What does austerity look like? (Part One)
At first glance, not like much. If you’re a casual observer, just arrived in Athens and looking for a place to eat, austerity can look like this:
Or even this:
The streets are lively and verdant, and the Mediterranean sun still makes everything look just a bit better, especially if you’ve just arrived from 6 months of Portland rain.
In case you’re not sure what I mean by ‘austerity’, I’m referring to the economic stranglehold placed on Greece by the European Union. Essentially, Greece has been forced by the EU to declare bankruptcy. A large part of Greece’s national assets have been privatized and/or turned over to the EU, and severe economic controls have been imposed. Greece no longer makes its own economic policy: entire ministries are no longer even run by Greeks. A large contributing factor to the situation the Greeks are in was the 2008 real estate crash in the U.S. So, in a very real sense, the Greeks are being asked to pay for the sins of the American banksters who also brought the U.S. economy to the brink of ruin.
I’d done quite a bit of research on all this before coming. I knew a lot of facts and figures: unemployment numbers (astronomical), suicides among suddenly destitute pensioners (thousands), the vast amount of debt that the EU has imposed on the Greek people in order to keep Europe’s banking system afloat (and, not coincidentally, shake a warning finger at Italy, Spain and France). But for days I didn’t see those facts and figures as I looked around me. We’d pass tourist buses emptying their vacation-goers onto the sidewalks and I’d think how easily one could come here and not notice anything amiss. I, myself, was having trouble finding the cracks in the façade.
Then I met Kyria Eleni – Helen, as she introduced herself to me in South African English.
Helen sits on a wall beside the church, dressed as my old Swiss aunts used to dress, very dignified, very proper. On closer inspection, her clothes are threadbare. They were bought in another era, when she could afford quality. She holds a plastic cup, but she keeps it half covered. She could easily be resting and having a cool drink by the church. She speaks to passers-by, but in such a quiet, timorous voice that most pass by in the bustle and never notice.
I’ve spent some time getting to know Helen. Her perfect English has made the task much easier. In getting to know her, I’ve found a window into what austerity has done to Greece.
Helen was born and spent her childhood on one of the Greek islands. From her description, her family was upper middle class. In her youth, the entire family emigrated to the thriving Greek community in Cape Town, South Africa, where she lived for another three decades. In South Africa, the family owned a string of shops, and prospered. Over the years, they sent money back to family members in Greece to establish shops in the Athens area. Helen finished her schooling in Cape Town, married and had a son.
In the mid-eighties, she and her husband returned to Greece, where they took over the family businesses that had been set up with the money sent from South Africa. For about 15 years, things went well. Again, the busineses prospered and the family lived a secure, predictable life.
Not all of their subsequent problems were the result of austerity. It would be fairer to say that austerity sealed their fate, pushed them over the final cliff. A few years before the austerity regime was imposed on Greece, Helen and husband began to experience competition from larger supermarket chains that were moving into Athens neighborhoods. They were forced to close several of their shops, and tighten their belts economically. At the same time, their customers were also falling on hard times. They started allowing long-time customers to buy on account, but were in turn forced to take loans as their revenues sagged.
Then Helen’s husband passed away suddenly. In Helen’s view, the stress of business was what killed him. Helen and her son were left to try to save the family business, and they might have succeeded, were it not for the EU and austerity. When austerity came, suddenly no one had any money. Pensions were cut drastically, bank withdrawal controls were imposed, credit was impossible to find, and shops and businesses began to fail by the thousands. Almost overnight, all their options disappeared, all their loans came due, everything that had been put aside vanished, and in short order they lost their business and their home and found themselves on the street.
John went through a divorce at about the same time, and now he and his mother share a small apartment with no furniture, no water and no electricity. He explained to us how his education, his business experience and, above all, his age, made his prospects for finding a job even worse.
Meeting Helen had an interesting effect on my ability to see things around me. Where before I hardly noticed them, now I see the beggars in every square and neighborhood. Mostly old people and often, like Helen, in clothes that used to advertise their solid, normal lives and now, worn and threadbare, illustrate their complete destitution.
Coda – 3 July 2017
On my last day in Athens I walked up to the Xalandri square to say my goodbyes to Helen – and John, as he happened to be there with his Mom. We chatted for a few moments about my plans to bike in the Alps with my son, Kiran, and to spend some time in Italy. Then Helen suddenly exclaimed, ‘I was forgetting, I brought something to show you.’ She reached into a pocket and brought out a photograph and handed it to me, saying, ‘this is me back before all this happened. This is how we were, how we lived. This is how far we’ve fallen.’ Here’s the photo she showed me: