Lessons from Cyprus: How to work without cash

Diners at Zenon Taverna, a Cypriot restaurant in Astoria, N.Y.

Elena Papageorgiou, member of the family that runs Zenon Taverna, a Cypriot restaurant in Astoria, N.Y.

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.

Kai Ryssdal: Let's take a moment, if we might, just as we get going today, for a small dose of cognitive dissonance.

Once again this Thursday, records were set in American equity markets. The S&P, to be precise, beat its 2007 closing high. Keep that in the back of your mind, then, as we turn once again to Europe.

Cyprus, of course. Today was the first day on the job for Cypriot bankers in almost two weeks. Probably wasn't a whole lot of fun telling people they can only withdraw 300 euros a day. That's about 380 American. Can't spend more than 5,000 euros a month on your credit card. You can pretty much forget taking substantial sums off the island. Capital controls is what they're called, and their effects can be widespread.

Marketplace's Mark Garrison gets us going today by going out for lunch.


Mark Garrison: Astoria’s known best as a Greek neighborhood, but there's a Cypriot presence as well. Zenon Taverna is the rare place that serves authentic Cypriot cuisine, with homeland scenes painted on the walls.

Elena Papageorgiou: Even the Greek dishes we have are with a Cypriot, like, twist.

Elena Papageorgiou’s parents opened the restaurant after emigrating from Cyprus. American-born, she can’t imagine banks here keeping people from their money.

Papageorgiou: No matter what, it will never happen here.

But she agreed to play along. Her restaurant doesn't take credit cards. So if her customers couldn’t get cash, she’d try to sell the food she had. But she’d pull back on restocking the kitchen.

Papageorgiou: I would probably discontinue ordering certain things and really keep it to a minimum.

We spoke in spurts as she kept her lunch customers in view. She stopped the interview several times to take phone orders, greet diners, and serve dishes, a raven-haired blur whirling around the dining room.

She serves Florence Dempsey, a customer for 20 years, who is especially fond of that octopus. She brought a quartet of friends to enjoy wave after wave of small plates. She knew to bring cash, and hates to imagine what it would be like with limits on how much she could get.

Florence Dempsey: I think it would be really difficult, very difficult.

The struggles of Cyprus are topic A at the restaurant, just as it’s the lead story in the Greek-language papers that arrive daily. Papageorgiou hears often about the situation there from relatives and diners.

Papageorgiou: Every Cypriot customer that walks in, you’re gonna have like a five minute conversation about it, minimum.

The darkest thoughts come from older Cypriots with vivid memories of the country’s armed conflict. Some worries seem far-fetched, but just weeks ago, many things that are now reality did too. In Queens, I'm Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter for Marketplace and substitute host for the Marketplace Morning Report, based in New York.

Elena Papageorgiou, member of the family that runs Zenon Taverna, a Cypriot restaurant in Astoria, N.Y.

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