Banks in Cyprus opened Thursday for the first time in almost two weeks, though only under strict rules meant to keep money from fleeing the island. Among them, limits on how much cash people can withdraw: No more than 300 euros (about $380) a day. Credit card spending can’t exceed 5,000 euros a month.
The tiny island is quite distant and removed from most Americans, but its troubles are topic A at the Astoria, N.Y., restaurant Zenon Taverna. The Queens neighborhood is best known as a Greek area, but there's a Cypriot presence as well. Zenon is the rare place that serves authentic Cypriot cuisine, in a dining room decorated with scenes of Cyprus painted on the walls.
Elena Papageorgiou’s parents opened the family-operated restaurant after emigrating from Cyprus. American-born, she can’t imagine banks here keeping people from their money.
"No matter what, it will never happen here," she says.
But she agreed to play along with Marketplace and imagine what it would be like if American banks had to operate under the rules now in force in Cyprus.
Zenon doesn't take credit cards. A simple sign in front directs them to the nearest ATM. If her customers couldn’t get cash, Papageorgiou says she would try to sell the food the restaurant had. But she would pull back on restocking the kitchen.
“I would probably discontinue ordering certain things and really keep it to a minimum,” Papageorgiou says.
She kept her lunch customers in view during the entire interview, and stopped it several times to take phone orders, greet diners, and serve dishes, a raven-haired blur whirling around the dining room.
Florence Dempsey was part of Thursday’s lunch crowd. A customer for 20 years, she’s especially fond of the restaurant’s octopus. Dempsey brought a quartet of friends to enjoy wave after wave of small plates. She knew to bring cash, and hates to think what it would be like with limits on how much she could get.
“I think it would be really difficult, very difficult,” Dempsey imagines.
Papageorgiou and her family hear often about the situation in Cyprus from relatives and diners. It’s the lead story in the Greek-language papers that arrive daily.
“Every Cypriot customer that walks in, you’re gonna have like a five-minute conversation about it, minimum,” Papageorgiou explains.
The darkest thoughts come from older Cypriots with vivid memories of the country’s armed conflict in 1974. Some worries may seem far-fetched. But just weeks ago, many things that are now reality did too.