By Lefteris Karagiannopoulos
They might be living through one of the worst economic crises of modern times, but for Greeks coffee remains an indispensable fuel for thought on the eve of a referendum that may decide their future in Europe.
Hit by falling pensions and wages, higher taxes and soaring unemployment, Greeks of all walks of life have cut back on consumption.
But few of them appear ready to forgo their trademark iced coffee, freddo or frappe, which can cost anywhere between 2 and 4.5 euros ($5) in downtown Athens, often more than the average coffee in Britain. Cafes of Athens remain packed, disguising the turmoil convulsing Greek society.
“Greeks are ready to cut anything else, but not their coffee. Customer traffic is stable,” said Kleanthis Kanellos, 34-year-old manager of the packed Old Flo cafe in a working class district of Athens.
Greeks’ love affair with coffee goes back a long time. So much did they miss their traditional cup of coffee during the Nazi German occupation in World War Two, Greeks turned to grinding and boiling chickpeas and seeds as a substitute.
Iced coffees now dominate sales, but there may yet be a return to the traditional Greek coffee, cheaper than most at up to 2 euros.
Five days of shuttered banks and rationed cash withdrawals have further curtailed spending, and the prospect of full-scale financial collapse after Sunday’s ballot means many Greeks don’t know how much cash they will have in their pockets come Monday.
“I don’t believe that Greece will quit the euro. If that happens though, imported coffee like Espresso will definitely become more expensive to get, so our prices will go up,” said the manager of Old Flo cafe.
“The purchasing power of our customers will also go down. Maybe they’ll change their habits and return to traditional Greek coffee and frappe.”
Opinion polls show Greeks almost evenly split between accepting and rejecting the tough terms set by creditors keeping the country afloat, in a referendum to be held on Sunday.
European leaders say a ‘No’ vote will propel Greece from Europe’s single currency, and spell even greater hardship for the country. The left-wing Greek government says they are bluffing, and that rejection will mean fresh negotiations and a fairer deal.
“From what I overhear in the cafe, Greece can’t continue on this path of austerity,” said Kanellos.
At least 10 percent of Greeks remain undecided, according to the polls, and some were deliberating over coffee.
“Of course we decide over coffee!” said 45-year-old hotel worker Markos Efthimopoulos. “How can I take a decision on such an important matter without chatting with my friend here, over a nice cold frappe? That’s what we’ve always done.”
Seventy-six-year-old Christina Zoidou agreed: “You found the perfect example of a person who can’t take a decision without considering it over coffee.”