BY ALEXIA AMVRAZI email@example.com
STUMBLING into Matt Barrett's website, one
discovers a fresher, more impressionable as well as
impressive outlook on Greece - its people, its national
customs, the islands, the dusty, quaint or characteristic
pockets of Athens - than one finds on most other sites written about the
country. And Barrett is a self-employed American who lives in North Carolina.
I have found that being a Greek who has grown up abroad has offered me
good fortune of seeing your country more clearly from the outside as well
from within. It means realising that there are as many problems as there
pleasures, and each poignant realisation engages the senses almost entirely;
either with celebration, pride and hope, or with frustration, sadness and
I will divulge a little secret to all non-Greeks out there: the same Greek
fiercely and sometimes fanatically defend his own country to a foreigner
brutally criticise it to a fellow-Greek. We have no illusions about our
Perhaps the stumbling block for this country is that illusions actually
lie in how
those issues can be dealt with and solved.
Matt Barrett presents Greece like a Greek who has lived abroad rather than
a foreigner who has lived in Greece. He is sure to not over-idolise or
over-criticise. He points out the quirks but often with a tone of humour
affection rather than affectation. His internet-based guide can help a
their way here for a visit or longer-term move in a way that no boastingly
over-inflated and simply quite unbelievable presentation by the Greek National
Tourism Organisation (GNTO) can.
He uses photographs he has taken himself of people,
landscape scenes, foods (shot just before eating
because you can't tell how good they were after), and
natural street action. My favourite is his opening photo
for www. greecetravel. com's Athens Guide, which
shows a frappe coffee, a frosted glass of cold water
and a mobile phone on a small round table. This image is quintessentially
- a common sight which reflects so much about the attitudes and lifestyle
people who have this set-up on their table (all that's missing is the tobacco).
not a stereotypically cheesy photo of a tanned blonde babe on a beach or
Acropolis or an evzone (tsolias) standing on guard in parliament square.
The Athens News contacted Barrett, who lives in the US, in a quest to find
what drove him to create an entire website so full of detail, character
colour, on this country alone.
Barrett, whose father came here on a Fulbright scholarship in 1963 and
at the University of Athens, was a student at the American Community Schools
(ACS) from the age of 13 until he graduated in 1972. He says that when
moved back to the US he felt stark disillusionment at the all-American
had looked forward to experiencing (rock concerts and other funky
experiences) and "an emptiness".
"Everything was based on earning and consumption," he says. "Kids didn't
out in cafes and go to the islands. They hung out in their cars at the
parking lots and watched a lot of TV. In Greece we didn't own a TV but
States most people never turned theirs off. It was like a member of the
Barrett's feelings of alienation (similar to those he'd felt being an American
Greece) created a strong sense of nostalgia.
the big blue
"One day I was sitting by a pool staring into the
water," he relates. "It was blue. You know how they
paint pools blue. And suddenly it seemed there was no
reason for me to be staring into a swimming pool at
some stupid apartment complex when I could be
staring at the Aegean." So he used the $1,000 he'd
inherited from his grandfather, quit his job, hitch-hiked to New York and
his way to Greece for the summer, where his friend Dorian Kokas had opened
a club on the island of Sifnos. Always eager to be involved in music, Barrett
played there every night for two-and-a-half summers and then played in
couple of Athens clubs in the autumn. "I wrote lots of songs from this
and also lots of journals - both were the beginning of what became my Greece
Travel web pages, which started with the Sifnos Guide."
Barrett felt that by relating his experiences in Greece he could help travellers
have a good time themselves. "Rather than try to include everything about
Greece, I wrote about what I knew. I was also aware that many travellers
an unpleasant experience of Athens. I'd seen postings on network bulletin
boards that travellers should avoid Athens; 'See the Acropolis and get
out! ' It
was basically a matter of having the right expectations."
tell it like it is
Barrett realised that the GNTO's promotion of Greece to Americans (classic
images of azure seas, clean, empty beaches and beautiful temples) were
somewhat misleading and thus clashed with the reality faced by visitors
arrival in Athens. "Rising above the chaos, tourists spot the Acropolis
first time, but by then they are in no condition to appreciate it."
