By FIDELMA COOK
Once, perhaps, her rendezvous would have been with old friends in a smart restaurant close to Athens’ embassy district. Today her appointment was with charity – but she accepted her handout of bean soup in a plastic bowl with all the grace she could muster.
It was only when she realised that the outside world, in the form of a photographer and myself, were witnessing her ‘shame’ that she faltered. Horrified, she turned away, refusing to discuss the circumstances that had brought her to this municipal ‘soup kitchen’.
‘She has nothing left but her dignity,’ said a worker who approached her on our behalf. ‘She only started coming here in the past few weeks, and it is still so very hard for her. It will be her one meal of the day.
‘But there are more and more like her now. At first it was the immigrants and the illegals; the homeless. Now they’ve been joined by the young, the professionals, the middle class. And every day more come.’ On their knees, but refusing to be beaten by IMF and eurozone demands, the Greeks are clinging on to that dignity.
Yet, on the surface, as one walks through Athens’ chaotic streets, all appears surprisingly normal. Shops still trade and the ubiquitous yellow taxis whizz round with passengers.
Xanthia, a 28-year-old journalist on a local newspaper who is now being paid two months in arrears, says: ‘We’re a proud people. I still like to put on a show – sit in the café, all dressed up – it’s something we do, and all looks normal. But stick around for a while and you’ll notice we hold one drink all evening.’
Quietly every day, and the figure is rising, at least 4,000 are fed by the charity of the city, the churches and individual communities. Some say that figure is a woeful underestimate. Schools have been given extra meals for children who have been fainting with hunger.
For Fotis Provatas, vice Mayor of Athens, this aid is not in question. ‘There is an old Greek saying of which I am proud,’ he says. ‘The city is mother to the poor. That is our duty.’
Back at the soup kitchen, volunteers like Dimitria Kollia, dole out the food.
‘We’re seeing them younger and younger,’ she says. ‘And also professional couples who’ve lost their jobs. In three months the queue has changed, and that is very frightening for our future.’