Athens in Winter


Up in smoke — Late 2012: a group of workers, pensioners and unemployed sit in a café in central Athens discussing the vote to be held in their apartment block in a few days. Should they get the building’s tanks refilled with oil for central heating? Should the heating for the whole building, which, as usual in Greece, is centrally controlled, be switched on? These are the burning questions in Athens, where democratic decision-making is more preoccupied now with the cold weather and the price of oil (which has almost tripled since 2010) than with the national debt.

Outside in the street there is an argument, the second of the day. Christos, a new tenant on the block’s second floor, has a neighbour pinned to the wall. “You know I’m broke. If you all decide to fill the oil tanks this year, you’ll have to have to pay for it yourselves!”

Every Athenian knew it was going to be a chilly winter. Those who can still afford it are stocking up. And people are switching to wood as fuel. When the wood runs out, other things are burned. Athenians have recently discovered that the wood pellets they have bought — supposedly made from sawdust — may contain harmful compacted waste, including bio-waste from hospitals.

Athens lies under a permanent smog. Its inhabitants regret opening their windows, even for a short time: the smoke immediately gets into their apartments, coating the walls and floor. “Have you seen the smog cloud?” people ask. “It’s like our grandparents’ day.” Older people remember when schoolchildren used to carry a log to school — “heating contributions”, which had stopped in the 1970s. Children who used to sing in the streets for pocket money now do so for money to buy oil to heat their schools and keep them open.

In December three young brothers died in a fire that destroyed their grandparents’ home, caused by a recently installed wood-burner.

Reduced rations — Visitors to Greece used to notice that Greeks didn’t clear their plates. If the visitors politely finished the generous portions they’d been served, they would be given copious second helpings. The custom in restaurants was to order a final round of dishes when people were almost full; it didn’t matter if diners only picked at them, as what they left behind was a traditional symbol of having had a “good Greek meal”. The crisis has affected table manners, and Greeks order much less. They’ve even started mopping their plates.

On the train — The train is packed, which has become the norm in the last two years. Passengers are crammed into the corridors and the spaces between carriages. Getting to the bar or the toilets requires agility and diplomacy. “Soon we’ll be riding on top, like in India,” says a woman, unable to reach the toilet. Someone adds: “And the Chinese will own the company!”

A return ticket between Athens and the Thessaly region in central Greece costs €22 ($29), if you book two to three weeks in advance. The same 700-km journey by road would cost €1.70 for each litre of petrol and €20 in tolls; the coach is €60. So people are willing to put up with discomfort on the train, although they vent their frustration on the guard: “Why don’t you put on extra carriages? Transporting us like cattle! You’re getting paid, unlike half the people in this carriage!” “We can’t make the trains longer for technical reasons,” the guard explains. “The infrastructure couldn’t cope. And yes, we get paid, but we’re fighting against the company being privatised. We’re here for your safety. And we don’t get much.” Squeezed into the back of the carriage, two students are poring over Rizospastis, the Greek Communist Party paper. When the train stops at Thebes another young man boards and is soon arguing with them: “You’re wrong, guys. I’m a patriot, I’ve got no money and no job, probably the same as you. We care about the people and the poor, too, because we belong to them. You don’t have a monopoly on the proletariat. And don’t call me a fascist, there’s too much of that talk… The rich are crushing us and reducing our country to slavery. Can we agree on that, at least?”

“You’re the one who’s got it wrong, mate,” they reply. “You’re completely wrong about Golden Dawn [the neo-Nazi party]. Those people defend monopolies and the ‘powerful’ as you call them. Only you can’t see it. Not yet…”

Meagre harvest — Recent storms have brought down the olives and citrus fruit on the trees in public parks and squares around Athens. Usually these trees are the responsibility of the local authorities, but for the past two years, local people have been collecting the fruit. So storms that destroy it before it’s ripe are a source of distress and anger.

Good news — At the New Year, the media, especially television, tried to create a festive mood and some channels, aware that people were feeling overwhelmed by alarmist headlines, seasoned the news with feel-good stories that showed everyone could adopt a positive attitude and take charge of their lives. “People are tired and disappointed. They don’t know what tomorrow will bring,” says Yiannis Daras, presenter of the ERT programme Reservoir, which offers listeners “two hours of happiness. Under all the rust, you can find gold. Young, brilliant minds; scientists who are working for society; people cooperating, thinking, inventing” — a new society (1).

But one can see the crisis in Athens’ shopping arcades. A historic textile cooperative near Aiolou Street is the latest victim. It was a meeting place for merchants from central Greece, most of whom moved to the capital in the 1960s; they had a coffee or an ouzo in the shop’s office, converted into a refreshment stand. Now this last vestige of internal migration from Thessaly has disappeared.

While shops displayed their Christmas goods, a bank tried an advertising campaign showing €100 notes. Passers-by outside its branches said: “Look, €100 notes! I haven’t seen one of those in two years… Not only are they robbing us, they’re laughing at us.”

A litre of petrol — Travelling for pleasure within Greece is much less common and domestic tourism has collapsed. According to official figures, in the first five months of 2012 there was a 42% reduction in visits by Greeks to Greek sites. When they go to the beach, they take their own food and drink in cool boxes. The press is delighted at this “unexpected return of simplicity and frugal conviviality”.

The streets are quiet because of unemployment, dwindling salaries, rising taxes, including road taxes, and the cost of petrol. Since 2010, 600,000 cars have gone from the roads (2). Their owners have returned the number plates, taking their vehicles off the road indefinitely. It’s not uncommon to hear requests for a single litre of petrol in garages, just enough to transport people to a wedding or family get-together. The motorways are often deserted, as are the B roads. In Athens and other cities, traffic jams are a thing of the past. When drivers do use their cars, they drive more carefully and slowly. The silence can be deafening.

Radical options — Greeks feel trapped in the present moment. You often hear people say: “We’re living day to day, not making long-term plans.” Plans and hopes for the future seem to be fading in a society that has been dispossessed by the crisis.

Greeks are going out less. There are fewer encounters, fewer interactions, and — paradoxically, given living conditions — less political and unionised activism. Preoccupied with daily survival, Greeks no longer have the courage to refashion the world or occupy squares in the city centre; they may not even have the money to buy a subway ticket.

Thanos said: “Since I’ve been job-hunting, I’ve noticed many of my colleagues and friends who are still in work have started avoiding me. They’re frightened I’ll ask them to lend me money. Maybe they are in a difficult situation themselves: their salaries have shrunk, they’re in debt and there’s also depression.” On average, after two years of the agreement (3), salaries have fallen by 45% and are still falling. That may explain why, in spite of the myths, this crisis has not been a great time for solidarity.

So reactions sometimes take a radical turn. “Until recently, Greece had a very low suicide rate compared to other European countries,” says Aris Violatzis. He is a psychologist with the Klimaka organisation, which runs a help line for people contemplating suicide. “Currently, Greece is the country with the biggest increase worldwide. … Suicide is a complex phenomenon and its causes can’t be attributed to the financial crisis alone. But the environment we live in has an influence on our mental state; 75% of people who call us have financial problems and are desperate. They have debts, are out of work or have no roof over their heads” (4). Since 2010, nearly 3,000 Greeks in this predicament have killed themselves.

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