Visiting A Country in Troubled Times

It’s the end of my first full day in Greece, and I’m tired and sweaty, but happy.  I know that many of you are wondering what it’s like for me to be here when the banks are closed and the country’s exit from the Eurozone is under consideration, so I thought I’d speak to that right away.

A lovely but empty restaurant in central Athens

A lovely but empty restaurant in central Athens

I have traveled miles across Athens today, in public transportation, in taxis, and by walking.  Frankly, other than one obvious change, things look exactly like they did when I was last here, in May 2014.  That one change is lines at cash machines — since credit cards don’t work right now and the banks are closed, every Greek citizen must go to cash machines to draw out paper money.  Most go every day, since they can only collect 60 euro (just over $60) a day.

This has put a tremendous hardship on everyone, from the bottom of the heap to the top.  People can’t pay their bills, can’t travel, can’t perform everyday business.  And, as I’m sure you can imagine, it’s keeping people out of places where they might spend their discretionary income: restaurants, most shops, and so on.  I ate dinner last night in a very nice restaurant near Omonia Square, a public square that teems with people — but I was the only paying customer in the place.  It was awkward, but I figured they were glad for me to be there.

OK, OK, here's your food pic.  Jeez.  And yes, I *did* over-order a little.

OK, OK, here’s your food pic. Jeez. And yes, I *did* over-order a little.

I haven’t seen any demonstrations or any unusual activity.  Public transportation is free while the banks are closed (a very nice idea, in my opinion), and buses and trains are full of people, but the feeling is calm and ordinary.  And the people are just as friendly and helpful as I remember from last year.

I spoke with several people today.  The one word that I think encompasses how they are all feeling is: tired.  They are tired of uncertainty, and the inability to take charge of their own lives.  They feel that things are happening *to* them, and all they can do is wait to see what others (the banks, their own government, the EU) decide to do next.  They have been waiting for a long time — one person told me, since 2008.  And the current governmental coalition is led by a party that was elected by only 35% of the vote in last year’s election, so many, many people feel that their voices are not being heard.

The main reason I’m in Greece right now is to meet with members of cooperative organizations, who have come together to build businesses that can support themselves, and solve economic and social problems in creative ways.  Today I learned that even starting such an organization can be very difficult in Greece because of bureaucratic and financial obstacles.  The ability of frustrated, tired people to move forward toward their goals in spite of these roadblocks is impressive.  I’ll write more about these groups as I get to know them better.

In the meantime, I want to reassure anyone who is concerned, that I feel safe in Athens; safe enough to get my work done (and have a little bit of fun).  But I’m still being careful and aware.  Athens is, after all, a huge, cosmopolitan city.  But that’s part of what’s so great about it!

Luxury!  Athens traffic from the back seat of a taxi.

Luxury! Athens traffic from the back seat of a taxi.

Q:What the heck are those things? A: Halva (def: sweet, as in a confectionery delight).  Think creamy, grainy. sweet goo with almonds. Um, it's better than that sounds.  And it really was as big as it looks!

Q:What the heck are those things?
A: Halva (def: sweet, as in a confectionery delight). Think creamy, grainy, sweet goo with almonds.
Um, it’s better than that sounds. And they really were as big as they look!

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