In Brussels, back in 1994, Greece was the country overseeing European Union enlargement talks with Finland, Sweden, Austria and Norway.

Greece was an EU veteran at that point having joined the group's predecessor in 1981 and taking its turn at the head of the rotating EU Council. 

The acting Greek foreign minister at the time, the larger-than-life Theodoros Pangalos, would step into the haze of a smoky press centre close to a midnight deadline and famously announce that he'd "stopped the clock." Time stood still … and then it expanded. 


A girl holds up a sign that reads 'No to fear' in Greek during an anti-austerity demonstration in Syntagma Square in Athens. (Yannis Behrakis/Reuters)

I'm sure this weekend many Greeks are wishing that someone would call time for them. In the space of a week Greece has slid from difficult negotiations with its creditors into full-on crisis mode with banks on life support and a seminal referendum just a heartbeat away — one that could start to unravel the country's cherished place in the heart of the EU.  

"I don't want Greece to become a third-world country in Europe," a man close to tears told me one evening at a "yes" demonstration.   

'It's two different questions'

People on both sides of the debate say they feel out of control. And an astonishing number remain confused about what they're being asked to decide.  

"The question is do you want the deal of the last weekend [the last deal offered by Greece's lenders before talks collapsed] with the Europeans or not, that's the question our government says to us," says taxi driver Aris.  "And the Europeans say to us, no, the question is whether you want to be in Europe or not. 

"So I don't know. It's two different questions. So it's two different answers maybe."  

It's almost Rumsfeld-esque, where there are known unknowns. And you know you're in trouble when that starts to make sense.
- Margaret Evans  

Some "no" voters do want to be in the Eurozone, but will vote "no" because they don't want austerity and because they believe the prime minister here, Alexis Tsipras, when he insists that's not what the referendum is about. 

Some people will vote "yes" even though they don't agree with creditor's demands because they fear that's exactly what it is about. And there are those who will vote "no" because they want Greece to cut all ties with Brussels and Berlin.  

It's almost Rumsfeld-esque, where there are known unknowns. And you know you're in trouble when that starts to make sense.  

Greeks have already endured much pain

The reality of the fast-paced challenges on the ground here – capital controls, tourists cancelling their vacations in droves, businesses running out of cash – are being inflicted on people who've already endured much pain, despite their depiction in the northern European tabloid press as a nation full of lazy tax-evaders.    

"You're talking about five years of one of the biggest fiscal adjustments in history," says Nick Malkoutzis, deputy editor of the Greek daily Kathimerini's English edition. "Five years after one of the deepest economic depressions in history, so the tolerance levels, the political and social sustainability of doing what you're doing has been eroded completely.

View from the street: An Athens taxi driver on the Greek referendum2:04

"You look at the high unemployment figures, the number of people living below the poverty threshold. You look at the general sense that this division is building up in Greek society. This can't be good for a country. It's not leading somewhere positive." 

Eliza Sinadinou is a young woman of 26 who returned to Greece after a year studying abroad in London. She says if Greece votes "no" on Sunday she will pack her bags, get back on a plane and leave.  

"I trust the European institutions when they all say that the real question [is about leaving or staying in the Eurozone.]  But more importantly even if they're bluffing I don't want to risk my country's membership in the European Union.  So that's why I'm going to vote 'yes."' 

'I sensed that they were seeing an enemy'

Sinadinou says the referendum is dividing friends, including some of her own, who disagree with her choice.  

"They looked me in the eye — I don't want to exaggerate — but I sensed that they were seeing an enemy, you know?" 

Across town I met another young woman named Maria Markuizou, working as a waitress. Well educated, like Sinandinou, she can't find work in her field.

Maria Markuizou Greece referendum debt crisis

Waitress Maria Markuizou says she will vote 'no' in Sunday's referendum. She says only people with a lot of money are voting 'yes.' (JF Bisson/CBC)

She will vote "no." 

"Only my grandmother wants to vote 'yes,"' she says.  "That's the thing because the only people who want to vote 'yes' are those who have a lot of money.

"We are very insecure about the future.  We don't know if we have a job tomorrow, you know? After Monday maybe everything of these stores is closed," she says pointing to the small textile and fabrics shops down the street.  "Everyone is panicked," she says. 

And for very different reasons.  Michaelis Brobonas looks to be in his 70s. He has passed on his small fabric shop to his son, but has come out of retirement to help out because they can't afford to pay staff.

'It will be a disaster'

His biggest fear now is a "no" vote on Sunday and a return to the Greek drachma, the memory of which hovers above the city like a devil or a saviour according to your viewpoint.  

Michaelis Brobonas Greece referendum debt crisis

Tailor Michaelis Brobonas believes it will be a disaster for Greece if the country leaves the Euro. (JF Bisson/CBC)

"It will be a disaster," he says. "If we return to the drachma we are finished.  Who will supply me?  My stock is imported from the EU and England and I pay in euros." 

The potential consequences of a "yes" or a "no" haven't been spelled out in a detailed way by either campaign beyond their own interests — and the Rumsfeld factor.

The "yes" campaign warns of a messy exit from the Eurozone followed by a tsunami of chaos and the "no"s, led by Tsipras, continue to insist everyone is in a flap about nothing and that he'll be welcomed back to the EU negotiating table with open arms, perhaps wearing an 'I told you so' smirk.  

A challenge to the referendum's legality was swept aside by a constitutional court here Friday and so the vote will go ahead. 

The Greeks will go to the polls carrying a cauldron of uncertainty: blind faith; ideology; a leap into the void; fear; irrefutable logic; the lesser of two evils, bewilderment … 

And it appears no one will be calling time.