Pando

John Dolan goes to Greece: An ant's-eye view of the crisis

If I understood anything about money, I wouldn’t have been in this part of the world in the first place

By John Dolan , written on July 11, 2015

From The Economics Desk

Leptokarya, Greece.

I’ve been witnessing history, sort of.

We crossed the Macedonian border into Greece on July 4, 2015, a few hours before polls opened for the Referendum, and we’ve spent the week since in a small Greek beach town.

So I’ve had what is sometimes called “an ant’s-eye view” of the crisis. But the trouble with most of these ant’s-eye views is that the narrator, after introducing him- or herself as a mere humble ant wandering bewildered through the giant boot-falls of history, turns out to be just the cleverest little ant ever hatched, an ant with all kinds of post-graduate fellowships in international finance.

I’m not that ant. When I say I’m offering an ant’s-eye view of provincial Greece during the week of the Referendum, I’m flattering myself. After all, ants create highly organized urban societies. I’m more of the grasshopper persuasion, if we were going to do the Aesop deal with moralized insect antitheses. But even grasshopper would be too flattering. My insect avatar would be more like those squished yellow-green splats that used to collect on our Chevy’s grille after driving Highway 99, right through the long green gut of the Central Valley.

If I understood anything about money, I wouldn’t have been in this part of the world in the first place. We were in Bitola, a city in southern Macedonia, because we fled Timor—long story—and needed someplace to land. Someplace cheap. So I googled “Cheapest Countries,” dragged the cursor quickly through the high-rent top of the list, and braked down at the bottom, to the countries where a one-cent increase in the price of bread is a serious matter. These were our financial motherlands.

But most of them were too rough at any price. Tunisia, at #4, was already getting noisy when we made our jump from Timor, and has gotten downright boisterous since; Algeria, following it at #5, sounded too tiring in all kinds of familiar ways; and though India, at #1, has always had a huge appeal for us, our experiences in Timor had made us very wary of other human beings, so moving to a place with 1.3 billion people just wasn’t possible.

We were not only poor, we were tired. Someplace quiet, familiar, modest…and there it was, listed as the eighth-cheapest country in the world: Macedonia. Uses the Cyrillic Alphabet, speaks a language very close to Russian, and has so little rep for aggression that most people don’t know it exists.

We stabbed a fateful finger on the map right on the Macedonian town of Bitola, eight miles north of the Greek border, and thanks to lifesaving tickets paid for by Pando, flew out of Timor headed right for Macedonia, and an idyll of peace. The last thing we wanted was to intersect history, ever again. We’ve lived in Moscow, Kurdistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and East Timor, and we wanted peace. Cheap peace, because that’s the only kind we could afford.

And I have to say, Macedonia was even better than we hoped. It’s a wonderful country, wild and beautiful, inhabited by some of the most kindly, capable, modest, reasonable people in the world. We’d be there still but the Macedonian government (which has very little to do with the Macedonian people, as is often the case) went into a panic about migrants, and changed the visa rules just in time for our arrival. Instead of the six-month stay you used to get, foreigners are now restricted to 90 days.

So we had our 90 days of bliss, very cheap bliss, in the leafy, narrow streets of Bitola. Katherine ran in the mountains, and I watched a lot of true-crime shows. Different people have different blisses, OK? And after our adventures in all those eventful countries, it was just damned nice to sit on a sofa seven floors up from any possible incident and watch bad things happen to total strangers.

We tried to stay. But the police weren’t budging. So we grudgingly packed up, something we’ve gotten very good at, and headed for the easiest, nearest destination: Greece. It was Greece or Albania, and Albania just seemed too much like our previous destinations. Greece, we figured, was a nice safe tourist trap, engineered to see that nothing serious happens. That’s all we asked.

It just happened that our three months in Macedonia ended one day, one damned day, before the only major news event to hit Greece since 1974.

We got on the bus in Bitola at 4:15 AM (Bitola’s holidaymakers have limited funds, and want their full day in the sun for their denars) and by the time the sun came up, we reached the border with Greece. The border tells you a lot about the two countries. Macedonia is a poor country. A wonderful country, but very poor. So you pull out of Bitola, bumping over potholes, down a narrow farm road, and after a half hour you reach the border. Macedonia has no money for fancy border installations, so the Macedonian side is all crumbling Tito-era stucco. The swallows love it; they zip from one grimy Constructivist arch to another (swallows love Soviet-influenced architecture—but the humans don’t seem to be doing as well). The grass grows hip-high by the empty storefront still showing “DUTY FREE SHOP” above its broken windows.

After the polite Macedonian official looks through your passports and informs you, in rusty but correct English, that you may return to Macedonia three months from now (it’s a three-in, three-out deal), the bus proceeds about a hundred meters and stops at the Greek side.

