Live On The Ground - What Life Is Really Like In Athens Right Now
We hit the streets in the last 24 hours to find out how the people of Greece are doing while the discussions roll on in Brussels
So you watch the news, see European leaders coming and going from Brussels trying to reach and agreement on the Greek crisis.
You also see cutaway shots of Greeks suffering in misery as they desperately queue outside cash machines trying to get their money out and surviving on the €50 Euros a day that has been imposed on them because of capital controls.
Is this picture accurate and with crunch time approaching what is the situation really like on the ground. I’ve been here checking the city out and this is what I’ve seen with my own eyes…
There is plenty of food in the shops
Watching TV reports before getting here you’d think there would be bare shelves. This is absolutely not the case in either tourist areas or residential areas.
People have no problem breaking notes and getting you change
I came loaded with small notes and a pocket full of coins because I’d heard change was a huge issue. That isn’t the case at all. From bars, taxis, restaurants though to tourist attractions getting change hasn’t been an issue once.
All public services are working perfectly
Buses, trains, tourist attractions and everything else that you would expect to find in a normal working city is ticking along without the slightest issue.
Although I haven’t seen one police officer since being here
Strange absence of uniformed police officers. I genuinely haven’t seen one in what is possibly a conscious move by authorities to keep things on the ground calm. Either that or they are off getting suited up in riot gear somewhere expecting trouble.
There are no unusual queues at ATMs
Based on reports, I was genuinely prepared to have to wait an hour a day if I wanted to get money – although I was told it would be easier for tourists. I’ve passed more than 50 ATMs and I've not seen a queue of more than one or two people, just like you’d see in any other city.
The restaurants are still busy
Spinning around the city you can see that the locals are still eating out on their droves. Food is relatively cheap here, and after watching TV the locals come out to discuss it all over dinner. Far from watching the pennies people seem to want to let their hair down. Tourist restaurants are quieter, though, due to... well, the sheer lack of tourists.
And they too have no shortage of food
You’d think with possible food shortages down the line and trouble getting ingredients into the country portions could be small – it's an easy way for restaurants to make a little less go a lot farther. But as you can see from my pictures the portions are absolutely huge.
The taxi drivers are on the money as usual
My first taxi driver spoke very little English but he was able to tell me that it was the Germans and Finns causing the problems.
The deal, he said, would be done this week at much worse terms. The Russians were trouble, while Turkey were no good – and he reckoned "they [the Greek government] would take the money and be back on the Drachma in 1-2 years on their own terms".
The tourist spots are eerily quiet
At the Acropolis today it felt there was about 20% of the volume compared to my previous visits. There are no queues, staff stand around with little to do and the vendors are having a nightmare on the sales front. It's quite bizarre, really.
The bulk of the tourists that are here have come a long way
Mexicans, Japanese, Australians and Americans – all from further afield than Europe. These people have clearly had their trips booked for some time and were coming no matter what the situation on the ground looked like.
Conversely, there is a notable absence of English, Germans and French.
And the Greeks are going over the top to make sure tourists are happy
I’ve been here a few times before and the Greeks are a friendly bunch. This time, though, they seem to be going over the top – almost as if they've recognised as a nation that tourism is one way out of this mess, and they need to have people going home spreading the word that all is still well.
There are still plenty of luxuries
You wouldn’t think from watching TV that you’d be able to have frozen yoghurt with a choice of hundreds of toppings. Of course, there's no reason why an operation like this would just suddenly close up shop – but there's something striking about seeing it nonetheless.
That's just one example from a tourist area too; if you have money here you can buy all the luxuries you want from hybrid cars to high end electronics.
There doesn’t seem to be much anger from the Greeks
I don't speak Greek – it's all Greek to me – but the atmosphere in the bars, streets and restaurants is relaxed.
These don’t seem like people about to lose everything they have every worked for. They almost seem to be resigned to whatever is coming next, as if they know it’ll be bad but nothing they do can change anything.
There are certainly no signs of social unrest
The last couple of times I’ve been here was at the height of the last crisis. The Greeks were furious then and there was a constant presence of riot police around the centre. Walking into town you’d be worried about a rock sailing over your shoulder. Things couldn’t be more different this time. There is absolutely none of that.
The country is becoming more united by the day with patriotism on the rise
There is huge unity among the people here. Greek flags everywhere and in general people have a sense of solidaity with one another. If anything they seem to be more proud than ever to be Greek.
The Greeks love bending the rules
You see it everywhere you go. Be it people with no helmets on mopeds, speed limits, smoking where they shouldn’t or the taxi driver adding on extra charges, it's a way of life here.
I’ve noticed it more this time, probably because I’ve been thinking how the the European countries are trying to force them into a rigid new set of rules. They live life very differently here to European countries, and that's a good thing.
People are leaving the country in droves
I’ve been talking to as many locals as I can. Although opinions vary, one thing they all mention is the number of people leaving the country. Young, families and even the old are going to live with people abroad who can look after them – and many can’t get out of the country quick enough, leaving a trail of hurt behind.
Not everybody in Greece is hurting
While many are struggling, I’ve seen three locals wearing Apple watches. I’ve also seen people in brand new sports cars and large groups spending lavishly when out. Just like in all European countries, the divide between the rich and the poor becomes all the more pronounced at times like these.
You feel a huge sense of pity and want to help the locals in any way possible
The Greeks are so friendly and they haven’t given up hope. They are a proud people. They are still doing their jobs, trying to live life as best they can. I feel myself wanting to reassure them, tip a little more than is rational and generally smile and be friendly. These people are not being treated as equal Europeans and they know it – yet, despite that, they want a better life.
It isn’t the time to put the boot in but time to help them in any little way possible.