I wish I was writing this on the triumphant cusp of an agreement. I wish I was writing it without calculating my route today based on how many ATMs I’ll pass, which ones might have the shortest queue and factoring in “Queue Time” in my schedule.
The Build Up:
When the referendum was called, I was still in the UK for Hermes’ appointments. It brought home what an information vacuum that the circumstances we are living in in Greece today have been defined by. Information in the UK was scarce, and what was available was panicked.
I had no idea what to do. I called my husband “Should I leave the kids here? How bad is it going to get?” He reassured me that it would be fine to come back. And rightly so. Back in Athens, there was no unrest, no riots, no disintegration of the social fabric.
I spent the week before the referendum feeling the momentum build. Athens turned into a city with a one track mind. From old people to teenagers, there was one sole topic of conversation: the referendum.
I spent Friday evening playing with my children at a playground in my neighbourhood and wondering if I should go downtown. Both No and Yes camps were holding rallies within walking distance of each other. I was already feeling these circumstances, the ATM queues, the worried friends, starting to wear me down. As a freelancer, there isn’t always an outlet for my coverage to go to, so the trip downtown wasn’t going to be worth my while in money terms. Couldn’t I just stay and play with my kids for a while?
Eventually I decided the rallies were too important to miss and headed off. I was sure I’d missed them, but when I got there around 10pm, the streets around Syntagma were bursting with people. The atmosphere was electric. You couldn’t move. I became stranded in a small island near a souvlaki seller. Rallies (and riots) being something of a national sport, fast food vendors often pop up where they think they can do business. When I managed to slide out of the crush, I walked through the National Gardens to Kallimarmaro, wafting barbecue smells behind me.
Even in the darkened park, riot police who had been assembled but luckily had nothing to do, were sitting in groups of three and four and talking about the referendum. As I made my way to Kallimarmaro, the Yes camp appeared empty. This was interesting. I took a few pictures and doubled back to see if the No camp was still going strong. They were. The gathering had turned into a concert. There were too many people to get a good shot, so I climbed some scaffolding to get my pictures.
The Big Day:
By an incredible stroke of good luck, referendum day dawned with me running around Athens with a video journalist from the Guardian. Around Athens, talking to people, the same message played out.
In a taxi, the driver said “We want to be in Europe. We want to be a part of Europe. But not a Europe like this, not a Europe that’s always telling us what to do.”
Frank Sinatra’s Summer Wind came on the radio. How ironic I thought, listening to the lyrics. We listened in silence. “I’ve met Sinatra, you know” said the taxi driver finally. “I was a footballer for Olympiacos. I’ve met him in California.”
In Pireaus, the poor twin city of Athens where the port is based, and where Greece’s main production industry was based until it went bust, the mood was in favour of No with a few Yes’s scattered around.
At a kafeneio, old men joked and laughed with each other. In Greece, nearly all the media outlets, print and broadcast, are owned by oligarchs that push their own agenda. The impression we had been given in the run up to the referendum was of a society falling apart, deeply divided along socioeconomic lines.
Wherever I went, there was no sign of that. Two men joked with each other. I asked them if they’d been able to get their pensions. One of them, a Yes voter, said he had. “Ask this guy!” he said, pointing to his buddy “He didn’t take out any of his money from the banks!” His friend, a No voter, retorted “As if I have any!” They both roared with laughter at this.
The level of anger people felt became increasingly apparent during the day. Over and over again they told me the same thing: We chose already, we voted in January, Syriza knows what we want, why are they asking us to choose again? Forced to choose once more, they would do so, this time using the vote to send a message to Europe and say no more, we’ve had enough, we can’t bear it, it’s literally killing us.
During a break, I called my husband and dared to make a guess, “I think it’s going to go to No, and by a big margin.”
I had come down to Zappeion press centre with a dress for the evening and left straight for a good friend’s wedding after changing in the women’s toilets. As the sun set and the bride walked up the church steps in the golden light, tears pricked my eyes. I had been steeped in economic talk for weeks now, listening to young people in their early 20s who had lost all hope for their future. It was such a relief to have something so joyful to be a part of.
By the time the couple reemerged from the church in a shower of rice, the referendum results were out. No had won. On the way to the venue, the streets of Athens were deserted. Long queues began forming outside ATMs. My husband stopped and filled the car. At the wedding party, a plague of little flying beetles had descended on the venue. “Look at this,” I joked “Where’s the world’s media? We voted no and the plague has immediately started.”
