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Backpackers' guide to the eurozone crisis: Athens

Graffiti and a sign in Athens

Welcome to a country where the money could run out by mid-November.

You have seen the headlines about debts, defaults and deficits. But what does a country on the financial brink look, sound and even smell like?

Arriving in Athens, we immediately saw the boarded-up shops, the abandoned building sites, the bins groaning with what seemed like weeks of rubbish. There was a provocative poster, hastily glued to a wall in the street glorifying the riots in London a few months ago. "Greetings from London", it reads, with a picture of hooded youths carrying away boxed-up DVD players from a shop.

It is clear that a debt crisis is about much more than numbers with lots of noughts on and political brows with lots of furrows on.

Many accept that Greece has borrowed too much money and the economy is too weak to generate the growth to pay it back, but if Greece admits it can't pay its debts in full the country will default.

So, the government is cutting back, and cutting back drastically. They are attempting to cut the size of the state by a third. That means a big cut in the number of people employed by the government, and it means big tax rises. The latest charge is a new property tax, which is added on to each home's electricity bill. We've been told that for some families it is a bill that could run to thousands of euros.

'People are hungry'

The social scars of economic and political turmoil are not difficult to find. In the flea market in Athens, traders tell us what is happening here is chipping away at the fundamentals of what it is to be Greek.

Image caption Demonstrations have continued in Athens

Muriel runs a goldsmiths. "When a country drops there is more crime. People are hungry. They need money, so they find a way to get their money. Stealing - breaking in," she tells us, wagging her finger. "Before this we could leave our doors open. Now we can't do this - they have to be shut."

Mikis, 20, works in a restaurant a few blocks away. When we ask him about tax, we are greeted with a facial expression that says much more than any spreadsheet could about Greece's perilous fiscal position. His coy grin acknowledges Greece's open secret. Tax evasion is rife, and people are proud to admit it. Prouder still as taxes are cranked up in an attempt to bring in much-needed revenue.

"Sorting the tax situation would solve many of the problems in Greece. If the government could get all the taxes that people are hiding from them, Greece's debts would be much lower." We ask him straight out. Is tax dodging endemic? "Yes," he says, without hesitation.

"You asked for a receipt for your food just now, so we will pay tax on that. But most people never ask for receipts, so they can save money," he adds.

'It is terrible'

Late in the evening we wander into Syntagma Square, in front of the Greek parliament. It is nearly midnight, but still a small gathering of people are listening to a range of angry speakers bellowing into a microphone.

We get chatting to George. His face is red with anger, his arms in a constant swirl to emphasise his points.

"It is terrible. There is a big part of the Greek population which is really suffering. I am talking about people who up to a few months ago were okay. They had their businesses or their salaries or their pensions, and now they can't eat properly. They can't even pay their electricity bill, or for their water."

So middle-class families are struggling to pay for their children, we ask. Again, there is no hesitation: "Yes."

Later, Thrasy Petropoulos, news editor of the Athens News, tells us this is no exaggeration.

"We are coming across cases of genuine poverty here now, which we're simply not used to. The wrong people are suffering the most. One guy asked me this morning: 'How much more of our money are they going to take away to try to solve this?'"

Chris Mason and Chris Brindley are travelling across the eurozone all week, reporting for Radio 5 Live, the 5 Live blog and the BBC News website. They will be reporting from Greece, Italy, Germany and Belgium.