For Greeks, A Sad Shift In Self Image

There was a time when Greeks were proud of being Greek, of being a people known for dancing, being happy without material wealth, enjoying life. Now, Greeks are known for being deeply in debt, accused by some of living the high life on other people's money, of dragging Europe's economy to the brink of disaster.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

And now, a personal view of the European debt crisis from Greece and reporter Joanna Kakissis.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Every afternoon at five o'clock, my Uncle Thanassis makes coffee. He stirs it in a little brass pot, heats it till it rises, and then pours it into tiny cups.

My uncle is 81. He's got snow-white hair and wears sweater vests. He's retired now, but he started working when he was 8 years old when both of his parents died. That was just before World War II.

THANASSIS: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: The Italian soldiers gave us bread and loved us, he says. But the Germans didn't care. If you were hungry or little or without shoes, they didn't care at all. The Germans were very tough. If you made them mad, that was it - they killed you.

The Nazis killed his uncle and burned his village in the Peloponnese. And after that war, another one came - a war of Greeks against Greeks. Blood and bodies filled the well in his village.

(Foreign language spoken)

Did you see any hope for Greece then? I ask him. Well, he says, hope dies last, doesn't it? We hoped that something better would come after the war. When I was 15, I finally had a pair of shoes. I started eating a little better, dressing a little better, I thought these were good signs. And, he says, things for Greece did get better over the years. But they also got out of control.

Over the last 30 years, Greece had jobs, education, tourism, and, in 2001, the euro and with it a coveted place in Europe.

But there was also corruption, tax evasion and the out-of-control spending that led to today's debt crisis. Now the Europeans say Greeks must suffer for their sins with austerity or leave the euro.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS)

KAKISSIS: My uncle follows the news of anti-austerity protesters filling downtown Athens. He hears about Molotov cocktails and tear gas, and kids with sledgehammers fighting riot police.

THANASSIS: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: It's like the economy is turning into another civil war, he says. No, the people don't have guns out. But some people stole money from the state and now others are hungry.

My uncle's pension has been cut. He doesn't complain but he does feel cheated, because he pays his taxes. He used to tell my father, his brother, that Greece would take care of us. Our family lived in the hard, flat prairie of North Dakota.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAKISSIS: During a summer vacation to Greece in 1984, my father kept talking about how good life was here. He took Betamax video of a big old plane tree outside his village.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

KAKISSIS: That's where I used to hide, he's saying, and then I would climb up and up, and up that tree until I reached the very top. And, look, there's Thanassis, he says, and my uncle moves into the frame. Look, he's waving.

He and my uncle spent that afternoon singing and laughing at the village cafe. My father died five years later.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

KAKISSIS: Uncle Thanassis still sings with his wife, my Aunt Zacharoula. He tears up a little when he remembers the past.

Greece will have debts for at least another decade and may even lose the euro. He wonders what that means for his children and his grandchildren. They have big dreams, and they want so much more than coffee and a song to see them through.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

KAKISSIS: For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

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