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'We need a new word for crisis': the view from Athens

The cash machine queues are calm – for now. But where does it go from here?

4 July 2015

9:00 AM

4 July 2015

9:00 AM


On Sunday night, a protest in favour of staying in the euro gathered in Syntagma Square, in front of the Greek parliament building. They were quickly confronted by a group of anti-EU protestors. What could have been an ugly stand-off was avoided by an unseasonal downpour. The 28ºC heat plunged to 19ºC and the young protestors — organised by social media — fled home, as did the riot police soon afterwards. Things are in a terrible way here, but not quite terrible enough for a Greek to hang about in the rain.

As one Athenian journalist told me on the roof of the Amalia Hotel, while we watched the protestors scuttling home under their umbrellas, the country is suffering crisis fatigue. ‘We really need a new word for crisis,’ the journalist said. ‘A crisis isn’t supposed to go on as long as this.’

For six years, Greeks have watched as the country ran out of money, excuses, and time to pay off their unpayable debts. To begin with, they rioted — then riot fatigue kicked in. Now, instead of raw anger, a blanket of sad weariness has settled over the country as it prepares for the referendum this weekend — and the expulsion from the euro which may follow.

From Athens to Kalamata, in the southern Peloponnese, I watched as people formed orderly, quiet, resigned queues at cash machines, to collect their newly restricted maximum withdrawal of €60 a day. Everybody is queuing, including those riot police, who were stockpiling euros at a cash machine near parliament in the build-up to Sunday’s damp squib of a protest.

No one complained at the rank unfairness of my privileged position in the queues. Because of my foreign bank account, I could withdraw as much as I wanted — when the machines had any money in them. It is safe to say that anyone heading to Greece on holiday should take plenty of euros. They will be perfectly safe in this still exceptionally friendly country but, then again, who feels safe walking around with thousands of euros in their pocket? Or under their bed? This is the kind of misery and uncertainty that Greeks will have to live with for months, whatever happens.

In theory, Alexis Tsipras has at least four more years as Greece’s Prime Minister. In practice, he is playing for time, and running out of allies willing to play along with him. He is urging Greeks to vote No in the referendum this weekend, indicating that he’d resign in the event of a Yes. His creditors want him to make ends meet by trimming generous pension deals and other examples of state largesse. He initially refused. His last-minute intervention this week, accepting a slightly watered-down set of demands from his creditors, was the desperate action of a man about to be kicked out of the last-chance saloon.

The stakes are moving ever higher. Greece became the first developed country to default on an IMF loan on Tuesday. Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, has said that a No vote on Sunday will mean No to the European Union itself. To the British, EU membership is a practical question about a rather expensive trading bloc. To Greeks, it’s about identity. It was the prospect of joining the EU that helped the country move from dictatorship in the 1970s. The Bank of Greece put it rather powerfully in a recent report. Failure to agree a deal, it said, would mean an ‘exponential’ rise in unemployment, deep income cuts and ‘a collapse of all that the Greek economy has achieved over the years of its EU membership’. Furthermore, ‘from its position as a core member of Europe, Greece would see itself relegated to the rank of a poor country in the European south’.

In the lobby of the Hotel Grande Bretagne on Syntagma Square, worried guests cross-questioned the concierge about where they could get euros. One American tourist said that his family had called him from the States, begging him to come home from the ‘war’ in Greece. If people are already thinking such nonsense, then holiday bookings will slump. Once a rumour has got its boots on, the world’s travel agents will have a hard job catching up. Now, at the start of the peak holiday season, the main shopping streets in the shadow of the Parthenon are half empty.

The greatest fear is that — as Panos Kammenos, the nationalist coalition partner in the Syriza-led government, recently said — Greece’s international creditors will force its politicians to ‘do a Kougi’: press the self-destruct button out of pique and humiliation. Kammenos was referring to Greece’s war of independence from the Ottoman Empire, when in 1803 a group of Greek soldiers blew themselves up at Kougi in north-western Greece, rather than be imprisoned by the Turks.

