Those who read my previous post will know that I moved to Athens last weekend. As mentioned in the previous blogpost, it was a sudden decision, but one which I had considered for a long time. It was not the best planned move in the world. Setting off with a rucksack and twenty euros, the plan was to find a cheap hotel until I could find a flat and learn Greek.
I figured that it was probably best not to take pounds with me, but to take money out at the cashpoint in Athens, so that it would already be in euros, but trying the cashpoint in the airport, my card got declined. Hmm…I thought, must be some kind of strange cashpoint. Not to worry, I can get money out once I get to central Athens and hopped on a bus. At the cashpoint in Sytagma Square, I queued at the cash machine behind a guy furiously hitting buttons before swearing at the machine and walking off emptyhanded, and again my card was declined. FUCK, I thought – has there been a run on the banks?
At the next cashpoint, I watch a bloke take money out and was greatly relieved to see that there was actually still some cash in the machines, but again my card was declined. DOUBLE FUCK. What to do? I had in the region of 11 euros left – enough to get a cheap hotel, but not much more. I set off for Omonia, where the cheap hotels are based. Turning a corner, I ran into four policemen as one aimed a kick at a black guy on the ground, all watched by what looked like a bouncer or security guard. I turned down a sidestreet quickly.
I found my way to Exacaria, and sat in the square working out what the fuck I was going to do and for the first time it occured to me that this might not have been the best idea in the world. Sat chainsmoking and summoning up the wherewithall to walk back down to Omonia, a bloke came over and asked if I minded if he sat with me. “Just arrived?” he asked. I nodded. “How long are you staying?” “Forever, I guess”, I said shrugging. “Ah”, he said “You made a decision. I made mine nine months ago, but it is bad here, there are no jobs, but it is still better than Africa. Watch out for the police – this area is safe, they are not allowed to come here.” We chatted some more: by this time it was 2am and I needed to find a hotel, so I said my goodbyes and headed down to Omonia.
The street harassment was simply scary and the kind of hotels that are available at under 11 euros a night, tend to be the kind of hotels that are available for hire by the hour. After the third car slowed opposite me, suddenly Omonia didnt seem like such a good idea. A change of plan saw me holed up in an internet cafe looking up the address of HSBC in Athens, with the gradual realisation dawning on me that I had no EU plug convertor, no EU sim card so if I ran out of money, I was truely fucked and had no way of contacting people to rescue me. I left the cafe at 5.30am with just under 6 euros and headed for Styntagma where I chatted to the cleaners in the square until 8am when the bank opened.
At 7.59, I was in the door explaining my predicament to the teller. Dont worry they said, we can sort that out with a phone call. I breathed a sigh of relief. Only the call centre didnt open until 9am. So I waited. At 9am, they put me through to the call centre, who explained that it needed to go through the UK HSBC, only due to the time difference, it wouldnt be open for another hour. So I waited. At 10am the next phone call saw them explain that the centre didnt open to the public until 9am in the UK. So I waited.
At 11am, I finally got through and the woman at the other end explained that I needed to authorise my card to work in Greece. That done, I tried the cash machine…and declined. Ringing back, they insisted that it was working fine, I should try again. So I tried again….and declined. Coming back again through the double security doors which require you to buzz your way into the first, get authorised through, wait for the first door to shut, before buzzing the second and waiting for authorisation to enter (this is Athens after all, and you dont just walk into a bank in Athens, if you did I suspect that there probably wouldn’t be much of them left given their popularity), I picked up the phone and nearly went into meltdown mode. I was in Athens with less than 6 euros to my name, an uncharged laptop and no way of charging it and had had about four hours sleep in the last 48 hours.
But Greek banks are clearly used to meltdowns, structural or customer orientated, and a teller quickly rushed over. “Dont worry, dont worry, please dont worry” they said. Clearly the risks of contagenation are not limited to states, and there were a few other customers in the bank that looked about as happy as I did. “We will get you money, I promise, we will get you money”. I nodded silently as they offered coffee, breakfast and psychological support and rang the special helpline number for customers who are about to have nervous breakdowns. “It will work now” they said, and came out with me as I went back to the cashpoint. And lo and behold the magic sound of cash being counted filled the air.
And I was set.