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Greeks seek respite from money worries in Carnival

Elderly Greeks waited in line for food being handed out during a Carnival celebration in Athens. Organizers said four times more food was handed out at this year’s open barbecue. Elderly Greeks waited in line for food being handed out during a Carnival celebration in Athens. Organizers said four times more food was handed out at this year’s open barbecue. (Marita Pappa/Associated Press)
By Derek Gatopoulos
Associated Press / February 6, 2010

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ATHENS, Greece - It’s called “Barbecue Thursday’’ - a raucous pre-Easter celebration for meat lovers. But this year’s Tsiknopempti festivities, a fixture of the Carnival season, brought sobering reminders of Greece’s financial crisis.

Athens this week set up an open-air grill for its citizens, but the revelry quickly resembled a scene from a food bank as hundreds of elderly Greeks jostled for a plastic plate of free grub and glass of wine poured out the barrel - eager to take advantage of the freebies as they pinch pennies in the economic gloom.

Greece’s massive government debt burden has raised the alarming prospect of national default, rattling markets around the world with concern of a ripple effect through the Eurozone.

Greeks are plowing through the crisis with a mixture of trepidation and optimism.

“This is the only way many people can celebrate. There’s not enough money around to go to a restaurant,’’ retiree Katerina Aidonopoulou said after finishing her meal. She was barely audible over music from a live band outside the capital’s main food market.

“I think it will be better next year. What else can anyone say? You have to be optimistic or God help you.’’

The monthlong Carnival celebrations have provided a distraction from national gloom over the debt crisis. They are a blend of fancy dress parties, pagan-rooted village festivities, and urban street parades - all tied to the Greek Orthodox calendar, with the partying stopping for Lent.

Dressed in butchers overalls, Kleanthis Tsironis, head of the city’s main meat market, put a brave face on the crisis as he bantered with people lined up for pork chops on Thursday: “Don’t worry, we’re not going bankrupt.’’

He said four times the normal amount of food had been handed out for this year’s outdoor barbecue - hoping the gesture would lift Athenian spirits.

“All we hear is bad news . . . People need to relax a little, and smile a little, everything will be OK. It’s a storm and it will pass,’’ Tsironis said.

Greece was plunged into financial turmoil this past October, when the Socialists won general elections and promptly revealed massive undeclared debts that alarmed the European Union and rattled confidence in the euro.

To rescue finances, the Socialists have frozen civil service wages, hiked consumer taxes, and imposed across-the-board state thriftiness, even pulling tanks and other armored vehicles from this year’s annual military parades.

The austerity program - initially tolerated by unions - is becoming increasingly unpopular and facing a growing number of labor protests, including an embarrassing walkout by employees of Greece’s Finance Ministry. Unions are planning a general strike later this month, heightening concern in this riot-prone country.

Carnival costumes have served as an illustration of how the crisis has hit households.

Fancy dress costume vendors say single-piece superhero outfits are selling well this year, at the expense of the more pricey pirate look with plastic swords, eye-patches, and other accessories sold separately.

Spending cuts are occurring against a backdrop of sustained poverty levels that make Greece one of the Eurozone’s poorest countries.

An annual survey on poverty, published this week by Greek market research firm VPRC, estimated that 17 percent of Greeks, or 1.5 million people, suffered serious financial difficulties in 2009, including trouble paying of health care and utility bills.

A separate survey by Greece’s independent Foundation for Economic and Industrial Research found that 57 percent of households “barely covered expenses’’ in January, up 5 percentage points from a month earlier.

There is no shortage of bleak predictions.

On the evening news, ashen-faced politicians spell out the latest dismal forecast, their jargon of financial misfortune entering Greece’s public vocabulary: budget deficit projections or widening bond spreads no longer carry any explanation.