On the morning of July 8, when the fate of Greece, the project of European unity, and perhaps the entire world’s political and economic structure were hanging in the balance, my family and I stepped off the ferry onto the island of Corfu. It was hot. We were carrying a lot of Euros on us. I searched the faces of the Greek citizens passing by on the road outside the port. I spoke carefully, ordered hesitantly, from the woman running the coffee stand where the kids and I were waiting while my fiancé went off to find our rental car. The food was awful, but none of us complained.
I wondered if we were safe. Our comparative good fortune made me light-headed. This was Europe in the 21st century, not post-war Germany, and yet Greece was living amid the rubble of its bombed-out economy. Just a few days before, Alexis Tsipras, their youthful, impulsive Prime Minister from the Left, called a snap referendum, inviting the citizens to vote on whether to accept Europe’s terms in a financial bailout package – the third bailout in five years. The Greek people, given only a few short days to make a decision they were told would be momentous, on an arcane set of rules and conditions that would affect their destiny, heeded their leader’s call to reject the terms, and voted against it.
The trouble was, the vote meant nothing. Changed nothing. It was irrelevant. The rest of the world had been confounded by the decision to call the referendum in the first place, and was now equally confused as to what the Greek people meant with their No vote. Angela Merkel was nearly as furious as her finance minister, Wolfgang Shäuble, and the Internet was awash in contradictory perspectives on the plight of the Greeks, anchored on one end of the spectrum by a roar of fury at the “Troika” and their capitalist disciples and henchmen who had pillaged Greece to fatten their bottom lines, while the other end of the spectrum was populated by sneers of derision directed toward the lazy, entitled, early-retirement-obsessed southern European layabouts lazing around the ruins of their once-great civilization with their hands out for more money – beggars at the temple.
The Greeks, at this point, were putting together a new package of reform proposals, but international opinion was gloomy. The referendum had been costly, capital controls had been imposed on the banks to forestall a run that would have depleted them of their remaining reserves of cash. Greeks could only withdraw a maximum of 60 Euros a day from ATMs. No money was allowed to flow out of Greece, meaning that businesses that imported goods from outside the country could not pay their suppliers. Greeks could no longer use PayPal or iTunes. The latter news came through while we were on the ferry, and it struck me as particularly surreal.
We were in Greece to get married. While we were planning our family vacation with our four kids, my boyfriend and I thought it would be fun and romantic to get married overseas. We would spend a week in Rome and Tuscany, then take the ferry from Ancona to Corfu, where dear old friends of my family would lend us a house for a week. Ah, sweet. The good life. We would revel in the pleasures of the Mediterranean for a while, rue the cold and vast country we live in when not on holiday, expose our children to the grandeur of classical civilization by way of thin-crust pizzas and sun-drench piazzas. We would return to Montreal a little changed, closer as a family, with a smattering of Italian and Greek. The kids would benefit from the extra layer of sophistication that comes with exposure to great beauty and real food. It would be perfect.
Without going into details about the harrowing bureaucratic requirements of the Greek institutions who had an interest in our getting married in their country, suffice it to say that there came a moment, just two shorts weeks before we were scheduled to depart, when I thought maybe we should abandon the whole enterprise. At no time in my life have I been on friendly terms with paperwork, and around mid-May, we were frankly belligerent. But I did not surrender, and there came a day when, much to my surprise, I discovered that I had won the war.
And so there we were, four kids and two adults, in a country whose people had no idea whether they would be able to feed their families in the future. There was talk of returning to the drachma, a project that could take months to achieve and which could well plunge Greece straight back into deep and enduring poverty. Or the other option: capitulation, in which Greece agrees to what the creditors are demanding, and borrows more money against their shredded economy. Of course, there was a more optimistic view, in which Greece would implement necessary reforms, begin taxing the shipping magnates, clean up corruption and find ways to encourage manufacturing and a more liberal economy. But that, everyone knew, was a lot to ask.
My fiancé returned with the rental car and as we drove away from the port and towards the house we were borrowing for the week, the six of us were largely silent, hyper-aware of the surreal limbo in which the country was hanging. We worried for the people we passed, yet life seemed to be proceeding normally. Cars and motorbikes filled the roads, markets overflowed with gorgeous fruit and vegetables, traffic lights worked, and the sea was as blue as it ever was.
We followed the story on Twitter for days. Would Tsipras do what Europe wanted him to? How did the Bulgarians, the Croats, the Finns and the other poor European countries feel about the fact that Greece, a comparatively less impoverished nation, seemed unwilling to buck up and do what was necessary to maintain European unity and the common currency? The German people were bewildered at Greek intransigence. Did they have a point? Many of the individual voices that bubbled up through the noise actually made sense, both on the left and the right. Everything made sense, and nothing did.
The day of our wedding in Kerkira, Corfu’s charming capital city, the vice mayor strolled into the Ionian Parliament as traditional Greek music played from an ancient ghetto blaster. He was around fifty years old, dressed like someone headed to a backyard barbeque, his hair longish in the European way. After the ceremony, he realized he had forgotten to allow us to exchange rings. Throwing his arms out and laughing, he said, “No problem, we start again. Welcome to Greece. No protocol!”
Today, Greece got its bailout package. Alexis Tsipras is exultant, despite having capitulated on every single one of Europe’s demands, and then some, and alienated many members of his own party. The months of negotiations, the referendum giving Greeks a chance to voice their opposition to the creditors’ terms – all of it turned out to have been a waste. In fact, it added billions to Greece’s debt. Victory, or loss – and for whom? It is hard to tell who was right, and who was wrong, and ultimately probably moot. It seems impossible to know if the balance of power in the contest for the future of civilization rests with money, or human emotion. If reason weren’t perpetually a third-party also-ran, I would vote for it.
Corfu, by the way, is beautiful. The people are warm, informal, alert, down to earth. The vistas are spectacular, the climate perfect. I am told many other places in Greece are also wonderful. I only hope that in the future, the Greek people will still be able to enjoy it all. I hope that Europe is worth it, that the culture of corruption that continues to enfeeble Greece becomes delegitimized. I hope that the Greek people pull themselves toward the political middle and fend off the showy blandishments of the political poles. I wish you luck, Greece, and thank you for hosting my wedding. Until we meet again…