Our next installment in a series of Q&A with American-born Greeks living in Greece. Baltimore native Petros Skalkos shares his story.
Meet Petros Skalkos
Petros Skalkos, 61, is a Baltimore-born Greek who is an architect, real estate developer, a cultivar of olives, and more.
Maria A. Karamitsos: Where were you born and raised?
Petros Skalkos: In Chesapeake Bay, Baltimore County, Maryland. We attended St. Nicholas Church in Baltimore City.
MAK: Tell us briefly about your time in the US.
PS: The foundation of my life was laid during those formidable years up to high school in Maryland. I completed high school in Athens at the American Community School (as did our two daughters). After which I returned to Maryland to earn a degree in Architecture. However, I must say that the brief interlude in Athens was enough to influence how and where my life was to unfold.
MAK: When did you move to Greece? Why?
PS: Upon finishing university I was anxious to start practicing and building. I came back to Greece, starting on a construction project where I learned very quickly to see all, hear all, and speak little, and only if you were very certain. Over the course of the project I went to Washington, D.C. and married Julie, whom I met at the School of Fine Arts.
The attraction to return was always there. I don’t know if I could ever have escaped it. There was a certain magnetism that I couldn’t escape and was drawn increasingly closer and closer to this perplexing land and its many contradictions. Those of you that have made a similar journey reach the dilemma that we are all faced with eventually.
We came back to Athens six years later with our two daughters (Zinovia, a sculptor in Thessaloniki; and Olivia, a graphic designer in London). Once in Athens, I began work at an international practice. We both led professional careers, I as an architect and Julie as a fine artist.
MAK: Do you still have family in the States?
PS: We both have family in the USA. Julie visits frequently but unaccompanied, much to her disdain.
MAK: Tell us about your work in Greece.
PS: I worked as a Residential Developer in Greece following the building boom, until the crisis hit in 2008. The construction industry always has the first indications of an impending slowdown. Then I became employed in the Middle East with the thought that we would be over the hump after two-to-three years. We unfortunately were wrong.
You cannot spend the rest of your life waiting for a man-made crisis to subside so that you can go back to business-as-usual. The entire playing field has changed, never to be as it was.
Given the fact that construction and many other industries had come to a complete standstill, you need to think of those resources available to you whose potential has yet to be tapped.
MAK: Since the crisis hit, what have you been doing?
PS: We have returned, at least partially, to the lands of our ancestors. Our olive grove in Mani has not only just given us our second successful crop of extra virgin olive oil, but also a tremendous satisfaction in reconnecting with the land and with nature.
You reap what you sow. It requires time and effort but the sight of nature’s bouquet of blossoms in April followed by a fresh round of olive growth is inspiring, invigorating, a renewed sense of value and growth.
MAK: Is this your new business?
PS: The next logical step for us is to obtain certification and export to boutique gourmet shops in the UK and USA. We have to ask ourselves, ‘How far do you want to go? How far do you need to go and yet remain satisfied?’
MAK: Why is it important for people to stay in Greece right now and push through the challenges?
PS: For many Greeks, especially the young generation, there is a common factor that though challenging, can provide immediate satisfaction and immense possibilities. Many families have agricultural land holdings and most likely a village home. We’re witnessing a major exodus and concentrated effort to breathe life into the countryside. Success need not be confined only within an urban context.
Having said this, there are young university graduates that must seek further development outside of Greece. In fact, as detrimental as it might seem on the short term, the training and insight that these young professionals will acquire abroad and bring back will be essential to keeping Greece on track over the long term, once the turmoil has subsided. It isn’t helpful to speak only amongst ourselves and be buoyed by populist falsehoods geared for internal consumption. We must address a global audience to gain acceptance and recognition.
Cataclysmic events in nature are cyclical. Man-made events could follow a similar track. We retreat, compromise and gradually begin to once again advance under new rules and conditions.
MAK: What do you say to people who ask you why you’re staying in Greece?
PS: Even in these trying times, it was never a possibility to abandon Athens in search of greener pastures, although, I briefly worked in Abu Dhabi and Amman. We’re too heavily invested here and it’s not an investment only of a monetary value but rather one to which we have devoted our lives and not easily surrendered. An investment that to this day pays simple and uncomplicated dividends in the quality of life that’s rendered on a daily basis– yes, even in crisis-ridden Europe.These aren’t material comforts but rather blessings inherent within this land.
It’s definitely not for everybody. You must do your own soul-searching.
MAK: Any thoughts on the future for Greece? What should people in the States know about the crisis, the challenges Greece faces?
PS: Cataclysmic events in nature are cyclical. Man-made events could follow a similar track. We retreat, compromise and gradually begin to once again advance under new rules and conditions.
I’m very upbeat on the future of Greece. You never really experience a port from the deck of a cruise ship; you don’t understand Greece by visiting an island. You need to live and work within a society to develop appreciation and understanding. You see frustration and disappointment but also restrained optimism. Greeks are resilient and will rebound. Much like our renewal, by looking to the agricultural countryside, with blossoms being replaced by the fruit of the new harvest, we all understand that our behavior as citizens and that of our political class is evolving and must to continue to evolve. The momentum of change by far exceeds the resistance of any populist movement, whether it be originating on the left or the right.
MAK: Do you have any advice for people who may be thinking about returning to Greece and starting a business?
PS: Greece is worth the risk, despite promises, bureaucracy, and corruption that pose threats and obstacles. Due diligence is key. It’s not for everyone. There will be those that after doing their homework will attempt a business venture, and there’ll be the rest who are just as vital to the economy, but will be happy to simply visit.
MAK: Anything else people should know?
PS: If you ever had the urge, you owe it to yourself to find out who you really are.
Thank you to Petros Skalkos for sharing his insights.