supermarket politicians

Tonight I stayed up late to watch a program on TV that I was very much anticipating.  Alpha channel, which is one of the less serious channels, but has recently in the past month or so tried to realign itself as a serious/newsy channel, has in so doing chosen to focus on the more “populist” issues.  At this point, the most populist issue in Greece is probably the high cost of food in the supermarket.  It’s easy to talk about the euro currency, illegal immigration, and unemployment, but what really matters to people is if they can get spaghetti on the table for dinner tonight.  With that in mind, they came up with the idea to ask two average moms to share their experiences at the supermarket: how much they have to spend, what they need to buy to get through the week – and then ask the representatives of four political parties – four candidates for Parliament – to shop for those items with €50.

So we meet Liana, a mom of an 8 year old and an 12 year old, who makes €360 per month as a cleaner; her rent and utilities alone are over €400/month; and Anna Georganta, a mom of three who has been unemployed for some time (and no longer receiving benefits but continuing to search for work) and whose husband is, like mine, an employee of the Greek government; he was making €160 per month for the past six months but recently started making €400 per month.  They don’t have €50/week to spend on food – Anna says she goes to the supermarket once per month and spends about €70 – but they decided to give the politicians a break and give them the €50 that studies say the “average Greek” has to spend on food and household goods for a family of four, per week.  Anna got teary-eyed when she talked about how lucky she felt that her children went to a school that provided snacks to the children, a new and very rare concept in a country where schools don’t serve meals – in Anna’s children’s school, they started serving snacks after they had problems with hungry children passing out in class.

The list was not luxurious.  There were no eggs, meat, or fruit – items well out of reach of the average Greek, if that €50 figure is correct.  It included basics like potatoes, pasta, tomatoes, cucumbers, condensed milk, flour, oil, and soap.   (Why condensed milk?  Apparently they water it way down for their kids.  I didn’t know about this trick.  I don’t drink milk myself or I would try it!)

New Democracy was represented by the weepy Adonis Georgiadis, who mentioned several times that he felt personally ashamed for the state of these moms.  At one point he told Liana that she, and others like her, were today’s heroes.   Her bitter response was “I don’t know if we’re heroes… or if you’ve turned us into this.”  He seemed – was it real? or just an act? – to be deeply affected by the exercise.  He seemed overwhelmed by the supermarket itself, as if shopping while mentally keeping a budget was too much for him.

PASOK was represented by Katerina Batseli, former Minister of Agriculture, a frowning woman who made it clear from the first moment that this would be very easy for her, because she does the shopping for her family and this is all a load of propaganda anyway.  She was the only one who ignored the directions to buy the things on the list, and just bought the stuff that she wanted to buy.  The moms were not impressed – they estimated that her shopping would feed their families for three days, when the assignment was for seven days.  She seemed shocked when the moms said that they needed to be completely vegetarian; she seemed to think that a chicken, at the very least, was necessary.  She came off as having absolutely no clue, and was immensely unlikeable.  She was a very bad choice; even Georgiadis, who is practically a caricature of himself, was much more likeable.

The Ecologist Greens were represented by Ioanna Kontouli, who appears to be the only member of that party who ever appears in public, and who mentioned several times that her own monthly salary is €1300, but that any day that could be reduced to the amount that Anna and Liana live on.  She ended up in tears, group-hugging the moms and promising to exchange phone numbers so that they could set up a currency-free barter system to feed the moms and kids of Greece.  The look on Anna’s face seemed to say “how do I tell her that we don’t have a telephone number to give her?”

The Independent Greeks party were represented by the actor Pavlos Kontogiannidis, the only one who seemed to find humor in the situation of nice people whose children were obviously going hungry.  Anna had mentioned during the intro that she can’t shop with her children, because she doesn’t want them to see all the food they can’t have, and she can’t get them the things they want, like chocolate, because that means she can’t afford pasta, and chocolate won’t keep them full.  So Kontogiannidis bought some chocolate bars for her kids, saying that he would pay for them out of his own pocket.  Anna had the grace not to say anything, but I wanted to reach through the television screen and choke him.

After the shopping trip, where they all made it through spending €50 plus or minus €10, they all convened for a typical political discussion panel back at the studio with, surprise, Anna the mom in attendance.

