journeys at home and abroad
Athens is rather empty – few people on the streets, shops have their shutters down, but relieved to hear it isn’t the economy: those who can afford it head off to the islands on 15 August each year.
However, my little hotel only takes cash and obtaining a receipt is difficult. Even the railway station refused card payment for a ticket. People don’t trust the banks. ‘Capital control’ means that Greeks can only withdraw €60 a day from their accounts and government permission is needed for large international transactions.
Taxes have soared as part of the EU bail-out arrangements but income is not always declared. Tax receipts are not sufficient to keep public services running to standard. It can be hard to get a sheet or a pillow if you’re hospitalised. The state pension has been halved. In happier times pensioners might have been helped out by their working-age children, but with high unemployment the situation is reversed and whole families are now dependent on these meagre pensions.800 meals a day are given out to people in Athens by the Greek Orthodox Church and St Paul’s Anglican Church. I was privileged to be at one of the meal times. The Orthodox priest said grace, ending with ‘Ameen’. About half of those who queue up each day are refugees, half are Greek. Many were thin. An older gentleman in conventional business attire, maintained a silent dignity as he collected his tub of bean stew, plastic spoon and hunk of bread. Most of the food is eaten immediately. No one thinks the meals will be redundant any time soon. I talked to a Greek man in his 50s in Thessaloniki who made irrigation equipment before the financial crash. He’s only worked odd days and weeks since then. He’s held on to his car but hasn’t driven it for years – can’t afford the petrol. He eats macaroni most days: vegetables, fruit and meat are beyond his budget. He pointed in the direction of a nearby refugee camp set up in an old factory on an industrial estate – not a great place, he said, for anyone to live. We Greeks have hearts, he said, but the food & medical aid going into the camps is better than what we have.
The opportunity to be generous to refugees has come at the worst possible time for Greece.