Friday, July 31, 2015

Greek Crisis, Summer 2015, Part 1: An American Immigrant in Greece

The News in a (Large) Nutshell

It is both ironic and unsurprising that I have not found time to post blog entries in the two most anxiety-provoking months of Greece’s recent political and economic crisis. I have enough material for a book (including 357 pages of news clippings this month), but time is another story. I’ve spent many days nearly overwhelmed by the dizzying array of disturbing news. I’ve spent other days caught up in the daily lives of my family, my community, and my new Syrian refugee friends.

For more details about the tumultuous Greek political and economic news (and its effect on the olive oil industry), see my Olive Oil Times articles (more are linked on the right side of the page); or if you already know the Greek news, skip to the next section. Here’s the news in a nutshell: On June 27, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras broke off negotiations with creditors and announced a referendum on whether Greece should accept creditors’ terms for more loans. Then the European Central Bank (ECB) stopped providing emergency liquidity assistance to Greek banks, the banks were closed, capital controls were imposed, and the economy sank deeper into depression. A majority of voters rejected creditors’ terms on July 5, but the prime minister accepted a similar agreement with creditors in order to save Greece from a sudden, chaotic exit from the Eurozone—which most Greeks do not want to leave.

Banks were running out of money because anxious depositors had been withdrawing their savings, fearing losses in a bail-in or a change to a devalued drachma. On June 29, with banks closed, ATMs began dispensing only 60 euros per account per day; after three weeks, an equivalent weekly limit replaced the daily one. Still in effect even with banks open again, capital controls have made life difficult for anyone trying to make major purchases, pay rent or bills, or run a farm or business, deepening Greece’s depression.

After Greece edged very close to a Grexit, the Greek parliament approved one austerity agreement after another, albeit unwillingly, with the support of Euro-friendly centrist opposition parties but without the support of about a quarter of the members of parliament from Prime Minister Tsipras’s leftist party, SYRIZA. Creditors required this approval in order to begin negotiations on another loan package and other financial assistance. After the parliamentary approval, Greece received a bridge loan to allow it to catch up on debt repayments, and the ECB resumed limited emergency liquidity assistance to Greek banks. Work on a third bailout agreement is beginning as the prime minister tries to calm dissenters in his party who are opposed to the additional austerity measures it is expected to require. The future of the SYRIZA-ANEL radical leftist/right-wing nationalist governing coalition is uncertain. Another round of national elections is likely this fall.

Many agree that reforms are desperately needed in Greece, but increasing numbers admit that additional austerity measures and still more tax increases—such as the sales tax increase already passed by Parliament—are unlikely to allow the Greek economy to recover, let alone grow, in the midst of a depression. (See, for example, this excellent article on why pensions should not be be cut more than they already have been, and taxes should not have been raised more than they already were: Pensions in Greece Feel the Pinch of Debt Negotiations.) It seems clear that Greece requires some form of debt relief, since debt at 177% of the GDP is unsustainable. Yet German leaders and their allies want to wait until fall to discuss that.

Insecurity and Frustration: Responses to Uncertainty and Limitations

Even before Tsipras called for a referendum, people were nervous. For example, my mother in law said there was havoc at a bank in Piraeus on Friday morning, June 19, when the bank ran out of money and closed early, and customers shouted that their money was being stolen from them. Even then, some were unsure if banks would open the following Monday, and they naturally wanted access to their own money in these hard times—wouldn’t you?

Recent news has been more nerve wracking than at any other time during the Greek economic crisis. With the dreaded capital controls, bank closings, and default on part of the enormous Greek debt no longer a threat, but a reality, we also approached the brink of a Grexit from the Eurozone, and many claim a Grexit could still occur, although probably not this year. More and more people have been talking about a return to the drachma, but I am relieved that it was avoided, at least for now, because I believe it would lead to shortages of imported items such as fuel and—most importantly—medicines. I do not think we would ever starve in Crete, where agricultural products literally fall off the trees in my neighborhood. (I have been collecting unwanted lemons, grapes, and figs lately, and a neighbor has given me tomatoes from her garden.) But I am concerned about Athens and other areas of less abundance, and about those whose lives depend on imported medications.

