Although it was many years – perhaps even decades – in the making, the financial crisis in which Greece now finds itself hit the country and its people quite abruptly in late 2009. Once it became public knowledge that the country’s true national debt and budget deficit figures were far worse than previously thought and the international ratings agencies downgraded Greece’s government debt to ‘junk’ status, access to credit from private capital markets effectively ceased and Greece’s national solvency was left in the hands of its Eurozone partners (with the backing of the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank), whose financial support came with some austere strings attached. That all this should happen in the space of a few months left many Greeks in a state of shell-shock, even within a society well used to finding out that its political elite has been less than forthcoming with the truth.
While it is easy – in many cases perhaps even fair – to point the finger of blame at the stereotypical Greek worker (as caricatured in the foreign media) who for too long grew accustomed to relaxed working hours, early retirement, some dubious benefits packages and a culture of outsmarting the tax man, it is also fair to say that the average Greek is now paying the price for losing a game at the gambling tables of international finance that was played well above his or her head. After many years of falsifying debt and budget deficit figures to try to meet the entry criteria for joining the Euro and thereby suckle at the teat of cheap credit made available by this new currency, the Greek government then paid out hundreds of millions of dollars to Goldman Sachs and other banks to arrange transactions that hid the true levels of public debt. This enabled Greece to continue spending borrowed money on its unsustainably large and expensive public sector while masking the extent of its deficit from the supposedly close attentions of the EU’s financial monitors.
In setting the conditions for keeping Greece afloat and avoiding a catastrophic default on its debts (at least in the short term), Germany and other willing Eurozone partners demanded immediate reforms to the way in which Greek public funds are both spent and raised. Austerity measures have been rapidly and frequently implemented in the last few years, leaving few Greeks unaffected by at least some combination of tax rises (or newly introduced taxes), job losses, wage cuts, pension revisions or an increase in retirement age. The speed and severity with which these measures have come into force have contributed to widespread anger and bitterness among many Greeks, who resent the suffocating conditions imposed upon them by their government under orders from abroad and in reaction to a financial crisis which most ordinary Greeks feel – rightly or wrongly – is not of their own making.
While it is certainly true that demonstrations against recent or proposed austerity measures are far from rare and have all too often turned into violent clashes between demonstrators and police, for the most part life in Athens seems little different to how it would have appeared to the casual observer only a few years ago. Anyone arriving at Athens International Airport expecting to be greeted by scenes reminiscent of those seen so often in overseas news coverage of Greece may be surprised; the more macabre traveller may even be disappointed. The multitude of generic airport shops and over-priced food outlets remain open, catering to the ever-present throng of tourists arriving for their holiday in the sun or the (sadly diminishing) Greek students returning home to visit family and friends. Certainly there are more boarded-up shops in Athens itself than one would expect to find in an otherwise bustling city, while the cafes and taverns that are so typical of Greek life are now slightly fewer in number. But many remain open, even though trade may not be as brisk as it once was and the conversations overheard now tend to be more bleak in tone; worried tales of jobs lost or threatened, salaries slashed, studies abroad cut short by a lack of parental funds from back home.
Greeks tend to be quite open in discussing their worries and plights with both friends and complete strangers alike, so anyone caught in conversation with the locals will not have too much trouble getting a flavour of the national mood in relation to the economic situation. However, those arriving in Athens without access to Greek social circles may have to look more closely for subtler signs of the way in which recent events in the wider context of international finance have affected this area and its people. They may not have to wait too long to find them though.
As we arrived in Athens at the start of a week-long trip to visit family and friends, Victoria and I took the train from the airport towards the city, as delighted as so many travellers are to have been greeted on arrival by the kind of glorious warmth and sunshine that seems a world away from the chilly morning we left behind at the airport car-park back in the UK. Gazing out of the window at the fast-moving scenery, Victoria excitedly remarked that certain things quite literally stood out amid the sun-scorched surroundings of the route followed by the suburban railway and the motorway alike. Towering above the varied landscape of silvery-green olive trees, unkempt fields, apartment buildings and industrial sheds that line the route, a sequence of enormous blank billboards jutted out from the scene beneath. Appearing at regular intervals along the route, these vast grey canvases were previously clad in the livery of whichever soft drinks company, clothing brand, car manufacturer or other corporation had put up the cash to compete for the attention of the millions of visitors and commuters who use this route each year. Yet here they stood bereft of their idealised images and aspirational slogans; totemic mouthpieces of brash corporate advertising, suddenly with nothing to say.
Conversely, when viewed in the context of the current socio-economic climate in Greece and perhaps beyond, the barren billboards spoke volumes. Victoria immediately expressed a desire to return to the area to study these curious monuments, hoping to capture their bleak enormity in closer proximity. A few days later we did just that, deciding to put a day aside to drive back down the national road to Athens and retrace our steps along the route flanked by the billboards. Returning to the scene with a greater focus on our intended targets, the signs seemed even bigger than before. Cresting the brow of one particular hill on our approach, the motorway stretched out across the valley ahead of us and the billboards seemed to line up behind one another, somehow all the more eye-catching for their emptiness.
We seemed to leave and rejoin the motorway countless times (doing our bit for the local economy in the process, given how many tolls we passed through), following any dusty trail or residential dead-end we thought would get us closer to each of the target billboards. As Victoria braved the searing midday heat and marched through fields to get the best shots while I chivalrously took shelter in the air-conditioned car, it was hard not to be struck by the enormity of the structures up close. They appeared more dishevelled too, each approach revealing a few more cracks, loose cables or forgotten flakes of material that were not visible from the bustling motorway only a short distance away. The eeriness of the billboards seemed to be magnified too, their blank facades somehow more incongruous for their sheer scale.
Perhaps it is this incongruity that made the billboards so interesting. We are so used to seeing advertising in such a setting that its content often goes unnoticed, though no doubt its persistent messages penetrate subliminally at least. But to see billboard after billboard standing unadorned and abandoned at the roadside felt disorientating, almost uncomfortable. Who knows, maybe they were left blank for some valid reason. Maybe by now they are again bedecked in corporate images, pandering to their respective target audiences. Maybe the aspirational capitalist culture their sponsors depend on has nothing to do with the sequence of events that led the Greek economy and its people to their current plight. But maybe, also, those looming grey billboards denote a series of gigantic stark warning signs that for too long went unheeded.
Eighteen months later, arriving on another visit to see relatives still worried about jobs under threat, struggling to make ends meet with dwindling incomes and rising costs, or missing family members who have gone abroad in search of less gloomy employment prospects, my mother sent me a text message: “Arrived safely. All here send their love. Victoria’s billboards still bare”.
The billboards might not remain bare for long; they may not even be there for long. One wonders, though, how long it will be before Greece finds its way out of its current plight and returns to a state of at least tentative hope for the future. It is to be hoped – this time – that some signs are heeded and some lessons duly learned.