They say that London is three meal-times from violent revolution, by which I think is meant that if for some reason the good residents of Britain’s capital city were unable to put food on the table for a full cycle of breakfast – lunch – dinner, there’d be trouble. Shops would be looted, homes raided, allotments laid waste. Children would be mugged for their lollypops. The Army would be called out.
All very un-British – but is it so unlikely? London can be a claustrophobic place and is victualed only by virtue of a massive and complex logistical and financial infrastructure which marries up the city’s tidal wave of cash and gluttony with distant farmers’ output. Plenty can go wrong and then very basic needs would trigger very basic responses.
I say all this to explain my apparent obsession with cashpoint machines. I went to one on Monday, after the ‘no’ vote, thinking that the ECB was not likely to be making any further emergency advances any time soon and so liquidity would be drying up. It was not that I expected to see things kicking off, nor to indulge in Schadenfreude, but to replenish some of our own liquidity. Honest.
I was third in line. The old man at the machine was having trouble, the hesitant beeps as he hit the keys and the frustrated grunts a clear signal that he was inexperienced. The plump young woman ahead of me and I exchanged a glance. ‘Why don’t you help him?’ I was thinking. ‘Are you mad?’ said her eyes. ‘Get between someone and their PIN? Plus, he looks ready to explode.’ Like a cuckoo from a clock, a smartly-dressed young man, thin as a whip, emerged from the bank (which has not been open since a week last Saturday) and helped the old guy through the keystrokes until he had a €50 note in his dissatisfied hand. There was a terse conversation – we have heard that the machines only has 50s so the €60 a day ‘allowance’ is a bit of a lie – and it was the plump girl’s go. I was glad the banker was thin; a fat banker in this context would have hit a sour note. A rough-hewn man in yesterday’s shirt joined the queue behind me, talking to himself. I recognised him from his grocery shop (‘Tsipras is the best prime minister in Europe! He tells them ‘NO!’ We have oil and gas, food…!’). Miss Plumpy quickly had her €50 and stalked off. I wondered if the missing €10 would mean no pudding.
As a foreigner I am allowed to withdraw as much cash as I like. It’s normal, I suppose – mine are good, bountiful Belgian-based Euros. I felt rather shame-faced though as I plucked the wad of 50s from the machine’s assumedly finite stock and as discretely as possible folded them into my pocket. That’s when I realized that the grocery shop guy with his anti-Merkel views was not talking to himself.
ATMs. I see them as the canary in the mine here in Greece, where credit cards are not widely accepted. (As an aside, can you imagine how it must feel to have your life’s savings in the bank, to have your salary paid into your bank account, and then be told you can only access €60 a day of your own money – because although by the sweat of your brow you put it there, it’s unclear that the bank can actually hand it back? This narrative includes evil bankers, Germans and victimhood. No wonder they voted ‘No’.) So what happens when the ATMs no longer give up their daily €60? It is these €60s that put food on the tables of the Greeks; what happens when three mealtimes pass here and the ATM still won’t cough up?
I hope not to be able to tell you the answer; I hope it doesn’t happen. But if it does, I don’t know about Athens, which is probably more like London than Thasos, but I believe that the Greeks on the islands will just get on with things somehow. Unless that grumpy grocer puts himself forward.