Greece on the brink, dancing on the edge of the cliff
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What does a country on the brink of financial collapse look like?

At first glance, nothing appeared to be amiss in Greece. The tavernas were packed, the conversations were animated and the market stalls were overflowing with fish, meat, produce, household goods — and shoppers.

The more time my wife and I spent in Thessaloniki, though, the more we began to notice the empty storefronts, and that many more people in the cafes were nursing a coffee rather than eating a meal.

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I tend to think that a lively restaurant scene betokens prosperity. Here, it appeared, were people with disposable income and leisure time. Our friend Kostas, a native of Greece's second-largest city, warned us not to romanticize.

Leisure, the Greeks have in abundance. Money, not so much. About half of the adult population under the age of 25 is out of work. Many of the people you see in the cafes, Kostas said, are college graduates who might serve the coffee three days a week and drink it with their chums the other four.

I don't speak Greek, so I had no way of knowing whether the animated conversations we heard as we wandered the city were about the impending crash or about soccer. But whenever I asked English speakers what they thought about the situation, I got variations on the same answer: They didn't know what was going to happen, the crisis had dragged on for so long that they were tired of worrying about it and, frankly, they no longer cared how it played out. They just wanted it to be over. Many performed a Greek version of the French shrug.

 

A few hours away from Thessaloniki in the tiny seaside village of Damouchari, hotelier Apostolis Vainopoulos offered a decidedly agrarian response to his country's precarious finances.

"Last year, I grow one tomato plant," he said, gray hair escaping from a short ponytail, flower behind his ear. "This year maybe I grow 10 tomato plants."

Things were wonderfully quiet in Damouchari; maybe too quiet. It's the kind of place that's so sweet and lovely, you'd hate to see it get overrun with visitors, but you'd hate even more to see it close because it got too few visitors.

Up the hill from Damouchari, in the mountain town of Zagora, the owner of a tavern in the prettiest square I've ever seen had to call the owner of a nearby hotel to open up for us. We were her only guests, though our windows offered a panoramic view of red-tiled roofs, green hills and the blue Aegean.

Zagora and environs are Greece's fruit basket. The local economy was smarting less from their country's debt crisis than from the Russians buying fewer of their apples. This, we were told, was one of the ways in which the Russians were retaliating against the sanctions the European Union has imposed in response to Russia's seizure of Crimea and its meddling in eastern Ukraine.

Thus are the ripples of faraway events felt on a local level. Here was a case where EU membership appeared to have hurt the Greeks.

 

We spent most of June in Greece, before high season would begin in earnest. In Damouchari, Apostolis and his staff were hopeful things would pick up at their tiny hotel in its tiny harbor.

But they had to consider the possibility that tourists would be scared off if financial chaos led to chaos in the streets or if a run on the banks could strand travelers without cash.

Indeed, there was one major, but entirely peaceful protest on Aristotle Square in Thessaloniki while we were there. A few days later, as I sat in a cafe near the city's ancient forum, a troupe of black-clad protesters marched down Olymbou Street.

"What are they saying?" I asked a man at the table next to mine.

"They're anarchists," he said.

I wondered what it would mean to be an anarchist if Greece descended into anarchy.

A couple of days after we left, we heard that, as feared, the banks weren't going to open after the weekend, lest everyone pull their money out. Then came the clarification: The banks would open, but Greeks could only withdraw 60 euros per day; the restrictions wouldn't apply to foreigners.

Thinking of all the convivial scenes I had seen in tavernas from tiny Damouchari to bustling Thessaloniki, I couldn't decide whether to admire the Greeks for their fortitude in the face of disaster, or to pity them for their powerlessness before the machinations of bankers and bureaucrats.

This piece has been slightly revised from the original.

Frank teaches journalism at Penn State University.