Imagine, getting married on referendum day and arriving to see your guests constantly flicking little bugs off their clothes and hair. Luckily, the insects had dispersed by the time the bride and groom arrived. Across the city, No voters partied until dawn in Syntagma square.
The Day After:
The morning after the No vote, both yes and no camps were wondering what it all meant. If the No voters thought Europe would soften its stance, that didn’t happen. But if the rest of the world thought Greece would implode into chaos, that hasn’t happened either.
I spent another day as fixer for a really great team from the Guardian, speaking to many people in the central markets. At one point, we met a butcher from Pakistan and got chatting. He invited us all back to his little flat in Metaxourgeio. “The Greeks are good. If they can solve their problems, this will be the best country in the world.” he said.
“You’re my sister now” he said. He’s been here eight years and can’t get his papers, not from the Greeks and not from the Pakistan Embassy who I’ve been told more than once are utterly useless when it comes to helping their own citizens.
“It’s nice here,” he said. “Peaceful. You’ll come again, right? You must come again. Bring your family, sister. Did I know when I left home this morning that I’d meet my sister today? I didn’t. This was destiny.” he said. His eyes were sad. The more we talked the more he revealed about his life. He’d left Pakistan suddenly after his brother was killed in a bus accident.
“I couldn’t bear the pain. So I left. I had a big shop there, more than one shop. But it hurt too much to stay. When his son was born, he looked just like him. I couldn’t take that.”
He hasn’t been back since. He can’t leave. When he started talking about his mother, his Urdu slipped into Punjabi and I knew the topic must be really painful for him.
A story within another story. “Sister, promise me you’ll come again with your family.” he said as we left. I will, because I must.
The butchers in the meat district, the man in the fabric shop where I bought the fine white net to make a friend’s wedding veil and fabric for the flowing, luxurious belly dance trousers I used to make when I had the time. These are streets I’ve walked in before, shops I’ve shopped from, people who know me and who I know too.
Both living and reporting this story has come to feel very tiring. There is no off switch. I was fortunate that I was working with such a compassionate team, what they were seeing and hearing bothered them. Still, at times, I felt as if I was pulling the team along in a boat behind me, myself waist deep in the water.
What I mean to say is, at the end of the day, a journalist outside this story goes home and puts this story away in a little box. They stay dry. I went the same route as them, but I go home soaked through with the stories I’ve been told that day, the sadness, the frustration, added to my own constant worry about what’s going to happen to me and my family.
Over and over, from my kids’ nursery teachers to the policeman in Syntagma police station, Greeks ask me the same thing: “You’re a journalist? So tell me what’s happening. You must know more than I do.”
Everyone is convinced that as a journalist I have access to some source of information that they don’t. Before, on and after referendum day, I got asked that same question. And again and again, I’ve had to answer that I know as much as they do.
We have no answers. Despite being in the centre of Europe’s biggest story, information is slim, and changes lightening fast. My hands are aching as I type this, too much has happened over the last few days. I did a telephone report for a Canadian TV channel. By the time I hung up, what I had just told them minutes ago had changed again.
On the streets of Athens, the public are starting to realise that the referendum didn’t actually mean anything. The new deal being proposed contains even more bailout money – the very thing the No camp opposed. Once again they’ve been ignored, once again they’ll be the ones that pay for everyone’s mistakes.
Greeks have gone into survival mode. We are living in an economic war zone. We live for today with no idea what will happen tomorrow. No one dares to guess. The public is shaking its head in disappointment, and topics of conversation have moved on to other things. This is a population so exhausted, so worn down, that they are protecting their very last asset, their hope, by not engaging any more in this political circus. They are carrying on as they did before, taking each day one day at a time. I can tell you, it’s a very tiring way to live for over five years.
As the owner of a souvenir shop told me yesterday, “How are things? Things are the same as they were before, except without money.” I stepped back onto the streets that, despite what you may have heard, were still buzzing with tourists. Business as normal, it’s just that our normality seems to change constantly.
Greece’s new, actual final, totally unchangeable, end of the line deadline is this Sunday. Today, they have to deliver a viable proposal to their furious European counterparts. As for what happens next, who knows. A friend of mine received the best answer to this question. “What happens after Sunday?” she asked.
The reply says it all “After Sunday comes Monday.”