Monday 18 October 2010

Letters from the Καφενείο

I spent the latter half of last week attending a conference in a Baltic country where I’ve had the privilege of working since 2004. As you approach from the air to land in the capital’s airport, you can plainly see that this is not a rich country. Few highways cross the countryside; much flat land is uncultivated; forests dot the landscape. This impression of—not poverty exactly, but not riches either—is confirmed as you drive from the airport past the Stalinist apartment blocks and crumbling factories in the suburbs.

Yet the historic centre of the town is a jewel: baroque church spires grace every corner; cobblestoned streets contrast with Scandinavian-designed boutiques; pubs and restaurants are housed in old merchant houses hundreds of years old.

Despite its poverty, the city works. Cars park where they are supposed to park, and don’t park where they aren’t supposed to. Drivers stop for pedestrians at the pedestrian crossings—even without a streetlight. There are sidewalks uncluttered by parked motorcycles, parked cars or signposts. You don’t see graffiti anywhere: not on the walls of the various universities in town; not on the town hall; not anywhere. The garbage is kept indoors until taken out for collection: you don’t see derelict garbage bins spewing their litter onto the streets.

The souvenir shops in the centre feature local products: jewellery made of silver and amber; incredible ceramics; wood carvings, home furnishings and the like. Very little of this is made in China: most of it is made by small artisans known to the sellers, and very often by the artisans themselves. Prices are eminently reasonable: there are high quality, hand-made toys available from just 1 euro, or amber jewellery from 10 euro. There are no Nigerian street-sellers; there are no Chinese stores packed with counterfeit products.

The best business school in the country is a private one. It was started after the fall of the Soviet Union. Today its degrees are accepted by both government and industry. There are no divisive questions of university asylum in either the public or private universities. Private and state degrees are accredited and assessed according to the same system, and have equal value whether in the private or public sector.

Despite the fact that GDP fell drastically in 2008-2009, small groups of special interests do not block the town centre or try to burn parliament. The President and Prime Minister are both elected directly, in contrast to the Greek model where the President is appointed by Parliament. The serving President is a woman who served as a commissioner of the European Union.

The contrast with Athens could not be greater. It was a relief to be in a modest, well-run city which suffers from no delusions of grandeur, and refuses to accept the widespread criminal activity evident in my home city.


Lunch at Schinias
I returned from Lithuania late on Saturday evening, and on Sunday we decided to take a trip out to Schinias and enjoy the day on the beach. Against my own preferences, but in line with the desire of our guests, we decided to eat at the “Dolphin”, an illegal restaurant on the beach.

The waiter came and asked us if we wanted to see the “grill” (ψητo). This is not the normal use of the word, for he took us to see which large fish could be grilled. His sales pitch was for a sea bream caught on the open sea (as opposed to raised in an aquaculture cage). The price was EUR 50 per kilo, or EUR 80 for the fish in question.

I have to admit, I was extremely irritated, although this is a standard price for “fresh fish”. Perhaps if I didn’t pay the income taxes I pay every year, I could spend the money on his miserable fish instead. But despite the fact that I am a relatively well-remunerated professional, not dependent on the Greek market, and with my own company to boot, I simply refuse to spend EUR 80 on a fish, which probably cost EUR 20 from the fisherman.

Perhaps it was the banality of his manner at offering such an astronomical price for what was clearly a very ordinary product. Indeed, the insouciance with which he and his fellow taverna-owners engage in the same price gouging all over Greece shows that I am far in the minority on this issue.

Yet the bastard got us anyway. When the bill for our sardine & kalamari lunch finally arrived, the cover charge for “bread” amounted to EUR 6, or EUR 1 for every person at the table. Given that 1 kg of bread costs EUR 0.60, he charged us enough to buy 10 kg of bread, while of course serving less than 0.5 kg. A fine margin indeed: If I raised my consultancy fees to the same ratio, I’d be eating at Alain Ducasse every night.

It’s really too bad the average diner is content to spend lots of money for a very average product. Perhaps if we were all a little more choosy and stopped frequenting the greasy spoon tavernas which have become the norm in Greece, they would go out of business or raise their quality.

Or perhaps not, given the rampant illegality and corner-cutting in this business. The taverna in Schinias, for instance, was using the oil of olive seeds (πυρηνέλαιο) rather than olive oil in his Greek salad. And the calamari was probably frozen in Thailand.


Feeding Ηρα
My weekend finished in a hospital room at the Athens Medical Centre on Kifissias, where my father has been hospitalised following yet another medical condition. He will pull through.

The story that follows is one recounted by my mother: Two nights ago, she was getting a taxi to leave the hospital. The driver asked if she minded waiting for a couple of minutes. He stopped near the hospital, got out, took a can of dog food from his car, and called out the name “Ηρα”. A stray dog, obviously very familiar to him, ran up with obvious delight. He fed the dog a little way off, got back in the car, and drove my mother home.

My mother asked him how long he had been feeding that dog. He answered “Every day for the last 5 years.”  

(c) Philip Ammerman, 2010

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