'This Is War': My Time Among the Militant, Anti-Euro Greeks of Crete

A personal look into how austerity measures and the economic crisis have affected Greeks in Chania, Crete, some of Greece's most fervent anti-austerity citizens.

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Jul 16 2015, 6:14pm

A Greek man stands in front of a police vehicle during a June anti-austerity protest in Athens. Photo by AP Photo/Petros Giannakouris

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What Greece's 'No' Referendum Vote Means for Europe
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It was Sunday, July 12, the night that one way or another, the fate of Greece, and some have said Europe, would be decided. I was at the bar where I DJed most nights, the Black Rooster—a stylish jazz bar in the old Venetian quarter of Chania, Crete—and there was only me with Anna and Giorgos, the bar's owners.

Business had been bad, very bad—with the banks closed and ATM withdrawals restricted to 60 euros a day, few people wanted to spend their money on going out. In Brussels, the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, was negotiating with the country's creditors over a possible deal for a financial lifeline—it was either that or leave the euro, and probably the European Union. This was the "Grexit" many worried about over the past few months, and it would have further devastated Greece's already depression-level economy. The terms on offer were worse than humiliating. Tempers were running high that night—a week before, the Greek people gave Europe a decisive vote against more austerity in a national referendum, a result that surprised everyone—and Giorgos, a powerfully built Greek man and someone I've come to call a dear friend, told me to pack my bags and get out of his country.

"I want Greece for the Greeks!" he shouted. "Everyone out! Everyone who is not Greek out of my country. This is my country, my soil, my home! They come and take my home, my soil—I will kill them!"

I knew Giorgos didn't want me, or any of the foreigners here, to leave, but the sting hurt. As an Indian kid in England, and then as an adult in New York, I had been told again and again to go back to "my home"—it was only because I understood how difficult the situation here had become that I held my anger in and let my friend rant. Giorgos hammered the bar with a fist. "I tell you this, Ranbir, what they are asking for is war—and now this is what I want too. I want to go to Germany and kill them, so they understand what they have done." After a few minutes, he quieted and wrapped an arm around my shoulders. "War," he said, the friendship returning to his voice, "this is what I want."

For months it had felt to me that Greece had long ago fallen over a cliff's edge and, as if in a cartoon impossibly slowed down, was crashing toward the hard ground of a valley floor. Or as if someone had hit pause mid-fall, and we were all hanging there, in the air, waiting for whatever asshole kid who was clutching the remote control to press play again. It was an excruciating feeling, even for someone like myself who was an outsider here to be stuck in that moment of pause. Greeks have felt it for years now. The January election victory of the hodgepodge of left- and radical-left parties that is Syriza gave a brief sense of hope and motion, but the country has once again been brought up violently short and now—with Greece's Parliament having just approved the latest bailout, austerity measures and all—hangs with its nose almost touching the ground.

What Anna wanted was out: out of the euro, out of Europe, and out of the coming decades of debt slavery.

Originally conceived as a means to end centuries of conflict, the European Union, and the smaller Eurozone, which shared a common currency, had begun to fray at the edges, especially after the global financial collapse of 2008. Greece hadn't yet recovered, and was still mired in deep financial depression, with 26 percent unemployment and 50 percent youth unemployment, and little prospect of those numbers changing much for years. For months, Greece had been locked in battle with its creditors, seeking better terms that might fuel growth instead of further deterioration.

Then less then two weeks ago, at the climax of what was billed as the truly truly final (we've had many) make-or-break talks in Brussels, prime minister Tsipras broke off negotiations dramatically and flew back to Athens where he convened an emergency cabinet meeting. We sat at the bar, waiting until the news broke around 10 PM. There would be a national referendum: Yes or No to the stinging conditions demanded by the lenders.

"Finally," Anna told me, "we're going to come to an end to all this horrible waiting." She already knew how she would vote: No, or Oxi as it's written in Greek, pronounced Oh-hee. She wasn't interested in what the referendum actually said—it was written in bureaucratic legalese and was more Rorschach test than actual choice. What she wanted was out: out of the euro, out of Europe, and out of the coming decades of debt slavery, which was the only deal on offer.

Most people I met echoed her sentiments. Pangiotis, who owns a tourist shop in the old leather market, told me that on the day Greece leaves the euro, he will ask every customer who walks into his shop where they come from. "If they say Germany, I will tell them to go fuck off! Fuck off out of my store!" He drank his beer, and started talking about the atrocities the Germans committed in Greece, and especially in Crete, during World War II. The war is an shadow in almost every conversation about the crisis, about Germany, about the euro project. It's hard to avoid, as the ghosts still populate the town. Outside my house, several buildings stand in ruins from German bombing raids. If you follow the lines of bombed-out buildings punctuated with postwar construction, it's possible to retrace the flight paths German bombers took as they sought to reduce the city to rubble.

