13. Sacked!

# 13    Sacked.

 My many fans, Sid and Doris Bonkers, have repeatedly asked me what the effect of the Euro crisis is having on the Greek economy. In response, I can only say that the English version of the online daily Greek newspaper Ekathimerini (http://www.ekathimerini.com/) has, within the last week, finally stopped advertising  private jet hire at 5,000 Euros per hour (plus fuel and crew) so I guess things are getting pretty ropey among the jet set. Here in the south west of Crete things are not noticeably bad other than the never ending rising price of petrol. However, out of public view, there are, so I am told, at least 12 families in the village who are totally destitute and depending on the local social services office for food and clothing; the council workers, including the social workers, haven’t been paid for six months and public infrastructure upkeep in the shape of the road repairs etc. is more or less nonexistent at the moment. The truth is that the correlation between paying tax and in return receiving some sort of benefit from the state, has yet to take hold in many Cretans’ minds because of the widespread belief that all politicians, other than the ones looking after you personally to whom you may on occasion make a small undeclared cash payment for services rendered, are a bunch of crooks and on the take.

The pheasants are revolting! Teachers join the Indepenence Day parade with a banner protesting the 25% cut in their salaries and the withdrawal of funding for local schools...the mayor was not a happy bunny

From personal experience I know of one politician who most definitely cheats.

Last Sunday, in the run up to Carnival, the all powerful ‘Women’s Committee’ held a ‘Traditional Games’ evening in the community hall, to which the memsahib and I were summoned upon pain of death invited to attend. I have to admit that the prospect of doing any such thing did not fill me with deep joy so I wandered into my local taverna for a degree of fortification beforehand. There, sat in the corner and drinking a glass of 12 of tsikoudia, was the mayor and a number of his friends. I said hello to them and sat down reading my book and sampling the house red. About an hour later I received the call to go to the hall across the road because they were doing strange things with yoghurt. The mayor must have been under the same three line whip as I was because he got up at the same time and followed me over to the hall where they were, indeed, doing strange things with yoghurt.

The evening was not quite what I had expected, the organisers had brought in a professional entertainer, a man who had collected lots of old Cretan games as played by the children in the pre television era; he was demonstrating these games to the kids and, with a great deal of success, getting them to join in with them. It rapidly became apparent that the problem wasn’t the kids; it was the adults of a certain age who were being reminded of the games they played 40 or more years ago and who wanted to have a go themselves. I should have known it was not going to end well when one particular game was hijacked by the mayor. The game involved a victim, standing in front of a group of their friends and having to hold their hand behind their back. One of the ‘friends’ then gives the hand a slap and the victim has to try and guess who did it; if they guess correctly the slapper takes their place, if incorrectly, they continue to be slapped.* (I suspect it was the pressure of having to play games like this to pass the time that led directly to the invention of television.) Watching it being played, the Mayor decided that the youth of today were a load of cissies and that the slaps were delivered much more forcefully and painfully in his day. He then decided to join in as did a group of his friends and, apparently, some of his political enemies – at least I assume they were his enemies because while their version of the game didn’t quite draw blood from the force of the slaps, it wasn’t far off doing so

About an hour, several more games involving doing strange things with yoghurt, X more tiskudias and at least one bottle of retsina later, the adults had taken over and the organiser announced a sack race would be held, the course being from one end of the hall to the other and back.  At this point, with, I am sorry to report, the apparent connivance of the memsahib, I was physically assaulted and forcefully manhandled onto the starting line where I was thrust into a sack. Now as many of you are aware I am not one who takes the slightest bit of interest in sport but being placed on the starting line, next to the mayor no less, in a Cretan sack-race and instructed to uphold the honour and dignity of the expats in the village, I had little choice but to participate.

 I’m absolutely convinced that the tactics I adopted, holding myself back in the first stretch up the hall in order to surge to victory on the return leg, would have worked. However, I hadn’t calculated on the desire to win at any cost that got the mayor to his lofty position. Honestly, I was just about to put on the spurt that would have seen me triumph, when by means of a strategically placed foot within a sack and hence in theory unidentifiable but clearly belonging to the mayor, as was the elbow in my back, I was sent base over apex. For some reason this seemed to appeal to the baser instincts among those in the audience and was greeted with loud cheers and laughter; however, not as loud as the cheer when the mayor went over having misjudged the slipperiness of the intersection of a polished floor and a jute sack. In spite of my setback I didn’t come in last…quite.

I would like to report that I triumphed in the next leg of the sack race, but unfortunately I was disqualified for wearing the sack on my head. The mayor did apologise and even invited me to join in on his team in another game. However, since this involved doing strange things with yoghurt, I made my excuses and left.

 

 

* The game also involves people making noises like a bee, but that fact is too silly to include in this missive.

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.

1. Hell in Crete

#1 Hell in Crete

Having received numerous e-mails from my adoring public (Sid and Doris Bonkers) I have none the less decided to ignore their heartfelt pleas and recommence my occasional series of epistles bringing the public up to date with certain events in my furiously frantic fun filled life. (At this point you may press the escape button if you so wish; details of how to delete e-mails and/or add my name to your spam filter will vary from browser to browser.)

