Surviving a severe economic crisis is like coming out alive after an airplane crash. You will never be the same person again.
At first, the bad news was just a whisper. Stories of people we did not know losing their jobs. My husband and I were working at one of the leading newspapers in Athens and we felt safe. When people we knew were suddenly out of work, I knew it was time to take action. I had to learn a different occupation that wouldn’t be limited by language or country, a problem I would face trying to find work as a journalist if I had to leave Greece.
So, I started attending classes in a pastry school. Every afternoon for two years, after a full day working as an arts editor at Eleftherotypia, I attended baking classes until 10 p.m. And then I spent all my weekends and many a night working to master the techniques I had learned.
When both my husband and I lost our jobs in 2011, after working unpaid for several months, and we were left with nothing but unemployment benefits, making pastry became my therapy to fight off despair. I worked diligently to make the perfect French macaron. (Not to be confused with the macaroon, which doesn’t have a filling, color or that sensual crispy texture. The sweets share the same basic ingredient, almond powder.)
My idea was to convey the essence of Greece through traditional flavor combinations. I flashed back to my family’s boring visits to our relatives in the country, where we had the usual fig sweets; I recalled the remains of sesame at the bottom of our school bags; remembered the piles of shells left behind from the famous pistachios from Aegina; savored the memory of fresh yogurt mixed with quince that was generously offered at the tavernas after the heavy meal of beef in red sauce.
The horror of unpaid bills was replaced by the agony I put myself through to try to come up with the perfect macaron. And instead of crying from despair for the dark future we faced, I was weeping over the oven because my little delicate creations couldn’t keep their shape. After more than 3,000 trials and errors — mostly errors — I managed to master the perfect macaron. I was ready to sell them.
I invested every penny I earned in high-quality photographs, a superbly designed website and tasteful packaging. “Le macaron grec” was born and the little olive green boxes of treats I was selling were, I thought, my chance to regain control of my life.
“Le macaron grec” became a huge success, as I was in demand to cater parties and weddings. The Huffington Post wrote a feature story about my business in May of 2013, and I felt like I was on my way.
But as happens so often in Greece, the bureaucrats had other plans. In a country where you are viewed favorably when you spend money but are considered a criminal when you make it, starting a business is a nightmare. The demands are outrageous, and include a requirement that the business pay taxes in advance equal to 50 percent of estimated profit in the first two years. And the taxes are collected even if the business suffers a loss.
I needed only 20 square meters for my baking business, but inspectors told me they could not give me permission for less than 150 square meters. I was obliged to have a separate toilet for customers even though I would not have any customers visit. The fire department wanted a security exit in the same place where the municipality demanded a wall be built.
I, like thousands of others trying to start businesses, learned that I would be at the mercy of public employees who interpreted the laws so they could profit themselves.
And so in the winter of 2013, my business was finished before it had a chance to take off. The website and a couple of empty boxes in the top of my closet are now the only evidence of the inglorious end of a dream. Despair was closing in. There were no jobs for journalists and our unemployment benefits had run out.
Then, suddenly, an opportunity arose. My husband got an offer to run an online newspaper, but we needed to move so he could work in Brussels. We borrowed some money, packed a truck, said a few goodbyes and without a single regret, left everything behind.
The first couple of months were very difficult, but I finally managed to put our struggles in perspective. I started watching documentaries about World War II, the stories of Europeans who had lost sons, brothers, fathers, and were forced to compromise their dignity and self respect. I watched elderly people, people of culture with refined manners, forced to sell cups of Limoges porcelain or a fine teapot at a flea market just to survive. I studied my mother-in-law, who was born in the wake of the Great War, spent her childhood living through World War II, her youth in the Greek civil war, and her thriving 40s in the throes of the Greek dictatorship. For her, the economic crisis was a normal event in life. And she had managed to live a long and happy life despite the challenges. But how did that generation manage to get through all their tribulations and ours could not? Maybe because we grew up with the most powerful drug of all: Security.
And for me, like many Greeks, that drug was gone, forever.
Despina Antypa is a journalist and the former arts editor of the Athens newspaper, Eleftherotypia.