- Associated Press - Thursday, November 1, 2012

ATHENS (AP) — A sign taped to a wall in an Athens hospital appealed for civility from patients. “The doctors on duty have been unpaid since May,” it read. “Please respect their work.”

Patients and their relatives glanced up briefly and moved on, hardened to such messages of gloom. In a country in which about 1,000 people lose their jobs each day, legions more are still employed but haven’t seen a paycheck in months. What used to be an anomaly has become commonplace, and those who have jobs that pay on time consider themselves the exception to the rule.

To the casual observer, all might appear well in Athens. Traffic still hums by, restaurants and bars are open, people sip iced coffees at sunny sidewalk cafes. But scratch the surface and you find a society in free fall, ripped apart by the most vicious financial crisis the country has seen in a half-century.

It has been three years since Greece‘s government informed its fellow members in the 17-country group that uses the euro that its deficit was far higher than originally reported. It was the fuse that sparked financial turmoil still weighing heavily on eurozone countries. Countless rounds of negotiations ensued as European countries and the International Monetary Fund struggled to determine how best to put a lid on the crisis and stop it from spreading.

The result: Greece had to introduce stringent austerity measures in return for two international rescue loan packages worth a total of 240 billion euros ($312.84 billion), slashing salaries and pensions and hiking taxes.

The reforms have been painful, and the country faces a sixth year of recession.

Life in Athens is often punctuated by demonstrations big and small, sometimes on a daily basis. Rows of shuttered shops stand between the restaurants that have managed to stay open. Vigilantes roam inner city neighborhoods, vowing to “clean up” what they claim the demoralized police have failed to do. Right-wing extremists beat migrants, anarchists beat the right-wing thugs, and desperate local residents quietly cheer one side or the other as society grows increasingly polarized.

“Our society is on a razor’s edge,” Public Order Minister Nikos Dendias said recently, after striking shipyard workers broke into the grounds of the Defense Ministry. “If we can’t contain ourselves, if we can’t maintain our social cohesion, if we can’t continue to act within the rules … I fear we will end up being a jungle.”

Crumbling living standards

Vassilis Tsiknopoulos runs a stall at Athens’ central fish market and has been working since age 15. He used to make a tidy profit, he says, pausing to wrap red mullet in a paper cone for a customer. But families can’t afford to spend much anymore, and many restaurants have shut down.

The 38-year-old fishmonger now barely breaks even.

“I start work at 2:30 a.m. and work till the afternoon, until about 4 p.m. Shouldn’t I have something to show for that? There’s no point in working just to cover my costs. … Tell me, is this a life?”

The fish market’s president, Spyros Korakis, says there has been a 70 percent drop in business over the past three years. Above the din of fish sellers shouting out prices and customers jostling for a better deal, Mr. Korakis explained how the days of big spenders were gone, with people buying ever smaller quantities and choosing cheaper fish.

Private businesses have closed down in the thousands. Unemployment stands at a record 25 percent, with more than half of Greece‘s young people out of work. Caught between plunging incomes and ever-increasing taxes, families are finding it hard to make ends meet. Higher heating fuel prices have meant many apartment tenants have opted not to buy heating fuel this year. Instead, they’ll make do with blankets, gas heaters and firewood to get through the winter. Lines at soup kitchens have grown longer.

At the end of the day, as the fish market gradually packed up, a beggar crawled around the stalls, picking up the fish discarded onto the floor and into the gutters.

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