The Matt Barrett Interview(Uncut)
|How did you come to live in Greece at the age of
14? Which is your first memory of Greece (i mean the moment that
you landed here)
I actually came to Greece in 1963 when my father was teaching at the University of Athens. My first memory of Greece is of taking a plane from Naples to Athens and going to Pireaus where we took the evening ferry boat Marilena to Syros. It was very rough and I remember glasses breaking and an entire tray of pastitsio sliding off the counter and falling on the floor. But my first real memories of Greece were from the Hotel Hermes in Syros where we lived for the month of August before moving to Athens. My father took photos of this period which I put up at www.greecetravel.com/photos/sixties so my memories are augmented by being able to go back and look at the photos. We lived in Ambelokipi, across from the Platia at Ag Thomas and the streets were still dirt and there was a small farm in the corner of the park and herds of sheep grazed in the empty lots. There were very few refrigerators and people had ice-boxes made of wood. A man with a horse and wagon delivered ice a couple times a week. We left in 1964 and stayed in the USA until 1968 when my father got a job teaching at the American Community Schools of Athens(ACS) and we stayed until 1974.
Which is the story of your family? (You are Greek?)
My grandfather and grandmother on my father's side were Greek. My Grandfather came to the USA in about 1915 from Zarafona, Lakonia. My Grandmother came many years later from Kyparissi, Lakonia. She had been living in Egypt after her parents drowned when the kaiki that went between Kyparissi and Spetses capsized. My grandfather had a restaurant in Hicksville, Long Island where my uncles and cousins all worked. My father went to Antioch and Columbia University and became a teacher and a writer. My mother was Jewish and sort of a beatnik when she and my father met in the 40's, in a bar I think.
What were you expecting before you arrived?
My father was of the generation that wanted to be American and we barely knew we were Greek. So all I knew of Greece as a child was food from visiting my papoo and yaya. So really the pastistio falling on the floor was symbolic of being awakened to what Greece really was. But that first summer was the most fun of my life and then when we moved back those were the best years of my life.
What is your knowledge of Greek?
I spoke no Greek when we came to Greece except for the words papoo and yaya. I went to the American school so I learned enough to get by but not really be conversational. When I became an adult I felt insecure about my Greek and began studying and practicing on my own. I can read it and speak basic Greek but I have enormous gaps in my vocabulary. I can understand the lyrics to most songs because one of the ways I taught myself Greek was by listening to and translating rembetika and laika. My goal was to be able to understand the lyrics of Savopoulos. I decided that once I could listen to a Savopoulos song and understand the words as well as what the message behind them was, that I could say I speak Greek. But I am not there yet. I can barely understand the evening news.
What has been your relationship with Greece all these years? (when did you leave Greece ?When did you come back? )
I left Greece in 1974 and a couple summers later I began to come back. Then around 1988 I met my wife, Andrea who I actually knew from high school in Athens and since then we come back every summer and once or twice during the rest of the year.
How do you think Greece has changed during the years? (from the first time that you visited the country back in the 60s till now)?
Wow! What a question. It is impossible to answer this without writing a book. Obviously life has become more complex, more commercialized, more chaotic than it was in the sixties. The stuff that the Greeks saw on TV and in movies and wanted, they now have. Cars, boats, rock and roll, to name a few. Cafeneons have become cafeterias. Athens has become a less friendly place in terms of safety and the beautiful old houses have been replaced by polykatikias, and the traffic is terrible now. In the 60's we could get from Akadamias to Agia Paraskevis in about 20 minutes on the bus. But I think the biggest change has been the women. When I lived in Greece the girls wore blue uniforms and were completely sheltered. They have become liberated and have allowed themselves to blossom into the most beautiful women in the world in my opinion.
