OVER the past five years, Greeks have tried austerity – waves and waves of it – and so far it hasn’t worked. Worse than that, it has crippled the country’s economy, forced up unemployment, and caused social problems that Greece had never seen before outside of wartime.

Yet for non-Greeks, it has been easier to interpret the lack of commitment to austerity as laziness and a refusal to take the difficult road to economic “recovery” in the way that beleaguered Ireland and Spain have been seen to do in the past few years.

As someone who has lived in southern Greece for four years from 2010, when Greece was just on the cusp of the current disaster, I have seen first-hand how Greeks have knuckled down to austerity, but how it has slowly ruined the lives of ordinary working people.

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In the town of Koroni, at the tip of the Messinian peninsula, where I spent a year from early 2014 writing my second book about Greece (Homer’s Where the Heart Is), I heard stories of great hardship.

Panayiotis, in his mid-thirties, is married with a baby and a toddler. He teaches Greek to foreigners in a local school, with a 90-minute drive each way from his home in Kalamata, the capital of the southern Peloponnese region. He works five evenings a week and had not been paid any wages for nearly a year from the language programme, funded partly by the Greek government and, ironically, also by the EU.

“The funds have not come through from the Department of Education. It would seem the department hasn’t got enough money to pay our wages, or perhaps the money has been diverted into something else. I don’t know all the reasons.”

For the past two years he has also been forced to use his own money for petrol costs for the trips, which total 400 miles a week, putting an extra burden on his family budget. His wife was on maternity at the time on a miniscule amount of money by UK standards.

He offered a stoical shrug when I asked how he managed. “Our parents help us when they can, but they have also been hit by the crisis. We live very frugally and the money we have goes mostly to help the children.”

Why do you stick with a job that doesn’t pay you anything, I asked him? “In Greece now, we take the austerity and just hope that the situation will get better one day.”

While the head of the IMF Christine Lagarde has previously implored Greeks to “help themselves … by all paying their taxes”, this is an impossible task in a nation where unemployment is now at 25 per cent (50 per cent for youth unemployment) and wages have been cut by half in many instances, if wages are forthcoming at all.

While the rest of the world may think that Greeks revel in being tax-dodgers, the reality is different. After a spate of suicides in Kalamata in 2014, I was told by an accountant friend in the city that some people who owed substantial taxes to the government (some of which were unfair, even illogical) had no way of repaying them. They felt shamed. One man he knew had jumped from the top of his Kalamatan apartment block rather than have to confess his financial plight.

The rural southern Peloponnese, where I was living, produces some of the world’s best olive oil., and while small independent farmers have been able to ride out the crisis slightly easier than in Greek cities, Even here there were many stories of hardship.

In our first year, living in a hillside village, I befriended many locals. One was a woman in her mid-forties who had never married because she had looked after her elderly mother.

After the mother died she had no financial support and, on top of that, lost a health disability allowance (around €400 a month) in one of the previous government’s sweeping “reforms” to social services, sanctioned by the Troika. By 2014, she had nothing. Family members helped when they could and when she needed money for emergencies. In desperation, she took money from a small savings account her late father had left to her as a dowry.

“I don’t think anyone will want to marry me now,” she told me.

No-one should have doubts about how hard Greeks work, how much they have been hammered by austerity, how little they have gained.

I asked a pensioner in 2014 if he thought the crisis was easing at all. He shook his head. “I can’t say. I only know that the Greek people used to be a lot happier.”

Sunday’s referendum may point the way or not to Greeks recovering their spirit. We can only hope so.

Marjory McGinn is a freelance journalist and author. Her latest book, Homer’s Where the Heart Is, was published in May and is available on Amazon.co.uk