ISTANBUL, Turkey – It has been three decades since I was in this wedge of the world. Returning to Greece and visiting western Turkey for the first time has deepened my understanding of the pivotal role these two countries have played in shaping global history from governance to culture and commerce. Separated largely by the silky blue Aegean Sea, people in these two nations have been stitched together by a hefty sense of self preservation and a level of bravado slow-roasted and tested since the days of the Old Testament.
Like a fine Turkish rug for sale in this city’s Grand Bazaar, the current state of affairs in this region are not easily unraveled or explained. Some answers can be threaded to the behavior and beliefs of the Ottoman Empire at its height in the 16th and 17th centuries, when ruler Suleiman the Magnificent deftly controlled much of the Eastern Mediterranean, including Greece.
But the Turkish Empire, with its capital in modern-day Istanbul, ended in 1922, and today there is a new balance of power at play on the shores of the Aegean. Traveling by boat, bus and foot this summer, I witnessed the tale of two countries: one rising and one struggling. Turkey is ascending, lusting to become a 21st-century influencer and economic power. By contrast, Greece is teetering like one of its countless historical sites in desperate need of restoration.
Athens is as brown and hot as it was in August 1979, when I walked the Acropolis among Greek Gods and scaffolding. Nothing has changed much, it seems. I swear, some of the same scaffolding is still in use today at the historic hilltop overlooking the central city. The airport, thanks to the 2004 Summer Olympics, is more modern, frankly, than parts of LAX, and there’s an adequate Athens subway system now. But overall the city looks tired and worn. Since the Olympic torch was extinguished, many Greeks say this country of 11 million has been in a state of decline.
The woeful economy and soaring unemployment (almost 23.5 percent) has been well documented. Athens, in particular, has a swelling population of illegal immigrants, many from Africa who have landed in search of work. Hoping to keep moving to Central and Western Europe to secure jobs, many lack proper identification papers and are now stuck in Athens, a melting pot of 4 million. They are ever present in alleys, on park benches and in the Placas.
There is mounting frustration and anxiety about what lies ahead, and that unease has even spread to some of the larger islands in the Greek archipelago that dot the azure seas. Eight years ago, Greece was the toast of the world during the Summer Games. Today the stadia built for the Olympics are monuments to what was and could have been.
“Greece is searching to recapture its identity and place in the world,” one tourism official told me. “We have a lot of soul-searching to do.”
Said a cab driver who drove me from the airport to the port: “This fall we will find out if we return to a simpler life or move forward with the rest of Europe. We wait and worry.”
Turkey is hardly waiting, and although men in the historic Galata neighborhood of cosmopolitan Istanbul constantly work their worry beads through their fingers, it’s more out of habit then deep concern. Owing to Turkey’s thriving economy, with 8.5 percent annual growth in 2011, Istanbul now boasts almost as many billionaires as those in London and Moscow, and many more than in Paris. Hence the shopping malls, the luxury gym culture and the obsession with status. Dating back to the birth of Christianity, this city, known for centuries as Constantinople, was a major stop for spice traders, conquering explorers and religious crusaders. It has been the literal and cultural bridge between Asia and Europe with portions of the city today on both continents. Istanbul was a grimy, provincial tourist city in the 1970s, and today nearly one-fifth of Turkey’s 73 million residents live in and around it. The historical gravitas of this architecturally splendid city is matched by the vibrancy of its retail and restaurant sectors.
But as Instanbul leans toward the West, large swaths of Turkey are still burrowed in its Islamic past. And herein lies its coming struggle: new versus traditional. More than 95 percent of the nation is Muslim, though Turkey has been officially secular since 1924. The religious freedom has allowed Turkey, or at least Instanbul, to evolve into a Muslim center of a different stripe. This is not Egypt or Lebanon, and the country’s youth is increasingly embracing the Starbucks culture: Jobs, home ownership and travel are priorities for young professionals.
