x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Intimate portrayal of Greek tragedy

Euro Zone: The world's media has saturated the news with continuous reports of a failing of Greece and the looming spectre of its total collapse. But, as one long-term British resident reveals here, the inside story is often more compelling.

Greek health workers demonstrate in Athens against the government's austerity measures. Aris Messinis / AFP
Greek health workers demonstrate in Athens against the government's austerity measures. Aris Messinis / AFP

With the new €130 billion (Dh626.46bn) euro zone bailout assured, there is renewed hope for Greece. But for two years, the economic crisis in the country has come to symbolise the world's financial woes.

A nation revered as the cradle of western civilisation has paid a heavy price for an era of living hopelessly beyond its means.

Harsh austerity measures, cap-in-hand missions to Brussels and street protests and riots have received widespread media coverage.

No one can tell whether the bitter medicine for mismanagement will work or whether Greece will eventually abandon the euro - or perhaps be driven out of the single currency into an even more uncertain future.

Even France and Germany, the two nations most engaged in the battle to overcome this economic Greek tragedy, cannot agree on whether it is nearing the curtain call.

But what is it like to live in a failed state on the brink of bankruptcy and to have to cope daily with the consequences?

Michael Brown (not his real name), a Briton in his mid-50s, has lived in Thessaloniki with his Greek wife for 17 years. The Browns have spent their adult lives in education, he as a drama teacher, his wife as a headmistress. His work has dried up as education authorities cut back while his wife has seen rising taxes, driven by the crisis, chip away at her income.

"[My wife] has 30 years teaching experience and a PhD," says Mr Brown. "Her take home pay is €1,500 [Dh7,272] per month and declining. This is approximately 30 per cent less than the previous headteacher was paid, and about half of what I reckon would be the equivalent salary in, say, the UK."

Life, he says, involves a constant fight with authority to achieve the simplest tasks.

"Bureaucracy functions much more like Soviet era states than you would expect in an EU country," he says. "To get anything done is a constant battle, day in day out for the most mundane of requests. You become tired of fighting."

As an outsider, Mr Brown always struggled to comprehend the Greek economy. "Take Y-fronts [underpants]. Walking around Thessaloniki, a city of about a million people, I found small shops selling nothing else," he says. "Then petrol. Always paid for in cash, with change given directly from the pocket of the bloke that put the fuel in the tank and no receipt.

"Plumbers, builders, electricians and so on always had two prices: with or without tax, with or without receipt. No prizes for guessing which the majority of us chose."

Even in his work for large institutions, Mr Brown encountered officials who preferred to pay him without paperwork.

"It was made very clear that it would be a good deal easier for all concerned if we could just sort it out between ourselves," he says.

Mr Brown sees the introduction of the euro and the 2004 hosting by Athens of the summer Olympics as "the tipping point for an economy, which had trundled along in some mysterious way but was nowhere near sustainable enough to withstand such severe shocks".

Prices shot up with the arrival of the euro, as did the income of stronger groups: power workers, the military, farmers receiving generous EU subsidies.

"For a period everyone felt wealthy. You were no one if you didn't have a holiday home on the coast, a German saloon to take you there and designer Italian wear for the evening," says Mr Brown. "I stereotype, of course. Plenty of people were not part of this explosion in spending. They just suffered the consequences of ever rising prices.

"And we still have no idea what the Olympics cost Greece. Sadly, we also have no idea what benefit they brought but we certainly know they saddled us with an enormous debt. But hey, it's the Olympics. They belong to Greece. Patriotism over rationalism."

Meanwhile, the government borrowed furiously to plug an increasing revenue gap. "Maybe if we'd all paid our taxes and insisted on receipts it could have been contained. But we didn't," he says.

"Now, we are picking up the bill. We are liable for a new property tax and a solidarity tax, heating fuel has risen by 40 per cent and will rise another 40 per cent next year.

"The universities, environmental centres and local authorities that used to employ me to run seminars for teachers have had their spending frozen. Air fares and hotel bills for work I did in Athens last year have yet to be paid.

"In short, we are spending more than we can any longer earn and savings won't last for ever," he adds.

"We don't go out much anymore. When I came to live in Greece, it was often as cheap to eat in a local taverna than to cook food yourself. That's a thing of the past. Now even the cinema is a carefully considered treat."

Mr Brown is a keen cyclist. "But a set of decent race wheels costs €1,000. I worry every time I hit one of the potholes that are more and more commonplace."

Health and social services provision, already "pitiable" before the crisis, has been eroded further. "My wife's mum has advanced dementia," Mr Brown says. "There is no state support to help us manage her condition and provide some dignity for her at the end of her life. We are liable for everything. Is this what my wife's mum and dad worked all their lives for? Is this how it will be for us in our dotage?"

He is contemptuous of the attitude of many professionals, notably in medicine. "We have all heard of the physicians in the area of Athens equivalent to Harley St in London [and] declare an annual income of €10,000 and get away with it," he says.

"We used a friend of friends, an ophthalmologist, for our contact lens check-ups and prescriptions. We grew weary and ashamed of how he would write fictional examinations and procedures in our health books and then send the dockets off to the numerous state insurance schemes and wait for the windfall.

"For anything not covered, we had to pay in cash with no receipt ever forthcoming. I estimated he would receive about €200 for a visit when we went away with a €50 pair of contacts," Mr Brown adds.

"He had two practices. A conservative estimate would be 10 such patients per day. You do the maths. Suffice to say he now lives in a large, architect-designed mansion in the most fashionable suburb of Thessaloniki."

More community spirited professionals also run into obstacles.

"An old friend, who is a dentist, worked until recently in a hospital's emergency dental department," says Mr Brown.

"She introduced a number of schemes to try and make dental care as accessible as possible for illegal immigrants, homeless people, members of the Roma community, all those without the necessary papers to receive full medical care.

"Emergency care, however, was their right under the Greek constitution but she fought daily battles with the hospital administration and her colleagues who resented the extra work she created," he adds.

After retiring, "worn out by the negativity and hostility", the dentist began treating people in a free clinic set up by a neighbourhood group.

"Community action such as this goes pretty well unreported in the foreign media. It cannot compare with images of smoke rising over the Acropolis," says Mr Brown.

Leaving aside intermittent "ritualistic street battles between the riot police and the couple of hundred anarchists", he says, most big demonstrations have been peaceful and disciplined.

"People are angry at the politicians, concerned about the prospects for their children, fearful of the future status of their country and yet they retaliate by marching on the streets, carrying banners and shouting slogans," he adds. Mr Brown is not sure how long the anger will be contained when measures to guarantee bailout funds are fully implemented and start hitting people "already on their knees".

And he worries about a growing belief among economists that Greek exit from the euro is inevitable.

"A return to the drachma would mean no fuel oil for heating, and yes, Greece does get cold in the winter, minus 25°C in some areas," he says.

"Greece relies heavily on imported food and electricity. People's savings are at risk. Pensions would be pitiful. An already creaking health and education system would collapse.

"The only way it could work would be if the European Central Bank artificially supported the drachma. For ever. In other words, it would be like having the euro all over again."

But as Mr Brown considers Greece's chaotic past, tough present and precarious future, he clings to Greece's saving graces.

"I'm just about to climb an 800 metres of mountain on my bike and look across to a snow capped Mount Olympus, rising from the Thermaikos Gulf and looking near enough to touch," he says.

"At least there are still compensations living in this economically challenged country."