Ordinary Greeks feel strain as the politicians try to fix their broken country

While their leaders haggle, the people queue for food. By Daniel Howden

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The Independent Online

While Greece's political leaders haggled yesterday over a new government, thousands of people were joining a food queue in the Pedion tou Areos park nearby. Sitting on plastic chairs among piles of empty vegetable boxes, a couple of old friends saw more people than there was free food. Costas Kakoyiannis is out of work and has given up looking, his "kollitos", or childhood friend, Notis Kofinakos is in the same boat. Both are in their 60s, and neither man had expected to see this kind of poverty.

"We must be reaching the bottom," said Mr Kofinakos more in hope than conviction. Both agree that the crisis has changed Athens. "This has become a cold city," complains Mr Kakoyiannis. His friend nods and adds that their old hangout, the "kafeneion" on the square where they grew up had closed.

They are both reliant on family to survive. One man is living with his sister, whose hospital job is supporting five people. Mr Kofinakos helps out at his cousin's souvenir shop in return for a place to stay. "The family is all that's holding us together," he says. "But it can't last, people are getting tired."

When Ypakoe Pinotsi's dreams of becoming a doctor didn't work out she thought she was getting into a safe profession when she bought a pharmacy licence and opened a store in the city centre. Greece's health insurance system relied on pharmacists like her buying full-price medicines on credit and distributing them at heavy discounts before claiming the difference from the state. As the state-run insurance schemes have gone bust that money has stopped. She hasn't been paid since last September. The 31-year-old kept faith with the old system until the money she was owed topped €50,000. That debt is about average and is the reason why 1,500 pharmacies have closed since 2009.

The day before a patient had come in needing Seroquel, a medicine for schizophrenics. They couldn't afford the €42 needed for the fortnightly treatment and had to be turned away. "I feel very bad but if I get into debt with the suppliers I'll be going to jail," she says. Ms Pinotsi is happy that Greece is getting some kind of government but is worried about another round of austerity measures. "If it is more cuts, more taxes, lower salaries and lower pensions, it leads nowhere," she said.

Stelios Kydonas has watched Greece's boom and then its crash from his parking lot and petrol station in the downtown neighbourhood of Exarcheia. In the boom years his garage would house 70 cars a day. He points to a shelf where there are seven pairs of keys. Even the cars have changed with fewer of the Mercedes and BMWs that once parked here. "It's all small cars these days."

He has slashed prices from €13 a day to €6 but it's still a luxury for many people. The petrol deliveries that used to come twice a week are only needed once every ten days now. "I work 14-hour days and I haven't taken a holiday in seven years," says the 50-year-old father of one. "I get upset when I hear that the rest of Europe is calling me lazy and useless. I am not useless."

The Kydonas garage was one of 8,500 similar small businesses in Greece until three years ago. Now 4,000 of those have closed with another 2,000 on the brink. Greeks handed in half a million number plates last year as people stopped using their cars. "Everyone used to complain about traffic, not anymore," Mr Kydonas laments.

Of the 30 small businesses that used to work on Mr Kydonas's street, only six remain. "I believe that when you take out a loan, you service it or repay it," says the garage owner. "But if salaries go from €600 to €500, I'll only have three cars here. How am I going to survive?"

Nikos Moraitakis's friends thought he was mad to leave a well-paid job in Dubai to return to Athens a few months ago and try to launch his own software venture. Their reaction prompted him to start a popular blog, ironically titled "Drachma Start-up", to chronicle his experience. He believes that beyond the stereotype of the lazy Greek is one of the best-educated, and most underemployed workforces in Europe.

The 34-year-old says the best hope is for a slow and painful recovery where the pain will be unevenly spread. But he believes that a better future will not be delivered by the political class but by people working in the real economy. "When my children ask me where I was in the crisis I want to say I was here and did the best I could."