Amid the bustling side streets of ancient Athens, tucked among the ubiquitous storefronts hawking everything from gilded icons to phallic bottle openers, is a quaint shop called Agora Ethnic Jewelry. Having made a purchase the day prior, I approach a kind salesman with a few questions on conducting business in a nation whose debt has reached Olympian proportions.
Vangelis Keramitzis smiles behind a thin pair of spectacles. Since the introduction of the euro, he says, business has been much better. In the 15-year history of the store, the best years have been post-drachma, the former currency of Greece. But ever since last summer, when the West’s financial woes touched the sun-soaked shores of the Mediterranean, Keramitzis has seen a notable drop in sales.
When I ask him who’s to blame — be it governments, banks, businesses — he grins.
“It’s all of them.”
The government gives money to banks, supposedly for loans, and the banks only use a portion of it to lend to businesses. Consequently, businesses want more loans available and the cycle continues.
What advice would the savvy salesman give to his beleaguered political counterparts?
“Go jump,” Keramitzis says with a laugh.
But in all seriousness, stop underestimating costs. When voters agree to fund projects at a certain price tag, they don’t expect to be saddled with three times the original quote. Keramitzis says that within the last two months, Greek income taxes have risen 5 percent (from 30 to 35 percent) and the VAT luxury tax has climbed to 19 percent. Furthermore, he is now obligated to pay 500 euros a month for his own employment insurance.
But Keramitzis doesn’t let the bad times get him down. A German couple walks in and he seamlessly switches from English to Deutsch. He furrows his brow as he sets to polishing the husband’s onyx ring. The wife asks me what I’m writing about and offers her two cents on the issue.
“The money is too powerful. The morality is gone,” she says.
Keramitzis sees me out of the corner of his eye and smiles as I snap a photo of the artisan at work. I shrug my shoulders to the woman and thank Keramitzis for his time. He presses my hand firmly between his hands and bids me a warm goodbye.