Having landed on Ellas soil a few day after the elections, with all the media flurry about its financial woes—how long lines of cancer patients desperate for their medicines would be choking the streets, how the electric company owed billions to some Russian natural gas supplier and so Athens would be under threat of rolling black out, how street crime has spiked to the point where no woman alone can walk the streets—I was prepared to walk into a landscape straight out of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, an apocalyptic wasteland. The media reports, a battery of negative spittle from every nation known to man, had really got me. I even brought extra supplies of batteries and candles in my suitcase just in case. Now that I have roved the streets with my own eyes, settled in for a week, and made inquiries of my own, I can safely say that news of Greece’s financial death are highly exaggerated. Crisis—what crisis?
On the surface so far, Athenian society seems to be operating as usual. Traffic arteries are clogged; people work; shops although not bustling are open for the trickle of pedestrians that walk through; the afternoon siesta is still a daily foundation; although not overcrowded, the onlookers at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier still huddle with cameras with pigeons pecking around their ankles; the beaches of Glyfada and Boulagmenis are packed. The lack or feel of a palpable “crisis” is even more pronounced at night when locals flock to tavernas and souvladzidika, young people dawdle over frothy frappes and gossip in the strings of café-night clubs. From the looks of it, a casual outsider might even have cause to shrug his or her shoulders and say—“Crisis—what crisis?”
Yet there is under the surface reasons to be sad. Out of all the sectors in society, the crisis has most affected the young—the generation who has come of age around the first decade of the 21st century—the ones who have the most drive, the most electric dreams, the ones with the most energy and passion. I have across more than one young person who has been working without a paycheck for months. A young optician told me yesterday, “There is a generalized depression among the young in Greece. We can no longer dream. When you are paid crumbs at a job you work at for long hours, how do you have the mood to enjoy yourself anymore? And they tell me I should be considered lucky because I get paid 20% above the minimum wage per month, like 700 Euros a month is enough to keep a house in Athens when some yogurt and cans of tuna put you back 25.” The young have moved on to places like Germany, Australia, England, Scandanavia—it would be easier somewhere else, but then Mary, the optician considers, “Can you leave everything behind?”
Companies are using the generalized plague of “crisis” to not pay workers on time, holding out their paycheck, especially to the young unmarried personnel, as a carrot. The crisis has become the generalized catch-word to get away with all sorts of illegal tactics against labor. My cousin in IT for a major newspaper has yet to be paid for three months of work. When he makes off-hand innuendos to management about how long his volunteer post will remain, he gets silenced with the other crisis-bound argument, “Be happy you have a job.”
Another hard-hit sector of the crisis are the middle- to late-career public service workers. On the tram from an interview in Glyfada, the man next to me told me he had “lost and not-lost” his job. Having worked in some kind of bureaucratic post for the merchant marine for at least 15 years, he had just gotten word that he and 1,500 of his colleagues would be on reduced payroll. “They gave us a choice,” the chunky but animated fellow just on the cusp of turning 40 told me, “either we work two hours a day for four days or work an eight-hour shift in one day. How can you survive on one day of work for an entire week? That’s like 80 Euros per week.” He explained that even though he was in a Union who had taken the administration to court on this practice, they had lost the case because the judge argued as their union had supported PASOK, the leading socialist party and the darling of all public workers, PASOK had signed off on the austerity measures that required the slimming back of the public pay roll, so it was their own union through the socialist party that had made these accords and now they had to live with it. Giorgos was quick to make the point, however, that by in essence reducing the workers to a non-living wage without technically laying them off, the government was able to say they were all technically employed and collecting a paycheck without the depleting unemployment insurance reserves. “You are put in a paradoxical position, because you are working but not making a living,” he said. Luckily he had a female friend in Cambridge, England who had been living there for over a decade who had extended her help to him should he need to relocate and find a job.
I have heard stories from the mouths of mothers in the playgrounds of the ubiquitous “plateies,” public squares, supervising their children that the PTA of the local elementary school had to raise funds not to plaster the school’s walls or add to its puny library but to help pay the DEH bill of twelve families who were literally starving in the neighborhood. In my frequent trips to the bank, as euros trickle faster than water, I overhear little old ladies dressed in black and holding canes how they are using their pension funds to help provide for living expenses for their adult children and grandchildren. Families have banded together financially to make ends meet. My other cousin lives in a three-bedroom flat with three of her adult children (and I mean adults in their late 20s and 30s), her husband and their Rottwieller Zeus.
There is no denying that the pinch of the “Great Crisis” is felt everywhere. But there is a difference. Except for the occasional story of the middle-aged man who jumps over his third-floor balcony, the Greek people have a different way of dealing with the crisis. I believe they do not let it penetrate too deeply into their core, but just let it linger on the surface of their lives. After all, I have felt the Great Recession and its after-shocks in the good ol’ US of A. I personally know tons of people unemployed or underemployed in the NY tri-state area. My husband has still yet to secure a stable full-time job for three years now. I know families of fixed incomes who only shop during sales and obsess over correct coupon cutting. I know how well the US media tries to downplay the repercussions of the recession just as I know how well the international media try to over-exaggerate and hyperbolize about the crisis in Greece. The truth is the crisis is more serious than they tell us in the US and not as dramatic as they paint it out to be in Greece.
Yet, the general mood of gloom and doom that I felt in New York is not what I feel in downtown Athens. Because Greece has the sun smiling on its temperament and filling it with good vibes, even this great crisis does not hamper people’s ability to laugh, to joke, to go to the beach and to have a souvlaki at the local tavern. Given a choice, I would rather go through the crisis in Greece than in the US. Here everyone knows it only gets you skin-deep like the pesky summer gnats; it does not take over your soul and total outlook on life as it does in the States.
“Greeks are a proud people,” Martha, a full-time mother of two elementary-school girls and former owner of a local “psilikadtzidiko” up until the crisis of 2008 when she had to close up shop, tells me from a green bench in the playground in the shadow of Prophet Ilias church. “We will not let something like the crisis put us down. We have gone through worse things than this. We will rise above it. We can still laugh and still say that Greece is the best place to live what with the sun and the beautiful blue sea and sky, so don’t write all this negative stuff.”