To bring you up to speed, I’ve finished at Big Skool and I am now considered fully educated, at least to some degree, and I need only go back for more if I have the money. I managed to complete my course without incurring too much damage though I did manage to blow up the household electrics of one of my lecturers….on the coldest and darkest day of the year. Other highlights of the three years included watching a fellow student, bound for Sandhurst after doing his History degree, intent on showing us how fit he, and by inference the whole of the British Army, was by doing squat thrusts (I think that’s what they’re called; they look painful and energetic) in the corridor while waiting to go into a seminar and splitting the crotch of his trousers from top to bottom; hearing that well known Classical scholar Boris Johnson having his Greek corrected at a public lecture; realising I was in the presence of Constantine ‘No Name’ Glucksberg, the deposed King of Greece, and that I didn’t have a gun about my person, and discovering that academics are not the godlike beings I once took them for, but are in fact capable of terminological inaccuracies, particularly when it comes to diagrams illustrating the difference in the size of cows in western Europe before and after the fall of the Western Roman Empire*. However, I eventually left the Strand Poly in the capable hands of the little old lady who, previous readers will be glad to know, is still safe and sound in her nest of books and papers in the Theology section of the library.

Having no lectures to attend and no essays to plagerise write, I was at a loss as to what to do with myself, the memsahib’s suggestions being mostly impossible or too painful to contemplate and involving ‘work’, whatever that is, I reached the reluctant decision that I would just have to spend the remains of my student loan on the memsahib and myself wintering in Crete:  look on it as a painful burden I have taken upon myself in a, no doubt vain, attempt to prop up the Greek economy.

Into this scenario was incorporated a cunning plan to inveigle myself onto an academic event rejoicing (?) in the title: Hell in Crete. It turned out to be anything but hell, although I did discover that asking a, what appeared to me to be simple, question of 12 or more very high powered academics, a number which I discovered afterwards exceed the critical mass for Art Historians, results in receiving 19 different answers, all of which appear, almost but not quite, not to contradict each other, but are in fact at total odds with the answer you got from the previous academic….what’s more it’s all done so politely – sometimes. I did, however, at last, discover the real reason that the man in the Venetian-Cretan Fresco in one church is having a plough inserted into a part of his anatomy into which ploughs were not designed to go; discovered that the punishments in hell stipulated for fornicators, both male and female, are too painful to reveal -but think snakes- and that the fate prescribed in hell for cheating tailors involves scissors and had me waking up at nights screaming.

It doesn't bear thinking about!

 

I’m sure Cretan Television is a wonderful thing, after all, the main channels devote serious amounts of airtime to traditional Cretan dance and music, something the BBC1 has yet to do. (Actually, to be fair, BBC1 plays as much Cretan traditional music as they do English traditional music.) However I fear that they must be running out of Cretan dances to broadcast, a conclusion I reached from the fact that I came across a Kreta TV crew, cameras, lights, sound, producer and front man, carrying out an interview in the gents toilet at Chania bus station….while the toilet was still in use.

Given the state of the Greek economy and the austerity measures being introduced, civil service wages cut by 30%, retirement ages raised overnight by 8 years, VAT raised by 8% and yet more to come, it’s not surprising that they shipped and extra 7000 police into Thessaloniki for the opening of the International Trade Fair, an event to be attended by both the PM and the Leader of the Opposition. However, according to my friend Spiros who’s in one branch of the forces of Law and Disorder, the extra police, mostly from Athens, are civil servant also and while they haven’t, for obvious reasons, had such a swinging pay cut, they are not happy bunnies. Accordingly, the Athenian police apparently only agreed to go to Thessaloniki if they could have their own anti-austerity demonstration before all the other scheduled demonstrations and they got paid up front for the extra overtime they would be working; the fear being that by the end of next month when their overtime pay is due, there will be no money left to pay them. 

As a student of history, I am of course aware of previous tensions between Greece and Turkey. Conscious of the ‘Malvinas Factor’, I was discussing this very topic with Spiros, (not the previous Spiros, this was another one) and based on his experiences doing National Service in the Greek Air Force as a radio/radar technician in the late 1980s,he was vey gloomy about it all. It appears that the last time when relations between the two countries got a bit ropey, Spiros was a part of a detachment sent to guard an airfield from a possible Turkish attack. Fine in theory but rather difficult in practice since they didn’t give the conscripts any rifles; Spiros did have a helmet but it was a silver painted parade one, made of plywood. Naturally I queried the apparent lunacy of sending specialised troops to carry out an infantry role and then not arming or protecting them. Spiros looked even gloomier.

‘Yes,’ he said

‘I asked the same question and my officer told me that Air Force conscripts were expandable.’

So there it is; if Turkey attacks they will be faced by hordes of 100 metre diameter, Greek Air Force conscripts, and the war will be over before it’s started.

( For the attention of those reading this who might just happen to be Greek – you know who you are Spiros -……….I know I shouldn’t be rude about Greek mispronunciation of English, particularly given that I’ve been coming here every year for 15 or so years, I lived here for 18 months, that I’ve tried, and failed, to learn both modern and ancient Greek and still I can only just about manage to order a beer in a taverna,  but that’s the way it is I’m afraid; so I’m now going to go down to the restaurant, past the door marked ‘Stuff Only’ and try and decide where to have a plate of fish fingerings or some fresh Greek nuddels for dinner.)

 

*True, but the laws of liable prevent me from explaining further.