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Greece Under Austerity...Through the Eyes of the Locals


As I browsed the internet in search of a last minute get away last month, it suddenly occurred to me that jetting off to a Greek island in the first week of June may not have been the wisest move after all. Knowing that I would be away on June 5th (supposedly D-Day for the Greek government to make a deal on their EU financial bailout by), was enough to make me think twice about booking; but not enough to stop me from going. I was warned before I left that I'd see chaotic queues outside cash points, would need to be prepared that my credit card may not work for half the week if Greece did default, and that the locals over there would all be wallowing in a pit of gloom and despair. Perhaps Athens did see such scenes earlier in the month, but they weren't apparent in Kefalonia.

Having visited the island for nearly 20 years, the local buzz and ambiance is a big factor in why so many tourists return year after year. The Kefalonians epitomize the Greek spirit - they are a society who put their island first before the country. One of the reasons why the island did not sink into a state of panic whilst I was there was because, for the Greeks at least, June 5th was never really going to be the final deadline. There was always going to be another deadline - another date, another talk - the idea of finality is not the first thought that enters the Greek mentality. Another reason is a little more personal. Talking to a Greek philosopher in a local café, he revealed that no one in Greece, let alone Kefalonia, was talking about the country's financial troubles as in doing so it takes away their pride - this being almost all they have left. "We have ten days or so to come up with a deal and I do not know anyone who knows what will happen". It wasn't long before our conversation moved onto Greek mythology. "Plato famously said that democracy should be decided by the people (those wealthy in knowledge). But in today's world democracy is established solely by those in power," he noted. "Students still study the ideas of such thinkers at university, yet no one in power puts their principles into practice!"

Although fear of leaving the Euro is a cause of concern, it is the physical aspect of money - be it euro or potentially drachma - that most affects everyday family incomes. "What's it like in London?" a waitress friend of mine asked in search of a better future. It turned out that she, her husband and son were in the process of upping sticks and heading for the UK given that she cannot afford to support her family on an hourly wage of €2.30. Most restaurant staff are on an average of €25 a day, she revealed - barely enough to cover a bill for two main courses. Aside from the job losses and non-existent welfare benefits, the healthcare in Greece has been dealt the worst card of all. Hospitals have endured over a 90% cut in their allowance this year, a factor that has forced locals to pay for any treatments they may need. Procedures such as MRI scans and X-Rays that are readily available in the UK often have to be carried out on the mainland - a trip that involves considerable expenses. There is, and never has been, such luxury as an NHS.

Although Greece elected the controversial Syriza government in January this year - a party resolutely against austerity - the country is not in denial about the economic problems it faces. The majority of Greeks understand that a compromise needs to be made with their EU partners, however, at the same time, Greece is a country with a history that prides itself on independence. This is a feeling that has stayed with the Greeks for generations. Back in the fifteenth century when Greece was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, the idea of paying tax was out of the question for those living through an era of occupation. The feeling of giving in to similar measures seems resoundingly familiar in 2015. "I am Kefalonian first, Greek second...we should become a totally independent island...I said this years ago!" exclaimed a flamboyant restaurateur. None of the Greeks I know want out of Europe, but they reiterate that they cannot live under the extremes of austerity. "Power is money," another local commented, but when you match this to how austerity hits family homes and personal livelihoods, one wonders how much further they can be pushed.

Yanis Varoufakis, the charismatic Greek finance minister, insists that "objectively," Greece's deadline to secure a deal is June 30th. Pragmatically, however, it's more like hours. Yet, whilst the international media talk of a Grexit, a move that would lead Greece back to the drachma, Varoufakis does not believe it will come to that. "Is it possible that Greece could leave the Euro?" asked Radio 4's John Humphrys. "Yes, but it is also possible that a comet could hit planet Earth," replied Varoufakis, epitomizing the Greek way in contemplating hypotheticals. In that case, are Angela Merkel and co bluffing? "I hope so..." he commented, knowing that, at this stage, he is practically relying on a wing and a prayer. "I have no doubt that we could have a comprehensive deal overnight," Varoufakis told a Sky News reporter. "I have every confidence that Europe in the last moment will do the right thing." But he's not going to blink first. Time will soon tell if Syriza's gamble will pay off.

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