Mr Tsipras may take that option himself. It has taken just five months, but the groovy young Marxist hipsters of Syriza are already looking over the hill. A Greek psychotherapist recently pointed out that Yanis Varoufakis — the Greek finance minister with the shaven head, turned-up collar and showy motorbike — was a walking dictionary definition of narcissism. He was booked to appear on the BBC’s Question Time last Thursday and pulled out at the last minute — his cancellation was understandable, but why was he even thinking about jetting off to Southampton when the fate of his countrymen hung in the balance? The answer, it seems, is that he has a book out and is keen to grab attention. He has certainly succeeded in this, if in nothing else.

Signs of Greece’s disintegration are every-where. On Saturday night, as I left Plaka, the bohemian area below the Parthenon, I passed a parade of the destitute: a crazed woman, shrieking to herself in the doorway of a graffiti-splattered shop; a neat middle-class man squatting on the kerb in a beige corduroy suit, with a ‘homeless’ sign in English; a dapper, trim figure with an out-of-tune street organ, bearing the manufacturer’s address in ‘Costantinopoli’ — dating back nearly a century, to the days when Istanbul was Constantinople.

An American writer friend told me that he had rented a study from his Greek friend next door in a smart part of town, where the ancient Cynics used to stroll and philosophise. Recently, he discovered that his now-unemployed neighbour and his wife and two children were surviving entirely on the meagre rental income from the small study.

The Greeks — like the Italians and the Spanish — are admirably keen on keeping up appearances; la bella figura. And so Athenian grandes dames, supporting their grandchildren on shrunken pensions, still go to the opera three times a week, but they eke out their dwindling larders with free canapés and white wine at diplomatic receptions.

I’m told of a desperate incident at the soup kitchen in an upmarket Athenian suburb. There are two sittings: one for Syrian migrants flooding into the Greek islands and on to Athens; another for Greek nationals. Recently, a businessman in an immaculate suit turned up in the Greek nationals’ queue. When he got to the front of the line, he started making elaborate requests — ‘Don’t overcook the meat, please’; ‘I like my vegetables a little underdone’ — before he was gently told that soup kitchens don’t work quite like restaurants.

Already, much of Greece’s infrastructure, engorged with EU cash, is looking like a monument to a bygone age of splendour. A slick, blacktop motorway runs majestically from Athens through the Peloponnese; when I first visited 25 years ago, the Peloponnese was a spider’s web of higgledy-piggledy country roads, packed with donkeys and carts. The new road was preparation for a prosperity that never arrived. At rush hour, I had the motorway to Kalamata pretty much to myself. The Greeks can’t afford the new tollbooths that have cropped up every couple of miles — even though it’s only a euro or two each time.

The crisis kicked in before the motorway was finished. Just before Kalamata, the road stops dead, closed off by concrete blocks, petering out into a pitted white path, overgrown with weeds. You drive the last five miles to Kalamata on the old minor road. An empty road to nowhere, then, with no exits — a bonus for rich, foreign travellers, but unused by the broke locals. What an analogy for the mad, foolish tragedy of the euro.

For years, jobless Athenians have been heading back to their ancestral islands and hill towns, where jobs are also scarce, but there’s plenty of cheap food and drink on the family farm. For years, too, the Greek authorities have been awaiting this week’s earthquake. I was told in Athens that the rules for capital controls — the restrictions announced this week — were on the verge of being implemented in Greece in 2013, when Cyprus was subjected to ruthless capital controls. For years, it has all been about delaying the inevitable.

When Greece leaves the euro (and it is now a matter of when, not if), its replacement is all set to run off the printing presses. A designer has drawn up images of the nea drachme — the new drachma — a return to the currency that served Greece well, on and off, for over 2,500 years; unlike the euro, introduced here in 2002, which looks unlikely to last 15 years. What handsome notes they are. The 500-drachma note shows a saturnine, beautiful Maria Callas. The 100-drachma note has a brooding portrait of Melina Mercouri, actress, singer and Elgin Marbles repatriation enthusiast.

The joke in Athens is that the currency designer should demand that he is paid in euros, not in the notes he drew himself. If introduced, the drachma is set to plummet. This might be for the best in the long term, but it would mean an immediate world of pain. Greeks are sick to death of the euro crisis, but they are terrified of what will follow: the headlong flight into the unknown.

Harry Mount is the author, most recently, of Odyssey: Ancient Greece in the Footsteps of Odysseus, which is to be published this month.

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