It rained the last Saturday morning in June (very unusual for that time, in Crete), shortly after the prime minister announced the referendum. A Greek neighbor said a supermarket employee commented, “so the Germans have taken our sun from us, too.” Many consider the Germans’ and their allies’ hard line on austerity at least partly responsible for Greece’s continuing depression. Others blame the Greek government. I don’t understand the logic of any of them.

I was bewildered by Tsipras’s decision to hold a referendum, since that decision led the ECB to cut off liquidity assistance and hence resulted in capital controls that have cost the country a great deal in lost business. But I was even more astonished when the prime minister urged parliament to support an agreement most consider worse than the one voters rejected. Many Greeks were furious as well as disappointed that all the hardship created by the bank closures and capital controls accompanying the referendum decision was not followed by a better deal for Greece, but (according to many) a worse one—in spite of the still-delayed possibility of debt relief, which could have been discussed in any case. The political developments of recent months have been unbelievable, but the social and economic effects have been far too real.

Many people are struggling to keep going. With salaries and pensions already cut, taxes already increased, and many just getting by before all that, how are they to manage now? Between July 1 and July 24, Doctors of the World had 275 visitors to their free medical and social services clinic in Chania, mostly unemployed Greeks. The doctors and social workers there do crucial work, helping far more people than they did before the crisis, but they cannot perform surgery there or provide endless supplies of medicine, let alone jobs. Soup kitchens are super busy, charities are underfunded, and refugees have set up camp in an Athens park; too many people need help.

The cicadas are prospering; there are so many this year that they often fly into me when I walk under the trees here in semi-rural Crete. Greek people, however, have had trouble sleeping after middle-of-the-night announcements and parliamentary debates. I’ve seen dozens of people waiting in line at ATMs in Chania since the Saturday of the referendum announcement. The roads were full of traffic that Saturday, as everyone scrambled to supermarkets to stock up on necessities and formed lines at gas stations that still had gas. Clothing and cosmetic stores were largely deserted as people focused on the necessities. However, aside from a few days of limited amounts of gasoline until payments to gas suppliers could be arranged, I have seen no shortages in supermarkets or pharmacies here at all, nor have I spoken to anyone in Greece who has seen them.

On the other hand, businesspeople lacking funds to restock their stores are struggling. NPR reported recently that the Athens Chamber of Tradesmen claims 15% of businesses could close by September if capital controls continue, on top of the 250,000 already closed during the last five years, since Greece imports 70% of the non-food items sold here, and imports are at a standstill with money transfers abroad still restricted (Struggling Greek Businesses Choked By Money Controls.) Other ordinary people are also running into problems: people like the retired priest without a bank card who lives in a village where there was no bank open for three weeks to provide the pension always claimed in cash; the educated dietician who is working three jobs, including one as a store clerk, to earn 800 euros a month, believing things can’t get any worse; the dentist unsure how she’d pay for attendance, food, and lodging at a professional conference in Europe since her credit and debit cards wouldn’t work outside Greece. And these are the lucky ones who still have jobs (probably with reduced wages and benefits), not the more than 25% of Greeks (or over half of young people) who are unemployed. I’ve heard of some who get around a lack of cash by exchanging eggs from their hens or tomatoes or greens from their gardens for a cooked meal.

Many Greeks feel insecure about their future in this time of crisis. Many are tired of discussing all the problems, and the way the “solutions” offered are not working, since more and more austerity (including too many tax increases) with too little reform just doesn’t stimulate a depressed economy—or a depressed population. Yet life goes on here—especially for the children, who do not yet realize they will inherit whatever debt their parents’ generation of Europeans does not forgive.

