Between heaven and hell

Agora Contributor: Nick Malkoutzis
Photo by Can Esenbel
Photo by Can Esenbel

What is the distance between heaven and hell? About 700 metres – I measured it on Monday. The morning after the referendum on the Eurogroup’s bailout proposal, I visited my local pharmacy, where my pharmacist was confident that the convincing No vote the night before would lead to good things for Greece. “Everything will be fine,” he said. I walked home and bumped into my neighbour. His view of the referendum was completely different. “We’re doomed now,” he told me.

This brief episode sums up the collective schizophrenia that Greeks have been suffering. We have been wavering between heaven and hell not only since the referendum, in fact not even since January’s elections brought SYRIZA to power. Greeks have been living on the edge since the first bailout in 2010.

Over the last five years most Greeks have gone through an almost daily mental struggle about their country’s future and how that will affect them. Will there be a bailout? What will the new measures mean? Will the troika complete the review? Does the government have to adopt more austerity? Will my salary be paid on time? Will I have a job next week? Will we have elections soon? Will Greece stay in the euro?

These are some of the regular questions that we all asked ourselves over the last five years. On some days you can come up with believable, optimistic answers. On others you cannot find a convincing response and the future looks bleak. It is no surprise that there has been a rise in the number of Greeks seeking help for mental illnesses over the last years.

Understandably, since banks closed a few days ago and capital controls were introduced, the mental strain Greeks have been under has increased immensely. However, something surprising has happened: Rather than seeing Greeks panicking, as many people (including myself) had expected, there is relative calm. People are queuing patiently, sometimes for hours, to get just 60 euros per day from ATMs.

Of course there are occasional arguments and cries of frustration but Greeks are notoriously impatient in the best of times and seeing them wait in line calmly is an incredible sight.

The one thing that is immediately noticeable is the silence. Few people speak, most just stand and think. It is a further sign of the internalisation of this crisis. Greeks wonder how they got here and how they will get out of this mess as they wait to withdraw their cash. The wonder if their savings will be there the next time they wait in line or whether they will be queuing instead for the humanitarian aid that European Council President Donald Tusk said the EU is ready to deliver if there is a Grexit.

There are also practical problems to consider. Being able to withdraw just 60 euros (or 50 as most cash machines no longer have 20-euro notes) means that you have to plan your week around visits to the ATM. One visit may not be enough to pay a bill or to cover the shopping costs for a week so those chores have to be put off until the next day, or the one after that, so more trips to the cash machine can take place.

For pensioners, the challenges are even greater. Many do not have cash cards or do not know how to use them. Hundreds of banks have opened to help them but not all pensioners have easy access to these branches.

Spare a thought also for the 200 residents of the tiny northeastern Aegean island of Aghios Efstratios who have no ATM and need to sail to Limnos to withdraw cash in the morning and return in the afternoon. In fact, Greeks are very much like the residents of Aghios Efstratios: Out at sea, not knowing if they will be able to get the money they need to survive and then make it back home safely.

Instead of clinging to the side of the boat, Greeks are clinging to the words of Greek and European leaders in the hope they will be able to decipher them and work out if there will be an agreement or not. After Tuesday’s Eurogroup, there was renewed hope among Greeks wanting to remain in the euro that a deal is in sight. A few hours later, their hopes plummeted to a new low as European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned that Greece could be just days away from an exit. Each time he slammed the lectern in anger, the pace of millions of heartbeats in Greece quickened.

We all want this torment to end and find ourselves somewhere between heaven and hell rather than shuttling between the two all the time. Most Greeks just dream of a return to normality, nothing more.

*A longer version of this article was first published in Die Zeit. You can follow Nick on Twitter: @NickMalkoutzis

3 Comment(s)

  • Posted by: H.Trickler

    With those huge sums that have before been withdrawn from Greek banks, I wonder about the big number of persons that have now to wait hours to get 60€?

    >"Most Greeks just dream of a return to normality"

    My impression: Greeks dreamed at least the last 5 years, and that should be enough to learn that dreaming does not change reality!

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  • Posted by: Jude Boudreaux, Upperline financial

    As a planner, I'm always looking for info on what is truly going on in Greece, and I'm so glad a friend re-tweeted your story. I'll be following the blog from now on. Thanks for the great info!


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  • Posted by: Anonymous

    I can't say I'm an expert but didn't normality get you to heaven and hell.

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