The website host likes to tell it like it is. He describes Athens as a
jungle", but adds that within this there are "pockets that are quite beautiful
enjoyable and you can spend your entire holiday in these pockets and have
completely different experience of Athens. I teach people to love Athens."
Barrett hopes, through his site, to convince at least a minuscule number
thousands of visitors daily to opt for lesser known Greek island destinations,
unlike those he believes travel agents fed on "packages from the GNTO"
lessons in love
His love for Greece is not based only on the country
itself but also on its people. His wife is from Lesvos,
his favourite island. "Whenever I return to Greece, no
matter how long I have not seen my friends here, it's
like we are picking up the conversation where we left off the night before."
His best friend, Dino Nichols, who, with his great gusto for life "taught
about Greece than anyone," sadly died of a massive heart attack whilst
rock-climbing at age 35. Around the same time, Barrett experienced another
personal tragedy when another close friend, Jimi Hatzidimitriou, who opened
Barrett's eyes to Greek music and whose company was "like a lesson on being
Greek", also passed away. "Anyone can love Greece on the surface. It's
beautiful. But to love Greece to the point where you can feel the pain
in an old
Tsitsanis song or in the face of an old man staring off in a kafeneion
and that's what I learned from them," he says.
Listing another reason for his romance with Greece, Barrett notes: "I like
that last for six hours. Not only because the food is good or the atmosphere
beautiful, but because people love to talk and to say what they feel.
Conversations get passionate in Greece. I love having to get the attention
waiter for more wine or another order of paidakia. In the States I miss
up in the morning and going to a cafe in Plaka and getting a coffee and
breaking the stereotypes
When asked about his weathered opinion of how Americans see Greeks,
Barrett suggests that "they don't realise the close ties the Greeks have
America, the number of Greeks who have spent much of their lives in the
States. It is really a less foreign country then they imagine." The media,
may be to blame in creating a sense of detachment towards the Greek people:
"They see demonstrations on TV and they have visions of Iran and Khomeini."
Over the years he has been running his website, Barrett says he has noticed
trend where it is chiefly American women who want to travel to Greece and
have to work at convincing their husbands to book the tickets. "They convince
the reluctant husbands to come to Greece eventually, and plans are made.
something happens - a big demonstration, a bomb at a bank, a November 17
assassination - and the husband says 'forget it!'. Instead they go to Myrtle
Beach, South Carolina and he gets to play golf and they don't have to miss
favourite TV programmes."
Targeting the role of both the Greek and American media in misleading potential
visitors, he notes: "while CNN was showing pictures of anti-Nato
demonstrations and American flag-burning, at that moment the GNTO should
have been working on counteracting this with images of whitewashed villages,
smiling Greek faces and the Parthenon. But GNTO seems content to leave
promotion of Greece to CNN and Antenna TV and then they wonder when
tourism is down."
sleeping with the enemy
Greece's greatest and most important challenge,
Barrett believes, is "to get people to work together and
realise that Greece's worst enemies are not outside
their borders but within. Greece's enemy is greed and
corruption. Not just the politicians and businessmen
but every taxi driver that rips off a tourist to make an
extra few thousand drachmas. Greece needs to build
for the future."
