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Greeks Brace For Shortages At Home, Await Word On Fate From Abroad

People lined up on Wednesday to withdraw cash from a bank machine in central Athens. Banks remain shut this week and ATM withdrawals are limited to 60 euros (about $66) a day.
Emilio Morenatti
People lined up on Wednesday to withdraw cash from a bank machine in central Athens. Banks remain shut this week and ATM withdrawals are limited to 60 euros (about $66) a day.

Athenians gathered around a television screen at an outdoor café this morning to watch their prime minister at the European Parliament in Brussels. Alexis Tsipras talked of the "austerity experiment" being conducted on Greece and said reforms could not be carried out on the backs of the poor.

Sixty-year-old sculptor Nikos Talepolos was pleased.

"I thought it was a very good speech, but I'm afraid the poor people will have to pay for the mistakes of the bankers and those in power," he says. "We have no power against this blackmail of the European Union."

While the future of their country plays out in Brussels, Greeks are bracing for the worst. The government today asked for a new three-year loan from the Eurozone's bailout fund, and has until Thursday night to present a concrete plan to reform its economy.

All 28 European Union nations will meet in Brussels on Sunday to decide on the country's fate. European leaders warn Greece this is its last chance to remain in the euro.

The attacks on Tsipras by some conservatives in the European Parliament might have angered the prime minister's supporters, but Sakis Georgiou, a 62-year-old Athens taxi driver, says he can understand the frustration of some of Greece's European partners.

"The main problems in Greece are tax evasion, smuggling and corruption in the state sector," he says. "And I was expecting that a left-wing government like Syriza and Tsipras will do something to change that. But after five months, I haven't seen anything moving. So eventually, the Europeans, they like to help us, but they're tired. If we don't do something for ourselves, nobody can do anything for you."

Greeks are becoming increasingly nervous as they struggle with an eighth day of closed banks and limited cash withdrawals. They can't send money, for example, to students studying abroad or pay bills from their accounts. The freezing of the financial system is creating massive problems in many parts of the economy.

Dmitris Makrivelios works for Greece's federation of filling station owners. He says pumps may soon run dry without the means to buy fuel from distributors.

Makrivelios says the gas station owners are being hit with a double whammy: The government is forcing them to accept credit cards they cannot redeem for cash. And the cash they do get from customers cannot be deposited in the bank.

They're now afraid of being robbed. Makrivelios says they're asking for police protection.

Inside a drugstore, pharmacist Isadora Papageorgiou says people are trying to stock up on medicines. She's convincing them to take a little at a time and says so far things are OK. But that could change, depending on what happens this weekend in Brussels.

"We try to give medicine to all the people," she says. But if the country bankrupts, she says, they're not going to have any more medicine.

There's one part of Athens that doesn't seem affected by the general sense of an impending collapse. That's in the tourist streets. The only Greek I met today who doesn't seem anxious is a tourist shop owner.

The Acropolis is still there, Costas Kokias tells me, pointing up the hill. And we have the sun.

"As long as it's there," he says, "I'm not afraid."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.