ATHENS – Her money was inside, she was outside, and the bank wasn’t going to open.
And then, the old lady fainted.
Thus, on Saturday, began 48 hours of foreboding for Greece, the latest turn in a five-year-old story with endless twists and 11 million victims.
It was a quickening of the slow-motion collapse of the Greek economy, bookended by news late Friday of a referendum, and Sunday evening’s bulletin that banks would remain shut on Monday.
In between, the ripples reached into the lives of ordinary Greeks. On the radio, the ominous refrain of breaking news, punctuated by now-familiar foreign names — Schaueble, Merkel, Juncker, Draghi. On the streets, patient queues at ATMs and the papered-over screens of those already emptied. Near one bank machine, an aging, mentally ill man pulled a sock full of coins from his jacket and offered them to passersby.
And in a bar called Poems N’Crimes, sat Petros Markaris, writer of crime fiction and creator of Inspector Costas Haritos, the world-weary witness to Greece’s failed battle with its own excess.
“The past was a fantasy, an illusion of wealth and greatness,” he said, as listeners at nearby tables nodded while the best-selling author spoke. “This, today, this is the reality — we were always a poor country, and now we know finally exactly how poor we are.”
That, perhaps is the deepest cut — that the last few decades of prosperity are a mirage. In the last century, Greeks have endured servitude under the Ottomans, occupation by the Nazis, a civil war, dictatorship and a tenuous democracy. Now, they face a national insolvency, the bill collectors at the door for three decades of borrowed time on borrowed wealth.
“We forgot the virtues of poverty,” Markaris said. “To cut a tomato four ways, a cucumber four ways and share it with your family and try to be happy.”
On his walk to the cafe, Markaris watched a man go through the leftovers on the tables of an outdoor restaurant, mumbling to himself about the waste. From the windows of his home, he has seen proud neighbors rifle through the garbage cans in the darkness of night.
In his crisis trilogy, Markaris sends his detective through a journey that mirrors the decline. In one, he investigates a serial killer who targets tax dodgers, in another, an avenger who hunts bankers. He sees his salary slashed, his car sold by his wife, his grown daughter sponging off her parents while she contemplates escape to a richer European country.
Outside the cafe waits Gerasimos Bakoyiannis, his canary yellow Mercedes taxi on its 867,345th kilometer. He drives through a city debilitated by creeping poverty: shuttered shops, half-completed office buildings, potholed roads and avenues dark at night because of blown streetlights.
He savors the past, frets about the present and refuses to contemplate the future. He hides his cash in the hub cap of his car.
“It can’t get any worse than this,” he said. “What is there left to take from me? All Greeks have left is their pride, there’s nothing else that matters now.”
That wounded pride is what Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister, appealed to when he snapped off talks with creditors insistent on deeper cuts to the already diminished state. While the Brussels negotiations were about budget cuts and primary surpluses, he framed the issues in terms of national humiliation, the injustice of blackmail and the betrayal of democratic principles. Inside parliament, an ATM for lawmakers ran out of cash and had to replenished.
Outside, as many as 500 of the country’s more than 7,000 ATMs ran dry as Greeks lined up to get out as much of their money as they could, two senior Greek bank executives said. Skai television reported as much as €1 billion ($1.1 billion) was withdrawn.
The very idea of democracy was an ancient Greek export, and one of the reasons why the country was first invited to join the European Union. Plucked out of the Balkans by its faraway and richer European neigbors and into the monetary union, Greece has spent years sliding out of their orbit.
In many ways, the last few days are simply a prologue for the next few weeks and months could bring. With banks closed and ATMs cleaned out, capital controls are next. In coming days, the country must find the money to pay salaries and pensions. It must either pay or stiff the International Monetary Fund, to which it owes $1.7 billion. Soon after that come bond payments.
The developed nation is fading into pariah status, its peoples’ money trapped inside its borders.
“It’s not death, you know,” the chauffeur Bakoyiannis said. “We will always have the sun, we will always have the beach, we will always have the Acropolis.”