Looking at Greece

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  That said, some of the trains are old enough to have carried Plato, ancient and badly-maintained trains withdrawn long ago from service in post-war Germany and now rattling dangerously around Greece, and the one which took us down this morning was swaying and banging about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.