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Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Exarchia, Athens, Greece

I recently had the chance to spend ten days in Athens for professional reasons. So I tried to live like an Athenian for that period, hanging out in bars in Exarchia, working on my balcony overlooking the National Historical Museum, playing basketball in Lofos Strefi, having business coffee meetings in Kolonaki and, finally, going to an island for the weekend. I had the incredible luck of (semi-)knowing someone in Greece who really helped me out in finding a place and with whom it was furthermore (as I had suspected before initially) very enjoyable to hang out. So: thanks again. In general I feel like I managed to gain a much better understanding of Greece through my constant exposure to life in Greece as a Greek with no expat or even tourist aspect (granted: I did climb the Acropolis with 500 other foreigners) to take away from this impression.

What do I have to say about Greece then? A very positive experience in a country burdened with problems is how I could describe it in one sentence. People are friendly, I succeeded to integrate myself with local (Exarchia) basketball players after only a few days there, friends of the friends I had were extremely open and accommodating including when it comes to my complete lack of Greek-language capability. And in general it is very easy - if, as always, of course very limited - to get around in English.

Greek life-style is very laid-back. People eat and go out late, life in the city is really calm during the day for the most part, both clearly being related to the extreme heat (and I live in Tunis!). Yet, don't buy into the stereotypes, Greeks do work. What they (I am stereotyping here, please excuse) do seems to be dominated by a combination of odd jobs here and there, all relatively badly paid, if at all. I've met designers, architects and professional basketball players all of whom told me that they were being owed serious amounts of money (10k in one case).

Which gets us to the Greek problems then. Most glaring is the amount of people asking for a hand-out in the street, the junkies fixing out in the open in one of the most central neighborhoods of Athens, the police clad military-style guarding the border of Exarchia - where the anarchists kicked them out a few years ago - and the rest of the city. The irony of the latter is that most of the junkies are and most of the criminality everyone warned me about none of which I experienced though actually occurs just outside of Exarchia and thus behind (or in front) of the police curtain.

The main (and underlying) problem though is the economic situation. What can I even add to that discussion? The Greek government (and society) clearly lived above its means for a number of years and people are paying for it now (on a high level, but still). My main criticism doesn't lie so much with the harsh reforms, some of which are necessary but cruel others just plain pointless or at least ineffectual, but rather the lack of (true) European solidarity. Effectively European governments (especially Germany) are forcing Greece into a deflationary setting, with wages (and accordingly consumption) decreasing during a period where the government has put stringent measures of austerity in effect. In other words Greece for years to come will suffer from low growth rates and high (especially for young(er) people) unemployment. All this while inflationary measures in the core of the Eurozone (again: mainly Germany) would bring about the same result (full or semi-debt repayment) in a much less cruel manner. Let's just hope that the planned reforms will actually structurally effect change and not just be limited to punishing pensioners, cab drivers and public sector workers without creating a better-working system at the same time. I have my doubts, but as one says in German: Die Hoffnung stirbt zuletzt (hope dies last).

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