Looking at Greece

Thursday, December 03, 2009



Thursday, December 08, 2005

Government "services" offices

Government services public offices in Greece. Now there’s a rich subject… Bureaucracy in this country is a scourge to be reckoned with, one not to be taken on by the meek, and it will have to be the subject of a longer blog entry than I have time for right now. Suffice it to say that I am at present in the middle of both changing address for my business concern and getting a set of new receipts validated by the Inland Revenue here, a process involving traipsing around various government offices. Incidentally, the Greek word for “euphoria” can be transformed into the Greek word for “Inland Revenue” by removing one letter, which is one helluva change of meaning to make with just one letter…!

So today I had to trundle along to the offices of the national insurance organisation responsible for my sort of business, an organisation called TEBE (pronounced tehveh), and the offices in question are on the second floor of a building devoted entirely to offices, dentists’ surgeries and the like. Now, in any other European country the national insurance organisation would have a slick plaque on the wall in the entrance stating which floor the office is on, and equally slick office premises to welcome the visitor. This being Greece, the equivalent of the slick name plaque is four pieces of roughly-cut, much fingered and therefore grubby sticky-back paper, each the size of a large stamp, stuck in line on the interior wall of the lift next to the second floor button. The first sticker had a biro-ed T on it, the second an E, the third a B and the last an E again. And hey presto!TEBE

Once you get to the office – and let’s remember that this is the premises of the organisation insuring you compulsorily, as a self-employed person, for health insurance and your state pension – you go in through a door which opens to a thick fog of tobacco smoke from the staff’s cigarettes. Coughing and spluttering as you go through the office, you find it doubly annoying to see that of the six staff in there when I visited it today, two were working, three were playing with their mobile phones, and one was standing at an open window watching the traffic below. Do I feel that my compulsory contribution of €562 (£382) every two months is well-spent? Do I heckers!!!

From there it was over to the neighbouring Chamber of Commerce office to get a certificate to take to the Inland Revenue (or is it euphoria?!). There, at the Chamber of Commerce, I walked into the empty office where the clerk was sitting idly at a computer, and I chirped up a breezy “Good morning!”. And I got no response. The chap didn’t even look up. After about ten seconds, during which the eyes played around the computer screen, there was a gruff “What do you want?” and a pair of bored eyes looked up from what had evidently been a hard session of web-surfing, those eyes clearly saying “How dare you interrupt me?”. The lack of civil politeness in everyday life here is something you eventually get used to, “civilisation” being a word which Greeks bandy about in reference to their country of two millennia ago but also a word which they do not usually even attempt to apply to their daily behaviour, but when it comes to public services offices it is in absolutely no way justifiable. These clerks, civil servants and various skivvies are being paid by our taxes, and this particular clerk by the €50 (£34) I have to cough up tomorrow to get my certificate when I go back.

Disgraceful does not begin to describe the state of government services offices… But it is a good start.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Being taken for a ride

It can be argued that taxi drivers as a group are less than popular worldwide, but sometimes they downright deserve this stance against them on the part of the general public.  Greek taxi drivers are well-known for their surliness, dishonesty and unhelpfulness (try finding a Greek taxi driver who will get off his fat backside to help you get your bags out of the boot), especially where foreign tourists are involved, and it is common practice for a taxi driver here to tout for extra business as he is driving you to your destination, so that you end up sharing your taxi crushed up against a bunch of strangers whom he has picked up along the way and whose destination is “on his way” – which usually means not on your way.  Once, I flew into Greece and got chatting to the woman in the seat next to mine on the plane, who was heading to the northern Greek town Florina, about 100 miles from Thessaloniki, to take up a teaching position at a private language school.  When we got through immigration at Thessaloniki Airport, I took her to the taxi rank and told the driver to take her to the bus station in Thessaloniki where she could catch a bus to Florina, as she didn’t speak any Greek.  A few days later I got a postcard from her thanking me for helping her, but also telling me that the taxi driver had simply driven her all the way to Florina and charged her £60.  The bus journey would have cost a tenth of that figure.  Welcome to Greece and the Greeks…

