You don't need any statistics to fully grasp the depth of Greece's economic crisis. You only need to know about the smoke.
A specter is haunting Greece. It leers over rooftops, invades lungs, and nearly glows in the night. It's smoke. Smoke from fire used to warm the homes of Greek families too poor to afford heat any other way. Cut from the mountains surrounding Athens, charred in the stoves and fireplaces of middle class homes, and blown through their chimneys, the unnatural cloud hovering over the capital city has become a bleak metaphor for one of the worst economic depressions in modern European history.
It is the smog of austerity. Greece is literally breathing in the fumes of its recession.
When the country discovered soon after the global financial crisis that it would not be able to pay back its debts, Greece threw itself at the mercy of Europe. In exchange for bailouts, the country agreed to cut its deficit from both ends. Government spending went down. And taxes went up -- on income, on property, and on utilities. Combined with the higher cost of oil, these tax hikes pushed up heating costs by more than 40 percent at the start of Greece's coldest month.
Greek unemployment is the highest in the developed world. The country's GDP faces the worst peacetime contraction of any non-communist European country since the 19th century. Even workers with jobs often have to deal with delayed payments, furloughs, and lower take-home pay due to higher taxes. So, many families have made an understandable calculus: From now on, we'll make out our own heat with wood, a match, and a fireplace.
A BREATH OF AUSTERITY
Summer smog is common in Athens, when vehicle fumes collect in the hot, still air over the city. But this is the first incidence in recent memory of "winter smog" from families lighting fires to keep warm in January, when the temperature at night can drop into the low 40s.
"It is present everywhere in the wider area of Athens," said Alexia Tsaroucha, an English teacher in Athens, in an email exchange. "The problem became particularly evident this year, since the number of people using stoves has increased dramatically."
The phenomenon is reportedly worst in big cities like Athens, with more than four million inhabitants, and Thessaloniki to the North. But the "smog phenomenon," as they're calling it, has been also recorded in smaller Greek cities, as austerity has enacted its revenge on every corner of the country.
"The atmosphere has never been worse," said Marianna Filipopoulou, a social-anthropologist who has lived in Athens for four years. "It's getting more and more difficult to breathe. Even our eyes hurt because of the smog." She said the blame lies, not with families, but with their deplorable circumstances: "There is no other way given the scarcity of money."
A blogger for the site KeepTalkingGreece.com, who asked to remain anonymous, described to me the sensation of breathing in the smoke this way:
"First time, the penetrating smell hit me right in the face was late November 2012. I had just opened the balcony door in the evening when I felt thousands of unknown and invisible particles entering my nostrils and my lungs. An unpleasant smell of gasoline and something else. A pressure on my chest
"Since the start of the phenomenon, there have been times that I could not open the balcony door at night even to bring my own firewood inside. Worst was the smog over the city, during the holiday season, when families and friends got together to celebrate Christmas and New Year, when temperatures were low and fireplaces and stoves were working in full power. I personally had felt like I was having a stone sitting on my chest and gauze was blocking my nose."