Up to a year ago my son?s classmates were driven to their school in some 90,000-euro 4x4s made for off-road excursions. Parents drove down an entire 200 meters from their homes into the uncompromisingly narrow alley of the school to drop off their kids. In those times students got free laptops from the school. This year, well, things are different, halfway through the year the school did not have books for the pupils.
Taking kids to school has transformed drastically. Recently, I have witnessed the sudden appearance of grandparents replacing the fancy vehicles and dropping the kids off on foot. I overheard one boasting that she gets to see her grandson much more often. ?I see him even for Sunday lunches now because my son and his family don?t go away for weekend breaks anymore.?
One of the grandparents, who is the local pharmacist, was complaining about being overworked. ?Do people get more headaches during a recession?? I asked him jokingly. Sounding like a victim of some unfortunate natural disaster, he replied coldly, ?No, but if you can?t pay your social security, you have no doctors to go to and you expect your pharmacist to do magic and advise you on everything.?
At least the pharmacist has still got a job. This recession, however, has shown many that there is something which is even worse than unemployment! Many public sector workers, teachers and others, have got special government-rate long-term mortgages and loans which are directly deducted from their salaries. For some, the austerity measures? reduction of their salaries eats up the entire remainder of their pay. It must be hell to summon the courage to get up every morning and go to work for a pay check of zero for the unforeseeable future. Because of work you can?t even go looking for a job.
Many of my neighbors who have been forced into early retirement or have closed down their businesses have become instant fishermen-politicians. They arrange a car pool to the sea and go fishing, discussing politics all day. Their arguments are often quite intense and this has brought them closer. Instead of fish, they come home with political theories. A good one I heard was to create a Greek euro controlled by the European Union. They even have a nickname for it, they call it ?Gyro.? Another one is for Greece to pay her debt in holiday vouchers to the foreigners. If you can?t fish well, you might as well use the sea for something!
Unlike the affluent suburbs of Athens, there were no Filipino nannies in our neighborhood. But, thanks to the affordable Albanian nannies, some of the babies? first words in the area were in Albanian. To save all embarrassment, the word ?mother? is the same in both languages. If you pay attention, though, recently the language of the adults has mended itself too. Nowadays people say, ?Put a stick next to the trees to hold them,? and not ?Get an Albanian to put a stick next to the trees to hold them.?
Sometimes the changes are too dramatic for us to comprehend. Rica, our horse, was always an annoyance for the neighborhood because of the alleged smell even from afar. All of a sudden, now, she is so popular that if she talked she could probably run for the mayor?s office. We simply can?t meet the demand on the block for her manure. It seems that there are more and more people growing their own vegetables in the neighborhood. And the smell in the air, even that has changed from stale petrol to a piquant firewood smoke. More and more people are spending their weekends chopping and collecting wood around the suburbs.
A neighbor recommended that I buy a ?high-energy? fire stove. ?I have had a cosmetic one for years and didn?t even notice. It burns too much wood for the amount of heat it produces,? he complained to me the other day. The new ?high-energy? stove has helped his family life as well, he tells me. ?I am spending more time with the kids now, not just when we go collecting wood but also when they leave their cold rooms and come and sit next to the stove in the living room with me. ?We even cook in it,? he announced proudly. Unfortunately though, there is not much wood left in the area and I guess that is why it only took minutes for a huge tree that fell during the last thunderstorm in the city to disappear.
My other neighbors across the road are feeling the irony of the recession in a more appalling but almost comical manner. They always dreamed of replacing their swimming pool with an Olympic-length pool in which their swimming star son could practice regularly at home. The first time I realized they were having economic problems was about a year ago. We were next to their pool disagreeing about the actual official size of an Olympic-size pool when his wife popped her head out of their kitchen window and shouted, ?Don?t worry so much about the length of the pool, tell him how much we owe the banks.? During the recession, it seems that instead of becoming an instant politician like all the men around, she has become more practical and is more interested in home economics rather than a national one. Yesterday, I saw her buying sacks of discounted potatoes which are sold at the town?s large stadium built specifically for the Olympics. Ironically the potatoes from the Olympic stadium will be accompanied by the free-range chickens they keep in their small swimming pool. Apparently they can?t afford to maintain the small pool and didn?t want to spend money on fencing. What will happen to their son?s dreams, I don?t know.
The economic crisis is taking its toll especially on the new generation and the youth are feeling the brunt of the recession most harshly. You can?t expect a 20-year-old to just go fishing when he or she is down. For many of them, it is not what they have lost but what they believe they will never find. A secure future! Nowadays they can?t even fall in love anymore! Economically, even the customary routines of courting are out of reach for them. Many are afraid to even think of marriage let alone starting a family. On this Valentine?s Day my son decided to cancel his restaurant date and conceded to buy his sweetheart a small bouquet of flowers instead. Unfortunately, we had to drive all the way to the cemetery to find a flower shop which has not been shut down. Cemeteries seem to be the only secure businesses in town! At the end I don?t know if we spent more money on the flowers or the gas for the car.
I try to keep injecting positive career ideas into my son?s head. Often, once I do manage to get him excited about an idea and notice his over-enthusiasm, I find myself backpedaling in the face of the economic reality. On the way back from the flower shop he ridiculed me after I encouraged him to look at the light at the end of the tunnel by replying, ?Are you sure there will be a light at the end by the time I get there? They might put a new tax on it and I will have to turn it off as soon as I get there!?