Three days ahead of the referendum, Athens basks in the hot July sun. With clear blue skies stretching over rolling hills and neoclassical mansions, Greece seems at first to be living up to its reputation as a Mediterranean paradise. It doesn’t take long, however, for signs of the economic crisis to begin to break through this picture of tranquillity.
I go to buy my ticket for the Metro. Without looking up, the woman in the ticket office silently points at a sign taped up above her head: using public transport in Athens is free of charge until further notice. By eight a.m., queues have already formed at cash points where people, plagued by the uncertainty of the country’s financial future, seek to access their money before the cash flow is restricted any further.
I walk down to Syntagma Square in central Athens where I’m greeted with a flurry of political activity. News teams are busy conducting interviews as anti-fascism and anti-racism campaigners hold a demonstration in favour of the ‘No’ vote. All over the Square their posters with ‘OXI’ (‘No’) written in large black font are taped to trees and benches, and left to blow across the ground.
However, not everyone in the Square is there for the demonstration and so I am able to stop to chat to some of the people who are also milling around.
Elaine is sitting in the shade with a cigarette. At the moment she does not work but her husband is a dentist. I ask her about how the economic crisis is affecting people’s day-to-day lives in Athens.
“I live in south Athens,” she says. “All [the] people [are] very anxious about the future. A lot [of them], they have commercial businesses but there is no money and so they do services for free. They [are] stressed.” Leaning her head a little closer to mine she tells me, “I live in [an] area [where] the people are well… I mean they have money… but I know in other areas people [are] very, very poor.”
I ask Elaine about the criticism of the rich in recent months — that they should have done and should still be doing more to help the rest of the country. She nods her head vigorously, “We have to help other people… but honestly I don’t think that will happen.”
The conversation moves to the referendum on whether to accept the terms of an international bailout. “Do you think holding a vote is the right decision?” I ask.
“Of course a vote is a good idea,” she replies. But while Elaine is certain that she wants a vote and that she will definitely turn up to vote, she is as yet undecided on how to vote.
“The new legislation is very bad for Greece in [the] long-term… for young people especially. But I also worry about leaving the Eurozone. And I worry that the people will start to fight. Maybe we will have splits. Everyone arguing.”
She thinks, though, that in spite of these reservations she will still vote no.
“If we vote yes to new legislation, Greece will get poorer and poorer. Starting salaries will [get] lower. Maybe we don’t have money to travel [anymore]. If we vote no, we [will] have [a] very bad situation for 35-60 years, I think. But later the economy will grow. We can grow on our own without the EU.”
Like Elaine, George is enjoying the shade and is not in the Square in order to join the demonstrations. I ask him about life in Athens during the crisis.
“It is horrible,” he says. “It is drama. We wait, wait for [our] salary but we don’t know what will happen tomorrow.”
George works for an American IT company. So far his salary has not been delayed but he reiterates that there is so much uncertainty that he feels he cannot count on it as a regular payment.
He thinks that holding a referendum is a good idea, adding that he intends to vote yes. This is not because he wants austerity but because he sees it as the better of two bad choices.
“It’s a pity because we already sacrificed five to six years of austerity and we are back where we started. Life is harder in austerity and it will get harder.” But for him this is preferable to the perhaps riskier and lesser known path if the country votes no.
“If we have alternative [if we vote no], we don’t know what will happen.” He tells me that he is scared that the ‘No’ vote will win because “seven years of austerity leads people to the no side.”
I ask him what he thinks lies ahead for Greece. He says that he is not confident enough to speak of a future beyond the next few months.
“The situation on Monday or Tuesday will be totally different [from today]. I think there will be one more month of difficulties. We will see banks closed, many queues. There are not [any] immediate solutions. Not everyone realises it but soon there will not be any more bank notes…”
George declined my request for a photo as he did not want his employers to see him and read his views.
After a while I wander away from Syntagma Square. Fumbling with my map outside the entrance to Ethniki Amyna station, a man asks if I need help. He is selling pastries from a stall.
“I’m okay,” I reply (a lie, as I actually have no idea where I am). “But do you mind if I ask you some questions about the vote on Sunday?”
“Yes, it’s fine,” he replies. I ask him whether he thinks it a good idea to have a vote.
“Yes I think. For my ideas yes.” Markos is another undecided voter, stuck between voting with his heart and voting for the ‘safe’ option: “I don’t know. It’s very difficult. I want [to vote] no but it’s very scary.”
I ask him what he thinks is going to happen. He smiles, opening his arms out wide and shrugging a little. “Everything’s going to be alright,” he maintains. He gestures around him to all the people walking down the street.
“We are strong people in Greece.”