Postcard From a Paralyzed City

In Athens on the eve of referendum, competing rallies duel at sunset, tourists flee for the islands, and Mr. Zapatis wonders if he will ever get his pension money.

Pensioners wait outside a national Bank branch, as banks only opened for the retired to allow them to cash up to 120 euros in Athens on July 1, 2015. The European Union will decide whether to grant Greece a last-minute bailout package to avoid pushing it further towards an exit from the eurozone. Greece failed on the eve to make a 1.5 billion euro ($1.7 billion) payment to the International Monetary Fund, becoming the first industrialised country to do so.  AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS        (Photo credit should read ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Pensioners wait outside a national Bank branch, as banks only opened for the retired to allow them to cash up to 120 euros in Athens on July 1, 2015. The European Union will decide whether to grant Greece a last-minute bailout package to avoid pushing it further towards an exit from the eurozone. Greece failed on the eve to make a 1.5 billion euro ($1.7 billion) payment to the International Monetary Fund, becoming the first industrialised country to do so. AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS (Photo credit should read ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images)

ATHENS — Last Sunday, I got in line for a National Bank of Greece ATM in Kaisariani, an Athens neighborhood not far from the Acropolis. The National Bank of Greece had the only machine around with cash still left to issue; dozens of us, many on mopeds, scoured the area to find it. We herded into line under a drizzle of rain. The sense of doom was tempered by small instances of what Greeks call philotimo — “selflessness.” A pregnant woman arrived; she was whisked to the front. Teenagers helped pensioners decipher the ATM screen. After 45 minutes of waiting, the bank ran out of cash, and the majority of us dispersed without having withdrawn anything.

The scene was different the next day. ATM lines had begun forming in the early morning. Capital controls had been introduced — withdrawals were now limited to 60 euros for Greeks, 300 for foreigners — and the mood was grim. Anyone who had the will to speak in line was spitting out one of two claims, both of which had been churning Athens for weeks. “Europe is throwing us to the dogs,” a woman said. “No,” the man behind her replied, “we’ve elected suicidal madmen.”

Athens is a paralyzed city. In cafes and at kiosks, there is a scramble to break 50 euro bills; change for them may not be in circulation by next week. Hotels in northern Greece have started accepting Bulgarian lev. Money is being doled out to pensioners in alphabetical order; Mr. Zapatis, who lives in the apartment next to me, is convinced that he’ll never get his. In any case, all pensioners are only getting 120 euros for the week, or half of what they’re technically owed. The Ta Nea newspaper has begun running with fewer pages due, they say, to difficulties importing paper. Syriza has declared public transportation free for the week and on Wednesday hired 230 new metro workers — moves that have prompted cries of populist pandering from the opposition. There may be no money to pay these new workers or any other civil servants, including the police, in two weeks’ time. A friend tried ordering a book on Amazon; the site denied her Greek-issued credit card. “It’s like being stranded on an island,” she said. A few budget airlines have announced that, while their credit won’t be accepted, Greeks can still flee the country by purchasing tickets in cash at airport check-in.

Every day, a safari of international journalists leaves the Hilton to observe the natives in Syntagma Square. Bewildered tourists make a fast break for the port of Piraeus — and from there, off to their resorts in the islands. Policemen on motorbikes zoom around in feeble attempts to ensure that squabbles don’t break out at ATMs. In old leftist neighborhoods, the Communist Party has organized evening marches for Greeks to gather and shout “Oxi!” — “No!” — echoing Ioannis Metaxas’s famous 1940 rebuttal to Italy’s call for Greeks to submit to occupation. Middle-class areas are plastered with posters proclaiming “Nai!”— “Yes!” In recent years, Athenians have joked that, if they had to, they could probably sustain themselves with the food grown on their balconies — referring in part to an old Greek obsession with “autarchy,” or national self-reliance. Today, some Greeks are no longer kidding. “We did that before Europe’s decadence set in,” Giorgos, who runs the tire shop down the street from me, said. “All the major food groups can be found in our backyards.”

On Sunday, Greeks go to the polls. Many claim that Tsipras has rehabilitated the idea of democracy and courageously staked his political livelihood on the upcoming vote. But praise for his decisions can’t go much further than that. Every Greek I know plans to vote, and many are bussing back to their villages to do so. In theory, the referendum poses the question of whether Greece should accept lenders’ demands. But as they eke out their lives this week, there’s slim chance that many Greeks will read, much less understand, all the ins-and-outs of what European creditors are demanding — “preliminary debt sustainability analysis,” for instance. A “Yes” vote will signify consent to proposals which Angela Merkel has now declared withdrawn from the table. What a “No” means is unclear. For some, it’s “no to these proposals, we want new proposals.” For others, it’s simply “no to the eurozone.” Syriza endorses a “No” vote, but has offered no roadmap for where Greece goes from there.

