Take a look around, you will see bright lights, lovely music, good food, and lots of fashionable people having fun. But don’t you get fooled by all this. You are in a 1-km radius of life and happiness. Step out and you will see, my friend, Greece is dying.”
Minos Petrakis voice drops as he says this, even as he turns down the instrumental music playing in his small music shop. Located in the bustling touristy hub of Plaka in the heart of Athens, it is just a stone’s throw from the entrance of the majestic Acropolis complex.
It is assets such as these that may be up for sale now as Greece works out another agreement with its creditors to ward off its debt crisis. In a country that has been teetering on the brink of bankruptcy since 2009, has gone through a referendum rejecting a European bailout, has voted in a government that promised to stand up to the rest of Europe, and stared at an exit from the European Union, this is the latest issue roiling the protesters on the streets, and Greeks across the country.
Petrakis hails from the picturesque Greek island of Crete. But he has spent most of his life in Athens, selling CDs and cassettes of the country’s traditional musicians.
Nodding towards the buzz of tourists around the Acropolis, Petrakis says, “It’s very simple to see who is surviving in these trying times, and who is not.”
Catering to customers as he talks, he adds, “For those of us in the tourism business, including hotels, restaurants, coffee shops, souvenir shops and tourist guides, business is always steady. But the majority of Greeks are suffering. That Greece is dying. This 1-km area is like an oasis. This is the last place left where Greece still lives.”
‘Where have all the jobs gone?’
A few footsteps away is the long, pebbled walkway that circles the Acropolis, ending at its entrance. There is no place like this in the Greek capital, teeming as it is with local musicians, many of them unemployed youngsters who end up here on lazy afternoons. Guitarists, singers, dancers, contortionists, entire bands, mimicry artists, jugglers, ventriloquists, painters pepper either side of the walkway.
It’s quite common for passers-by to throw a euro or two into the hats or guitar cases the performers have placed in front of them. It is just about enough for these roadside artists to buy themselves an evening’s cup or two of their favourite frappe — the Greek instant coffee.
“We are a regular band here, but we don’t make any money out of all this,” says Karpos Athanasiou, keyboardist of a jazz band of four that performs at the Acropolis walkway. “We want to make a name for ourselves. But we can’t afford the 10 euros an hour we need to record a studio album.”
Looking around, he adds, “Everything is costly in Athens these days. We have no jobs, we have nothing much to live for. We just meet up here every afternoon and entertain a few people. Music keeps us going.”
The catchy instrumental numbers of Athanasiou’s band are quite a hit today, with a crowd quickly building up. However, again, it doesn’t reflect in the band’s ‘hat collection’. “These are tough times,” he shrugs.
As the band plays on, Diodoros ‘Dio’ Baris, a wiry-looking youngster in his late 20s, stands on the opposite side, leaning against a tree and sketching. This afternoon, he’s making a sketch of the drummer of Athanasiou’s band.
“I see any activity or anything I like on the streets, I make a quick sketch… easy,” says Dio, barely looking up as gives finishing touches to the drummer’s flowing hair.
“I am actually an animation artist,” he adds. “My family spent a fortune so that I could become an animator. But look at where I am now, searching for a job, walking all over Athens. There is nothing for animation artists like me in Greece now.”
But what about the 49-odd television channels operational in Greece? “‘No jobs’, I get told all the time. I have even heard that the guys in TV channels also work in newspapers and radio stations to make a good living. The reality is very, very bad. Guys of my age group are desperate. We have qualifications, we don’t have jobs. Don’t know where all the jobs have gone. We don’t know what the new government is going to do. They do a lot of talking,” Dio says.
“You will see protesters everywhere in Athens these days — often at Syntagma Square (Parliament Square),” he adds. “There is frustration on the streets. You can see that from the messages in graffiti we do all over Athens.”
The country’s unemployment rate currently stands at a troublesome 26 per cent.
Evgenia Christou, an energetic waitress at a small eatery in the slightly notorious Omonia Square, is equally agitated. “This particular area doesn’t get many tourists. What we have is mostly Athenians coming in for a drink, snacks and chatting for hours,” she says, pouring ouzo (a favourite local drink) into small glasses. “They are mostly jobless. It’s not a good sign that the city is full of people with no jobs, just hanging around at squares. This can’t go on. What will happen when the money runs out? These days, after sundown, neighbourhoods like this are a snatchers’ paradise.”
Equally worrying is the sight of schoolchildren doing odd jobs to raise pocket money, frets Michael Nino, who is often chasing away 15-16-year-olds approaching customers at his open-air eatery these days. His restaurant is located in Monastiraki, with its popular flea market.
“It’s a nuisance, these schoolkids. Parents are out of jobs, so these children don’t get money from home. They will sneak up to my customers here and try to sell notebooks and what not,” Nino says. “Half of my time goes chasing them away. This is a new problem, as if the routine protests that cause roadblocks aren’t trouble enough.”
‘The islands are lucky’
With tourism keeping the country somewhat afloat, it’s natural that the islands are better off than Athens and other cities on mainland Greece.
That’s what Nikias Vallis, a 52-year-old buzuki player (buzuki is a popular string instrument in Greece; the equivalent of the guitar) has observed since the country’s economy began sliding in 2009. Nikias can be seen any time of the year on the Mykonos Island, playing his buzuki in a corner near the coastline.
