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.

 

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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

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