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A Depressing Coffee in Athens

Athens.

Today I went for a coffee and cake to my favourite cafe in Kolonaki in central Athens. I found part the shop part open and part closed. Whilst I had been abroad, the restaurant side had closed and although the café had also closed for a while, it was reopened by the owner in the vague hope that things would pick up again and that the great and good of Athenian society would return get their morning caffeine fix and long business lunches.

Kolonaki is very popular with Greeks and tourists. The Nazis had liked this part of Athens so much that they located the Gestapo HQ here during their occupation of Greece. This bit of the Greek capital has long been the place where the wealthy and powerful rub shoulders with the cool and beautiful. Politicians lunch with their pet journalists and at the next table, people who look like models from a Vogue squabble over tomorrow’s shoot. Just by being here, you could delude yourself that you were someone; you could be rich or know the famous even though, in reality, your day job didn’t even impress your mother.

On this Monday though, I was pretty much on my own at the café with just a newspaper and a phone for company. This particular narrow pedestrianised street just off Kolonaki Square used to host a café every few yards. Now, it’s almost deserted. Many of them closed now. I did have some company though, from the pigeons and the hard up that pestered me all the time, but I have learned to set my face hard and send them on their way with a ‘sorry’ – for a few minutes at least. The pigeons I kick at discreetly. I asked my waiter why the restaurant had closed. He was happy at my interest and told me a story of fewer and fewer people eating out – even the wealthy – until eventually, the few regulars left had stopped buying even sandwiches. Just long drawn-out double espressos and lattes. He told me that my old friend, the headwaiter who I had gotten to know over the years, had been lucky, he had moved on and found a job that tipped well. I asked him to pass on my regards, but I learned that he found it too depressing to come back here now.

Today I had needed a short break from daily routine in the suburbs. Kolonaki was always the place I headed to relax. It is full of street kiosks selling foreign newspapers and has good boutiques, fancy gift shops and bookshops – whatever a foreign visitor like me could want in and around just one small square in central Athens. But things have changed. Many of these places have disappeared now. So, whilst the place seems busy, it is nothing like it was before. As if a popular shopping street in central London had lost half its shops and bars. People would still go out of habit and because of its reputation, but it would be no fun. All this was a very unexpected fate for Kolonaki to suffer as it is the place where old wealth lives. The Greek Parliament is located, conveniently, just a three-minute walk away so that politicians and their patrons can sit cheek to cheek and fix their deals. Not so long ago, the place would have been buzzing with political schemes, gossiping and daytime dates. But today, the signs of deep recession were everywhere. Today, the whole place could have been the set for a Hollywood end of the world movie.

The taxi-driver who had driven me here had his views on all this, of course. He quickly established that I was a foreigner and then set out his explanation for Greece’s ills. ‘Just explain to me’ he asked, without waiting for a reply, ‘how can a country that is broke, with its people broke, pay and then pay some more, all the taxes they invent each day for us to pay? Now, they want Greeks who have gone abroad to work to pay here as well as in the country they work in. They are just crazy. I don’t need a degree and things to tell you that all this is crazy. All of them, the politicians, the parties and most of all, the Europeans.’ Worried that he would move on to talk about my own country’s hand in all this and to change the subject, I asked him about the taxi business and surprisingly, his tone dropped to almost a whisper. ‘That’s dead. I work a 10 hour shift each day for maybe €60 or €70 a day. And that’s a six-day week. From that we have to live. I can pay some tax, but I can’t pay all they want for property that’s been derelict for 30 years at the horio (home village) and we have three of these things. I can’t sell the ruins and I can’t sell the land, no one buys and no one is able to sell. I would give them to the state for free, and soon it will own nearly all Greece.’

Later, sitting with my coffee, I tried to go over the events of the last few years and figure out just one more time, what had gone wrong in Greece. I have read so much stuff on the Greek crisis that I should be an expert on the subject and able to churn out economics blockbusters by the dozen. Here in Athens, even taxi drivers and kiosk owners can offer you credible accounts of events – along with every popular Internet conspiracy theory. But, all the stuff in my head is really nothing more than a list of things that have happened these last seven years to the Greek economy and the political system. I know the details, but there is nothing to link them into meaningful whole. The only thing I know is that Greece is a creaky unbalanced society that joined in the fun and games and world-wide borrowing jamboree that was the pre 2007 global economy. The government and Greek banks had about as much awareness as any other government that the Lehman moment would occur. I can still remember the banks here then, flush with French and German Euros, cold-calling rich and poor, young and old, anyone, to lend them money. Once, on a short day trip in 2006, I visited a mountain monastery that has particularly fine icons and spectacular views. Taking in the exotic scene around me, I noticed a youngish couple a few yards away. I did my best to pretend I wasn’t there and walk away, but I couldn’t help overhearing their whispers before I left. No words of love. They were weighing up how much they could borrow on their cards to buy shares.

The current Syriza government would not exist in any other European country. How could any party still exist and still be the government after turning its back so comprehensively on the people’s ‘NO’ to austerity in the referendum last July and on the promises it made in its Thessaloniki Declaration in September 2014. This had been a single A4 sheet of statements in favour of anti austerity policies and a rejection of Greece’s two Memorandums of Understanding with the EU that included savage recessionary measures aimed at reforming and rebooting the economy. A sort of creative destruction. After several months of the limelight and hogging the attention of the world’s media, flirting with the Chinese and the Russians, and after the resignation of the now unwanted Economy Minister Yanis Varoufakis, on 16 July Tsipras’ Syriza government and most of the opposition parties, voted to accept the EU’s terms for a third Greek bail out. The new terms for the Greeks to get their billions are much harsher now than in the previous agreements. In essence, Greece has to solve a paradox that only ancient Procrustes could have solved – to pay back the Europeans and IMF with money they do not really have. They can get it, but only by cutting public services, cutting pensions and raising taxes. In the process they may bankrupt half the population and drive them to a life on the street. Some Greeks have managed to escape abroad to find work, but with the fervour of a new convert, the Greek government intends to chase and tax them even there – even those who have been away for many years.

I finished my coffee and thought about what would happen in another Western country if thousands of shops in the capital were closed and boarded and plastered in graffiti. Scenes worse than the Great Depression. What would it be saying about that country’s government and what would happen next?

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James Athanassiou lives in Athens.

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