Capital controls: 15 ways in which they’ve changed our life

1. We have to wait in long lines at ATMs to get our daily cash allowance (€60 which has become €50 since the banks have run out of €10 and €20 notes.) Many people have acquired a ‘secret’ or ‘favourite’ machine – one that is more reliable/less crowded that others.

2. Public Transport is – temporarily – free, only a lot less buses are running. A friend arrived at work late yesterday because she had to wait one hour and two minutes for her bus (usually there’s one every ten minutes.)

3. Any subscriptions to foreign sites (such as extra iCloud storage) are frozen, since Greek credit cards cannot pay money abroad. Same goes for Amazon or other online shopping.

4. Venues booked for weddings or christenings – there are a lot of those at this time of year- ask for part of the money in advance, preferably in cash, so they can pay for the food, etc. People are being creative about their ‘big day’: flowers from the garden, a cousin will do the bride’s hair, sister takes the photos etc.

5. Funerals can be paid for in installments.

image6. Amongst my friends, the only people who have gone on holiday are those who have houses on the islands, or those who had prepaid for a trip somewhere. People trying to book rooms are asked for money in advance, in many cases in cash. Sometimes a friend on the spot can lend a hand.
However, tourists are OK since ATMs still seem to disburse money to foreign credit cards.

7. Some flights have been cancelled and many airlines are not accepting bookings from Greek tourist companies. However, around 15.000 internal flights will be available for around €10.

8. Businesses that deal in cash pay their employees in cash and get praise. Those that don’t can’t pay at all and get complaints. A lot of people have been asked to take unpaid vacation until the banks open (and are hoping that by the time this happens, their companies will still be operational.)

9. Dentists report cancellations for cosmetic appointments such as teeth cleaning or whitening.

10. Pharmacies report a rise in sales for medications used in chronic diseases such as diabetes as patients stock up, fearing a future lack.

11. People are paying with credit cards wherever possible in order to save what little cash they have. But some retailers are already refusing plastic.

12. Meanwhile, people who had money in the bank are trying desperately to spend it, fearing future haircuts. They’re buying up things they consider to have a resale value, such as jewels, cars, and electronic gadgets. To take advantage of this trend, luxury clothing retailers have started early and generous discounts (summer sales in Greece normally start in August.)

13. Generally people are trying to spend any money they have, so bills and taxes are paid promptly!

14. Imports and exports have become very complicated.

15. A lot of shows, especially those with expensive tickets, have been cancelled.

The big picture

“It is never too late to be what you might have been.”
― George Eliot

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A sigh of relief? An all-night marathon ended in ‘white smoke,’ as Greece and its creditors managed to reach an agreement that secures the country’s place in the Eurozone. From Grexit to ‘Greekment’, as Donald Tusk, head of the European Council, dubbed it.

Of course, a lot of work remains to be done, since Greece has an obligation to immediately implement draconian reforms. There is political uncertainty because this implementation depends on the cooperation of all parties. For the Greek people, more hard times are ahead.

There is a feeling, abroad as well as in Greece, that the terms of the deal are punitively harsh. Nobody is celebrating. However, I think one must remain positive. Catastrophe has been averted, given that it appears the government had no plan B in case of a return to the drachma.
I hope Greece will take this chance to put its affairs in order, something which is long overdue. It’s sad and humiliating to accept, but maybe the political system will finally be obliged to break out of the vicious circle they’ve been in for so long, and bring about a real change in mentality.
Let’s hope this will be the making of a modern, self-sufficient new Greece.

At the same time, this crisis has shaken the foundations of Europe considerably, and exposed its flaws. There is an immediate need to look at the bigger picture. Today Europe is faced with huge problems, starting with its failure to alleviate the poverty of many of its citizens.
Amongst other things, it has to cope with wave upon wave of immigrants seeking a better life within its borders. It has to deal with the threat of terrorism. And it has to compete with emerging markets where labor is still both cheaper and willing to work much longer hours.
Europe has shown it is not united, nor has it found a way to accommodate the differences, cultural or other, between its members. Changes are needed; rifts must be healed and hard questions answered if the European machinery is to keep moving forward smoothly in future.

 

 

It ain’t over yet…

How better to start the day than with an ironic take on events by one of my favourite cartoonists, Matt.

image imageOn to the news:

In a turbulent all-night session, Greek PM Mr. Tsipras managed to get Parliament to ratify austerity terms previously rejected by his government, in a desperate bid to secure the country’s future in the Eurozone.