And that’s when you see what it means to belong to the EU. The Greek border station is new, bright, huge. It dwarfs the Macedonian outpost. And the road that leads into Greece is nothing like the farm lane that led you out of Macedonia. It’s not a freeway, but that’s only because there’s not enough traffic out of Macedonia to require one. Macedonia is poor enough that Yugos still abound, some of them actually moving under their own power; and those of us who can’t afford Yugos simply walk.

There are no Yugos on the Greek side. The cars are new, the road recently paved, with streetlights every few meters, just turning themselves off as the ol’ rosy-fingered dawn gets going.

So our first impression of Greece was a very heretical one: “This place is way richer than Macedonia!” Which is kind of interesting, in view of the standard David-and-Goliath narrative about Greece vs. the EU, because guess why Macedonia can’t get into the EU, get a tranche of that German cash? Well, as Delmar O’Donnell would say: it’s funny you should ask, not that you did. The country that’s blackballing Macedonia from admission to the EU is, uh, Greece. The dispute is a wonderful (if that’s the word) illustration of the fractal-playground nature of our world, with the bullied becoming the bullies as soon as they find someone smaller and weaker than themselves. Greece objects to Macedonia using the name “Macedonia.” Greece objects to Macedonia, period; but the current focus of its objections is, believe it or not, the word “Macedonia.”

At Greece’s insistence, NATO and the EU refuse to refer to the country by the M-word, calling it instead FYROM, a euphonious acronym standing for “Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”:

In April 2008, at the NATO summit in Bucharest, Greece rejected all proposals by the Macedonian government and UN mediator Matthew Nimetz – including the name "Republic of Macedonia (Skopje)" – and vetoed Macedonia's accession to NATO. As Macedonia would have also agreed to accede as the "Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia", the Greek veto was nothing but a clear breach of the 1995 Interim Agreement.

In December 2009, Greece vetoed the start of Macedonia's EU membership negotiations.

The core of the problem is a complete lack of trust. Greece realises that its only leverage to get the Republic of Macedonia to change its constitutional name is to use its position as a member of the EU to block Macedonia's path to EU membership.

You might think that Macedonians would hate Greece for this sort of petty bullying. But it’s not quite like that. It usually isn’t, when the bullied are from a small, poor community. Macedonians are busy trying to survive, and their international ambitions focus on getting people to admit they exist; they don’t really have time to resent Greece, which—in regional terms—is a much bigger, stronger country than Macedonia. The only expression of Macedonian resentment toward Greece that we saw is a road sign that used to show the way to Ohrid, with an arrow marked “to Greece” under it. “Ohrid” is still there, but someone with a can of black paint sprayed out the words “to Greece.”

After a few hours zooming along the prosperous farmlands of Northern Greece, we got to Leptokarya, the beach town where we’d booked a place in a cheap Macedonian-speaking hotel. Macedonians love their beach time in the summer, like all Europeans, but because Macedonia is landlocked, they’re especially greedy for all the melanoma-causing exposure and burning sand-feet they can get.

The first thing I did after we lugged the stuff upstairs was to go change our Macedonian denars for Euros. Piece of proverbial cake, I thought; it’s a tourist town. There’ll be a Bureau de change on every corner.

Well, no. You don’t change money in Greece, it turns out. You bring Euros with you. Which we would’ve, but—did I mention I’m not that financially-savvy ant?—I had other last-minute errands, so we hit Greece with a big wad of Macedonian denars, and no Euros at all.

This happens in a new country; you think, “X will be all over the place,” but it isn’t. I didn’t bring a hat for my big bald head when we went to Saudi Arabia, thinking, “C’mon, a desert like that? They’ll sell hats in every shop.” Nope; you literally could not buy a hat in Najran. Nor could you wear the Saudi headgear. There’s always some idiosyncratic gap you never guessed.

What you do if you can’t find a place to change money is go to an ATM and get cash in the local currency. So we started looking for an ATM.

This is where we intersected history. It was tough finding an ATM in the first place—Greece has some weird ideas about dispensing money, it seems to me—we finally found one, next to the cathedral. It was a stand-alone ATM, oddly like a confessional, with a huge fiberglass screen hiding the penitent at the machine from the prying eyes of those in line behind them.

And what a line it was! There were a dozen people waiting for that machine, and every one of them glared at us as if daring us to get in front of them. The average age of those in line seemed to be about 75, and the group mood murderous. I’ve never seen an ATM, even in scary neighborhoods, where people looked over their shoulders so often while inputting their pin codes.

And I’ve never seen people take so long at an ATM. We all sweated in the sun, while whoever was at the machine typed in what seemed to be a medium-length novel on the keyboard. They each seemed to be writing multiple drafts, too, grunting angrily and finally stomping away. Then the next oldster would stump up, glaring back at the rest of us, making sure we maintained a good five meters distance.

