10. Bankers all

# 10 Bankers all.

 As the memsahib reminded me recently, Christmas day was on a Sunday this year. The previous Thursday evening we went to the local community centre to hear some carols sung by the newly formed women’s’ choir; and very nice it was too with 50 or more women singing in unison – harmonies are on the curriculum for early next year. This auspicious occasion was marked by the attendance of the mayor – never one to miss an opportunity for a bit of electioneering – and the newly appointed metropolitan (think archbishop – a man with a very big black hat) and his nine attendant priests. At the end of the carols the conductor was duly thanked and then the mayor got up to speak, much to the obvious discomfort of the majority of the audience who are well aware of his reputation of never using one word when 15 will suffice and of his ability to bore for Greece, let alone Crete. For once though, he was merciful and sat down top great applause after about two minutes – though I’m unsure if the applause was for the content of his remarks or his brevity. The new metropolitan then got up to speak.

25 minutes later I certainly had lost the will to live and by the look of them so had most of the audience. According to my friend Spiros, when I managed to wake him, the sermon speech had been about the need for the community to come together in these times of austerity and to look after its most disadvantaged members and the need for us all to acknowledge that the politicians, with a bit of help from the Orthodox Church and their God, will eventually find a way to the sunlit uplands of the glorious future – provided of course that no one votes Communist in the next elections and they don’t convict the monk from Mount Athos currently banged up on a charge of carrying out a massive multi million Euro fraud with the apparent help of the last but one Government (OK, so ‘m paraphrasing a bit but you get the general idea.) He and his retinue then left the hall along and got into their three illegally parked BMWs: the ones with the red and white ecclesiastical licence plates which indicate that the vehicles don’t require road tax to be paid on them and get their petrol duty free.

The following afternoon, Friday, we were sat in the kafenion opposite the XYZ Bank. Alongside us in the kafenion, drinking tsikoudia*, were sat two armoured car security guards waiting to make a collection from the bank. I know this because I could see the bank staff across the road cashing up and because I was told it by the guards’ companion and drinking partner, the bank manager, wearing his id badge, pass card and bank keys around his neck, who was celebrating his name day and keeping an eye on his staff from a distance.  After several or more small bottles of tsikoudia, his party was eventually joined by the assistant manager and, over the next half hour, by three of the four remaining staff and yet more alcohol. At about four pm the assembled multitude watched as the last, and presumably most junior, member of the staff struggled to wheel the loaded cash trolley across the street to the armoured car and then hung around while the guards finished their drinks, made their farewells, paid their bill, went to the toilet, said goodbye again and strolled out to open the security van. I was naturally fascinated by all this and cast my mind back to my job in a previous lifetime when I could conceivably have been called on to represent some of those involved in this type of activity. After a wistful 10 minutes or so I had worked out a theoretically possible defence but came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t have fancied trying it out in real life.

I thought no more of the incident until about 10 days later. I was up in a taverna in our favourite mountain village talking to Giorgos, the owner, who was not a happy bunny. He was bemoaning the fact that he had had to pay a 100 Euro bribe to get some electricians out on Christmas Eve to replace the heavy duty overhead power cable that supplied electricity to the kafenion and most of the village. To my surprise he blamed this on the XYZ Bank. I couldn’t quite make the connection (no pun intended) and assumed that it had something to do with the financial crisis, the calling in of a loan, a refusal to extend an overdraft or some such financial transaction.

“No” said Giorgos. “The Friday before Christmas the bank manager from the bank rolled up here at about five pm and started celebrating his name day and drinking tsikoudia. By six pm he was totally drunk and decided to continue celebrating by shooting his pistol at the electricity pole. Normally he couldn’t hit a wall if he was standing five metres in front of it but this time he was so drunk he managed to shoot accurately. He shot up the insulators, ruined the cable and blew out all the fuses in the village before we got the gun off him.”

At this point it dawned on me that I might have to rethink my hypothetical defence strategy.





*A rather potent Cretan spirit made from the leftovers after grapes are made into wine. Its ability to cure all known Cretan maladies, and several unknown ones, is little short of miraculous; drinking it certainly has an effect on gravity in the drinker’s immediate vicinity.





