The human cost: ‘We’d like more children... it is out of the question now’
Each morning, Nick Balabanis leaves his Athens home at 6am to begin work. The father of one commutes into the centre of the city to the small but bustling drapery shop on Athinaidos Street, hidden away from the tourist gaze.
Despite years of economic turmoil in the country, business was good, and as a sole breadwinner, the 41-year-old was able to support his family. That all ended last week. Now Nick and his wife Valentina are not sleeping. They wake with knots in their stomachs, anxious and worried.
Valentina (38) lost her job in sales last year. She now cares for their four-year-old son Christophe, as the family struggles by on one wage. But now even that last certainty has been lost. The shop, usually filled with Greek women buying textiles, has quietened.
The busiest time of Nick’s day is now his pilgrimage each day to the ATM to withdraw €60 — the daily limit ordered by the government after it closed the banks — that must support his family.
For Nick and Valentina, the recession really began four years ago, shortly after their marriage. They bought a home and had dreams of a large family, but their plans for the future were left in tatters as the economy crashed. “Everything was good and we wanted a family. We didn’t imagine the bad things to come. My wife lost her job, she was working in sales. Now, I support the family,” he said.
The loss of half the family’s income and the ongoing uncertainty about Nick’s earnings have forced the young couple to dramatically change their plans.
“More children, it is out of the question now. We would like more children, but right now it is difficult for all of us already, so it is impossible,” he said.
The couple now survive on just over €1,000 a month. After paying the monthly mortgage repayments of €400, they must watch every penny. “Right now, I owe to the bank €75,000 for our house. This was okay at the beginning, but now it is very difficult to pay the monthly amount,” he added.
Until now, custom at the drapery shop where Nick works had remained high and the family was managing. But last week saw a massive decline in business, as Greeks, worried by the ongoing instability and unable to access their money, stayed at home.
“This week is very difficult. We have lost 60pc of our customers. This is not a tourist shop, it’s for locals. We are very worried about this, we don’t know how long we could go on like this,” he said.
Each day, Nick must join the lengthy queues at a nearby ATM to take out the €60 in cash he and his family survive on. Often, the machine runs out of funds, forcing him to move on to another long queue elsewhere.
It is almost impossible for one family to survive on the meagre stipend, but they have no choice.
“We can only take one amount for the family. We don’t have two accounts. It is a struggle to live on this amount, but we pray we live to see better days,” he said.
Over the last year, since Valentina lost her job, the couple have made serious cutbacks to their lifestyle. They live frugally and luxuries like holidays are a thing of the past.
“Now we have just one salary to support the family — my salary. There are no holidays now. Before we would spend seven days on the islands, not now,” he added.
Just six months ago, ordinary workers like Nick had hoped for a new beginning. The Syriza party swept to power on promises that austerity would finally end. It proved not to be the case. Now, many, including Nick, are disillusioned.
“I want to be optimistic, but the situation doesn’t seem to be with me. It’s tough. People were optimistic about Syriza and this is the reason they have backed the government for the last five months, but now I’m not optimistic at all. Either way, if we vote Yes or No, the situation still will be difficult for a lot of years,” he said.
Rumours abound among workers as to what to expect. Massive drops in salaries are being predicted.
“The salaries we will be on will be €500 or something like that, I hear. Now we live on about €1,000, a little bit more — €400 goes to the mortgage, it is not a lot left. We could not manage on less,” he said.
As for today’s vote, Nick believes it will pass, but he is not hopeful that this will help struggling Greeks.
“People are not sure themselves about the vote. I believe the people will vote for Yes with the hope the banks have money again. Because this is the first time we had something like this, we didn’t think this was possible. It’s a very scary time, very unsure times, for everything.
“The other Greeks that will vote for No, they have a good reason to do that. Because they are worried. Both sides has right, and either it is Yes or No, the situation will still be very difficult to live for a lot of years. I will vote for Yes in the hope it will calm things,” he explained.
About what the future holds, Nick looks uncertain, but he is clear on one thing — Greece will always be his home. “I’m optimistic. I want to be, for my kid. And I know I will never leave Greece. This is my place for the good and the bad, as they say with marriage.
“We live here, we die here. We hope more good will come.”