ve had stolen was a travel alarm clock somewhere in Indonesia.  I’ve met many others, including close friends, who’ve lost valuables while traveling though.  In certain places you only need to let your guard down for a second.

On the bright side (I’m an optimist), the camera had served me well.  It was 40 months old and had been traveling for over 15 months of its life, visiting 4 continents.  I got my money’s worth.  And fortunately, I made a copy of my photos only 2 days before, so I didn’t lose many. Apparently the person who took it wanted it more than I did.  Unfortunately, I won’t be able to share my Delphi or Acropolis pictures with you, but let me assure you, they were awesome.

Update – I’m going to buy a new camera, spare battery, memory card, and case to replace the ones I’d lost.  Let’s hope that I can record as many wonderful memories with these as I did with the last ones.  In the meantime, we’re using our back-up point-and-shoot camera and iPhone for photos.

Author’s Note — Today’s blog cost hundreds of dollars.  I never knew that blogging would be so expensive!


Europe Phase 2 Update

June 22, 2012

We’ve reached the point in our journey where we are about as distant as we’re going to get from London, our starting place for Phase 2.

The blue lines on the map below show our route for Phase 2 so far.  Phase 1 is in Red.

Colour map of Europe with a blue line showing our route from London through France, Germany, and South through Easter Europe to Greece

Our European Journey. Blue = Phase 2. Red = Phase 1.

This may look like the random walk of a drunken sailor, but there is considerable planning behind it.  The only places we’ve re-visited so far are in eastern Germany, but we expect that we’ll cross our tracks several times before we’re done.  Despite my best efforts to proceed in an orderly and efficient manner, there are a lot of factors that have influenced our route including desirable locations, weather, meetings with other people, special events/festivals, etc.  We’ll be heading through Italy next then continuing West.

So far, Phase 2 of our European journey is going well.  The S&M Motel is running great, and we’ve gotten back into the swing of free camping after a lot of campgrounds in Eastern Europe.  The weather has finally improved after raining almost every day in April and May. We’ve learned how much nicer it is to be traveling by motorhome when it’s warm and dry.  We sit outside to eat and read.  We can shower without heating the water first.  Now we’re wishing we had air-conditioning!


The Day I Got My Hearing Back

June 21, 2012

I lost the hearing in my left ear when I arrived in Greece.  It has happened before, but now was a lousy time for it.  We were driving from the Greek coast into the central highlands to visit Meteora, an amazing natural formation of sandstone pillars upon which are perched 6 Eastern Orthodox monasteries.

Rock tower with stone monastery on the rop with mountains in the distance and a town below and behind

The Monastery of the Holy Trinity, Meteora

If you’ve seen the movie “For Your Eyes Only” (1981), you’ve seen images of Meteora and this monastery before, when James Bond played by Roger Moore appears to climb its face to break in on a meeting of the villains.

Roger Moore climbing Meteora tower as James Bond

Roger Moore as James Bond (Source: imdb.com)

Anyway, back to my ear…  I am one of the many people plagued with a surplus of cerumen, commonly known as ear wax.  This yellow-brown sludge is produced by the glands of the ear canal to protect the skin, assist in cleaning and lubrication, and provide some protection from water, bacteria, fungi, and even insects (yikes!).  Despite proper hygiene, every 12-18 months I get a blockage causing me to lose most of the hearing in one ear or the other.  Damn my over-productive glands!

When this happens, I typically visit a walk-in clinic to have it irrigated with warm water.  This inconvenient exercise is done using a bulb syringe to flush the ear until the offending gunk is released.  Although this can be done at home with the right equipment, I didn’t have anything with me.

I did purchase a pressurized can of saline spray at the recommendation of a pharmacist in Bucharest when I felt the onset of familiar systems, but it didn’t really do the trick.  And so it was that I found myself improvising on the side of a Greek road.

As distance runners (well, at least we were at one point in the not-too-distant-past), the closest thing we had to a suitable injector was one of the plastic bottles from a running hydration belt.

Black elastic belt with elastic holders containing four white bottles with red and white squirt tops

Fuel belt with bottles.

