Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Down and out in Naxos and Corfu

Eleven months to the day, date and hour since I had first passed her in the wolf light of early dawn, I got off the ferry in Corfu. I had descended from a mountain in Naxos a few days before, where I had been pleasantly marooned for five months without access to electricity, running water or people, other than my landlord and host, a man called Hodge.
I was met at the bus station in Corfu Town by my new owner, or boss, and hauled off to her hotel, the Villa Magdalena, some twelve kilometres away, in the centre of the island. She kindly allowed me two hours rest before putting me to work with a gang of Greeks, Albanians and Glenn, another English refugee, preparing the hotel for the arrival of a group of forty or so Germans the following day. This explained why she had been so keen for me to come at once, although she did not explain this on the ‘phone. After a blissfully hot shower, my first in several months, I presented myself for work. I cannot remember when we stopped that day, but it was certainly late in the evening. We resumed at seven the following morning. I continued to work eighteen hour days for the next fortnight until the Germans left. A baptism of fire into the life of an unpaid volunteer in the hospitality business. Once the Albanians had left and the Germans arrived four of us remained to cook, feed, clean up and man the bar.
One evening I got rather drunk (I was possibly also exhausted) and compounded my felony by swearing in front of the guests and falling over one of them, who was unfortunately “rolly” (German for wheel chair) bound. For some reason my owner did not sack me.
I had left Naxos in a hurry. I’d spent my last days in Naxos City, a.k.a. Sodom and Gomorrah, and each day I inevitably spent a little more of the pittance left after eleven months. I had just enough cash to buy a ferry ticket and a small bottle of water. I disembarked in Athens with €1.50 in my pocket. I was able to touch an old work mate for a loan - he had a whip round in his office for me.
This is not an unusual situation in Greece. In January I was helping Mikhailis redecorate his house in return for a mattress and a meal, usually lentil soup and bread, and some krasi from his taverna. I asked him to lend me €10 to buy some tobacco. He declined, explaining that he had no cash until the end of the month, when he received his pension. Meanwhile he was surviving on tick from local shops and the remaining stock at his taverna, closed for the winter. I realised I knew no one on Naxos who had any money. I posted a jokey reference to this on FaceBook. A Greek American friend spotted it, and immediately offered to sub me. I subsequently heard he had done the same for Mikhaili and possibly others. He had to return to the US to apply for Greek citizenship, so he could continue to live on Naxos, and promptly had his bank accounts frozen by the IRS over some misunderstanding about his tax. The Naxos cash crisis deepened.
When I arrived on Naxos I had a wodge of money, thanks to a loan from my wife who had precipitated my departure for Greece by throwing me out of her house. For a while I cheerfully extracted cash from ATMs, assuming something Micawber-like would turn up. It didn’t, but I survived anyway. At first I had great difficulty spending the money – every time I offered a bar, taverna or shop a €50, the only notes the ATMs dished out, the retailer would run off frantically looking for change. Things perked up later, when the Germans and Scandinavians arrived and injected their cash into the Naxian economy. Once they leave, Naxians revert to tick from their friends, and the food everyone grows on their plots of land. The rest of the Cyclades disparagingly refers to Naxians as “farmers”, but at least they are not in total hock to the tourist industry for their survival. They grow four crops of potatoes a year.
Shortly after my arrival on Corfu our German guests gave us a €500 note. They wanted to make sure they could keep eating and drinking. My fellow Englander had been doing the washing up all morning and the note had got rather damp in his pocket. He fished it out with a very wet hand and gave it to Magda. Far from being delighted with the rather pretty pale lilac note, she had a total tizzy. Do €500 notes dissolve? Melt? Magda dragged me off to town (one of my jobs is to sit in her illegally parked car while she does errands) and took the note into not one but two banks to have it checked. I began to understand her distress. If the note was fake, or even damaged, she would be unable to spend it. It was the first time in my life I had seen so much money represented by a single note. In England banks refuse to accept euro notes larger than €100 because of fear of fraud. Earlier, I’d had a problem trying to use a €10 note to pay for a sandwich and a beer. It had a tiny tear on one edge, and the shop assistant refused to accept it. Her boss reluctantly agreed she could. I had only just been handed it, as change, like some hot potato.
And the other reason for her unenthusiastic reception of the note was that it was already spent. She got rid of it in the space of a half hour, drip feeding various creditors just enough to keep them happy for a few more days. She is running her business on credit cards and paying 22% interest on what she owes them. She is in a permanent state of near hysteria. I feel for her as, until I left England, I had been playing much the same game.
This is the opposite of a cash economy. I feel very much at home.

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