The 14 Words

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Staring into the abyss

Inside a despairing Greek nation where families queue at soup kitchens and women threaten to jump to their deaths as job losses mount

When Eleni Nikolaidou agreed to help a university research project, she was asked to plough through 6,000 newspapers from World War II.

Life was so difficult for the Greeks under Nazi occupation, she discovered, that papers printed ‘Recipes for Hunger’ on their front pages to help readers survive the deprivations of a dark chapter in history.

These included recipes for fried radishes and greens scavenged from parks, along with tips such as grating an aubergine on top of boiled rice to give the look of meat.

One item especially disturbed her: a suggestion that families collect the crumbs from their table after eating to make into a meal at the end of the week. ‘These were terrible times and thousands died of hunger, especially in Athens,’ said Nikolaidou, who is also a teacher. ‘But it struck me as outrageous that people were so hungry they had to keep the crumbs from their table to survive.’ She was so moved she turned her research into a book, reprinting many of the recipes and suggestions. To her surprise Starvation Recipes has become a big hit — a chilling symbol of the stark times confronting Greece once again.

What is so shockingly evident as you walk around Athens are the awful parallels between that war-time era and today. The soup kitchens, the beggars, the pensioners picking up discarded vegetables after street markets close, the homeless scavenging for food in bins. These are the signs that can be seen.

Less noticeable is the quiet desperation of dignified people who turn off heating despite the cold and share dwindling savings with jobless relatives. Or the workers unable to afford fares home and the children fainting in school from hunger.

It is three years since the financial tsunami struck Greece with dreadful force, exposing the most shocking example of a country living beyond its means. Three years of savage austerity — of sudden new taxes, salary cuts, job losses, rising prices and falling demand — have left the nation shattered and its citizens locked in a spiral of despair.

‘There are so many similarities between these periods,’ said Nikolaidou. ‘Of course, it was the Germans then, and once again the Germans are the dominant figures in our crisis now.’

Greeks seem torn between outrage at their venal politicians, anxiety over the future and the fierce anger they direct at Germany for demanding tough measures as the price of a European Union bailout to allow their country to continue to function.

Anguish: A police officer escorts a relative of Lambrousi Harikleia who was threatening to jump from an office block

The imposition of the latest package of conditions by the German-dominated EU and International Monetary Fund provoked riots last weekend, while newspapers made ugly references to the Nazis, and politicians talked of living under a ‘German jackboot’ as Europe’s festering wounds burst open.

Greece’s EU-imposed, unelected government has backed another devastating cutback in their economy — slashing the minimum wage, savaging welfare payments, sacking one-fifth of state workers — but many fear this is just one more chapter in a long-running tragedy.

It is only eight months since a previous package of austerity measures was supposed to solve everything. On the streets, people debate whether Greece should accept this latest deal or default on its debts and leave the euro, with all the devastating repercussions a return to the drachma would bring. They are damned whatever they do. Only one thing is certain: this nation of 11 million people is being slowly crucified on the cross of its adherence to the single currency.

It does not take long to discover the depth of the pain. Walking near Omonia Square, a central shopping area in Athens, I came across a large crowd. A man was pointing to a balcony three storeys up on an office block, where I could see the dangling legs of a distraught woman who was threatening to jump.

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