Athens-based Australian journalist Amanda Dardanis watches the death of her idyllic Greek lifestyle

Amanda Dardanis
Paradise lost: Journalist Amanda Dardanis on her idyllic life in Greece that exploded into chaos. Source: The Sunday Telegraph
TWO years ago, my husband and I visited the Athens International Airport to retrieve three boxes of personal items we had express freighted from Australia.
Nine different people, mostly government officials, would become involved in the release of our belongings. There was the guy whose sole job it was to hand us the paperwork; the man whose duty it was to wield the stamp. One employee to verify the payment amount; another to print out the triplicate receipt.
Over the next three hours, we trekked the length of the airport several times. I was eight months pregnant and intensely irritated that every last one of those customs officials smoked outlawed cigarettes at their desk. When finally we reached the cashier - long after all will to live had gone - there was one person to collect and file our receipt, and another to take our money.
An English friend dropped into her local Athens council to pay a parking fine recently.
"There were probably about 10 people sitting around a desk doing nothing," she recalls. "Eating doughnuts and drinking coffee.
And one harried woman was doing all the work."
It's an expat bonding tool this. Trading these kind of Greek bureaucratic lunacies like Ben 10 baseball cards. In a country where "a jobs for votes" mentality has been actively nourished rather than punished, everyone has at least half a dozen to share.
Take the one about the woman who allegedly works for the council of Korinthos (Corinth) on full pay but only works two days a month. The rest of the time, she runs a clothes boutique.
Now of course, such tales seem portentous; a grim breadcrumb trail leading right to the door of this god-awful mess the Greeks have landed themselves in.
Last month, I had to collect my two-year-old daughter from her nursery in the belting rain. The downpour had lasted barely an hour, but this being Athens, many of the shoddily maintained roads had already flooded. As I navigated the difficult drive home, stinking bags of uncollected rubbish sailed down the gutter alongside me.
It could have been a scene out of Slumdog Millionaire. Except for the fact that I was driving past multi-million euro mansions with gilded gates and cascading bougainvillea in one of Athen's most affluent suburbs.
The imagery was potent. Greece 2011. A country that has allowed itself to be capsized by its own accumulated waste.
On that rainy day, the "garbos" were on strike (as they had been every day for the past fortnight) along with roughly half of Greece's labour force. We were in the grip of a 48-hour general strike called by the country's two biggest unions. It was by far the most severe that I have witnessed in my five years here.
Airports, state schools, banks, buses, taxis. Bakers, judges, doctors. Customs officials, clothes shops, tax offices. All out. Among the few who did go to work were the immigrant beggars who clog every traffic intersection cleaning windscreens and plying cheap plastic wares.
The day before, along with all of our friends here, I rushed out to stock up on bread, milk and petrol. Siege preparations. The week before that, when rumours of another flash petrol strike broke, I queued for petrol for an hour, while my girls dozed in the back.
I was taking no chances. The last time the oil tankers went on strike, we had no petrol for more than a week.
Each night before we go to bed, my husband and I log on with foreboding to a website devoted entirely to collating strike information to see which professions won't be turning up to work the next day. The fact that we now voluntarily live in a country where there is a necessity for a strike website does not go unnoticed by our families back home in Australia.
On the really bad days when we get the full monty - buses, trains, taxis all striking - my husband has to hire a driver at great personal expense to make it into the office.
English expat Tessa Deriziotis has a different nightly ritual with her Greek husband Thanasis. Each evening at 8pm, he Skypes her and their three children from Dubai - where he has had no choice but to relocate after losing his lucrative civil engineer's job.
"Most of us foreign women are only here because of our husbands. We never imagined that we would be separated as a family. The dream was to be in Greece together for all of our lives," Tessa says.
Tessa's story is just one of dozens you will hear around the expat cafe circuit on the "Athenian Riviera" - this highly desirable southern strip where so many of us foreigners have made our homes.
