Dody Tsiantar / Al Jazeera America

Worn out and anxious, Greeks try to maintain a semblance of normality

Frustration and disappointment over ongoing crisis has taken its toll on Athenians

ATHENS — As Greece’s economic fate and continuance in the eurozone is debated in Brussels, shell-shocked Athenians, reeling from two chaotic weeks that have witnessed a snap referendum and the imposition of capital controls, spent much of the weekend trying to grab even a small semblance of normality — if you can call standing in line for a daily allotment of 60 euros normal.

After the Greek parliament authorized Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’ government to negotiate a third bailout tied to a package of austerity measures, residents of the working class suburb of Peristeri — the third-largest municipality in greather Athens, with a population of 140,000 — filled the cafes in the area’s pedestrian market on Saturday.

It is a common scene in Greece’s cafe culture. But the lack of empty seats does not translate to bustling trade for proprietors.

“You’d think the cafes and bars are busy, from the look of it, but don’t be fooled,” said waitress Maria Pappaporifiriou, 29. “People sit here all day nursing a single cup of coffee. I’ve even seen two people sit down and order one coffee and split it. “

Nearby every shop along the streets here advertised special deals — everything seemed to be marked down by as much as 50 percent. No one, however, seemed to be buying much of anything.

“The crisis has closed the marketplace. Absolutely nothing is happening,” said Demitrios Kontopanos, 33, an employee in a clothing shop that sold mostly T-shirts and jeans, as he smoked a cigarette on the steps inside the store. In a 20-minute period, not a single customer entered the shop.

He, other employees and shop owners in about half a dozen establishments all reported the same dismal fact: Business was down anywhere from 40 to 60 percent. And since the country’s banks closed at the end of June, some retailers, like Vasso Tzima, 55, estimate sales may have even dropped by as much as 80 percent.

“People are insecure and uneasy,” she said from behind a small desk in the back of the cozy clothing shop that she has run for the last 30 years. “They do not know what is going to happen next. Buying something new to wear is the last thing on their minds.”

Fruit vendor Vasili Vasilakopoulos
Dody Tsiantar / Al Jazeera America

Fruit vendor Christos Vasilakopoulos, 48, said people are so short of cash they won’t even buy a piece of fruit.

“People are thinking about how they spend every euro,” he said.

But still he continues to peddle goods in the hope of scraping together a living wage.

“I have to do this,” said Vasilakopoulous, who used to work the fields outside of Athens before the crisis. “It’s the only way I can feed my four children and two grandchildren.”

Peristeri, which literally means “pigeon” or “dove” in Greek, lies in the northwestern part of the city. Seventy percent of the neighborhood voted “no” in the July 5 referendum on the austerity measures demanded on Greece by its creditors.

Graffiti and posters pushing for “Oxi” — the Greek word for no — were still all over the neighborhood. On Saturday, however, many residents seemed bitter and confused by Tsipras’ apparent about-face. On one wall closed to the public housing development, someone had freshly painted in red the words: “Tsipras betrayed the No [vote].”

The reaction is understandable. The prime minister campaigned for voters to turn down the European’s bailout offer that included stern budget cuts and pension reforms and they rewarded him with a huge margin. But within days, Tsipras proposed a similar package of measures and managed to secure lawmakers approval for his government to negotiate the terms in Brussels with the country’s European and international creditors.  

“I voted ‘no’ even though I know it is going to be hard. I’m just sick of all this uncertainty. I want it to end,” said Yiorgos Tzokas, 43, the owner of a neighborhood convenience store, who said his mostly cash business has not been that hugely impacted since people always will buy basic foods and beverages.

“I’m disappointed in Tsipras. If he was going to back the measures anyway, why did he put us through a referendum? It has just destroyed everyone’s well being.”

Disappointment mixes with anxiety of the future for many in Greece.

Anastasia Doufexis, 45 and her husband, Spiro, certainly feel that way. Since 1989, they’ve run a tiny business in Peristeri that manufactures men’s clothing.

They employed 13 people and were hopeful that they had built a strong economic foundation for their two children, aged 18 and 16. But the crisis has hit them hard.

Since 2010, they have gradually let go all but one employee and Doufexis estimates that business is down 60 percent. Suppliers are demanding to be paid in cash, squeezing their cash flow even more. The only reason they are still open, she says, is that they sell pants to the country’s navy.

The crisis has changed the way they think about money, she said matter-of-factly without a hint of bitterness.

“We have stopped spending. We live only with what we need,” she said “We save what we can for emergencies and we use our money for only what is essential.”

Her 18-year old son just passed the university entrance exams and his results were good enough to get him into a program to study mechanical engineering at the university in Volos, a port city about 203 miles from Athens.

It’s something they’ve worked toward for years, spending, like so many Greek parents, thousands of euros to get their children extra tutoring. They won’t be sending him to university in Volos though — it simply costs too much to cover his housing and boarding. Instead, he’ll end up attending a small technical college in Athens, the family said.

“All we want is for this uncertainty and anxiety to end,” she said. “We want to know what is going to happen, good or bad, we just want to know so we can put all this behind us.”

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