Farewell to Greece

After four and a half years in Greece, our correspondent is leaving the country and says the nation is in a far worse s

The IMF and European Central Bank were giving their verdict on the Greek economy, and the press conference was packed.  

A colleague from the local media put up her hand, and started to ask her question, in Greek.  

The IMF official looked at her blankly “please, speak in English,” he interrupted.  

My colleague replied, in Greek: “We are in Greece, so I will speak Greek”.

“I’m sorry, we can’t understand you,” said the IMF official, and asked for another question. 

She protested, and a murmur of discontent rumbled round the room, but the press conference went on. 

It was a telling moment. Yes, it was insensitive of the IMF and the ECB not to have provided any translation for an important press conference, largely attended by Greek journalists. But there’s also a subtext. 

By taking the IMF and European money, Greece has lost part of its sovereignty. Unwittingly, the officials at the press conference had reinforced that point. 

It was as if they had said “you messed up your economy, and now you need our money, so we make the rules, and we don’t need to speak your language”.

A painful moment, but there have been many in these, my final days in Greece.  

Al Jazeera is closing its bureau in Athens, so I’m relocating to London at the beginning of December. 

Four and a half years in Greece, and a country that was still basking in the warm glow of the successful Athens Olympic Games when I arrived, now feels like a very different place. 

Those once gleaming Olympic stadiums are, for the most part, locked up and decaying, baleful reminders of the bad government, corruption, and poor planning that have dragged this country down. 

At a party the other night, I spoke to a friend who runs a small public relations company. She’s a bright, capable person, and, until recently, the company was doing well. 

Now she’s decided to close it, because business has dried up and she does not want to sink into debt.  

But many of her clients still owe her money, and, in the timeless Greek tradition, are waiting as long as possible before paying off their debts (government departments are amongst the worst offenders in this regard). 

This puts my friend in a cruel position she needs to be paid what she is owed, so she can settle her closing accounts with the taxman. 

But as long as her company remains open, she’s incurring more and more taxes and running costs, merely waiting for her debtors to come forward. 

“It’s even impossible to go bankrupt in this country,” she says.

Another vignette of Athenian life in late 2010 I’m in the run-down inner-city neighbourhood of Agios Pantalemonos, surrounded by a crowd of recently arrived Afghani immigrants. 

We’re struggling to communicate, but they are friendly, and I understand enough they are not happy here in Greece, there are no jobs, and the government does nothing to help them. 

They don’t want to go back to Afghanistan, but it’s impossible to move onto another European country. They feel trapped here. And they are not wanted. 

An elderly Greek woman comes up to me, her face full of anger. “Look at them,” she says, pointing forcefully at the Afghanis, “so many of them, and they keep coming!  

“If you think this is bad, come here at night, you will see hundreds more. Don’t they know this country is broke?” She storms away.

A couple of blocks away, on Attiki Square, there are no immigrants to be seen, although many live in the dingy surrounding buildings.

They have been chased out of the square by local vigilante groups, backed by a sinister fascist organisation, Chrysi Avgi (“Golden Dawn”). “This is Greece,” “No Mosques Here” reads the graffiti all around Attiki Square.  

That night, I go to the flat of a Greek journalist who lives nearby, who tells me that she is now afraid to go out at night, because she has been threatened by Chrysi Avgi.  

She tells me that many immigrants have been beaten up by fascists, and that many elderly Greek people have been mugged by immigrants.

“There’s a tension building in these streets,” she warns, “and the government is invisible”. 

What about the police? “Sometimes they turn a blind eye to the fascists, sometimes they do nothing”.  

Make no mistake central Athens is now a time bomb. The enormous influx of jobless immigrants, most of them single young men, combined with the economic crisis, has created a dangerous situation that needs to be diffused as quickly as possible.  

Concerned citizens’ groups are doing brave and valiant work to stop the decay, and maintain social harmony, but they face an uphill battle. 

There is, of course, another Greece, and it’s the one that still captures our imagination. 

I will remember walks on summer days though olive groves to deserted beaches, overlooked by ancient ruins. 

Or scrambles along coastal paths to exquisite Byzantine chapels, with crumbling walls still adorned by fragments of medieval frescoes. 

But above all, my memories will be of Athens. This is an ugly city, but it grows on you, and has many corners of great beauty.  

The Acropolis dominates the centre. And in tavernas in working class neighbourhoods, any visitor will encounter warm greetings, and wonderful food and wine.  

I’ll also remember conflict on the city streets: the massed ranks of far-leftist and anarchist supporters, marching again to parliament, with black and red flags aloft the riot police, protected by helmets and shields, fingering their radios and batons nervously the shop-keepers hurriedly closing their shutters, and then the explosions of Molotov cocktails and stun-grenades, followed by the overpowering, acrid tear-gas. 

The gas sends demonstrators, passing shoppers, and the occasional unfortunate tourist, scurrying away in fits of coughing and sneezing, tears streaming from eyes.  

I learnt that much of the violence is ritualistic it looks dramatic, but it conforms to certain unwritten rules. Serious injuries are uncommon, and demonstrators are rarely arrested. 

Anarchist groups set off bombs and other explosive devices on an alarmingly regular basis, but it’s very unusual that they are designed to hurt someone.  

Greek protest is theatrical, but this is still, thankfully, a society with a low tolerance for bloodshed, and extremists groups are aware of that.

But, occasionally, especially in the past two years, the consensus has frayed.  

The riots of December 2008, which followed the fatal shooting by the police of a teenage boy, were alarming, because they showed how aimless and angry many young Greeks feel. 

Given the economic deterioration since, those feelings are even more intense today. 

It’s not an easy time to leave Greece. Firstly, as a journalist because “the story” has not yet run its course.

The economic pain is bound to deepen over the coming months, and it’s difficult to predict whether Greece will pull through, or whether it will eventually have to default on its enormous debts, with uncertain consequences for Europe and beyond in this febrile economic climate.  

And, secondly, as a friend of Greece, it’s a bad time to say goodbye, for the simple reason that the country is now an unhappy place. 

Old people are anxious, young people want out. There’s a widespread perception that things are going to get worse. I hope that perception is wrong, and I can come back in happier times.

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