Remember the Children of Greece

Children finishing sixth grade face a different sort of insecurity and a different kind of change, reminding their parents that insecurity and change can be a normal part of life, not only an aspect of crisis management. With my daughter saying goodbye to her elementary school this year, the end of the academic year featured even more gatherings than usual. Aside from the annual kung fu demonstration and the yearly song and dance show featuring all the elementary school classes, families participated in an evening of games in the schoolyard, watched a Greek sixth graders’ version of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and gathered for a night-time beach party.   

This may seem to confirm the myth that Greeks party too much to have real problems, but I want to emphasize that the events I’m discussing all cost very little, taking place outdoors or in public buildings, with no more money spent on contributions than one would spend on a family meal, very basic costuming assembled at home (plus one ten euro skirt), and virtually no scenery for the performances. These events are not evidence that Greeks are lazy or extravagant, but rather that they try hard to carry on as well as possible in the face of severe economic difficulty—wages down by an average of about 21% in the last five years, family incomes reduced by a third. (For some statistics, see e.g. Greeks Worry About Bailout’s Push for an Economic Overhaul). Rather than giving in to despair, most parents think a lot about   their children, and these events showed them making the most of creativity, volunteerism, imagination, determination, and community spirit for the sake of the kids.

When the elementary school parents’ association organized a big party outside our school, association members and their friends planned and refereed the games, families brought scraps of cloth, old buttons, and leftover art supplies, and money left over from families’ annual 10-euro contribution to a school fund covered souvlaki and drinks. Greeting various parents and grandparents as I hurried from one game to another to photograph both of my kids with their classmates, I felt satisfied to be part of that cheerful, close-knit community. I so often hear Greeks say “let the children be well,” “let the children have fun.” They did.

When I was in sixth grade in Pennsylvania, we managed to stage a musical version of Alice in Wonderland in the school cafeteria/gym, but that was a modest effort compared to my daughter’s class’s Greek version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Shakespeare did strike me as a surprising and over-ambitious choice for eleven year olds, especially given insufficient rehearsal time in their final venue. Even so, the combination of gracefully dancing sprites, a comically cavorting group of boyish players, and poised leads remembering many lines provided outlets for various types of talent and beauty, entertaining a good crowd of family and friends in the theater of a local community college.

This year’s annual end of school performance by all the elementary school children occurred too early in the day for working parents, shade, or comfortable temperatures, unlike the usual evening gatherings. However, “Around the World in 80 Minutes” featured joyful and sometimes impressive performances by the children, with attempts at a variety of ethnic costumes and some striking songs and dances. The show offered not only the expected stereotypical costumes and mannerisms, but also a welcome exposure to songs sung in different languages, including Chinese, Spanish, and Kannada (from India). It invited the children—almost (but not quite) all of them 100% Greek--to imagine themselves belonging to different cultures. 

The sixth graders’ night-time beach party was a modest family affair, except that children who knew nothing about campfires attempted to feed and leap over them until they were extinguished. I admired the silhouettes of children reveling in their first evening at the beach, splashing and playing in front of the setting sun, bathed in a sea of glowing reflections of the joys of childhood play. Those kids did not really doubt that their lives would go on much as they have, even in a different school with different classmates, instead of the ones they cry to think of leaving after six years together.

Gazing up at the dark starry sky during a lull in the party, when the fires had been put out and I considered my kids fairly safe, I couldn’t remember it being such a big deal to finish sixth grade, although I was scared of starting middle school. On the other hand, I have been surprised by brief scents and tastes of my childhood in the rare Greek raspberries that appeared in organic stores twice this summer, and the campfires at the beach party—minus the marshmallows we used to roast. I have a completely different life here than I did in the USA, and I am not sure what will happen to that life in this time of crisis, but I felt a sense of security as a member of a community of interwoven families at the school parties and performances

