Greek Crisis

In Limbo in Athens

Greek man and babyIntertopics
The crisis makes it difficult to make plans.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The crisis means middle class young Greeks are unable to make life plans and struggle to create businesses.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • One out of every three Greeks in their 30’s is unemployed.
    • An estimated 270,000 Greeks have left the country since the financial crisis began, including a large number of professionals.
    • Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has focused more on maintaining public sector jobs than fostering the private, entrepreneurial sector.
  • Audio

    Audio

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I met Athena as I was buying a red dress in a small flea market in Athens.

The flea market was taking place in a bar named after the Hoxton district popular with the London scene with unplastered walls, exposed pipes and a DJ console adding a sense of youth culture.

Together with friends, Athena set up a few stands with clothing, jewelry and handbags they’d made themselves.

I was the only customer that Saturday afternoon in late July; the heat had driven most people to the beach or the islands. Anyone who had stayed in the city was holding on tight to the €60 they could withdraw each day, after capital controls had been introduced in late June.

As Athena wrote me a receipt for €25, she asked where I was from. Germany, I answered.

She looked up and said, “My heart just stopped beating.”

I saw her thoughts as they flitted across her face: Germany, Schäuble, austerity measures,  oppression.

Ever since the Brussels agreement on a new bailout package, I have been hearing long, angry tirades from Greek taxi drivers and ministers about the way the German government is destroying Greece, Europe and human solidarity.

The Syriza government is divided over the bailout. The economy is frozen. Friends and relatives are fighting over whether this latest deal is rescue or ruin, while in Berlin, there’s a sense that Greece has calmed down.

“What are you doing in Athens?” asked Athena.

“I want to write an article about how the crisis is changing the lives of Greek people,” I said.

“Okay, let’s talk.”

The Greek crisis is characterized by images of desperate pensioners standing in front of closed banks and by the defiant Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras accusing Europeans of “blackmail.”

Taken together, these images convey the impression of a failed European state, where people go hungry, vitally important medicine is unavailable and politicians have lost their marbles. What often is overlooked is the urban middle class in Greece, the educated young people who should represent hope for this nation. How does their future look? And what do they think of Germany?

Athena is named after a daughter of the Greek god Zeus, the goddess of wisdom and warfare. She wears ragged jeans with a retro shirt from her collection, red lipstick and a hairband. A tattoo of a broken line winds around her right wrist; where the arteries are, a pair of scissors can be seen.

She’s part of the generation that grew up embracing the European Dream that we would all be better off than our parents.

The daughter of a seamstress, she began studying geology at 17 to fulfill her parents’ wish for her to have an academic career.

She was 19 when she first held a one-euro coin and she remembers, back then, how prices rose. She planned to find a research job after graduating.

She is now 31 years old, the same age as me. We’re both part of the generation that grew up embracing the “European Dream” that we would all be better off than our parents.

I was able to achieve this dream but for Athena, it was nothing but an illusion.

After her university studies, she waited tables and worked in a video rental shop, postponing her plans to work as a geologist indefinitely. Now, like her mother once did, she makes clothing. Three years ago, Athena set up her own business, launching her label “koubi” (button). Together with her boyfriend, Dimitris, she lives rent-free in the ground-floor apartment of his parents’ house.

Athena is among the many young Greeks who, because of high unemployment — in Athena’s age group the unemployment rate is more than 30 percent — have cobbled together their own job, whether as a start-up entrepreneur, NGO founder or online trader. In contrast to their parents, they don’t wait for the state to provide employment, a loan or anything else. In a nation without functioning banks, their mission is almost impossible.

Capital controls have led some of Athena’s customers to cancel orders or ask that they can postpone paying their bills. Orders from abroad don’t arrive because payment services such as PayPal have been canceled.

“I haven’t earned a single euro in the last few weeks,” Athena said. Her boyfriend supports her financially.

One of the contradictions of the Greek crisis is that it’s unseen in many parts of Athens. While many businesses are boarded up and restaurants are empty, the city still exudes a summertime zest for life. The later it gets, as the temperature drops, more guests arrive at the Hoxton Bar.

A DJ with dreadlocks plays hip-hop and the model-girlfriend of the owner serves Polish schnapps. They dance, smoke and drink as if all were normal. The Greeks have adapted to a kind of permanent uncertainty — they are exhausted, but they don’t want it to be evident.

This weekend Athena will sell only six items of clothing, yet in parting gives me the gift of a T-shirt, saying, of course, she has nothing against Germans.

She introduces me to her friends. There’s her boyfriend Dimitris, a personal fitness trainer in an upscale suburb who has lost half his customers. And her friend, Ino, who launched a tattoo magazine and relies on foreign customers. Ino’s boyfriend Panos is working on a doctorate in clinical psychology and also has a private practice, where he has sharply reduced his fees to €35 per hour ($38.77) because people have greater need but less money.

The four have been friends since their youth and Dimitris and Panos attended school together. It is obvious how close they are, how much they want to help each other.

