The Myth Of The Greek Recovery

While European politicians have been hailing an economic uptick in the troubled Greek economy, Greeks themselves have yet to see any real signs of rebound. What explains the divide?

Trade unions protest against government plans to cut public sector jobs in Athens, July 2013
Trade unions protest against government plans to cut public sector jobs in Athens, July 2013
Alain Salles

ATHENS — After my last visit to Athens eight months ago, I am again in the capital city of Greece. Changes aren’t really visible. The cafés are full, the shops and flats are still covered with “for sale” or “for rent” signs, and the homeless still roam the city.

Is Greece doing better? For a few months, European politicians have been more positive about the country’s situation. European finance ministers say they are ready to talk about debt restructuring. The country might even show slight economic growth in 2014 after a six-year recession, and the consumer confidence index is improving too.

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Athens last April, she welcomed these Greek efforts. Prime Minister Antonis Samaras talks frequently about the country’s recovery “success story.” “We showed that Greece is standing again on its two feet,” he recently.

But in the streets of Athens, this so-called success story doesn’t seem to be trickling down to the people. The unemployment rate is slightly decreasing, but a staggering 26.5% of the workforce and 57% of young people are still unemployed. A quarter of residents are excluded from public health care, and poverty affects 23.7% of the total population. “There is a macroeconomic improvement, but the ‘success story’ is not visible in the real economy,” says Angelos Tsakanikas, of the Foundation for Economic and Industrial Research (IOBE).

“Too many foreigners”

Is Greece doing better? Today, hundreds of people are queuing to get food supplies in an Athens suburb. Vagia Lekka carries a cart full of food. She thinks she saved around 20 euros ($27). She came from Ioannina in the country’s north to see and feed her son, who studies in the capital. This worker with two children now earns just 600 euros ($823) per month. Her salary fell when she lost extra work she used to do on Sundays, so every euro counts.

In this queue, there are people who are truly in distress but also middle-class people who are having trouble making ends meet — for example, a retired man who has three unemployed children and a loan to repay.

Another, Viki Pavlidou, who has been unemployed for five years. She lives at her mother’s house and spends her time going to these free markets and soup kitchens to help stretch her mother’s 600-euro pension. She usually goes to the distributions reserved for Greeks that are organized by the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party. She votes with the group because she believes “there are too many foreigners” in Greece. But before that, she voted with the communist party.

Behind her is a couple with their children. Because they are Albanian and Golden Dawn checks identity cards, they are banned from distributions reserved for Greeks. In the crowd, blacks and Arabs are discreetly hurrying to get access to these rare free food supplies.

But this distribution isn’t philantropic. It’s a strike. A new law proposes to reorganize the popular markets in the streets such that each space would be assigned by a random draw. The small local food producers who come to sell their tomatoes for one euro per kilo are furious and afraid they’ll be left aside. The majority of the population believes it’s just a way to protect the expensive supermarkets.

“An unemployed ghost”

Is Greece doing better? Vasso Polychronopoulou is unemployed again. I met this 30-year-old woman three years ago just after she had lost her job. She found another one right away, but it only lasted six months. After another jobless period of time, she was hired by an international translation agency. A year later, the company relocated in India. Since then, she has been desperate to find another job.

“I am often selected for an interview, but I quickly understand I will not be hired,” she says. “The manager congratulates me for my good résumé, but that often means that I’m too old and have too many diplomas.” She can’t even receive benefits because she worked as a freelancer. “I am an unemployed ghost,” she adds.

In 2011, Georgia Dai was an exception because she was working. Her job in a musical library lasted two years and her friends had even nicknamed her the “crisis antidote.” But now this young woman is forced to take six-month contracts and undeclared jobs that pay 500 euros ($685).

Maria has given up getting social protection because she couldn’t pay the 200 euros ($274) per month. A friend of hers recently hired her for translation work and paid her by offering a year of private health insurance. She got tired of waiting for her job in the university, where she defended her doctoral thesis, and now does odd jobs. Her parents have advised her to leave the country, but she is hesitant. “I am only ready to leave if I find a job that corresponds to my diplomas,” she says.

Georgia thinks about leaving too, but where? “I don’t think the European countries are eager to welcome us,” she says.


Is Greece doing better? “We think that the major part of the crisis is over and that the machine can work again, but it’s still fragile,” says the IOBE’s Angelos Tsakanitas. Tourism is on the rise, the bank sector is stronger, and startup’s are increasingly successful, he says. Today, many young people who graduate from economics schools want to start their own companies. “But the problem is that the banks don’t loan money, and the Greek companies are having difficulty,” he adds.

The government is going to redistribute a part of the 2013 surplus to the poorest people. “With the economic situation stabilized, people will begin to see the first signs of redistribution,” says Panos Carvounis, a European Commission representative in Athens. But according to political specialist Georges Sefertzis, “these optimist speeches are contradictory with the people’s lives, especially those of the middle class, who are crushed by taxes.”

Is Greece doing better? Marches and strikes are still being organized, though fewer people are attending. Instead, they stay home, many feeling depressed and resigned. “Hearing again and again that there’s no alternative, people end up feeling guilty,” says psychiatrist Stelios Stylianidis. “Guilty because they took advantage of the system by asking a favor of their congressman.”

This resignation favors the government of Antonis Samaras, who after two years of managing the crisis managed to ward off the attacks of Alexis Tsipras’ SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left).

Another psychiatrist, Dimitri Ploumpidis, says Greece is “depressed and a bit confused, just like an elderly person.”

And what about Europe? “Suicidal,” he says.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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