If you watch television or read the news, traveling to Greece seems like a pretty bad idea right now. Riots. Cashless ATMs. One news service even predicted a shortage of feta. A trip to Greece right now seems the travel equivalent of deliberately choosing to eat at a restaurant on its last night of dinner service.
This is a great time to visit Greece. Their hospitality has never been better, restaurants are full, and the dollar is almost at parity with the euro for the first time in years.
Two weeks ago, I visited Greece with the chef, sous chef and sommelier of Amali to find inspiration for our flagship restaurant and our new concept opening in August.
I’ve been to Greece over a dozen times and speak the language. But I had some doubts. I called distant cousins. I texted Greek food writers and winemakers. I even emailed an old girlfriend in Athens. Despite their collective reassurance, I did not know what to expect when I touched down in Athens on July 1.
First, the hospitality of the people is finally a paean to their history. Hospitality is a bedrock principle of Greece and as deep-rooted as democracy. Zeus was often called as Zeus Xenios - the patron god of xenia, which means “guest-friendship” or the generosity or courtesy shown to travelers. I mean, a thousand ships left for Troy because Paris disgraced the xenia shown to him by Menelaus.
Unfortunately, in modern times, Greek standards for restaurant service have not exactly been a tribute to their ancient culture. For years, one of Greek-Americans’ favorite pastimes was to mock the low service standards of Greek restaurants. It bordered on charming but was mostly just incompetent.
Not now. The tourism industry seems to know the stakes this summer and a genetically warm, hospitable people are ready for prime time at every hotel and restaurant. It feels as if as if every host is channeling Sirio Maccioni and every server would please Downton Abbey’s Mr. Carson. If you did not have access to the internet or television, you would likely not notice much of a difference between this year and prior years.
And the mood (outside of largely peaceful protests in Syndagama Square) is upbeat. Restaurants are full, and people are dancing in nightclubs. It is very Greek to respond to a national crisis by coming together and being social, (maybe throwing a few napkins and dancing on a table or two). If you did not have access to the internet or television, you would likely not notice much of a difference between this year and prior years.
I saw no food shortages. While Greece does import many goods, the upper echelon of restaurants (and most frequented by tourists) serve local food and wine. Santorini will serve the roca it grows locally. Order an anchovy or sardine at any island restaurant and it was likely caught that morning by boat and net. The savory that aromatizes the air in Mykonos will still find its way to salads at the island’s beachside tavernas.
Greece has always been inexpensive, and currently there is the best exchange rate for the dollar in almost a decade. Compare the price of visiting Robert Moses Beach, Long Island from Manhattan, to that of visiting Ornos Beach in Mykonos from Athens. Recently, Aegean Airlines announced it was discounting some inter-island flights to as low as $9 to stimulate tourism as a show of solidarity with its people.
Aegean Flight to Mykonos, $9.00; Frappe, .50; Beach Chair, $8.
Wine might be the greatest bargain. A bottle of Kir-Yianni sparkling rose at a high-end hotel restaurant in Athens is 15 euro. Molyvos in New York charges 60 dollars. A kilo of local house wine at a taverna? Less than 10 dollars.
I admit there were some minor inconveniences. Some ATMs had small lines. Some did not. Most had cash. Exchange kiosks hummed. Every hotel and almost every restaurant took credit cards without protest. Some stores asked for cash, but Greece has always functioned as a cash economy (yes, one of their major issues). And yet, because it has always functioned as a cash economy, many merchants have been silently preparing for this crisis over the last five years. According to the restaurants I spoke with, their supply lines were open on credit for weeks before they would have to resort to cash reserves.
There are protests. Greece has a history of active anarchist and communist parties. But these protests pose no threat to tourists. The protests are less frequent and violent than the media suggests, scheduled in advance and generally limited to Syndagma Square in Athens. The civil servants of Athens are doing a particularly impressive job in minimizing their impact to tourists and the rest of Athens. From a tourist perspective, the most noticeable impact of the protests in Athens is simply traffic.
The reasons to go to Greece are the same as ever. The beaches are just as pristine, the food just as beautiful in its simplicity, and the cab drivers are all still conspiracy theorists.
But why should we care to travel to Greece? After all, it’s their mess, not our problem, right?
The suffering of the Greek people could have easily been our suffering. The social devastation wreaked on the Greek demos should feel very familiar to Americans.
Less than a decade ago, our own financial system almost collapsed as a result of excessive risk and borrowing, predatory lending, and our government asleep (or more accurately deliberately ignoring) at the regulatory wheel. While the characters are different, the plot and themes are the same.
What can we do to show solidarity with the Greek people — not their elites, oligarchs or politicians — but with their people?
Unlike the United States, Greece cannot print money to stimulate its economy. Greece will rely on tourism as a primary engine for economic recovery.
So go to Greece this summer or fall (late September and early October is actually the best time to go. Support the small businesses, cooks and shopkeepers. And tip! In Greece, small gratuities go a long way (and you feel like a baller).
Booking a flight to Mykonos never felt like an act of civic virtue. But this summer, it very well may be as significant as attending an Occupy rally, and frankly, a lot more fun.
James Mallios is the managing partner of Amali, a Mediterranean restaurant in Manhattan.