Greece’s Economic Storm

Lakka Bay, Paxos
Lakka Bay, Paxos (Photo credit: Rupert Brun)

In 2000, Greece slipped into the most exclusive club on the continent — the Eurozone. It gained entry, and fooled EU member states, using a mix of fudged statistics and a veil of respectability it had inherited from its days as the cradle of civilisation.

In 2009 the veil of riches fell off and it was revealed that Greece was practically bankrupt. It had debilitating debts of €340 billion, and the highest levels of corruption, nepotism and tax evasion in Europe. Public spending was also irrepressible; 10% of the taxes that Greece did collect were spent on defences, largely because of its historical enmity with Turkey.

Greece’s fall crashed stock markets around the world. Ireland, Spain, Italy and Portugal collapsed soon after, and Greece was forced to go to its sensible cousins, like Germany, for the biggest bailout in Western history, €110 billion, and guidance on austerity measures. The imposed cut-backs in Greece have caused regular strikes for the past few years.

Two summers ago, filled with memories of the happy summers I’d spent working there the years before, I naively went back to Greece in search of a bartending job by the beach. Instead, I caught the economic storm.

The light was fading as I wandered Corfu Town’s tired alleyways, past shop owners on plastic chairs who puffed on cigarettes and hot air. The shelves behind them crumbled with unwanted souvenirs. Restless, my boyfriend and I sailed a few hours south to the island of Paxos, using the boat he worked from as a yacht engineer. We took to the sea just as the first storm in months hit the Aegean.

Our tiny boat was flung towards the village of Lakka by waves dark and furious. The purple sky did not steal the sunset though, which washed a pale light over the pebble beaches and onto the burnt orange roofs that scattered the hills. Then as we anchored down between gleaming Italian yachts and Greek fishing boats, the sky blackened and the storm slammed murky sea water onto the harbour’s street.

We left the boat and the wind chased us through sleepy streets too narrow for cars to pass and into a village that ended almost as soon as it began. At the bustling village square, napkins danced in the wind while the flickering candles at competing tavernas were as atmospheric as party bunting. We ordered a plate of calamari from the young waiter, George, who as always, was full of bucktoothed smiles.

George works hard, he has no days off for six months every year. It’s the same story for all the waiters, chefs and hotel owners occupying the Greek coastline. Greeks have the longest working hours in Europe. Then at the end of October, towns like his become unemployed in a single weekend. The Romanians and Albanians leave their summer jobs, and the Greeks who work in tourism, 19% of the working population, are left to wait. Wait for the storms to end, storms that batter the empty promenades and shuttered balconies all winter. Wait and see if their summer earnings will last them until May, when the beach towns open up again for tourists from Germany and the UK.

A few winters ago, young guys like George used to be able to escape the family home and splash their summer savings on holidays to Australia, London, wherever. That’s no longer possible. While Greece is still a popular tourist destination, the recession has affected everyone. In 2008, the average spend of someone holidaying in Greece was $1, 073. Not anymore. Holidaymakers now buy one cocktail and share it between two, and starters and desserts are rarely whisked out from restaurant kitchens. So there are no more holidays for George. Winter is spent cooped up on his island of rain, watching TV and reading books and playing computer games, his parents and sisters never more than a few feet away. For over 800,000 Greeks, every day is spent without work. Unemployment is now the highest in the EU.

The next day the storm had still not passed. While my boyfriend spent the morning fixing broken sails and cisterns on the quay, I sat on a white-washed stoop above the village and read my book. In front of me the little gardens of Lakka sagged under pomegranate flowers and tangled vines, and as the sun rose over the sea, old women in black struggled past with the bags of fish and potatoes they would prepare for their families’ lunch.

Family has always been central to Greek culture. The flip side of that is nepotism, which diseases both public and private sectors, and tax evasion by half of the population, which loses Greece €30 billion a year. After all, why pay tax when the government only looks after its own?

Tired, I climbed past crippled olive trees down to the harbour, where I tried to catch fish among the flotsam of the storm — engine oil and olive branches — next to some kids selling seashells for fifty cents.

I pray the storm will pass by the time those kids can become true entrepreneurs.

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