The journalist leading the panel asked the politicians why, when salaries have been reduced sometimes to a quarter or a fifth of what they were before, when we haven’t had an increase in sales tax in the past year, prices on food and household goods – supermarket stuff – have gone up, not down.  Only Ms. Batseli tried to answer – she tried to give an economic explanation, blaming increases in the price of fuel, various taxes, including business and sales tax, and other “factors.”  When she was called out on the issue of cartels, which have a long history of price fixing in Greece, she – as former minister of agriculture and therefore the person in charge of breaking up the cartels – didn’t have anything to say.

While the politicians bickered, Anna the mom came across as the most balanced individual in the room – she was dignified and remarkably articulate, staying on topic while appearing knowledgeable on political and economic issues.  She wasn’t angry, desperate, or even irritated with the politicians – even when talking about the pain involved in paying her income taxes this year.  One almost got the feeling that she was used to listening to a bunch of people arguing with each other – maybe her three children prepared her for the panel.

Ms. Kontouli brought up the idea of barter again on the panel, suggesting that she as an engineer could offer her services in exchange for, say, Anna to clean her house.  Ms. Batseli cut her off to suggest that if that happened, sales tax would have to be extremely high to cover the fact that fewer goods would be taxed, and tax revenue would be extremely low.

Of course, the discussion fell apart into the usual bickering and yelling over each other that characterizes every political panel on Greek television since the beginning of time.  Anna sat quietly on the end and watched, head cocked to the side, while they argued over ideological minutiae, blameshifting, off-topic issues like the rate that Spain was able to borrow money today, and lines like “you dare to point your finger at me?”

Anna, mom of three, had the last word, when asked what she expected for the future:  “I’d like to live like a human being.”

12 thoughts on “supermarket politicians

    • they are low, but they aren’t that uncommon. It’s one of the reasons that the EU/PASOK rhetoric about “a return to the drachma means Bulgarian-level salaries” doesn’t scare a lot of people – Bulgarian salaries are higher in many cases.

  1. Why am I not surprised that Anna came across as the most balanced amongst the chat group on TV! SAhe is the one who practises economy every day. We never understood why supermarket goods in Greece are so much more expensive than in UK where we can buy cheap supermarket brands for all dry goods and essentials (pasta, bread, tinned foods, washing powders, etc). We always bring cheap instant coffee and tea with us for example. I didn’t know about the cartels other than for airline prices.
    We now have a Lidl store on Lesvos about an hour away where we go once or twice on a 2 month trip to stock up on cheap store cupboard items (plus, I must confess, cheap beer and wine). Some of the Chinese 1euro shops in towns have quite a few cleaning products too. I guess your farmer’s market is your local ‘cut-price’ shop. We notice more of the vegetable plots are being cultivated here again to cut food costs.
    Is there a child allowance paid in Greece? Perhaps food vouchers for basics might be a good idea and food manufacturers & shops would get cost price plus say 5% each profit, which must be less than they are charging now. How can parents live on an income less than their rent and utilities? I guess some bills are not paid.
    The situation for the poorest must change and if that means public servants at the top end earning less and having to work to age 65 or more before getting a pension, so be it.

    • What’s a child allowance? If you mean, do parents give their children pocket money – yes, usually, if they have it. It seems like parents are okay with handing out cash to their children when asked. If you mean money that the government gives to parents to reward them for having children, no, nor has there ever been. There is no “food voucher” or “food stamp” program in Greece, for children or anyone else. If you can’t afford to buy food, you have two choices: charity soup kitchens run by the Greek Orthodox Church, or going hungry. That applies to everyone. The “snacks in schools” program that I mention only applies to a handful of schools and costs a lot of money because schools are not set up to provide food on site – they have to be catered.

