Greeks, we are often told, are deluded. They lived off generous benefits, profited from a bloated and corrupt state sector, retired young, and now expect hard working Germans, Austrians and Finns to pick up a mountain of unpaid bills.
But this week, I spoke to a young man in Athens, Giorgos, who understood his country’s problems with piercing clarity. He is 29, has a master’s degree, and speaks good English. And, like so many capable young Greeks that I know, he is unemployed and lives with his parents.
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“My father retired at 50, he is at home with his pension now,” said Giorgos. There was an awkward silence.
“I know, I know what you’re going to say… perhaps he’s part of the problem. I don’t hide it, you’re right. We made this mess”.
So how would Giorgos vote in the looming referendum? He didn’t know.
“A ‘yes’ vote might be better in the short term to save the economy, but in the long run maybe it’s better for this country to say ‘no’ and try and start again.”
What worries him now, he said, was the divisions he sees opening up in Greek society all around him.
“Coming to meet you, on the metro just now, people started fighting about whether we should vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. If we’re this divided, it’s going to get even worse here.”
Giorgos is right that there are no good options for Greeks.
A ‘Yes’ vote will perhaps lead to yet another election, followed by more years of austerity, high unemployment and mounting debt. A ‘No’ vote will be cheered by romantic leftists around the world, but could mean an even greater economic disaster.
Having said that, I’m suspicious of anyone who expresses too much certainty in their political and economic forecasts in Greece. Greeks are being bombarded with information and misinformation, both from home and abroad.
Syriza government ministers sound increasingly desperate and conspiratorial, as they struggle to be heard on hostile private TV stations which make no pretence of impartiality.
Europe’s leaders, who mouth platitudes about respecting Greek democracy even as they tell Greeks how to vote, can barely hide their hopes that the dramatic events of the past week will result in the downfall of the government.
Somehow, amidst a cacophony of shrill voices, and ever-worsening economic predictions, Greeks have to make a momentous decision about their country’s future.
Everywhere you go in Athens, people are talking and debating, with furious energy. In the queues outside the banks, I hear pensioners argue over Mrs Merkel’s motives, [“she wants us out!”] and their government’s incompetence, [“we never thought it would get like this, they must go”].
As Giorgos said, opinion is polarised, and old enmities between left and right are being revived. But my overall impression is that a majority of Greeks are conducting this debate in reasonable terms, desperately trying to assess the best option for them and their families. Likewise, people have reacted to the hardship of bank queues and capital controls with patience and calm.
I lived in Athens for four years, from 2006 to the end of 2010. I saw the beginning of the financial crisis, and I’ve come back here many times since.
The city is like an old friend going through hard times. I’m saddened by the changes: the dark and empty shops, the growing numbers of beggars and homeless people, the spreading shabbiness. I have friends, highly educated and ostensibly successful people, who’ve lived with financial worries and uncertainty for five grinding years, but in the past five days, their fears have turned much more immediate and practical.
“My mother is 83 and has no bank card. She queued all day to get 120 Euros from her bank yesterday, but we don’t know when they’ll open the doors for pensioners again,” says one.
Another says that her mother is fine because she receives a pension from the United States, “but what of my uncles and aunts? Will their next pension be in Drachmas?”
Everyone wonders whether the banks will re-open, everyone dreads a rumoured announcement that they won’t be getting all their money bank even when they do.
I’ve been staying near the Exarcheia neighbourhood; a dense concrete jungle, it’s walls covered in graffiti and posters. It’s the home of anarchist co-operatives and leftist bookshops, famed for it’s bohemian nightlife and unruly anti-authoritarian protests.
But in recent evenings, Exarcheia has been quiet. The banners exhorting people to resist “IMF and EU Terrorism” hang listlessly from the trees. I’ve walked across the neighbourhood after dark, and often counted more street cats than people.
From apartment windows, I can hear the televisions tuned to political talk-shows, and low murmurs of conversation. The city hums with rumours that float through the hot summer air. “Tsipras will resign tonight”, “he’s flown to Brussels to surrender”, “no, no, it’s the president who will resign to provoke a constitutional crisis”, and so on.
In the morning, I drive to an office in Exarcheia, that offers legal advice to bankrupt Greeks. The numbers are staggering; 120,000 Greeks have filed for bankruptcy in the past five years.
So what possible advice can they offer to their clients now?
“Wait and see”, a legal adviser says, “that’s all we can tell them. To tel the truth we’re all worried now, we all don’t know. “Wait and see. It’s the best that we can do in Greece these days.”