John Drescher

Former N&O writer now reporting for NPR from Greece

Joanna Kakissis covered contentious issues for The News & Observer in this growing city when her beat was Raleigh City Hall. Now she’s covering a different kind of debate in the birthplace of democracy, reporting for National Public Radio on the financial crisis in Greece.

Her mother is Greek, as was her late father. They moved from Greece to the United States when she was 4. She grew up in North and South Dakota. Kakissis, 45, reported for The N&O from 1998 to 2004. She was (and is) a gifted writer and storyteller.

She moved back to Greece because she wanted to cover the 2004 Summer Olympics. “I also had very nostalgic connections to Greece, mostly because of my parents,” Kakissis wrote in an email. “I wanted to see if I could fit in here, if it would feel like home.” A decade later, Kakissis is still there, living in Athens on the border of two neighborhoods – Kypseli and Galatsi – she describes as “warm, friendly, diverse.”

For the past four years, Kakissis has reported from Greece for NPR. The debt-strapped country has been devastated by a six-year recession that has brought into question whether Greece would remain part of the European Union and continue to use the EU’s currency.

Greek banks reopened Monday for the first time in three weeks, though customers were limited to withdrawing about $65 a day. That was the good news for residents, although fears of a bank run remain. The bad news was the sales tax was increased from 13 percent to 23 percent as Greece embarks on austerity measures so it can pay its debt. The higher levy was placed on most goods, public transportation and taxi rides.

“People are just exasperated because they already have problems paying bills and taxes on salaries that have been cut dramatically, some by a third or even half,” Kakissis said. “They’re like, now I have to pay more for spaghetti, cooking oil? Restaurants are freaking out because they don’t want to lose business, especially from tourists. Tourism is the bread and butter of the Greek economy. Some of my mother’s friends on Crete, who make a grappa-like, super-strong liquor called tsikoudia (with no anise flavoring), are also worried that they will start being taxed for selling their moonshine to restaurants. There might actually be an uprising over this!”

Kakissis says Greece is beautiful and full of generous and lively people “who are often on quixotic journeys to ascertain their modern identity, so shadowed by their ancient past.” She said people have remained calm even as they struggle to pay bills and mortgages.

“Everyone is anxious, unable to see how this austerity regimen is supposed to unfold and if they or their kids will ever live in a country that doesn’t have 26 percent unemployment,” Kakissis wrote. “People are also really frustrated at the ways Greeks are portrayed – as lazy people who always go on vacation (stats show Greeks work longer hours than anyone in the euro zone and also take fewer days of vacation than others in the EZ); as untrustworthy people who lie and cheat to get ahead (don’t we have these types everywhere?); and as professional protesters who like to riot (only a fraction of Greeks protest and a minuscule – like 50 – number of people throw Molotov cocktails).”

Greece, with about 11 million people, is about the same size as North Carolina. Kakissis loves Greece but says North Carolina is her favorite place. Raleigh, she said, is the best place to live, urban but homey, with plenty of green space, unlike Athens. “I miss my neighbors in Five Points, I miss running on the greenways, I miss the blooming spring and Lilly’s Pizza and the way the city smelled after a good dose of rain,” she said. “I even miss Hayes Barton Animal Clinic, where I took my cats (Pericles still misses the doting vets there). I come back about once a year for a few days, and it’s never enough time.”

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