“Greece’s islands get a massive number of tourists all year,” says Vallis, who sometimes goes island-hopping for a break from the humdrum of Mykonos life. “Look at the businesses on our islands, they are roaring, all because of tourism. The islands are lucky that tourism is good enough for the local folk to keep their kitchen running. Look at the rest of Greece, life is really scary there.”
Gaia Samaras, a part-time fisherwoman who sells sea sponges and souvenirs from a shop in Oia village on the island of Santorini, is grateful for the tourism too. “Athens is a big place. Island life is simpler, quieter. But at least we have our hands full with tourism. Thanks to tourism, we all have our little businesses. We are lucky the economic turmoil hasn’t hit us badly,” Samaras says.
Tanja, a Switzerland-based German tourist, has now visited the Mykonos Island several times. “When I come to Greece, I come only to the islands,” Tanja says. “Athens is so gloomy to be in, and it’s just getting worse.”
‘Our village will survive, Athens won’t’
The mountain village of Kalavryta in western Greece appears a long way from the angry Athens and its deafening protests. Far from the tourist map, the village that is generally frequented by Greeks from surrounding regions during the winter months has found a way to deal with the crisis.
“The bad times began in early 2010. Since then, it has only got worse,” says Alexios Straka, a farmer in his early 60s. Explaining why it hasn’t spelled doom here though, he adds, “Over at Athens, people are mostly of the salaried class. That’s why they are struggling, because the government doesn’t have jobs for them. In our villages, it’s different, we have more money saved up. We also have farming businesses to fall back upon.”
However, Straka isn’t very optimistic about the future. “No matter what kind of bailout comes, nobody knows what will happen. The economy has crashed, there’s no business to do in the big markets. People are jobless, the government is cutting on its spending,” he says.
Sofia Apostolou, a middle-aged fruit-seller who has a small shop in Kalavryta’s market area near the village’s church square, keeps herself updated on the latest in the country’s economic troubles through television. Unlike Straka, she remains confident. “Unlike life in the cities, here I have my own farm. It’s a small one, I grow fruits and some vegetables, but I manage to survive by selling that,” she says. Her daughter Eva goes to school in the nearby town of Patra.
Antonia Pappas, a wine-and-souvenir shopowner in the same village, has an interesting take on why the Greeks can’t make more of the olive orchards and vineyards the country has. “There are two problems. Firstly, Greeks have a tendency to avoid buying olive oil and wine from the market. They prefer buying that at cheap rates from friends and social connections. That makes selling these products at proper market prices very difficult,” says Pappas, who earlier worked as a wine-maker. “Secondly, ever since Greece joined the Eurozone, due to capitalistic forces as we understand, there are disincentives for Greeks to sell olive oil and wine abroad. There are forces that just won’t let us do it, that is crippling us.”
Pappas even tells a story of how when the economic crisis struck five years ago, at the start of a winter, villagers of Kalavryta were tacitly told by the government to chop down olive trees and use them for firewood to tide over. Using olive trees as firewood is otherwise outlawed in Greece.
‘Tsipras can’t do wonders’
Nikolas Papadakis, a truck driver from Diakopto village in western Greece, who transports goods all over the country, is clear that most Greeks are not sure how effective new Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will be in the long run. “The people of Greece brought him to power not because they love the Syriza party, but because they were all tired of corrupt governments of the past,” he says. “I, too, voted for Tsipras. But to be honest, I don’t think he can do wonders, he’s too inexperienced to turn things around. We are in the European Union, we have to suffer for that actually. We keep getting bullied by Germany and the other big countries. Many people don’t notice this financial bullying.”
A lifestyle problem?
There’s another perspective that most Greeks won’t openly agree with, according to Mohammad Saleem, a Pakistan-born taxi driver who was brought up in Athens. “In my 18 years here, I have noticed that people here have very costly lifestyles, which is why they are struggling to come to terms with austerity measures that the government is trying to bring,” Saleem observes.
The Lahore-born cabbie, who speaks fluent Greek, argues, “Take the average Greek person’s knack for expensive coffee and cigarettes. Life has become tougher, but they still need to have their daily share of frappe and a pack of smoke, come what may, and these are costly things to buy in Greece. Some of my Greek friends have stopped buying expensive cigarettes — instead, they go for hand-rolled fags of local brands. It’s no joke, a serious lifestyle problem is hurting Greek families that are struggling to make ends meet. People here better get used to austerity.”
As Saleem laments the ‘lavish way of life’ in these times of crises, his taxi passes through Exarchia, one of the numerous localities in Athens frequented by youngsters for coffee-drinking binges late into the night — these days perhaps layered by complaints.
Dark as it is in more ways than one, night in Athens is slowly taking charge — the beggars are counting what little they could muster; the stars above the lonely Acropolis complex are beginning to dazzle; the musicians have stopped playing and are long gone; the empty streets of the city are bathed in neon lights; the political graffiti — some cryptic, some brutally frank — is suggesting the writing is on the wall.
Athens has clearly lost its energy. Its glamour is somewhat wearing off. It is about to slip into a long night’s slumber, an uneasy one.
(The writer is a freelance journalist and producer at broadcast media, currently based in Muscat, Oman. She recently visited Greece to shoot a travelogue)