Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Impressions of Greece After 3-1/2 Months in Ellada

This little essay is not about hard facts. The hard facts about today's Greece can easily be summarized: over 25% unemployment, 2-3 million Greeks around or below poverty level, more than 2 million without access to health service other than emergencies in the hospitals, etc. No, this little essay is about soft facts. About the impressions and perceptions I have absorbed during the last 3-1/2 months in Greece.

It is now about 5 years that my Greek wife and I spend 2-3 months in the spring and in the fall, respectively, in Greece. 2009 I still have in memory as an extremely bullish period. Even 2010, when Greece had already concluded the first memorandum, brings back bright memories. From then onwards it went downhill from visit to visit. About a year ago, my wife began wondering whether or not we should ever come back. The overall depressed atmosphere, the depressing stories from friends and relatives, the closed-down shops and restaurants, etc. --- all of that had begun to really get under her skin.

This time, however, it felt different!

My first economic indicator is always the traffic density on Vassillisis Olgas, the major access road to Thessaloniki coming from the South. From visit to visit, traffic on that road had visibly declined. Upon arrival in late August, though, I found traffic reminiscent of the go-go days. At first, I attributed it to vacationers returning to Thessaloniki from their summer homes in Chalkidiki. But traffic did not get any better in September and thereafter. And long gone are the crisis days where I could, every once in a while, find a parking lot in down-town Thessaloniki. We were now back to second row parking, sometimes even a third row.

My second economic indicator is always the number of cargo ships in the Thessaloniki bay which I can view very well from our balcony. There had been times where I was surprised when I saw as many as 3 or 4 ships, sometimes none at all. This time I had to rub my eyes: there were always SEVERAL cargo ships in the harbor and quite a few times I counted 10 or even more.

My favorite gas station had closed down a couple of years ago, so I had to find another one, a bit farther away, which then became my new favorite. I was most surprised to see that favorite #1 had re-opened. The new leaseholder, Petros, is a really nice person and so are the 3 or 4 Albanians who work for him. All of them offer outstanding service with a very positive attitude. Petros had only opened shortly before I returned to Greece, so during the first weeks I never saw too much business and started feeling sorry for him. Of late, he has become real busy and seems to be satisfied with the results. Needless to say, this time I did all my business with favorite #1 again. One time, we drove past favorite #2 on a Sunday and I was surprised to see that he was not open for business. Before, he was always open for business on Sundays.

I told Petros that all gas stations in Austria were self-service. One person would normally do what Petros and his 3-4 Albanians do and that person would also run a small self-service retail shop on the side. Petros said that this would never work in Greece.

New retail shops, cafés and tavernas have opened up in Thessaloniki. I have written before about the enormous success of the Mikel coffee shop franchises and I noticed that a couple of new franchises had opened up in our area. I have written before about our friend Elias who had developed a new taverna concept. His place was closed for refurbishing when we arrived. We had to rub our eyes when we saw the refurbished place: a really first-class taverna, very low prices and very high volume. I would guess that he serves at least 500 meals every day.

And now to the greatest surprise: GREECE HAS GOTTEN LESS EXPENSIVE, IF NOT TO SAY CHEAP! I had been wondering from visit to visit why, with all the recession and depression, prices all over had remained very sticky and very high. That is definitely no longer the case. I am not saying that everything has become cheap. There are still many places where one wonders how they can sell anything at their high prices. However, there are now alternatives in many places; a lot of alternatives! There are still the expensive shops in downtown Thessaloniki but there are also a lot of shops advertising extremely low prices. Some of them so low that one wonders how shopkeepers can survive with them. There are still rather expensive restaurants, tavernas and cafés but there is also a very nice downtown restaurant where one can eat for 7 Euros all one can eat (including one soft drink) and the buffett on offer is very good. We have been to several tavernas where the bill for two for a nice meal plus drinks came to 15 Euros, sometimes even a bit less, other times a bit more. The times where a small Espresso would cost at least 3 Euros seem part of the past in many places.

One Saturday, the door of my car was badly damaged by a bus and it needed to be replaced. Monday morning I drove to the workshop thinking that I would leave the car then and there and get it back by Wednesday. Much to my surprise, there was a waiting time of 2 weeks before they could fit me into their schedule. The repair was supposed to take 2-3 days but eventually it took 4 days because they had so much work. The price, on the other hand, was very reasonable.

We took the obligatory trip out West and spent a few days in the area Ioannina-Parga-Preveza. If the Egnatia motorway, perhaps the best but certainly the most impressive motorway I have seen, is an economic indicator, Greece is in deep depression. Hardly any traffic even though I had the impression that the tolls had come down a bit. This should be a busy motorway carrying products from Northern Greece to the harbor in Igoumenitsa and it is near-dead.

On the stretch from Ioannina to Konitsa I had nearly run out of gas a couple of years ago because I couldn't find a gas station. Maybe I was gas-station-blind at the time but nowadays there are at least half a dozen gas stations along the way. On a different road, we stopped at a brandnew gas station. The young leaseholder said he had opened a month ago. A couple of Km down the road there was another brandnew gas station.

Last summer, my wife's sister had visited us in Austria. She was eager to see the beaches of Northern Italy so we went to the tourist spots between Grado and Venice (Lignano, Jesolo, etc.) where I had not been since childhood days. Once, after lunch, we wanted to spend a couple of hours on the beach thinking that we would park the car along the beach and look for beach chairs. Instead, we had to leave the car in a parking lot and walk quite a distance to the entrance of the beach. The beach was completely walled-in, i. e. totally inaccessable. The ticket counter was reminiscent of the ticket counter of a soccer stadium for a Champions League game: all rows of beach chairs (up to 20 or even more) had a letter and each seat was numbered. We had to state how much time we would stay and then we were shown available places. The price for the 3 of us would have been 33 Euros. My two Greek ladies were up in arms and became quite aggressive. They blamed the people at the counter for brutal exploitation when you could get much more beautiful beaches in Chalkidiki free of charge. 

I thought my two Greek ladies would come away from the experience feeling proud of their home country and the much nicer beaches there. Instead, they felt deeply hurt and wanted to know from me why these mean German tourists would come to these horrible and expensive beaches in Northern Italy instead of coming to beautiful Greece. Regrettably, I could not give them an answer but I was certainly looking forward to seeing the Chalkidiki beaches again soon thereafter.

Well, very few German tourists in Chalkidiki (except, perhaps, at the fancy resorts). The entire area seems to be under control of tourists from East European countries. I did not get the impression that they were wealthy tourists. Instead, there seemed to be a good portion of campers. Pefkochori left the impression of a little-Belgrade. Signs, menues, etc. are in Eastern languages. When I expressed disappointment about that, my sister-in-law shouted at me: "You were the one who was saying that Greece ought to become cheap. Now we have become cheap and you don't like it!" Hard to deal with that blame.

We had this favorite place in Nea Skioni where we had occasionally taken a day-trip just to have lunch there (about 1-1/2 hours' drive from Thessaloniki!). This time we didn't see the owner. Instead, foreign nationals were doing the service and seemed to be working in the kitchen. Motivated by his success, the owner had apparently decided to retreat into management and let others do the work. Needless to say, service and food were poor. We asked to see the owner and gave him open feedback. His response: "It's so hard to find good help these days!" We never went back there.

My wife's niece has her own hairstyle shop. She does all the hairstyling, she has one full-time assistant and an Albanian cleaning lady in a shop of about 20 qm size. Her husband, who is not employed otherwise and who has never had any employment in his life, comes by in the morning when their daughter is at school "to supervise everything". The rest of the day he spends at home with the little daughter. The niece told me that business was slow, dangerously slow. When I asked her why she thought it was slow, her answer was: "People no longer have money!" I told her about my surprise that new businesses had opened. She said they were all financed with EU subsidies and once the subsidies had run out, the businesses would close again.

Her father has his own earthmoving and building materials business in the village. The niece told me that he has no work at all. I asked why? Big surprise: "People no longer have money!"

A good friend lives in a village West of Thessaloniki. I told him what I had heard from several people, namely that life in the villages is more or less ok because the villagers have few expenses and need so little to live. My friend told me that this was wrong. In his village, for sure, there is complete misery. The only thing is, he says, that Greeks in the villages are too proud to show their misery, so one cannot see it at first glance.

We needed to replace 2 central heaters in our apartment. The technician, for once, was Greek (I had gotten used to only seeing Albanians doing this kind of work). He definitively was a professional, and a most pleasant person, too. For his labor he charged a flat 90 Euros. Difficult to translate that into an hourly rate because he came and left a couple of times. Still, he was absolutely worth it. He told us that his son was also working for him. They were very busy because they received so many references (that's how he had come to us). It is not unusual for them to bring 500 Euros home in one day (without receipts, of course).

The yacht club in Nea Krini shows off a handful of fancy luxury yachts. Huge luxury yachts! One belongs to a Spanish builder/constructor who only uses it for vacation trips. Another one belongs to a relatively young Bulgarian who claims to be Greek but doesn't speak a word of Greek. He is some kind of a financial advisor who apparently trades non-performing loans. Sometimes he gets his hands on valuable assets collateralizing a loan without paying much for them. The yacht, possibly one of those collateralizing assets, is sportive and so is his Mercedes 500 coupé (in black) which he had parked along the side of the yacht. Another yacht belongs to a "very rich Bulgarian" who only uses Nea Krini for docking during winter. In the summer, he takes the yacht up to the Black Sea. There seemed to be only foreigners in the area where the large yachts were. Incidentally, most of the workers on the large fishing ships were foreigners, too (many from Egypt).

