LAST WEEK I conducted my own personal run on a Greek bank. In normal times bank branches are second only to coffee shops in Greece as places for local businessmen and professionals to meet and gossip while dollops of cash pass across the polished wooden counters, oiling the wheels of the country's notorious black economy.
At my local branch, one could almost feel the confidence ebbing away. The only other customer was an elderly man who deposited €40 before leaving in sepulchral silence. As I surveyed the empty hall, it seemed only prudent to pare my balance back to the bare minimum.
When I made my request, the clerk made a brief and discrete call – something they never used to do. Then he opened a draw that was almost devoid of notes, and gloomily gave me my money.
Outside the sun was shining, but the sense of frustration and despair was just as palpable. Every second friend I spoke to seemed to have lost their job over the winter, while for those still in work, wages have plummeted.
The public sector, bloated by decades of cronyism and corruption, has seen its pay cut by an average of 40 per cent, and most pensions have been reduced. In what is left of the private sector things are even worse. A secretary told me she felt lucky to be getting €350 a month. The rate for casual building labourers is now half what it was two years ago.
Meanwhile petrol is €1.80 a litre, electricity prices have nearly doubled over 12 months and both food and clothes cost more than they do in Britain. Amazingly for Greece, even taxes are getting harder to evade. The property tax on many homes has trebled. Because it is levied via electricity bills, the only way to avoid it is to go without power.
In the countryside they can grow vegetables and raise chickens, which is what an increasing number are doing. In Athens, it is soup kitchens that are taking the strain. Here we read a lot about the rise of the thuggish fascist party, Golden Dawn. But with a fresh election looming, the second in as many months, it is the rise of the left-wing Syriza grouping that has really got the markets and the EU establishment rattled.
To them, Syriza's charismatic young leader, Alexis Tsipras, spells danger because he has pledged to tear up his country's controversial austerity pact with Brussels, while at the same time maintaining that it should stay within the euro. Yet, almost alone among leading European politicians, Tsipras's greatest strength is that he is prepared to spell out two basic truths.
One is that if the EU really wants to push Greece out of the euro, it should have prepared the way months, if not years ago, rather than leaving it to the last minute. The other is that what is being demanded of his countrymen is financially and politically impossible, and there is no longer any point in pretending otherwise.
Yesterday, David Cameron became the latest EU leader to warn the Greeks that next month's second election will be viewed as a referendum on whether or not they are going to stay in the euro. The not-very-subtle threat is that if they back Tsipras, they will be out on their ear.
But as the man himself frequently points out, if the new election is really to be treated as a referendum, the question won't just be whether Greece should stay in the euro. With the single currency in its present fragile state, it could very easily become whether the eurozone itself survives. Is this really something the rest of Europe wants Greece to decide?
And even if the Greeks vote the way Europe tells them to, what will it achieve? Everybody knows that the fundamentals won't have changed and there will only be another crisis - probably even bigger - six months down the road. Seen in this light, Tsipras's demand that the EU should instead help them to find a realistic way to stay in the single currency suddenly begins to make sense.
It would be ironic if the man to keep Greece in the euro turns out to be a previously unknown former communist, who only entered his country's parliament less than three years ago on a far-left ticket. Given the mess Greece and the euro are in today, however, he could yet be the best bet for both of them. ·