Monday, April 22, 2013

Travelling out West - Lunch in Kozani

This is the time of the year for us to leave Thessaloniki for the trip to Greece's North-West. It was essentially 'the same procedure as last year'.

One difference was noticeable right away, though. The Εgnatia Odos, never a heavily travelled route to begin with, was essentially empty. It couldn't have been the tolls because, if anything, they seemed cheaper than the year before. Was there perhaps an economic crisis after all?

No economic crisis was visible at first glance in downtown Kozani. A vibrant city center with pulsating life. Cafes next to one another, full with mostly young people. Short-order places all over. However, my wife did not want a Mr. Wurst or a Burger-Boy for lunch. Instead, she wanted a regular small Greek restaurant or taverna. Not to be found in the center of Kozani! After asking about two or three people, we were ready to give up when, accidentally, we found a place in a small alley off the pedestrian zone.

We were the only guests. My wife was suspicious that the food would not be fresh. She engaged in a conversation with the owner while I nursed my beer.

Then I hear my wife ask something about 'the crisis' and I hear the owner's voice behind my back saying 'there is no crisis'. Suddenly, he has got my attention.

I turn around and see a young man (38 years old, he told us later) who could be the spitting image of Cristiano Ronaldo from Real Madrid: Posture straight like an arrow; dark hair cleanly brushed; face cleanly shaven; shoulders held back; chest moved forward; polite but self-confident expression in his face. A bit like the living version of an ancient Greek statue.

I ask him what he means by saying that there is no crisis. He repeats that he means that there is no crisis. No emotions whatsoever. Had I asked him the time of the day, he might not have reacted differently. I ask him about the fact that at least one out of four Greeks doesn't have a job. He says that that's because they don"t want to work.

I ask him what a young Greek who wants to work but cannot find a job should do. He points at the windows where I can see two or three people doing some painting etc. in the backyard. He tells me that those are Albanians working for 50 Euro/day. I tell him that that sounds a bit like sweat shop wages. He tells me that, with 20 working days, that adds up to 1.000 Euros per month which is a lot more than unemployment insurance. It's hard to argue with that.

I ask him why Greeks wouldn"t do that kind of work. His response: 'Because they are sitting in cafes. But, eventually, they will learn to work'.

I tell him that what he says sounds very hard, if not impassionate to me. He explains that he has been working 18 hours a day since the age of 15 doing every type of work available. With that, he saved enough to buy the restaurant. Business is slow these days but good enough for him, his wife and 2 children (a third on the way) to lead a satisfactory life.

I ask him what is needed in Greece and his response is: 'A right-wing government. Not Chrysi Avgi but a right-wing government'.

Meanwhile, the food was ready and his wife served it. She had prepared everything fresh. My wife was very happy. I nursed my beer and pondered what I had heard.


  1. Isn't it amazing, the inventivity of a simple man. What no theoretical economist could ever think of, what even McKinsey couldn't think of. A massive non-stop wallpainting campaign! Why not?

    Immediate benefits:
    - State doesn't have to pay unemployment check.
    - No health insurance to be paid.
    - No pension claim.
    - Possible reduction of illegal immigrants, due to fierce competition by 2.000.000 unemployed Greeks for the same, black economy jobs.
    - Benefit in the current account deficit, since the number of illegal immigrants that take those jobs and send the money to their homeland, where they worth much more, will be reduced.
    - Blossoming of the paint factories in Greece.
    - The argument that the state would get no direct tax is null, because won't get from the Albanians either, but such a massive force of painters would give a good amount of VAT in paints and brushes.
    - Soon prices would drop to 20 euros/day, driving down the salaries of other jobs too, making the entire greek economy more competitive.

    It's almost genious! And all you need is walls! Wall-economy!

    Instead, you have Greeks prefering the unemployment aid or leave the country to simulate what the Albanians do...

    1. Hmmm, sorry to say this, but this nonsense is typically Greek. We also saw it in Italy, where Berlusconi at the start of the crisis denied its existence -- saying, "Look at the all cafes and their customers. There is no crisis!"

