The secret of living on just 517 euros a month

The meeting room at the Zografou senior citizens’ center (KAPI) was full. For many elderly Greek men, it has taken the place of the traditional cafe, or kafeneio, which they can no longer afford. «I come here mainly for the air conditioning,» one man said. «But I can have a coffee and a yogurt for just 30 cents, and so I save money.» Grandparents who visit spas and sell their stocks and shares to go on cruises and skiing holidays are not the norm in the Athens of today. Many of the city’s elderly are instead hoisting placards at street demonstrations and demanding higher pensions. «In the those days, we didn’t have proper public transport. It used to take me an hour to get to work,» said Dimitris Papaconstantinou, who gets a monthly pension of just 517 euros after working for 37 years. He is talking about his pre-retirement years when he worked first as an industrial worker before opening his own cafe. For the last 25 years of his working life, he ran the canteen at the Aigaleo taxation bureau. His wife Vera now works as a house cleaner to make ends meet. «She cleans two or three houses,» Papaconstantinou says. «I don’t like her doing that but she needs to send money to her son in Moldova. She is working for a purpose, so she doesn’t put any money into the household. We both manage on my 517 euros.» Papaconstantinou met Vera when her son was very young. Vera’s landlady prodded her during the courtship, saying that «the fact that he wants to get to know your son means he’s a good person.» Vera agreed to go out with him, and they have now been married for two years. They say they never argue. He puts no money aside for healthcare. Everything he has saved over the years he spends on himself and his wife. He says he isn’t afraid of the future. «If we didn’t dip into my savings, how would we manage?» Papaconstantinou said. «If the engine stops running, well… You know when my first wife fell ill, we went to doctors, did everything. And to no end.» He and his first wife had no children, so now at the age of 67, all he cares about is to live with dignity, which for him means not going without the basics. «I have six radiators that run on night rates, but in winter we only turn on the one in the bedroom, otherwise it would cost more than 1,000 euros a month,» he said. Entertainment is out of the question, apart from an occasional Sunday drive with his wife in his old «rattle-trap.» «We go down to the coast and back,» he said. «There’s no way we can afford to eat out or even have a sweet. We just take the sea air and go home again.» But they have no complaints. Vera is lively and chatty, although she says her Greek isn’t as good as she would like. When she is at work, he stays at home «like a prisoner,» he says. «I don’t even go to the kafeneio,» he says. «I used to smoke three packs a day, but I quit when I realized I couldn’t afford it. The only kafeneio I have now is this here.» He points to his newspaper, Rizospastis, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Greece. Rizospastis is «the only one I can get news from,» he said. It’s hard to see friends, too, he commented. It’s too expensive. «Yesterday it was the 62nd anniversary of the founding of EPON (the wartime Communist youth movement), here in Moschato,» he said. «My friends there asked me to go for an ouzo afterward. I didn’t go. I went straight home.» But he says he does go to demonstrations by pensioners. «People are angrier now,» he said. «Once older people used to think there was no use in going on marches. But now they do. There are lots of people who can’t even afford bread,» he said. But does he believe the demonstrations will achieve anything? Yes, he says. «If a baby doesn’t cry, its mother won’t feed it,» he said. «If we don’t go out onto the streets and protest, the government will think we are managing.» Generosity Vassilis Philippopoulos talks about his vegetable garden in the village, and the onions he wants to plant. «Wherever he goes, he still harks back to his village,» his wife says. «Not that I pretend to be ‘European’, but after a few months, I get sick of life there.» Not all of the nine children in Vassilis’s family could continue their studies after leaving school. Vassilis himself became a house painter. Evthymia has never worked, so they were never accustomed to having much money. Perhaps that is why they not only manage on 517 euros a month but have extra money to give to others. On a Sunday, there is an offer to sit down with them to lunch. Their home has three floors – the upper two are for their daughters. Vassilis and Evthymia still live on the ground floor, which once housed the whole family. They also have a home in the village, but that means their bills double. Still, they invite visitors to the village «to try the local wine.» «I’m thinking of having the phone at the village house cut off. It’s too much,» he said. «My daughters have those mobile things. I’ll get one too so they can find me. Electricity, water, telephone – you need a whole wage just to pay for utilities.» But none of this stops them from being generous. The 517-euro pension might not be much, but Evthymia and Vassilis gave what they could to the tsunami victims. Vassilis also quit smoking to save money and shops at the street markets after 2 p.m., when prices plummet. «Like I said, by the 22nd of the month, our money is gone,» he said. «If my daughters didn’t give me the odd 50 euros, we wouldn’t get by.» This article first appeared in the June 5 edition of K, Kathimerini’s Sunday supplement.

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