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.”