Europe

Greek economic crisis: Living on less

A party on the Greek island of Karpathos
Image caption Life is not cheap in Greece

In the second of two pieces from the Greek island of Karpathos, British writer Roger Jinkinson looks at the strains on the local economy.

The village is connected to mainland Greece by a ferry. Years ago, when I first came to the island, there were three ferries a week in each direction.

Now there is one, but the cabins are clean, the food is good and the 18-hour journey gives the opportunity to meet fellow travellers and renew acquaintances with fellow villagers.

Except for August, the ship is sparsely occupied and when I came out in late September I was soon talking to Dimitris, a port policeman coming back from leave in Athens.

Public servants are much abused these days and often blamed for the crisis in Europe. There are five port police in my village and it is easy to caricature them as expensive and unnecessary.

However, we are close to Turkey, a major route for drug- and people-smuggling. There is the ferry boat to oversee, and even if they are nearly empty, the daily tourist boats that come from the south of the island have to be attended to.

Dimitris's wife and children live in Athens and he tries to get to see them every six weeks for a long weekend, but the irregular ferry schedule makes this difficult.

Working-class Greeks are happy to talk about their finances and Dimitris told me he had been earning 1,500 euros a month (£1,300, $2,000). I asked about the "had been", and he told me the government had cut the salary of all public servants.

His pay, he said, had been reduced by 230 euros a month and from October this would be reduced by a further 70 euros.

I wondered what would happen in Britain or Germany if the police had their pay arbitrarily cut by close to £300 a month.

And I wonder how much tax take the government lost by cutting public-sector salaries and how much the shops have lost as money is taken from the pockets of the population.

State of limbo

Image caption Families are under an ever-tightening squeeze in Greece

Greece applies a strict supply-and-demand model to higher education and there is much competition for the few university places.

In return for a college education, schoolteachers and doctors agree to spend their first year in remote rural places and in the islands.

Of course, the doctors are extraordinarily young and so were the teachers, but that is changing.

There are no jobs on the mainland for last year's teachers and so they have to spend another year in the village teaching the children of shepherds and fishermen, labourers and stonemasons.

Another year away from friends and family, another year before marriage and children.

The state of limbo is unlikely to nurture a feeling of gratitude towards the government of the day as it struggles to alleviate the effects of corruption and mismanagement by its predecessors.

A further blow is a sudden emergency property tax, based on size, and householders in the village have received one-off bills for 400 euros and more.

A cruel twist is that the government is collecting this tax via the state-controlled electricity company. The threat is: If you do not pay, your electricity will be cut off.

The electricity company does not like tax collecting, nor do its employees, and the villagers are saying they will not pay.

If they really do join protesters who refuse to pay motorway tolls this tax strike could drag Greece into an unstructured default and nobody knows where that would lead.

If a government cannot gather taxes, it cannot govern.

Tourist trickle

Life is not cheap in Greece. I recently paid 42 euros for 18 litres of petrol for my small boat, which makes it expensive to go fishing.

A 250-gram packet of butter costs in excess of five euros at the nearest supermarket some 40km (25 miles) away.

The sudden hike in the price of milk and butter will lead to more goats in the village and a return to eating drilla, the thick sour cream extracted from goat's milk.

Life is not all doom and gloom. With care, I can still have an evening meal and drink a small bottle of retsina in a local taverna for less than 15 euros.

But we do not buy fish in restaurants anymore. Instead, we take our own to be cooked and shared with whomever is around.

The Greek newspapers say this is a bumper year for tourism, but there were spare beds in the village even in August and in September the place is empty - there are more tavernas than tourists.

We still have day trippers from the south but they are on the lower end of the social scale and have little money to spend. Some bring their own sandwiches.

Earlier in the year, the fishermen from Kalymnos were ordered to stop fishing as there was no market in Rhodes for the catch.

The large hotels import squid from Thailand and undersized red mullet from Morocco and the smaller restaurants could not attract enough customers.

We still get the super-rich in their gin palaces. They buy bread from the little shop, drink an ouzo or two, and head back to their bunks to sleep it off.

They are welcome, of course, but there is little evidence of any trickle-down effect.

European newspapers like to blame the Greeks for the crisis but when the man in the taverna, or the woman queuing for vegetables, say they did not cause the problem, it is hard to disagree.

Roger Jinkinson's earlier dispatch from Karpathos looked at the island's traditions of solidarity and endurance. He is the author of Tales from a Greek Island