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The accidental hotelier: how I quit economics in London for a new life on a Greek island

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The decision to become hoteliers was made sitting on a pavement with my mum and sister, shielding our eyes from the Greek sun. There, in front of the neoclassical palazzo we had just visited, the hotel idea somehow presented itself as a solution. For a year, we had been trying to find a small holiday apartment for ourselves. We had fallen in love with the island, and my sister had a little money she wanted to invest.

The estate agent had only mentioned this particular property in a fit of exasperation. We kept asking about this or that house, and he said “the only one for sale in that area is this”: a monumental building from Syros’s shipping heyday, with Doric columns and spiral marble staircases, five metre-high ceilings, four floors, gardens, 20 rooms. Once the headquarters of the Cycladic tax authorities, it was now abandoned. We asked to see it, just for fun, and he humoured us. 

The cost of the property was seven times our budget, and roughly four times our combined savings and assets. This, without taking into account the necessary restoration. We had no wealthy relatives (or, indeed, any relatives) to fall back on. It was 2017 — Greece was still mired in a financial crisis, the banking system was crippled. We had no experience of property investment, restoration or the hospitality industry. That afternoon on the sunny kerbside, we exchanged high fives.

The remarkable thing about Hermoupolis, Syros’s capital, is that it exists in the first place. Until the early 19th century, the island’s largest settlement was the medieval Catholic village of Ano Syros: quiet, whitewashed Cycladic houses perched on a steep hill. The turning point was when the Greek war of independence broke out and Syros declared itself neutral, suddenly attracting waves of refugees from conflict areas in Asia Minor and from other islands. There seemed to have been a miraculously high concentration of entrepreneurs among them: they took no more than a few decades to create the city of Hermoupolis and turn it into the industrial and mercantile heart of the eastern Mediterranean, the cultural centre of Greece, and its main port.

Swimming at Hermoupolis, Syros © Alamy

Vast fortunes were made in shipping, shipbuilding and textiles. Hermoupolis acquired the cultural and societal trimmings of a place of consequence: Greece’s first public high school, a university, banks, stock exchanges, a theatre modelled on La Scala, art galleries, charitable institutions, courts of law, foreign consulates. Town planning was approached methodically and sought to combine Greek classicism with romanticism. Almost overnight, an architecturally homogenous capital was built that today seems too ambitious for an island of less than 40 square miles: a town of marble pavements, palatial buildings and large, neoclassical public squares.

Back to late 2017: we confirmed to a sceptical seller and our bemused estate agent that we would be buying the property. The money we had set aside for the holiday apartment became a measly deposit, giving us six months to cough up the rest or lose it all. I gave up my London flat and job as an economist and moved to Syros, with a small degree of personal financial security intact in the form of a freelance contract as an economic journalist.

Hermoupolis was a cultural and economic centre but has avoided the mass tourism of neighbouring Mykonos

My sister resolved to spend another exhausting year up in the Swedish Arctic — she had been working gruelling shifts as a locum doctor there for the past 18 months — and it was her pay that was going to finance the bulk of the restoration. We applied for EU regional development funds, and I spent most of my time assiduously petitioning all four of the remaining Greek commercial banks. In May 2018, within weeks of the deadline, we obtained a mortgage. High fives, again. We thought the difficult part was over.

Not many have heard of Syros. Hermoupolis eventually declined in importance once the Corinth canal was built and Athens’s port, Piraeus, took over most of the trade and shipbuilding activity. Geography itself was against our little upstart: there are only a handful of island capitals of countries that are on a continental landmass (the most striking example, in Equatorial Guinea, is currently in the process of being moved to the mainland). Failures on a grand scale followed Hermoupolis’s initial success. Shipbuilding dwindled and companies such as the Greek Steamship Company, the first such enterprise in Greece, went under; the few that survived mostly did so by moving to London or New York. More often than not, the great optimists of history are figures of tragedy.

