European Debt Crisis

Drachma dreams

Marketplace Staff May 21, 2010
European Debt Crisis

Drachma dreams

Marketplace Staff May 21, 2010


Tess Vigeland: Looks like we’re officially in a stock market correction. Stocks dropped again this week. The Dow is now off some 10 percent from its recent highs. Many fingers are pointing goes to Greece and the European Union’s fragmented efforts to contain a debt crisis there. How and why is all this affecting your wallet? We’ll get to that in a moment. But first, a story from the streets of Athens about how government austerity measures are affecting their wallets.

Joanna Kakissis reports.

Joanna Kakissis: It’s two o’ clock in the morning in a small, smoky club in central Athens. The opening act — a young man in acid-washed jeans and a RUN DMC shirt — is trying to coax a few tired couples to dance to his songs of love and pain and bad, bad luck. It’s not working. This club, a place where Greeks used to dance on the tables, is mostly empty. And backstage, the star act, Giorgos Marinis, is talking about the economy.

Giorgos Marinis: I think about it all the time, though I have to crack jokes just to break the stress sometimes. I just have to believe the cuts the government is making are going to make this country better, at least for my kids.

Marinis has a 21-year-old son and an 18-year-old daughter to support and little cash to spare. He refuses to run up huge credit bills. He makes less money now than when he was performing in the 1990s. And the future also looks bleak — he’s expecting a big wage cut soon. And he won’t have much a pension when he retires in 10 years.

When I ask him how this all makes him feel, he pulls out a photo of Stelios Kazantzidis, a famous Greek singer who spoke to the poor.

Marinis speaking in Greek

See this man’s face, he says? Do you see the pain? Greece has always been full of so many metaphorical riches, he says, except money.

But metaphorical riches are not cutting it for many Greek families nowadays. They’re strapped, they know their country is inefficient and corrupt and has to change.

But most economists here say that will mean at least five years of a prolonged recession. And for Greeks who make, on average, only $17,000 a year, the cuts will cause real pain, says Jens Bastian, a German economist who has lived here for 13 years.

Jens Bastian: That is going to be enormously difficult in terms of adjustment, in terms of making ends meet. How will you pay your mortgage? How will you finance the school fees? Where can you start making cuts? And here I’m starting to observe already that private consumption is going down.

Natasa Pirgopoulou and two young daughters at home in Athens. She’s a microbiologist’s assistant; her husband, Konstantinos Skoufos, is a driver for a local municipality. By Greek standards, the family is well off, bringing in something like $2,500 a month. They’ve mostly paid off their nice suburban apartment with its little fireplace where, on cold spring days, the girls roast chestnuts.

But Natasa’s bonuses got cut in March. Konstantinos’s salary got cut last month. These days, they seldom eat out and rarely go clothes shopping. Konstantinos says there’s no relief in sight. He expects the government will soon have to impose even tougher austerity measures.

Konstantinos Skoufos: I don’t think what the government’s done is really enough, as much as it hurts. I just wonder by taking money out of pockets, how is that supposed to promote development? We need to start producing something, to be an efficient country. Every Greek wants that, but we just don’t trust the government anymore. All these years, all I’ve heard is slogans and lies. That’s why everyone I know is so pessimistic right now.

His wife, Natasa, wishes Greece hadn’t joined the euro. Everything was less expensive when Greece used its own currency, the drachma, she says.

Natasa Pirgopoulou: If our politicians had been decent and organized, I think we could have made it with our little drachma. Maybe it never would have been as big as the euro, but we would have pride and be independent and be just fine. But politicians never do anything but let us down.

Economist Jens Bastian agrees. He says this sense of disappointment has even reached his 13-year-old daughter.

Jens Bastian: She comes home from time to time from school now and asks, “Why did we get into this crisis? Why are we being criticized?”

Back at the nightclub, Giorgos Marinis is in his tiny dressing room. Two big photographs of his children are taped to his mirror. He’s practicing “Thalasses,” a popular song about uncertain times.

Marinis, singing “Thalasses”

Oh, the seas of worry that dissolve me, he sings. The dirty deeds of the world, the bitterness. Oh seas, how we judge, we are left alone, with our dreams unfulfilled.

In the last few months, he says, he sings that song practically every night. It’s by far the most popular request.

In Athens, I’m Joanna Kakissis for Marketplace.

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