— I traveled to Greece to see the land of my fathers, to see its beauty and its economic crisis firsthand.
But as I arrived, others were leaving.
"They go to Australia or Turkey or wherever they can find work," says my first cousin Sophia, a mother of two daughters who is fearful of the future.
Every day here, as a handful on the hard left throw rocks in the streets, the stories get worse and worse. Many involve young people leaving home.
Everybody knows about some family that has lost a son or daughter to the swift currents of the diaspora, the young people leaving for jobs far away. That is, if they can find jobs. In a culture that prizes education above all, the most highly educated and the most talented are being lured away — and there is no shortage of highly educated and competent people here, top-flight engineers and computer programmers and so on.
And the others?
"A man was on a morning TV show from Australia saying he needed taxi drivers," Sophia said. "Thousands applied that very morning. To do what? To leave home and become taxi drivers in a foreign land among strangers?"
She put her hand to her mouth. Her eyes were on the verge of spilling.
"We are not giving up, but the situation is this: Everyone is hurting. And every day, more young people leave. The best of the nation leave, if they can," she said. "Your father had to leave, so many young men left in the 1950s. Do we have to go through this again? This is terrible."
And as some leave, others rush in. A wave of uncontrolled immigration from the poorest nations of Asia and Africa streams through, taking advantage of the country's thousands of miles of coastline. And no real help comes from the European Union to stop it.
Some neighborhoods in Athens like Omonia Square are jammed, and prostitution, narcotics and street crime are on the increase. This allows the fringe politicians both on the hard left and the hard right some easy rhetorical targets, and what's remarkable is that despite political differences, the rhetoric from communists and nationalists is increasingly similar in tone and coloration.
Here's what happened. The mainstream politicians lost the people's trust after bribing them with their own money in a Ponzi scheme where public benefits were ladled out for votes until the money was gone.
Think of an entire nation run by the Chicago Democratic machine, with help from the equally suspect white-shoe Republicans from Illinois, all of them eating well and feeding their friends. And as they ate, the people numbly footed the bill year after year, assured by the experts from the school of common wisdom and the machine mouthpieces that the important thing was "to get things done."
They got things done all right. They amassed their own power and wealth while growing a government they could not pay for. In both Greece and Illinois, unsustainable economies have inspired an exodus of business and human capital.
The pain of Greece's corrupted capitalism becomes ever sharper when it's contrasted with the booming economy of neighboring Turkey. That's where I'm headed next, to Istanbul and Ankara, to see an increasingly confident people, where jobs are being created and one of the biggest worries is whether the economy is growing too quickly.
But before leaving Greece, I am reminded that even with its problems, the people plod forward, including Adriana Kaldis Tolis, formerly of the Northwest Side of Chicago. She and her husband and sons run the Tolis Sweet Shop in a working-class area near Athens.
Yes, they sell delicious stuff — and, yes, I made a serious study of her wares. It seemed that every customer was picking up a loaf of the sweet bread called tsoureki, which is sold during the Easter season.
I'm partial to tsoureki toast and tea and feta cheese, my traditional breakfast on Easter Sunday morning as I sit out in my backyard, roasting that lamb. But since I'll still be traveling Sunday when the Greek Orthodox Church celebrates that holy day, I won't be able to do the Easter lamb at home.
"Feta on tsoureki?" said Adriana.
And why not? What's wrong with sweet and salty?
But enough of toast. Adriana friended me on Facebook months ago, imploring me to come to Greece to tell the story of the ruined economy. She also had a message.
"Hey, Chicago!" she said. "Hello to the Northwest Side and to everybody back home."
"Has it been tough? Sure," said Adriana. "Sales are down about 20 percent, but I think we can make it. My sons are working here, and they've built a little factory to make everything you see. And we all live together, the Greek way, so that cuts down on expenses. We'll get through it."
Adriana says that what she's most concerned about is the people losing confidence.
"People are down," she said. "This country had been through so much. But hey, life goes on. One of my sons is getting married in a few weeks. Everybody from Chicago is coming. I'm so excited. This is what I mean. Life goes on.
"People in America see the rock throwers on TV, yes, but do they see the weddings?"
Saying goodbye to Greece — as hordes of young people do the same
'The best of the nation leave, if they can'
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