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In Greece, the lighting of the Olympic torch is normally a moment in the sun, a reminder of the country’s contributions to Western civilization. As the torch began its journey from Athens to London, this year’s host city, dark rain clouds cast a pall over the proceedings. Many Greeks no doubt watched the torch’s departure and wondered if they shouldn’t follow.
Even when the sun breaks through in Athens these days, it shines on sparsely attended cafés, on beggars lying on sidewalks, and on a tourism industry that’s all but collapsed. So many locals have traded in their cars for bikes that it’s disturbingly easy to find a parking space. One in five Greeks is looking in vain for a job; among the young, it’s one in two. The failure of Greek political parties to form a government after the May 6 elections has deepened the gloom. “It’s like being on a ship in the middle of a storm,” says Giorgia, a 29-year-old civil servant who asked to be identified only by her first name to avoid trouble at work, “and there’s no captain.”
It’s little wonder that so many are eyeing the lifeboats. “Losing hope? That was 2010,” says Tolis Aivalis, a business consultant. “Now, your job is to try to survive.” Aivalis splits his time between Athens and Silicon Valley, counseling Greek companies to look abroad. “My advice: Don’t stay here. Move. Survive. Innovate. Grow. And then come back and invest.” The only opportunity in Greece, he says, is in real estate. “Don’t waste time in the Greek ecosystem,” he says. “There is no Greek ecosystem. Your customers are not here.”
For all the pain that ordinary Greeks have already endured, the economy shows no signs of recovery. Neither deep public-sector reforms nor a dramatic drop in workers’ wages have sufficed to offset the combination of uncertainty, inefficiency, and a dried-up credit market.
In Athens, soup kitchens and charities that once served immigrants and the destitute are seeing an influx of formerly middle-class Greeks. At a clinic run by Doctors of the World, which distributes free medication, locals sometimes pretend to speak only English. “They don’t want us to think that they’re Greek,” says Christina Samartzi, the organization’s coordinator of national programs. “They never expected to be in this situation.”
Nikos Xydakis, editor-in-chief and a political columnist for the Greek daily Kathimerini, considers himself lucky to have seen a drop in his family income of less than 30 percent. “That makes me a privileged man in Greece,” he says. “I have friends who are 53 years old, like me. Both spouses are out of work. The children are in school. I can’t even imagine the hell they’re going through.” Next year his older son plans to apply to attend graduate school in the U.S. “If all the young people are going abroad, who will work to pay the interest on our debt?” he says.
Greece can only hope that those who choose exile will someday return. “I don’t see any future, at least for the next five years,” says Giorgia, the civil servant. “And those are my most productive years, when I can build a career, have children, provide my parents with decent health care.” Of her peers from law school, some work for themselves, picking up sporadic jobs. Others rely on their parents or are “postponing unemployment,” she says, by pursuing higher degrees. Three of her close friends have left. “I don’t think they’ll be coming back,” she says.
Like others, Giorgia has begun pulling money from her bank. She, too, is thinking about what it would be like to leave her parents, her career, and her friends. “At the moment, I’m learning German,” she says. “Many people are. They’re thinking of the day after tomorrow.”
The bottom line: As incomes shrink, many Greeks are considering leaving the country, making it harder to rebuild a shattered economy.