At that point, the trip had encompassed a flight from LA to London, a seven hour overlay, a flight to Athens that landed in the middle of the night, a 2 hour coach ride at dawn to reach the harbour, where I was told the hovercraft I had planned to take to Skopelos had been cancelled, and nothing would be available for another 2 days. So back on a bus to some god forgotten village where I was supposed to take another connection to Volos, another port from where ships to Skopelos departed, where, in the middle of a smoky bar, a well-intentioned Greek speaking ticket seller mimed some bus stop on a highway where I had to go and pray the bus would show up. I was exhausted, sleep deprived and eager to reach my destination. The phantom bus at a stop I might or might not be able to find just wouldn’t do so I approached a young, good-looking Greek couple who seemed to share my predicament and, pooling our money together, we took a luxurious taxi all the way to Volos, a 3 hour ride that, at least, afforded me a nap.
The following morning, walking along Volos’ ocean front, belly full of toast and jelly and some strong Greek coffee provided by the basic hotel where I had spent the night, I spotted a stolid and very Hellenic looking building that proclaimed to be the Bank of Greece. “Oh good, I thought, I should get some euros before I board the boat” (at that point I was still questioning why I had picked an obscure island for my 3 week vacation when I could have reached Mykonos without having to worry about cancelled hovercrafts or stinky buses).
I walked into the decrepit bank, very much looking like a business operation from the Wild West, devoid of computer monitors or anything electrical other than lighting. But it was the Bank of Greece so I approached the counter, whipped out $300 in 100 dollar bills and proceeded to explain to the decrepit lady on duty that I wanted some euros. Cigarette dangling from her mouth, she assented and took my money. She looked at it for a very long time, stroked it with her fingers, crumpled it a bit, then looked at me again. She finally motioned me to wait and walked away. I could see her standing in the back, confabulating with two colleagues and, after a few minutes, the three of them approached and took turns telling me something in Greek I just couldn’t comprehend. Again, they motioned me to wait and, at that point, I was far from amused as I still had to collect my luggage and find my boat that, god knows, I had no intention of missing.
A man way past retirement, droopy pants hanging from his hefty belly, shuffled towards me and pointed to a corner of the cavernous room. I followed him as he was now holding my $300 and, in halting English, proclaimed “This is fake”, clutching above his head a brand spanking new $100 dollar bill.
“No, wait, I got that from my bank in Los Angeles, it cannot be fake. It’s the new hundred”.
“It’s fake, he insisted, I have to call police”.
Great – my three-week vacation inside a Greek jail flashed in front of my eyes, my own version of Midnight Express, so I quickly decided to resort to the hapless female routine.Tears in my eyes, I started recounting my travel misadventures, telling the old man how tired I was, how I had a house waiting for me in Skopelos, how this was my yearly vacation – I doubt he understood much of the torrent of words I invested him with but he must have taken pity on the pretty Italian tourist (in such cases I am conveniently Italian, which, in certain countries, seems to work better than American) in her pink sundress.
He was deep in thought for what seemed a very long stretch of time. Again, he raised his hand (still holding MY banknote) and said “I have proposition” and he shredded the bill in two “You take half, I take half so I know it’s not going to circulate”. I quickly recognized my ticket out of jail and pocketed my half bill and profusely thanked the old geezer who, magnanimously, agreed to exchange the rest of the money.
I boarded the boat on time, proceeded to have a wonderful vacation and can’t wait for my next trip to beleaguered Greece. I was reminded of this episode this morning, reading an article in the NY Times depicting the difficulties of small business owners wanting to set up an internet business. Banks do not facilitate credit card payments, reams of forms need to be filled, x-rays and stool samples need to be submitted (swear it’s true) and, unless ready to bribe your way in, an ungodly amount of time, patience and effort will be required.
The European Union was always built on the inequality of its members, now even more so since it opened its doors to countries that used to be at the economic fringes. The imbalance is predicated on the stronger members helping the weaker because, at the end of the day, each one contributes a unique voice. The state of affairs Greeks find themselves in is not helped by the bureaucracy and the inefficiency of its economic system. But things will change. Greeks are resourceful and resilient people, as witnessed by the old geezer who found a way to solve a problem for me and for him. Such rule bending and inventiveness, unheard of in, say, Germany, sometimes goes a long way to enrich a country. It just needs to be channeled properly.