One tour guide, newly engaged to be married and with five years of university studies, spent more time asking me about real estate in California than I could ask him about the ruins of Ephesus.
“As long as we can stay the course and avoid conflicts, Turkey’s future is bright,” the guide said in an obvious reference to the internal Syrian strife tearing apart Turkey’s southern neighbor. “We believe our time in this region is now.”
KUSADASI, Turkey – The talk of this beach resort on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean is Syria. It is the dark cloud on the near horizon. It is the subplot that threatens to undermine a period of much needed and aggressively nurtured political stability and economic growth. Contrary to its European neighbors to the west and its Muslim sister nations to the south and east, Turkey is emerging as a model of self sufficiency and measured leadership in this unsteady corner of the world.
It’s precisely why the boiling strife in Syria, which shares a long common border with Turkey, has the working class in this center of tourism, commerce and agriculture on edge. By most accounts, this nation of 70 million Muslims (99 percent belong to the faith) is on a roll. Turkey is among the top five democratic countries in terms of economic growth. It feeds itself and then some, exporting huge tonnage annually of grains and fruits, including olives and a variety of produce. Tourists are flocking in big numbers to a country rich with artifacts and history, and it boasts what some claim is the most cosmopolitan city in the Muslim world – Istanbul. And the people are modern with democratic and capitalist tastes that position this rectangular-configured country as a player on the geo-political landscape. The last thing Turkey wants or needs is war to the south in Syria.
“It is not good,” says Mutlu Bulut, a tour guide licensed by the Turkish Ministry of Tourism to guide foreigners. “We had a long struggle with Iraq that hurt us. Now we are at peace and we want to keep it that way.”
With each passing day that becomes more problematic as Syrian President Assad ratchets up the pressure on anti-government forces rebelling against his oppressive regime, the world is barking louder and demanding Assad be ousted. But Bulut, age 27, says the world is not in Assad’s backyard – Turkey is. This expansive country, which is the size of Texas and half of California, is already absorbing the internal fallout on its soil. Syrian refugees now numbering more than 90,000 have crossed into Turkey in the past 12 months, leaving no choice but to shelter and feed them. The expense and political drain on Turkey is an uncertainty Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is trying to calculate.
“As a nation we are undecided what to do,” says Bulut, born in central Turkey and now living a few blocks from the shore here in Kusadasi, a resort town with vacation homes and scores of restaurants and clubs. “Turks in the south have relatives in Syria and sympathize with the rebels. But the rest of Turkey is nervous about what’s next. Where will the solution come from?
“Some believe it must come from the U.S.,” he says, pausing and staring out the window of his tour bus. “This is not our problem alone.”
Second in a series of reports from the Eastern Mediterranean
By Churm Media CEO and OC METRO Publisher Steve Churm
Standing on the pier in Mykonos, Konstantine Perraivos is at a crossroads. Not unlike many of his generation in this part of the troubled world, he hungers for better days. But on this morning, this highly educated and ambitious Greek is herding a group of foreign tourists fresh off one of the pearl white cruise ships anchored just beyond the harbor of this Greek island. This is the high season for tourism in the archipelago of Greek isles and Mykonos is a coveted destination. Young and old are drawn to this legendary spot in the Aegean Sea because of the translucent waters, shopping and night life. Perraivos is here to greet them; a guide leading tours through the maze of narrow streets and alleys of this port town.
This idyllic settling, much like a Trojan horse, hides the gnawing fear for Perraivos and his peers that Greek’s economic woes will rob them of a stable future. In this nation where 1 out of every 3 Greeks under age 30 are unemployed, Perraivos feels lucky to be working. But is he happy? “Many days,” says the handsome, dark-haired guide. “But I worry – often.”