9. Taverna Manners

#9. Taverna manners

As I have remarked before, Cretans are generally a law abiding lot, at least until it comes to paying tax and smoking in non smoking areas.* The tax issue is one that’s been around since the Dead Sea was first taken ill, the general view here being that since the ‘Turks,’ who effectively left in Crete 1898, imposed discriminatory taxation on Cretan Christians, over 100 years later it’s still ones patriotic duty to avoid paying tax of any kind if at all possible. However, the smoking ban in shops and restaurants is relatively new matter. For the most part the ban works, although it’s nowhere near as effective as in the UK. In general most taverna owners will allow smoking inside as long as no one objects, assuming of course that anyone is daft brave enough to object to very large men dressed head to toe in black and with interesting bulges in their pockets, smoking as they and their forefathers have done for time immemorial. However, if you think smokers in Crete are being discriminated against and picked on, think of the poor vegetarians.

I was sat on the veranda in the front of my favourite restaurant one evening earlier in the year, content underneath a canopy of vines and looking out at the sea. The interior was open but Spiros the owner was expecting a small German wedding party (small in the sense that it was going to be for 30 people, not small in the sense that the guests were of limited stature and German in the sense that it wasn’t a Greek wedding which would be considered small if there were only 300 present, irrespective of their stature) and was trying, and generally succeeding, to empty the inside dining room to prepare for the wedding bash. His wife, Maria, had the kitchen under control and his son was grilling food on an open air barbeque when along come a pair of Antipodeans who sat down not far from the grill. Within a few minutes, having had their table laid and having ordered their food, they proclaimed loudly to Spiros and anyone within earshot, that they were vegetarians and, as vegetarians, they were offended by the smell of grilling meat and fish. So upset were they at their close proximity to grilling flesh that they therefore demanded to have their table moved away from the offensive odours. By now the outside of the taverna was full and the only place to relocate them was to a table just inside the main area. Clearly Spiros wasn’t happy with this but ever mindful that the customer is always right, even if they are vegetarians, moved them. The wedding party arrived within a few minutes of the move and settled in, ignoring the veggies.

Ignoring them that is until the veggies, waiting to have their starter delivered (a Cretan salad without the cheese, naturally since they appeared to be of the Vegan wing of the Vegetable Liberation Front) both lit up large cigars. On seeing this, Spiros, who I know for an absolute fact always has a lit cigarette smouldering by the till, came forward with an evil grin on his face and pointing to the fading ‘No Smoking’ sign, told them to put out the cigars or leave. To no one’s surprise, they left. Two minutes later Spiros came out to start to take the orders from the wedding guests and, as usual, he was smoking a cigarette.

That was in the summer. In the winter the restaurant reverts to being a taverna with a much more limited, but still excellent, menu and as such is one of the more popular eating places in the village. So popular is it that it’s difficult at times to get a table, which possibly explained the sight, the other evening, of Spiros and Maria’s youngest daughter, sat at the till at the back, ignoring the Cretan food available to her and eating take-away gyros (think doner kebab without the taste but with added processed chips, yoghurt and tomato ketchup) from the fast food shop around the corner.

Mind you, the only reason I’d seen this was that we’d decamped from our usual bar because of the possibility of an outbreak of violence occurring between the mothers in the infant school PTA trying to run their Christmas bizarre (yes, I know) in the local community centre and those who had booked the said centre for an anti government/anti IMF protest meeting. Both the bazaar and the protest meeting were very well attended but the very noisy debate between the various political and non political factions, debate which spilled out into the street and to the local bars, was not made any calmer or more rational by the fact that the PTA bazaar carried on behind the top table throughout the meeting. One consequence of this was that the person chairing the meeting was never sure if those walking up the centre of the room towards her were coming to use the microphone, or to visit the PTA stalls to buy their last minute Christmas presents. I knew we’d made the correct decision to move the 200 or so metres when on arriving at Spiros’ establishment, we spotted, hidden away out of view from the street, the mayor; the man who is, naturally, held responsible for everything in the village that goes pear shaped, including double bookings in the community centre. Not sure if he was hiding from the PTA or the protestors, but my money’s on the former.


* Some might also consider that the possession of unlicensed guns and similarly unlicensed tsikoudia stills demonstrate something about one type of Cretan approach to the law, but I would never suggest such a thing.