Casinos Without Cash as Confusion Reigns in Greece’s Heartland

Pensioners queue at a bank branch in Thessaloniki today
Pensioners queue to get access inside an open Piraeus Bank SA bank branch as they attempt to collect their pensions in Thessaloniki, on Wednesday, July 1. Photographer: Konstantinos Tsakalidis/Bloomberg

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras may or may not have blinked earlier today, but far from the power center of Athens, Greeks are still rubbing their eyes in confusion.

“Are we keeping the euro, are we leaving Europe, are we voting on Sunday? What is happening?” asked Stefanos Camber, a gas-station owner on the highway to Thessaloniki, as he pondered whether to demand cash or accept a credit card from a customer. “Just tell us one thing, and we can go on with our lives.”

In Athens, the city center is a battleground of dueling rallies, with protesters in both sides following every twist in Tsipras’s showdown with European negotiators. In the sleepier towns hundreds of kilometers away, residents said they were confused and dismayed at both the lack of clarity and their inability to plan for a future so uncertain.

And yet, rural Greeks live with the repercussions of every decision made in faraway Brussels and Athens. By Sunday night, even before capital controls were formally imposed, the two bank machines in Kamena Vourla, a seaside town, had run out of cash. This morning, the town gossips were abuzz with rumors of a fistfight as one of the ATMs blinked back to life and locals rushed it.

Then, news broke that Tsipras, after calling a referendum and roundly rejecting creditors demands for more budget cuts and tax hikes, may have opened a door to a return to a variation of that same agreement. As word trickled out, the waitresses at a cafe on the Aegean Sea near Lamia shook their heads at the radio.

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No Matter

“We spent all evening arguing about this referendum, and now it may not even happen,” said Irene Demetriou, a 28-year-old waitress with a bachelor’s degree in hotel management, a bed in her grandmother’s house and a 600-euro ($665)-a-month income. “What I want doesn’t matter anymore.”

A reporter driving a rented Seat sedan along the glinting blue waters of the Gulf of Corinth and then north toward Greece’s industrial heartland found little but confusion and frustration among the Greeks queried.

The casino in Loutraki, a small town with a rocky beach where swimming children squealed in the cold waters, stands as a reminder of the fickleness of government policy.

In the mid-1990s, as government jobs created a massive middle class and Greece’s economy soared after joining the European Union, the casino boomed. Built on the ruins of an earlier establishment destroyed in the 1930s, the place was always packed, said people who worked there. Now, the high-stakes tables stood empty and pensioners in T-shirts punched buttons on the one-euro slot machines.

‘Bored Grandmothers’

“You should have seen the cars: Porsches, brand new Mercedeses, even a McLaren F1,” said the parking valet as he parallel parked a rusting Ford Fiesta between a Skoda and a Volkswagen hatchback. “Now all you get are bored grandmothers.”

Across the street, a strip club was shuttered. Inside the casino, a croupier held his hands a foot apart as he described the wads of cash gamblers would bring in.

This week’s capital controls, which limit cash withdrawals to 60 euros a day, only hastened the impact that five years of austerity and a shrinking economy has had on the place. At the cash machine by the entrance, Giorgios, a 56-year-old Greek retiree, stared at the screen as he switched between bank cards. His hot streak had ended at the five-euro minimum blackjack tables, and his bank couldn’t give him any more money.

“You think this is funny,” he said, when asked if he saw his situation as a metaphor for Greece, out of cash and hoping creditors change their mind. “It’s my money, and I want it now.”

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