The Real Greek Tragedy: Ancient Beauty and Grim, Modern Despair

By William J. Furney

If the gorgeous gods of ancient Greece could see how people in their beloved country that gave the world the essential freedom of democracy live now, they’d be pulling what little hair they have left in their statuesque heads right out. 

The sage deities would be appalled by the terrible sprawl of the compact, suffocating city of 664,000 people and the wider Greece that’s been embroiled in economic crisis for years. They would be inconsolable at the bedraggled shambles — from the halls of power to the unswept, traffic-clogged streets and graffiti-covered buildings — their one-time earthly home has become. 

For here in Greece, apart from the unpleasant living conditions, it’s almost impossible to survive with the meagre wages many people earn. A decade-long series of bailouts and savage austerity measures designed to rescue the Mediterranean nation from a severe sovereign debt crisis triggered by the global financial meltdown that began in 2007 and was made worse by underreporting of Greek government debt amounting to almost $300 billion have meant life remains tough for many. (The current national debt pile stands at around $379 billion — the second highest debt to GDP ratio in the world, after Japan — with loan repayments stretching for decades, until the end of 2060.)

And so the painful financial programmes enacted in Greece have reduced it to the very ruins that people from all over the world come to see. It’s an economic and cultural irony that the many owners of American and other foreign accents I encountered while visiting classical monuments and modern museums are most likely oblivious to. Perhaps they are just cultural-tourism consumers: paying a price for the experience and not caring all that much about the harsh, if not tragic, reality of the ground. 

“Monthly salaries have been around €500,” Kosta, a 36-year-old Greek man, told me as we walked around the Keramikos area of the city that’s home to an important archaeological site. As he chain-smoked roll-ups and spoke of living with his parents and escaping to Spain next week, for a year, the tall, bearded and slender man with an impressive grasp of English despaired at what his country has become. 

“I have a degree in civil engineering, but the pay is too low,” he said. “They want to pay me just a few hundred euros to do civil engineering work, and I say no. So instead, I’m teaching online.” 

Outraged by the miniscule sums for doing a job, one recent offer he received was for just €300 a month, and Kosta felt compelled to give the company a piece of his furious mind, he said. 

Crumbling: Just like the ancient monuments that tourists from all the world scramble to see in Athens, Greece’s economy remains in ruins. (Photo: William J. Furney)

Greece, under Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, wants more money in people’s pockets, and earlier this year, announced that the minimum wage would rise by 2% at the start of 2022 to €773.50 per month. After taxes and expenses, it surely leaves little to live on, although workers in Greece get 14 and not 12 payments a year. 

The scale of the suffering in this prepossessing European country is as colossal as the towering columns that dot the land. Almost one-third of Greece’s 10 million population — more than 3 million people — were at risk of poverty last year, the Hellenic Statistical Authority reported in June. Its poverty benchmarks are single-family households earning €5,266 or less annually and families with two children on €11,059 or lower per year. 

The hardships Greeks have been enduring were made worse by the pandemic, with jobs lost and salaries slashed as the economy, just like elsewhere, shuddered to a halt. But at a time when the global health emergency is starting to recede, amid an uptick in vaccinations, there are hopeful signs that better times are returning to Greece. 

After contracting by 8.2%  in 2020, with the vital tourism industry decimated, Greece’s economy is forecast to grow by 3.3% this year and 5.4% in 2022, according to projections by the International Monetary Fund, which is expecting a repayment of outstanding €1.5 billion in loans to Greece by 2024.

At the table-top hill Acropolis and its scaffolded Parthenon temple devoted to the beguiling Goddess Athena, who gave Athens its name, I hear an American man talk about the “Temple of Zeus” with gusto, and I wonder what the god of the sky and hurled lightning bolts — whose efforts I experienced a couple of weeks ago, landing into a stormy Athens, from the Greek party island of Mykonos, might think. 

“We are not here to merely amuse you, on your vapid, carbon-heavy travels, as if this was some kind of movie set,” Zeus may well have thundered. 

Meanwhile, the mere mortals below cling to the hardest of lives.

  • Title photograph, of the Parthenon at the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, is by William J. Furney.