Today we went down to Thessaloniki on the train.  The train station for this town, typically enough for Greece, is in a village about three miles out of town, and the bus service is hardly designed to serve those wishing to take the train to Thessaloniki – the idea of an integrated transport system is totally alien to this country.  The bus journey to Thessaloniki costs €3.50 (£2.39) and takes an hour, the terminus being a 45-minute walk or fifteen-minute bus ride from the centre of the city, while the train costs €1.30 (89p) and takes half an hour, and it delivers you to near the centre of town.  That said, some of the trains are old enough to have carried Plato, ancient and badly-maintained trains withdrawn long ago from service in post-war Germany and now rattling dangerously around Greece, and the one which took us down this morning was swaying and banging about so violently on the rails that I seriously thought we would derail and be thrown about like dice in a shaker; the fare for the same journey on a more modern (yet still not very modern) train jumps to €3.90 (£2.66), which includes a fat “supplement”.  The bus journey, apart from being much longer, far more expensive and inconvenient as regards where you get thrown off, also often involves you being subject to dire Greek music, the unfortunate choice of a bus driver who has never been exposed to anything else.

The title of this blog entry, Being taken for a ride, however, does not actually concern the means of getting to and from Thessaloniki, but rather what followed when we arrived back at the end of our day there.  On the train my girlfriend’s brother got chatting to a young man who was coming to this area for his first time and was being conscripted into the army for compulsory military service (which is another sore point I intend to expand upon at a future date!).  We offered to drive him and his friend into town when the train pulled in, so that they could catch a bus on to their army camp to enlist, which they had to do by eleven in the evening.

So, when the train pulled in, we all got off the train and made our way to my car.  As we were preparing to put the young chaps’ stuff in the car and leave, a lone taxi driver there asked my girlfriend’s brother what we were doing, and he told the taxi driver that we were giving the lads a lift into town, to which the taxi driver said we didn’t have the right and that they had to go with him!

We told him it was none of his business and continued to load their bags; the taxi driver, in the meantime, called the police and complained and said that they were sending out a police car and we would have to explain to the rozzers why we were taking his business away – as if we intended to charge the extra passengers for the ride.  He also told us it was illegal to give military service conscripts lifts from the station – apart from the fact that the two lads hadn’t actually started their military service, this is utter rubbish anyway.  Besides the sheer gall of his interference in our private affairs, it was also obvious from his slurred speech that the taxi driver had been drinking heavily - yet another common feature of Greek taxi drivers.

We loaded up and left.  Funnily enough, as we drove into town two police cars flew by in the opposite direction, towards the station, blue lights flashing.  The amusing thought was that they were heading out to clunk the handcuffs on us, but given the snail-like response of the Greek police to calls demanding what they laughingly call “immediate action response” (in Greek, amesi drasi, which is printed on the sides of police patrol cars), I somehow suspect the taxi driver is still waiting for them at the station, sucking a mint and wishing he hadn’t drunk the last four ouzos…

Monday, November 14, 2005

Service with a snarl - part two

About ten days back, the dishwasher in the rented flat where we live decided to wash its last.  We put it on to wash and it just clicked through the programme, so we reset it.  About ten minutes later, the breaker switch in the fuse-box flipped and the power went off in the flat, indicating a short-circuit somewhere.  Yes indeedy, it was the dishwasher, which, when opened, emitted billows of smoke.  Evidently, the element had heated itself to red-hot, causing all the accumulated fur to blacken and then shatter off.  I called in an electrician friend who pronounced it dead on arrival and said that to fix it would cost at least €300 (£201) and that it would be wiser to replace it with a new machine.  Given that the blasted thing belonged to the landlady, we gave her a call and she said she wasn’t interested in replacing it and that we should just throw it away.  “Great,” I thought, “we will have to buy one for ourselves, you mean…”

Which is what we did.  I have a friend who runs a shop selling white goods, televisions, small electronic goods and suchlike in this town, and he has in the past given me good deals, especially when I split up from my wife and moved out, and consequently had to replace €7500 (circa £5000) worth of household equipment, at which point he threw in a free gift of a set of kitchenware.  So my girlfriend and I trundled along to his shop to see about getting a new dishwasher, of the built-in type.  The last time I visited this friend’s shop was to buy a digital videocamera, back in December 2003.  At that time I was making my second visit to his shop regarding a videocamera, as the first time I had enquired I had spoken directly to a new assistant there who had proceeded to talk to me in an extremely condescending way, as if I was some sort of dimwit who had no idea about anything that was anything, and who intimated that he knew more about what my needs in a camcorder were than I did, despite the fact that I had bought my first videocamera 11 years before, when he was still a snotty-nosed schoolboy.  I listened for under a minute, said a gruff goodbye and left.  I should have gone straight to the owner-friend and told him what I thought of his new assistant – simply out of friendship and a desire to inform him that the assistant would certainly be driving customers away from his shop.

