Thursday, 2 June 2011

The True Cost of Greek 'Austerity'

The polemics about Greek economic problems tend to treat the country and its people as some sort of bloodless, technical, laboratory experiment, far removed from the deep human cost of the so-called ‘austerity’ programs foisted on the Greek people. Austerity, by itself, is not enough. There has to be some promise of better days, some hope of a better future. So far this is lacking in the heated debate of ‘What to do about Greece’, a debate that tends to focus more on bank balance sheets than on real people. Our good friend Evangelos Aretaios, now a journalist in Brussels, recently visited his home town of Athens and kindly sent this report that demonstrates better than most items I have read the true human cost of ‘reforming’ the Greek economy.

A Different Stroll Through Athens
Evangelos Aretaios©, 31/05/2011

Our vehicle tries to find its way between dozens of African teenage prostitutes
scrambling on Patission avenue, one of the main road axes of down town Athens,
and a melancholic female voice fills the car with “Stop the watch’s movement”,
an old Greek popular song of the 60’s.

“I would give anything to be able to stop the watch’s movement, to go back to
the old days”, sadly says Nikos, an old friend from  university while
he smoothly drives his car in an Athens I don’t recognize anymore, an Athens I
had never imagined could become like that.

We reach Victoria’s square an old area, very posh during the 60’s and the 70’s
and then one of the low-middle class orderly neighbourhoods of central Athens --
until the recent arrival of thousands of illegal immigrants living by dozens in
appallingly small apartments.

Nikos checks unconsciously the security of our doors and the car enters
Aristotelous Street, a once-famous street in Greece. Almost fifteen years
ago, while serving the second half of my military service, I had lived for
around nine months in a small and old fashioned, cozy apartment on Aristotelous, and
I used to love strolling around this wider area of down town Athens during the

Now, suddenly I feel oppressed, almost scared and I look with freezing amazement at
the strange and broken faces of the people on the streets.

“We don’t come down town anymore, it’s the first time in more than a year that I
come over here”, I can hear Nikos’s gloomy voice. He has loved this area
as much I had, maybe even more. His first love was with a girl living just
behind Patission avenue.

“Everybody is afraid now in Athens. The immigrants are afraid of Greeks, the
Greeks are afraid of the immigrants. One day all this will explode, Athens is a
besieged city, from the inside not from the outside”.

A few days ago three illegal immigrants literally slaughtered a Greek man on his
way to take his pregnant wife to the maternity hospital and sold the digital camera they
stole for €120. Over the next few days, far right-wing gangs staged real pogroms
against immigrants in these out-of-state-control vast areas.

“Almost half of Athens is like a huge island of lepers and its growing fast.
It’s an inhuman jungle for every one living there and everybody pays the
terrible price of constant fear and violence. The other half of the city is
either sleeping in order to avoid seeing what is really going on or tries
desperately to deal with austerity and lack of money in every day basis, waiting
for a miracle that will never come”, says Nikos, a once very happy and talkative
guy, and he slips into silence until he brings me back home.

A few hours before our drive to central Athens, Nikos had signed with his twelve
colleagues a document confirming a 7% wage cut for them. Some months ago they had
already signed another document announcing a 10% wage cut and now came the
further 7%. This broke them down financially and morally.

“I don’t know where all that will lead us, maybe the company will close down and
then…”, Nikos did not go on. As if he was afraid to put in words in all these
things he was thinking about the future and the future of his two kids.

Next day, in my parents’ house, my father, my mother and I were all glued in
front of the TV for the evening news, like every Greek household these days. Tax
rises, wages cuts, strikes, privatizations, street violence, cacophony from
Brussels, shameful immaturity from politicians in Athens…

My father was never a talkative person, but these last months he is slipping
further in his silence and he watches TV with the eyes of a man staring at the
gradual but irreversible end of the world. Of his world that he had never
imagined would end up like that.

Later that evening I go out with some old friends to a small bar in the
northern, posh suburbs of Athens. Until late midnight I only listen to stories
of wages cuts, unemployment, thoughts about immigrating abroad, rage and
contempt for the politicians.

“Alright, today I do have a job but tomorrow I may not”, says a friend with a
top managerial job in a big company who seriously thinks about leaving the
country. With two kids and all the extra money we all have to pay for the so-called free
education and the so-called free health, soon it will be impossible even for me
to keep up, and imagine all these people who are already in a worst state than us
and they cannot keep up until the end of the month”, he says with a voice full
of irony and rage.

Next morning I am with Fay, an old friend. She’s a psychologist in a posh area
of Athens and she has lost almost half of her patients. Her husband lost
his job a year ago and he can’t find anything. They have three children.
“We have to learn to live with less, much less, money. The social contract that kids live
better than their parents is over in Greece and it is hard for us, parents, to
accept it”, she says sadly and she adds with a voice filled with poignant
determination: “For the kids we are buying only second hand clothes otherwise we
couldn’t clothe them anymore”.

The last night before I fly back to Brussels where I live, I am driving again in
downtown Athens. Alone this time, trying to put an order in my mind and in all
these unthinkable things happening in Athens, the city where I was born and raised.

And it proves difficult because even if my eyes and my ears are watching and
listening to all things happening, somewhere deep in me there is still a whisper
saying “no, all this is not possible”.

But I know that I am wrong, that all these unthinkable things are only the
beginning. And I suddenly feel that a part of me is vanishing forever.

No comments: