An impossible choice for Greece

A week ago, I married a Greek woman in a lovely wedding and celebration on the Thessaloniki waterfront. It wasn’t quite the big fat wedding that you might expect, although over 250 people were there. And it wasn’t quite what the Greeks expected either. Almost half of the people who attended came from all over the world to join us and we made a unique civil ceremony that bridged our worlds, our communities, and our cultures.

It was beautiful. It was also bittersweet.

The night before, my bride-to-be cried in despair as she read the news that Alexis Tsipras had announced a referendum for Greece to decide accept or not to accept the bailout conditions set by its creditors. Her dress was hanging, ready. Her man was sleeping after having had a few last drinks with good friends who had flown half way around the world to be there. And her country — which had been crumbling for half a decade — was on the brink of finishing its implosion.

Three years ago on my first trip to Thessaloniki, I got stuck at the Athens airport with an invalid ticket. United and Continental were finishing up their messy merger and I had arrived into Frankfurt too late for my connection to Thessaloniki. So a United agent booked me a flight on Lufthansa to Athens where I could catch a Continental code share flight on Olympic to my final destination.

When I got to the gate in Athens, Olympic didn’t honor the ticket. The code share had been recently terminated and since they weren’t going to get paid for the flight, there was no way that they were going to let me board. Lufthansa couldn’t help. It wasn’t their ticket. Since United didn’t have a presence at the Athens airport, I went to the Aegean ticketing desk hoping that the new Star Alliance partner would be able to do something. The agents behind the desk tried their best, but nothing was working. Sorry, they said, but there’s nothing that can be done.

No matter how many times I asked, no matter how I tried to phrase it, the answer was the same. We can’t help you.

On a lark, I asked how much a new one-way same-day ticket to Thessaloniki would cost. I figured it would be super expensive, but I was at least ready to consider it as an option. When the lady replied that it was just over hundred euro, my jaw dropped. Why hadn’t this been proposed as an option before? Why had we just spent the previous hour trying in vain to communicate?

I immediately pulled out my credit card. The lady gave me a quizzical look of surprise. I don’t think she quite understood that I was ready to pay and be on my way rather than arguing a lost cause. A minute later, I was checking in and on my way to see my new girlfriend.

On our wedding day, friends and family came by my room at the hotel and kept me company while we waited for the ceremony. We talked about work and my new job. We caught up on the kinds of gossip that you share when you haven’t seen people in too long. And, we talked about the crisis. We talked about the long lines of people at the ATMs pulling cash out before the inevitable banking freeze kicked in. As we talked, our phones kept buzzing as people in our larger Facebook group traded information about which ATMs they could pull money out of and which ones had run dry.

Some of our guests cancelled at the last minute because their businesses were trying to keep ahead of the situation. Others cancelled and then un-cancelled as they decided out that an evening wedding was the perfect escape from thinking about a potential exit from the euro. We put a brave face on. The ceremony was picture perfect.

Afterword, everyone sat down at carefully set tables, started dinner, and waited for us to make an entrance. As we talked outside and looked in at everyone in our beautiful venue by the waterfront, I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were dancing while the country was burning. I wondered what kind of privilege gave us the right to celebrate while so many were terrified about their future.

But, dance we did. We cut our cake. We even had a spectacular fireworks display — a surprise present that I had arranged for my bride, our guests, and anybody who happened to be passing by. The timing of our event might have been unfortunate, but we didn’t pull back. Not only did we want our guests to have a good time, but we wanted to make sure that all of the vendors that were working for us got the work they were counting on.

The day after we married, we flew to Mykonos to spend a week along with some of our friends who had flown around the world to join us at our wedding. It was an immediate, albeit partial, escape from the crisis. After all, no matter what is happening in the cities, the islands are in their own sun-drenched world. But they weren’t entirely unaffected by events on the mainland. ATMs were consistently running out of money. And people with Greek bank accounts were restricted to withdrawing a maximum of €60 per day. A restriction that was in effect our entire week there.

The larger companies we dealt with — hotels, restaurants, beach resorts — were happy to accept our credit cards. But the smaller shops and tavernas we frequented were distinctly cash only. For example, the grandmother who ran the little store I bought a hat from asked for cash and offered an immediate discount for it, despite the credit card machine that was sitting on the shelf behind her. After all, who knows when she would be able to access the money that would be transferred into her bank from the transaction? Or even if it would have the same value in another week?

As the local economy turned towards cash, the pressure on the ATMs went up. Many people in our group ended up making loans to each other. Those who found a cash machine that had money would loan a bit to those who were having a hard time finding one that worked. It’s the kind of small scale economic aid that’s possible for a week between friends.

