Voices
Thomas, Lambros, and Kostas Goumenos (Photo by Paul Glader)

Getting by in Greece

Greece | How the European economic crisis affects one middle-class Greek family

Issue: "Tour d'America road rage," Feb. 11, 2012

Sitting at a café with the Acropolis and Parthenon looming in the background, Lambros Goumenos sums up the situation of modern Greece.

"For 20 years, we were living beyond our means, spending more than people could afford," said Lambros, 60, a retired teacher of Greek language and history. Able to retire after 35 years of teaching, he now tutors high-school seniors for exams and is self-studying English: "Now we are trying to adapt our spending habits and our way of thinking."

Lambros is in a professional Catch 22. In the past, teachers had to retire at age 60 or after 35 years of service, whichever came first, to make room for younger workers. With the crisis underway, working till age 65 will become mandatory in Greece. But already retired people in Greece are discouraged from taking other jobs away from younger, unemployed people. If they do work after retirement, they have to give up part of their pension.

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With his pension and his wife's teaching salary trimmed 25 percent, the Goumenos family of five adults has had to make adjustments. They share two cars (a Volkswagen Passat and a Kia Shuma) and recently took a Fiat Brava off insurance and car tax. They take public transit more often and find out who within the family "needs" the car. They eat out less often (once a month instead of once a week at traditional, low-cost tavernas). They take fewer vacations, opting to travel inside Greece to see family. They stay with relatives when visiting the islands because they don't own a second home like some Greeks do.

Two of the three sons are, in their 30s, living at their parents' three-bedroom, 1,200-square-foot, third-floor apartment home in a middle-class Greek neighborhood, unable to rent their own flats right now as they would like to do. Kostas Goumenos, 30, recently lost his job as an architect. He earned 900 euros per month after taxes, equivalent to about $1,200. With a studious and polite demeanor, dark hair, and Clark Kent glasses, Kostas has been applying for jobs, working freelance projects, and marketing himself through his own website-but he doesn't see a way out of unemployment in Athens and is considering a move to Australia, Holland, or the United States.

His brother, Thomas, 32, is finishing his Ph.D. in international relations at Panteion University in Athens and looking abroad for teaching opportunities because of budget constraints at Greek universities. Walking around downtown Athens he said, "For my area of study the possibilities are not very good." The youngest brother, Orestes, 27, is a composer and French horn player already studying in the Netherlands. When he was younger, during his mandatory military service, he was a ceremonial guard in front of main government buildings where protestors now gather and battle with riot police.

Their mother, Nitsa, 57, normally would encourage her sons to stay in Greece for work and to be near family, but she now encourages them to move if they need to. "As the mother, I feel so much pressure from the crisis," she said, her smile disappearing as she talks about the disruption to her family's way of life and the new austerity measures they are living by.

Members of the Goumenos family, like most Greeks, identify as Christians and attend the Orthodox church on holidays and out of tradition, but feel increasingly disconnected from the institutions of both church and state. The parents have voted social democratic and the sons look to green contingents or smaller parties of the left. They are still coming to grips with the reality that the government's decades-old socialistic structure and overly generous policies have not worked.

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