Suburban Athens on a Saturday night: Fewer cars and people on the streets than there used to be as my husband and I drive to a friends’ house for a quiet visit. Saturday nights are now more subdued and fewer people canvass the cityscape looking for entertainment hotspots or barhopping into the early morning. We carry two bottles of Greek wine which were on sale at the supermarket. In the past this would have been considered cheap; now most of us agree that we share with each other what is already available in our kitchens. We are not starving yet but we are careful.
Gavin Hewitt, on the Greek debt, BBC News, 9 March 3012: [Even after the haircut] the country will still be left with debts of 250bn. The economy is in the fifth year of recession. The earliest anyone predicts growth is 2014.
Suburban Athens on a Saturday night: We park on the street and ring the bell of a small semi-detached two-storey house which Greeks rather grandiosely term a maisonette, one of thousands bought with little cash and heavy loans in the good years, to house a middle-class family of four which in the 1990s would have lived in a three-bedroom apartment. The house, still mortgaged to the bank, is in darkness. It does not look as if they are expecting visitors but we see it as another sign of our economy-conscious lives: keep as few lights on as possible, you never know what the next electricity bill will be like!
Gavin Hewitt, on the Greek debt, BBC News, 9 March 3012: Another round of spending cuts – which was a condition for this latest bailout – will only weaken demand further. Unemployment is rising sharply. It has shot up to 21%. There are many who believe Greece is locked in a cycle of decline.
Suburban Athens on a Saturday night: our host comes to the door dressed in his sweats; not what you expect on a Saturday night but this is a brave new world and none of the old rules seem to matter anymore. He is happy to see us, and that’s what matters; we have been friends for a quarter century, college house mates when he and I were students in the US. He takes the wine in the plastic bag and shows us a bottle of the same on his kitchen table; he had picked up a bottle as well since it was a good offer.
Gavin Hewitt, on the Greek debt, BBC News, 9 March 3012: Greece has become a laboratory for austerity. Never, in recent times, has an economy of a Western country shrunk so fast – 16% in just four years. Its politicians are held in low regard. There is humiliation and shame that the running of the economy has largely been handed over to outsiders.
Suburban Athens on a Saturday night: We open the wine which we pour into crystal wine glasses, I am thinking items bought in the days of plenty! We take a sip and the effect is anti-climactic: not much good, we do not even finish the one bottle in the three hours of our visit. This is a legitimate Greek wine producer: is this the best he can do for 3 Euros? We would have been better off buying French or Portuguese wine at that price as we had done back in the days when we were not trying so hard to support whatever little has been left of the Greek economy.
Gavin Hewitt, on the Greek debt, BBC News, 9 March 3012: Many see Greece as little more than a protectorate of the EU. It is widely believed that the purpose of the bailout was less about helping Greece and more about saving the euro and protecting international banks from a default.
Suburban Athens on a Saturday night: Sitting in the living room, few lights on, we begin to exchange news. We cannot quite bring ourselves to ask where our hostess is—our host has been upstairs a couple of times so we are guessing she is getting ready. Their teen boys are, as usual, glued to their PCs playing games and we are not missing them much; the cat joins us for a while. Our host begins to tell us that for a week now they have embarked on a project they had been discussing for a year: they are converting the garage and part of the ‘playroom’ (a fancy term for the basement) into a small apartment so that his mother-in-law and her live-in help can move down there as soon as possible. She suffers from Alzheimer’s and has been out of touch with the world for some years now; currently she lives in an apartment they have been renting in the neighborhood. She needs expensive medication and physiotherapy and the couple can no longer afford to pay for all of her expenses.
Gavin Hewitt, on the Greek debt, BBC News, 9 March 3012: The Greek government, time and again, has told the people that they face a choice. Leave the euro and face chaos and catastrophe. Or accept austerity and build a different future. The Greek people have largely accepted that argument. But staying in the euro involves years of hardship and social tension. The best will emigrate, as they are doing already. The signs are everywhere of poverty, social break down, and homelessness.
Suburban Athens on a Saturday night: as we sip this cheap wine and shiver (heating the house sufficiently has also become too expensive), we get the full picture. They owe tuition at the very expensive private school the boys attend: it is the same school our host had attended as a student so he wants to give his children the same opportunities his own parents had given him. Working, as we do, for the private sector, they are in jobs which are not as well-paying as those they held a few years back and which had allowed them to believe, like so many others, that they could spend big and that there would always be a way to enjoy a piece of the pie from which everyone had so freely been helping themselves. For years his mother had been paying tuition for one of the boys but her retirement fund has vanished: it was all in Ethniki-bank bonds. Now she can barely afford, on her pension, the Bulgarian woman who lives with her as she too is in poor health and immobile. She spends all day agonizing over the future in front of the TV, unsure that her son will be able to assist her when her pension is cut into more deeply. She may be bedridden but her mind is not gone; we almost wish she had less of an understanding of the situation. He jokes that his mother-in-law will probably die a month after they move her into the garage and that they will have spent 7,000 Euros for nothing. I am not sure whether her living or her dying will prove to be the crueler joke. He is comforted by the thought that eventually one of the boys can move into the basement and that the granny’s helper can also assist around the house so they can cut down on the weekly cleaner and the occasional babysitter. As we continue to discuss their finances, it becomes apparent that this summer they will not able to go on vacation in the manner in which they had become accustomed: they will not be renting a beachfront villa on Naxos for a month.
Gavin Hewitt, on the Greek debt, BBC News, 9 March 3012: It cannot be taken for granted that the Greek people will accept the medicine prescribed for it. That is why the Greek crisis is far from over.
Suburban Athens on a Saturday night: Sometime after midnight we get up to go. Our host confesses that his wife went to bed at eight in the evening and that he tried to wake her up after we came but she felt too depressed to get up and come down. We understand; we are close enough not to mind and we are glad she did not feel she had to make the effort on our account. But we are sad she did not make the effort for herself; she is by nature a very generous and hospitable person. Working for international companies she had in the past earned a lot of money and she became the iconic “newly-rich” superwoman/supermom. She used to buy all of us expensive gifts and throw lavish dinner parties; she brought up the boys with the privileges of expensive schooling, skiing holidays in the winter, summers on the beach, designer clothing and expensive tech toys, everything one might do to keep up with other newly rich parents of clueless teens. Now that they are becoming the newly poor, how will they adjust?
Suburban Athens on a Saturday night: I am writing this a week later. I wonder about the length, depth, and size of the Greek ‘tragedy’ and I can sense the despair that is already keeping many people in bed. It is keeping me awake, however, and enraged; anger adrenalizes me instead of paralyzing me and I am finding other means to channel this. I agree to write this blog because Adrianne thinks of the Saturday-night anecdote as telling so I become its recorder. I read the foreign press as I have always done but not looking for news anymore; now I look for explanations. I think of all the adjustments that we have made to adapt to the crisis so far and I know they have been minor. No, they have been tiny compared to what is yet to come. I find Hewitt’s impartial assessment of our situation on the BBC strangely prophetic: “the Greek crisis is far from over.”
CODA (from a 9-March BBC Business news article): ‘Problem solved’
Eurozone finance ministers said the conditions were now in place for the country to receive its new 130bn-euro (£110bn; $173bn) bailout. “Today the problem is solved,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy said. Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos hailed the swap as an “exceptional success”.