Greece is a country that is a combination of Western and Eastern cultures. Athens and other major cities exemplify the sophistication of a Western way of life, while the outlying areas reflect a simple and more relaxed lifestyle indicative of Eastern attitudes.
Modern Greeks are a warm and welcoming people who enjoy animated discussions on any topic at any time of day. They take a relaxed approach to life, placing a high value on family and family honor, personal relationships, and enjoyment of life. Strict adherence to schedules is not a driving force in most Greeks' lives.
Under the constitution adopted in 1975 and amended in 1986, Greece is a parliamentary republic. The head of state is the president, who is elected for a five-year term by the parliament and plays a mostly ceremonial role. The Prime Minister is the elected leader of the party with the largest number of members in parliament. He is the most powerful member of the government. He appoints the cabinet, may dissolve parliament, and may declare a state of emergency. The legislative power rests with a 300-member parliament, whose members are directly elected for a four-year term.
The last 20 years have been without incident politically, but the process has not run smoothly. The Socialist Party of Prime Minister Papandreou drained the country's economy in the 1980s. Administrations in power since that time have tried to reverse the tide by cutting government spending.
In spite of efforts and large loans from the European Union (EU), Greece remains one of the least wealthy nations in the Union. Public debt, inflation, and unemployment are above average among other European countries. The economy improved slightly prior to Greece's entry into the European Union's Economic and Monetary Union (EMU) in 2001, and again during 2002 and 2003, because of infrastructure upgrades for the 2004 Olympics. Greece has cut its budget deficit and continues to reduce unemployment, while restructuring state enterprises through privatization. Among other reforms, bureaucratic inefficiencies need to be reduced.
Greece's public sector accounts for 40 percent of the GDP, followed by the tourism and shipping industries, key to providing a large portion of the foreign exchange earnings.
During the 2009 global recession, Greece was in economic crisis with 12 percent unemployment and a downgrade in the nation's international debt rating. In late June 2011, parliament passed a package of severe austerity measures which, while intended to save the country from defaulting on its debt, have been wildly unpopular and resulted in strikes.
Tax incentives attracted new businesses offshore to the Greek portion of the island of Cyprus, until July 2002, when legislation was passed to end the tax exemptions in order to comply with EU requirements. While Greece became a member of the European Union in 1981, Greek Cyprus joined the EU with Turkish Cyprus in May 2004.
Also in 2004, Athens hosted the summer Olympic Games. Standing as if monuments to the economic decline in recent years, the Olympic venues are mainly closed and unused.
The Greeks have not lost their joie de vivre, however, and celebrate both the special and the everyday with enthusiasm and exuberance. The people, the climate and the many tributes to Greece's role as the cradle of Western civilization make it a fascinating country for both tourists and those who plan a longer stay.