And it is a pity I didn’t, because on Friday when we turned up at the shop to get a dishwasher, I was dismayed when we got passed on to the same smug-faced assistant again – and not a little amazed to find the man still working at the shop.  I told my girlfriend (in French, not Greek) as we were heading up to the dishwasher section with him that I didn’t like this assistant and she would soon see why.

So, the assistant asked us what size dishwasher we needed, there being two standard sizes – 40cm and 60cm width – and then showed us two models and said “There they are.”  And that was it!  His sales spiel consisted of “There they are.”  I stood there for a second in disbelief that this guy hadn’t actually changed in almost two years of working in white goods and electronics sales, and then snorted, “Well, aren’t you going to tell us something about them?”  Incredibly (and this is the really good bit), he proceeded to open one and say “You put the plates in here.”  At that point I almost turned to my girlfriend to say “We are out of here…”, but I realised there was quite good blog material to be found in the situation, so I decided to go on with the charade.

The old, now defunct dishwasher had a wooden panel on the front and my girlfriend asked whether the new machine would take a wooden panel.  I explained that, as my plans are to buy a place of my own within a year or so and we would be taking the new dishwasher with us, it didn’t really matter if the old wooden covering fitted the front of the new machine or not, as it would be left off for now and put in position only when we moved out of the present flat.  We would simply arrange for a new wooden covering cut to the size of the new machine when we moved into the new place.  Well, if I tell you that it took about five minutes of saying this in different ways to get this oaf of an assistant to understand the whole concept because he kept trying to tell us we couldn’t buy the Siemens machine as it didn’t take a full height door, it will give you a clear idea of why once again I came close to giving up and leaving.  Once we had got this into his thick head, he then proceeded to spout some irrelevant twaddle about his opinion on the differences between various makes of dishwasher (AEG, Siemens, Miele etc) while leaning on an oven and speaking in a supercilious manner and gazing into the distance out the window, away from us.  Throughout the conversation he had been using the second-person singular form of the verb, which is the informal form in Greek and generally considered too informal for salesman-customer conversations, a fact which certainly seems to have gone miles over the head of the twerp we were talking to.

In the end we bought the Siemens dishwasher for €780 (£525), but only because I wanted to buy from my friend’s shop and not from someone else I didn’t know and trust, and it was delivered next day.  I installed it on Sunday morning and it washes the dishes a dream…  But every time I use it I will remember the wannabe-salesman whose sales spiel was “You put the dishes in there…”

There is a place waiting for him at a High Street branch Dixons in the UK, I suspect, if only he can pump out his twaddle in basic English.    

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Service with a snarl

A few nights back we went up to a place at the top of the hill in the town where I live, a place (imaginatively named “Hill” in Greek) where they serve drinks and snacks.  For many years this place was council-run, and therefore it was diabolically badly run.  The service was appalling, the tables and chairs outside consistently dirty, the waiters surly and the prices a rip-off.  Then the council decided to put the operation out for tender, and a pair of local businessmen won the contract and refurbished the place inside and out.  It started operating again in the early summer, and the refurbishment was a big improvement on how it had been before.  But – sure enough – the refurbishment was only skin-deep, as they made the fatal error of hiring serving staff from local adolescents and young adults who were unemployed and on a job placement scheme with the Greek Manpower Commission.  This was because the new owners would then only have to pay the pittance prescribed by the Manpower Commission rules on hiring such people.

As a result the new place looked good, but the service was once again appalling.  Ask for a pint of beer and the witless chumps they hired would pour cold beer into a thick pint glass fresh out of a hot dishwasher and within a few minutes your cold beer was lukewarm suds.  Time after time we had to wait upwards of fifteen minutes for our order to arrive and when it did arrive it was invariably wrong or flawed in some way.  Some of our group would order one sort of beer, some another.  When the waiter arrived he wouldn’t know which glass contained which type of beer.  One night my girlfriend ate some salted fish with some ouzo there and was violently sick with food poisoning two hours later…

Well, the latest incident highlighting the utter incompetence of the staff of this place came those few nights back.  We went inside because it was too cool to sit outside, but the music was far too loud (an all-too-common phenomenon, as mentioned in a previous post about places of “entertainment” here in Greece), so we decided to head for the quieter upstairs area.  However, a waiter pointed out that the upstairs area would be opening in ten minutes’ time for a special function and that we couldn’t sit up there yet, so I said that we didn’t want to sit downstairs as the music was far too loud to be tolerated.  This bright spark of a waiter then piped up, “Well, the downstairs area is more for young people.”  “Thank you very much!” I replied, and we left, but not before telling one of the two owners what his waiter had said to us.  After all, I am forty-two, not in my eighties…  In typical Greek style, the owner, on questioning the waiter, shrugged it all off as some big joke.  Needless to say, they didn’t receive our custom that night.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

