Cyprus Peers into the Abyss of Default and Winks

Friday night at the Round Robin Bar, I spied Hambis Gaurospore Gamotinmanasu, First Attaché for Economic Policy at the Cypriot Embassy here in Washington DC.  There’s this Mediterranean brandy, Metaxa, which is considered a bit déclassé, for the most part.  The Round Robin stocks the top-of-the-line item, Metaxa Grande Fine – in the back, of course – for just such customers as Mr. Gamotinmanasu, however, and that’s what he was drinking, and a lot of it, apparently.
“Ah, my friend Tom,” he beckoned, “come, sit!”
He gestured at the empty bar stool to his right; the one to his left was also unoccupied, despite the bar being packed.  As I sat down, I suspected his rather pronounced Mediterranean body odor might have been responsible, but having a degree in chemistry – among various others – I was able to withstand the onslaught by rationalizing my experience in terms of ketones, ethers, aldehydes and fatty acid esters.  I am convinced that a graduate student in biophysiologic metabolism could have written a doctoral thesis on the components of Mr. Gamotinmanasu’s Friday night stink and their sundry origins.  Nevertheless, as frequent readers of this Web log well know, due to the nature of my work as a policy consultant, involving, as it does, constant contact with exotic and colorful foreigners of all stripes, I always have a tiny tin of medical examiner’s camphor at hand.  And, after ordering a suitably strong, heavily peated Islay scotch on the rocks, I adroitly turned away for a moment to discreetly smear two small dollops of that olfactory balm directly into my anterior naris, and in a moment, I could barely even taste my first sip of Talisker – more’s the pity there.  And by the way, my congratulations to the bartender for his lightning fast service.  Perhaps he sensed my predicament; or, on the other hand, maybe it’s because I’m known at the Round Robin as a very good tipper.
“Why so quiet, my friend,” Gamotinmanasu coaxed, “has the cat – or, should I say, the bald eagle – got your tongue?  Have a care for your friend from Cyprus, if you please!”
“But of course, Hambis,” I responded in a round and jocular tone, lifting my drink in salutation, “here’s to you, and the people of Cyprus, excluding, of course, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus…”
“Those sons of female dogs!” Gamotinmanasu interjected.
“… and all the Cypriot ships at sea,” I concluded.
“Except the God-damned Turkish ones!” Gamotinmanasu added emphatically.  “Now, you tell me, Tom,” he continued with a jovial slap on my back, “right here in the Round Robin Bar, off the record and for free, what the hell poor little Cyprus is supposed to do now, huh?”
“About your… debt crisis?” I teased, knowing that this would render his response more interesting, in the sense of the old Chinese curse.
“Christ Almighty!” Gamotinmanasu exploded, “are you being obtuse for your own entertainment again?  What the hell do you think I’m talking about?  At this very moment, top officials of the Cyprus government are locked in furious and tense negotiations with international representatives of the European Union, the European Central Bank, the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the G-seven, the G-ten, the G-twenty, the OECD, the US Federal Reserve, the US Treasury and the Bank of England!  They’re all caught up in a web of complex, arcane and tortuous negotiations late into the night – night after night after night – as they desperately attempt to forge a plan to raise the money my beloved homeland needs to qualify for a bailout package!  And can you conceive of the price of failure, my friend Tom?  Failure would mean Cyprus would be forced to declare bankruptcy… in just three days, Tom!  It could mean the end of our membership in the Eurozone!” 
“Well,” I observed, “Cyprus does, in fact, have recently discovered petroleum and gas reserves of very significant proportions.  Maybe you could leverage those.”
“Not,” he fretted, “for at least five years.  After that, yeah, sure, we’ll be like Norway and able to thumb our noses at the rest of the world if we like.”
“Norwegians,” I pointed out, “don’t thumb their noses at anyone.  They’re very nice and polite.”
“Okay, okay,” he conceded with a dismissive wave of his hand, “to hell with them anyway.  They’re too nice for their own good, if you ask me.  What I meant was, they’re independent and solvent and can do what they want, and that’s what Cyprus is going to be like, once we get our gas and oil going.  But right now, we’re screwed!  Screwed by the God damned Russians and the God damned Greeks!”
“You mean,” I sought to clarify, “that dishonest, amoral Russian oligarchs who stole billions of dollars from the beleaguered, suffering and overworked Russian people and stashed it in secret bank accounts in Cyprus provided the funds for moronic, greedy Cypriot bankers to lend that money to the feckless and corrupt Greek government, which promptly spent it all on top-tier real estate, premium sports cars, world class yachts, chauffered limousines, splendid high fashion, Cristal champagne, primo Peruvian flake, and thousand-dollar-an-hour prostitutes, in typical Southern European fashion?”
“Yeah,” he agreed, “so what?”
“So you’re complaining to me about it in the Round Robin Bar in the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC, the capital of the United States of America, which, as far as I can tell, didn’t have a damned thing to do with any of it.”
“No, no,” he objected, “my friend Tom, that’s not what I meant.  I meant, so what if we Southern Europeans don’t want to get up in the morning and work and work and work and save and save and save and come home to eat dinner with the family and go to bed with the wife and get up in the morning and do the same thing over and over again, raising the children and piling up cash for the future like the God damn Germans?  Can we help it if they have all the money and we’re broke?  Those pale, blue-eyed fools don’t even know how cook or make love!  With them, it’s all equations and science and engineering and technical skills!  Not a moment for passion, adultery or lying around in the sun – not that those pathetic bastards have any sun up there!  Now tell me, really, Tom, what kind of life is that, anyway?  They all might as well be robots!” 
“In the United States,” I pointed out, “we have learned to celebrate our diversity.  You folks over there in the EU should take that lesson to heart, I think.”