Drive into the hills and you soon come upon village after village marked at its entrance with the sign "THE MARTYRED VILLAGE OF —." These are villages where the Germans rounded up the residents and slaughtered them, then killed the livestock and salted the ground, with the intention that no one would live there again for generations to come. It's a testament to Cretan resilience that soon after the war ended, the survivors returned and repopulated the hills as best they could. The memory of these atrocities, and how little they've been recognized in Germany or the rest of Europe, is an ever-present, if often silent, motif in the discordant symphony that is negotiations with the creditors.

The enormous power of no should not be underestimated in modern Greek culture. Oxi carries a great emotional weight here, and is sometimes called the Big No. On October 28, 1940, the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini presented Greece with an ultimatum: Accept occupation by Axis forces or face total invasion. Ioannis Metaxas, Greece's ruler at the time, responded with a simple "Oxi," infuriating Mussolini, whose forces attacked the following morning, pulling Greece into the war on the side of the Allies. It was this defiant oxi that echoed across every ballot and on every lip which said no to the creditors.

That Europe isn't Europe anymore is a common theme in many of the conversations about the crisis.

The day after the announcement of the referendum, Giorgos had me take a photograph of him of holding up two old drachma notes. Anna posted it onto the bar's Facebook page with the announcement that the Black Rooster was now accepting drachmas. It quickly earned a considerable number of likes. "I want to get out of this shithole of Europe," Giorgos told me. "It's not Europe anymore, it's something else, something that's not human. It's just little men with their calculators and books ticking off numbers."

That Europe isn't Europe anymore is a common theme in many of the conversations about the crisis, and about whether Greece should leave and find its own feet, with its own currency. Pope Francis echoed such sentiments last November in his speech to the European Parliament, where he despaired that the continent's "humanistic spirit" was being replaced by a "haggard" spirit of "trade and commerce." And even the (to me) usually incoherent philosopher Slavoj Žižek recently attacked the ascendency of the technocratic state in Europe when writing about Greece. He summed up the bureaucratic nightmare of modern Europe with grim precision, describing it as "a dialogue between a rape victim who desperately reports what happened to her and a policeman who continuously interrupts her with requests for administrative details." I agreed—this was not a European Union, but every dog for itself, while the thin veneer of so-called bureaucratic process hid much murkier agendas of power and capital.

That week I visited a Swedish couple I know who own a holiday home in town. They were regulars at the bar, but I hadn't seen them for a few days. "I can't go there right now," John told me. "It's Anna—I can't look at her. She's too angry, angry about everything." If he could, he would have voted strongly Yes, though he said he didn't mind talking to No voters, as long as they had a sense of humor. He told me a story about a waitress at a nearby village-style taverna. A French woman sat down at one of the outside tables and without even saying hello, demanded to know which way the waitress was voting. A tough local woman from a nearby village, she responded immediately, "No, of course!" The French woman said it wasn't right to vote No, it wasn't European, that it was "no good," and the waitress answered by saying, "Then no food!" and ordered the woman to stand up and leave.

All I could think about was Europe, and how instead of ideas, hopes, ideals, it had become imprisoned by its own depressing fixation on numbers.

As the conversation progressed, it struck me that it was John who was really angry, not Anna. This was her country, after all, and she was watching it die. And while I sympathized with their point of view, in the end, all John and his wife were protecting was a sunny holiday getaway from the icy north. The three of us talked about the failures of the Greeks over many years to tackle corruption and a failed civil state—all undeniable—and the impossible demands of the creditors. Whenever I defended Greece or criticized Europe, John shot back with rising anger, contradicting almost everything I said. One of the demands—a rise in the sales tax on island restaurants—would be a crushing blow to the economy. He insisted that the tax here was already 23 percent, the highest rate the creditors were proposing, but I suspected it was lower. It seemed a small point to me, but Louise began searching through her purse, then jumped to her feet and dashed upstairs and returned with a handful of receipts, which she assiduously examined. One she believed was from a local restaurant, though she wasn't sure. She claimed it showed the higher tax rate, but I didn't bother to look at the receipt. All I could think about was Europe, and how instead of ideas, hopes, ideals, it had become imprisoned by its own depressing fixation on numbers.

Moses, a part-owner of a boutique hotel on the harbor, told me he's had one cancellation after another all week. He remained convinced Yes would win. "Nothing will happen," he said. "Don't worry, they'll make a deal and we'll be back to where we were last week." He showed me one of the emailed cancellations. It was from a German couple who claimed they had been coming to Crete since 1996, but now refused to return after hearing Germans being slandered in the Greek media as liars and criminals and monsters. I asked Moses how he responded. "Simple," he said. "If that's what they thought we were saying about them, I told them to get lost and not come back."

