Greeks struggle with daily grind as foreigners head to beach
Gamal Takaway has turned up the hustle, to no avail. The popular waiter who goes by the nickname Jimmy often steps out into the pedestrian street in front of the Taverna Plaka restaurant to cajole strollers into taking a table. But even his epic charm has failed since the Greek government shut the nation’s banks and imposed strict capital controls over the weekend.
“We are empty this afternoon,” he said Tuesday, looking at rows of tables with no diners. “It happened in one night, not slowly. This time it’s heavy. It’s dropped off by 50 percent.”
With cash withdrawals cut to 60 euros ($67) per day, many Greeks aren’t spending in restaurants for fear that they will run out of cash they would need if a family member got ill or another serious problem developed.
“You don’t know what can happen,” he said. “In my case, I have money, and I don’t have money in a sense. I have it in the bank, but I can’t get it in my hands. It’s crazy.”
On the streets of the Greek capital, resplendent in the early days of summer, there’s still a veneer of normalcy — at least for foreigners, who aren’t affected by the draconian rules imposed on Greeks. Sun-seeking tourists arrive by the planeload, airport currency changers hum along, and the big ferries pull out nightly from the nearby port of Piraeus bound for pleasure spots like Crete, Rhodes, and the quintessential party island, Mykonos.
But for locals, the miserly cash limit at ATMs means it will soon be a massive strain just to run a small business or keep a family going. And the drama is unfolding without a script, no safety net in sight. Beyond Greece, the fate of the vaunted, decades-old European project is in doubt with the approach of Sunday’s Greek referendum on the latest international bailout proposal — a de facto vote on whether or not to remain in the euro.
The capital controls are one in series of maneuvers by Greece’s radical left government — which came to power this year on a promise to break free of austerity programs — that has threatened the stability of the global financial system. Many fear that ruling Syriza party’s hard line on the bailout will force Greece out of the EU itself, and possibly lead to a contagion effect that would eventually unravel the union.
The controls are causing waves of anxiety at home as people try to figure out how to function without banks. Butcher stall owner Kleanthis Tsironis says he doesn’t know how much longer he can keep his 27 employees on board as sales plummet.
“I have no cash to pay for meat supplies for next week because of the capital controls,” said Tsironis, who started the business 51 years ago when he was a teen. “Sooner or later, probably in this month, I’ll have to let 10 people go. The people are buying with cash, not credit cards, and the problem is the customers don’t have cash.”
The government is still ironing out the details of the capital controls on what seems to be an ad hoc basis, adding to the confusion of daily life. It has made concessions to allow retirees without bank cards to withdraw a limited amount of cash from some banks, since it has become clear that many pensioners don’t have access to ATMs and have been completely cut off from their savings.
Some pensioners are in dire straits. One man returned to the National Bank of Greece on Tuesday morning after being turned away Monday — the day capital controls went into effect — to try to withdraw funds because he has nine people to feed and doesn’t have a bank card. No luck.
He expects to get in Wednesday when the new rules are in place for pensioners allowing those without bank cards access for three days. He would be allowed to make a one-time withdrawal of 120 euros.
Some bank workers have been told to stay away from their offices, because there is little to do, and the public might be upset to hear people inside and find themselves unable to get in. Some pension payments have been delayed, and some ATMs have stopped dispensing the 60 euro limit, instead giving out 50 euros, leading to fears that the allotment might be cut still further.
Some Greeks blame Europe’s leaders for the crisis, some blame their own, and many share a queasy feeling that Greece is slipping backward in time, withdrawing from the electronic, digital arena back into a cash-based world.
Fishmonger Spyros Corakkis still sells a wide variety fresh fish from the sparkling Aegean Sea to hotels and restaurants, but he has been forced to replace the monthly invoicing system — which worked fine — with an all cash system, with payments made each day.
“It’s a big problem when the banks are closed,” he said. “It’s much more difficult.”
At the Elaea Cafe near the Acropolis, owner Yannis Iliopoulos said the capital controls had an immediate negative effect because Greeks stopped coming for coffee and sweets, even as the international tourists continued to spend money. The controls do not apply to visitors with foreign-based credit cards, creating a two-tier system that favors visitors and infuriates Greeks.
“From Sunday when the controls were announced it’s like the termites have gotten into the house,” said Iliopoulos, who has cut the restaurant’s food orders to keep them in line with his reduced cash flow. “There is a lot of anxiety.”
He said many Greeks are cancelling plans for their traditional summer holidays on the nearby islands because they have no way of knowing if they will be able to get enough cash from the bank to pay for their vacations, and won’t be able to use credit cards if current restrictions hold.
In addition, hotels near the Acropolis report a large number of cancellations by foreigners in the last few days because of negative publicity about the crisis.
For most of his career, Tsironis, the butcher stall owner, has been a successful businessman, not wealthy, but living well and providing a good life for his family. His profits have dropped 70 percent during the long, drawn-out crisis over Greece’s failure to pay its strangling debt.
Despite the pain of austerity, Tsironis says the government must cancel the weekend referendum, reach a bailout agreement with Europe’s leaders and lift the capital controls — rather than risk an even worse disaster.
“I’m very afraid that I will go to prison for debts,” said Tsironis. “I’m 65 and I can’t pay the bills.”
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