The Personal Cost and Lifestyle Adjustments of the Greek Financial Crisis

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Thessaloniki     Reading the headlines about the fiscal crisis in Greece and following the protests by hundreds of thousands of people in Athens and other cities, it was hard to feel like we were all getting the whole story.  We were sold headlines about profligate governmental spending and debt and a population unwilling to pay taxes.  As Andrea Merkel and the Germans led hard bargaining by the European Union over the Greek fiscal crisis, the prevailing storyline painted them as hard, but not heartless, saviors of Europe.  Not surprisingly, the facts on the ground don’t match the headlines when I started talking to people in Thessaloniki.

The impact of the austerity program is the equivalent of the Great Depression in the United States in the 1930s.  An estimated 700,000 people have left the country, almost 7% of the total population, seeing no hope for recovery.  Rents have fallen by half, but, if anything, wages have fallen even farther.  I heard a story about a university pension that fell from 3600 euros per month to only 1200, and another from a tenured professor whose pay had fallen from close to 4000 euros per month to hardly 1500 per month.  Watching smokers, it was more common to see cigarettes rolled than pulled from the pack.  It was carnival season while I was in Greece, because the Greek Orthodox calendar is one week behind the Roman Catholic calendars, and young people, as always, were adapting and seemed to be crowding the city squares and the waterfront, but friends told me their numbers were small compared to before the crisis.  Spending time at the city’s bus stations and on the streets, it was easy to see the impact.  I could see cartoneros picking up cardboard from street dumpsters, like I remembered from Argentina after their crisis, that Greeks told me they had never seen until recent years.

Those kinds of lifestyle adjustments are also attitude adjustments.  The resistance crops up in different ways everywhere.  One new friend described to me the lengths he goes to keep from supporting the austerity plan and its taxes.  Buying a couple of pieces of pizza on the street, he gave the receipt back to the shop owner, so it could be passed on later and the more than 20% tax not paid.  Anarchists have stepped up, organizing several social centers and food coops, where people of the left shop and socialize.  We went to one that housed a kitchen and bar, a library, a food coop and other services in a 4-story building in the city center that they were renting for only 2000 euros per month.  We could see “squats” near the city center that were left unmolested.

People adapt in their own ways, but the opposition and unhappiness are deep, and the recovery, when – and if – it comes, could take a generation or more to realize.