The proprietor of the leather shop glared just as hard at those of us in the back of the line. We were using the shade of his awning, without showing any inclination to buy his Fonzie jackets, possibly because you could have fried an ox, let alone an egg, on that concrete.

The old fear was back. It didn’t seem possible that the ol’ Timor feeling, the terror of hitching in Saudi or being a pedestrian in Kuwait, could settle over us in nice safe Europe. Not for the first, or hundredth time, I cursed the cursed Clash, with their prattle about a “Safe European Home.” Safe? If this thing didn’t give us cash—and it didn’t seem to be giving anyone anything—we’d be stuck without so much as a packet of ramen, and nothing but a wad of Macedonian currency to wave around. If there’s one thing you learn, it’s that the big bully country will never take the victim-country’s money. Try using pesos in the US and see.

When we finally got to the head of the line, I was in that old, familiar fear-sweat, my fingers shaking as I beeped in my pin. I decided to ask for only 60 Euros. There’s a ratiocination behind this, which is not to say it made any sense. I’d read before we left that Greeks were not allowed to withdraw more than 60 Euros a day from ATMs, and I was afraid that if I tried for more, the machine might veto my request, perhaps thinking that I was a Greek in disguise or, worse yet, suspecting me of cultural imperialism.

The long wait, squinting at the sun-blasted, indecipherable ATM screen. And then the card is vomited out—which could mean yes or no—followed, all the Olympian gods be thanked, by that heartwarming thrumming that means the machine is counting out bills to slide to you. And there they come, three 20-Euro notes. All the old folks behind you in line wish you were dead, but they’ll have to have their own interview with the iron confessor; you’re alive again.

Not for long, as it turned out, because we had to pay 50 Euros for air conditioning—and life on the third floor without it was not an option, not in Greece in July. After buying some rice and pasta, survival cuisine, I was back at that ATM next day.

Sunday. The day of the Referendum. We thought dawn would start with rallies, bullhorns, maybe even columns of smoke. No such drama. There were loudspeakers in the street, but just the usual dawn chorus of fish-sellers, fruit-sellers, other vendors. The fruit-sellers were Greek, old farmers with a hatchback full of peaches or nectarines. The beach vendors were the migrants, African or South Asian. They made the rounds, up and down the beach, with armloads of parasols, greasy doughy egg-shaped pastries, air mattresses, sunglasses, handbags.

And the Macedonian families burn themselves to a crisp, going into the greenish water to cool off standing in the waves now and then, or playing with the plastic balls sold by the African vendors. Mother, father, and two children; that was the norm. Throwing these plastic balls to each other with what seemed like real enjoyment. I felt like the Grinch looking down at Who-ville, staring at those families. What was the catch? Where was the alleged decadence? Death in Venice my ass! They were less decadent than the average California family, and by no small margin!

Sure,  there were a few serious guys, Serbian, who took tables to themselves—average height two meters, average tattoo count in double figures—and their rail-thin girlfriends, who leaned over the ice-cream freezers for minutes on end without the least notion of buying any of the contents. But for every one of them, there were a dozen almost identical families in modest Skodas, who by all appearances were having a simple good time. And in the evening, the soft light off the Aegean, they promenaded. Anglos can’t promenade, or even get the concept, but I had a vague feeling of what it meant to the Macedonian women in particular, these two weeks to be beautiful and semi-naked in public. It seemed like a wonderful thing, and also that Berkeley should burn to the ground, somehow that seemed like a wonderful thing too, and related somehow.

But we had more urgent problems than alienation. That stuff is for people with money, and we had none. So I headed uphill, where I’d heard there were many ATMs.

First I tried the one with the confessional screen, but there was a relatively young man there, no more than 60, who shook his head as he put his card back in his wallet. Still, you have to try it for yourself, like a fridge you know damn well is empty, checked for the tenth time. Sure enough, “Unable to dispense cash at this time.”

That explained why there was no line. Uphill, there was a more promising ATM, “more promising” in the sense that there were two dozen people waiting by it. Not in line, either. Just sulking around it, some in plastic chairs, some standing at random angles, like Beckett actors with a director offstage hissing, “Pssst! Be existential!”

To join that cast, all you had to do was step up off the sidewalk to the bank portico. Which I did, and got glares I haven’t seen since Kuwait. Later I learned that people here take me for a German at first glance, and this does not conduce to belle-of-the-ball status. But I didn’t know that when stepping onto the portico; I just thought, “Maybe it’s time to risk the Visa card at the supermarket.” So I skedaddled up the hill, a long way over empty, hot streets, to the LIDL market.

Closed on Sunday. Another of those lessons you learn hard and slow. It was a long night, tap water and pasta. And, as ever, my own fault.

