Syriza's election in Greece last month proved a crucial point about public consensus: If you tell the majority that there is no alternative to austerity, they will go out and find one. Especially after experiencing it first hand. Life under New Democracy and their coalition partners PASOK and the Democratic Left brought despair to Greece in every way imaginable. Austerity hit family lives at the heart, leading to a general malaise which rocked the whole of the country. On the mainland, on the islands, many realities were shaken, so is it really any wonder that the Greek population went out en mass to vote for the takeover of the controversial left?
Back in 2012, the fear that Syriza could enter government was enough to convince some that Greece would've been weeks away from exiting the Eurozone. To save that threat, the country went along with the 'no alternative' view, believing that life would improve under a new governing body who insisted on imposing severe economic measures. Only it didn't. Some parts of Greece hit rock bottom, parts that I experienced first hand last summer:
"We are living through a nightmare," Eleni confirms when we arrive in Kefalonia, the Greek isle made famous by Captain Corelli's Mandolin. "They've stopped almost all ships coming into the harbor from Italy, so we have to rely on flights alone to keep our business afloat." Eleni, who owns a cluster of apartments in Lakithra, a quiet, sleepy village is understandably concerned. Her husband and eldest son look up drearily in agreement. Tourism is the magnet that brings in the wages not just for Eleni and her family but for the majority of the Greek islands. Without it, their lifestyle declines dramatically as they struggle on through the tough measures imposed on them and their villagers. Measures which, I am told, come and go and chop and change by the day. One day it's this, the next it's that - any sense of stability appears non-existent.
In Argostoli, the island's capital, the situation appears bleaker. "The government wants us to cut prices but how can we?" cries Yannis, a local restaurateur. "The season started very slowly, now we need more business. Ten years ago we had customers lining up outside waiting for tables..." Such sights have now vanished. It's not just his family who he needs to provide for but also his staff, he adds. Loyal waiters who have been part of his team for years also need to be provided for. 'We're all in this together' is the manner in which they work. Yannis mentions that Makis, one of his longest-serving waiters, has left the island this summer to try and make it in London. "He's gone for about 6 months to see how it goes. It's a shame because he thinks the grass will be greener, but it's not. This is a European crisis, it has effected countries on an international scale. He won't find the answer to his worries in London." Astoundingly, as I leave the taverna I notice that there are no English papers available at the kiosk outside. "Cut backs," laughs the owner. "Seriously, the company in Athens that used to print the English nationals simply can't afford to right now...But then, even over here most of us have access to an iPad, so we get by."
On the beaches, the picture is worse. Dimitri has run a popular local strip situated in one of the island's liveliest towns for over twenty years. This year, however, he has suffered under the tight grip of the government. He explains how he had to bid for the beach in an auction which took place in late June, almost two months after the touristic season started, thus costing him a profit during a key period in the summer calendar. Then, once the beach was successfully claimed this time round, his electricity was instantly cut off. The cost? An extra €2,000 if he wants to keep fridges or electrical appliances in his small beach bar (a condition which, until this year, had never been imposed on him). Ever the mastermind, Dimitri has managed to keep his canteen afloat without the luxury of electricity. He routinely brings down ice every morning which keeps any food and drink expertly chilled and heats a kettle using gas appliances. "I am living like Robinson Crusoe!", he exclaims, but there is a sparkle in his eye that suggests he won't give up easily.
One element that hasn't gone, however, is the Greek spirit that epitomizes the personality of the local crowd: "Crisis? What Crisis?!", cries Spiros as we arrive at one of the island's favourite haunts. "We have sun, we have health, we can drink...what's there to worry about?". Spiros's place appears unusually busy for a Monday: "Of course we're busy! The locals are coming out to socialise and feel safe. They feel a sense of security being around their own people. Far better to be out here enjoying a Mythos or an Ouzo than being stuck inside watching the news." It's easy to fall for the Greek charm, though Spiros does admit that the islanders are worried about the future. "Look, it's not an easy situation to be in. The taxman could come at any moment, two months ago the banks pretty much shut down. But I am Kefalonian first; Greek second, and we are very much a tight community. We will get through this."
This summer, the scene in Kefalonia may appear very different with Syriza now in government. Many of the locals there fought to back Syriza this time, with or without the threat of leaving the euro. But as the world nervously watches Greece's new elite sweep in, should we be as worried as the rest of Europe about what their election means for the UK? Earlier this week Greece's Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, rocked up outside Downing Street on a motorbike wearing a biker jacket - 'a rebel with a cause' - as Channel 4 dubbed it. However, on leaving his meeting with Chancellor George Osborne, Varoufakis commented to Channel 4's Paul Mason that he and Osborne have "a very constructive relationship" and that the meeting was in his view, "a breath of fresh air." Chances are that Osborne may not have fallen for the Greek charm quite yet, though that doesn't mean that an answer to Greece's problems cannot be found in time. Given the feeling of those currently living through the daily reality of austerity, Syriza may turn out to be the solution that so many Greeks have been desperately searching for. That said, it wouldn't surprise me if some of the locals I know are currently saving a few Drachmas under the mattress, you know, just in case...
* The names of the individuals featured here have been changed to protect their privacy.