Born into a professional family in Athens, Perraivos’ father is an attorney in the capital. Perraivos has a degree in graphic arts but found the pay and work to be unsatisfactory and fleeting. He turned to tourism, a pillar in the Greek economy that otherwise has crumbled in recent years under the weight of expectations after joining the European Union. He went to Crete and earned a license to guide and then landed on Mykonos, where he visited often as a child to escape the August heat of Athens. It is here that Perraivos now works and waits for his next opportunity.
On this day, along the bustling waterfront, it’s near impossible to sense a national economy on the edge or the worldwide jitters of a new recession. The tavernas are already filling and the streets are coming alive with pedestrians. Mykonos has a year-round population of 6,000. But it can swell to more than 10 times that number during some summer weeks, Perraivos says. This year is different, however. The Italians, by far the most frequent visitors to this island, are coming in fewer numbers, Perraivos says. So too are the English, Swedes and Germans. And those that are traveling are spending less and coming for shorter stays.
“They used to come for two and three weeks. Now only a week,” laments Perraivos.” They used to buy jewelry. Now they buy refrigerator magnets. Some restaurants have closed and many shopkeepers wonder what will happen, come fall.”
The concern is magnified in Athens, just eight years removed from a national highlight as host of the 2004 Summer Olympics, an event that restored luster and world interest in this country. Now, the capital has become a repository for illegal immigrants, particularly Africans, says Perraivos. Homelessness and crime are on the rise because many immigrants trying to reach central and northern Europe in hopes of finding jobs, come to Greece first. Many lack visas or other documents and are stopped.
“Our country is increasingly the bus stop for this part of the world,” Perraivos says.
Still, Greece is his home and he wants to stay. He is hoping to improve his status as a tour guide, perhaps joining the Ministry of Tourism in some capacity. That will take more training and patience, something he is learning slowly.
“Younger Greeks are not as patient as our elders,” he reflects. “Our fathers had a road map for life and they follow it. Today we want to change things faster. It is a clash of old and new.”
First in a series of reports from the Eastern Mediterranean
By Churm Media CEO and OC METRO Publisher Steve Churm
ATHENS, Greece–Weaving through the traffic on the outskirts of steamy Athens, the cabbie told a story of spiraling unease, one shared by many in this historic seat of power in the Eastern Mediterranean. Come September and October, when the summer tourists have returned to Germany, the U.S. and points beyond; when the stifling heat that bakes this land of olives and ouzo mercifully retreats, the political temperature may reach a boiling point, our driver fears. He believes his beloved Athens, the only city he has called home, may become the stage for world economic headlines, yet again. Only this time it could be the final tipping point.
Unemployment hovers near 25 percent and this nation of 11 million teeters on the edge insolvency.
“It might not be good,” says Milton, an English name the round-faced driver adopted to make it easier for his fares to pronounce. “Nobody knows what’s next, but this fall could be bad.” Rosary beads hang from the rearview mirror of this late-model Mercedes. He talks of his two sons and their uncertain future as he stealthy slips past slower traffic, only to be passed by darting motorcyclists who seem unfazed by red lights and honking horns. For months, Greece and its collapsing currency and downtrodden economy has been the focus of intense international debate. Money markets worldwide have risen and fallen on hopes of saving this country from bankruptcy and sparing the rest of Europe and the U.S. the crippling Domino effect its fall could have on their own sputtering recoveries.
While the world waits for this fiscal drama to play out, many Greeks are readying for August and vacation. Even in the face of political strife that Milton says may spill into the streets and crater what stability remains, this nation, as it has done forever, will essentially shut down soon for summer holiday.
“It’s the Greek way,” says Milton, offering a mild defense for behavior that seems so incongruous to the state of affairs here. It speaks to the maddening indifference some world leaders have railed about when it comes to rescuing this country. Greek’s geo-political importance as a democratic port on the doorstep to the volatile Middle East has long been noted by Western Europe and American interests.
“Greece has been around a long time,” he says near the end of my 90-minute cab ride from the Athens airport through the center of the city to the harbor. “We are survivors and we will weather the storm. At what price? I don’t know.”