Other than trying to source cash, most foreign tourists didn’t really see an impact on the islands. All the restaurants were full. The bars stayed thumping till dawn. The champagne flowed in venues catering both to the nouveau riche and the people who wanted to blow their savings to emulate them. And the locals weren’t about to disturb the tourists and their desire to spend money with talk of the crisis.

If a memo had been distributed, it would have said: Keep calm and party on.

But, as soon as anybody who worked anywhere we went heard Katerina speak Greek and sorted out that we were pseudo-locals, conversation shifted immediately to the crisis and the question at hand: Which way to vote in the referendum? Almost everyone had a quick answer, but almost everyone was just as quick to say that they were really torn and confused by the options presented.

One guy at the ice cream shop was adamant that he would vote yes. After all, his job depended on euros coming in from tourists. Another was just as adamant that he would vote no, even if it meant losing his job and his savings. Enough was enough. The pain of the last five years had done too much damage to his finances and those of his friends and family. The bartender at our hotel was a strong yes, but only because she didn’t trust the current government to guide the country.

Sometime midweek, my new bride and I sat down with a few friends at one of the trendiest beach bars on Mykonos. Drinks, sushi, and conversation with some really great music was in order. A few minutes after our drinks arrived, however, the character of the place started changing. The music was turned up, and then up again. In order to keep our conversation going, we asked for a quieter space and were shown a lovely table outside. We settled in again. A minute later, the volume came up another ten decibels. The speakers started distorting.

It was 4PM. Unbeknownst to us, it was time for the bar to start catering to the kind of clientele for whom €20 cocktails are merely a prelude to showing off how rich they are by their ability to buy tables full of champagne bottles, shower each other with Moet, and fill shisha pipes with Dom. The ear-shattering music distorted beyond comprehension served as a clarion call across the beach and a crowd swarmed to join in.

The next day, we were enjoying a day at our hotel’s pool. It’s a quiet place up the hill from the Chora of Mykonos. Chill music. Good vibe. Mid afternoon, a group of loud people showed up, ordered a bunch of expensive champagne, and proceeded to live it up. There were a couple of dozen of other guests around and we were all annoyed. Complaints to the management flowed as freely as the bubbly. The manager came out, talked to them a bit, and then poured them more Moet. More champagne arrived. Much of it ended up in the pool.

The situation became clear: Have enough money and it doesn’t matter how you behave. You are welcome to do as you will as long as you keep money flowing. After all, that money fuels life for everyone working there, no matter the actions that bring it.

If I were Greek, I haven’t a clue which way I would vote. Part of me thinks that Greece has been pushed around enough. Part of me wants to make sure that Greeks learn how to operate an economy that isn’t dominated by evasion and corruption. But all of me knows that the options presented in the form of the simple yes or no question — where yes means more of the same and no may mean out of the euro — aren’t the options that should be on the table.

I keep thinking back to three years ago at the airport when all the options didn’t make sense until I thought to ask to solve the problem in a different way. There’s no sense in repeating the discussion when you know that the result will be the same, no matter how many times you say the same thing.

What should be on the table is a decision by Europe to strengthen the economic union by sharing the eurozone’s debt. While the particulars of the Greek situation sent them over the edge first in the financial meltdown of 2008, sharing a currency between states without sharing debt is unsustainable in the long term for the entire eurozone. This isn’t news. The only surprising thing at this point is that states like Germany insist on keeping Greece under the weight of a debt that can’t ever be repaid.

As a result, the Greek people continue to be given an impossible choice between equally unworkable options. And they know that they’re the ones that will suffer. The corrupt politicians who swindled Greece into this mess have had a long time to make sure their money is somewhere else. So have the business owners that operated illegally. Even the upper and middle class people who make their money honestly have had time to learn how to set up accounts in London, Zurich, or Frankfurt.

Whatever the answer to the impossible question, yes or no, it’s the majority without means — the ones that have spent the last decade being stripped of any opportunity to make a decent living, the youth that are unemployed or underemployed, the pensioners who can’t access what little savings they have — who will pay the biggest price. The lucky ones are those that be serving the champagne to the people who stole their future from them and tolerating their bad behavior.

A week after we went to Mykonos, Katerina and I cut our vacation short and returned back to Thessaloniki so that she could vote with her family. Now that we know that the result is an overwhelming vote no, we can only wait to see what the repercussions will be.

Written on Saturday July 4th, and Sunday July 5th. Updated right after it became clear on Sunday night that the vote for was for a resounding οχι.

Next: In the in-between

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