Shirtless on the dusty roadside in the heat of the afternoon, I tried repeated to clear the blockage by squirting warm water into my ear while Diane held a plastic wash basin up to my cheek in a futile attempt to catch the spillage.  Soaked, I eventually gave up and remained monaural for a couple of days until I could get to a doctor.

After visiting our last monastery in the mountains, we drove down to the small town of Kalampaka to seek out a doctor.  We thought that a pharmacy might be able to recommend one, so we inquired and were given a name, address, and vague walking directions.  After a couple of wrong turns, we found the place.  It wasn’t a medical clinic, but a private residence.  There was only a small name plate out front, nothing to clearly identify it as a doctor’s office.  Out the back, accessed through a long corridor and a flight of stairs, we went through a door and saw a middle-aged man in a side room behind a desk.  He spoke good English and greeted us immediately.

We joined him in the room.  Behind the desk and scattered around the room were a variety of what appeared to be medical equipment, with an assortment of tubes and wires sticking out.  Nothing looked particularly new, organized, or high tech.  It looked more like a high school science fair than the Mayo clinic.  I explained my situation.  He asked me a couple of what seemed to be good questions given the circumstances (e.g. How long has it been blocked?  Has it happened before?), and then examined my ear with a bright light.  He then attached a thin metal tube to some sort of vacuum pump and proceeded to carefully siphon out both my ears.

Greek doctor in white shirt wearing a head lamp cleaning my ear.

You can tell it’s a relief!

Diane sat there smiling, thinking this was pretty funny.  She wondered if I could see what he was about to stick in my ear.  By this point though, I was committed.

I explained that at home they use a warm water lavage, and he said this this is, “an old method”.  It turned out that not only was he a doctor, but an Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) specialist.  When he was finished, he hooked me up to another machine, tested my hearing in both ears (something they never do at home), and said that it was excellent.

Patrick wearing large headphones, one red one green and holding the sides of his head

Getting my hearing tested

We hadn’t discussed costs beforehand, so I assumed that with him being a specialist, I was about to get a big bill, perhaps one worthy of a travel medical insurance claim.  But no.  He charged me 30 Euro (a bit less than $45).

People talk about the Greek crisis and the declining standard of living in Greece.  I was able to walk in directly to a medical specialist without referral and without any wait, receive apparently superior treatment to what I would receive in Canada, for a total cost of under $50.  In and out in under 20 minutes.  Luckily for me, on this day and in this place, this particular aspect of the Greek system seemed to be working very well.


The Greek Debt Crisis – What really happened?

June 20, 2012

We’ve been hearing so much on the news recently about the Greek and European debt crises, the decline of the Euro, and of protests across Europe, especially on the streets of Athens.  The European Union and its common currency appeared for a while to be a great success, a major economic powerhouse built from an amalgam of tiny neighbours.  So what happened, and why should we care?

Europeans have been talking about an economic union for over 100 years.  They believed that by cooperating they would all benefit economically, and more importantly, it would help to prevent the wars that had ravaged Europe throughout history.  After the devastation of World War II, Europeans began to consider this seriously.  It took over 30 years to agree on and implement, while politicians, economists, and central bankers tried to balance the many complicated factors and competing interests.  Together they believed that Europe could be another superpower in our multi-polar world (along with America, Russia, and China).

Prior to the Euro, doing business in Europe was inefficient.  The overhead of so many small countries each with their own currency resulted in increased costs.  A trip of only a few hours might require the crossing of several borders, each with their own immigration, customs, and currency conversion requirements.

The reality is that Germany, France, England, and Italy dominate Europe’s economy.  Germany in particular has been the primary economic engine of Europe, even while absorbing the massive costs of German reunification.  Germany was optimistic that moving to an economic union would expand its markets to more European consumers, but insisted that the other countries adopt conservative economic policies similar to its own and meet strict economic criteria for membership.  Most of all, Germany wanted to ensure that Euro would be a stable currency so they would never again experience the hyper-inflation they did prior to World War II.

Greece and the many smaller countries of Europe wanted the benefits of Eurozone membership so they could share a single strong currency with Germany.  At the time, several countries didn’t meet the fiscal criteria for membership but they were so anxious to participate that they did whatever was required to become members, like cut spending and raise taxes.  Greece in particular, had an almost miraculous turnaround, bringing their economy into line in short order.  But, as we’ve seen, it was too good to be true.

