AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
2011 has been a year of social and economic upheaval in Greece. In exchange for bailout money to stave off default, the government is imposing strict austerity measures. Reporter Joanna Kakissis says that's no easy thing, considering Greeks have lost all trust in their civic institutions.
(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SPEAKING GREEK)
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: About 20 people are sitting in a chilly, pine-scented classroom in suburban Athens. They're finishing up a seminar on mushroom cultivation, led by a stout mycologist in a bright red sweater. Most are in their 30s and 40s. Some are unemployed and the rest are worried that they soon will be. So, mushroom farming? Why not? Sophia Vassalou is willing to try anything.
SOPHIA VASSALOU: I am already two years unemployed. And we had to find another solution.
KAKISSIS: Sophia is a tall and pretty woman of 39. She grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Athens and she's married to her college sweetheart. She's a diligent student. Her thick blue notebook from the mushroom seminar is filled with notes and diagrams. That diligence made her a sought-after arts and antiquities conservator.
VASSALOU: Actually, I love my job. To be an art conservator is nice. Beautiful work to do. And in Greece, it's more.
KAKISSIS: She worked for 15 years on temporary contracts, and that's pretty typical here. She was set to get a permanent job at the Ministry of Culture. Then came the debt crisis and a hiring freeze. Now, she can't find a job anywhere. Sophia leaves class and walks to the metro. She takes a seat in the corner. She says if her family had political connections, she would have gotten a job in the civil service years ago. She says politicians run Greece like godfathers. They use tax money to benefit themselves and their supporters. She wants them out.
VASSALOU: They build this system because they wanted Greece for themselves. And now they have to leave this country. We don't want them here.
(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE PROTESTING)
KAKISSIS: The tens of thousands of Greeks who have protested outside parliament all year call politicians kleftes. That's the word for thieves. Sophia, who's been to a few protests herself, is tired of paying taxes and seeing broken sidewalks, bad schools and rising crime. It's like the money is going into a black hole, she says.
NIKOS KONSTANDARAS: OK. (Greek spoken)
KAKISSIS: For editor Nikos Konstandaras, Sophia is part of the silent majority who tolerated political patronage but didn't benefit from it. He writes about the issue from his office at the newspaper Kathimerini.
KONSTANDARAS: There was an understanding that politics would solve all problems, politics being favoritism, whether the problem was a problem of law, a problem of economics. People put more faith in politicians than they did in their institutions.
KAKISSIS: As a result, he says, corruption and cronyism trump the checks and balances of a functional state.
KONSTANDARAS: It showed up in the economy where the lack of desire to take painful decisions and just keep putting them off because we could drove us into overspending or falling deeply into debt and not having the machinery with which to get out of that debt. We don't have institutions and we don't have the self-discipline.
ELENA PANARITI: (Greek spoken)
KAKISSIS: Elena Panariti was hoping to build Greek institutions when she returned from a career as an economist overseas to take a seat in parliament. She says the economic crisis exposed the country's problems. And now Greek leaders must be frank with the people who are suffering.
PANARITI: We need to be very, very clear by explaining what happens to the person who lost his job; when and how do we think that this person can go back to the workforce. And if we do not think that person can go back to the workforce in the next two months or five months or six months, we should definitely be honest about it.
KAKISSIS: For years, politicians have been dishonest about everything, says Sophia Vassalou. She's the former antiquities conservator. She's completed her mushroom seminar and she's having a hot chocolate at a cafe near the Acropolis. A young man, who is shirtless and barefoot, is playing the wooden flute, and she fishes out some change for him. She says people often blame this country's problems on its fixation with the past. But she believes the past is not always an albatross. She compares Greece to the ancient wall paintings she loved restoring.
VASSALOU: I love the feeling being in a monument, actually, you know, the atmosphere, that I can touch it and make it better, you know. Me as Sophia, I know what I have and I want to keep it and make it better.
KAKISSIS: Yes, she says, sometimes it takes years to remove the layers of grime, but beneath, there's always beauty. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.