Dimitra runs this wonderful fish taverna in Nea Triglia and we went there at least once a week. We remember seeing the place quite full much of the time. Now it is near empty much of the time. They could not live on the taverna (Dimitra is a teacher in her main job). So Dimitra spends the mornings working at school. Then she works several hours at the taverna. And then she does the job of a housewife at home. Her husband runs the kitchen and is an excellent cook. A son helps out in the taverna, a daughter is studying philosophy in Thessaloniki where she lives in an apartment which her parents own. She comes home for the weekends. Dimitra has become rather depressed. Why? Because there is no perspective for her and, above all, for her children. Why does she think it won't get better? "Because there is no money!" She doesn't care about a possible new election because it cannot get worse. Her children will probably have to emigrate, she fears.

Eva, my former Greek teacher, is 32 years old. She has a university degree in languages and she now works for the Thessaloniki office of a Belgian internet publishing company. Her salary is low but she can support herself, she says. Her sister has a university degree in chemistry and just got a job at Pharmathen, a supremely strong company. She, too, can support herself well. Both got their jobs without any 'third-party help'.

My wife had the chance to test a whole selection of doctors. She also had to go to a couple of medical places like laboratories for blood tests, ultrasonic examinations, etc. Bottom line: we were overwhelmed by the quality of the doctors and their equipment! The laboratories and other medical places were modern and very professionally styled. I do not think that my wife could have had a comparable medical support in Austria. Obviously, my wife is a 'paying patient' and that makes a huge difference but still: the fees were quite reasonable (at maximum 50 Euros per visit). The computer print-out's of the examinations were of a quality and comprehensiveness which one would not see in Austria except in top private clinics.

The orthopaedist was the clear superstar. I would guess in his mid-thirties or a little more. Son of guestworkers in Germany. Perfectly fluent in German. Medical degree from a German university. He works for a private hospital (where we met him) and also has his own, very large private practice (where we went for follow-up visits). I was nearly floored when I heard him ask my wife whether she had a European Health Insurance Card. Doctors in Germany and Austria always pretend not to know that card because it means work but no income for them. Basically, the card stipulates that its owners have access to publish health services in every EU country. From then on, my wife no longer had to pay for prescriptions. And then this: the orthopaedist proposed a treatment for which he charged almost 300 Euros but my wife only had to pay about 50 Euros of that, the remainder being taken over by 'the card'. I severely doubt that a Greek would get similar health support in Germany or Austria. And to really top it off: in the end, the orthopaedist and my wife discovered that their villages were quite close to one another and, bingo, that they were distant relatives!

I asked the orthopaedist how the system worked for someone without health insurance. He said everyone gets emergency treatment but it is not free of charge.

More than once was I in a restaurant with no-smoking signs all over the place but with ash trays on the tables. A friend told me that when a restaurant owner asked a group of city employees who were regular guests to respect the non-smoking signs, they laughed and asked the owner whether he was prepared to lose all the business from city employees. No surprise, my friend told me. Their boss is their role model. When the mayor hits the top restaurants with his cronies, the rooms are quickly filled with smoke. My friend had witnessed a scene where the owner respectfully told the mayor that he might get into trouble if he allowed them to smoke. The mayor's reaction was a waving with his hand. Kind of 'get stuffed!'

I may add a few more paragraphs to this little essay as time goes on. There would be much more to report on. But what is the gist of my impressons and perceptions?

To me, the gist was that a certain part of the population is beginning to see improvement. Their spirits have turned and they are spending more money. In fact, I would say that they live a rather good life (like we do when we are in Greece). At the same time, there is what I would call a 'silent majority'. It probably is not an absolute majority but it is a large group. These people are suffering and gradually falling more and more into personal depression. When together with a group of others, I would often suggest that Alexis Tsipras would run the country into the ground, just to get the discussion going. The reply was invariably: "You don't understand! The voters of SYRIZA don't worry about a bank run because they have no money at the bank. They don't worry about a possible economic collapse because they have nothing to lose. As far as they are concerned, it cannot get worse, only better".

There was one strange phenomenon, at least strange to me. Not once was I in a discussion with someone from the well-to-do where the economic problems of the suffering was discussed. It seemed like they wanted to put those miseries out of their minds by not talking about them. And when I put my finger on the subject, there wasn't much of a reaction.

Quo vadis, Ellada? Dimitra from Nea Triglia whispered that she feared another civil war. As far as I am concerned, the increased traffic on Vasillissis Olgas, the growing number of cargo ships in the Thessaloniki bay, the openings of new businesses, the lowering of prices, etc. could indicate that a part of Greece's economy has indeed begun to turn around. Yes, one could reasonably argue if one waits long enough, that improvement will eventually affect all Greeks but that waiting time, in my opinion, cannot be measured in years, only in decades. I am not sure that the growing suffering part of the population will be prepared to wait that long. Perhaps not even peacefully.

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