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Mayor of Athens Endorsement


setting (web) sites on greece

The idea of electing Matt Barrett to replace Athens' current mayor may not be as odd as it sounds considering that an American who has chosen to create the only lengthy, first-person website exclusively about this country seemingly knows more about Greece than some of its people. Read his pearls of wisdom and decide for yourself - is he just waxing lyrical or lyrically pointing to a multitude of pragmatic (unresolved) truths?


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 the good fortune of seeing your country more clearly from the outside as well as from within. It means realising that there are as many problems as there are pleasures, and each poignant realisation engages the senses almost entirely; either with celebration, pride and hope, or with frustration, sadness and shame. I will divulge a little secret to all non-Greeks out there: the same Greek who will fiercely and sometimes fanatically defend his own country to a foreigner will brutally criticise it to a fellow-Greek. We have no illusions about our "issues". 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 as 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 and affection rather than affectation. His internet-based guide can help a foreigner on 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 Greek - a common sight which reflects so much about the attitudes and lifestyle of the people who have this set-up on their table (all that's missing is the tobacco). It's not a stereotypically cheesy photo of a tanned blonde babe on a beach or the 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 out what drove him to create an entire website so full of detail, character and colour, on this country alone.

Barrett, whose father came here on a Fulbright scholarship in 1963 and taught 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 he moved back to the US he felt stark disillusionment at the all-American dream he 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 hang out in cafes and go to the islands. They hung out in their cars at the McDonalds parking lots and watched a lot of TV. In Greece we didn't own a TV but in the States most people never turned theirs off. It was like a member of the family." Barrett's feelings of alienation (similar to those he'd felt being an American in 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 made 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 a couple of Athens clubs in the autumn. "I wrote lots of songs from this period 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 have 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 upon arrival in Athens. "Rising above the chaos, tourists spot the Acropolis for the 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 "concrete jungle", but adds that within this there are "pockets that are quite beautiful and enjoyable and you can spend your entire holiday in these pockets and have a completely different experience of Athens. I teach people to love Athens."

Barrett hopes, through his site, to convince at least a minuscule number of his thousands of visitors daily to opt for lesser known Greek island destinations, unlike those he believes travel agents fed on "packages from the GNTO" will suggest.

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 me more 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 so 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 is different, and that's what I learned from them," he says.

Listing another reason for his romance with Greece, Barrett notes: "I like meals that last for six hours. Not only because the food is good or the atmosphere is 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 of the waiter for more wine or another order of paidakia. In the States I miss waking up in the morning and going to a cafe in Plaka and getting a coffee and the Athens News."

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 with 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, he says, 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 the 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. Then 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 their 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 the 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 your competition before he screws you, ' and that it is really an unhealthy way to go through life."

ferry, ferry bad

Travel being a deeply ingrained part of Barrett's existence, he also points to the Greek ferry system as a cause of great trouble suffered by tourists. "In the USA 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 because 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 for his website. "Right now I play the role of a private GNTO. People ask me all sorts of questions: what to wear; what the weather is like; can you get to one island from another. They ask my opinion of itineraries, travel agencies, hotels and when anything happens, like a bombing, murder, earthquake, war or demonstration, they write to ask me to assure them that things are OK and they should not cancel their trip."

not a computer nerd

Although Barrett confesses that his social life in America revolves around the 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 computer 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 does is serious work. "I am not very professional. And I am not a businessman. If I 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 of offers from large travel organisations, hotel chains, major internet travel sites. I give them to my brother to look over and he always points out some clause in the offer that makes it very ungenerous and I send them a nice letter telling them thanks but I am not interested." He adds that his website "brings millions into 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 parks, not just in the centre but in all areas. I would probably need more power than a mayor actually has, but I would take all the old derelict neoclassical buildings that sit rotting all over the city and auction them off to people and give them a certain period of time to turn them into hotels and bed and breakfasts. Someone told me that many of these buildings belong to the tax department who don't do 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. I would give tickets for parking on the sidewalk. I would give huge fines for driving motorcycles on the sidewalks or pedestrian streets. If all the driving and parking laws were enforced, I think there would be few people still allowed to 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 the USA.

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 from the USA to pose as tourists and gather evidence of crimes and scams which target tourists.

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 or parks. I would also make the Archaeology Society responsible for keeping clean any 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 in it.

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 and find problem places. If you read my story Strollering Through Athens you will see that a woman with a baby carriage has a very difficult time on the streets of 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 York. 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 might 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 tear down a quarter of the city. Well why not build the parks on top of it? Maybe the EU could sponsor this. It would totally change Athens. People would visit their friends to see how nice their rooftop gardens were. Ugly buildings could be covered in vines. It would no longer look like a sea of concrete."

Comments? Write to ALEXIA AMVRAZI or see more of her writings under Athenian Writers