With Refugees at the Anti-Racist Festival and Tourists Enjoying the Greek Summer

The refugees from Syria who are still in Chania after 15 months do not feel the same way. Separated from parts of their families as well as their homeland, where their homes and belongings have been destroyed, waiting to reunite with husbands, wives, fathers, or mothers in another strange land, they probably feel far more insecurity than sixth graders, settled American immigrants, or even many of the Greeks who are facing an economic crisis. Attending Chania’s Anti-Racist Festival with some of the Syrian women and children I’ve met this year gave me a very different perspective than I had at last year’s festival. Sitting behind a table filled with their handmade strawberry and bergamot preserves, date-filled Syrian cookies, and Arabic calligraphy saying “My country is in my heart” and “No to racism” in what looked more like beautiful paintings than writing to ignorant me, I used my broken Greek to translate their somewhat limited English as they sold what they had made, when our German friend wasn’t there with her more fluent Greek.

It only occurred to me the next day that sitting behind a table next to Syrian Muslim women who were covered in long coats and headscarves and walking around the park with them and their children might have had more significance than simply spending time outside with new friends, looking around, and stretching our legs. After the attacks in Tunisia, France, and Kuwait at the end of last month, I realized that literally standing by Muslim women and children, joking with them, sharing food after sunset during Ramadan, tickling a little one’s feet to cheer her up after an allergic reaction to insect bites, meant more than I’d thought at the time. I just felt like I was relaxing with my new friends, helping them get out of the small hotel rooms where they spend most of their time, into a large park with anti-racist folks milling around, chatting, sharing their ideas and literature, giving lectures, playing music, selling food and drink, helping children with art projects, or reading fairytales with an egalitarian twist. And of course I was doing all of that, too.

Shortly after the Anti-Racist Festival, some American friends visited us in Greece on their way to Ukraine, where one of them has family and business partners. I wondered if they’d been asked if they would visit Syria this summer, too. Of course, their trip was planned long before anyone knew that Greek banks would be closed and cash would become scarce, and they were heading for western Ukraine rather than the trouble spots. Especially since my friends were coming with plenty of cash, I encouraged them to continue their trip here as planned. And like all the tourists I’ve heard of, they had a wonderful time here, with no problems aside from luggage delayed by a non-Greek airline. The sea is still a lovely clear aquamarine, the sky a brilliant blue. The mountains, gorges, caves, monuments, museums, and beaches are still here. The Greeks my friends met at their hotel, in Chania’s Old Port, at the Botanical Park of Crete, and at various restaurants were friendly and helpful. My American friends were able to do what they wished, and they would recommend Greece to anyone who can manage to come. They hope to come back to see more of the island, since one week is certainly not enough for a visit to Crete. Tourists, take note: Greece is a challenging place to live, but still a truly wonderful place to visit.

Summer came upon us suddenly about a week early this June, with temperatures up in the 90s, the fuschia brilliance of bougainvillea climbing out of gardens, pink and white oleander blowing in the wind by the roadsides, apricots, cherries, and honeydew ripening, cicadas’ buzzing drone occasionally replacing birdsong, multiple end of school performances and parties, and our closest brush yet with a Grexit. At the farmers’ market, I heard one vendor calling out, “peponia san baklavadakia,” or honeydew as sweet as baklava, and Crete does offer incredible fresh produce. The weather moderated into comfortable temperatures here until the end of this month, when the heat hit us again, but it is often relieved by sea breezes. Now I smell the oleander and ripening figs baking sweetly in the hot sun, reminding me repeatedly of the abundance around me on this fruitful island, where every walk gives me a view of the endless blue of the sea.

May the creditors allow Greece to take advantage of its talented people, its beautiful islands, its historical heritage, its lovely beaches, its abundant olives and other produce. May the Greeks find a way to use the great potential of the people and the land for an economic comeback. Tourists, consumers, writers, you can help too. Come to Greece, buy Greek olive oil, wine, olives, feta, and other Greek products. Write to politicians and editors in support of the Greek people. So many prominent economists blame non-Greek bankers and politicians at least as much as Greeks for the situation here that I have lost track of them. But whatever you think about the adults, Greek children are certainly not to blame for the mess the country is in. They deserve your support.

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