Will the last to leave please turn out the lights

With austerity on the rise all his Greek friends are planning to leave, Danylo Hawaleshka writes.
Athens police take a rest where they can between riots as the country's forced austerity measures have sent thousands into the streets since June 2010. (Danylo Hawaleshka)

It feels like everyone I know in Athens is leaving.

My friend Petros, a struggling cinematographer, is fed up and planning to move to Paris.

Thodoros, a truck driver fond of easy credit, which isn't so easy to find anymore, is so in debt it boggles the mind. He and his wife Katarina want to take their two young sons to Australia, historically a refuge for Greek emigrants.

Danylo Hawaleshka is an Athens-based freelance writer and photographer looking for work

Vasilis, an idled construction worker, and his wife Galini also want to leave for Down Under and have started the paperwork to join her sister there.

Galini says the Australian embassy told her it has been inundated by thousands of visa applications.

Alexandra is a 20-something administrative assistant whose office closed about a month ago. She's off to the United Arab Emirates.

"I just can't wait to get the hell out of here," she told me recently over dinner with friends.

Packing up

There was a poll the other day that I just could not believe, astounding stuff really.

The Sunday edition of To Vima, a respected centre-left newspaper, had Kapa Research survey 5,400 Greeks between 22 and 35. A whopping 74 per cent said they would move abroad if given the opportunity.

Forty-two percent said they are already making plans to leave.

Bags are packed but nowhere to go. In this case it is foreign tourists at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, as Greek dock workers stage an impromptu strike in June 2010 over the government's austerity measures. (John Kolesidis/Reuters)

Kapa said that translates into 250,000 would-be emigrants, or about two per cent of the population — a significant chunk of a much-needed tax base.

If it were Canada, we'd be talking about, what, 660,000 people packing their bags.

It's so bad here that it's difficult to comprehend the scale of what Greece is trying to accomplish to avoid imploding.

Everyone knows that this country of sun and too much fun has implemented a sweeping austerity plan, which includes raising taxes and cutting pensions. But in practical terms, what does that really mean on a daily basis?

The non-teetotallers among you will appreciate this. When I first arrived in Athens in 2007 a small bottle (700 ml) of Tanqueray gin retailed for just over 13 euros, currently about $18 Canadian. Today, that same bottle of spirits costs — wait for it — 20-plus euros.

It's enough to drive a man to drink, provided he can afford it.

The litany

You hear the stories and read the news, but you need to pause for it to really sink in.

Greece, far from innocent but not entirely the only ones responsible for this state of affairs (think EU oversight or lack thereof), is currently saddled with having to implement more than half-a-dozen big austerity measures, any of which would seriously test any administration.

Consider the, on average, 15 per cent cut to state pensions; the highly unpopular increase in the VAT (the Greek equivalent of the GST) from 19 to 23 per cent on all your purchases; the deregulation of the trucking sector to open it to competition (with other so-called closed professions like pharmacists and lawyers next); the paring down of the bloated civil service; the requirement that kiosk operators, cabbies and vendors in farmers' markets issue sales receipts, which they have never done, to try to rein in the underground economy.

Then there are the hundreds of municipalities being forced to amalgamate and the reforms to higher education that, among other things, set time limits for completing degrees.

Closed up

According to a news report, cash-strapped Greeks have taken the scissors to some one million of their credit cards. And surprise, surprise. As credit dries up, so, too, do the shops and businesses that live off it.

Deep discounts and going out of business sales dot Ermou St. in Athens busiest retail district. (Danylo Hawaleshka/CBC)

Ermou, in central Athens, really isn't much of a street to look at and yet it is reportedly among the 20 most expensive strips of commercial real estate in the world.

But even while rents here have tumbled more than 15 per cent in the past 12 months, the shops are closing.

Of course, to really see the effects of the retail crisis, you have to check out the more marginal commercial districts, like the one along Vouliagmenis Ave. in Dafni, just south of downtown Athens.

Unlike Ermou, where vacancies are usually short-lived, the shops along Vouliagmenis seem to be disappearing off the map.

It seems like literally every other day my wife and I can walk by there, and one of us will say, "Hey, where'd that shop go?" Yet another vacant storefront.

On the auction block

The Qataris and Chinese were in town not long ago. The former signed a $5-billion deal to develop tourism and the country's energy sector, while the latter signed 11 bilateral deals, many geared towards shipping.

Greek magnates are to get favourable financing to build their fleets in Chinese shipyards, while the Chinese are to expand their presence in the country's two main ports, Piraeus and Thessaloniki, gateways into Europe. It all had the whiff of a country being put on the auction block.

The good news? Well, there isn't any, really. The truck drivers were on strike for something like three weeks before being legislated back to work.

The grocery shelves kept getting emptier and emptier for the longest time.

And now, another kick in the head, the European Union's office of statistics let it be known that it is planning to revise upward Greece's infamous 2009 budget deficit from 13.8 percent of GDP to somewhere between 15 and 16 per cent.

The EU deficit limit is supposed to be three per cent of GDP and what this new number means is that the hole is getting deeper.

Municipal elections are Nov. 7. The way it works here is that the national parties put forward their candidates for municipal office as well so the vote is shaping up as a mini-referendum on the bail-out agreement that Greece made with the EU and International Monetary Fund last May to ward off bankruptcy.

Me? People ask me what will I do. And I say, what can do I do? I plan on leaving.