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Stranded on Crete: When ATMs Turned into Slot Machines


Stranded on Crete: When ATMs Turned into Slot Machines

Did you ever notice the sound an ATM makes when dispensing money? Sort of a rolling trilling sound as your cash is being counted. Fives. Tens. Fifties. I never noticed it. At least, not before my trip to Greece. Not before ATMs turned into slot machines; you put your card into the slot and hoped for the best. Would I walk away with anything or leave empty-handed? It was a gamble.

It was June 2015 and, in fact, all of Greece was a gamble. Greece had a long and substantial list of debt it owed to European countries and countries around the world. But, they lagged on repayments and stood strong on their refusal to make more cuts in order to pay it off. The European Central Bank froze funding until a deal could be reached. The banks closed, and the people of Greece hurried to ATMs to get every last Euro they could. Slowly, all around Greece the ATMs became silent. 

We awoke in a little stone house in the cute village of Tzitzifes on the island of Crete, and went for a swim. Tzitzifes is not your typical tourist destination, as it’s remote and not near any of the excitement going on in Chania or Heraklion, but we loved living amongst the locals. The village was the definition of charming. We had just arrived the night before from Oslo, after days of no sleep, thanks to the midnight summer sun. We were exhausted. We had heard the banks might close, but for months it just seemed like idle gossip. 

After our swim, we went into town to eat lunch, but they didn’t take credit cards. So we went to the village ATM, and it was empty. So we went to the next village over, and the next one over, and the next one over. We tried each ATM like a slot machine, and all came up empty. In these villages, people did not speak English, and there was no internet. We heard TVs and radios blaring with nervous voices, but we were deaf to Greek.

Finally, we found an English(ish) speaker who casually and calmly told us, “No money. No more money. Today, no. Tomorrow, no. So sorry.” We realized we should have been so much more prepared, we should have paid attention. I have become a much more prepared traveler as a result. I felt like a stereotype: the stupid American, the clueless American. But my world was not about what only happened within my 50 states. I knew about the situation, however I failed to take it seriously. Apparently, many others did the same, both Greek and tourist alike, as we learned when we saw the desperate and hopeful lines at ATMs across the island.

We drove to a nearby beach, because we knew the beaches would be beautiful, but mostly because it was free. Nearby was a restaurant and a woman came over to ask for our order. We told her we had no money. Her face made me so sad as she apologized over and over again on behalf of her country. She said she was embarrassed and sad for the state of things. She thanked us for coming to Greece, and insisted on giving us free snacks and drinks. 

Later we found a small store owned by a sweet old man. He, too, expressed to us how sorry he was, and agreed to let us buy some snacks with our credit card, a rarity. I felt we should be telling them how sorry we felt for them. But that day, we learned how scary it is when that magic box, the almighty ATM, is just an empty piece of metal, with no promise of winning. We also learned how friendly and welcoming Greek people are, how much they truly care for and help each other, and how intensely beautiful their lives and their beaches are. 

We strategized about what our next steps would be. The trip we had originally planned consisted of two weeks in Crete, followed by one week in Santorini, and then one more week in Athens. Now, every strategy we came up with meant cutting our trip short or leaving altogether, and we refused to do either. A day or 2 passed surviving on the food from the grocery store and free shots of ouzo by friendly and apologetic locals, Greeks who were not the least bit concerned or worried. They traded food and supplies with neighbors and friends, as they were no strangers to financial crisis or hard times. We had free adventures and enjoyed every minute of taking in the stunning landscape, that we may have otherwise missed.

On day 3, we learned there were a few ATMs with the possible promise of money in Chania, the mesmerizing port city. Chania was far, and we also learned there was one gas station in the neighborhood left that had any gas. Yes, the island was running out of gas, too. We were lucky to get just enough gas to get there, paid with the few American dollars we had found stashed in our bags, and only hoped we would find money and enough gas to get us back. After I got out of the car to herd some sheep so we could pass, we were on our way. 

Forty-six minutes later, it was nighttime, and we had arrived in Chania. We parked our car, and continued playing slot machines. Finally around midnight, we joined a long line that looked promising and waited our turn. Tension hung heavy in the air and enveloped us like the humidity. When money magically appeared, there were happy shouts from the receivers, and angry shouts from the crowd. Because there’s only so much money, right? Some people tried 5 cards, 10 cards, however many cards they brought. They tried their card, their wife’s card, their mom’s card, so many cards. 

As I waited, I pushed the guilt of (hopefully) taking money from their ATMs away by reminding myself that I would spend it to help their economy, even if it was only in the tiniest way. Finally it was time for us to play the game, we put our card in and held our collective breath, silence, and then the beautiful sound of an ATM doling out money. A sound I had never noticed before, but now will never forget. 

The next day we returned to lively Chania, strolled its quaint winding cobblestone streets, got lost in the allure of all that is Greece, enjoyed the view of the Old Venetian harbor, and ate the lunch of all lunches on Daskalogianni Street in the area of Splanzia. Splanzia, full of great restaurants, cafes, and shops, has been described as the “bohemian” side of Chania, and has more of a local feel than around the harbor. We feasted on fresh feta cheese, kalamata olives, tzatziki, a roasted red pepper and garlic dip with warm pita bread, grilled halloumi cheese, fried zucchini, grilled octopus, baked lamb, spinach pie, dolmas, everything equally delicious and smothered in olive oil and oregano, and we ended with a light and sweet baklava made with local honey. With happy stomachs and a tank full of gas, we continued on to Balos beach, which was breathtaking. 

A few weeks later we landed in an Athens with sudden free public transportation, because there was no other option, and an electricity shortage that left some restaurants without power, but all I saw was happiness. Eating, drinking, laughing, kissing, enjoying, living. They were a nation of carefree spirits. We walked past a restaurant, a few hours before sunrise and the owner called out to us to join him for shots of ouzo. “Why not?!” he said. Why not, indeed.