The birthplace of democracy and the Olympic Games, Athens offers antiquity to the avid tourist. Named after the pagan patron Greek Goddess Athena, the modern Greek capital encourages you to savour the ancients with guided tours that take you back to the beginning of the millennium and up the sacred hill, the Acropolis. Tourists can also see relics of the early electoral system and the process of political ostracism. The open air red tourist busses give you a chance to see the spot where Greek philosopher Socrates would encourage the youth of his day to think – incitement, according to the powers-that-were, who subsequently had him poisoned.
Today’s Greece is as the world already knows it through the gloomy headlines. The economic unease is palpable to the busy tourists. Restaurants are shockingly empty and maitres walk out on to the pavements entreating passersby to try their “cheap price, best food” menus. Something is better than nothing – and this means that the Asian marketing strategy of haggling is truly acceptable here. “How much you want to give?” is a common remark from the shopkeeper when tourists ponder over price tags.
A severe raft of austerity measures such as tax increases and budget cuts, along with loss of public-sector jobs and government services in order to manage the debt crisis that has built up over the past few years has shattered Greek confidence. Many seek divine intervention and the grand Greek Orthodox churches see the devout light candles and fervently kiss the decorative images of Christ.
Others turn to the new shrine in Syntagma Square, the heart of the city and right outside the parliament. It is here that they offer flowers and candles against a tree. This recent shrine is in memory of Dimitris Christoulas, the retired pharmacist who shot himself in this square in April. He left behind a note that explained his actions: “I find no other solution for a dignified end before I start sifting through garbage to feed myself.”
Christoulas has become the conscience of a nation in despair. Yet, Syntagma is a quiet spot. There is dignity in death. The only sound is of the traffic behind and the fluttering of letters pinned onto the tree trunk. These are messages left by fellow Greeks, who identify with Christoulas’ protest and frustration.
Reading one of the letters that accuses certain politicians of murdering the Greeks is Fiona, a young student of International Relations at the Athens University. She says, “It is sad that the youth of the country are forced to move away from their homes and seek jobs in other countries while these politicians enjoy life. We need a new party in parliament now… we need to send home a message to the politicians.” Christina, a mother of two adolescents, whose husband is among the fortunate Greeks who still have a job, places a candle against the trunk of the tree. Explaining her gesture, Christina says, “We need to support one another. In a crisis, we don’t forget our friends and family. We stand together.”
She reflects a Greek sentiment that has probably come in handy for many unemployed. Elderly parents, who still have some pension to go by and have a home of their own, are now supporting their jobless adult children. Says Fotini, an art teacher in the Plaza district of Athens, “I know someone who is 30 years old and is still living with his parents. Imagine!
Several of those who have lost their jobs and have no unemployment benefits live with their parents and so are saved from destitution.”
Others are not so lucky. Amy, 17, who is half Armenian and half Greek, says one of her friends is now homeless. Describing the plight of her friend, she says, “Her parents had to mortgage the house when they lost their jobs. They don’t have much money now. So the children stay a few days with various friends each week. I don’t know how long this arrangement will last.”
It is believed there are around one million unemployed in Greece, a quarter of the workforce. Youth unemployment is at 51 per cent. For the average Greek who takes great pride in his or her rich culture; food; hospitality; and family ties, unemployment brings ignominy. Families that find it difficult to put food on the table have to suffer the indignity of non-government organisations taking care of their children.
Anna Maria, a student of architecture in Athens, is only 17 but she worries about the future. As she sits on the grass in the sprawling lawns of the Ancient Agora sketching the 449 BC Temple of Hephaestus, she expresses uncertainty, “I am not too sure about my career prospects as I wish to design buildings like shopping malls but there is no money in the market for construction. I have dreams but I don’t want to leave my beautiful country and parents. I hope things will get better in the future.”
With elections around the corner, there certainly is tremendous expectation among people. However, Eleni, a teacher of architecture in Athens, is realistic. “All of Greece is collapsing. There are many problems in the city and unemployment is not the only one. Immigration is a big issue. We are not racist. Please remember that. But immigration has gone out of control. There just aren’t enough jobs for locals. The government should take control. Even overtime is unpaid for now.”
According to estimates, Greece, the backdoor to Europe for many immigrants from Africa and South East Asia, has an influx of around one million immigrants – nearly half of whom are undocumented. The government will be building a total of 30 “closed hospitality centres”, or detention centres under a ‘250m EU-funded scheme. Detainees are to be then deported. Says Fotini, “We just want the government to be more sensitive to the problems of people. See the case of women, many don’t get maternity benefits. I know someone who lost her job when the private firm found she was expecting a baby. Of course, the premise stated was general retrenchment. Women also seek flexi-hours. How else can people raise a family?”
Most Greeks aren’t surprised at the economic mess they are in right now. Many say that this is the result of over three decades of political greed and insensitivity. Referring to the forthcoming elections, Fotini says, “Over the decades Greek have voted for the same faces because they find comfort in familiarity. People have to think. People have to change.”
Socrates wasn’t too off the mark, was he?