ATHENS — “Cheating on him!…In the ATM line!” shrieks a headline in the Greek newspaper Parapolitika. Its accompanying article—bursting with tabloid gusto and hyperbole—tells a story which, in its own way, encapsulates the ever more surreal nature of the Greek crisis.
The article is an inverted morality tale combining, as such tales properly should, money and sex. With Greece in the grip of capital controls and bank withdrawals now limited to €60 per day, people here are struggling. But some Greeks are more enterprising than others.
As the paper reports, a married Greek lady from Argos in the Peloponnese in southern Greece decided to turn the situation to her advantage. Each day she would inform her husband that she was off to the local ATM to wait in the long lines that now form outside almost every cash withdrawal point in Greece. In reality, however, she was sneaking off to see her lover, who, after bouts of illicit and—given the effort involved, one hopes passionate—sex would furnish her with the required €60 to take home.
And so it went happily on, until her husband decided to go the ATM where she was supposed to be. Finding her nowhere to be seen, he quizzed her on her eventual return home; she tried claiming that she had gone to another branch, but her ploy was scuppered by the inescapable fact that the couple didn’t have an account there. Much shouting and arguing ensued.
After the July 5 referendum Greece is a deeply divided society. But if you’re looking for solidarity you can find it in the queues outside ATMs all across Athens. Here, people have time on their hands, so they talk, they complain; they get to know one another.
Sometimes kind passers-by will tell you where to find an ATM that still has money if they see you striking out in front of an empty one. An etiquette has also developed: Be polite, even friendly to those also waiting; you’re in this together, after all. And, above all, don’t take too much time.
On referendum day I stood behind a lady who took almost 10 minutes to withdraw money as she used each of her (by my calculations) three different bank cards to withdraw the maximum €60 each time. “That’s cheating,” said the man standing behind me with barely-concealed disgust.
Syntagma Square in central Athens is shimmering in the midday heat. Tourist stalls sell “I Love Athens” T-shirts and key rings. “This is Sparta” reads one—echoing the angry words roared by Gerard Butler playing the ancient Spartan King Leonidas in the Hollywood film 300. It seems somehow appropriate: Crisis has come to Greece and the people remain defiant, doing what they can to get through it all.
In a café just off Syntagma Square I meet Anna, a 27-year old accountant. “Every day I stand in line at an ATM for about 30 minutes,” she says. “It’s tiring.” She is also worried about the supply of goods in supermarkets. “The supermarkets are generally OK, but the other day I went to my local supermarket in Peristeri, and the shelves were half empty: people had clearly stocked up on pasta, rice, and other staple foods like lentils.” She shows me a photo on her iPhone as proof.
For Anna the worst thing about the crisis is the uncertainty of it all. Everything, she tells me, is paralyzed. “I went to a client in Kolonaki [a rich part of Athens], she is a notary for real estate purchases. With the banks shut down, nothing is moving. They cannot organize contracts. She is twiddling her thumbs.”
Another notary client went to the office but nobody called or came to see her. Eventually she and her employee just went home. “Nothing is moving,” she says. “It’s just surreal.”
“Everybody is waiting to see what happens,” said Anna. “We are in a limbo, and it is crazy. Everything continues, but at the same time everything is broken. I have to pay taxes for my clients, but the banks are closed so I can’t. The government understands and isn’t imposing any fines on late payments. A major problem with Greek society is that no one pays taxes, but the crisis is ensuring we now can’t even when we want to. It’s insane.”
Little is likely to change for Anna in the immediate future. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is in Brussels for a summit with Eurozone leaders to try to resolve the crisis. After the Greek people rejected a draft bailout proposal on Sunday’s referendum, Greece’s creditors had expected Tsipras to come to the meeting with a new set of proposals. So far none have emerged. According to Spanish Economic Minister Luis de Guindos, “There was no proposal. We only talked about general things. And we don’t have time to waste.”
That’s true enough. Anna, and millions like her, are doing what they can to survive as the system collapses around them and, for the moment, as the situation becomes increasingly chaotic Greeks are becoming increasingly creative.
“Not everyone here has web banking so, often, my clients give me cash to pay the government, which I use to then pay into a government account,” Anna tells me. “Now when my clients have to pay the government they pay me in cash; I then pay via bank transfer from my own account and keep the cash. It saves going to the ATM.”
Anna recalls the night Tspiras called the referendum. It was late in the evening. She had been working late and hadn’t seen the news. She was at Leoforos Kavalas, near the center of Athens, and a popular hangout for Greek transsexual sex workers. Apart from the odd cruising car, the area is usually fairly empty. To her shock Anna saw people rushing and weaving through the clusters of transsexuals as they ran through the streets towards every available ATM. It was only when she got home and switched on the TV that she understood why.
Parallel monetary systems, startled transsexuals: the Greek crisis has it all. And through it all Greeks haven’t lost their sense of humor.
A photo that has been widely circulated on the Internet shows three men waiting in line at an ATM. Each clutches a huge black Hefty bag—a play on the fact that Greeks are now hoarding as much cash as they can. Another shows a poster put up in the central Athens, “A Europe without Greece is like a party without drugs,” it reads.
I hail a cab from near Syntagma Square. My driver refuses to put his seatbelt on and the warning system beeps all the way back to my apartment. Welcome to Greece in crisis; welcome to Absurdistan.