CORINTH, Greece (Reuters) - One fine, sunny morning last week, Yiorgos Farmakis, one of the ancient Greek city of Corinth’s seven vice mayors, was both late for a meeting and too wired up to talk when he got to it.
The problem, he explained after a reviving glass of chilled water and a few minutes to compose himself, was that a school building under his jurisdiction had closed and all the furniture and equipment had to be moved.
With city drivers busy elsewhere, Farmakis decided to do it himself and had been driving in the sweltering heat through chaotic traffic to put the old building’s contents into storage.
It is the kind of pro-active thing, he said, that Greeks are going to have to do if they are to extricate themselves from crippling recession and unemployment and a debt burden that has brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy.
“With good organising, with goodwill, all together we can do it,” he said, sounding through translation like a cross between a campaign poster and Barack Obama, but clearly meaning it.
It is going to be an uphill struggle.
Dating back to classical antiquity, Corinth was reputedly the home of Pegasus, the winged mythical horse. A thriving commercial centre, Corinth was also famous for its vases and free-living women in the Temple of Aphrodite.
The Christian saint, Paul, preached in the city around 49-52 AD and famously wrote his epistles to early believers urging them to live in brotherhood.
Its citadel to the south was the stomping ground of Byzantines, Franks, Venetians and Turks, among others. In the 19th century, it achieved fame again with the building of the eponymous canal between the Saronic and Corinth gulfs.
But today, it has the look of a place that has seen better times, if indeed it ever had them in modern Greece.
There are few tourists in its streets despite its illustrious history. A run-of-the-mill central square is still decorated with the posters and signs of a recent anti-austerity demonstration, calling for “Real Democracy”.
Theodosia Papacharalambous, who works nearby for a family support federation, said there were many needy families in the wider Corinth area suffering from unemployment and cuts to allowances and pensions.
Vice Mayor Farmakis is very exercised about what has happened to Greece, blaming it on profligacy and inefficiency.
Leaping to his feet at times for emphasis, the former bank manager, a member of the ruling socialist PASOK party, says Greece is a fertile country with intelligent people.
“We have to take advantage of this,” he said with special reference to the promise of Greek agriculture, known for its tasty fruit and high-quality tomatoes, cucumbers and red onions.
One problem, Farmakis said, was that Greeks in the past decade were so intent on being rich and sending their children to university that they forgot the need to work.
“We must change,” he said.
Farmakis, one of whose primary responsibilities is education, offered two examples of how Greece is pulling itself up at grass roots.
A year or so ago, he said, a local authority in the now reorganised region spent around 1 million euros on parties for all the small villages in the surrounding hills, a gesture that clearly had a political motive.
The money came from central government, which in turn — evidently given Greece’s roughly 350 billion euro debt burden — had borrowed it. He was clearly disgusted and implied that this kind of waste had to stop.
Similarly, he believes Greece can save through small efficiencies at the local level. On taking up the education portfolio he discovered that three different school buses were picking up children at three nearby villages and taking them to the main school.
He now wants one bus to do the rounds, saving money and making for greater efficiency. He is also looking at closing small schools with low number of pupils in favour of larger hub schools, an idea that has drawn local protests in the past.
Standing on the imposing citadel to the south of the city and looking around, it is hard to imagine that tourists are not flocking to the area given its name, historical sites, biblical dimension and rural beauty.
It has, for example, two beachfronts, one on the Gulf of Corinth, the other on the Saronic Gulf, with Corinth itself between the two.
Farmakis admits that Corinth does not get much from the tourists, who remain crucial to Greece’s overall economy. Most just pass through on their way to the rest of the Peloponnese or to Athens.
But like many things in Greece, Corinth does not sell what it has very well.
The famous canal, for instance, still has the potential to impress, but can be missed in the blink of an eye from the new highway that crosses it. There are few, if any, obvious signs inviting visitors to take the old road and stop for a look.
At the citadel itself, barely a dozen tourists clamber among the rocks. Signposts to the entrance from the main road were confusing or simply not there.
A friendly guard says the site, to which entry was free, has around 200 visitors a day averaged over the whole year.
But it was closing at 3 p.m. on this particular summer Friday and there were no toilets because there was no water.
Back in Corinth, Argiro Bello, an ethnic-Greek originally from Albania who was waiting tables at a coffee shop, said the local government was doing what it could.
“They are fixing the beaches, trying to bring in tourists,” she said. But with an almost desperate laugh, so typical of many Greeks these days, she concluded:
“The only thing we have in Greece is tourism.”
Editing by Peter Millership