Will Greece exit the Eurozone? No one knows for sure, even after the second round of elections. But after eight weeks spent in Athens this spring I cannot countenance more loose talk about Greece in some Western media and EU leading circles: statistics do not account for lived experience. We are told that Greeks have “refused” the EU austerity program when the Greek state has steeply reduced its budget deficit in the last two years at the cost of deep cuts in salaries and pensions, with the private sector not faring much better. The so-called “bail out” consists of loaning at a profit, not giving, money to Greece. Moreover the money is disbursed by small installments, under strict conditionality, and the last disbursement in May went entirely to interest payment on the debt. A student at Athens’ Panteion University asks me, “Why were we not warned that we were not ready for the Eurozone? Isn’t this what should happen in a family?” Perhaps this should come as no surprise: the first members of the Eurozone to ignore the Stability and Growth Pact’s strictures were Germany and France in 2002 and 2003, and currently 24 out of the 27 EU member states are in non-compliance (including Germany with a national debt of around 80% of its GDP instead of 60%). Some large multinationals, such as Siemens, encouraged corruption in Greece by offering large bribes.
Yes, there are plenty of problems in Greece. My modest Kato Patissia apartment was broken into on the second day of my stay here. The police building, where I lodged a complaint, looks as if it is going to fall apart, and the copy of my complaint became available only weeks later. A customer in a computer store tells me proudly how, at 42, he retired with a full military pension after serving as a doctor, and looks bemused at my amazement.
Yet the visitor discovers that Greece has its share of modern heroes. A political scientist, imprisoned six years under the colonels, now heads the archival department of a major (and so far successful) Greek private bank. With his collaborators he gives seminars for archivists-in-training, and for thousands of school children who learn about preserving the past; after office hours he volunteers with a non-profit association which rehabilitates drug addicts. Two long-time Greek collaborators of Médecins Sans Frontières recently returned to Athens to raise their small children here. 50,000 donors, many of them pensioners, support the work of MSF and although donations have understandably diminished in size, the last fund-raiser for Somalia met with generous response. These women believe that, regardless of their circumstances, Greeks can keep thinking of others. So does the accountant, mother of two, who works for a large EU private transport company and volunteers two evenings a week to teach Greek to immigrants. With neighbors she helped reopen the Kipseli neighborhood’s old agora, which houses the classrooms. Professors at some of the best state universities teach, publish and organize quality international seminars (I attend several) on much lowered salaries. I take my Greek lessons at a school founded by a woman who used to prepare teenagers for the tough university entry exams. She has chosen to earn less to do more, and works with four collaborators out of her apartment; they train teachers from all over Europe in the latest foreign language teaching methods, also for immigrants, with the support of several EU grants. Finally I bow in gratitude to the hard-working shopkeepers of my neighborhood’s Laïki (open air market) and their wonderful products, who round prices downward and give receipts even for a 50 cents purchase. And I salute the Athens public transport system, its affordable monthly card and dense network of buses, trains and metro, which carry the visitor safely to her destination in a reasonable amount of time (there were no strikes in April and May). Its deficits are down, and it is putting final touches to a plan to get all passengers to pay for their tickets, at last.
Not one Athenian I talked with in recent weeks denies that they have a part of the responsibility for their current plight; they must reform the state, increase productivity and repay at least part of their debt. Now that the elections are over, one wishes that highly motivated Greek and their EU and IMF fellow citizens could connect more deliberately and craft some of the imaginative and cooperative policies so desperately needed today.