Mr. Tsipras explained his about-face by saying he did not get a mandate from the people to take Greece out of the Eurozone, confirming his pre-referendum assertion that a NO vote was not a vote against Europe. He has recognized that the pain of capital controls and economic collapse is too much to bear. Mr. Tsipras had promised voters a miracle which he was unable to deliver – the only way he can now redeem himself is if at least he achieves some restructuring (or what Mrs. Merkel calls re-profiling) of the debt.
He got 251 votes, bolstered by opposition parties, but lost the majority within his own party. The left faction of SYRIZA voted against, which is understandable from their point of view. They have been against all along. They accuse the ECB of using ‘liquidity asphyxiation’ to bring a rebel democracy to its knees. And they accuse the PM for not having a Plan B if Europe did not give in to his demands.

Major architect of the whole fiasco, ex Finance Minister Varoufakis, did not vote. He left for his holiday home on the island of Aegina, citing ‘personal reasons’ – a bizarre turn of events that was widely condemned by all parties. Readers’ comments in the press have vilified him as a rat leaving a sinking ship which he himself helped scuttle.

New Finance Minister Mr. Tsakalotos admitted that the measures proposed will reinforce austerity, but insisted we had to look at the big picture and promised to aid the weaker members of society.

However, Mr. Tsipras warned that the battle is not won yet, since it is far from certain the new proposals will be accepted by the lenders.

Conclusion: We will – should? – be happy if we manage to achieve a new agreement which will be similar to, and tougher than, the one we nearly got before the referendum.

To end on a lighter note, yesterday farmers in Thessaloniki rolled up image
with truckloads of watermelons which they proceeded to distribute to the pensioners waiting in line in the heat outside banks to get their money. They thought they could do with some refreshment.

A garden full of treasure

imageWhile waiting to find out our fate, I decided that life must go on, as pleasantly as possible. And what better way to soothe the soul than with art. So we descended upon my friend Alexandra, a sculptor whose studio spills out into her garden.

Alexandra is a versatile artist who works in many mediums: wood and rusted metal, resin, cardboard and paper. But she mostly starts her pieces with found materials – driftwood discovered on beaches, fallen branches or logs collected in woods, rusted bike frames and other bits of iron. These she assembles into her chosen shape, often horses’ heads or entire, life-size horses. Then she casts them in bronze.image

This means her garden, enchantingly wild and overgrown, is a treasure trove of found pieces, as well as finished sculptures. Bits of metal left out to rust, piles of what she calls ‘rubbish’ but which no doubt will come in useful at some point. Works-in-progress, blocks of wood in weird shapes waiting for the next burst of inspiration. In the midst of all this is her studio. Welding equipment is stacked in a corner, and works on paper litter the tables – her latest passion is making books. Materials and tools spill out into the garden, where in the winter she can be seen hard at work, wearing multiple layers of clothes!

I love the way Alexandra scribbles and paints on every available surface.image She flattens old cardboard boxes to draw on, uses tea and coffee to create subtle stains, tears things up and reconstructs them in layers.  One of my favourites is this drawing on a broken flowerpot- she calls this work ‘Fragmented Self.’

 

Another recurring theme are the torsos made out of hammered sheets of imagemetal. They are very evocative – they remind me of the Ancient Greek Kouros statues, but at the same time they suggest suits of armour.

 

A lovely afternoon was spent discussing how things were put together, what inspired each piece – and it was great being able to touch everything, which you cannot do in a museum or exhibition. The children had a field-day pottering about and feeding Alexandra’s tortoises. We were given ice cream on the terrace, surrounded by her collections of stones and small sculptures. Then the kids were put to work making fish out of actual rubbish gathered on a beach. The result was declared super-cool.

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If you want to find out more about Alexandra Athanassiades, this is  her site: http://www.alexandraathanassiades.com

Frozen

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There’s a heat wave on, but everyone’s frozen: paralyzed, unable to plan or think of anything else than the situation we find ourselves in. Heads are buzzing and eyes are red from hours of watching television and computer screens, trying to make sense of the news pouring out.

There was an atmosphere of celebration after the referendum results on Sunday; but everyone I’ve talked to since Monday, from all social levels – and whether they voted YES or NO – is dazed and confused. Nobody’s spending any money, apart from filling the fridge and the car. That’s fine,  most people still have plenty to eat and enough clothes and other accessories to last them for years if need be – but what about those in retail? Business has fallen to zero overnight. Nobody’s shopping, nobody’s going to the hairdresser or even to the doctor if they can possibly avoid it. There is a peculiar exception to this: some are buying jewelry, expensive smartphones or tablets and even cars. This is because they fear a haircut will be applied to their savings, and they prefer to have goods they think will keep their value.