The European Union became the largest economy in the world.  Its GDP was over $17 Trillion US dollars in 2011 (compared to the United States at $15 Trillion and Canada at not quite $2 Trillion).  Of this, Germany, France, United Kingdom, and Italy together make up $11 Trillion (approx. 65%) of the total GDP of the EU.  On January 1, 2002, most of Europe began using a new currency, the Euro.  The Eurozone (which is basically the subset of European Union countries that use the Euro), became the 2nd largest economy in the world after the US.

Greece was one of the EU countries that began using the Euro in 2002.  The people of Greece were very happy to be in.  Greece had (and still has) a small economy (GDP of 300 Billion in 2011, or one-sixth the size of Canada).  When it joined, it was one of the least developed members.  As a result, Greece was a net recipient of EU money for government and infrastructure projects, resulting in a lot of enhancements to public services.  Later, with the admission of even smaller, poorer countries like Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, these funds reduced considerably.

A greater benefit came from the fact that lenders gave the many small countries of Europe (e.g. Greece, Ireland, and Portugal), the benefit of being part of the larger club.  They, incorrectly it turns out, viewed the risk of lending to these small countries as being much less now that they were part of the European Union.  But that wasn’t really the case.

There were some real issues in Greece then and now that make it very different from countries like Germany and France.  Greece has a small economy with limited exports.  It has relatively low productivity, and a low (currently negative) growth rate.  It has a huge annual deficit and debt compared to the size of its economy.  Greece’s largest industries, tourism and shipping, were particularly hard hit by the global financial crisis (down 15% in 2009). The Greek government isn’t good at controlling its spending, even once its budget has been set, resulting in overruns, especially in election years.  There is widespread tax evasion and corruption in the Greek tax system, and government revenues are much lower that they should be.

Despite these issues, cheap money began flowing into Greece.  Prior to joining the Euro Zone, interest rates in Greece had always been relatively high (10 to 20%), a reflection of their higher risk relative to other European nations.  After joining the Eurozone, interest rates in Greece declined to under 5%.  For Greeks, it was like an economic miracle.  They borrowed money euphorically to buy consumer items like houses and cars, and to grow their businesses.  The Greek government could now also borrow money cheaply, and began to spend wildly.  They hired many new government employees, raised salaries rapidly, and spent a ton of money infrastructure and other projects.  These were things that they couldn’t afford to do before joining the Eurozone and, it turns out, couldn’t really afford to do after joining either.

Greece elected a new government in October 2009.  Like most new governments, soon after they gained power and got access to the books, they claimed that things were much worse than the previous government had let on.  But in Greece, it was much worse.  The Greek statistics agency had played fast and loose with the numbers, greatly under representing how bad the situation was.  The annual deficit relative to the GDP ratio was not 6% as previously reported, but somewhere between 12 and 16%.  In 2010 it was learned that for 10 years successive Greek governments had deliberately arranged transactions so as to hide the actual level of borrowing.  This set off a dramatic chain reaction.  The foreign investors, European banks, and Greek banks who loaned money to the governments of Greece and to other small European nations (like Iceland and Ireland) got spooked, leading to a confidence crisis in Europe, the European Debt Crisis.

International lenders stopped lending money to Greece and some other nations, and interest rates in these countries increased dramatically.  The smaller countries of Europe (and their citizens) found it almost impossible to borrow money.  It became apparent to lenders that these countries would have great difficulty or wouldn’t be able to pay back what they owed.  Due to its large debt, low creditworthiness, and the much higher interest rates it was therefore required to pay, Greece was effectively bankrupt.

There are only 4 ways for a nation to deal with its debt when it can’t pay it back — (1) have the lenders forgive the debt (2) increase the money supply leading to surplus inflation (and therefore making it easier to pay the money back), (3) achieve dramatic economic growth (leading to increased tax revenues), or (4) default on the debt.

