'We have to start from zero': Greeks watch as endgame nears

Pensioners line up outside a National Bank branch in Athens yesterday after they open to allow them a small part of their benefits
Pensioners line up outside a National Bank branch in Athens yesterday after they open to allow them a small part of their benefits

By Omaira Gill

Times are strange in Greece in more ways than one. Nothing is as it should be, not even the weather. At this time of year, conditions are supposed to remain fine, sunny and dry. Instead, short stretches of hot, humid days are being punctuated with monsoon-like downpours. It's as if not even the weather knows what it's supposed to be doing right now.

A worried public watches. On the streets of Athens, on the metro and buses which are free until next Monday, in cafes and in ATM queues, there is only one topic of discussion. Despite Syriza's reassurances to the contrary, Greece's European counterparts have made it clear that the vote on Sunday is not a yes or no to more austerity, but a yes or no to Europe and Greece's continued membership of the eurozone.

In spite of the showers, on Tuesday night some 20,000 people turned out in Syntagma Square to support a Yes vote, slightly more than the estimated 17,000 that turned out to support a No vote just one evening earlier in the same spot.


Nearby, in the unseasonally damp streets of the Plaka district, it appeared to be business as usual as tourists laughed and enjoyed meals in reasonably busy tavernas. The one difference was that in almost every store, when not serving customers, shop owners were glued to rolling news about the political situation, watching in silence until the next customer wandered in.

Standing in the doorway of his shop, 28 year old Ilias said he wasn't worried, even though business had plummeted since the weekend. "I think they'll find some sort of solution. We all hope that each side will give a little and a solution will be found."

It was a view that 23-year-old Joanna, a few doors down in an enormous souvenir emporium, agreed with. She said she hasn't seen much change in business. "Things have been normal here," she says. "We're worried, but what can we do? We're trying to stay strong and positive. We want to stay in Europe. It's all anyone has talked about. The tourists ask us about it, and they have been very supportive. It's nice to see that people care about what’s going on here."

A few hours later, Greece, to no one’s surprise, failed to make a scheduled payment of £1.1 billion to the IMF, becoming the first developed nation to do so. Greeks awoke to chaotic scenes on television of pensioners jostling to receive their €120 (£85) pension at designated banks. It was an ugly and unpleasant scene as the elderly, some in line since 4am, pushed and pled for their turn. Being wary of cards, the older generation in Greece relies on bank books for their transactions. The closure of Greece's banks this week have hit them hardest.

At a supermarket, 40 year old mother of two Vasilea stacks shelves. She can't keep up with how fast they are emptying. "We normally take in around €2,000 (£1,418) in a day. On Monday, we took in €8,000 (£5,673),” she says. "People are mainly buying pasta, lentils, rice, flour, sugar and evaporated milk. It vanishes as soon as it's on the shelf."

She is cynical of the government's stance. "They'll sign some sort of deal, there's no way they won't," she says "They're making fools of us. I'll be voting No, no to everything, because I believe it's a joke what they're making us do."

Yiannis, 45, also plans to vote No. He has been running a grocery store for 15 years. "I've never seen the public so disappointed, so tired. It's the first time I saw so much bitterness in all these years," he says. "Things have got really bad. People have no money. With €60 (£42) per day, within the space of two days, whoever has money can shop, the rest will suffer.

"I don't think the system can keep going like this for another two years. I'll vote No, because I don't think the situation can go on like this. It's reached its zenith. We have to start from zero. I believe with all our efforts, we will suffer a few more years but things will get better."

Queueing at an ATM, one woman who declined to give her details said: "This was going to happen one way or the other. Maybe the new government speeded things up. The issue is what happens now. My personal opinion is that even if the referendum takes place, things won't get better with the banks.

"I try to face the situation with calmness. I've not taken all my savings out of the bank, who knows, maybe everyone else will turn out to be right in the end. I'm not sure how I'll vote. I'm leaning towards Yes but I'm still not sure."

Later the same evening, the Greek prime minister took to the airwaves to urge his nation to vote No, worsening the international mood against the country. The prevailing atmosphere on the streets of Greece is one of disbelief, and the sense that after five years of living an economic nightmare, the final chapters of the play are proving completely impossible to predict.

Incidentally, the referendum is taking place the day Yiannis gets married. "I'll go cast my vote and then go to get married," he says with a laugh. Amid their shattered economy, Greeks are trying to live their lives as normally as possible.

Omaira Gill is a British freelance journalist living in Athens. Click here to follow her on Twitter.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.

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