Immigrants from Albania and Bulgaria who have lived here for years and are well integrated, with families and children who go to Greek school, are returning to their countries. They don’t want their kids to go through the same things they experienced in their childhood. And this just a a law is being passed making it easier to get Greek nationality. Meanwhile, more than a thousand new immigrants landed on our shores in the last week. On Samos, there was a huge problem providing them with food, since the catering company had not been paid.

*

To kill time while waiting for the results of the European summit, we took ourselves off to our local open-air cinema. One of summer’s pleasures – watching a movie under the stars. Jasmine and bougainvillea climbing the walls, a bar selling popcorn, hotdogs and  nachos. Tickets €6.  Still an affordable evening out. The cinema was not full, but not empty either, with couples and families trying to forget their troubles for a couple of hours.

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*

Back home to another episode of science fiction, or shall I say, the theater of the absurd?

Journalists on all TV channels were commenting on the fact that the Greek negotiating team had arrived at the meeting without a proposal. Our new Finance Minister, Mr. Tsakalotos, was inadvertently carrying handwritten notes in such a way they could be – and were – read by all. Then participants of the summit started emerging, all with long faces. They made statements saying how committed they were to finding a solution, but that it was going to be extremely difficult, that time was running out, and that the ball was in Greece’s court. Some openly said it was time Greece left the Euro, and maybe the Eurozone as well.

Next, our PM came out, all smiles, and declared proposals had been made for an equitable solution for us and our partners, promising social equality and economic growth. He implied all would be well by Sunday.

What to believe? Commentators were describing rescue talks as having collapsed yet again. Most were pessimistic about a positive outcome.

Is there some plan behind all this? I wish our politicians would come straight out and tell the Greek people what it is they’re expecting to achieve, what their proposals are, if they have a Plan B and how that would work out. My greatest fear is that, by the time they’ve sorted something out, it will be too little, too late. Every passing day, another bit of the Greek economy dies.

The day after

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A quick roundup of today’s events:

Maverick finance minister Yanis Varoufakis resigns (to the relief of many in Europe). His place is taken by Euclid Tsakalotos, an Oxford-educated economist.

All party chiefs meet to prepare a ‘new’ proposal, which they will co-sign before submitting it for negotiation in Brussels.

The package under discussion is similar to the one proposed by Mr. Junker.[Statement from Washington: The referendum happened, and the situation remains the same.]
The question is: If we’re to go back to the same point we were at before the referendum, why was all this necessary, only with Greece now in a weaker position, with the previous program having expired, and a full-blown bank crisis going on?
Was it just a complicated piece of political maneuvering?

The government is trying to distil an air of optimism and presents an agreement as a foregone conclusion, to the contrary of the messages coming in from Europe, where the consensus seems to be dissatisfaction with the referendum result.
Tomorrow, the Eurogroup meets. Will the Greek team bring back an agreement? It appears difficult, and the terms will most probably be worse than before. And if they don’t succeed, what then?

“NO”

The country has voted: it’s a landslide for NO. No to more austerity, no to the disastrous economic policies of the Troika. It was also made clear that people are sick of the old political system, which bears a lot of responsibility for the situation in which we find ourselves. It is time for a real change. As I was writing this, the chief of the opposition, New Democracy leader Mr. Samaras, announced his resignation.

The European institutions have warned that this would be a step towards a Grexit.

The Greek PM however, has insisted that the NO vote would just be a show of support that would give him greater powers of negotiation and help him achieve a better deal. He has promised to deliver within 48 hours. Godspeed – I don’t think a single Greek, whatever they voted for, does not wish him well.

He is facing a mammoth task. The hard facts are the following:

The banks are shut, and likely to remain so for a while. Panic rumors are going around that there will be a haircut of deposits and that the contents of safe deposit boxes will be confiscated.

Most ATM machines are empty and the rest only give each person €50 instead of the €60 allowed since they have run out of €20 and €10 notes.

The tourist season is in ruins. Most Greeks cannot afford a holiday and there are multiple cancelations from abroad. Hotels will run out of supplies in ten days. Hospitals already lack basic necessities and medicines. Many small businesses will close because they need cash to function on a day to day basis. Their business will be taken over by multinationals who can afford to remain unpaid for a while. A lot of people will be laid off.

