Greek citizens: 'Family is all that is holding us together. But it can't last, people are getting tired'

As a new PM takes office, Daniel Howden finds out how ordinary Greeks are surviving

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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 in their 60s, 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 the crisis has changed Athens. "This has become a cold city," says Mr Kakoyiannis. His friend nods and adds that their old hangout, the "kafeneion" on the square where they grew up has closed.

They are both reliant on family to survive. One lives 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."

For Ypakoe Pinotsi, when her 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 has not been paid since September last year. The 31-year-old kept faith with the old system until the money owed her topped €50,000 (£40,350). That debt is about average and the reason 1,500 pharmacies have closed since 2009.

The day before, a patient had come in needing Seroquel, a medicine for schizophrenics. They could not afford the €42 fee for the fortnightly treatment and had to be turned away. "I feel very bad, but if I get into debt with suppliers, I'll go to jail," she says.

Ms Pinotsi is happy that Greece is getting some kind of government, but fears another round of austerity measures: "If it is more cuts, more taxes and lower salaries, lower pensions it leads nowhere." Stelios Kydonas has watched Greece's boom and then its crash from his parking lot and petrol station in downtown 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 just €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 10 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 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 they stopped using their cars. "Everyone used to complain about traffic, not anymore," Mr Kydonas laments.

Nikos Moraitakis' friends thought he was mad to leave a well-paid job in Dubai to return to Athens to launch his own software venture. Their reaction led him to start a popular blog ironically titled "Drachma Startup" to chronicle his experience. The 34-year-old hails the Greek workforce as one of the best-educated and most underemployed in Europe and says their recovery will not be delivered by the political class, but by workers in the real economy. "When my children ask where I was in the crisis, I want to say I was here and did the best I could."

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