Central Athens, May 2011.

Life in a time of Troika

Gone are the days of going out and shopping, trouble-free travel and early evening drinks in outdoor cafes. Bills and surgery have been postponed, and no more private tuition for the kids. Laid-low by the crisis, Greeks have learned to rein in their lifestyles, and everyday living in the country has become a sad affair.

Published on 1 June 2011 at 15:13
Central Athens, May 2011.

The typical housewife’s shopping basket does not fill up like it did before the crisis — and the figures are there to prove it. Only 12% of consumers spend more than 100 euros when they go to the supermarket. Even those who go very often are avoiding branded products. The statistics in a report on a sample of 11,000 people by the MRB polling agency clearly show that the 2010 domestic purchases are very different from the shopping baskets of previous years. Consumers are buying starch in the form of rice and flour, while 40% of them have given up on detergents produced by major brands. Only the organic produce sector is still holding its own along with locally grown fruit and vegetables.

The crisis has put paid to the stereotypical Greek who is out late every night: the Hellenic peoples have rediscovered the joys of cocοoning and are none too eager to eat out in restaurants — a major headache for the President of the Greek restaurant owners union who told us: "there are days when we don’t get a single customer." In his restaurant in the port of Piraeus, he continues to be amazed by the the fall-off in sales: "on Monday I took in 350 euros, on Tuesday it was down to €230, on Wednesday I took in €400 — and all of that in a context where my basic daily expenses amount to €1,500."

He believes that business owners’ incomes have fallen by 55% and adds that everyone is hoping that this year’s tourist season will be a good one. But close to 6,000 restaurants have already shut down. And between now and the end of the year, another 20,000 to 25,000 are planning to close their doors! Even the cheap food sector, which has seen sales decline 30% to 35%, has been hit by the crisis.

Greeks are intent on spending less

As for health care, "we’ll see about that later." Who would have thought that this type of remark would become so common in a country of hypohondriacs which used to be awash in medicines? There has been a marked decline in sales of vitamins and antibiotics. Blood tests, x-rays and mammographies are being postponed indefinitely.

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The same goes for power bills. Some Greeks simply do not have the money, while others are seizing the opportunity to "forget" pay. The national power company has announced that it now has 200 million euros of outstanding debts. And that is not all. The few positive points highlighted by the survey — i.e. that Greeks are now more likely to avoid driving — do little to brighten a gloomy picture.

The news is particularly bad in the education sector, where private tuition, a veritable institution which has enabled Greeks to overcome some of the problems posed by a gap-ridden education system has experienced an unprecedented slump. According to Giorgos Petropoulos of the private tutors union, "the decline has now reached 40%, which is especially worrying for students in the last three years of secondary school."

In short, the Greeks are intent on spending less and cutting costs wherever they can. Pensioners, who now meet for coffee in daycare centres, have abandoned the outdoor cafés in Athens which are now too pricey. In supermarkets, shelves of discounted products continue to empty quickly while more expensive merchandise is left virtually untouched.


A society on the verge of nervous breakdown

Two months ago, a 35-year-old man who was to experiencing pains in his chest and abdomen along with debilitating headaches, consulted his GP, who recommended a series of tests. It turned out that all of his symptoms were psychosomatic, which is why he later saw a psychologist. “The patient was in a state of prolonged and intense anxiety. He was worn out by fear,” explains therapist Asimina Christopoulou. “The problem was that lay-offs had been announced in the company where he worked and he was living in fear of losing his job.”

Anxiety prompted by unemployment, a lack of job security and a tense social climate can have a major psychological impact, which may have serious consequences for some individuals. Fear is a natural and useful response to danger, but every situation becomes dangerous when we have completely lost control. And this is what appears to be happening in Greece today. Since the beginning of the economic crisis and the austerity measures that followed, the middle class and poorer groups have born the psychological brunt of the downturn. “But the well-off can also be affected,” notes Dr Ilia Theotoka Chrysostomidis, a psychiatrist at the university of Athens. “Anxiety, depression, panic attacks, sleep disorders, and even suicide attempts are all becoming more common. And this is a concern for everyone,” points out the specialist.

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