What did you do before starting the website? Did you work as a musician? (any interesting stories from that time)
I started playing in bands when I lived in Greece with my friend Rick Miller. I can honestly say I was in Greece's first punk-band and the reason I can say this is many years later Yanni Vavoura introduced punk to Greece and he had played with us (See http://mattbarrett.net/music/ccbluesking/index.htm). I went back to the USA and Rick was in college in North Carolina and we started a band called The Dads and made a record called The Ruse and were on our way to being successful when we self-destructed as most bands do. Rick changed his name to Parthenon Huxley and made many albums and played with Electric Light Orchestra, and I made a couple CDs and then became a solo performer but gradually stopped writing songs and began writing more stories and journals about my summers in Greece. Of course I had to eat so I had a job as well. I worked for years in restaurants and then I started a company that advertises bands and concerts and performances by putting up posters and flyers on college campuses. I still have the company but I don't have to do anything except write checks and deposit them.
What is it do you think that most attracts you to Greece all these years?
The sea, the mountains, the food, the wine, the people, the history, the culture, you know, the usual things.
When did you start your website and why?
In the early 1980's when Michael Jordan and the UNC Tarheels basketball team came to Athens to play in a tournament I was working at a restaurant called Four-Corners that was owned by Eddie Fogler who was on Dean Smith's coaching staff. I told him I lived in Greece and could give him information about Athens and I went and typed everything I knew and gave it to him and kept a copy for myself and that became the prototype to my Athens Survival Guide (www.athensguide.com). During the 80's I was going to Greece every summer and playing my songs at the Old Captain Bar in Sifnos every night and in the daytime I was writing a journal and that was the start of Greecetravel.com. In 1994 when the internet was just something that most people had heard about but had no clear idea of what it was and what it would become, one of my friends, Mitch Virchick, was very interested in it and we put together the first version of my website using my stories and supplementing it with the practical information travelers need. At this point I had no idea of what he was doing and how he did it so when Mitch went off to do other things I took apart the website the way you would take apart a car and put it back together and taught myself html and from that point on I was able to write and instantly put it online for people to read. So by the time the first commercial travel websites from Greece began appearing I already had thousands of pages online.
The website is enormous with a huge amount of information on it .What do you think is the most important section in your site and why?
I don't know. From a traveler's point of view I think the most important part of my website is that I actually respond to their e-mails and can help them. But I don't know if there is any section that I would say is the most important part of my site. I think the best parts of the site are the parts where I am writing about what I am most familiar with. I think Lesvos: More Than Just Another Greek Island (www.lesvos.com) is important because it introduced Lesvos to people who had never head of the island and might have spent their lives thinking Mykonos and Santorini were the only places to go in Greece.
When reading your website it feels like you are on a mission to make people come to Greece. How Greek do you feel?
I am not on a mission to make people come to Greece. My mission is to make sure they come back to Greece and that they bring their friends and family with them and tell everyone what a great time they had in Greece. So my mission is to help people have a problem-free holiday and go to places I like because I know they are good and they will be treated well.
I feel very Greek when I am in America and very American when I am in Greece.
What are touristsí worst complaints on Greece?
Getting pick-pocketed on the metro and the buses is a big one. Getting ripped off by taxi cabs is another. Having to put the toilet paper in a basket seems to bother some people. Rudeness is a problem. But most people who write to me tell me they had a great experience and I post these at www.greektravel.com/testimonials
Has the economic crisis affected the way that foreigners view Greece?
Of course because Greece has taken center stage. But you have the people who want an excuse to not come to Greece, who are usually the kind of people who would rather stay closer to home and play golf or watch it on TV with a drink in their hand. They see the riots on CNN and say "Look honey, the country is falling apart. Let's go to Myrtle Beach instead." And then you have the people who see the news on CNN and want to go despite their fear and they are looking for someone to say that what they are seeing on TV is not the complete reality. Those are the people who use my site.
Where do you hang out when you are in Athens? Which are your favourite places?