A less than electrifying Sunday

Sundays are the one day when I have enough free time from work to do the myriad things I need to do on the computer, a combination of work and personal projects, and naturally enough I look forward to Sundays with some relish.  You can imagine how annoying it is, then, when the electricity board decides to turn the power off for seven-and-a-half hours on a Sunday, as happened on the sixteenth of this month, and you are left sitting staring at a wall or desperately trying to find something to do which does not require electricity (and how easy is that nowadays, especially if you a child of the information age?).  To be fair, the power cut was announced in the local paper, but it makes you wonder just how incompetent a power supply company has to be to have to cut a whole town’s power off for so many hours “to carry out necessary work”, as they so vaguely put it.  How atrocious, then, was the original work they did when installing the town’s power supply?  This sort of power cut, where the whole town is deprived of its supply, is, thankfully, a relatively rare occurrence; more common, though, is the case where sections of the town are cut off for six or more hours on a Sunday.  Laughably enough, the power company will postpone such power cuts if the weather is bad – maybe their employees refuse to work if it is raining or the sky a tad grey?  The thought of such ridiculous power cuts in any other European country would be nigh on impossible, but not in Greece.  There again, Greece is a country where they haven’t even got around to putting power supply cables underground yet, a practice many other European countries adopted many years ago.  Hence towns and villages are blighted with unsightly power cables straddling between buildings, and inevitably trees growing upwards present a real threat of short-circuits as the branches entangle with the exposed power lines.  Each year in early Spring, on “Shrove Monday” (or “Clean Monday”, as it is called in Greek), youngsters fly kites, and sure enough each year there are the cases of children being fried to a cinder as their kites make contact with overhead power lines…


Saturday, October 08, 2005

Meatheads banging away with the bouzouki

In recent days the bars and so-called “places of night-time entertainment” in the centre of this town have been closed, in protest, they say, at the fact that the local town council has shut some of them down for a period of ten days as punishment for the fact that they have been breaking the law regarding after-hours noise levels.  In Greece there is a law which specifies when you can and cannot make noise in a built-up area.  This includes noise of any sort, from using a power drill through to playing loud music.  The times specified vary from place to place, but generally as a rule of thumb you shouldn’t be belting out your bouzouki music or bashing away on your Black & Decker between three and five in the afternoon or after eleven at night.  As of seven the next morning, you can annoy those around you to your heart’s content again.

So, in the centre of town there are a number of fairly seedy places where the young and wannabe-young of town gather to be ripped off for a drink (€5 (about £3) plus for a drink, if you please) and have their eardrums pierced by a combination of mindless Greek music and the appalling rubbish that purports to be pop music nowadays.  Some places have more style and play music which appeals to those with a tad more intelligence than the average punter, but these places are quite rare.

Recently residents in the streets where these bars are to be found have been so incensed by the level of music being played after eleven at night that the police have been called in, and as a result a number of them have had their licences withdrawn for a period of ten days.  The bright sparks who run the other bars decided to protest at this by also closing for a period of a few days, and incredibly the local Chamber of Commerce deemed it necessary to support them!

This is the sort of mentality which makes it hard to take this country and its people at all seriously, a feature of Greece which I am sure will recur throughout future posts in this blog.  A clear case of one law for me and another for the rest of you…  

My girlfriend and I occasionally spend an evening at one of the places which plays well-chosen foreign music (Greek music is, naturally enough, anathema to me) and another bar directly opposite plays its music so loud that it often completely drowns out the music at the place where we are sitting.  Naturally enough, the place opposite is full of the sort of meathead and brainless bimbo that you would expect, but directly above it there are flats where people are trying to sleep.  The lack of inconsideration shown to these people is beyond belief, and the bar owners actually have the gall to protest when the law is enforced against them!  These are the same people who recently have suddenly found themselves compelled by the Public Prosecutor to stop serving alcoholic beverages to minors.  Again, one law for me…

Strangely enough, a number of the places which closed down “in protest” at the “unfair treatment” of those bars being punished later re-opened with a complete new paint job on the inside, refurbished and ready to bring in the punters for another round of bouzouki bashing.  Double standards or what??