Because Greece shares a currency (the Euro) with the rest of Europe it does not have an independent monetary policy, and other European countries, especially Germany, do not want that currency debased (leading to inflation).  Although Greece plans to grow its economy, the world is a competitive place, and new austerity measures will likely slow their growth.  Not only has their economy not been growing, but it’s been shrinking for the last 2 years.  Greece and the rest of Europe are trying desperately to avoid Greece from defaulting on all their debt, because they’re worried it will trigger a European economic collapse.  They are worried about a chain reaction of bank and government failures starting in Greece and spreading until it collapses one of the larger economies of Europe (e.g. Italy).

This European debt crisis has had significant impacts through Europe.  The Euro has fallen relative to other world currencies and to the US dollar (down 25% from its peak in 2008), despite the fact that America has had its own share of economic problems recently.  It has prompted government changes in Italy, Spain, and Greece.  The European Union also began to more closely monitor its members and to enforce its rules to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. In December 2011, the governments of Europe agreed to austerity measures that would result in them spending less money, much to the chagrin of their citizens.  The European Central Bank propped up the European banks with a huge infusion of money in March 2012, but Europe is still in a recession.

The other countries of Europe and the European Central Bank agreed to bail out Greece with some major conditions – that Greece’s creditors agree to forgive some of their debt, and that the Greek government implement severe austerity measures.  This angered the people, who were facing job losses for civil servants, reduced government services, significant impacts to their pay, pensions, taxes, etc., all of which resulted in protests on the streets of Athens.  After much negotiation, Greece’s creditors did forgive about half of its debt in February 2012, and Europe provided the latest of the multiple bailouts that have kept Greece going on life support.

A Greek election in May failed to form a government so another election was held on June 17 (3 days ago).  The biggest issue in the election was whether to honour the commitments made by Greece just a few months ago upon which their partial debt forgiveness and latest bailout had been conditional.  Many of the parties running were anti-bailout, and intended to try to renegotiate the terms of the deal.  Prior to the election in May, the EU made it clear that rejection of the bailout conditions would result in Greece being forced out of the Eurozone, something that would have devastating effects on Greece, other small European nations, and potentially all of Europe.  This time, from the many factions running, pro-bailout parties received just enough seats to form a coalition government, something that is expected to be announced today (June 20).  Greece voted by the slimmest of margins to try to stay in the Euro club.  It is disconcerting though that the second place party in Sunday’s election was Syriza (27% of the vote), an anti-bailout party who has tapped into the anger of many Greeks over their declining living standards, and who pledged to magically return Greece to their unsustainable lifestyle.  This is wishful thinking on the grandest scale and probably not even possible, but many Greeks voted for it.

Even with the debt forgiveness and multiple bailouts, it may not be feasible for Greece to remain in the Eurozone.  It is impossible to row against the tide of global sentiment forever.  Fearful that a potential departure (a ‘Grexit’) would result in a devaluation of their money, Greeks have begun moving their savings to the banks of other European nations.  Eventually, this could collapse the Greek banking system and force Greece’s withdrawal from the Eurozone.  Of course the transitioning Greek government encourages people to be calm and reminds them that their deposits are ensured by the Greek government, but when that government is effectively bankrupt and relying on the handouts of other nations, that warranty is not reassuring.  Many economists think that it is an inevitability, that what we are witnessing are just the stages of grieve prior to the final death throes.

The European Union treaties are silent on the matter of states leaving the Eurozone, neither prohibiting nor permitting it. Likewise there is no provision for a state to be expelled from the Euro, although the other states could make it so difficult for Greece that they choose to leave voluntarily.  There is virtually no precedent for a country leaving a monetary union, and in modern world of electronic fund transfers and financial speculators, this would be extremely difficult and potentially devastating.

There is a lot of ill will toward Greece in Europe right now.  The other countries blame them lying about their economic situation to gain membership to the EU, for not working hard enough, for retiring too early, for spending too much money, and for not collecting enough taxes.

Greece is a tiny country on the other side of the world.  Until recently it was more famous for its antiquities, beaches and food than for anything else.  The reason we should care is that a debt default in Greece could lead to a chain reaction of collpases that would eventually impact the larger economies of Italy or Spain, destroy the European Union, and plunge the world into another major financial crisis when we haven’t yet recovered from the last one.  In today’s globally integrated world the actions of one small nation can impact ordinary citizens on the other side of the globe.