      Yes, bills go unpaid. If you don’t pay your water bill, they don’t turn it off. At least not right away. You get something like 6 months, maybe longer, before they turn it off, so obviously that one gets left unpaid in many cases – but water is also the cheapest bill. Electricity is expensive in Greece (as you’ve probably noticed) – but if you don’t pay that, they do turn it off at some point – maybe 4 months? They’re allowed to legally at any rate, I’m not sure if they actually do it. The worst one is heating because it’s paid on delivery (you have to pay the heating oil supplier when the tank is filled – no getting around it) and up here in northern Greece, it’s not a small part of the budget unfortunately. From January to March, we spent €680 on heat for our apartment (much more than Anna’s family’s income for Jan-Mar) – and that’s in an apartment building with 25 families sharing the cost! I do think that is what ends up getting cut first from the budget. And of course the obvious – cell phones, cable TV, internet, and so on – those are the first to go. If someone doesn’t pay their rent, the landlord has to take them to court in order to evict them, and the speed of the Greek court system might work in their favor allowing them to stay in the house for quite a long time without paying. I don’t know anyone who has tried to do that though. Most people I know who are in financial distress and can possibly do so leave their rented apartment and move in with family (ideally family that owns a home). If that means giving up a job, it would be a very tough decision of course.

      Public servants have to work to age 65 or more, as it is, to qualify for a pension. That’s the “retirement age” for the public sector. They claim that they’re going to increase it, my guess is 67-68 will be the new retirement age in a few years, based on what they say. (I think there is a rule that if you’ve worked for 40+ years in the public sector, you can retire at 60+ but that would mean getting the job at age 20 and never taking time off. For men, who have to go through the army, that is pretty close to impossible, and for anyone who goes to university as well.)

  2. Heidi: Thanks so much for this post and others that allow us in America to get a peep into the real lives of Greeks at this time. My heart goes out to them. I wonder if we’ll experience some similiar issues in a couple of years if our economy continues to deteriorate.

  3. I’m very glad to have come across your blog. I live in Canada and all that I know about your situation in Greece is what I read in the financial section of the newspaper. A person tends to paint all of Greece with the same brush when the news is slanted in only one direction. To see things from your perspective has given me a whole different view of what is like for the average Greek, and it’s horrifying, to say the least. To have to make the choice between which bill to pay each month, water or heat or electricity, is demoralizing, especially in families with children.
    I did assume families would move in together in order to save money, but not everyone has family they can move in with. And that doesn’t solve the problems in the long run.
    From your description of the TV special it would appear most politicians still have their heads in the clouds and are only concerned about serving themselves, not the people who elected them. Another election is coming up soon, I wonder if that will make any difference?
    (On a side note I made your Greek Lentil Soup last week and LOVED it! I am always on the look out for recipes that use inexpensive ingredients but are also healthy and filling.)

    • It does seem like the politicians live on a different planet. I am starting to realize that there are more than two Greeces, I live in one, the politicians live in another one, and there is at least one more floating around that I read about.

      I’m so glad you liked the lentil soup!

  4. I’m in Corfu, and the bars are packed – it’s 11.30pm, the music’s thudding, and the young Greeks are drinking and eating. I’ve just had souvlaki in a little place that opened a couple of months ago, and it’s busy all night until 5am. We had to wait for a table. It wasn’t tourists eating in there, it was Greeks. I see the same thing in towns and cities all over Greece. I just don’t get it. Is this the other Greece you mention?

    • Who knows. There used to be a line trotted out regularly “Greece is a poor country full of rich people.” Certainly there are many people who still have a lot of money – and a lot of people, I think we talked about this – 70% of Greeks, are homeowners. Anyone who lives in a home that’s paid off, especially if they live with family, has negligible expenses compared to people like us who have to pay rent or a mortgage. Where you are right now is a huge university town also, and the university is finishing up its exams. I don’t know, of course, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of those kids you see are students who just took their last exam today. Corfu is the #1 tourist destination in all of Greece, which means its business owners are rolling in cash and that will probably never change – just like in Folegandros, which is absolutely booming – they had their best year ever last summer and have every expectation of breaking all records this year as well. In our town a new cafe opened a few months ago too – there will always be businesses opening and closing no matter what, and the crisis creates great opportunities as desperate property owners sell at a discount and people are willing to work for less (and the minimum wage is down by about 25%). The new cafe here in town was packed for the first week, now I never see more than two or three tables there. Corfu is a very busy place – though when I was last there at New Year’s 2011 it was very quiet and most restaurants were closed. So there is a seasonal aspect to it as well. I hope they have a good season…. and pay their taxes😉

  5. Fascinating report. I think your description of the politicians was just great. I found it particularly interesting that the PASOK politician couldn’t bring herself to live within the rules and objected to the proposed barter system as a solution for struggling Greek families. Thanks for posting.

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