In my second week here in Greece, I continue to contemplate the state of the state. I do this while (1) dodging the heat (which has, thankfully, dropped to the low 90s), (2) listening to my neighbors (it’s not that hard, believe me), (3) observing from my favorite cafe, and/or (4) riding the trolley.
I also attended a very long poetry reading last week, one that went on. And ON. Longer than planned, clearly, or than appreciated. Even that evening, though, provided interesting people-watching time.
Greece has been in the news so much — everywhere — and with reason. Clearly, the financial and economic issues have been widely reported in newspapers and online sources for months. When Prime Minister George Papandreou resigned, an interim PM was named , a non-politician, a technocrat. The May elections — and the subsequent failure of any of the top three parties to form a coalition government — meant that there was another election called for June 17, and yet another interim PM named. There were demonstrations held after those elections. The June elections–in which conservative New Democracy placed 1st, far-left Syriza placed second, and socialist PASOK came in 3rd — were over quickly and reported quickly. New Democracy has formed a coalition government, though neither Syriza nor PASOK is really muscling into this. The second elections were in fact rather desultory, at least to me — no demonstrations at all afterwards.
Not that the problems are over. Not at all. Now people are wondering when — not really if — crash will come. Will Greece stay in the euro? What happens if it doesn’t? For a while, there was a predictable run on money in banks — lots of people took their money out, and a number moved their money to other European banks. One report, in fact, contends that 50% of the money in Greece is not in banks at all. People are keeping money in safe deposit boxes (if they can get them) or in safes. Predictions about the outcomes continue to appear daily.
What I have noticed now — some of which I’ve mentioned in earlier posts — is more businesses closed. On the trolley ride home from Syntagma the other day, I noticed that more than one block now was composed of empty shops. Long-time shops have closed. In my neighborhood, I noticed that my local bank branch has been closed, leaving me to believe that the employees are not employed any more. In news reports, my bank name is mentioned; one merger has gone south, and I hear that there is a lawsuit over breach of contract. In the meantime, another Greek bank seems to be interested in acquiring the bank I use. Greek banks aren’t very popular these days, as you can imagine. No one really wants to acquire them, at least no one outside of Greece. My bank was most recently affiliated with a French bank, but it doesn’t want that tie anymore. One large French company, Carrefour, is closing all of its stores here in Greece, I am told. What will happen to the stores is a mystery. Will the previous Greek company regain its ownership? Who knows?
Beyond the huge chains like Carrefour, lots of small stores are gone. These are for the most part family-owned businesses. I noticed that a neighborhood meat market was gone; it was here six months ago. Some stores have moved to smaller spaces, hoping to remain viable.
As far as store hours (set by government regulations), stores now close earlier. Overhead costs are kept down. Some remain open on late nights, but close at 8 instead of 10, perhaps. The little computer store near my apartment is open, but I’ve never managed to walk by it when it is; I’ve seen it from the trolley as I pass. Even the large department store two blocks down closes earlier now, and though I’ve seen customers there every time I’ve gone by or in, it isn’t packed as it has been in the past.
Coffeeshops and kafenions are open, though I often notice fewer customers. I’m just selfishly glad my favorite hangout is still open, Cafe Libre. It’s a family place, a cafe/bar, and the wait staff are always personal and friendly. They remember me now, as they remember my friends who live near there. I have yet to see it quite as crowded as even last year.
Yet even as things visibly reflect changes, I am told that some people keep going as though nothing has changed. In a small town near Athens, a friend told me, on a weekday night when she was there recently all the shops and pharmacies were open, everyone was out and about and carrying on as though nothing had changed. Her theory: they’re in denial.
I don’t know about that, but in a sense they do have to keep going. How much are they conserving at home? What are things like in their homes? We can’t tell that. The cliche about life going on rings true here.
Since one change that affects me is the closing of our local post office, I found out the one we are now associated with — so far away that it’s easier for me to go to Syntagma and use the one there. Of course, when I stopped in the other day, the lines were incredible. I guess one day I’ll just have to go and wait in one of those lines for a chance to buy stamps. For years you could buy stamps (grammatosima) at almost all the peripteros, the little sidewalk kiosks, self-enclosed shops offering almost everything. Except stamps now. I can get trolley tickets at the one nearest me, as well as buy minutes for my Greek mobile (cell phone).
There are fewer people around; Athens feels as it does in August, when people traditionally flee Athens for vacation spots in Greece and elsewhere. There aren’t nearly as many cars around, either. When I first arrived in Athens, I immediately noticed that in my neighborhood there were parking spots available, which has been rare indeed. Not now, though. In discussions, friends have told me that if a family has two cars, they’ve gotten rid of one, and that some people have dispensed with owning a car at all. Fewer cars on the road, too, as a result. And as more people leave Athens, either for their villages or for jobs away from Greece, those streets will be even less full than now.
It’s all a waiting game, I think. Yet I anticipate more discussions with friends who are Greek or who are expats living here. Lots of learning yet to come.
And in the midst of this (or the mist of it, as some students have insisted to me in their writing), I see efforts to improve life here. Volunteerism, a relatively new idea here, is alive and well. Struggling, perhaps, but thriving nonetheless. I have friends involved in regular beach cleanups. I have a good friend who is involved in turtle rescues — she volunteers at a center in Glyfada. I went with her yesterday to a turtle release — a joyful experience, tempered by the discovery that the beach where they often release turtles has, in the past week, been invaded by permanent beach umbrellas and a cantina. More about that later.
People go to work. They shop as they need. They go out, albeit less often and probably spending less.