Category Archives: Social issues

Talking with the taxi driver about economics

taxi_harry“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.
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From austerity to Ottocracy: Rehhagel’s return

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

Otto Rehhagel has proved throughout his long career as a soccer player and coach that he has many qualities. Diplomacy was never one of them. “Everyone’s free to say what I want,” he once told journalists. His tendency to gradually assume total control of the German clubs he managed even merited its own term – Ottocracy.

Yet, at the age of 74, Rehhagel is being called on by his homeland to show tact and sensitivity on a mission to Greece, which was his adopted home between 2001 and 2010 when he coached the Greek national team. Bild newspaper provided the rather surprising news on Wednesday that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had chosen Rehhagel to go on a goodwill mission to Athens in a bid to give relations between the two countries a boost and ensure that German tourists give the Greek economy a lift over the summer.

Although Rehhagel will reportedly meet with President Karolos Papoulias and Prime Minister Antonis Samaras during the visit, his assignment appears to be the latest attempt at low-level micro-diplomacy between Germany and Greece.

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Where art thou?

It was a poignant way to open what is likely to be a troubled academic year. In his customary message to elementary and middle school teachers and pupils, Archbishop Ieronymos, the head of the Church of Greece, admitted that the older generation has failed in its task to bequeath a better world upon the younger generation.

“The world that we have made for our children is unfair and divided by a deep fissure that cuts through all societies and splits them into those who are prosperous and those who are not,” he said. Nobody can doubt the accuracy of the archbishop’s assessment of the mess being passed on to young people in Greece and around the world.

However, the rapidly deteriorating economic and social circumstances perhaps demand that Ieronymos adopt a more decisive role than that of a detached commentator. The Church of Greece, though, remains bafflingly silent on the crucial issues bedeviling Greece today. The rise and condemnable behavior of far-right Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn) is one of the worrying developments that the church has yet to take a position on.

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Trying times

It was one of those coincidences that fate conjures up every now and then when you are plugged into music as you make your way through the city.

The first few bars of Roberta Flack’s Tryin’ Times played through my earphones as a dishevelled man boarded the train. There was nothing remarkable about him and it soon became apparent that he was a drug addict – begging for money and spinning a story about a hospitalized child – like many others that trudge through Athens’s trains every day in the hope that they’ll raise enough money for their next fix.

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Charity begins at home

Rarely could charity have had such negative connotations as on Wednesday in Syntagma Square, central Athens, where neofascist Chryssi Avgi (Golden Dawn) handed out free food to passers-by, as long as they could prove they were Greek.

The party, which gained 7 percent of the vote in the June elections, was completely open about the fact that it had taken a political choice to feed just Greeks. The sociopathic nature of this decision is self-evident. The fact that the event was a bare-faced publicity stunt is also clear. Golden Dawn’s decision to use state funding (taxpayers’ money) for “good causes” is a direct challenge to the parties accused of consistently pocketing or wasting public funds. It underlines that Golden Dawn is a product of the political system’s chronic apathy.

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Fear itself

Fear is a sentiment that Greeks have learned to live with over the past couple of years. As the thread by which the country hangs grows ever thinner, fear has begun to pervade all aspects of life. It is so prevalent and has been lingering for so long that most people have become desensitized, blocking from their minds the worst scenarios that could lie ahead.

Every now and then, though, there is a jolt to the system that reminds us of how precarious Greece’s situation is and how there are about 11 million people clinging to this fraying thread, hoping that it will somehow repair itself before it snaps and they are cast into the dark valley below.

This week, there have been plenty of reminders of just how close the abyss is. Perhaps the most shocking came on Tuesday when during a Skai TV report about drugs shortages, a woman’s cries could be heard from inside a pharmacy. “Where am I going to find my medication?” she screamed with a fear that pierced through the shield of inurement that Greeks drag along with them wherever they go these days.

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Greece’s long, painful suicide

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis for Cartoon Movement (http://www.cartoonmovement.com/p/6035)

There are many ways one can look upon Dimitris Christoulas’s decision to end his life in front of Parliament on Wednesday. Each has a different interpretation, each has different implications, but no matter which one you choose, they will all fill you with sorrow.

On a personal level, it is a tragedy that a 77-year-old man should feel so discouraged by what he saw around him, so appalled by his own financial misfortune and the prospect of scrounging from garbage cans to survive, that he should choose to shoot himself in the center of Athens.

One can feel nothing but despair that an active member of his community should feel so alone that he should opt to exit society in such a dramatic way. It tells us of the isolation and hopelessness that many around us feel. Lest we forget, it brings us face to face with the impact of the crisis and the flawed economic polices it has spawned. We see more clearly the people who have lost their jobs, businesses, homes and aspirations. It reminds us that the human cost of the so-called fiscal adjustment makes debates about the political cost irrelevant.

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