In the days leading up to the national vote on July 5, it seemed clear early on that Yes would win, and perhaps win decisively. The media carpet-bombed the airwaves with anti-No propaganda, while the Yes rally in Athens's central square, Syntagma, was reported to be larger than the previous night's No rally, and this despite a constant rain. When playing the game Bejeweled on my iPad, I was bombarded by slick, made-for-mobile Yes ads. The Irish bookmaker Paddy Power had even gone so far as to pay out four days early on their Yes contracts, calling the result a foregone conclusion.

So as the results started rolling in, there was a sense of disbelief. Initial exit polls suggested the No vote might actually win by a handful of points, but this was expected to tighten. It never tightened—and all night long the gap grew wider and wider. The final results—61 percent No, 39 percent Yes—were a shock to everyone. Here in Chania, we delivered the most resounding No vote in the country—74 percent. This shouldn't have been a surprise. All across town were hung hand-painted No signs, No posters, no graffiti, while No handbills littered the streets. All that week, I didn't see a single Yes sign. Even though I know I would have voted No given the chance, it was a bittersweet outcome. I was glad the Greeks had conquered their fear and told Europe where to shove it with their fear-mongering—but if they actually found themselves outside the euro, I thought my friends would suffer enormously. Anna and Giorgos would lose their bar and others their shops and restaurants and pensions, and their children would have little of the opportunities they might inside Europe.

"Remember this: Whatever happens, Greece survives. It has for 4,000 years and will for another 4,000."

Anna remained jubilant—that night she couldn't have cared less about losing the bar. "Maybe," she shrugged when that possibility was brought up, downing a shot of tequila, "but we Greeks have gone through much worse, much, much worse. Remember this: Whatever happens, Greece survives. It has for 4,000 years and will for another 4,000." She was right, of course, but I was thinking more of my friends. There was little comfort in Greece surviving if they were going to be sacrificial lambs to the edifice of a technocratic Europe. In these last days, as I watched Anna and other friends, I had a distinct impression of watching a people preparing to go to war. And many, not only Giorgos, said as much. "This is war, baby," Anna told me, "war for our country, war for our lives, our future." In the past, such disputes almost certainly would have found their way onto the battlefield, but what replaced this—the bureaucratic lack of finality to anything, the endless fudges, the continual pushing the problem farther down the road—was less a solution than a mask for much deeper problems, ones few wanted to look at directly.

A couple days after the referendum I visited the beach at Nea Chora. Over winter, violent storms, the like of which even the old-timers couldn't remember, battered the island and wrecked the beaches. Despite this, Nea Chora, was packed with tourists, elbowing each other on what was left on the beach, and all seemingly indifferent to the world that was crashing down around the ears of their Greek hosts. But for the first time in weeks, I'd begun to see locals with a spring in their step, their faces bright and confident and happier. Many really had found their sense of pride again. It was good to see after watching so many distraught faces for so long, and I couldn't judge one way or the other on the merits of it—the seemingly willful decision to potentially crash the country if that also meant crashing Europe with them.

On Monday morning, July 13, we learned the details of the deal Alexis Tsipras negotiated with the creditors after 17-hour marathon talks, where one observer described the prime minister as looking like a "beaten dog": far more, and far more biting, austerity measures; massive tax increases; cuts to pensions across the board; the loss of all valuable national assets; the loss of the nation's ability to write its own legislation without approval; and only the suggestion that debt relief might one day be discussed. Some of the demands were positive, and may yet help the country tackle a longstanding culture of corruption and nepotism. But taken together, they mean years, if not decades, more of ruinous economic difficulty. That night at the bar, I asked Giorgos, who was drunk and grinning ironically at the new situation, if he had a name for his new country. "That's a very interesting question, Ranbir," he said, and told me he'd think about it. He walked away, returned, opened his mouth, said nothing, walked away again. This happened several times. Finally, he returned triumphant. He had decided on a new name for the country, and letting his rich voice boom across the bar, he told me what it was: "Fuck You, Everybody!"

At the beach, the sun was high, the water pristine and bathtub warm, and children shrieked in joy as they ran in and out of the shallow breakers. No one seemed to notice that half the beach was missing. I wondered if next year, after another winter of crushing storms, whether they would notice if the whole beach had disappeared.

Ranbir Singh Sidhu's first novel, Deep Singh Blue, will be published by Unnamed Press and HarperCollins India in 2016. He is the author of Good Indian Girls, a collection of stories. He is on Twitter.

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