Istanbul is getting closer to Athens

Istanbul is getting closer to Athens

I thought he was among the other Orthodox pilgrims who regularly pay their respects at the ancient Church of Saint George in Fener, Istanbul. But observing him for a while, I soon realized that he was looking somewhat lost among the thin crowd that Saturday morning: one group of Greeks standing in the courtyard was listening carefully to the tour guide about the long history of the Patriarchal Church of St George, about its famous early Byzantine icons and about the present days; another small group was heading towards the church, they were local Rums there to light their customary candle on Saturday. The young, unknown man, in his mid-thirties, though, did not seem to fit into either of these categories. His casual, fashionable clothing and expensive mobile phone led me to assume that he must be among the young Greek businessmen who often visit Istanbul either for business, faith, or both. In normal circumstances, I would have just carried on with my job, reporting another visit by a Greek official to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. But say it was because the delay of the visit made me wait longer at that ancient courtyard, say because the young man turned out to be a friend of somebody I knew, I came to find out more about him.

Indeed he was a businessman from Athens, belonging to the once-thriving catering sector; married only one year ago to a young educated woman who, after finishing her two degrees in PR in the U.K., was earning a high salary in one of the multinational advertising companies in Greece. His family was apparently well-established, as a relative was a high-profile politician under the Costas Karamanlis government. However, this young man did not want help from his father. He preferred to lead his own life to success and to some extent he had succeeded. Although he did not tell me – I could not ask, either – I presume, like the majority of Greeks, he must have gotten himself a mortgage for his first house, maybe his car, and maybe he used his credit card for his comfortable living.

“Suddenly everything turned upside down,” he told me. The large, fashionable souvlaki restaurant he was managing in the most expensive neighborhood of Athens folded and he found himself unemployed. The young wife was shown the way out of her PR multinational as business had dramatically decreased. Several taxes on their high income of the previous year started to pile up and were due this year. “The last straw was a bill from the electricity company that included extra taxation, which amounted to almost five hundred euros. I did not have that money. I was penniless,” he said. So, he turned to the few friends he had left, “one in Greece and one here, in Istanbul,” and took up the decision of his life: to settle in this city. “Turkey is a developing country. I am sure I can find an opening, something, somewhere, in the food business, in catering, anything. I would have gone to New York, but getting a green card for your spouse is very hard.”

The figures confirm his desperate situation. According to research published last week, more than half of property owners state that they will not be able to pay some 40 different taxes levied on their property. And almost half of the property owners will not be able to service their mortgages. Bearing in mind that Greeks are among the highest in property ownership in Europe (eight out of ten Greeks own some kind of real estate asset) then the impact on their living standards is obvious.

According to a recent poll conducted by Reuters with the participation of 46 economists, unemployment in Greece (as well as in Portugal and Spain) will only get worse in 2013 (26.5% in Greece) before things get better, but very, very, slowly.

In the meantime, my friend in the courtyard of St. George’s Church is impatient. He is exchanging SMS messages with his young, unemployed wife who “is currently with relatives, but about to come over.” They are eager to start “living decently again, nothing luxurious, just decently, to start a family. That is why we got married last year. There are thousands like us,” he tells me.

About 1,000 Greeks from mainland Greece are said to have now moved to Turkey, mainly to Istanbul. Either for education or work, they are trying to make Turkey their second or even first home. It is not always easy. Business is competitive, basic wages are lower than Greece. Some fail, some succeed. Catering is a highly competitive sector everywhere. But my friend has no alternative but to try his luck and trust his friend from Istanbul and his friend in Athens, for whom he lit a candle at St. George’s Church.