Reprinted with permission by Nikolia Apostolou. This story appeared in USAToday, Nov. 15, 2016.
ATHENS — When President Obama stood in the shadows of Acropolis and talked about the crippling impact of austerity measures on Greece, I thought, wow, I could have told you that.
After all, my grandparents were collateral damage. And my father is next.
My grandparents’ story starts five decades ago — like thousands of Greeks who left the country in the 1950s and ’60s to find work after the devastating Greek civil war, my grandparents went to Brazil.
In Brazil, they worked hard and eventually opened a coffee shop and a clothing store. They were doing well but didn’t want to stay there forever. After seven years, they moved back to Greece.
In Athens, Grandpa sold children’s toys from a stand in Omonia Square, until he found a job selling watches and clothing in a shop. By the 1970s, my grandparents had earned enough to become their own bosses again, opening a small coffee shop near the Acropolis.
Grandpa paid his pension contributions. According to the law at the time, he couldn’t cover his wife, so Grandma never had her own pension. When they reached their mid-60s and closed their café to retire in the early 1990s, they lived off his benefits.
In the beginning it was OK. They didn’t travel much. Nor did they eat out.
Then, in the mid-1990s, like thousands of Greeks, Grandpa decided to invest some of his savings in the Athens stock market. Politicians were urging Greeks to invest and take advantage of the growing economy. Stockbroker offices opened up in neighborhoods and villages throughout the country.
Nikolia Apostolu with a Syrian refugee child. Apostolu has been covering the Greek financial crisis and the Syrian refugee plight for more than two years now.
It was a heady time that turned into a frenzy. People sold their houses to play the stock market. Then in 1999, the bubble burst. Millions of people lost money, and the public pension funds went into the red. Allegations of fraud and insider trading were rampant. But nobody was charged with misdoings.
In 2001 when Greece adopted the euro, we were excited, though we thought the currency exchange wasn’t equal. Why should 1 euro have to be 340 drachmas, while 1 euro was 0.5 German marks? We weren’t economists.
Before the euro, a newspaper would cost 100 drachmas, or 30 euro cents, the U.S. equivalent of 33 cents. After the euro, the paper cost 1 euro, or $1.12. The same happened with potatoes, tomatoes and so on. We didn’t need to be economists to see the consequences of bringing together widely disparate economies adopting a single currency as part of the eurozone.
Grandpa, a proud man, never complained to me. But his habits slowly changed. He started attending anti-government protests. While watching the news, he’d curse the government.
He also stopped buying newspapers. That was something I couldn’t accept. A man who had worked for more than 45 years wasn’t able to afford a newspaper anymore. From then on, I’d always bring him a paper so he could indulge in one of his few pleasures.
In 2004, Grandpa was diagnosed with four brain tumors. A week later, we watched the Athens Olympics together. We wondered how much the spectacle cost taxpayers. Such an extravaganza seemed out of place in a small, troubled country like Greece.
More than $11 billion was spent on stadiums that now sit unused. Other funding went to much-needed infrastructure, however, like the subway and a new Athens airport.
A few months after the impressive opening ceremony, my grandfather passed away in his bed, surrounded by family. Grandma moved to an apartment across the street from my parents. She received 80% of her late husband’s pension and could just make ends meet.
Since the Greek fiscal crisis a few years ago, my grandma had been afraid the government would cut her pension. We dismissed her worries, assuring her that she received one of the lowest pensions in the country. Nobody would dare touch it, we said.
But, year after year, everything got more expensive, eating away at Grandma’s purchasing power. Taxes increased. New taxes hit heating oil, cigarettes — Grandma still smoked — telephone bills and so on. In July, Greek lawmakers cut my grandma’s benefits. Hospitalizations decimated her savings.
Thankfully, she didn’t really know about her financial situation. My mother used to go to the ATM for her and, with my aunt, covered much of her expenses before she died this fall.
I’m happy my grandfather isn’t around to see the current state of things. He would have been humiliated and depressed at not being able to survive financially after working hard for 45 years.
But my father isn’t likely to be spared that feeling. He just retired, and more pension cuts are looming.
Correspondent Apostolou is based in Athens