I didn’t hear the man name the illness he suffered from as I took my seat in the metro one Sunday this month. I was on my way to the elegant suburb of Kifisia where prosperous Athenians for more than a century have built their houses to escape the summer heat. My family and I, recently arrived in Greece, were invited for lunch.
The metro was more crowded than I remember from previous visits, with bodies and backpacks pressed against each other. Were there fewer trains running because of the severe cutbacks? More people taking public transit because of their own dire financial situations? I was not really sure.
But this was Greece after five years of depression-type austerity with 25% unemployment and double that among those under 25. And the man in the train making his way through the crowd seemed one of them. Even before I saw him I could make out his plea: “Friends, it is with embarrassment that I speak to you,” he said, his voice breaking. Not being able to work, he could hardly afford his drugs. As a result, he was forced to sell pens. “Please don’t abandon me and turn away,” he added as he pushed his way through the crowd.
Too horrified to be confronted so painfully by the poverty imposed on him by the government, the IMF, and the European Union, I did turn away. But I noticed the passenger across from me reach for her bag. Before she offered him the coin, the younger woman standing behind her whispered: “Mammá, no, not 50 cents, give him a Euro.”
In one week I had seen plenty of misery in Greece’s train of misfortune. Apart from protest slogans covering public and private walls, the homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks, and the soup kitchens—all relatively new here—it is the generalized distress that has struck me. If you wish to know what national anxiety feels like come here.
It is not the trauma of war, say in Syria, or of state/guerilla-sponsored terror experienced by Colombians for years but one of economic free-fall. For six years the people of Greece have been the subjects of economic experimentation in austerity. To be in Greece right now, unless you are super-rich, is to live with threatening vertigo. At any moment you could lose your footing and fall into the predicament of the anonymous man in the metro, not being able to afford your electricity or even pay for your food. Peina (hunger) read the little cardboard placard one man had next to him outside of the station.
Taxes have gone up while salaries, wages, and benefits have been cut back severely. Overall pensions have been cut by as much as 45% and wages have come down 38% since 2009. The GDP has shrunk by 25%. Almost a third of the population is without national health insurance, 32% is under the poverty line, and about 18% is unable to meet its food needs.
This is the country where the project of neoliberalism, which began with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, to undo the infrastructure state is the most advanced. This politics uses the “crisis” as an opportunity to enact a draconian program of economic and social engineering. As a result there is a level of despondency I have rarely experienced.
I don’t want to reduce a whole society to an economic crisis. People work, have coffee, promenade, visit friends, and enjoy themselves. They have their lives. The sun is bright and we are experiencing what Athenians call Halcyon Days, the warm, cheerful days of January.
But you can’t avoid talk of the ikonomiki krisi. A taxi driver told me he was fed up. Not normally a leftist, he was going to vote for the radical party Syriza headed by the forever-young-looking, charismatic but fear-provoking Alexis Tsipras. The driver did not necessarily believe in Syriza’s program but felt so disillusioned and sold out by Greek and European politicians that he was willing to try anything.
This is why for many here (and outside of the country) Syriza's win in the elections of Sunday, January 25 represents a symbolic and national rejection of austerity. (It is the first time a radical left party has come to power in western Europe, a revolutionary event in itself.) Things are so bad that many middle-class people, conservatives even, were ready to take risks at the polls. At the same time, they recognize that Greece has little independence and less space for maneuver, terribly indebted first to European banks and now to European governments who have lent it money to survive. But with no economic activity, crippling taxes, the borrowed money is used to pay the interest rather than for the electricity bills of the many who live without power.
Of course, Greeks know that the country borrowed heavily during the good times, that the money was not always spent wisely, that politicians were corrupt, and that the elites never paid their taxes. But they rightly complain that they had nothing to do with all of this. And they have no sway over the economists of the IMF or the Troika, the European bureaucrats in charge of restructuring Greece’s economy and of overseeing the loan program. What many feel is economic insecurity.
I saw this again in the restaurant that afternoon, hidden in the fresh pine forests of Kifisia. “With extraordinary food like this,” I asked my friends, “why are there no other customers here except for us.” “No money,” one chimed immediately in English!
The word “money” reminded me of the sick man in the metro. I had not bought a pen from him. But on the way back, he was there again as if to remind me. “Please, my friends, don’t abandon me.” But this time I paid attention to his words and could make out that he was 43, suffering from Parkinson’s. As he approached us, so unsure in his gait, I asked my son to buy a pen. And with my lowered eyes, so he could not see me, I added, “Adrian, give him a Euro.”
Will change ever come, I wondered, as my son pressed the coin into the man’s shaky hand?