A First Hand Look at Economies in Crisis – part 2

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I travel to Europe about every three years and was last in Greece in September 2010. At the time the economic crisis was just starting to affect people’s day-to-day lives as the first round of cuts had just been made … Continue reading

A First Hand Look at Economies in Crisis – part 1

I live in Australia. Specifically, I live in Melbourne. With a few exceptions, it’s a long way away from anywhere else in the world. You realise this if you travel internationally not only from the hours you put in on a plane to reach Europe, say, or the Americas, but also from people’s reactions when you tell them where you’re from. “You came here from Australia?” they ask, “Oooh that’s such a long way away!”

Despite the immediacy of the media that we use every day, despite the fact that we can read about on Twitter or watch on the news events from the other side of the world as they are happening, these events still have a ‘far away over there’ quality when you’re observing them from Australia.

I obviously knew about the European economic crisis before heading over to Europe last month; I’d seen many reports on the news and read many, many newspaper articles over the last three years.

I was in Spain for a week before heading to Greece and while I was mostly sheltered from the effects of the crisis in Spain by the nature of my trip (I was staying in a resort and going on organised tours), there were still signs of the economic downturn.

Annabel, one of our tour guides, was talking about the traditional means of employment in Andalusia and added as a postscript that, of course, due to the crisis, current rates of unemployment were very high. She casually mentioned that her husband had been out of work for a year and a half and they weren’t expecting he would find work for another two years or so, so they were surviving on her part-time guide wage.

We drove through Malaga several times and I saw a number of shops closed and holiday houses and apartments for sale, though I was unsure whether this was normal for the winter season or a result of the crisis.

When I was leaving Barcelona, I spent half an hour talking to Oscar, my cabbie, as we fought our way through peak hour traffic to the airport. He had finished law but, unable to get a job as a lawyer, drives a taxi during the day. His older brother drives the night shift, he told me, having lost his job two years ago as a senior industrial engineer and having failed to secure another job despite attending over 200 interviews. Oscar’s wife also drives a taxi.

I’d noticed the empty billboards along the highways, but Oscar also pointed out that there were far fewer trucks on the roads, and that the new cars were stacking up in yards, unable to be sold.

Oscar spoke of the “lost generation” of youth, those who make up the 55 per cent unemployment statistic for 18 to 25 year olds, who may not work until they are in their mid to late 30’s, given how long the crisis may go on for.

“No superannuation, no mortgage… no self-esteem, no purpose. We will feel the real pain of the crisis in the future,” he told me. He mentioned his one year old baby and said that hopefully, by the time his child is 16, Spain’s economy would be healthy again.

As we approached the airport, Oscar asked me which airline I was flying with so he could drop me off at the correct terminal. When I mentioned I was flying Aegean Air and going to Greece he turned to me and said, “Aah. It’s much worse there. Spain is bad, but Greece is very bad.”

It’s a Dog’s Life

If you’ve been to Syntagma Square in Athens then you’ll probably be familiar with the stray dogs of Athens that congregate there. By my count there are about half a dozen large-ish dogs of mixed breed that seem to have the run of this major central square in Athens.

Syntagma Square, for those not familiar, sits in front of the Greek Parliament building, which also has on its grounds the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. At the other end of the square the very long Ermou Street, the premier shopping street of Athens, kicks off, and the Plaka precinct brims with shops, cafes, restaurants and hotels.

Syntagma Square is always bustling, popular both with tourists and locals, who arrive in their hundreds every minute from the Metro station that sits underneath it.

It seems kind of surprising then, that a pack of stray dogs would be able to survive in Syntagma Square, yet these dogs do more than survive: they thrive in it. They are an incongruous addition to an otherwise sophisticated environment, yet over the years they have become an integral part of the whole Syntagma Square precinct. God knows they have the run of the whole area; on my last trip I even saw one dog snoozing near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, unperturbed by the tourists – and soldiers! – who gathered nearby.

20130214-151957.jpgWhen I first saw the stray dogs of Athens I wondered how they managed to survive through the hot summers and cold winters. On this trip I spotted a young woman who had come into the city one night with the specific objective of feeding the dogs. She seemed to be checking them for any signs of ill health, as well, which made me guess she was a vet or student vet.

20130214-152106.jpgA lot of the dogs wear collars and tags and there are shops whose staff feed various dogs. There is obviously a support network of animal lovers that looks after these dogs. Even in times of economic crisis when everyone and every business is tightening their belt, the stray dogs of Athens remain at the heart of a community that finds a way to take care of them. They are quite literally the underdogs that everyone wants to see succeed in life.

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To Market, to Market

Where I come come from (Melbourne, Australia), fresh food markets are generally set up every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday under cover in set buildings. There’s the enormous Victoria market at the top of the city, the equally huge Dandenong market in the southeast, and in the suburbs there are the South Melbourne, Prahran, Preston and Camberwell markets to name a few.

In Greece, the fresh food market or “laiki” (pronounced la-ee-kee) is an open air affair that pops up in each neighbourhood on a specific day each week. Over the years they’ve grown to include everything from fish and vegetables to curtains and underwear and everything in-between. Produce from Greece is clearly labelled with a Greek flag and the name of the town or area that the produce is from.

I went to a couple of laiki markets during my recent stay in Thessaloniki. It was a great way to taste a slice of everyday Greek life and participate in a weekly ritual. These photos are from the laiki in Bouboulinas Street in Kato Ilioupoli.

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