For most of a week, over breakfast at the rooftop restaurant of the hotel where I was staying in Iraklion, Crete, I watched the waves rolling in from the northern Mediterranean and crash against the breakwater. Built by the Venetians, who occupied the island for six centuries, it encircled the harbor in a slender serpentine arc. Along with a giant hulk of a fort, also built by the Venetians, it now protected tubby little boats tied to their fragile moorings, boats that many modern-day Cretans, fishermen and tour operators, depended on for their livelihood. Storms often pummel the island in the winter, and so a grand show was put on each morning as the waves gathered steam before they collided with the coastal barrier, plumes of white foam riding atop dark blue walls of water. When the waves struck they exploded like a grand fireworks display, but the Venetian handiwork, stone fortress and stone barrier, held fast.
The same could not be said for the Greek economy, swamped by a $320-billion debt as a result of the 2009 global financial crisis. For three weeks over the end-of-the-year holidays I traveled around Crete as wave after wave of winter storms bore down from the north, bashing the coastline, and one brutal winter day it even pelted the ancient Minoan palace of Malia, to the east of Iraklion, with hailstones. It was the worst, longest spate of bad weather in 30 years, I heard again and again. Daytime temperatures, normally around 16 to 18 degrees Celsius, dropped to barely 10. Heavy, wet storm clouds obscured the Mediterranean sun. Snow piled up in the mountains, blocking roads and isolating villages.
“The last two years there were people out on the beach on Christmas Day,” said Katerina, manager of the hotel where I was staying in Hania. History on Crete is measured in centuries and millennia, reaching all the way back to the Minoan civilization of 2700–1100 B.C. The hotel was once a Venetian townhouse built in the 14th century, almost “yesterday” in Cretan terms.
The weather, however fierce, was no match for bitter economic news: an unemployment rate that hovered around 20 percent, highest in the European Union. Youth unemployment was more than double that. Gross domestic product had been rising steadily since 1960, and beginning in 2000 took a dramatic upswing, only to return to 2008 levels after the global crash. A $240-billion bailout package from the European Union produced harsh cuts in government spending and austerity policies that drove Greeks into the streets in open rebellion. Greece even threatened to abandon the euro, cracking the wall of European economic solidarity that had held fast since its creation in 1999. By 2018, the country’s debt had risen to almost 400 billion euros. It didn’t help matters that an estimated 6 to 9 percent of potential government revenue was lost due to tax evasion.
When it rains it pours, so the saying goes, and for Greece the run of bad luck continued, driven by forces not under its control. In the summer of 2015, Greece became the entry point for tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria, turning the eastern coast into a string of refugee camps. Three years later, a heat wave that had swept across Europe ignited wildfires in the coastal region of Attica. From there they spread, decimating parts of the Greek countryside and killing at least 100.
“I probably shouldn’t say this, but, to be honest, this place is a mess,” Athena, the manager of the Iraklion office of tourism told me when asked why the information center on Lions’ Square was closed in the middle of the afternoon in the middle of the week. “Last year at this time we had three to five people working in the office, but when the summer ended we had to let all the temporary help go.”
“Look, I’m broke,” Nilos, manning the desk at my hotel in Iraklion, told me, turning his pockets inside out in case there was any doubt.
Conflict between Greece and the forces of the north has a bit of history. Between 400 and 600 A.D., the tottering Byzantine Empire was invaded Huns, Goths, Avars, and other pagan, “barbarian” Slavic tribes—as the “superior” Greeks referred to them. But the barbarians triumphed, laying waste to Thrace and Illyricum, and seizing Corinth, Salistria, and other cities. At the end of the 6th century, Thessaloniki suffered a series of brutal sieges.
Fast-forward a thousand years. The northern “barbarians” were eventually Christianized, the dark ages passed into the middle ages, the Renaissance set Europe aglow, nation-states emerged, and Greece became independent, freeing itself from Ottoman rule in vicious war that ended in 1832. Greek democracy was reborn after the fall of a military dictatorship in 1974, but it took the economic implosion of 2008 to expose the north–south cultural and political rift that had long lain dormant. The warring tribes of medieval Europe were replaced by warring political parties, which form fragile alliances to protect their interests, interests that cross political boundaries. From a distance, it would appear that in 21st-century Europe the sovereignty of the nation state had been replaced with the binding ties of ideological-driven political parties.
It would seem almost inevitable that the present environment would produce an Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza party, to breathe life into the flagging left-wing parties of Italy, Spain, and Portugal, just as William Wallace rallied his ragged Scotsmen to take on the English forces of King Edward I.
“People have given up on Pasok and the others,” Yannis, an environmental engineer specializing in green building technology, told me. “They had a chance to improve things but failed, so what is there to lose?”
But since the rise of Syriza and Tsipras, far-right politician Matteo Salvini had seized power in Italy and initiated a war of words with French president Emmanuel Macron of France, resulting in the first recall of ambassadors since World War II.
As soon as he took office, Tsipras’ demand for an end to crippling austerity released flurries of verbal barbs. Disparaging stereotypes resurfaced. Northern Europeans wondered why they should pay for the laziness and irresponsibility of southerners. The day he took office, Tsipras delivered a speech at the site of a massacre of 600 Greek resistance fighters by Nazi troops in 1944, pledging that Greece’s “humiliation and suffering” were at an end, and “our foremost priority is that our people regain their lost dignity.” One attendee said he was proud that Greece had “finally freed itself from German occupation.”
In Europe, history never sleeps soundly.
My last day on Crete, a bright and sunny Sunday, I drove up to the Lasithi Plateau, a broad basin in the mountains that was now encircled by snow-covered peaks. A touch of warmth had returned and the mountain roads that had been shut for days had reopened, allowing parents and children from the coastal cities a rare opportunity to head to the hills to play in the snow, leaving the geopolitical spats to the politicians. Despite the gloomy clouds hovering over European politics, even once lowly Greece was beginning to envision a turning point. The worst days may have passed.
“We’re predicting that by 2030 Piraeus will become the busiest port in the world,” Yannis, the environmental engineer, told me. For once, such hope did not seem misguided. For over two thousand years Greece’s location on the eastern end of the Mediterranean enabled it to serve as the gateway to Asia and the Middle East. If Yannis’ prognosis played out as fact, goods from the improving economies in Asia would travel through the Suez Canal and on to Piraeus, where they would fan out into eastern and western Europe. And reverse movement would funnel goods from Europe to Piraeus, where they would be loaded onto ships headed to Asia.
Whether or not such a rosy scenario would play out, there are other reasons for optimism in today’s Europe. Photo ops and hot rhetoric have replaced the swords and halberds that once left battlefields littered with corpses. In Greece, and elsewhere, red ink flows instead of blood. That, at least, is progress.