SOCIETY

Anthoula, the university cleaner Varoufakis sees as a shining example

The students have been ribbing her all the time lately: “Anthoula, your name will open all kinds of doors!” “Who’d’ve thought it?” she laughed. “I’m a celebrity. At my age!”

Anthoula has become something of a celebrity after she was mentioned twice as an example by Greece’s new Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, most recently in an interview with Germany’s Die Zeit Online on Wednesday.

“When I was still working at the University of Athens, there was a cleaning lady there named Anthoula,” Varoufakis said. “We often had to work until midnight. Although her workday had ended much earlier, Anthoula cleaned up after us and unlocked the rooms for us the next morning. Guess who was let go first as part of the austerity program: Anthoula.”

Kathimerini tracked down Anthoula Tsouvela later that same day, working at the university, even though she has been in a labor pool on reduced pay since October 2013.

“I can’t just let the building go,” the 51-year-old civil servant said. “If I’m just going to be sitting around, I might as well help. There are no other cleaners on the afternoon shift. It also helps to pass the time and I can fool myself into thinking that nothing has changed.”

At the back of her mind she hopes that one day she will be hired back to work properly. For the time being she’s receiving two-thirds of her salary, which had already undergone a significant reduction as part of public sector payroll cuts.

Tsouvela began working at the University of Athens in 1999 on a project-based contract. She met Varoufakis in 2000 when he returned to Greece from the United States to take up a new job at the institution, where he had created a new doctoral program in the Economics Department, and was teaching, he recently wrote in the Greek magazine Lifo, a new kind of work ethic.

“The doctoral students attended many hours of classes every day – something unheard of until then – and we taught them for many more hours than our contracts stipulated, without getting paid even a euro more, often until 9 p.m…. Anthoula, the cleaning lady, was one of the people who wanted to help us in our efforts. She agreed to start her shift a little bit later and stay in the building until 9 p.m., as a cleaner, guard and solver of any problems that may crop up,” Varoufakis wrote in Lifo.

In 2006, Tsouvela was offered permanency and a promotion to supervisor, but that didn’t affect her dedication to her job.

“So many nights, sometimes even Saturdays, Anthoula would be there to greet students and professors, to open and lock up the lecture theaters, to make sure the toilets were clean, even to switch on the projector when there was a lecture or a conference,” wrote Varoufakis.

“What I remember about Mr Varoufakis is that he was a gentleman, with a capital G,” said Tsouvela. “I have a lot of respect for him and was a bit intimidated by him at first. He tried to put me at ease. ‘Don’t address me in the the plural. I’m not a monster. I won’t bite.’ I gradually relaxed and we got along very well. I love him and I am so proud of him.”

As supervisor of sanitation at the university premises on Evripidou Street in downtown Athens, she did almost every job that was required. “I ran errands for teachers and students, fixed whatever I could that was broken, even electrical things and plumbing, made photocopies, everything,” she told Kathimerini. Now she’s back to cleaning. “But there’s no crew. How could I leave it like this? Kids are coming in and out all the time. You know what a mess that makes?”