Tuesday, May 28, 2013

What has been lost

Unpaid local authority workers protest in Greek city of Thessaloniki

I have been very quiet recently, at least as far as this blog is concerned. While I still tweet quite a lot about what is happening in Greece, over the last month or so I have lost the desire to go out on the streets and cover what has been happening in the city. Perhaps the fact that the end of the academic year is approaching and everyone is feeling worn out is to blame, or maybe the endless stream of bad news I hear from those around me is getting to me.

More friends are leaving the country to escape the crisis, others are struggling on but the cost is enormous both financially and in terms of dignity. It's hard to be sanguine when so many people you know are fighting to just retain their self respect in the face of grinding poverty which seems to have no end.

On the other hand the international press, or at least The Economist, FT, CNN and even the Guardian have decided that no matter what your eyes tell you every time you go out the worst of the crisis in Greece is over. Business confidence is up, the government's privatisation plan is finally going ahead, and the banking sector is stabilising. All of which is fine as long as your main interests are in finance and not out there in the "Real Economy"with the rest of us schmucks.

Despite the euphoria in the mainstream media the economy is still collapsing,unemployment hasn't stopped rising, let alone dropped, the suicide rate is the highest in 50 years, 200% increase in new AIDS cases reported and just to add yet more joy to everyday life a new drug, Sisa or Shisha is doing a roaring trade in Athens.

There are some bright spots, since Greece is not a war zone and despite the deepest wishes of many a  journalist on the Death and Debt tour of Southern Europe, there are not dead bodies piling up in the streets. It's not that kind of disaster. Some of those I know have moved abroad to much better paid positions where their skills will be properly utilised, and hopefully some day in the near future they will be able to come back to Greece and share what they have learnt.

Yet even in these cases there is a price to pay, relationships are forced to bear the weight of a such a move and even the most privileged of emigrants have to deal with stress and dislocation caused by moving to a new country. While many may dream of living the American Dream, few believe that their ideal future is set in some provincial town or village in Northern Europe.

For those left behind, phrases like "light at the end of the tunnel" or "The worst is over" seems like a bad joke. In the this part of Greece, the official unemployment figures for young people are 72%, which in practical terms means that virtually no one is in full - time employment.

For older people who lose their jobs the prospects are little better. The few jobs that are on offer are nearly all low skill ones in the service industry where 15-20 euros for 10 hour day is considered acceptable. Of course, these jobs come without  any form of social security contributions, health plan, or hope of a pension Nor do the wages offered cover the cost of living as the latest OECD survey on Greek cost of living shows prices for basic consumer goods have dropped only slightly below those found in Germany where a full-time  salary of 300-400E a month is unheard of.

However, summer is here, the weather is improving and people are out in the streets and cafes, celebrating the end of a difficult winter and for the casual observer, everything seems fine. To find out what has been lost you have to talk to people, crack their outward reserve and get them to trust you enough to reveal stories they may feel deeply ashamed of. That takes time and as we've seen from much of  the foreign media's coverage of the crisis in Greece, often considered  not worth the effort. Much easier to talk to political heads, regurgitate official figures and hang out at the bar of your hotel.

For those who spent a life struggling to improve themselves and provide for their family's future, debt, unemployment and loss of purpose in their lives is deeply felt. The stigma of poverty that haunted Greek society, especially in the difficult post war years is still part of many people psychological make up and so a return to levels of poverty not seen in decades is a bitter blow.

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