The Greek Meltdown: Putting the Hell in Hellas

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Simela Pantzartzi / EPA

Greek protesters shout slogans during a demonstration in central Athens on Oct. 5, 2011

The woman says her name is Yianna. With her long, shiny brown hair and ruffled blouse, she looks out of place sitting on a plastic crate with two bruised, toothless people who live in a battered alley in central Athens. Less than a year ago, she was running a small ouzo bar that she owned on the island of Chios. The recession slowed business, her taxes surged, and she could no longer pay her bills. At 37, she moved to Athens to look for work. Still jobless months later, she is out of money and has stuffed everything she owns into a bright blue duffel bag. "I never thought I'd find myself here," she says, looking down. "But here I am."

And here too is Greece, the down-and-out member of Europe's family of nations. The country is facing default even after more than a year of painful austerity measures that have squeezed its citizens and stalled its already weak economy. Unemployment is at more than 16% — and about 40% for young people. Crime, personal bankruptcies, homelessness and suicides are all increasing. Yet international lenders say the country isn't trying hard enough to reform its economy and rein in spending. Greece has promised to slash 30,000 additional public-sector jobs and impose a new property tax that will be collected through electric bills. While Europe's leaders wrestle over how to save the continent's collective economy, many Greeks are already living in the reality of a developed economy gone terribly wrong.

"It seems like [the austerity cuts] will never be enough and that it will never end," says Anita Papachristopoulou, a 44-year-old environmental scientist who works for the Athens Water Supply & Sewerage Co. As a civil servant, she's seen her salary cut in the past year and worries the new measures will endanger her job. She's so worried about keeping up with her bills and the payment of new taxes that she has little energy to plan for the future. "Maybe I should leave Greece," she says, sighing. "I feel like I'm being pushed out."

Papachristopoulou, who lives in a pretty neighborhood near the Acropolis, used to love walking around Athens. Now it depresses her. She sees grandmothers in worn dresses asking for spare change, homeless men in suit pants sleeping on benches, drug addicts slumped in front of the National Archaeological Museum, home of Greece's national treasures. "And the tourists see this?" she says. "It's shameful."

Inside the museum, Eleni Constantinidi works as a curator of the prehistoric collection. A 43-year-old mother of a toddler, she makes just under $2,000 a month, even with a doctorate. But she says she still counts her blessings. Her husband has a good sales job. She's cautiously optimistic that she won't lose her job in the latest round of cuts, but she adds, "How can anybody be sure?" She has marched in nearly every antiausterity demonstration. "I want to fight," she says. "I want to be optimistic for my son because I want to believe — I have to believe — that he will have a future here."

There are some places in Athens where the economic crisis has smothered what little hope remained. The central-Athens neighborhood of Agios Panteleimonas, anchored by a cathedral named after a saint of compassion, was once a place filled with neoclassical houses and frequented by famous actors. It was already in decline when the economic crisis began. Now its buildings are abandoned, the streets filled with trash. Dozens of shops around the square have closed. Only five remain, including the cosmetics-and-jewelry shop that 58-year-old Spyros Yannatos has run for 22 years. He says he's always paid his taxes, but now that business is down 50%, he may no longer be able to. "I have always followed the rules, and my country is rewarding me by bankrupting me," he says.

Father Maximus Papagiannis is the priest at Agios Panteleimonas. Every day he listens to stories of despair, he says. Some people show up simply because they're hungry. The church serves hot meals to 160 people every day and hands out care packages filled with flour, rice, oil and beans.

Yianna, the former ouzo-bar owner, also eats at a soup kitchen. "I'm not giving up," she says, managing a smile. "But I'm getting tired." She sits outside a shop that sells cheap Chinese clothes and finishes her donated meal of lentils, salad and bread. Then she curls up on the sidewalk against the building, rests her head on the duffel bag pillowed with her clothes and closes her eyes.