Hotel Aristide’s lobby . . . 
. . . and art in one of the bedrooms © inbulb.com

The other reason for Syros’s relative anonymity is that the island never invested in mass tourism. Thanks to the many public institutions and various remnants of the old industries, there were employment opportunities outside the tourist sector. There’s also a degree of what might seem snobbery to some, foresight to others: Syros locals had watched the quaint fishing villages of nearby Mykonos become international party hubs, and turned up their noses at that prospect.

The renovation started in mid-2018. We obtained planning permission surprisingly quickly, although I struggled with the vagaries and inconsistencies of Greek law. From the start, matters and finances weren’t helped by the fact that the project morphed yet again, from “let’s make a hotel” to “let’s make our dream hotel”. Where someone with experience might just say “that’s the way to do it”, we thought about everything for ages, did a lot of research, and often stumbled on some novel and costly solution.

The hotel before its restoration

I learnt that every profession I came across, every area of expertise, is relevant to a hotelier. Firemen, sound engineers, graphic designers, sommeliers, skippers, pharmacists, gardeners — all are potentially useful partners or advisers. We used to joke that the only person I would fail to find a task for was a nuclear scientist. I learnt that a large restoration project involves tens of thousands of decisions; something like 500 separate decisions just for the windows and doors. By the end of the first six months, I had such a bad case of decision fatigue I couldn’t even look at restaurant menus.

And I learnt not to take local gossip seriously. Several workers claimed there was an ancient smugglers’ tunnel going from our house to a secluded cove; two men even insisted they had been inside the tunnel. The problem was that not one of them could remember the point of entry. So I, being a 10-year-old boy scout and not a grown woman, duly had holes drilled in every plausible place. The garden, the basement, the cistern. I can report zero smugglers’ tunnels, but many bricks bearing the inscription “British made” — apparently, Hermoupolis was wealthy enough back in the day to import bricks from the UK.

Map of Greece

Naturally, my life changed compared to London. When I first moved to Syros, I had imagined my days something like this: I would wake up early and go for a swim at the beach just beneath the hotel. It’s the place that first made me fall in love with Hermoupolis. The backdrop of the neoclassical architecture is glorious, and in combination with the perfectly clear water and the quiet time of day, it’s balm for the soul. Then I would go check on the construction site, and later on work on my novel. It seemed the ideal life.

What happened is that years went by when I didn’t swim once. Partly it was the lack of time — the hotel needed constant attention — but also the stress got to me in a way that seemed anathema to swimming in that peaceful spot. I felt like a bomb floating in the water.

The only way I was able to relax was by walking. The north of the island is a nature reserve, and instead of being littered with half-finished concrete bungalows, as happens so often on Mediterranean islands (and as is the case for the southern half of Syros), it is pristine and open. The walking trails take you along the coast, the inner valleys, or to the many sandy beaches that can only be reached on foot and where you can find yourself alone, even in August.

The landscape is rugged and dramatic, the cliffs covered in spiky shrubs and the odd long-suffering tree, sculpted by the wind. It was a surprise to me that, unlike the Europe I was used to, Syros is most colourful in winter: there are flowers everywhere, enormous butterflies, and the round, spiky shrubs create an undulating pattern of shades of green. There’s fresh grass, and something implausibly fleshy for the climate that looks like clover. For two to three months, this mostly rather dry island becomes a little bit Irish.

I miss my London friends, I miss the theatre. Sometimes I miss things like Korean restaurants, or anonymity. But it hasn’t been the culture shock that might have been expected. The island is full of interesting people, its history has seen to that. There is a stable population of about 25,000, there are festivals throughout the year — international film, jazz, street art, animation and many more. There is a university and so there are student bars, and art galleries. A Syros local is almost as likely to quote Foucault at you as to do some clichéd Greek islander thing.

There is a strong tradition of music on the island

The preferred art form on the island is undoubtedly music. In my early days on the island I was repeatedly taken aback to come across our accountant playing the accordion in a taverna, our estate agent killing it on the violin in some square, or civil servants singing on the mini-La Scala stage. Syros, it turned out, loves music.

It could also be that my affinity for the place runs deeper than arts and culture, and has something to do with the psychological make-up of the island. The three of us were refugees, too, once (from Romania and Yemen to Sweden); maybe there’s some element of recognition at play.

