ATHENS, Greece — In recent months this city's Syntagma Square, adjacent to the Greek Parliament, has often erupted into a battleground between police and protestors irked by the government's strict austerity measures.
But on quieter Sundays, the aroma of steaming hot vegetable soup has become a familiar scent in the square, where unemployed Greeks set up their “social kitchen” and cook free lunches.
Constantinos Polychronopoulos, 47, who leads a team of volunteers, was inspired to act after he witnessed two children battle for a discarded apple in the street. He prepares soup in a different Athens neighborhood each day.
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“It’s to wake up the people; to do it in every corner in every square,” the former marketing professional said Sunday under a steady drizzle. “It’s to give a message to the politicians — in the whole world, not just Greece — that we don’t need them. We can’t afford to pay any more for their mistakes.”
Greeks are increasingly turning to each other, rather than the government, to survive the country’s worst post-war crisis. Mired in debt, Greece relies on bailouts from international lenders, who demand tough austerity measures, including tax hikes and salary and pension cuts.
As a result, social and economic networks are popping up all over recession-battered Greece, where unemployment has doubled in the past two years, reaching 21 percent in December. Homelessness and suicides also are rising.
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In what some call a “potato revolt,” farmers are using the internet to sell produce directly to citizens. This bypasses mark-ups by large retailers, and results in huge savings for consumers. The farmers in the northern town of Nevrokopi sold 24 tons of potatoes at cost a few weeks ago.
Greeks around the country have expressed interest. The municipality of Pallini, near Athens, helped coordinate purchases for its residents, who put in orders for 270 tons of spuds, the city said on its website. Officials and volunteers distributed more than half of the potatoes this weekend, according to alphabetical order to avoid crowds.
Consumers are getting the potatoes at half the shelf price. Some supermarkets have now slashed their prices, local media reported.
In another example, the group #tutorpool is helping needy students. The Greek public education system is dysfunctional, so parents hire private tutors for their children to make up for daily classroom deficiencies. More than 475 educators have volunteered to tutor students whose parents can no longer afford the expense.
“We are re-learning social solidarity. This is a big change,” said Gregory Katsas, sociology professor at Deree-The American College of Greece in Athens. “We are rediscovering strengths we used to have.”
Greeks were much more neighborhood-focused after World War II, Katsas explained. Beginning in the 1980s, thing changed. Greeks “became very rich, very fast,” he said, moving practically overnight from an agricultural society to a post-industrial one.
“They forgot the neighborhood,” he said.
Indeed, volunteering and charitable giving are not entrenched behaviors in Greece, according to recent surveys.
In a 2011 survey, only 3 percent of Greeks reported that they had volunteered at an organization in the past month. That was the lowest percentage among the 153 countries surveyed as part of the World Giving Index, published by Charities Aid Foundation.
Overall, Greece ranked third lowest on the index, which also measured percentages of the population that made financial donations to charities and “helped a stranger.” Greece’s charitable behavior slipped 1 percentage point from 2010, the survey said.
The United States, Ireland and Australia represent the top three in 2011. There’s no comparable pre-crisis data. The index used data gathered by pollster Gallup, and was first published in 2010.
There was a surge of volunteerism for the Athens 2004 Summer Olympic Games, and official pledges to build on that foundation, but little follow-up, Katsas said.
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“It deflated very fast after the Olympics,” he said. “The whole structure disappeared. The concept of volunteerism, the mentality, simply is not available.”
Back in Syntagma Square, the free lunches attract Greeks, some of whom are homeless, as well as immigrants who hawk goods on Athens sidewalks and traffic intersections. Polychronopoulos notes that the initiative is about solidarity, not charity.
“It’s not philanthropy. It’s not cooking for others. It’s cooking all together and eating all together,” he said as they distributed lasagna, salad and soup in the square, located a stone’s throw — or during protests, a chunk of marble’s throw — from Parliament.
The children whom he saw fight for an apple had been reluctant to accept free food, explained fellow volunteer Calliope Charkianaki, 36. So they joined the kids in eating the meals, which seemed to remove any stigma.
The organization, called “The Other Person” in English, serves 80 meals per day, up from 10 when it started three months ago. For donations, they ask for “anything a kitchen needs.” They rely on friends to drive the gear — including a propane tank and tables — to the neighborhoods.
The daily logistics have helped Charkianaki deal with the psychological effects of unemployment. She worked in a bakery but lost her job last year.
“There was depression. Everything was black,” she said. “I said ‘what am I going to do?’ Then, I realized we can’t think like that. We have to have hope.”
Today, she’s no longer looking for work.
“To tell you the truth, I really like what I do here,” Charkianaki said. “I don’t want a job. For what? 300 euro? To buy what? I don’t like that. I prefer not to work at all. I will find a way. I prefer to be homeless than to be in that system.”
Last month, the head of the Orthodox Church warned of a “social explosion” in response to yet more austerity measures. Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Ieronymos II said in a letter to Prime Minister Lucas Papademos that there is “insecurity, desperation and depression” in every home, and that they are causing a rise in suicides.
Other grassroots “initiatives” cross the line into criminality. Anarchists occasionally “expropriate” food from supermarkets and distribute the items at farmers markets. One website said such food also would be given to steel workers who are on strike.
Charkianaki, speaking for her organization, said the key to surviving the crisis is Greeks working together.
“We have to find a way to do it. We can’t accomplish anything by ourselves. Together we can do things,” she said. “We have to organize. We have to take the power back.”