— Originally published in FLL#36 • Photos by Kevin McIntyre
“Cash is king,” I was told while preparing to travel to Greece this past summer. The world’s eye was focused on this ancient country on the Aegean as it floundered beneath the weight of severe recession. The world was wondering if the Greek people, in an upcoming vote (the referendum), would reject a financial bailout and possibly leave the European Union. People warned of riots and anarchy; others had heaps of fiscal advice on traveling with extra cash and not trusting the banks.[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“We are one species sharing one profoundly interconnected world, and humans—all humans—are OUR people.” — John Green[/pullquote]
Some I listened to, some I ignored; to all I offered a smile and thanked them for their concern. Then, undaunted, I boarded a plane for Athens. I missed a night’s sleep (because I can’t sleep on planes), had my luggage rummaged through by a grim security officer in Heathrow, and held my breath on my final flight while sitting beside a bulky man who hogged the armrest and smelled of onions. Finally—finally—I landed in Athens’ Ελευθέριος Βενιζέλος airport. (Do those words look Greek to you? They should.)
I arrived as everyone typically arrives after hours of travel: rumpled, blearyeyed, in a haze of exhaustion and excitement. I was eager to see this country I had spent so much time hearing, reading, and learning about. From the airport I hopped on a bus and watched the city slide by my window. Hot and dry. Few trees and scrubby grass. Graffitied walls and drab 70s-style apartment buildings sorely in need of fresh paint. Just a city: dry, thirsty, waiting for rain.
It wasn’t until the following day, while walking in Glyfada—the area of Athens in which I was staying—that I saw anything resembling what I had been prepared for. It was a line. A string of about 20 people waiting to use an ATM. Greek residents were limited to taking out just 60 Euros of cash a day. The ATMs would only emit 50 Euro bills. That’s what these 20 people hoped to receive, so long as the ATM didn’t run out of cash—which was likely. Those at the end of the line stared anxiously, some at the ground, some at the machine; some hopeful, some doubtful they would be provided with enough money to get them through the day. This scene was replayed all over Athens. Some lines had ten people, some had 50. All waiting, not for rain but for relief.
When finding a place to eat, I saw signs in many restaurants stating: Cash Only. Restaurant owners were eager for business; they needed cash to pay their workers. Some weren’t even picky about the kind of cash—some would take only Euros; others would take British pounds or American dollars as well. So it was true. Cash was king, for the time being.
A few nights later, while out with some friends, we stopped at a gas station. When we went to pay, assuming the cashier would only accept Euros, my friend handed him some bills. The man shook his head. “We still take credit cards… for now,” he smiled. “Keep your cash. Hard days ahead.” My friend thanked him and paid with a card. We returned to our hotel and sat on our balcony, looking out at the Aegean only a few blocks away. The city sounds were much like any city. Traffic, footsteps on sidewalks, and wind. The same wind that was humid and sticky during the day turned cool at night.[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“I have a job that pays me. I am okay, but what of those without jobs? Or the elderly who are not receiving pensions? What are they to do?”[/pullquote]
We flew to Crete a few days later and heard rumors that flights and ferries to the Greek islands would eventually be forced to stop running, that there would not be access to money for fuel. The adventurist in me wasn’t concerned. A few extra days on a Greek island? Fantastic! The pragmatist in me recognized that this was most likely the media speculating and fearmongering, per their usual modus operandi. Or so I hoped. I continued to receive texts and messages from people back home: Are you safe? Any riots?
Riots? No. I was laying on a beach in Crete watching the gradient of blue sky blur into the blue of the Aegean. I listened to the water while the words of Matthew Arnold replayed in my head:
Sophocles long ago Heard it on the Ægæan, and it brought Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow Of human misery…
While on the island, the recession and the referendum felt strangely far away.
We soon returned to Athens (without any fuel-related problems), and at each place we stopped for meals, for drinks, for recreation, we talked to people. Over ούζο (ouzo – a strong Greek apéritif that tastes like black licorice) one night on a hotel rooftop, we asked the bartender, “What do you think about the referendum? Do you think Greece should reject the bailout?” The bartender was young, and open. “Yes,” he answered. “Yes, we should reject it. A new Greece would be good. We are hopeful.” That seemed to be the sentiment of the younger generation. Reject the terms of the financial bailout offered by Greece’s creditors. Perhaps even leave the Eurozone and start over. Rebuild Greece.
We all lifted a glass. “στην υγειά σας,” we said. Stin ygeiá sas. Cheers, because we wanted the Greek dreams of a whole and thriving country to come true.
The older generation—those that had spent a couple decades or more in the workplace, saving their money, raising their families, working toward their pensions— sang a different tune. One woman told me, “I have a job that pays me. I am okay, but what of those without jobs? Or the elderly who are not receiving pensions? What are they to do?” She insisted that rejecting the terms of the bailout and possibly leaving the Eurozone would destroy the future of Greece. The country would not survive on its own. Additionally it would shake the foundations of the Eurozone, opening the door for other countries, such as Italy or Spain, to leave as well—sundermining the Euro and deteriorating the structure of the European Union as a whole. Her urgency, her concern for her fellow Greek citizens (as well as all of the EU, it seemed) was compelling. Something to which I again lifted a glass. Stin ygeiá sas.
Everyone had an opinion on the referendum. Greek people are quite adept at voicing their opinion. And loudly. But for me, I didn’t have an opinion. I had no voice in Greece. My life, at least immediately, would not change no matter the outcome of the vote. I waited alongside everyone else, but I was merely a theater-goer watching a drama—a Greek tragedy perhaps?—being staged before me.[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“Taught by time, my heart has learned to glow for other’s good, and melt at other’s woe.” — Homer[/pullquote]
Then I went for a swim in the Aegean, beneath me the rocky sea floor, around me a gaggle of swimmers. Some spoke Greek, some German, some a language I couldn’t identify. As I floated and listened, with my nose and shoulders getting pinked by the relentless sun, I was surprised by a thought: These are real people.
This may seem an obvious observation, yes. However, what I had not recognized while snuggly wrapped up in my American mindset, while commenting on all the graffiti and watching Greeks standing in ATM lines, is that I had been thinking of Greece in terms of statistics, political parties, news reports. Yet, no matter where you are in the world or what language you’re speaking, people are people. We all want the same thing, fear the same thing, hope for the same thing.
These are real people. They are us.
When that realization struck me, so too did the words of the Greek poet, Homer: “taught by time, my heart has learned to glow for other’s good, and melt at other’s woe.”
I didn’t necessarily need to pick a side or cast a vote in the referendum; I did need to care about what happened to the Greek people. This world is a whole lot smaller than we often give it credit for. As author John Green said, “We are one species sharing one profoundly interconnected world, and humans—all humans—are OUR people.”
The referendum took place on July 5th. It was decisive. Greek citizens voted with a resounding 61% (over 32%) to reject the terms of the bailout. Greece had spoken loudly (as is their wont) and chosen a daring road to travel. Now everyone was asking: what happens next?
I pondered this as I climbed to the Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Athens—an ancient temple in the midst of reconstruction. Scaffolding stood alongside several of the pillars. Clean, white patches filled the cracks and fissures of the yellowed marble. The new world was working to preserve and restore the old. Everyone, it seems, would need to wait a bit longer for the results of this restoration. Yet, when the work was done, there would emerge a stronger structure, a stronger Greece.
Rioting and protests did break out in Athens, because there were still people who were cashless and helpless, angry and afraid. Yet shining out more brightly than the fear and the uncertainty was the camaraderie.
The people of Greece, for all their loudness and their opinions, are kind. They are hospitable. They help each other. They look out for each other.
There is something strong and brave about Greece; something worth cheering, something worth supporting, something worth experiencing. I was privileged to stand on the shores of the Aegean, alongside the Greek people, and share in that momentous time in their history. To experience a country where community— not cash—is king.