There are not many construction site anecdotes: mostly, works went well. Contractors were generally reliable, workers competent. Sourcing was not unduly complicated. It’s just the financing that was a nightmare throughout. Again, partly it was our fault: it’s too depressing to look at the numbers, but I suspect we went between two and a half and three times over budget. There were times when we didn’t see a way out of the financial hole we had dug ourselves in.

Flowers bloom profusely in Syros’s winter

And then, the pandemic hit. Because we were a new hotel and had no operating track record, we didn’t qualify for any of the financial assistance offered by the government. We opened anyway, in late July, with just the five rooms we had managed to finish, and while opening was wise in terms of obtaining the first reviews and valuable experience, financially it was yet more hole-digging. The previous year I had signed a publishing contract for my novel, and on some particularly desperate days I found myself at the absurd junction of hoping that the novelist folly would help pay for the hotelier folly. On a less amusing note, my sister’s one-year exile in the north of Sweden is on its fourth year. The last times we talked about her having to extend her stay and keep working at that insane pace, she cried. She’s still up there.

Paradoxically, I am much more relaxed now, even though we are still in the midst of a pandemic. At least the hotel is finished, and we are happy with the result. We did everything we could do. Should the pandemic rage on, the attendant tragedies will dwarf any business concerns anyway.

It’s been a dramatic four years. We are in a debt of gratitude to our friends, who have been supportive, and even helped out financially at crucial moments. To our serene and patient estate agent who stuck with the mad foreigners through the renovation, and without whose help we would have had to give up. I also like to think that the island’s patron deity, Hermes, smiled on us, that this was a project to appeal to the god of travel, mischief and commerce. He always struck me as an approachable, down-to-earth figure, far less inclined to take offence than other members of his divine family. All in all, we have been lucky.

Oana Aristide is the author of “Under the Blue”, to be published by Serpent’s Tail on March 11

Details

Direct flights from Athens (skyexpress.gr) to Syros take 35 minutes, or there are frequent ferries that take about two hours. Alternatively, neighbouring Mykonos is served by numerous international flights; from there, Syros is 30 minutes by ferry. For more on the writer’s hotel, see hotelaristide.com

Greece’s borders are currently open to residents of the EU and certain other countries, including Australia and Japan, but subject to testing and potential quarantine; for details see travel.gov.gr

Listen to our podcast Culture Call, where FT editors and special guests discuss life and art in the time of coronavirus. Subscribe on AppleSpotify, or wherever you listen



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Polish women count cost of tough abortion curbs

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Even before Poland all but outlawed abortion, Zofia has been thinking about moving abroad. But the near-ban that took effect earlier this year helped her make up her mind: this autumn she plans to move to Prague in the Czech Republic.

“I feel better there, freer, and being a woman there doesn’t make me feel weaker or worse,” she said. “I love my life in Warsaw. But when the [abortion ban was mooted], I thought, I don’t want to live here any more . . . And I don’t want my kids to live here.”

The 31-year-old artist is one of thousands of Polish women outraged by the tightening of the country’s abortion laws which, even before the overhaul, were among the strictest in the EU. Their anger centres on a ruling by the Constitutional Tribunal in October last year, which declared that a 1993 law allowing abortions in the case of severe foetal abnormalities was unconstitutional.

The ruling came into force in January, leaving only two grounds for an abortion in Poland: a threat to the mother’s health or if the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest. Such cases made up just 2.4 per cent of the 1,100 legal abortions in Poland in 2019.

Hundreds of thousands of Poles took to the streets when the ruling was announced in October, and activists have called for another round of protests on International Women’s Day this Monday. Polling suggests that a majority of Poles back some form of liberalisation.

Anti-abortion campaigners, often guided by their religion in what remains one of Europe’s most strongly Catholic countries, say the change was needed to protect the rights of unborn children.

“An unborn child is a separate person, which has its own body and its own rights. A child must not be deprived of the fundamental right of every human being — the right to life,” Kaja Godek, one of Poland’s most prominent anti-abortion campaigners, wrote on Facebook last month.

