Thursday, March 22, 2012

On the brink of a nervous breakdown...

In 2004, Athens hosted the Olympic Games, which were a great success despite worldwide reports that the Greeks wouldn’t be ready in time and the entire event would be a disaster. We worked hard, we pulled it off. Athens (and all of Greece) was at the height of optimism. Greece’s new image as a truly modern European city made us breathe a collective sigh of relief as we all proudly thought:  watch out world, we’ve finally arrived.

But the stadium lights were turned off, the Olympic flame was distinguished and the thousands of foreign journalists, athletes and spectators packed up and went home. And for years, we basked in the afterglow with our shiny, new, confident modern face.

That was eight years ago. The Athens of 2012 has long lost its Olympic gleam. What happened? I won’t talk about how and why this crisis happened. There are countless experts out there who have written many in-depth reports and articles and are far better suited than I am to discuss the intricacies of economics and politics.

All I can do is describe what I see on the streets and write about the changes I experience all around me, every day. All I can do is show you the view from my seat - in an effort to explain how an entire country has gone from feeling hopeful and optimistic about the future to feeling hopeless and pessimistic. We have lost faith in our leaders, in our political system, in our institutions, in our future.

The gap between the upper class and the lower class is getting wider. For the past 30+ years, the middle class enjoyed steady growth but today, middle class families have slipped to poverty line levels.

The new austerity measures have cut salaries, pensions, benefits and have imposed new taxes – on goods and services to real estate. Although we are earning less, we must pay higher taxes, new taxes, as other costs like utilities have increased as well. Unemployment is increasing each quarter and is currently at 20.7 percent.  Shops and businesses are closing one after another – in Athens overall, 30% of the shops have closed and on major shopping streets in downtown Athens like Stadiou Ave, the rate is higher, where 42% of shops have shut down.

The crime rate has risen, with home burglaries up by 125% in one year. People have become fearful and suspicious. The number of suicides and attempted suicides have risen nationwide – from 507 in 2009 to 622 in 2010 (a 22.5% increase). Strikes and protests are a daily occurrence and new initiatives like the “potato movement” have gathered force. Across Greece, consumers are buying directly from agricultural producers (cutting out the overpriced middlemen). Local municipalities announce a “potato sale,” take orders, and then announce when and where people can go to pick up their order.  Over 15 million kilos of potatoes have been sold this way, for about 25 cents per kilo (as opposed to the cost in supermarkets, about 40+ cents per kilo).

We have all been affected by the crisis in one way or another. No doubt the hardest-hit group is average, working class families.
I watched a recent TV news report where residents in a working class area of Athens lined up to receive bags of rice at a reduced price, in an initiative similar to the potato movement. Housewives shouted at cameras – “we were proud, hard working families, we were able to provide for ourselves and our children, and now they have reduced us to this,” one woman stated with tears in her eyes, adding “my son is 22 years old. He has a university degree but can’t find a job. He is deeply depressed and feels hopeless. They have taken his future away.”

I can’t help but think that a growing population of unemployed, depressed, angry, hopeless young people can potentially be a very dangerous force in an increasingly unstable society...

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