The referendum is phantom democracy: No Greek quite understands what’s at stake. And yet the whole procedure gives everyone the false sense of having a hand in their own fate. Dueling yes/no demonstrations are occurring almost nightly in the center of Athens. Around 7 p.m. one evening comes the “Yes” contingent; tens of thousands of people pour into Syntagma Square, generally from middle- and upper-class neighborhoods. These are not the types of Greeks who typically take to the streets. It shows: On Tuesday night, in the pouring rain, women were slipping around in high heels; men in scarves were sipping glasses of rosé wine (all were swiftly photographed and uploaded to social media by leftist protestors in attendance). Some in the crowd had actually voted for Syriza, but now, face to face with the contradiction that Tsipras had promised he could resolve — keeping Greece in the eurozone, cancelling out the austerity — have had to choose sides. Prior to Syriza’s electoral victory, mass anti-government protests of this sort were, of course, liable to being stomped out by the Athenian police. For all their railing against Syriza, virtually none of the “Yes” crowd recognizes this; outside the parliament building, barricaded against the people just five months ago by cast-iron gates, they denounce Tsipras as a traitor to the nation.

At their protests, also in Syntagma Square, the “No” demonstrators, too, wield their own accusations, brandishing the old claim of the Greek left that the right is nothing more than a fifth column of international capitalism. The European Union’s perceived attempts to overturn a democratically elected government have given them plenty of ideological fodder: This is all just another Great Power intervention against Greece. European officials calling for the resignation of the Greek government following a “Yes” vote are only fueling these resentments.

Those attending the “No” rallies are an eclectic mix. The demonstrations are organized by social activists, usually leftist academics, some of whom do not actually live in Greece, some of whom are here on vacation; to their critics, they’re dabblers, using the country as a staging ground for waging academic arguments, with no regard for real people’s lives. They’re here, yes — but the majority of the protestors are the unemployed, or young people who have only ever known the euro and consider it the source of all their troubles. Many are not saying “No” to the euro; they just can’t bear the idea of saying “Yes” and essentially volunteering to get trampled on by a new round of austerity (the terms of any new bailout will almost certainly require even more drastic austerity measures than those which Tsipras has attempted to avoid).

Then there’s the virulently nationalist element of the “No” vote, many sworn against the very thought of European integration: members of the Independent Greeks, Syriza’s coalition partner, as well as Golden Dawn, Greece’s infamous neo-Nazis. They are attending the same protests as the leftists, often side-by-side with Greek Communist Party members whom they consider their historical enemy. They wear the Greek flag like a superman cape. Sunday, they say, is a new dawn for Greek sovereignty.

These schisms have existed for years in Athens, but the referendum has brought them to the fore. Friends of mine now refuse to engage in political talk with one another; it’s understood that differences, many years in the making, won’t be hashed out in just a few days. Elements of the rhetoric of the Greek Civil War, in which left fought right for power during and after World War II, resurfaced in January’s elections; Syriza’s climb to power and the rise of fascism in Greece make for a dangerous polarity. But the current division between the “Yes” and “No” camps in Athens seems different — not about ideology, but rather, about economic fortune. Many of the “Yes” people are those who, relatively speaking, have managed under the crisis: Some worked stints abroad in Germany or the United Kingdom, many send their kids to the United States to study. They feel a certain attachment to Europe — a sense that, if Greece isn’t Europe, it ought to be. Their “Yes” campaign is being pushed all over social media and YouTube ads.

But walking through working-class neighborhoods like Kypseli, just off Omonia Square or Drapetsona, down near the Piraeus port, you encounter another type: those who never had the opportunity to get away. Those who have been stuck in Greece for the last six years, who speak only one language, or were too busy working multiple jobs to even consider escaping, and who have watched new rounds of austerity measures, agreed upon in some distant capital of Europe, come in year after year; each seemingly arranged to crush them the hardest. For most of these Greeks, Europe doesn’t exist as an intellectual concept to be desired or rejected; they just want an end to what it’s doing to them. Their “No” is painted onto bed sheets slung across university buildings and spray-painted in red on park trees and broken sidewalks.

Whatever happens after Sunday, these social tensions won’t just disappear. Syriza will be completely delegitimized in the event of a “Yes” vote; members have conceded that they will step down from power if that’s the case. Yet the party still enjoys tremendous popular support. Where its voters — and Greece — will turn is anyone’s guess and everyone’s worry.

Photo credit: ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images

Alexander Clapp is a journalist living in Athens.

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