They talk about their life before the crisis: the Summer Olympic Games in Athens in 2004, snowboarding vacations in Austria, going to college in England. The conversation sounds very much like one I would have with people our age in Berlin, London or Paris. Yet for Athena and her friends, it’s as if they are describing a lost era that will never return. They sound like veterans.

Hopes that Mr. Tsipras would stand up for this generation are fading. His government has turned its attention to the cleaning staff fired at the finance ministry, employees of a state-owned radio broadcaster, labor unions; it hasn’t shown any concern for young freelancers or small business owners. In addition to taxes, Athena pays a mandatory solidarity levy of about €225 per month, regardless of her income. Additionally, the new bailout package may result in a 100 percent prepayment of next year’s taxes.

Mr. Tsipras has been negotiating with the creditors over details of the latest financial package, and a technical deal was reached on Tuesday. However, it remains unclear how successful he will be. He has always emphasized that he doesn’t believe in the new bailout conditions, which impose more austerity on Greece. How can he convince the Greeks he will put the new reforms into practice and that the coming years will be better for his citizens?

Ino doesn’t believe Mr. Tsipras will resolve the crisis, but she has decided to give Greece a chance.

“Have you ever thought of emigrating?” I asked her a week later during an interview in her apartment. An estimated 270,000 Greeks have fled the country over past five years because they see no prospects at home. These expatriates include large numbers of doctors, scientists and entrepreneurs, precisely the kind of qualified individuals Greece desperately needs for a new start. People like Ino and her boyfriend, Panos.

Ino, 33, studied media communications in London. Panos has a degree from Cambridge. Both speak perfect English. We sit on their balcony, where even in the late evening it’s almost 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). Ino wears a short sleeveless dress and golden gladiator sandals as she stretches out on her chair. Isn’t it beautiful here, she murmurs into the evening: the weather, the landscape, the beach?

Ino returned to Athens from London 10 years ago. “At that time, of course, I didn’t think things would take this turn,” she said while brushing a strand of black hair from her cheek. First, she worked as a photographer for Greek magazines, then later played records as DJane in the city’s alternative clubs. When the crisis hit, there were fewer gigs, as people stayed at home rather than going out to party.

 

Bailing Out Greece-01

 

 

“Isn’t it ironic? We’re overqualified for the present situation,” she said with a shake of her head. “Why did we even go to university?”

Ino and Panos live behind the Kallimarmaro Stadium where they note with pride the first Olympic Games of the modern era were held in 1896. There are pictures of people with tattoos hanging on the walls in their two-room apartment, photographed by Ino. There’s a desk in the office made from concrete that Panos designed. He disappears into the kitchen and returns with mojitos using homegrown mint and much alcohol. They cherish this city and this attitude towards life. They are committed to their families.

With Panos’ help, Ino founded the tattoo magazine “HeartbeatInk” two years ago. It appears online in Greek and English. She designed a fashion collection to accompany it and is currently photographing a pin-up calendar for 2016. She notes she was invited to a tattoo convention in Frankfurt several months ago.

“We met several people there who just out of the blue, apologized for the German government,” Ino said.

We laugh. The two of them ask me about Wolfgang Schäuble and his Grexit plan. They want to know how many Germans think like he does. People keep asking me this, particularly supporters of the Syriza Party, who tell me how they hate Germany’s finance minister. In the days following the Brussels agreement on July 13, anti-German rhetoric was particularly loud.

“Many Germans want to help Greece,” I replied. “But they also want to make sure Tsipras implements reforms and the bailout money doesn’t just trickle away.” I describe the power structure in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the burden of the European legacy she carries. They listen as if this brief glimpse of domestic German politics were the most fascinating thing they’ve heard in a long time. The crisis brings us together in a weird way: Their politics are my politics and vice-versa.

“I believe that in one or two years, we will be in the same situation as now.”

Panos, Psychologist

“Are you afraid of a Grexit?” I asked.

“I believe that in one or two years, we will be in the same situation as now,” Panos replied.

He voted “no” on the July 5 referendum on the creditors’ bailout conditions, but is neither surprised nor disappointed the vote had no effect. In his opinion, new austerity measures will not end the crisis, but will only make it worse. He doesn’t know what to fear more: An endless recession or a Grexit that would impose a new shock on the depleted country. Who can say how long Mr. Tsipras’ government will last? There’s talk of new elections this fall.

On such an evening in Berlin, there likely would be talk of summer vacation plans, or maybe plans to have children.

In Greece, conversations like that are impossible to imagine. The future is an impenetrable wall of fog. Every plan contains the possibility of disappointment; hopes sound utopian. The crisis not only raises profound questions about the future of Europe and the political course of Greece, but it also has changed how Greeks view themselves. It forces them into humility and awakens a longing for a normalcy that seems unattainable.

Ino and Panos want to marry next year. They would like to have children, but the question of starting a family hovers unanswered. Instead, they concentrate on each other and what they have right now.

 

 

This article first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: khue.pham@zeit.de

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