Thursday 2 September 2010

Living la Vida Loca

One of the nicest things about Greece is leaving it. If this sounds like a back-handed compliment, it is. Summers in Greece are usually crowded with loutish tourists and unwashed “entrepreneurs” driving suicide taxis or serving roadkill souvlaki. Unfortunately, this is what 20% of Greek GDP is based on, and the main reason I try to leave Greece for at least 2 months every summer.*

If it’s any consolation, there used to be one price for tourists and one price for Greeks. Now, there’s just one equally bad price, and equally bad quality, for everyone. I no longer have to explain to my international friends visiting Greece to be careful of atrocious food in Plaka or crooked taxi drivers at the airport: now everyone eats the same crap and pays the same high price.

I was lucky enough to spend a month in the United States in July, and nearly a month in France in August. I  returned to Greece two days ago and made the mistake to turning on the TV. What's happened since then? 

·         The Prefecture of Piraeus is suing the owner of a vacant lot in Spetses because this guy had the temerity to set up a metal stage for the wedding of Nikolaos and Tatiana. Apparently, he didn’t have permission from the town planning authority (although he did receive some other kind of permission), and because of that is being sued for EUR 296,000. This is from a prefecture based in a city which is congested, polluted, full of illegal cafes and restaurants and illegally-build apartments, and where drug dealing and prostitution occur openly every day and every night. But it was apparently a major violation to set up a metal stage – on someone’s own property – for 24 hours and the price of this “crime” is EUR 296,000.

·         ERT aired a hagiography of George Papandreou’s “Symi Symposium”. This features a group of largely like-minded caviar socialists and other beneficiaries of public money who gather every year to discuss issues like “Democracy and Globalisation”. This year, the leader of Germany’s Greens insisted that Greece invest more in trains, “because this is the future”, while our Prime Minister concluded with the statement to the effect that “people and solidarity are more important than Euros.” They certainly are, especially when it’s Other People’s Money. Our creditors will be laughing all the way to the bank with that one.  

·         I visited our local branch of the National Bank of Greece – the “steam engine of Greece’s development”, as it were. One teller was unhappily and unwillingly working, one teller was scratching his ass, and four other people were sitting behind desks, talking to their friends on the company phone or eating tyropittes. Welcome to Greece’s largest company.

·         A total ban on smoking in public spaces was introduced. Don’t even get me started on that one. Just because I’m a masochist, I’m going to start calling the police every time I see someone smoking in a restaurant. Since they no longer bother to show up for traffic accidents or burglaries, it will be a relief to see Minister Mariana Xenogiannakopoulou forcing them to fine smokers. I will also be sure to tell the tellers at the Halandri Commercial Bank branch that they can no longer smoke behind the counter.

Yes, I am in dark mood. It was a great summer, and it was great being in countries where customer service and professionalism count for something. In New York, for instance, I had to get a new Citibank ATM card issued: I was led into a spotless office by a smiling, clean service manager in a suit and tie who went over my file, looked at my ID, and issued a card on the spot, in less than 10 minutes.** Try doing this at Eurobank.

We sent a box of books from the Port St. Lucie Post Office in Florida to Athens. The facility was spotless. The line took less than 5 minutes, there were four people working, and the average processing time per customer took about 2-3 minutes. The staff were ultra professional.** In the Geraka Post Office, there will be 30 people in line, one person “working” (while two people scratch themselves), and it will take an average of 8-10 minutes per person processing time.

We drove over 2,000 km this summer, in Florida, Colorado, Arizona, Utah and Nevada. In all this time, not a single car beeped, tried to cut us off, burned a red light, or otherwise gave us a feeling that our lives were in danger. Drivers were actually friendly, everyone from the Celebration Wal Mart parking lot to the Florida Turnpike. Try driving 4 km from Geraka to the Atlantis sports club in Pallini (conveniently located next to the local cemetery) and see how that goes.

I start September one year older and a little bit wiser*** and with some new plans:

a.       I will not watch any more Greek TV.

b.      I will resolutely reflexively distrust or disbelieve any press release or announcement put out by the Greek government, or at the very least suspect that the true state of affairs is the opposite of what is being announced.

c.       I will keep my head down, focus on work, and delocate my company out of this country so when it (the country) finally does go bankrupt and collapses, I will still be able to provide for my family.

d.      I will eventually, perhaps in mid-September, creep out of my suburban bubble to a nice island like Naxos and, with the tourism madness abated, remember Greece as it used to be.

e.       I can’t wait until next summer.

But wait… weren’t these last September’s plans?

* At this point, I’m sure lots of people will try to convince me to the contrary: “But I know this great island called Astipalaia with really friendly people etc.” Don’t bother. I grew up here before mass tourism, Albanian waiters and lamb-chops-and-peas main courses in Corfu tourist traps, and I can assure you that since 2000 or so, travel in Greece is inevitably disappointing, or very, very expensive.  

** Let no one say the US government does not know how to provide considerate, professional service. Yes, Citibank may have nearly bankrupted the world; yes Post Office employees do occasionally rampage; yes, we may have invaded Iraq in the name of democracy. But hey, great customer service, guys. Honestly.  

*** Readers of this and other posts may question this assumption. 

1 comment:

  1. Welcome back! Boy, you sure are in a dark mood...

    If you look at Mr Miha's (the Prefect of Piraeus) CV, you wouldn't expect anything less. He is the product of populist politics, rising up the party ranks through unions. He is up for reelection in the forthcoming local elections in November, so he had to do something spectacular to suck up to leftists. It's a pity he only fined the guy 300k, if it were 110bn we wouldn't need the EU/IMF plan any more...

    Regarding GAP and his fellow socialists, greens and other surreal political byproducts, the clock is ticking away. Creditors have certainly become alert to inadequate politicians playing with Other (their) People's Money and the people are slowly waking up as well. The upcoming local elections could prove politically very interesting, esp. if opportunist populist bozos like Mihas pay some price.

    I'm with you 1000% on the smoking ban. I hope it works this time. And yes, I'll be calling the police too.

    As far as banking is concerned, here you are being a bit harsh. At least there is a choice in banking. If NBG service sucks (it does!!!) and Eurobank Cards are slow, you can always go to Citibank Greece, or any other international or local banks.

    As far as service in Greece is concerned, the only way to go is straight to the supervisors and directors. Most of the times it's their fault that insufficient employees service customers up front, while scores of others are hiding behind desks at the back, esp. in state services. Let them have it and write a letter to the HR dept. as well, preferably with specific employee and supervisor names, as it gets into their permanent service record.

    I hope Greece doesn't go bankrupt. There is so much fat to cut in public spending that one can be hopeful. I also hope UK or the US don't go belly up as their deficits and debt go sky high. Relocating over and over again can be painful...

    Cheer up!