Nikolas Zirganos: They lived the myth through the boom years – then reality hit

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The Independent Online

A year after the great Greek riots, the global economic crisis covers the blue Athenian sky like fog. Only four months after the election victory of the Socialist Party, which promised "better days", Greeks have suddenly realised they can't "live their myth" any more. The carefree days have passed, never to return. The future looks dim and uncertain. Disaster is at the gate.

"All these years we lived in a fake reality, in a bubble, unconcernedly, without thinking the future, like the cicada in Aesop's fables," says Stelios, 43, a garage attendant in central Athens. "The myth is dead. Now it's time to pay." Over the past 10 years, Stelios has seen a steadily growing flow of luxury cars streaming through his garage. The owners were ordinary middle-class people – doctors, lawyers, engineers and public servants – who suddenly showed up, beaming with self-confidence, in new four-wheel drives. They were living their myth. Most avoided paying taxes, others took bribes, using their jobs in Greece's deeply corrupt public sector.

But now the garage is almost deserted. Most of the nouveau riche clients have disappeared, the banks have repossessed their cars and some of them have already lost their jobs. The official unemployment rate is 10 per cent but nobody here believes Greek statistics. The Confederation of Greek Workers claims the true figure is a horrific 17 per cent, and we are only at the beginning of the crisis.

The mood in the street is unmistakable. Hundreds of downtown shops have closed, once-crowded cafés and tavernas are empty, the famous Greek nightlife exists only at the weekends and ordinary people try to survive without any hope for the future. "The only thing we hear from the government is about spending cuts, but there is no plan and no support for those who lose their jobs," says Thanasis Fakiolas, 53, the owner of a clothing import company. "Banks are not lending to enterprises and people have stopped spending. The market is on the edge of collapse."

Even businessmen like Mr Fakiolas are not immune: his revenue has plummeted 40 per cent since last year and he worries about the future of his two children. He can no longer afford to pay for his younger son's private English lessons, and has stopped going to the gym. For the first time in years he will not take an Easter holiday, and his elder son, Christos, 26, an unemployed economics graduate, no longer dreams of leaving home.

Zikolas Zirganos is the foreign news correspondent of the Greek newspaper 'Kyriakatiki Eleftherotypia'