Greeks are pulling together and forging innovative new social and economic models to help those hit hardest by the debt crisis
Spyros Gkelis, a smart and hard-working biology lecturer from Thessaloniki, saw it like this. "If someone shoves you," he said, "you know, like really pushes you, hard, in the street, so it hurts, your first reaction is to lash out. Strike back. But if that doesn't achieve anything, if they keep pushing, and it keeps hurting, you think again. Try something else. Work out some way of dealing with it."
In their fifth year of recession, with 21% of the workforce jobless, salaries slashed, one in 11 people in greater Athens using soup kitchens and half the country's most prescribed medicines now in short supply, that is what more and more Greeks are doing. Faced with a half-broken state, and systems and structures only making things worse, people are doing things differently.
In a clearing on a hillside above the second city, Elisabet Tsitsopoulou found herself buying five 25kg sacks of potatoes, for herself and her neighbours, from the back of a lorry. She paid €0.25 a kilo, against the 60-70 cents she would pay in the shops. The farmer she bought from, Apostolos Kasapis, was equally happy: he got his money straight away, rather than having to wait up to a year – or forever – for a middleman's cheque.
"It benefits everyone," said Christos Kamenides, professor of agricultural marketing at Thessaloniki University, of the producer-to-consumer system he has helped perfect. The potato movement was launched last month and is spreading across Greece, incorporating other staples such as onions, rice, flour, olives and – at the last count – more than 4,000 Easter lambs. Town halls announce a sale; locals say how much they'll buy; farmers show up with it in 25-tonne trucks. Everyone's happy.
With many Greeks now taking home 30% less than before the crisis, but prices of plenty of products still impossibly high, the movement is a clever and, for many, vital way to cut costs that is of practical help to both parties to the transaction. There is anecdotal evidence, too, that supermarket prices are starting to fall, certainly on direct sale days, in response to it.
In several parts of the country, small volunteer shops are setting up, often on the initiative of local councils, selling produce at barely more than cost price – the margin is marked on the pack – in member-only schemes, to avoid tax and legal problems. Kamenides is developing a broader scheme along these lines. His "unified co-operative" will unite producers and consumers and may eventually serve as an economic model for buying and selling essential foodstuffs.
A couple of hours south, in the port of Volos, an alternative economic model is already up and running. More than 800 townsfolk have signed up for a local currency scheme called TEMs. Teachers, doctors, babysitters, a bookkeeper, farmers and smallholders, a decorator, hairdresser, seamstress and a lawyer are among the members. In the past couple of weeks Theodoros Mavridis, a local electrician, has not had to pay a euro for his eggs, tsipourou (the local brandy), fruit, olives, olive oil, jam, soap, and help in filling out his tax return.
Maria Choupis, a founder member, said up to 15 such networks are active. Members transfer units into and out of each others' accounts online. To ensure the currency works hard, these can hold a limit of 1,200 TEMs, and cannot be more than €300 overdrawn. For Bernhardt Koppold, an alternative therapist, the scheme is easier and more direct but also "a way of showing practical solidarity". Choupis agrees it's "as much social as economic". That's a point that recurs frequently. There is, among many Greeks, still intense anger at what they are living through, as well as almost complete disillusionment with politicians, not to say politics. But in Choupis's words, many are "moving beyond anger": instead of lashing out, coming together.
In Volos, a waiter in the taverna by the ferry terminal, told me that "in the years of cheap money and easy credit, we just lost sight of what matters, you know? It's sad that it's taken a crisis to do it, but we're rediscovering our values."
People are helping each other in small, informal ways. Teachers and parents' associations "come together, gather food and discreetly arrange to allocate it to families in the school who are suffering", said Victoria Pakrete, an Athens teacher who herself volunteers in a soup kitchen. Marie Le Du said that in the northern Athens suburb where her mother lives, women from the local Orthodox church "work in pairs. They visit two or three families that are 'their' families, drop in for a coffee and a chat to catch up – and discreetly hand over a parcel of donated food, as part of the visit, to preserve the family's dignity."
Others are more organised. Reveka Papadopoulos, head of Médecins Sans Frontières Greece, said that in the past year she had seen "some really encouraging, exciting things. People are seeing the power of organising themselves, of helping themselves, and each other. It's wonderful to see … it keeps you going."
So in Thessaloniki, the National Theatre of Northern Greece is about to launch a season of plays by Genet, Pinter, Albee and Greek authors under the banner Social Theatreshop.