Eighteen months ago, three people died - one of them a pregnant woman - when protesters torched the Marfin Egnatia bank in Syntagma Square. My own husband Dimitri works just 300m away for a small Greek investment bank. Like thousands that day, he had to fight his way home to us on foot through the tear gas and flying rocks. But back then, and for a long time afterwards, we remained huddled in our pampered expat bubble.
Our homes were luxurious and spacious with manicured gardens and cleaners. Some of us even had pools.
It all was - and to large extent still is - a million miles removed from the cramped inner-city dwellings with wet laundry strewn across the balcony that most people conjure when they think of Athens.
We didn't worry about crippling austerity packages or job losses. Nor care that Greek schools had one of the worst performance records in Europe, while still being the most over-staffed. We sent our children to the international private schools with their over-priced after-school clubs.
We continued to enjoy our six-euro frappes at Athens' most exclusive beach venues and our carefree weekends in Mykonos at friends' villas. If the husbands worked at shipping, the wives worked at shopping.
Just three short months ago, our family spent a glorious Sunday sipping champagne on the deck of our best friend's 65ft private boat. At the time, they were passing around a glossy brochure for a new 75ft vessel the family were considering upgrading to, because they had "outgrown this one".
They had a charming Man Friday called Dante who did everything, from collecting us from the shore to expertly grilling the freshly caught monkfish we ate for our supper. There are people in Greece who still live this kind of other-worldly existence, of course.
But for the moment, they are doing their best to lay low.
Because finally, it appears that our cosseted expat bubble has popped and we too are starting to feel the burn.
Ugly undercurrent to ritual protests
LAST month, in the turbulent week when the great rescue package was announced, my husband once again braved the riots and tear gas, the piles of burning rubbish and Molotov cocktails to journey home from Syntagma Square, in the city's beleaguered centre.
The mood has shifted and there is an ugly undercurrent now to these ritual protests that frightens him. For the first time in history, protesters targeted one of the guard houses outside Parliament House. Traditionally, these military sentinels have been collectively revered by the Greeks as a symbol of the people. Last month, they burned too. Greece - her unemployment rate soaring at 16.5 per cent - now officially appears a country that is fragmenting.
All around us now, friends are reporting car thefts, muggings, home invasions - disturbing evidence, as if we needed it, that crimes of desperation are on the rise.
Six people have already been let go from my husband's very small team. One German colleague has had his pay slashed to one third of its original size but with two children to support and no other jobs, he has no choice but to stay on. The Greek banking industry is not exactly a rocking place to be right now. But at least it has one rare distinction. Here, the banks haven't sunk the country; the country has sunk the banks.
"The first thing to go was our boat," reports Tessa. "Then the Maserati and then the Volvo. Now I've just got a Mazda," she laughs, not unaware of the surreal contrast between her family's concept of hardship and that of the average Greek citizen - many of whom have not held a pay packet in months.
"We have good Greek friends whose husband is paid solely by the government and he hasn't been paid since the summer," she says. "They don't know whether to let their staff go or whether they're about to be paid if the rescue package comes in. What do they do? They've got 50 people working for them."
Intensely patriotic Greek husbands of several foreign friends are now for the first time urging their wives to apply for dual passports for their children so they can quit the country. One friend from Canberra, a global account manager for AMEX, has just been put on an evacuation list by one of her clients who has pledged to charter a jet to get her out, if things should deteriorate further. The last expats they evacuated were in Libya.
We recently lost our treasured babysitter, the closest thing we had to family here. After nine years in Greece, her husband's long-term job as a flight engineer for Aegean Airlines went when the carrier terminated all contracts.
For another expat friend, Sara Davies, who runs a watch import business with her Athenian husband, the financial crisis is proving "catastrophic". Overseas suppliers are no longer willing to grant her company credit; while many of their Greek customers are writing them cheques dated eight or nine months down the line.
"It's incredibly difficult to keep cash flow going here," says Sara, 45, who has lived in the capital for 13 years and has a daughter, Charlotte, 7.
Still, she finds the prospect of returning home to the United Kingdom "horrific".
"We would go back there and be incredibly poor. We have no credit rating, how would we get on the property ladder?
"We're both in our forties so from a career perspective, who on earth would employ us?" Sara says.
