After the imposition of capital controls in the Greek banking system, my relationship with ATMs has grown much fonder than it used to be. Briefly, capital controls were imposed about three weeks ago to prevent an uncontrollable withdrawal of savings from the Greek banks, a subsequent cash flow deficiency and the eventual collapse of the banking system. Last Wednesday I stood in line in front of an ATM for about half an hour surrounded by a bunch of other people. Most newcomers to the queue didn’t even bother asking if the machine was dispensing any bills. Instead, they just asked who the last person in the queue was and took their place behind them. I have frequently visited several ATMs these past three weeks, and have waited in multiple queues. Last Wednesday was no different. “Do you know how to use it?” an old lady asked me. I wasn’t surprised since several people in the queue had never used an ATM before. Most of them were over 60 years old and in limited to no contact with technology. They stood patiently in line with their newly issued cards in hand to withdraw €60 (technically €50 since most of the time machines run out of €20 bills really fast). Capital controls only allow withdrawals from ATMs and the majority of pensioners don’t own a card. “Will you help me?” she continued when I confirmed that I knew how. Hearing the old lady, 3 or 4 more people asked for assistance. The bank employee who stood outside to help that day had disappeared inside the building. I thought to myself, “My karma must be looking really good right now!”, and grinned, knowing that I was about to stock up on good deeds for many days to follow.
Asking for help with the machine has turned into a new ice breaker, since after that it wasn’t difficult to strike up a conversation with perfect strangers on the street. Overall, queuing up for the daily withdrawal of €60 hasn’t been that awful. The worst was during busy mornings waiting tirelessly in the baking summer sun. Afternoons tended to be more pleasant thanks to the welcome shade. For days I kept hearing reports in the media painting a tragically grim and humiliating picture of helpless desperate citizens suffering in the ATM lines. I guess this queue was an exception because nobody looked particularly desperate to me. Perhaps a little sun-stricken, but definitely not desperate. Done with the first queue of the day, I visited another one across the street. “What’s taking them so long?” a gentleman next to me kept wondering. “Is there anyone from the bank helping?” someone else chimed in. “It’s just €50 now. There will be more €20 bills later today,” somebody informed the queue. “Is the machine broken again? It was this morning…” someone added when the queue was moving rather slowly. “I’ll go check,” a lady offered. “My spot in line is behind you,” she continued pointing at me. The ATM hadn’t broken down yet, but soon after the lady returned to her place in the line, the machine malfunctioned and was no longer dispensing any bills. The news travelled swiftly through the line. Some left, some decided to wait a while and see if the ATM, would be fixed soon. I waited for a bit, but soon left to try another machine down the road in the town square, where the story more or less repeated itself.
Every queue I have waited in has been pretty much the same; scenes like the ones described above played over and over again. People talking to each other, mostly expressing their concern about the machine at the front of the line. There was no panic; just frustration, resignation and disappointment. People discussing politics and the government, their inability to complete their daily tasks due to the inconvenience of the imposed capital controls, their worries about paying their bills or the potential loss of their lives’ savings. Only now, instead of discussing such issues with their friends over coffee, they did it in line for the closest working ATM.
Surprisingly, most were even upbeat, trying to make a joke out of the situation. I like that we can still joke around about this mess, even if deep down our hearts are not truly in it. We need laughter to get through the tough times and ridiculing difficult unpleasant situations seems quite effective. I even met strangers who were hopeful, claiming that as long as we are healthy, everything else is temporary and can be overcome. Contrary to the media’s humiliation campaign, I didn’t feel that I lost my dignity because I waited in line to make my withdrawal. But that’s just me. I have no idea how many more queues I will wait in or how many such scenes I will witness. But I hope that one day we will reminisce and laugh about that summer we spent waiting in line for the ATM.