“Good evening and thank you in advance for the generous tip you’re going to leave me.” As welcomes from Athenian taxi drivers go, it was a fairly original and disarming one. I’m not a regular cab customer but have used them enough over the last couple of years to see a change in their attitude. Where they were surly, they now seem resigned. Passengers were once taken for granted; now they’re a rarity.
Take a look at any taxi rank and you will see the yellow-colored cars lining up around the block. At Athens International Airport, where I caught my ride, things are even more dramatic. “I waited seven hours in the queue,” the driver tells me.
Greek taxi drivers say their takings have dropped by more than 50 percent since the crisis began. In the meantime, their costs have skyrocketed: The cost of gasoline has risen, as has the consumption tax on fuel, while social security contributions also shot up. A cabbie needs to make about 15 euros a day profit just to pay for his healthcare and pension cover. This is far from a given in Athens and other cities.
“If I get four fares during a shift, it’s been a good day,” he informs me. “I need to clear about 50 euros a day to cover my costs. If I can walk away each day with a few euros profit, I’m thankful,” he adds.
He doesn’t even bother to ponder that the license he bought a few years ago to operate the taxi cost him about 200,000 euros but is now worth probably a quarter of that. The objective is just to make it from one day to the next, to survive. It is the anguish born of the basic human need for survival that takes our conversation into darker territory.
His wife gave birth to twins six months ago, his brother has been unemployed for five years and his father’s pension has been reduced to a few hundred euros per month. It begins to sound like the conversations you now hear in supermarket aisles, at post office counters and at bus stops: stories of jobs lost and bills that haven’t been paid are now part of Greece’s daily soundtrack.
Sometimes, perhaps to preserve sanity and shield yourself from further pain, you switch off. You’re sure you have heard some variant of the tale and don’t need to hear it again to appreciate the storyteller’s anxiety.
“Some days, I don’t make anything at all. How are we going to survive?”
Deep breath. Exhale. Silence. What is there to say?
“You were in Brussels: What news can you tell me from there that gives me hope things will get better?”
What can I tell him? About the economist who told me that the Greek economy would probably see a recovery in about a decade? About the MEP who told me that Greece would need four or five generations to fully overcome the range of problems it faces today?
“I need someone to explain to me why I should keep doing this, why I should continue living like this,” he says.
All I can offer him is understanding and the perverse comfort that comes from the fact that he is not alone in being enveloped by doubts about his future. After all, there are 1.3 million unemployed – more than half of whom have been out of work for more than 12 months – and some 400,000 Greeks who have jobs but have not been paid by their employers for the past few months.
“You know, everyone…” I begin.
“No, not everyone,” he responds. “Don’t start a sentence with ‘everyone’ because then there’s no point in us having a conversation.”
“You’re right. A lot of people…”
“OK. I’ll accept ‘a lot of people.’”
And so, I try to express my sympathy for the cabbie’s difficulties and assure him that there are few people in Greece who do not share his misgivings or at least who do not have a loved one whose patience and faith is being tested to breaking point. Consolation? Not in the least.
“You still haven’t answered my question,” he says. “I’m 38, I’ve lived well in the past, I can’t deny that, but what can I believe in now? Tell me what I should be doing.”
Silence, again. How can you tell someone to keep persevering when you’re no longer sure yourself that the rewards will come? How can you console a person trapped in a vise whose jaws are clamped tighter each day by inept leaders and seemingly indifferent partners?
How can you point to others who are succeeding despite the terrible conditions when you know that not everyone has the same opportunities or reserves of boundless optimism and energy? What comfort can you offer when the past is not sustainable but the future is also impossible?
“You know, I’m only able to be out here driving because I’ve received hours of psychological help,” he reveals.
The mental effects of Greece’s economic collapse and the constant uncertainty of the last three years are the onerous secret of the crisis. Yes, there are statistics showing a rise in suicides and indications of deterioration in mental health. Heart attacks are also in the ascendancy. Ultimately, though, it’s impossible to know what pain each person is carrying. When this invisible force reveals itself, it’s traumatizing.
“Driving one night, I thought about what my life might be like when I reach 70,” he confides. “Then, it crossed my mind to turn the steering wheel and end it all.”
It was at this point it became clear he was not looking for words of wisdom but was in search of just words. He simply wanted to have a conversation in the hope that by the morning when he finished his shift, his problem might appear to have been halved rather than doubled.
We continued talking well after arriving at our destination, exchanging words that would, hopefully, hold greater value and last for longer than any tip I could leave.
A couple of days later, not far from where the cab driver revealed his deepest, darkest thoughts, a 50-year-old set fire to himself in the middle of the street. He had reportedly been unemployed for three years.
I thought of the man who drove me home, knowing many others would be wondering whether the person who attempted to commit suicide was someone they knew or someone they’d come across as part of routines that become less normal by the day.