A pro-life poster in Krakow. Many Polish opponents of abortion are guided by faith in one of Europe’s most strongly Catholic countries
A pro-life poster in Krakow. Many Polish opponents of abortion are guided by religion in one of Europe’s most strongly Catholic countries © Omar Marques/Getty Images

But activists say the ruling will force women to give birth to babies with such severe abnormalities that they have no chance of survival. They also say the government has done too little to help the families of children born with disabilities, who receive only limited support.

“I’m terrified because for me as a woman in reproductive age, it means getting pregnant in Poland became dangerous. And I’m afraid for my sister, for my colleagues and friends, for my relatives and for many other women I meet every day as clients,” said Kamila Ferenc, a lawyer from the Federation for Women and Family Planning, a women’s rights group.

“They will be in a horrible position . . . they have lost the possibility to decide freely on their own, because it’s not so easy to have an abortion outside the system.”

In the past, Polish women who could afford it were able to seek abortions in neighbouring countries with more liberal laws, such as the Czech Republic or Slovakia. But with the pandemic limiting travel, experts say women are likely to turn to the internet to buy drugs from overseas that would allow them to carry out abortions at home. Women are not prosecuted for self-managed abortions carried out before the 22nd week of pregnancy.

“It used to be the case that illegal abortions were through surgical procedures by doctors and back-alley providers. Then abortion tourism rose in the early 2000s after Poland joined the EU. Now we are seeing an increase in self-managed abortions, which can be less of a financial and emotional burden,” said Maria Lewandowska, a researcher into reproductive health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Justyna Wydrzynska, from Abortion Dream Team, a group that helps women who want to terminate their pregnancies, said that since the abortion rules were tightened in January, the organisation had received three times the normal number of calls from women seeking help.

“We get around 600 to 700 phone calls a month. Around 100 of them need to go abroad [for an abortion], and for the rest, . . . these are mostly people in need of pills, assistance in taking pills or post-abortion care,” she said.

“Often they are human dramas. Some people approach it in a task-oriented way, others very emotionally. Sometimes it is very difficult.”

Despite the huge protests last year, women’s rights groups acknowledge that as long as Poland’s conservative-nationalist Law and Justice party remains in power, the prospect of the laws being loosened is minimal. But they hope that in the long run, the debate sparked by the ruling will lead to greater support for liberalisation.

“The factual situation of pregnant women is worse. But on the other hand I think we are now on a better track to change the situation than when [the previous government led by the centre-right] Civic Platform ruled and everybody thought everything was all right,” said Ferenc.

“There is more courage in society to speak about abortion. People educate themselves and each other. I think that we now have more solidarity and strength in society to fight for reproductive rights. ”



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Hong Kong dropped from economic freedom index after crackdown

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Hong Kong has been dropped from a prominent index of the world’s freest economies, underlining growing concerns over Beijing’s tightening grip on the Asian financial centre after it introduced a national security law last year.

The announcement from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative US think-tank, came as the majority of a group of 47 pro-democracy politicians were refused bail in a case that critics say shows the rapid decline of civic freedoms in the city.

The Heritage Foundation also dropped the Chinese special autonomous region of Macau, a casino hub and former Portuguese colony, from the rankings.

The foundation in recent years has been aligned with the administration of former US president Donald Trump.

“No doubt both Hong Kong and Macau . . . enjoy economic policies that in many respects offer their citizens more economic freedom than is available to the average citizen of China,” the Heritage Foundation said. “But developments in recent years have demonstrated unambiguously that those policies are ultimately controlled from Beijing.”

Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong last year in response to anti-government protests that engulfed the city in 2019.

The measures are part of a clampdown on civil and political freedoms guaranteed to the city for 50 years following its handover from the UK to China in 1997. Authorities are targeting anyone viewed as disloyal to the Chinese government in politics, education and the media.

The Hong Kong government has long taken pride in studies showing its economy to be one of the most liberal in the world, with the city marketing itself as an international business haven given its low tax rates and open port.

The Heritage Foundation last year replaced Hong Kong at the top of its “Index of Economic Freedom” with Singapore, toppling it from a position it had held for 25 years, but still included the territory in the rankings in second place.