"My hope," he adds, "is also that the youth will realise this practise
of every man
for himself has created a climate of suspicion and an attitude of 'screw
competition before he screws you, ' and that it is really an unhealthy
way to go
ferry, ferry bad
Travel being a deeply ingrained part of Barrett's existence, he also points
Greek ferry system as a cause of great trouble suffered by tourists. "In
there is a law against monopolies for the very reasons that the Greek ferry
system is in disarray. Right now travel agencies can't finalise itineraries
they don't have the ferry schedules. That means someone who began planning
their Greek island holiday six months ago is still waiting to find out
if there is a
boat on the day they are scheduled to check into the hotel on Paros."
man with a plan
"I take it a step at a time," says Barrett, when asked what lies ahead
website. "Right now I play the role of a private GNTO. People ask me all
of questions: what to wear; what the weather is like; can you get to one
from another. They ask my opinion of itineraries, travel agencies, hotels
when anything happens, like a bombing, murder, earthquake, war or
demonstration, they write to ask me to assure them that things are OK and
should not cancel their trip."
not a computer nerd
Although Barrett confesses that his social life in America revolves around
e-mails he receives and that he lives "on the PC", he says that his computer
skills are actually limited and that his sites "are not made to impress
nerds." When in Greece with his wife and daughter, Barrett chills out with
friends, takes pictures and occasionally checks his e-mail.
If you can call it that, because Barrett doesn't seem to think what he
serious work. "I am not very professional. And I am not a businessman.
were I would be rich." He has remained firm in his values, he says, despite
regular glittery proposals pouring in based on ulterior promotional motives
Barrett actually promotes a handful of hotels individually); "I get lots
from large travel organisations, hotel chains, major internet travel sites.
them to my brother to look over and he always points out some clause in
offer that makes it very ungenerous and I send them a nice letter telling
thanks but I am not interested." He adds that his website "brings millions
Greece" and that he thinks the government should actually give him money!
what barrett would do if he were mayor of athens
"The first thing I would do is continue creating pedestrian streets and
not just in the centre but in all areas. I would probably need more power
mayor actually has, but I would take all the old derelict neoclassical
that sit rotting all over the city and auction them off to people and give
certain period of time to turn them into hotels and bed and breakfasts.
told me that many of these buildings belong to the tax department who don't
anything with them because there is not a division set up within the tax
department to do this. That's ridiculous if it is true.
I would bring back the trams that travel on rails around the city and
make it even more impractical for bringing or having a car within the city.
would give tickets for parking on the sidewalk. I would give huge fines
driving motorcycles on the sidewalks or pedestrian streets. If all the
parking laws were enforced, I think there would be few people still allowed
drive. I would make a one-year course on responsible driving a requirement
before attaining a licence, including a final exam at least as difficult
as the one in
I would take away the licence for two weeks from any taxi caught ripping
off tourists arriving from the airport. I would hire Greek-American police
the USA to pose as tourists and gather evidence of crimes and scams which
I would quit my political party and put people in positions based on ability
rather than party affiliation or favours.
I would begin a programme of environmental education, starting at the
youngest age, teaching people not to throw their garbage on the street
I would also make the Archaeology Society responsible for keeping clean
of their excavations. There are a number of places where the archaeologists
have dug up an area and then just left it and people throw their garbage
I would make every pedestrian crosswalk on every busy street favour
the pedestrians instead of the cars. I would send a team around the city
find problem places. If you read my story Strollering Through Athens you
see that a woman with a baby carriage has a very difficult time on the
the city - walking with one from Plaka to Kypseli is a perilous journey.
I would get tough in order to really cure the ills of a city as large and
disorganised as Athens, rather like Rudolph Guiliani, the mayor of New
He had to be stern and many people hated him because, even though they
wanted him to clean up the city, they did not expect that some of his laws
inconvenience them. But everyone has to make sacrifices.
I would also make every rooftop and balcony a garden. To build the
number of parks necessary to clean the air of the city you would need to
down a quarter of the city. Well why not build the parks on top of it?
the EU could sponsor this. It would totally change Athens. People would
their friends to see how nice their rooftop gardens were. Ugly buildings
covered in vines. It would no longer look like a sea of concrete."
Comments? Write to ALEXIA AMVRAZI
firstname.lastname@example.org or see more of her writings under Athenian Writers