“Think what you want,” Gamotinmanasu groused, “right now, my country has to come up with twenty-two billion, eight hundred million US dollars.  Consequently, then, every man, woman and child in Cyprus owes twenty-eight thousand five hundred dollars to…” he raised his glass at the ceiling, “to the bloody Man in the Moon!”
“Eventually.  But more to the point,” I reminded him, “you need about eight billion by Monday morning, or the Germans, instead of forking over the necessary cash to keep the Cypriot circus going, are going to shoot you a big old shiny moon.”
“Correct!” Gamotinmanasu affirmed.  “And right now, we Cypriots are, as you Americans say, S… O… L!  We’ve tried everything we could think of – infinite term no-fault bonds, distributed deposited equity floats, self-organizing debt swaps, risk dilution derivatives, retroactive reverse-interest inverted auto-extinguishing commitment instruments, telekinesis-driven convertible intercontinental financial institution debentures – you name it, we have tried it; but the only thing that’s proved remotely viable so far has been direct confiscation of bank depositors’ money.”
“And I gather that’s not very popular with the customer base,” I surmised.
“Mother of God,” he spat, “what the hell do they expect, anyway?  After all, those drooling idiot suckers put their money in a Cypriot bank, didn’t they?
“I expect,” I expected, “that your Russian oligarch depositors would expect to start by breaking your legs, then proceed to somewhat nastier pursuits.”
“Right, right,” he nodded, suddenly fraught with anxiety, “there’s that, definitely.  We can tell the grandmothers and taxi drivers to go jump off a cliff into the sea, and what can they do?  Nothing!  We declare a bank holiday and take five, ten, twenty percent of their life savings, so what?  Let them complain to the policeman on the street about it!  Hah!  Yes, let them!  But those God damned Russians, that’s another kettle of fish altogether, isn’t it?  Tom, my friend, I don’t mind telling you, this is some very scary stuff!”
“Isn’t it true,” I inquired, “that Chrysostomos II, Archbishop of Cyprus, has offered up the assets of the Cypriot Orthodox Church to save the day?”
“He has indeed,” Gamotinmanasu morosely sighed.
“Okay then,” I suggested, “in that case, why not have some church raffles?”
“I fail to see,” he complained, “how holding raffles for household appliances, video game consoles, stereo equipment, or even automobiles…”
“No, no,” I corrected, “what I meant was, raffle off the Orthodox churches – on the Internet.”
“I beg your pardon?” Gamotinmanasu demanded.
“Well,” I began, “there are nine Byzantine churches in the Troödos mountains, for example…”
“And every one of them a UNESCO World Heritage site!” Gamotinmanasu objected.
“Yes,” I admitted, “that’s an issue, but they still belong to the Cypriot Orthodox Church, don’t they?  And raffling them off doesn’t mean that the winner won’t have to respect the necessary real estate covenants.  Furthermore, there’s the Chrysaliniotissa of Our Lady of the Golden Flax and the Panayia Chrysospiliotissa of Our Lady of the Gold Cave, along with the Byzantine Museum of the Archbishop Makarios III Foundation, and the monasteries of Kykkos, Stavrovouni, Machairas, Saint Barnabas, Saint Neophytos, Saint…”
“We can’t possibly raffle off the monasteries,” he snapped, “where would the monks live?  And none of the others, either – it would be sacrilege!  No, no, no!  Out of the question!  Not negotiable!”
“All right then,” I relented, “how about… a bake sale?”
“A… bake… sale?” Gamotinmanasu’s eyes went blank with incomprehension.   “What… do you mean… by… a… bake… sale?”
“How long,” I asked, “does eliopita keep?”
“Um… about a week,” he replied after a moment’s contemplation.
“And,” I noted, “it’s not particularly heavy.  You could ship it by air anywhere in a couple of days, couldn’t you?”
“Yes,” he agreed, “I suppose you could.”
“And what about glystarkes?” I pressed.  “By all accounts, I hear they’re pretty sturdy, to say the least.”
“Oh those,” he nodded, “yes, for sure, they can keep for months.  You could send them in a cardboard box by UPS to Greenland and they’d still be just fine.”
“And the other famous Cypriot baked goods,” I elaborated, “your tasty flaounes cheese pastries, your kolokotes squash muffins, your sourdough lamb, cheese and black olive pies – some quick flash freezing, a few chunks of dry ice, and voilà – you could send five pounds of them to anyone, anywhere in a styrofoam DHL food shipping container for ten Euros and they’d arrive as fresh as when they were made, wouldn’t they?”
“I… I guess so,” he allowed.  “But how do we sell eight billion dollars worth of Cypriot baked goods by Monday morning?”
“That won’t be necessary,” I advised, “provided you can sell your creditors on the plan by then.”
“Okay, Tom, my friend,” he whispered in my ear with all the high drama of a classical actor delivering a Euripides dénouement, “what… is… this… plan… of yours?”
“Ever heard of Kickstarter?” I demanded.
“Um… no,” he confessed.
“It’s a way that people collect money for projects – movies, books, plays, research, philanthropy, whatever,” I informed him, “on the Internet.  Up until now, the record has been ten million dollars in one day.  But this is different – because Cyprus isn’t just the fantasy of some kid who lives in their parents’ basement – it’s great nation, a significant component of Western culture, and a magical land with a ten thousand year record of human civilization.”
“You mean…” he gasped.
“Precisely,” I confirmed, “I propose that, in order to address its economic problems, the nation of Cyprus should hold a bake sale on Kickstarter.  It will not only save Cyprus, it will make history.”
“But… but… that’s… incredibly stupid!” Gamotinmanasu shouted.
“Exactly,” I observed, “and that’s what everybody said about Twitter.  And look where they are now!”