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 to pension or benefit payments and to some people’s salaries. I had gone to Greece expecting … I don’t know. Abject poverty everywhere I looked? Extreme hardship? In any case, having spoken to my relatives and friends in Greece the crisis didn’t seem to be affecting too many people in a material way. People’s lives were going on much as they had in 2007 when I’d last seen them. More than anything, it seemed to me, people were annoyed; not panicked.
I guess this time around I expected to see much of the same. But it was not the case. Instead, I found things to be much, much worse than I had anticipated.
The signs are everywhere: from the endless empty billboards along the national highway and everywhere else, to the absence of advertising in the Metro trains (which, when I’d visited previously, were covered in advertising). On Metro line 1 they were allowing heavily graffitied trains with smashed windows to run during the day, something I’d never seen before, a consequence perhaps of a reduced maintenance budget.
In my trips to Athens in 2004, 2007 and 2010 I would see a cleaner on every platform making sure the stations were spotless. This time I spotted only one cleaner during my stay. On the other hand I saw security guards at a number of stations, again something I’d never seen before in all my visits. And in addition to the regular “next station” and “mind the gap” announcements in the train, they’ve added a new announcement that is played after every stop reminding passengers to keep an eye on their belongings, most likely a reaction to the increase in thefts of handbags and wallets in Athens. Every woman I saw on public transport or even on the street seemed to be hanging onto her handbag very, very tightly.
From what I could tell, about 25 to 30 per cent of shops are closed. Not just in the side streets of cities or small suburban strips but in the main shopping avenues of Athens and Thessaloniki. Everywhere local clothes shops had sales on with ridiculously low prices as they struggled to entice the spend-weary public in so they could make a sale and survive. A lot of the lowest prices were from shops that had been defeated already and were closing.
In Thessaloniki, my cousin, who has lived there all her life, was shocked to discover that many of the ‘psarotavernas’ (seafood taverns) by the sea are now out of business. She hadn’t been there since the summer when they were all still open. At least two of these restaurants had been around for over four decades, and the rest between 10 to 20 years.
I was told by relatives that new businesses open all the time; people who struggle to find work elsewhere open a shop and hope that it will succeed and finally bring them an income. To me there seemed to be no rhyme or reason behind the success of one shop and the failure of another. You might have a bakery that was thriving two doors down from one that had failed and shut up shop.
People want to work but there are obstacles. Enterprising people without capital are unable to get a bank loan to start up a new business. Others work without pay for cash-strapped businesses on the promise of payment in six months’ or a year’s time; while they risk never being paid, they are too scared to quit in case they don’t find another job.
Most houses and apartments have built-in petrol heaters but petrol is so expensive that most people do not switch on the heater or if they do, it’s only for a few hours a day. Instead, they use small electric room heaters in the hope that they will be cheaper to run (unfortunately, unlikely) or, if they have a fireplace, they burn wood and spend their time at home sitting around the fire, abandoning all other living spaces.
On my first day in Thessaloniki it was nine degrees outside but nobody that I visited had the heater on all day. Meanwhile the news featured a report on people who were burning furniture and being poisoned by the toxic fumes of burning paint or varnish. They followed that story up with a report on a robbery of a shop that sells heaters.
Most churches have a soup queue in the middle of the day and teachers use their own money to bring in food for children who have not had breakfast. This is happening in middle class neighbourhoods, not just traditionally poor ones.
Most of my family and friends in Greece are okay. Those that had jobs still have them, and those that were on a pension have had them reduced but are still able to get by. From what I saw, if you have access to any sort of income, whether through a job or through a government benefit of some kind, or if you have someone in your extended family who can help out, you can get through the crisis by just tightening your belt.
But if there’s no one in your family with an income of any sort than the situation is dire. My aunt told me of a man down the street from her who was washing apartment staircases with his wife for a pittance to support their family of five after he lost his job in construction. And one of my cousins was shaken up one day after passing a woman who looked to be about 30 standing on the high street with three suitcases; she was speaking to someone on her mobile phone and saying, “I don’t know what to do… I have nowhere to go…”
Even those with an income are not spending their money on those little extras, “just in case”. No one feels entirely secure in their job, and everyone expects further cuts to their pensions or benefits. Previously when I’d visit Greece I would marvel at a middle class that would buy luxury items regularly and have the latest of everything. And yet the thing that occurred to me when I came back to Australia was that the whole time I was in Greece I saw no iPhones or Smartsung Galaxy phones.
I was in Athens for the Olympics of 2004 when the whole city shone like a diamond. Greece had won the European Cup and had met the challenges of hosting the Olympic Games well. People in Greece were proud, confident and radiating positive energy, their heads held high everywhere they went. They collectively thumbed their noses at all the doubters and nay-sayers.
Nine years later and it broke my heart to see pockets of Athens in a state of disrepair and neglect, and people everywhere I went looking stressed, tired, depressed and fearful of what’s around the corner and how much worse things can get.
“The crisis” is talked about all the time. In cabs, at cafes, in bars, on the street, and at home. It is continuously analysed at both the macro and micro level on talk shows on TV. It’s everywhere, in people’s day to day, on their minds, on their faces. Who’s to blame, what caused it, what can be done to fix it, how long it will last. Everyone agrees cutting people’s incomes only retards the economy and results in businesses and shops closing and more people being out of work.
An old friend from Australia who has lived in a beach suburb an hour out of Athens for the last 12 years told me she feels that the crisis and its effect on Greek daily life is exaggerated. Greeks, she reminded me, like to over-dramatise their personal situations.
In her view, Greece is experiencing growing pains as it transitions from a nation with chaotic and corrupt systems to a country whose systems are being cleaned up and straightened out. To an extent, this is true. But the closed shops and the unemployment statistics (approximately 25 per cent unemployment overall and 55-60 per cent youth unemployment) do not lie.
Greeks may be known for being over-dramatic but they are also known for their ability to enjoy life no matter what their circumstances. The Greek “ylendi” or ability to party is one of the things, along with the beautiful weather and spectacular sites, which draws people to Greece as a holiday destination.
Despite all the tightening of belts that is going on in Greece, people are still managing to put aside a small amount so that they can go out for a coffee, an ouzo, a small meal of mezedes, a dinner with friends. Greeks may believe that day to day life is difficult but they also overwhelmingly believe that the essence of life is sweet, so they continue to enjoy it, even if at a greatly reduced budget. Seeing people out in bars and restaurants late in the evening in Thessaloniki reminded me that the spirit of the Greek people is far from broken.
On my last day in Greece I briefly visited the Benaki Museum, an incredible museum which showcases Greek culture in the context of its past, and I was reminded of the cyclical nature of history. People are down but they’re not down forever. I don’t know how long it will be but I know for certain that Greece will recover from this economic crisis and Greeks will once again be able to hold their heads up high and be proud of themselves and their country.