An Austerity Wedding, With No Money For A Dress

Jun 15, 2012
Originally published on June 15, 2012 5:25 pm

Katerina Margaritou and Elias Tilligadas live in Athens. They're getting married next Wednesday — three days after the Greek election that has the global economy on edge.

Katerina is a chemist, and she works for a company whose main customer is the Greek government. The Greek government, of course, is broke. So Katerina hasn't been paid since last year.

"I'm very happy because I'm getting married," Katerina told me this week. "But I'm very sad because at the moment I cannot buy a dress. My boss promised me that he's going to give money to buy a dress. So I'm waiting."

When I first met first Katerina in January, she was hopeful about Greece's prospects.

"I'm optimist," she told me then. "I think we have a crisis now, but it's going to go away."

She doesn't feel that way anymore. "The economic situation in Greece is getting worse day by day," she told me this week.

This is not an accident. This is, in some ways, part of the plan for Greece. Things have to get worse before they get better. The Greek government for years spent way more than it brought in. Europe had to bail the country out, and the bailout came with conditions. The Greek government had to spend less money and raise taxes.

Katerina and Elias doesn't know who is going to be running her country next week. They don't know if the economy will collapse entirely next week. They don't know if there will be riots in the streets on their wedding day.

No matter what happens next week, the situation in Greece will be grim for a long time. Kateria and Elias are trying to figure out what to do, but they don't agree on much.

Elias wants to try farming; Katerina doesn't. Katerina wants to leave Greece. Elias wants to stay. Elias thinks Greece should leave the euro; Katerina disagrees. He's voting for the far-right party, she's voting far left. The only thing those extremes have in common: They're both anti-austerity.

If the election results on Sunday wind up giving a contradictory message about what Greeks actually want, it will be a perfect reflection of where the Greek electorate is right now.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. This weekend, Greek voters go to the polls in a pivotal national election. At stake is nothing less than the future of the euro - at least, that's the way outsiders are looking at it. Inside Greece, voters see it as a referendum on austerity.

Chana Joffe-Walt with our Planet Money team, talks with two voters weighing how much pain they're willing to suffer for the sake of their nation.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT, BYLINE: I first met Katerina Margaritou back in January, after the new year and, by that time, things were already bad in Greece, but Katerina - she'd just sit at dinner parties with friends who were all declaring Greece over and she'd shake a wild cloud of curls.

KATERINA MARGARITOU: I'm a optimist. I think that we have a crisis now, but it's going to go away, anyway. I don't know how, but it's going to pass. We're going to pass it.

JOFFE-WALT: This was a particularly striking statement to me back in January because Katerina had not been paid in months. She's a chemist in Athens. She works for a company with one main customer, the Greek government, the broke Greek government, but Katerina was still going to work every day.

MARGARITOU: You see, every day, we work. We bring money to the company. So every time we bring money, we are increasing the possibility to get paid.

JOFFE-WALT: Do you think that you'll get paid the back pay?

ELIAS TILLIGADAS: No.

MARGARITOU: Yes. I'm sure.

TILLIGADAS: No.

JOFFE-WALT: That voice you hear in the background saying, no, that's Katerina's boyfriend Elias Tilligadas, and their routine as a couple seemed to involve Elias offsetting Katerina's general positivity every chance he got.

MARGARITOU: He was married twice. I'm going to be his third.

JOFFE-WALT: Elias was shaking his head. No plans to get married again. OK. So that was six months ago. Greece is now about to make a major statement at the polls. I wanted to check back in.

How are you guys both doing?

TILLIGADAS: Oh. Great.

JOFFE-WALT: Elias seems to have perked up, but Katerina, the optimist...

MARGARITOU: Well, things are not good here. The economic situation in Greece is getting worse day by day.

JOFFE-WALT: This is not an accident. This, in some ways, is part of a plan for Greece. Things have to get worse before they can get better. The Greek government, for years, spent way more than it brought in. Europe had to bail the country out and, when it handed over emergency bailout money, Europe had some conditions. Greece had to correct its mistakes: spend less, raise taxes. It's called an austerity program and, for Katerina, here's what it means.

MARGARITOU: They don't pay me.

JOFFE-WALT: They still haven't paid you?

MARGARITOU: No. From January.

JOFFE-WALT: Katerina was wrong about the crisis going away and wrong in predicting that her boss was going to pay her back pay - he hasn't paid her much of anything. But she was happily right about one thing.

MARGARITOU: Yes. I'm getting married.

JOFFE-WALT: Katerina doesn't know who's going to be running her country next week. She doesn't know if the economy will fall apart, riots in the streets, but she and Elias decided to go for it Wednesday, three days after the election, an austerity wedding.

MARGARITOU: Well, I'm very happy because I'm getting married, but I'm very sad because, at the moment, I can not buy a dress, but my boss promised me that he's going to give me money to buy a dress, so I'm waiting.

JOFFE-WALT: Your boss that hasn't been paying you for the last year?

MARGARITOU: Yes. He told me - he promised me that he will give me a salary to buy a dress.

JOFFE-WALT: Do you believe him?

MARGARITOU: Well, I want to believe him.

JOFFE-WALT: People always want to believe that those who owe them money are going to pay it back. The Europeans, for a long time, wanted to believe that Greece was going to pay back its debts, but now, after emergency loans, they want Greece to prove it. That's what the austerity is for.

But cutting budgets and raising taxes now, in a recession, is painful and no matter what happens in the election, it's going to be painful for a while, so Katerina is sitting down with Elias, two educated professionals soon to be newlyweds. What are they going to do?

TILLIGADAS: Right. So let's start. Farming?

MARGARITOU: Oh, no. No, no, no, no. Actually, I want to leave Greece. Leave.

TILLIGADAS: No. I'm not going to leave Greece for the sake of the...

MARGARITOU: I'd like to leave because we have no future here. I...

TILLIGADAS: No, no, no. If I leave now, there would be nobody else left behind to save this country.

MARGARITOU: I think that nobody can save Greece now. I'm so disappointed.

JOFFE-WALT: You guys do not seem to agree on much.

MARGARITOU: No.

TILLIGADAS: No, no. We don't.

MARGARITOU: Actually, we don't vote - not even the same party.

JOFFE-WALT: You vote for different parties?

MARGARITOU: Completely different.

TILLIGADAS: Well, far right for me.

MARGARITOU: And far left for me.

JOFFE-WALT: There is only one thing the far left and the far right have in common. They are both anti-austerity. If Greeks elect a government that says to Europe, we need bailout money, but we don't like your terms. We don't want to do austerity. Europe could say, well, forget it, then. No more money. Europe could push Greece to leave the euro.

Do you want to leave the euro?

MARGARITOU: No, no.

TILLIGADAS: Yes, yeah.

JOFFE-WALT: If the election results on Sunday seem to offer a contradictory message about what Greeks actually want - well, it will be a perfect reflection of where the Greek electorate is right now.

Chana Joffe-Walt, NPR News.

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