Theatregoers will pay for their tickets with food, which the theatre's 300 staff – actors, technicians, administrators, all working on the project for free – are distributing among charities and welfare groups in the city.
"We are, everyone knows it, in a very bad situation," said the deputy artistic director, Giannis Rigas. "We thought, we have to do something for people who now have so little money that they are going hungry. But this isn't charity, it's a fair exchange: food for theatre. A couple of tins of soup, or a packet of pasta, for a ticket. And it's also a way to put the theatre back where it belongs, in the community."
Across town, on the redecorated first floor of a battered building owned by a trades union association, more than 80 doctors and dentists volunteer their time at the social medical centre, opened late last year to treat illegal immigrants with no access to free healthcare.
In fact, 70% of the patients seen by the GPs and specialists at the centre until 9pm each night are Greek citizens who can no longer afford health insurance.
"If you're not earning, you no longer have easy access to care," said Sofie Georgiadou, a dentist who volunteers one evening a fortnight. "I never imagined I would one day find myself working somewhere like this, in Greece."
It doesn't, in some instances, take much to change things. In Athens, Xenia Papastavrou, fed up with the quantities of perfectly good bread going to waste in restaurants and bakeries when welfare groups were spending money elsewhere to buy it, has founded a network called Boroume that, via its website, now puts 70 commercial food donors – including Greece's largest bakery chain and 25 Athens hotels – in contact with 400 welfare groups, from elderly people's homes and orphanages to drop-in centres for the homeless and municipal soup kitchens. Similarly Silia Vitoratou, a statistician, joined with friends in December to set up Tutorpool, whose site now puts 500 volunteer tutors in contact with pupils who need their help. It is a fact of Greek life that most schoolchildren, especially those hoping to go to university, will at some stage need after-school tutoring; many parents can no longer afford the private tuition centres that for decades have met that demand.
Tutorpool is helping Vassilis Xanthopoulos, 11, who is dyslexic and has had extra private tuition since he was very young.
"Last year, we had to stop," said Harris, his father. "My business has practically collapsed, and my wife is earning half what she used to. It was €450 a month we no longer had. Vassilis started falling behind almost instantly. Tutorpool really saved us."
Warming as they are, though, such initiatives can't save everyone. Korina Hatzinikolaou is a developmental psychologist at the Athens Institute of Children's Health, which co-ordinates Greece's child healthcare provision.
Her salary has been cut by a third and hasn't been paid since December; she and her two small sons have had to move back in with her mother.
More alarmingly, the institute itself can no longer make ends meet and is threatened with closure; Greece's national neo-natal screening programme, among others the institute runs, is now at risk.
"There are limits to what ordinary people can do," Hatzinakolaou said.
"We can do much, but we cannot run a health system. At some point, a state has to say, 'You know what? This really matters. Let's all do it, together. Let's make it a priority.' But here in Greece, the social state is collapsing. I am really not sure how it will end."
Greece on the breadline
Jon Henley spent a week blogging his way through Greece, hearing the human stories behind the European debt crisis in a country that has been left reeling. Each report in the Greece on the Breadline series was accompanied by hundreds of online comments, as readers shared very similar experiences across the country.
Many called for projects such as the "potato movement" to be extended to other parts of the country, while soppanupdated us on the progress of Boroume, the scheme to make better use of leftover food from restaurants. "From what I've seen of their website Boroume has started a Patras branch, and as far as I know local bakeries were already giving away leftovers to illegal immigrants, which as you know is a major problem in our town."
After the report on tutors giving free lessons, MonaLisa4Ever and others shared links to free education resources: "But a system that is deprived of resources (school libraries, computer labs, modern buildings, play spaces, etc) can only depend so much on the creative potential of the teachers ... The system is starved." Readers involved in the projects featured in the series came online to explain more – from vzlalsj, a physician working in a Greek hospital on HIV and malaria levels, to KaterinaK, the leadership coach offering free lessons to the unemployed.
While some were concerned about the effect reports on the crisis might have on the tourism industry, many gave thanks for showing how ordinary Greeks are tackling social problems.
A new solidarity among citizens is a source of support and hope, readers likeNirema said: "What helps maintain my optimism: when I last visited Athens ... the three times I made it to the [non-mainstream] theatre, it was packed. Bookshops in central Athens were also quite busy ... Then I saw the burnt-down neoclassical cinema, and the human remains of the day sleeping on the pavement, and a few angry faces venting their anger on buildings ... Still, the fact that people huddle together in theatres and read books, trying to make sense and hopefully rectify all this, feels [sic] me with hope."