Well I used to go to Psiri and the Plaka and Gazi a lot and I would hang out at Taverna Psiri, Cafe Ivi, Ouzo Melathon, and in the winter I would go to Cafe Bohem in Kolonaki for a drink on Friday night. But that is when we were staying in hotels downtown. Now when I am in Athens I spend my time in Kypseli around Fokionos Negri and my favorite places are Bakalogatos which is a fantastic mezadopoulion, a small jazz bar called Allotino in Platia Ag Giorgiou which is one of the most tasteful bars I have ever been in, in terms of music, the liquor they serve and the food as well. There is a little hole-in-the-wall place I go to called Renna's on the corner of Spetson and Skopelos which is just a typical old-guy cafeneon that has been taken over by a young couple and has great food and atmosphere and they play palio rembetika. I also eat at a place called Y Nostimies tis Maries at Platia Giorgiou where a lot of theater people go because the food is delicious and it is cheap. If you go to my Kypseli page (www.athensguide.com/kypseli) you can tell the places I hang out because those are the ones I have written the most about because I know them the best.
Which are your favorite Greek islands (or places) and why?
Lesvos is my favorite island. It reminds me of Crete 50 years ago. It has not been destroyed by tourism, the food is good and inexpensive. It is still largely agricultural and it is not just one of the most interesting places in Greece, but in the world. I like Sifnos of course because I spent so much time there and know it so well. My wife is from Kea so I like it there a lot. Both of those islands have great beaches and good food. I love Chania, Crete. I could easily live there year-round. I love the Peloponessos too. There are not many places I go to in Greece that I don't like.
How do you work|? How often do you come to Greece?
I come to Greece every summer for 2 months or so and once or twice in the winter. I spend a couple hours every day answering e-mail and then I may write in my blog (www.greecetravel.com/matt-blog) or an idea for a new page may pop into my head and I might start on that. I drive around a lot and take thousands of photos. But this is what I do for fun. It just happens to have turned into a business.
Which is the most strange thing that had happened to you in Greece? (any nice stories)
I was walking down the street in the Plaka and I passed a woman who gave me a really dirty look and I thought "What a bitch" and now I am married to her. I guess that is a nice story.
What makes you angry in Greece?
When the Greek authorities don't do anything about problems that can destroy tourism which are easily solved by enforcing the law, for example getting rid of the pick-pockets and purse snatchers. Or the unions using tourists as a tool to get what they want from the government by blocking the port or closing the airport. The disrespect Greeks have for each other and for foreigners bothers me. The corruption bothers me of course and the selfishness that seems to be a part of the Greek DNA is pretty troubling. Or maybe the fact that people expect the government to do everything for them instead of working together to solve the problems of the country. Or people using the sea and the sand as their personal holiday ashtray. Or the government allowing the historical center of Athens turn into a haven for junkies and criminals gets on my nerve a bit. The taxi strike bothered me when they blockaded the airport and the port, but once they just stayed at home I started wishing they would stay on strike forever because Athens had half the traffic and half the pollution and people who had not taken the bus or the metro in twenty years were forced to travel that way and maybe they liked it. Of course the pickpockets are having a field day and were probably working double shifts to take advantage of the situation.
I noticed that on your site you promote agencies quite heavily. What is it that you think they have to offer? Going solo in terms of booking is quite popular nowadays.
Travel agents keep travelers from making mistakes that would ruin their holidays and when a traveler gets in trouble or has a problem they have someone who will help them if they use an agency. The agent can change hotel and ferry bookings in the event of a strike, and they make the traveler more secure about coming here to a strange country because they have developed a relationship with them in the course of helping them put together their itinerary. Booking on your own may be more popular but most of the complaints I get and the people who have problems are those who booked on their own and made one small mistake that caused a domino affect that screwed up all their plans. Sites like Tripadvisor are too easily played by people using it for their advantage. When you can post anonymously then nobody has to take responsibility for what has been written. If a travel agent books you in a bad hotel and you complain, they will move you because they are responsible for you being in that hotel and they want you to be happy because that is good business. If you book a hotel because you read great reviews about it and it is awful, then who is responsible? The people who posted about it on Tripadvisor? Are they going to give you a refund? My suggestion would be to use travel sites and read reviews but take everything with a grain of salt and use Greek travel agencies and trust those that have proven to be trustworthy.
What kind of e-mails do you get from people? What is their most common question in terms of Greece?