      Economic realities are an aggregate, and we measure them in aggregate. One person's opinion reflects personal experiences, maybe some luck, maybe some regional or sectoral disparities... It is not an accurate picture of the economy. That is why economists are employed, in order to give a scientific account of what is happening.

      I had a similar experience to yours, Klaus, about 3 years ago in a cafe. i was with a longtime Greek friend and another of his friends, whom I knew slightly. We started to discuss the crisis -- and his friend claimed that there was no crisis. I know better than to argue with Greeks unless I am prepared to shout and defend my position, so I couldn't be bothered.

      Later, I asked my friend about the employment status of his friend. I was informed that he had previously worked in a merchant bank, and left after many years because he didn't like the conditions. Now he was working somewhere else (I will not say) and was very unhappy with his low level of pay. This was, with only a Master's degree and not really anything else very prestigious, a "mere" 4,000 euros a month.

      Greek people see only what is in their own very circumscribed and small universe. It is one of the most serious problems in Greece, that few people actually know what is going on. For that, you are heavily reliant on expert foreigners (both homogeneis and allogeneis) who are frequently more patriotic to Greece than the Greeks themselves. Of course, I am horribly aware that Papandreou has badly damaged the reputation of "Greek non-Greeks" -- but one should not make generalisations with a sample size of 1.

  2. Being a political child of Thatcherism (I was in the UK before she became PM and left in 1983 to visit a few times until she left power) it is easy to see what this man is asking for: somebody to enforce the discipline he has in his life and he learned from his elders as the necessary ingredient of life. M. Thatcher, daughter of a grocer, chemist and wife of a succesfull executive was exactly like that. And you can level the same critisism leveled against her: crude understanding of how the country works that can lead to serious problems.
    M Thatcher succeeded because: a)she was a capitalist in a capitalist country 2) the UK was in far worse shape than Greece is now 3) the cold war provided a simple, discipli-ned political environment, much simpler than today's that protected from many mistakes 4) the Argentine junta provided a lucky break just when things were goiong against her 5)the UK is a protestant, individualistic,law culture and Greece is a clan based, honour culture. The differences are enough to make any thatcherite policies impossible
    I would hazard a guess: further probing would reveal that the person a) considers himself a community beacon/leader, a common fantasy of provincial shop owners and the basis of the thatcherite political myth b) is against capitalism (he is probably against large companies and other non-state large capital concentrations) and that his political model, apart from the thatcherite legend, includes the 1950's and 1960's Greece where there was hard work and developement. Both models are out of the question in modern Greece. Discipline is sorely needed but of a different kind. And I suspect that he will find the capitalist discipline unpleasant.
    Finally I usually ask these people what will happen if the lazy cafe customers they so despise decide to take up arms to steal their money instead of working ie what will they do if political instability rather than a return to the work ethic of yesteryears follows the present situation. I have never (globally) got a rational answer from such people, because they don't want to understand that other people may not agree with their assumption that they are community leaders. What they seem to believe is that a mythical beast (the state the nation a leader) will protect them. This is the political basis of fascism
    These people need to be handled carefully by the political system. Many of their insticts are correct and sorely needed, but they can easily become part of a serious political problem. This is cynical but the only effective method.

  3. I am astonished that in Kozani albanian wall painters get 50€ a day! In Athens they would get 20€ a day and count themselves lucky, since most semi-skilled work earns 2€ or 3€ an hour in Greece for more than a year now.

    This is called the minimum wage in fact.

    In my neighbourhood in Athens near the Hilton, cafes are rarely full, or even half full and almost NEVER with young people. The median age at my locals is 55, meaning that most are over 65 and retired. They meet friends over a 1€ greek coffee 2 or 3 times a week. A luxury that many pensioners in my richer part of the centre can still afford.

  4. I am amazed that in Kozani albanian casual labour receives 50€ a day for painting walls, a sum that was not even common before the crisis. 40€ a day would have been the top price in 2008, say. Here in Athens semi-skilled labour gets 2€ or 3€ an hour. If this added up to 20€ a day it would be counted a triumph.

