"Eat or We Both Starve" - Greece
Nothing pulled at my heart strings more than seeing the words "eat or we both starve" in front of a Greek restaurant. While this statement was jarring at first, it was highly indicative of current economic suffering throughout the entire country.
Simply put...Greece has yet to rebound from endless austerity measures imposed by creditors in exchange for multi-billion dollar bailouts. News outlets have covered this ongoing financial crisis at length, but did little to prepare me and my family for actual labor strikes and riots that occurred shortly after we arrived.
On May 7th, union workers, farmers, and locals (some armed with petrol bombs) protested a highly divisive vote to raise taxes and reduce already beleaguered pensions. The snapshot below shows protesters as they began their march towards Parliament in downtown Athens. This photo doesn't even begin to show the magnitude of disgruntled citizens since the crowd actually extended for at least a mile. Are Greek citizens fed up? That question is rhetorical.
I was there when all this unfolded, which is why this post highlights grievances shared by many Greeks. The tone of this blog is quite different from previous ones since writing a typical travel summary (e.g. where to eat and what to do) would be a disservice to those we met during our brief 10-day visit.
Here are 10 soundbites from a storeowner, hotel receptionist, taxi driver, tour guide, and retiree that reflect the ongoing toll these overly-taxed citizens endure as a result of government mandates.
1) Storeowners cannot afford to pay their employees or vendors due to bank withdrawal limits (~ 450 euros per week). These strict capital controls have led to layoffs and countless store closures, which is especially true in Athens.
2) Income taxes have skyrocketed to 65%. Can you imagine applying that to an already meager salary of 300 to 500 euros per month? A tourist couldn't last 2 days in Athens, Mykonos, or Santorini on that alone. It's even worse for locals since food, transportation, housing, and insurance have not been adjusted to accommodate low income levels across Greece.
3) Speaking of income, earning 1,000 euros per month is considered "wealthy" by government standards. That would be considered "poor" in the US, where federal poverty levels currently hover at $11,770 USD for a single-person household.
4) Due to budget cuts, only 13 policemen serve roughly 14,000 people on the island of Santorini. I didn't research their crime rate statistics, but if crime ever spiked, it would be difficult to squelch without the manpower.
5) If you possess property that has been passed down from generation to generation, you are not able to sell that property even if you were completely destitute.
6) Citizens pay the exact same property taxes regardless of value. If you own a dilapidated
home or a 5-star hotel, the tax is exactly the same. Fair? Not if you're poor and struggling to make ends meet.
7) If you own a home, not only do you pay property taxes, but you must pay monthly government "rent" to defray costs associated with Greece's unsustainable debt. I can't possibly fathom paying the bank (mortgage) and the government (rent) on property that I already purchased.
8) There are roughly 50,000 refugees in Greece. Locals cannot compete with current and incoming refugees for coveted jobs since the latter will accept lower wages. On top of that, many have already received stipends (~500 euros), which is more than what locals make in a given month.
9) The suicide rate has skyrocketed since many can no longer support their families. The hardest hit are farmers.
10) Pensions have been slashed by more than 50% since the first bailout occurred in 2010. Many retirees have been forced to return to the workforce doing whatever is necessary (e.g. cleaning stairwells, etc.) to augment their income. I personally know someone who had to do so, and it broke my heart.
I don't know how Greece can survive 13 consecutive bailouts and an insurmountable budget deficit by repeatedly taxing its citizens beyond reasonable limits. Despite the turmoil, every single person we spoke to (including a former TV reporter who accepted a job as store clerk) exuded positivity and resilience. Kudos to these brave residents who soldier on given financial uncertainty and political unrest.
With that said, they need plenty of support. What can you do to offset the damage?
Frequent local businesses and restaurants. I don't collect knickknacks, but I made the rare exception by purchasing many souvenir tchotchkes on my trips to Athens, Mykonos, and Santorini. We also ate at many restaurants (especially ones that needed patrons), purchased drinks/food at numerous cafes, bought several pounds of fruit from farmers, and much more.
Tip service workers and taxi drivers frequently - Incremental income helps pad extremely low salaries. If you think the service charge is already included in your bill, tip them anyway!
Volunteer or send supplies such as food, clothing, medication, and first-aid kits to Syrian refugee camps in Athens, Idomeni, and Lesbos. If that's not an option, you can donate via the International Refugee Committee by clicking on the embedded link.
One thing I've learned from all my travels is to continually help those in need, which is why the following quote guides me as I travel from one country to the next.
"The tallest people are those who bend down on one knee and lift other people up." - Tessa Newsom
These words are especially relevant in Greece, where most if its constituents need "lifting" from dire economic circumstances.
Final words: The following was taken at the base of the Acropolis just minutes before protests began...The sign I was holding had my name, hometown, and the words "thank you", which was addressed to supporters of a global book initiative, "The Trip that Changed My Life", benefiting Unbound and Save the Children. It was extremely fitting to film the philanthropic video footage at the very place, where ANY support is also extremely welcomed. #supportgreece #prayforgreece
- Greece trip photos
- 2007 Greece blog post