The Hong Kong government said it was ‘dismayed’ by the Heritage Foundation’s decision and said it was “politically biased”.

The case against the 47 pro-democracy lawmakers and activists has been seen as a test of whether the city’s legal system can withstand pressure from Beijing.

Authorities charged the group with subversion, alleging they aimed to topple the government by staging an unofficial primary vote to select candidates to run for election to the city’s legislature. Subversion is punishable with up to life imprisonment under the national security law.

The bail hearings, presided over by a judge appointed to oversee national security cases, entered their fourth day on Thursday.

Victor So, the judge overseeing the case, only granted bail to 15 out of 47 defendants under harsh conditions, but the prosecution immediately appealed the ruling, returning them to custody until the appeal hearing takes place. 

On top of the usual bail conditions, the court ordered the defendants to not participate in elections or make any public political statements.

Sessions have often stretched late into the evening, including one that continued until 3am before the defendants were hauled back before the court the next day. At least one defendant collapsed inside the courtroom and six others were sent to hospital for treatment.

As they exited the court, some defendants shouted: “Political criminals are not guilty, Hong Kongers will not die!”

Simon Young, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, said the treatment of the defendants was “most unsatisfactory”. Jerome Cohen, a Chinese law expert at New York University, said the way the hearing was conducted “makes a farce of procedural fairness”.

Some of the defendants have faced multiple trials simultaneously and were forced to shuffle between courtrooms.

The defendants’ lawyers said on Tuesday their clients had not bathed in three days, forcing the judge to delay the hearing to allow them to wash.

Hong Kong has tight restrictions on reporting the substance of bail hearings.

Hundreds of supporters have queued each day in an attempt to watch the proceedings in person. Many held placards and chanted banned political slogans, risking prosecution under the security law.



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Pakistan’s finance minister ousted in surprise defeat for Imran Khan

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Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan suffered a major political setback on Wednesday, when his finance minister was defeated in a contest for a seat in the country’s senate.

Khan must now appoint a successor to the cabinet post by June 11 under Pakistani law. The surprise defeat of finance minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, a respected economist and former world bank official who led the country’s negotiations with the IMF for a $6bn loan, comes amid an escalating campaign by main opposition parties to have the prime minister removed from office.

Elected officials vote to fill vacated seats in the senate every three years. Following the result, the government announced it would “take a vote of confidence in parliament” to prove that the prime minister retained a majority of support.

Business leaders have warned that Shaikh’s departure creates uncertainty over the future of Pakistan’s fiscal policies as the country battles the pandemic’s fallout on the economy.

“Right now, it was essential to give a message of confidence to a range of stake holders within and outside Pakistan on the state of our economy. Now, people will be left asking questions,” the president of a private Pakistani bank told the Financial Times.

An 11-party opposition alliance, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), has accused Khan of using the powerful military to tip the 2018 election result in his favour — which leaders from the prime minister’s party have denied — and for failing to revive the moribund economy.

The PDM has announced a March 26 deadline for Khan to step down or face widespread opposition protests.

Though some opposition leaders have said they plan to follow up Wednesday’s defeat with a vote of no confidence against Khan, analysts said it was too early to predict his downfall ahead of the end of his five-year term in 2023.

“It’s a major upset for Imran Khan and his PTI (Pakistan Justice Party),” said Huma Baqai, a political commentator at the University of Karachi. “The government from hereon will face further pressure as the opposition continues to step up its campaign.”

The vote count suggested a break in Khan’s PTI party, with as many as 16 party members either voting for the finance minister’s opponent, former prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani, or spoiling their ballots.

Shaikh’s defeat “will not automatically lead to the prime minister’s downfall. Some PTI members clearly changed sides [for this vote]. But it will be much harder for them to agree to removing the prime minister,” an opposition leader told the FT.

Faisal Javed, a PTI leader, claimed some representatives had been bribed by the opposition. “There has been a major corruption. There has been horse-trading. People have been sold,” he told the local ARY news channel on Wednesday. Opposition leaders have denied this.

The electoral college for the senate consists of members from legislatures of Pakistan’s four provinces as well as the lower house of parliament in Islamabad known as the national assembly.



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