    The sums I am quoting are not only fact, but also the minimum wage in Greece, which is also the maximum wage for most workers now.

    The 2 friends from Kozani I rang up to check this with are also astounded.
    So perhaps this restauranteur - who had no customers except you and your wife - is somehow exempt from the mainstream economy and involved in something else.

    As for young people in cafes, in my Hilton neighbourhood of Athens (Ilissia) the median age of cafe-goers is c. 65. Meeting friends for a 1€ greek coffee. If young people (30 years & down) buy a coffee it is 'packeto', take-out, and they are usually working.

  5. So, the Greek labor force is comprised of spoiled brats that don't want to do the dirty jobs.

    Maybe that's so. But I have two observations.

    First of all, I dispute that black-market jobs pay 50€ per day. Maybe some do. But I've done black market jobs that paid 20€ per day.

    Secondly, I wouldn't be so cocky if I was the owner of the restaurant which is mentioned in the article. Kozani doesn't attract foreign tourists, so (mostly) demand for the restaurant's services is internal. Should the Greek labor force be desperate enough to resort to low-paid uninsured black-market jobs, maybe the owner of the restaurant would find that demand for his services isn't that required anymore.

    So, to conclude, careful what you wish for.

  6. On the way back to Thessaloniki we stopped again at this place. This time it was later in the afternoon. As we arrived, four guests left and we were again the only ones in the restaurant. After serving us the food, the owner had to leave to take care of errands. When we had finished the meal, the cook came out and sat with us.

    He had run a Greek taverna in Nürnberg for almost 20 years. From 10am until 1am every day for him and his wife. It got too much for them and they returned to Greece in 2006. He got a good job within 3 months. His son (16 then) had enormous adjustment difficulties. For one year he didn't leave the home. Then it 'clicked', he made friends and went out with them. A couple of years later, he went to Nürnberg to spend New Year's with his former friends there. When he returned, he told his father that he didn't understand how anyone could live in Nürnberg...

    The son is now managing an Internet Cafe. He would like to study mechatronics but can't do that in Greece. In Germany, it would cost 1.200 Euro/months but they don't have enough money. So, he is in waiting for things to happen.

    The cook told us that the owner bought the place in 2004. Since then, just about every other restaurant in Kozani went out of business (one had been right next door). So they now benefit from being the only ones. The bulk of their business is larger parties, particularly over the weekend (births, deaths, etc.). They now do 40% more business than a year ago. The owner is highly respected by everyone around. He seems to be a bit of a godfather to whom people come when they need help (and he helps).

    Incidentally, the place where the Albanians had worked is nearly finshed. A new TV shop (Plus?) is about to open there.

    Interestingly, a commentator in another blog (The Slog) referred to my article in a post where he seemed to argue that everything would be fine in Greece if Greeks only were prepared to work. That, of course, was not the point of my article. I was, however, very much surprised by some of the comments in that blog. Below is the link.

    I suggest to read the first paragraph of the comment of theAthensdog above. That says it pretty much all. I, too, have been in situations where exceptional effort (and a bit of luck) saved me from downturns which people around me had to suffer. When that happens, one – as an individual – tends to feel that everybody else could have done the same thing if they had only tried hard enough. What the individual neglects in such situations is that there may not be enough place for everyone to succeed, regardless how hard everyone tries. Everyone has the same chance in the 100 meter dash but only one of them can win. The winner may feel from his perspective that everyone else could have won, too, but from the group’s perspective this would not have been possible.

    Still, I object the downgrading of an individual’s views which he has gathered as result of his own success due to hard work and clean living (and some luck). It’s a bit like downgrading Germany for its success. If he were my son, I would be proud of him. I would also advise him (which I actually did) that he should be careful when extrapolating his own experiences to everyone else. Germany, too, ought to be respected for their success but they should be advised that not everyone could do the same thing as they do (otherwise the Earth would have to find a new planet to export to).