Sydney expat Tammy James is one of the few we know who is actually thriving because of the crisis. Her husband Alex is a shipping lawyer.
"Absolutely my family are worried about us at the moment and they are all saying, 'When are you coming back home?"' confesses Tammy, who lives in the affluent suburb of Glyfada, where Melbourne drug czar Tony Mokbel was apprehended at one of the local cafes.
"But this is the busiest my husband has ever been. Everyone is squabbling over legal contracts and renegotiations and money, so professionally, Greece is actually working for us," says the former human resources executive, and now mother to Lucas, 2.
Even with the EU bailout funds, the average Greek faces years of brutal cutbacks. Years of carrying the can for what happened when successive governments - as one financial commentator put it - "were left alone in the dark with a pile of money that wasn't theirs." And even then, many financial experts believe that a massive default is unavoidable.

Taking advantage, taking responsibility
FOR us outsiders living here it is so easy to see how, at the microscopic level, many Greek citizens must take their share of responsibility for this catastrophe.
Because still, the rorting continues. Just as it always has.
Our landlady complains about the corruption in one breath, and in the next hands us a receipt for half of our rent.
A good friend's husband has had his official salary slashed by one third. Only to receive a cash-stuffed envelope each month with the balance.
Melbourne expat Sally Thomas has a friend who lost her driver's licence here three times for talking on her mobile.
"But each time, she just paid someone off and got it back," says Sally, 30, an English teacher who lives with her Greek shipping boyfriend George on four hectares on the south coast.
"Here you can pay for anything. Anything. If you pay the right people."
Adds Sara Davies: "Every single Greek person I have met has taken advantage of the system here for years and years. Even if it was just passing an envelope of money to the hospital staff when their children were born to make sure they were looked after properly. It's just taken as part of life here. The philosophy is, if you don't look after yourself, no one else will."
Against this cultural legacy, bringing Greece into the euro was always going to be a folly.
It forces a fiscal discipline on a bunch of people who throughout 3500 years of history haven't shown the slightest inclination to be disciplined.
Nearly every expat we know here remarks on the conspicuously "me-first" culture they believe to be at the root of the Greek debt crisis.
And it's true that there appears little in the way of a collective community conscience. You can see it in the near-total whitewash of the EU smoking ban, and in the jockeying that goes on everywhere from the local supermarket to the bank counter where you will be giving private details to a teller, only to have someone elbow you out of the way to ask a few pressing questions.
It can be seen in the shocking contempt for the environment (some beaches and parks should come with a WHO warning). And in the arrogant driving culture bordering on the criminally reckless (I once witnessed two small boys standing up in the back of a Smart car, gripping on to the seats in front, Ben Hur-chariot-style, while their father chatted on his mobile).
My Greek tutor Lizzy Robson, who has lived here for 33 years, talks movingly about the loss of hope that the Greek people are experiencing and their unprecedented sense of helplessness.
"The Greek people I know realise they're making it worse for themselves. Many are embarrassed about what's happening. One of their biggest worries, and it's a really hollow feeling inside for them, is that so many young people are leaving the country."
Yiannis Petropoulos, my 22-year-old Greek hairdresser, earns €700 a month and is desperate to move to Australia to find work. He doesn't have the money for a ticket.
"Greece is about the past," he says, angry at his country for denying him a future.
But anchored on the other side of all this lawlessness is an indefinable spirit - a true generosity - that keeps so many of us here to see how this modern Greek tragedy will play itself out.
Once a Greek decides to take you under their wing, their loyalty is legion. Their fierce family focus translates into much lower rates of violence, alcoholism and divorce, compared with Anglo-Saxon societies such as ours.
And this country has given us so much. Cherished experiences like taking our baby daughter to pick wildflowers at the sacred Oracle of Delphi - a site so ridiculously beautiful it hurts.
My Australian-born husband remembers childhood visits, long before the euro, when impoverished Greeks would defiantly blow a week's salary on a trip to the bouzoukia in the spirit of "life is short, might as well enjoy it".
Greeks have been poor before, they will survive being poor again.

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