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Tarpon Springs enclave of Greek-Americans worries about crisis from afar

TARPON SPRINGS — Father Vasileios Tsourlis walked the streets of Athens, Greece, past seven closed department stores and a smattering of empty cafes.

The assistant priest at the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tarpon Springs went to Greece in September to visit his parents. Amid the country's debt crisis, their pensions have been cut by a third. Taxes and inflation have doubled the price of heating their home.

Yet as Tsourlis walked Athens, far from his parents' home in central Greece, he realized they had been fortunate. Strikes, protests, widespread unemployment and the threat of political collapse had made the capital look like what one "could find after war," he said.

"You can see it more and feel it more in the big cities, how poor they are. You can see the people who lost their jobs," Tsourlis said. "The people are very scared. They don't know what will come the next day, what they will hear."

Greece's ballooning debt has shredded its public services, threatened the European Union and caused global markets, fearful of a national default, to plummet.

But the personal effects of Greece's political and financial crisis are also being felt in Tarpon Springs, one of the largest concentrated communities of Greek-Americans in the United States. Many now worry about the jobs, savings and safety of relatives and friends as the crisis devolves into chaos.

"If you can afford it, you leave," said Stelios Migadakis, the owner of Costas, a Tarpon Springs restaurant. "If you can't, what can you do?"

In the early 1900s, hundreds of experienced divers immigrated to Tarpon Springs from the Greek islands to dive for sponges growing in the Gulf of Mexico. Many settled in Tarpon Springs, and now roughly one in 10 city residents claims Greek ancestry.

Tourists visit this small coastal town in north Pinellas County, home to more than 2,500 Greek-Americans, to eat Greek food on Dodecanese Boulevard or shop on the historic Sponge Docks. Thousands of spectators line Spring Bayou every January to watch Greek boys dive for a cross during the city's century-old celebration of Epiphany.

But in the past two years, as wildly unpopular austerity measures in Greece stifled incomes and sent Greeks to the streets in protests that sometimes turned violent, whispers of worry echoed through Tarpon's Greek community.

Mark Lagos, a Clearwater auto body shop owner, saw the turmoil firsthand. When he visited Athens in September, he saw striking taxi drivers, professors and students gather at the protest site in Syntagma Square. At the Acropolis Museum, Lagos said, American tourists on a Mediterranean cruise were warned against dallying.

Frustrated Greeks long unemployed have talked of a mass exodus to Europe or Australia, Migadakis said. Several Greeks, including a friend of Lagos' who is a radiologist, asked him about opportunities in the United States.

Those wanting to stay faced a government nearly unable to function. Lagos' cousin, a lung doctor in Athens, has waited more than 10 months for the government to pay her for treating patients, Lagos said. A friend and pharmacy owner there told Lagos that pharmacists are picking and choosing which prescriptions to fill, excluding expensive drugs they fear the government won't pay for.

"People in Athens looked desperate," Lagos said. "A lot of people don't see Greece getting out of this in any simple way."

The smartest path to national recovery remains a hot topic of debate. Greek-Americans here said this week that the European Union's debt plan, which Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou plans to put up for a national referendum, would only sink the nation deeper into debt.

"Getting bailouts constantly is not helping the country," said Tarpon Springs Vice Mayor Chris Alahouzos.

His relatives, in Athens and Kalymnos, have seen their retirement incomes drastically shrink as the cost of living rose.

"They never really realized it was going to get to this point," Alahouzos said. "Right now, the uncertainty is getting worse and worse."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@sptimes.com.

Tarpon Springs enclave of Greek-Americans worries about crisis from afar 11/02/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 2, 2011 11:09pm]
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