The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, March 16, 2016 2:54 am

Feeling Greece's pain

Frank Gray | The Journal Gazette

While the world’s stock exchanges quivered nervously about the effect of Greece defaulting on billions of dollars it owes, some local residents with ties to the country said they have stayed in close touch with family members there, monitoring their welfare.

"Things are a disaster," said George Gogos, a tailor whose entire extended family lives in Greece. "People are just surviving."

Big cities have a huge problem, Gogos says. People are short of cash, especially since the government limited withdrawals from banks to 60 euros a day.

"In the villages, they have it easier," he said. "In the villages, you have a garden. You can go through tough times."

Gogos has a brother who lives in a medium-sized city with about 15,000 people, and he owns two restaurants. "He has no business at all except special events," such as a wedding or baptism party.

Part of the problem is that rich people, the very rich, have taken their money out of the country, Gogos said. Now that the government has limited daily withdrawals from banks, people are spending as little as possible.

Greece owes billions of dollars to the International Monetary Fund and European Union creditors.

"Everyone wants to be in the EU. They thought it would be better to go with the euro." When they did, though, the price of everything doubled, Gogos said.

"They promised too much, and now they want to take it all back," Gogos said. "It’s horrible, but what are you going to do?"

With a vote coming Sunday on whether to accept a new economic plan dictated by the EU, some want to say no, which would mean Greece might leave the EU and go back to using the drachma. Gogos says at least one sister will vote no.

Nikos Nakos, a local attorney who has what he calls tons of relatives in Greece, says his family is fine. One uncle has a hotel at the base of Agamemnon’s tomb, which is supported by tourism, Greece’s largest industry, and an orchard.

"But a lot of people are struggling," he said.

The government didn’t think far enough ahead, Nakos said. People who took retirement have seen their pensions cut, even though they haven’t been paid for years. Meanwhile, younger people can’t find jobs.

There has also been inflation, Nakos said. Since Greece joined the EU, coffee costs 2 euros a cup, which sounds cheap, but when the exchange rate is considered, the cost of a cup of coffee had actually soared.

Christos Nakos, Nikos’ father, said people in villages are getting by, but what he called "little people," who might own a grocery, are having to close because no one has money to buy anything. Meanwhile, jobs are hard to find, and refugees from Pakistan, Albania, Libya and other places are creating more competition for them.

Tom Gountras came here to go to school and ended up getting a job as an engineer with the city and staying. He said his sister has a restaurant that relies on tourists from June through September, and business is good. Her children are dentists and police officers and teachers, so they are doing well.

Unemployment, though, is sky-high among some groups, Gountras said. Greece has no heavy industry, so it used to be that if you graduated from college, you waited for the government to give you a job. That’s not happening now, he said, and unemployment among young college graduates is about 50 percent.

Meanwhile, money lent to Greece by the EU and IMF was not used to attack the root of Greece’s problems. It was used not to create jobs but to save the banks, Gountras said.

And taxes are a problem. Greeks have had heavy taxes levied against them, but they find ways to avoid paying them, he said. In the rest of the EU, people pay taxes willingly. That’s something the people in Greece aren’t used to, Gountras said.

When Greece joined the EU, it just wasn’t ready, he said. They didn’t seem to understand that "when you join the club, you’ve got to dance the same dance."


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