CULTURE

Greece through the eyes of Matt Barrett

Matt Barrett is a character, a Greek American who shares his love for Greece on his websites. He writes from the point of view of the traveler, making his online travel guides at www. greecetravel. com hugely popular. The pages for Athens (www. athensguide. com) are full of photographs and so informative that even Athenians consult them. His recipe is simplicity, good photos, humor and reliable information. Kathimerini asked him about the website. How do you think the reception of your website has evolved since 1996? I think because I wrote the site in such a personal and friendly way, telling people what I liked about Greece instead of trying to sell them Greece as a product, the trust was there in the beginning and I really found myself in a situation of instant popularity. This was over 10 years ago and there was not that much about Greece on the Internet anyway so people found my site easily and once they did they stayed on it. It grows in popularity every year I get more e-mail every year and more requests to be on my website from hotels and travel agents. How has the international image of Greece changed? I think the international image of Greece has unfortunately been left up to CNN, which does not go out of its way to say that today we had a beautiful sunny day in Athens and all the ferries left on time. They report the bombings and protests and flag burnings. But I think the people who have a negative view of Greece are mostly people who would never come anyway. You live in North Carolina. How distant and exotic does Greece sound to the people there? I live in Chapel Hill, a university town (University of North Carolina) for 200 years, which is a magnet for educated, artistic and cultured young people from all over the world. So it is not like I have to tell a bunch of rednecks where Greece is on the map and what the Parthenon is. But any Greek or Philhellene living in the USA will tell you there is a feeling of nostalgia that comes over you at certain times and Greece seems very far away and at the same time very close. The first beautiful sunny day of spring and the clear blue skies make me miss Greece and all I want to do is get on a ferry for an island because the weather is so Greece-like. In my community there are a lot of people who have been to Greece, but how many of them feel this like I do I couldn’t say. Have you improved mutual understanding between Greeks and Americans? Yes and I think it helps Greek Americans understand the country their parents and grandparents came from. I think many Americans who came to my site just taking for granted the few things they had heard about Greece, come away with a much stronger desire to visit Greece. I think in terms of Athens, where people were told to visit the Parthenon and the National Museum and then get out, I have changed that perception and Athens is no longer this big, scary, polluted place that Americans thought it was. I think I have made Athens more friendly and fascinating to visitors and all I did was write about what I do and where I go. Rick Steves, who is the most widely read travel writer in the world, used to tell people that Athens was to be avoided. A couple of years ago he called me and said: «Matt, you were right. I LOVE Athens!» and now he wants to collaborate on a book. Is the website a hobby or a business? It’s my life. It’s funny because it started out as a hobby. I have always written and so when the Internet started I had a lot of material about Greece that was ready to go. In fact the seeds of my Athens Survival Guide were started in the early 1980s when the North Carolina Tarheels, with Michael Jordan and Sam Perkins, were going to Athens to play the national team with Nick Gallis and Panayiotis Giannakis and I knew Eddie Fogler, one of the coaches and I wrote everything I knew about Athens and gave it to him for the trip. That was the seed of my Athens Survival Guide (www. athensguide. com). So in a funny way Michael Jordan and his teammates were the first people to test my Athens Survival Guide. But the first website was my Sifnos guide. That was the island I knew best because I played guitar and sang in a bar there for several summers in the mid-1980s. The site started as a hobby. Now it is a business. But I don’t really sell ads or run it like a business. The site generates a good income from people who click on the Google ads so I have the luxury of being able to write about what I like instead of writing about what will make me more money. What prompted you in the first place to establish this bridge to Greece? My dad was Greek, he taught at the university in 1963-4 and we lived in Ambelokipi when most of the streets were still dirt and there was a farm across the street from our apartment on Mikras Asias Street in what is now Agiou Thoma Square. In fact I have a whole series of my father’s photos from this period at www. greecetravel. com/photos/sixties. We moved back to the USA for four years and then came back again when my father taught at the American School in Halandri from 1968 to 1974. After that I moved back to the USA and worked in Greek restaurants like a good immigrant and later started playing in bands and solo (www. mattbarrett/music), and coming back to Greece if not every summer, most. Then I married a Greek-American woman and started spending even more time in Greece, but eventually, though enjoyable, all I was doing was eating and drinking and hanging out with my friends and I wanted a more purposeful activity for my days. So now when I come to Greece I wander around taking pictures and finding new places and then writing about them and putting it on my website. Except now I have to spend four hours a day answering e-mail. Sometimes when I go to my grandmother’s village where I can’t get online, I come back to Athens and I have hundreds of e-mails to answer. In some aspects the website is a job, like any other. As to what prompted me to create this bridge to Greece, it was nothing conscious. It just happened to turn out this way because I was writing about what I know, which is easier than writing about something you don’t. How much has Greece changed in recent years? Islands like Sifnos and Lesvos and Kea are being discovered, as are many other islands. In the past, Americans had only heard of Santorini and Myconos because those were the only islands the American travel agents knew. Now, with the Internet, every island gets exposure. Athens, as everyone knows, has changed for the better and proves that no case is hopeless. Fifteen years ago I could never have imagined that the plans to make Athens more pedestrian friendly, to complete the metro, and the highways would be successful and it is a tribute to what we can do when we all work together. If you ever became minister of tourism what is the first thing you would do to improve tourism in Greece? The first thing I would do is to make it profitable to be a travel agent. Tourism is Greece’s No 1 industry and yet the government seems to be at war with the travel agencies. The margin of profit in a travel agency is something like 12 percent. For flights and ferry tickets it costs more to issue the tickets then they make. That is why travel agents don’t sell ferry tickets or flights unless you buy hotel accommodation and tours from them. Greece needs to create a climate where the travel industry attracts the best and the brightest people. If you want to attract tourists you pay your travel agents well and you put them in an environment where they enjoy their work, not where they’re afraid that next week they could be out of business. Then the smartest people get into the travel business and the whole structure begins to improve. So lowering the taxes paid by the travel agents will increase the profits, attract better people into the business and in the long run will bring more money into Greece because the agencies will be able to compete with the international computerized booking sites and more of the clients’ money will end up in Greece and not in the pocket of Travelocity or Hotels. com. I think the biggest complaint from tourists, besides the ferry connections, is about the garbage on the islands and in the countryside. The way I would deal with this problem is first by education. People in America did not stop littering overnight. It took generations to learn that littering was unacceptable and selfish. ‘We’re all in this together’ What distinguishes a Greek American from a Greek resident of Greece? The idea of being more Greek or less Greek because you live in Athens or Melbourne is an elitist attitude. I remember a guy complaining about the Greek Americans who were returning to Greece now that life was good and the Greeks were affluent. But who kept the country going when life in Greece was bad and the Greeks were poor? The Greeks living abroad who, in what I think was an incredible act of courage, left their homes, their parents and everything they knew to go abroad to find work and sent money home to keep their families from starving. To resent Greek Americans is stupid because we are all in this together. Did the ancient Athenians say of the Greeks of Ionia, «Those aren’t real Greeks because they don’t live in Greece?» There was no place called Greece, there were just Greeks. Even today Greece is just a designated area with borders defined by politicians and generals as rewards, punishments and convenience. But there are Greek colonies everywhere and the people who live in them are Greeks, and no less so than those who live in European Greece or those who lived on the shores of Ionia and the Black Sea 2,500 years ago.