Why can't I get from Mykonos to Santorini in the off-season? Is this hotel in a good area? Can I take an overnight ferry from Pireaus to Santorini? Is Greece safe? Where are the bus schedules for the whole country? Do I really have to throw toilet paper in a bin and not down the toilet? How do you say "I am allergic to wheat"?
Have you ever thought of using all this info to write a published travel guide? You have all this info but itís free on the internet. Perhaps a travel guide would be more profitable.
A web guide can be updated every day. A guidebook can have old information in it for years before it is republished. Anyway my site makes enough money and the guidebooks are all in financial trouble. People travel with ipods and ipads and there are internet hotspots everywhere so who wants to carry around a book? That being said I use guidebooks.
Are there any travel writers that you admire? (who are they and why do you admire them)
I don't really read many travel writers besides Kevin Andrews, Patrick Leigh Fermer and Nikos Kazantzakis and I don't really consider myself a travel writer. I travel and I write but the people I respect, the serious travel writers like Marc Dubin, David Willet, Paul Hellander, Alexia Amvrazi, and Adrian Vrettos who write for the well known travel guides have to do real research and get precise information that is useful to all sorts of people. That is much different from what I do. I just go somewhere, do whatever I want, and then write about it. I don't have to go to an island for 5 days and review 10 different restaurants. If I go to an island and I love one restaurant I can eat every meal there if I like and write about that.
I suppose you are a lot into greek culture. Which are the greek writers, directors, poets etc. that you admire and why?
My favorite Greek director is Renos Haralambides. I think he captures Greece better than anyone in Cheap Smokes, No Budget Story and Heart of the Beast, because his films are about people and mostly about himself. I think of him as a cross between Jim Jarmusch and Woody Allen. I wish someone would give him money so he could make as many movies as he wanted. I like Seferis because his poetry is so easily translated and I like Savopoulos because his lyrics aren't. I grew up reading Kazantzakis and there was a time I thought he was the greatest writer in the world - ever. Probably if I had time to read him again I would still feel that way.
How long do you stay in Greece during a year and where do you live the other time? How is your life in US comparing to Greece?
I live in a very cool University Town called Chapel Hill, North Carolina where the University of North Carolina is. It was the first state university in the USA, founded in the 1700's and this is important because before that only the wealthy were educated because all the schools were private. I do the same thing there as in Greece except I am 2 hours from the beach. But I go to restaurants and bars and I have a good life there, though I still spend much of my work day answering e-mail and writing about Greece. It is a very rock and roll town and it seems like everyone is in a band.
You are also a big fan of Rembetika. What does attracts you to this kind of music and how did you start to listen to it? (any stories?)
It is like the blues or jazz and the idea of these people hanging around smoking hashish and playing these songs in a period of Greek history that was very difficult, is very romantic to me. But I got into it from seeing Savopoulos regularly at the Kitaro and he re-introduced Sotira Bellou to Greece after she had been forgotten. During that period he was playing Vromiko Psomi which was like rock music to us but as I bought his other albums I found that I liked the way he brought in traditional instrumentation and music. Then I read Roads to Rembetika by Gail Horst and saw the film Rembetiko and I became something of a fanatic and my friend Leigh and I would wander around Astoria, NY looking for the underground rembetika clubs we had heard were there, or we assumed were there. As my Greek became better and I understood the lyrics I began enjoying the music even more and expanded into laika which I love from the fifties and sixties. I wish there was a law that all ouzeries and mezedopoulions had to play palio rembetika and laika. There is nothing worse than drinking ouzo and listening to Greek pop.
Do you have any other projects in the works?Is there something you would like to add to the website?A new website you would like to develop? What do you think your websites will look like in a few years time?
I always have lots of projects in the works but they don't all get completed because answering e-mail and keeping my site up to date, not to mention living a life interesting enough so that I can write about it and people will want to read it takes up most of my time. Probably my next project will be organizing all my photos of Greece because there are about fifty thousand of them, and making photo albums of various categories similar to what I have done at www.greecetravel.com/photos
Can you write something in Greek for us?
I could if I had Greek fonts on my laptop.