Sunshine and despair: Greece is bleeding

La misère est moins pénible au soleil. A sailboat at the marina in Flisvos
La misère est moins pénible au soleil. A sailboat at the marina in Flisvos

The sun is shining, the sky is the blue of postcards, and yet despair shrouds the country. People starving, begging, stealing. One retired gentleman immolated himself in April 2012, as he did not want to leave debts for his children. He saw no future for himself, his family. He was 77. My father’s age.

I saw a statistic in the metro the other week. 60% of the young (25 and under) are unemployed in Greece. (Was 55% a year ago) I would venture to say that it is a conservative statistic as it fails to take into account the other probably 30% who are still in education. The education system of Greece never kicks you out, even if your cumulative grade point average is skimming zero after you have been failing exams for 15 years. How do I know this? I know someone who is in precisely that situation.

Monday afternoon, before my flight home – to London – I went for a walk downtown to Plaka, the old town, with my father. I wanted to buy a satchel I’d seen earlier that week. I’ve wanted one for more than 15 years, but never got around to checking quality and prices. This time I scoured all the shops that were left in the old town, comparing leather, hardware, stitching, sleaziness of service and – of course – prices. I bought one. Tourist price: €105. I paid €65. That’s Greeks for you. Every last one of them is out to sucker the tourists.

At some point, we sat down in the sun at a quiet cafe to have a break. Within seconds, we were approached by someone selling DVDs. Half a minute later, someone selling CDs. Everything was pirated copies, entirely illegal. We counted how many had approached us, and laughingly told the sellers the score, while politely declining the merchandise. There were 7 in 3 minutes.

A French couple sat down behind us. Poor sods, they ordered moussaka at a place where the Coke light they served my father was expiring that same day; I do hope they’re all right. Within a few seconds, a man selling threads (threads?) approached them and with bad english from both parties proceeded to forcefully sell them some threads which he braided. I’m still not sure what that was. I felt so sorry for them, so worried they would be taken for fools at best, or end up with food poisoning at worse, that I wanted to tell them to go down the street to another restaurant a colleague of my father’s had taken me to once. A delicious and unpretentious place. “But, dad said, that place has closed”. I walked over to double check. It had. Two places, in fact, which I remember to be thriving, had shut down.

Shoe prices in Athens are higher than London.
Shoe prices in Athens are higher than London.

I walked a lot in Athens. Ermou, the main commercial street, was fairly busy, but merchandise quality had slipped further, prices inflated some more. It seems the crisis is inducing panic. In the summer, I walked through some galleries near the centre, where the Braun and Mont Blanc stores used to be. Everything is closed. It’s around the corner from that bank the manifestation locked shut and set fire to, in May 2010, killing three employees. In other neighbourhoods, maybe a third of the shops are still open. Cafes have been renamed or closed down, never to reopen. Yet they seem to be the only places that thrive. I went to a fairly new outlet mall. Even international brands had closed. I still do not know what Ferragamo is doing there, while I am grateful Ralph Lauren hasn’t moved, as I adore their clothes, the quality is superb!

Shopping aside, this visit to Athens was more painful than most. Pensions have been cut further, to the point that people do not turn on the heating on so as to save money. Last week, two students died and three are hospitalised, by using a barbecue to feed and warm up their flat. My parents light the fireplace every night to warm up. Energy prices are soaring, so’s electricity. They tell me it’s €50 / month to have a phone line! My brother’s commute costs him about €45 / week in petrol. That’s without the tolls for the road of €2.80 each way. And he’s expected to save up for a home? A car? A family? He’s considering himself lucky to even be employed, the country is in such dire straits.

I don’t know how the people will deal with this. I fear for my family. I fear prices will continue to rise, quality to drop, sellers to lie to poor people swindling them out of €40 for a bag they could get for €10 by telling them it’s leather when it’s not. I cannot believe what this one proud nation has stooped to. They seem no better than petty, starving, thieves. I cannot say “we”. I’ve never truly been one of them, I barely lived there, and while I did, I went to French primary school. Which brings me to the punchline. I told my mother how horrible and stressful a time I’ve had in finding a room to live in. I mentioned the auditions I’ve stepped into. She suggested that perhaps next time, I should say I am Canadian… Because these days, Greeks are seen as poor and unreliable. I’m not sure I dare renounce my heritage for the mistakes several decades of bad government have brought upon this sunny place. But wouldn’t it be curious if it made a difference?