An outsider’s update on the Greek economy

I’ve been going to Greece every two to three years since 2001. I was in Greece in the European summer of 2004 when the city of Athens dazzled like a block of white marble in the sun. I was also there in 2013 and 2015 when I was shocked by the number of unemployed people, shops, factories and businesses closed, and people generally doing it tough. I’ve written about my observations of how Greece and Greek people were faring in the global financial crisis in both 2013 and 2015. On my return to Greece in October this year, I was eager to see what state I would find the country and its people in.

As the title of this post points out, I am keenly aware that I can only offer an outsider’s view. But, because I visit only every couple of years, I notice those changes that for locals have occurred so painfully slowly that they are missed. It’s like how you notice how much a child has grown if you don’t see them for two years, whereas those closest to the child, who see them every day, don’t realise how much the child has grown from year to year.

Things between 2013 and 2015 had quite visibly declined. There were more people out of jobs, more shops closed, and more homeless people in the streets. Back in 2013 the economic crisis was all people talked about. It was everywhere. Four years later nobody talks about it. Partially that’s due to crisis fatigue, but mostly it seems to me that people have accepted the severe changes that the GFC, and specifically Greece’s economic situation, has wrought on their lives. By ‘accepted’ I mean in the way that you go through all stages of grieving and eventually ‘accept’ the death of a loved one.

Of course, when prompted, people do talk about it. And being Greek everyone has a pretty strong opinion. I asked family and friends about how they saw the economy now and its impact on their life. Nearly everyone told me things had gotten worse since I’d last visited.

But that wasn’t what I saw.

I saw that there weren’t more shops closed this time – neither in the main retail centres of Thessaloniki and Athens, nor in the neighbourhood shopping strips I visited. If anything, there was an ever so slight increase in shops open for business. Just one or two extra shops open in each strip or high street.

I even personally came across a small commercial success story. One of the newest shops in Athens Airport is Anamnesia, an absolutely delightful gift and souvenir shop. They sell practical and fun gifts that centre thematically on typical elements of Greek life, traditions and mythology. Their designs are modern and full of good humour. Everything they sell is not only designed in Greece, it’s made in Greece.

After the success of their first store on the Greek island of Zakinthos, which opened in June last year, they expanded the business and now have another shop on the island of Mykonos, as well as a shop in the Plaka district of Athens and the Athens Airport shop which is open 24 hours a day. So this is a business created just over a year ago that has grown, employing not only more retail staff, but more staff in the manufacturing of their products.

Anamnesia Athens Airport

The Anamnesia store at Athens Airport

And that was another thing I noticed. I heard a few stories about people getting some work after being unemployed for over two or three years, or changing jobs to improve their situation. I’m not saying they were getting their ideal job or that they had many options, but two years ago you didn’t hear about people finding employment at all.

I also noticed a bit more advertising in public spaces, like on the subway in Athens. Okay, sure, there weren’t ads plastered everywhere as there had been in the 2000s, but neither was every space and every billboard bare, as they were in 2013 and 2015. More spending on advertising means retailers are regaining confidence that people will spend. Another small sign of positive change.

All this anecdotal evidence is supported statistically by Greece’s current unemployment and youth unemployment rates, both of which are at six-year lows (about 20 per cent and 40 per cent respectively). Which is not to say that they’re not still high, but relative to the worst years of the crisis (when, for example, youth unemployment was at 60 per cent), things are ever so slightly on the up. Growth in GDP is also trending upwards and the forecast is that it will continue to grow. That wasn’t the case a few years ago.

Tourism is a big part of Greece’s economy and the indicators there are also positive. Both tourism revenue and arrivals are increasing. Greece is in the top 10 countries in the world for tourism arrivals and in the top 20 for tourism revenue. More tourists spending more money is good for the Greek economy. It certainly explains why a shop like Anamnesia, that offers high quality, original products, is flourishing.

This is not to say that everything is rosy in Greece. One of the reasons that people still feel angry and frustrated is because the austerity measures that have directly impacted on them – the increase in taxes and the reduction in superannuation, pension and welfare payments – is not translating yet into visible benefits for the country. Usually these things go towards things like public hospitals, roads, schools, etc. That’s not happening in Greece. Yet. But it will come eventually.

I spent a month in Greece and didn’t see or hear anything that made me pessimistic about its future. At first I thought things had simply plateaued, but by the end of the month I felt optimistic that things were starting to turn towards the better for Greece. Even if they’re just baby steps, they’re still steps forward. And to paraphrase Neil Armstrong, all these small steps for individual Greek people will eventually add up to one giant leap for their country.



Put to shame, and other postscripts

It’s amazing what can come up in conversation. When I visited good friends in Athens a month ago, we were talking about what we take with us when we travel. Do we travel light? Or do we take an outfit for every possible contingency? Naturally, I brought up my packing list, the one I’d so lavishly praised in a blog post just before I left for Greece. I praised its virtues exuberantly.

My friend said that he, too, had developed a packing list that the whole family uses when travelling, and brought it out for me to see.

What can I say? It was a long, comprehensive, laminated list that could be used multiple times: things that weren’t relevant could be crossed out; things to be packed could be ticked off. There were even blank lines for miscellaneous things only relevant to each specific trip to be added. Then you can wipe the whole lot clean and start again.

I was floored. “Oh my God” I stammered. “I’m so impressed. That is so impressive…”

I had been put to shame.

Later, over dinner, the conversation turned to food and I mentioned my favourite meal was a traditional Greek casserole of green beans and potatoes (known as φασολάκια με πατάτες – fasolakia me patates). My friends’ teenage daughters can’t stand this dish, I was told.

I turned to one daughter and said, “Aaah, that’s because you haven’t tried my fasolakia me patates!”

“Yeah”, she replied, “That’s what you said about your list, too.”

Gotta admit, she had a point.

When I wrote about the difficulties in conversing with my friends and family in Greece, little did I realise I had a secret weapon in my possession that would help me out.

This is the first time I’ve travelled to Greece with a smartphone, you see – not because I haven’t been to Greece in a long time (I was just there in 2013), but because I was a late adopter as far as smartphones are concerned.

In any case, I very quickly realised that, thanks to my iPhone, I could reach into my pocket and pull out my own instant translation service. Google Translate became my new best friend.

iPhone screen shot from Google Translate

Not only was it useful when I desperately needed help expressing myself, I also used it when reading about the political situation in Greece – in fact, I’m still using it for this purpose. I am able to copy words straight from news websites or from Twitter and paste them into Google Translate. Within seconds out spits a translation.

It has been incredibly helpful. I’m now pretty fluent in the language of the current political landscape in Greece. Unsurprisingly, given the timing of my visit to Greece, the first word I looked up was διαπραγματεύσης – diapragmatevsis. It was in every news report on TV and all the articles I read online.

It means ‘negotiation’.

Another word I learnt when in Greece was δημοψήφισμα – demopsifisma: ‘referendum’. In the last post I wrote, I said I was hoping for Greeks to vote ΟΧΙ – ‘NO’ – in the Greek referendum of 5 July 2015. Author Christos Tsiolkas recently wrote an article about the aftermath of the referendum for The Monthly (Greek Tragedy). In it he writes about experiencing “political hope” and “political optimism” in the immediate wake of the referendum. These were feelings that swept up an entire nation (or at least the 61.3 per cent that voted ‘NO’). Feelings that I experienced, too, when I was in Greece in the week preceding the referendum, as well as immediately after.

The tragedy of what followed and what continues to be played out is that the Greek prime minister’s tactic of using the referendum result as a means of strengthening his negotiation position spectacularly backfired. Greece’s people may have rejected austerity but Greece’s lenders had not.

Meanwhile, the flower of political optimism and hope that had begun to grow in the hearts of the Greek people was not only weeded out; the garden it grew in was completely concreted over.

On my last day in Athens I visited the Acropolis, which I hadn’t been to in over twenty years. It was a glorious day and the marble of the Parthenon and the other buildings glimmered in the sun. The Greek flag fluttered against the backdrop of the city and the blue sky.

Greek flag - fluttering in wind

Over more than two millennia, the Acropolis has withstood countless attacks by Greece’s enemies, including being bombed in World War II. It’s still there though, and, while it is obviously damaged and worn, it’s still breathtaking in its magnificence.

I’ve written before about the lessons of history regarding the strength of the Greek people, and when I look at my photos of the day I reflect on this again.

I think of the Acropolis and its buildings as symbols of the resilience of the Greek people, who may be down now, who may be worn and damaged, but who will never be out.

Parthenon of Athens

When in Greece – part 2: In the midst of a crisis

In January 2013 I visited Greece and was shocked to find how badly things had deteriorated because of the financial crisis.

The first thing that relatives asked me when I arrived in Greece four weeks ago was, “What do you think of our situation now? How do you find us?”

While they all told me that things were much, much worse, to my eyes things seemed to be about the same. I know unemployment has gone up, amenities seemed even more worn out and damaged than before, and there were slightly more shops closed in the heart of Athens. But otherwise life seemed to be going on much as it had before.

The main change I saw in Greece, or in Greeks, rather, was that many people seemed to be suffering from crisis fatigue. Whereas the crisis seemed to be on everyone’s lips in 2013, this time round I found that only about half the people I talked to spent their time obsessing about the financial crisis, while the rest had switched off. They avoided news and current affairs shows, newspapers and online news outlets – because they found the news too depressing and too distressing. For many, it was just too hard to continue with the crisis at the centre of their lives; they had become worn down to the point of emotional and mental exhaustion by it. So they were opting out.

Even as negotiations began in earnest ahead of Greece’s 30 June deadline for its first payment back to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), many people refused to keep abreast of what was going on. The rest, meanwhile, continued to obsessively scan the television for the latest reports.

Talking to people it seemed to me that they had gone through several of the stages of grief in relation to what had been happening to their country, Greece, including shock, anger, resentment, grief and, for many, acceptance.

The media reported that €3billion was withdrawn from banks by Greeks in the week ending Friday 19 June, with €1billion withdrawn on that particular Friday. But I saw no bank queues that week.

In fact, I only saw bank queues from Saturday 27 June onwards, once the Greek prime minister had called a referendum for 5 July on the question of whether the people accepted the bailout terms put in an ultimatum to the Greek government by the so-called Troika – the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the IMF.

Even still, while the media showed photos of the same long queues over and over, I only ever saw relatively short queues of between five and ten people. People who seemed calm and good natured, not panicked or desperate, as portrayed in the traditional media.

While much has been written about the limit of sixty euro a day that can be withdrawn by locals from ATMs, on social media OXI campaigners have pointed out that the capital controls don’t affect the thirty five per cent of the population living in poverty because they don’t even have the luxury of a bank account.

I can’t help think that if money is running out in banks, maybe it’s because the people who withdrew the billions of euros before the referendum was announced are hoarding it.

A lot has been written about the politics implicit in the referendum and the economic consequences of voting no or yes. In Greece, the traditional media is aggressively supporting the NAI or ‘yes’ campaign, while the OXI or ‘no’ campaign is running hot on social media.

People I know have expressed a variety of opinions. Some say that either way they’ll be hungry in the next few years, so they might as well vote ‘no’ and get the Troika off their backs. Others say they know that more pain awaits if they accept the bailout terms offered, but they fear Greece leaving the Eurozone and a return to the drachma. They say it’s better the devil you know, than uncertainty.

As a very wise woman once explained to me, people are only motivated by two emotions: fear and love. All other emotions can be traced back to these two.

I have no doubt that everyone voting in the referendum will think they are doing the right thing for their country and their future. I also have no doubt that for many the motivating emotions will be fear of what will come next mixed with love of their country.

I personally hope that Greeks vote a big fat ‘OXI’ – ‘no’. But it’s easy for me to have an opinion because I’m an outsider. I’m all care and no responsibility.

As I write this, the polling booths have closed and soon we will know the result. Either way, in the tradition of Greeks who pass on “good” wishes, I wish Greece and Greeks, Καλἠ μαχἠ και καλἠ συνἐχια – a good fight and a good continuation.


Travel habits – part 1: Express yourself

It’s about to happen again. Tomorrow I fly out to Greece to visit family and friends. I last saw everyone in early 2013 and a lot has happened in everyone’s respective lives since then so there will be a lot to talk about. Which is why it’s going to happen again.

I speak Greek fluently, or I like to think I do. Whenever I go to Greece, however, I become painfully aware of how poorly I speak the language. Don’t get me wrong, I can order a meal in a restaurant like a native, give instructions to the taxi-driver like a local, and enjoy all the small talk in the world.

My limitations become glaring, however, in two circumstances. Firstly, when I attempt to watch the news broadcasts. There’ll be a report on the economy, for example, and after a detailed three minute report, this is what I’ll have gleaned: “Something about money and the euro and the economy and that man disagrees with that other man but that woman had something to say about it.”

Yep. That’ll be everything I understand.

The second, and most painful for me, is when conversation with family and friends turns to anything other than the most superficial of topics. I’m the kind of person who loves a good d&m (that’s “deep and meaningful” for the uninitiated). I love to get into the heart of matters and don’t shy away from difficult topics. But when I try to do this with family and friends in Greece, I’m hamstrung by my poor vocabulary and hit-and-miss application of grammar and syntax.

For someone who makes a living stringing sentences together and helping other people express themselves, I can’t tell you how incredibly frustrating it is not to be able to express myself properly in these discussions.

Sometimes I’m sure they all think I’m an idiot as I stumble along in broken Greek, struggling to find the right word, knowing it won’t actually come because I don’t know it to begin with.

And yet, somehow we manage to get through to each other. In fact, my mother told me the other day that my cousins are looking forward to seeing me and “discussing things” with me, so perhaps they’re getting something out of the conversation, no matter how limited I think my contribution is.

The positive for me is that for all my limitations when I speak Greek, I’m pretty good at the non-verbal stuff – and I don’t mean waving my arms about in typical Greek gestures (though I’m pretty good at that, too). I’m talking about one of the oldest ways of communicating love and affection between humans, which transcends all verbal boundaries. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt with all my visits to Greece it’s to never underestimate the power of a good hug.


A First Hand Look at Economies in Crisis – part 2


This gallery contains 9 photos.

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.”


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.