In shadow of Minoan Palace, cleaner laments her plight

Reuters News
|
Posted: Jul 07, 2011 8:54 AM
In shadow of Minoan Palace, cleaner laments her plight

By Jeremy Gaunt

KNOSSOS, Greece (Reuters) - Rania Pelekanaki is anxious about everything.

The 43-year-old mother of four worries about her husband's job, about her own salary, about her unemployed eldest son, about higher food prices -- in short, about the future.

"It's a mess," she says. "I don't know about tomorrow."

Pelekanaki, a cleaner, works for British archaeologists up a dusty road from the world-renowned Knossos Minoan ruins, a UNESCO World Heritage site on the Greek island of Crete.

That's about all that makes her different. For the rest, she is like millions of Greek working men and women struggling with the reality that their country is sliding into bankruptcy and that somehow they are going to have to pay for it.

Asked who was to blame for Greece's crippling debts, chronically ailing economy and strict austerity plans to stave off ruin, she simply smiles and says: "Ta Megala Kefalia."

Literally meaning The Big Heads, it is a derogatory Greek term for those at the top who are pulling the levers of power. In American, it would be "The Man."

The financial world's attention has been on European Union and International Monetary Fund bailout plans, whether ratings agencies would classify Athens as in default, or on German ire at having to come to Greece's help.

But all this is another world for Pelekanaki in her humble job at what was the beating heart of ancient Minoan civilization, and her main concern is just making ends meet in circumstances way beyond her control.

Sitting at a table in one of her employers' ramshackle buildings, she smiles as she tells her story, gesticulates expressively and occasionally slides into tones that non-Greeks think is anger, but isn't.

"EVERYTHING IS BLACK"

"I am worried a lot," she told Reuters at this popular tourist site, where British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans used his private wealth to unearth colorful bull-leaping frescoes as well as a spectacular alabaster throne room.

"Everything is black," Pelekanaki said.

She is lucky in the sense that both she and her husband, a cleaner at a factory, still have jobs. Greek unemployment, after all, is at 16.2 percent, well over twice what it was just a few years ago before the debt crisis.

But her husband doesn't expect any salary increase and a job-for-life is no longer a given in contemporary Greece.

"I want to believe that it (his job) is going to be safe," says Pelekanaki in the shadow of the ancient palace whose hundreds of interlocking rooms could have been the source of the Greek myth of the Labyrinth, built to hold the Minotaur.

Indeed, financial markets are skeptical that the Greek government can sort out its own labyrinthine problems and its austerity package sparked violent protests and demonstrations.

Pelekanaki's own wage, about 730 euros ($1,044) a month, has suffered from having her work hours cut. Ironically, this is due to British government austerity rather than Greek, but she says her friends and family are all seeing less in their pay packets.

Pelekanaki's child allowance, around 35 euros a week for the one school age child she has at home, has also been cut sharply.

Her older son, 24, is living at home, unable to find work in Greece's tough economic climate and also putting strains on her household budget. Her other children are married women.

CHEAP LIVING LONG GONE

Against the backdrop of wrangling by the EU, IMF and ratings agencies in world financial centers, the result of Greek austerity to those fighting to earn a crust is one of worry.

Pelekananki's modest wage paid by the archaeologists is constantly stretched by rising inflation. Long gone are the days when Greece was one of Europe's cheapest countries to live in.

Petrol, for example, costs more than 1.70 a liter in some areas. It is up to 20 cents cheaper in Belgium and Germany because of the Greek tax increases.

Greek inflation hit a 13-year high of 5.6 percent in September last year and has been easing since but it remains above the 17-nation euro zone average reading -- 3.3 percent in June compared with 2.7 percent.

A trip to the supermarket these days is nearly double what it was, Pelekanaki says. "Everything is really expensive. You go with 50 euro and only get the basic stuff."

For the time being, through thrift and hard work, Pelekanaki is keeping her head above water financially -- but only just.

She turns to her overdraft if anything in the house needs to be fixed, which means there is no room for unexpected costs.

Her concern about her family's future is palpable, mirroring the anxiety felt by most Greek families across this nation of nearly 11 million people which is slightly smaller than the U.S. state of Alabama.

Faced with rising prices, job uncertainty, wages that don't keep pace and little prospect for the future, Pelekanaki said she and her husband had considered moving abroad. "The first place I think of is Germany where I know some people."

Early retirement at home is out of the question. Asked about when she expected to enjoy the fruits of retirement in the Greek sunshine, she replied: "Only when I die."

(Editing by Peter Millership)