I have just moved to Corfu (Kerkira to the Greeks) to help Magda with her hotels. A few days ago, Magda was given a €500 note by one of our German guests. This was kind of them, but probably entirely self interested as they wanted us to continue feeding them. Forty Germans get through an astonishing amount of food every day and Magda and I seem to have spent the best part of half a day, every day, exploring the wealth of supermarkets and cash ’n carries in Kerkira for the best priced deals. Magda is a bogof queen. Which means she sort of assumes bogof applies to everything, and if one of something is a bargain, ten of the same must be an even bigger one. This plays hell with her cashflow.
So I was surprised at her reaction to the €500 note. Instead of being wreathed in smiles, and momentarily delighted with life, she seemed to go into a complete decline. She said in fact she was having a panic attack. Glenn, her best man, had been given the note by Katherina, a well built girl who is responsible for the Germans. This means she has the biggest tab at the bar, and unlike everyone else, has not as yet deigned to settle it. Glenn had been doing the breakfast washing up all morning. His dress code is shell / track suit / trainers and he refuses to wear the extremely smart faux leather apron I persuaded Magda to buy at the Chinese shop, so he was very wet. When he handed Magda the note fished from his pocket with a very wet hand she had conniptions. Do €500 notes melt? We immediately departed to town and her bank, which she rushed into to get the note checked. She then went to another bank and repeated the exercise. They both confirmed the note was OK.
She told me how on another occasion she had gone into her bank to pay some cash in. She couldn’t understand why they put a single €5 note through the note counting machine. Surely, she thought, they could count a single €5 note. The cashier gently explained that the note counter didn’t just count notes, it also checked them. On my way to Kerkyra from Athens, I had tried to pay for a beer and a sausage roll with a €10 note. It had a small nick on one edge. The girl on the till tried to refuse it. I protested, and her boss said grudgingly that it was OK and she then accepted it.
Within half an hour, Magda had got rid of most of the €500. She used it to make part payments on some of her more pressing accounts, and about a third of the minimum payment due on her credit card. This was probably a case of good money after bad
money down the drain. She has
already had several of her cards cancelled due to her being late on
her payments, and she’s desperate to keep at least one credit card
alive. Once cancelled, she cannot reapply for another, and her
business is kept afloat on credit cards.
Three months ago I was working for my friend Mikhailis, helping him to refurbish the shutters for his windows and doors. In return he gave me lentil soup and bread, a mattress, and the last of his restaurant’s stock of krasi, each day. I had no money and one day I tried to borrow €10 from him to buy some tobacco. He regretfully explained that he would have no money until the end of the month, then twenty days away, when his pension was paid. He meant, he literally had no money. I suddenly realised I knew no one on Naxos, where I then was, who had any money. I made a joking reference to this fact on Facebook, and a kind Greek American called Lou or Elias, depending on whether he was being American or Greek, said he’d be happy to lend me some. I subsequently found out he’d done the same for Mikhaili, who still owed Lou/Elias €500 when I left Naxos in April. Meanwhile Lou/Elias had returned to Philadelphia to apply for Greek citizenship, and had had his bank account frozen by the IRS over some misunderstanding about his taxes. So the credit crisis deepens.
Kiki, who runs the hotel really, while Magda flies around in an almost permanent panic attack, showed me the €500 note before she entrusted it to Glenn’s damp track suit trouser pocket. It’s a rather beautiful pale lilac colour and I was struck by the fact that this was the first time I had seen so much money represented by a single note. I can understand why Magda felt so nervous.
When I first arrived in Greece, I was quite flush for a time, and constantly interviewed ATMs who happily excreted bundles of €50 notes for me. But I had the greatest difficulty spending them. Invariably I would offer some hapless Greek retailer a €50 note and he or she would rush off down the street searching for someone who could give them change. This was in May, before the season had really started. It became less of a problem later when the tourists started to inject a bit more cash into the Naxian economy.
In January Mikhaili, waiting for his pension, survived on tick from friends – supermarkets, corner shops, hardware stores, petrol stations. He and his family ate and drank what was left of last year’s stock at their taverna (like much of Naxos they close down from October to April). Mike, in turn, kept a number of friends, mostly frail and elderly, supplied with free meals from the taverna when it was open. One of them was a carpenter, and reciprocated by carefully cutting out all the rot from Mike’s shutters, and refilling them with wood inserts and glue, for nothing. His painter and decorator, Giorgiou, did much the same.
Many Naxians, whom other Cycladic islanders refer to disparagingly as “farmers”, live almost entirely and exclusively off what they themselves can grow and produce – potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, several varieties of beans, tomatoes, zuchini, melanzanes, orta (Greek for weeds, wild greens), lettuce, oranges, lemons, kumquats, olives, chickens, cheese from their goats and sheep, krasi and raki from their vines. And mostly, they are extraordinarily generous with what they have.
This is the opposite of a cash economy.