Andy Eckardt/ NBC News
Restaurant worker Christos Mentissidis discusses the Greek economic crisis in Athens.
by Andy Eckardt, NBC News Producer
ATHENS – Greece’s recent financial and political crisis has led to tension between once friendly European neighbors.
Many Greeks blame the German government, as the major economic force of the European Union, for the radical austerity measures that threaten to cause a decade of misery for many Greeks.
The tone hasn’t been helped by some graphic depictions – such as a poster seen around Athens depicting Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel in a full Nazi outfit.
"Almost every German tourist who visits our restaurant these days asks me whether the Greeks hate Germany," Christos Mentissidis said Sunday as he set up tables and cleaned the floors at the Greek Taverna, a tourist-frequented restaurant in the heart of Athens.
"I immediately tell them that only a minority complain about Germany and other rich EU countries. But, it hurts to see what kind of image is painted of Greece in this crisis, here and abroad."
For Mentissidis, 50, the differences are personal – he spent nearly 20 years living in Germany, where he worked as a taxi driver, at a security company, at Lufthansa Cargo and in several jobs in Greek and German restaurants. Perhaps more significantly, he has a son who was born and raised in Germany and still lives there.
"Both countries are home for me," Mentissidis said. "But the love for the country where I was born was a little stronger in the end.”
He returned to Athens in 2006, but said he was immediately disillusioned by the corruption and byzantine bureaucracy of his homeland – and now is even contemplating going back to Germany.
‘It was a great mistake to come back’
"I once was asked to pay a bribe at a dentist's office in order to get an early appointment for a simple filling. Otherwise, I would have had to wait two months or more for the treatment," he said.
"Corruption, tax evasion and the whole pension plan structure are just some of the burdening problems here. Nothing is secure in Greece."
The recent upheaval has also had a direct effect on Mentissidis’ bottom line because his job is at a restaurant that appeals to tourists.
"This year started great for us,” he said. “In May, tourism really picked up and we were quite busy, with lots of foreigners visiting our restaurant. But then the first violent demonstrations happened and pictures of burning cars and masked protesters … were sent around the world and suddenly, we saw a decline in business of more than 40 percent.”
However, that doesn’t mean Germans have stopped going to Greece – it remains a popular beach destination and statics show there was actually a 6.5 percent rise in Greek tourism this past summer – supported by a jump in the number of German visitors especially to the Greek islands.
Mentissidis is not alone. As private businesses suffer, tax revenues shrink, meaning the Greek government cannot pay salaries and pensions to more than 2.5 million people.
Andy Eckardt, NBC News
An English-language newspaper seen in Athens on Sunday blares the headline:
"Economically, it was a great mistake to come back to Greece and I am very worried about the future," he said.
It’s a different story for his 26-year-old son, Themistoklis, back in Germany.
"When my father returned to Greece, I strongly considered going with him, but I am so happy now that I stayed here. There is no future for young people in Greece," said Themistoklis, 26, during a recent interview in Ruesselsheim, a town close to Frankfurt, Germany’s financial capital.
While Greece's unemployment rate currently hovers above 16 percent, with the jobless rate among 15-24 year olds soaring to 42 percent, Themistoklis has a job as a machine operator at a big pharmaceutical company in Frankfurt.
There are, however, constant reminders of the plight of his ancestral country.
"Every time people in Germany hear that I am Greek, there is no other topic than the [economic] crisis and I often have to justify things when I hear negative remarks about my country," he said.
The young man and his Greek girlfriend say that the "unnecessary tensions" are often caused by adverse depictions in the German media and, on the Greek side, by references to the 1941-45 Nazi occupation of Greece.
The situation was not helped when Greek Prime Minister Papandreou announced last week that he planned to hold a referendum on the European bailout measures (a decision that was later reversed).
"Take the euro away from the Greeks!" was a headline on Germany's mass-circulation tabloid BILD after Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy raised the prospect of Greece’s exit from the Eurozone for the first time.
"We've had enough!" BILD wrote in the article, signaling growing exasperation in Europe's largest economy. "We're spending hundreds of billions of euros to save the Greeks and now a referendum there should make clear whether they want to make savings at all. Now we want our own referendum: No more billions for the Greeks, Greece out of the euro!" the article wrote.
But that would be a worst-case scenario as far as Christos is concerned.
"Despite all the criticism I am still very proud to be Greek, but the last thing we want is a return to our old drachma currency," said Christos.
But he’s not dismissing a return to his old stomping ground. "With all the chaos here, I am strongly thinking about going back to Germany, where I would rather take up a low-paid taxi driver job than approach retirement age in a country that lacks a real system.”
NBC News’ Andy Eckardt is based in Mainz, Germany, but is currently on assignment in Greece.