We passed the time online, looking for news on the vote. By Sunday evening, it was clear Greece had voted against the austerity measures. The immediate question was how that would skew our ATM odds. As an ideologue, I was all for shooting down the neoliberals; as a scared idiot with no Euros, I was secretly kinda hoping they’d sign the deal. You can always go back on it later, Greece! Just grease those ATMs for now, til we can get some Euros! Such is the depth of my convictions.

Monday morning, I made the walk uphill again, to the supermarket, to risk our Visa card. Piled everything on the list in a cart and sweated out the moment where the checker shoves the card in and hands you the PIN thing. Long, long seconds before it starts printing out its little haiku of love, and you can stuff the goods in the pack and skulk downhill.

There were three Danes, with their harmless flag on their shirts, walking half my speed under a goofy beach umbrella. They chanted “Ein, zwei, drei” at me because I was walking quickly with a huge pack. It was flattering; better than being an Aqua fan anyway.

But the groceries ran out after two days, and I had to try the ATM again. The banks were still closed, according to the BBC, and money for ATMs would run out soon. We’ve got this room for a month, so there was no escape. I went back to the Beckett portico, to find a slightly smaller cast of elderly character actors standing and sitting in random positions. After two or three had used the ATM—and it looked like they got money, too!—I thought I was next. But an old man who looked like Pippi Longstocking’s grandpa barked, “Einen moment!” at me, and when I mumbled my usual stream of groveling apologies in English, said more mildly, “We arrrre ALL waiting here!” He was Dutch, I guessed, voluble and friendly in a grumpy way. He said, “You know, I am waiting an hour here! It is BULLSHIT!” I nodded. I always agree with strangers who are louder than me, which is everybody.

He went on, “I went to my bank in Katerini [the provincial capital], and there were police EVERYWHERE around it! With machine guns! Nobody could get any money! I have an account there—I live here, you know?—and they tell me, ‘Nobody knows.’”

I gurgled my sympathies and mentioned that we had a lot of Macedonian denars we were hoping to change. He shrugged and said, “Yes, they don’t do currency exchange here. Only at the airport!” This was not good news, since we had no cash for trips to any damn airport.

Then it was his turn, and he trundled up on his stubby character-actor legs. Then he exploded, “Ach!” He yelled something in Greek to the other old men loitering around the machine, then to me, “In Greek only! Not working in English!”

One of the old Greek men came up and the two of them did machine translation in reverse, getting a Greek-only ATM to understand a Dutch/English request to disburse some cash. There was a long wait, then the blessed thrum of cash on the griddle, and the Dutchman shouted, “Bravo!”

He turned to me, gesturing toward the Greek, “You need him!” But I could not ask a stranger for help like that, so I went to the machine alone, knowing I’d get the Greek instructions wrong and go home without money. Some things you can do, some not; I can’t ask strangers for help.

So I tried in English, and now the random accident was in my favor: It worked. My guess is that since I used a Canadian Visa card, the machine, used to greasing tourists, was happy to address me in English, whereas the Dutch guy (“I live here!”) had a local account and got the Greek-only version, with the 60-Euro limit.

So I went for broke, or rather 120 Euros, which in our context is roughly equivalent to broke. And got it. Now we are livin’ high, tomatoes and bread, sausage, you name it. For a while, anyway.

I’d like to end, for balance, with some sketches of suffering I saw among the Greek people. But I didn’t. They might be happening all around us right now; after all, I grew up in a miserably scared, penniless family that somehow managed to pass for average, so I know it can happen. All I know is that when we crossed the border from Macedonia to Greece, it was very clear we were passing from a genuinely poor country to one that seemed almost as wealthy as Italy. And one that has played a rather sleazy role in keeping Macedonia, the poorer country, out in the cold.

I’ve seen real suffering, real privation in Kurdish refugee camps for southern Iraqi Shia, in Timorese slums, in Kuwait Bedu shanty towns, and I’m pretty sure that, at least in this part of Greece that kind of suffering doesn’t exist. And yet everyone is extremely interested in Greece and were generally not very interested in anything I wrote about those places.

I’ve been trying to figure out why the problems of this reasonably well-off country have gripped so many of the progressives I know, while those of much more desperate and heroic places like Kurdistan seem to leave them cold. Part of it seems to be desperation for a leftist party that’s free of any taint of revolutionary violence. So you can cheer for Syriza, but not the YPG/PKK or Sinn Fein, both parties with far more noble and hard-won histories than Syriza’s. I find that odd, because I have no problem with revolutionary violence, and didn’t think most leftists did either. It seems they do, but maybe I’m too nearsighted an ant to get the big picture.

And that, I guess, is the lesson here, the one that applies to all genuine ant’s-eye view stories: An ant can’t see much.