50% of children in the Athens region go to school without breakfast. More than 60% of young people are unemployed. Many thousands have committed suicide. A few hundred thousand have been obliged to emigrate.

And the elephant in the room: what will happen to the hundreds of destitute immigrants arriving on our shores every day? Who will feed them? Where will they go?

We hear the Italians are expressing solidarity. The Germans are intransigent: they think it’s time we went. These are the messages we’ve got so far.

It is my sincerest wish both sides will see their way forward to an agreement that will allow Greece to survive, recover and, in the future, thrive. The next few days and weeks are vital. It will be hard, but let’s hope the difficulties can be overcome. The alternative is a leap into the unknown.

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For the moment, I feel we are like jellyfish pushed around by the currents.

What next?

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Well, tomorrow is D-Day. Or R for Referendum day. Today we are in limbo. I quickly note down a few observations.

The rift in the population between YES and NO has widened, although it is very unclear what each outcome will bring. This is extremely sad as well as very dangerous. The two sides are neck and neck at the moment, with a prevalence of NO.

Talk, which is what Greeks love best, is rife. Every politician, celebrity or otherwise ‘prominent’ Greek seems to be on television, declaring his convictions.

A theory is circulating that there is a strong drachma lobby, and that many people in high places (I heard some names but will not repeat since unverified), stand to make huge amounts of money if it goes through.

There is also fear of result tampering, since there is only one ballot, and people are being warned that they need to put a cross against their choice, not an X or a check, for the ballot to be valid.

Reports, also unverified, are going around that the banks will stay shut for a long time, that there will be food and petrol rationing, that people will get paid in government-issued coupons instead of money. Far-fetched though this scenario might seem, it’s not so improbable given that a change in currency cannot be instantaneous, especially when the coffers are empty.

Some of the things said on national television, by politicians, are so preposterous one has trouble believing one’s ears. No explanations are given by them about what awaits the public. No specific plan for the day after.

Friends from abroad call and email, worried about us.

Tourism has already taken a big hit.

Hospitals report a lack of basic necessities. But even as long as a month ago, an acquaintance went in for a routine operation and was asked to bring her own sheets and food.

And so on.

I firmly believe everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but personally I fail to see how a NO vote will strengthen the government’s bargaining power, how it is possible for them to promise, in so many words, that they will have a deal in 48 hours, and how people are not scared by the potential chaos if this fails.

Between Scylla and Charibdis

Sooner or later, everything refers back to ancient myth.

The Greek people today feel like Odysseus, forced to navigate between Scylla and Charibdis, two monsters guarding the straits of Messina. They were only an arrow’s throw from each other, so sailors found it almost impossible to escape them. image We have to vote in a referendum on Sunday.

Vote YES, and we face having to crawl back to our creditors, begging for a deal probably much worse than the one we had before. Greece will struggle along for years, unable to climb out of recession.

Vote NO, and we sail into unknown waters. Will we be forced out of the euro, maybe out of the EU? How will this exit be organized, and by whom? The way ahead is dark, and full of eddies and reefs.

What’s more, almost everything is still unclear.

This is what they’re saying:

The YES vote say they are voting for Europe.

The NO vote say they do not accept anymore to be threatened and blackmailed (by Europe).

The PM, Mr. Tsipras, says that a NO win does not mean Greece will leave Europe or even the euro, just that it will increase his bargaining power.

The President of the European Commission Mr. Junker disagrees, and, only this morning, warned Greece against a NO vote (which must have angered NO voters even more). He said: “If the Greeks vote NO, the Greek position is dramatically weakened.”

Mr. Varoufakis, the Greek Finance minister, said today a new deal was in the offing.

Mr. Junker denies this.

This morning SYRIZA Minister and chief negotiator Mr. Tsakalotos declared on a televised interview that the PM called the referendum because the deal offered “would never have been ratified by Parliament and would have brought down the government.”

As we speak, there are two demonstrations starting in Athens, one for YES and one for NO. People in their thousands are standing around, waving flags. Whatever happens, Mr. Tsipras cannot be proud that he’s managed to divide the Greek people. He cannot be proud of the scenes playing over and over on the television, of elderly people standing in line for hours, jostling and pushing, and in some cases in tears. image Odysseus managed in the end to escape both Scylla and Charibdis and survive. Let’s hope we can do the same.