Tuesday, August 30, 2005 

We Are Not Amused

The Brits haven't found this one...yet.

Orgies on the islands of Zakynthos and Corfu. A shopowner beaten up in Plaka. A youth killed with a beer bottle in Rhodes. These incidents are not the results of an organized crime syndicate preying on innocent people. They were acts committed by vacationing Brits. They are also not limited to Greece. In July, a barman in Bulgaria was nearly killed by a brick thrown at him which fractured his skull. A British football fan is currently on trial for attempted murder. The country which used to be globally famous for proper etiquette and gentlemanly behaviour is now notorious for hooliganism and loutish behaviour.

I grew up in the port city of Halifax which played host to NATO ships from around the world every year. Only the British seemed to have a problem with being banned from nightclubs by the second night of their stay for drunkenness and aggressive behaviour.

Having witnessed all this first-hand in both Canada and now in Greece, I'd have to say that the primary reason for their absolute boorish behaviour has to be alcohol. They drink it like water and once they start drinking, they don't seem to know when to stop. As a result, like most inebriated people, they lose all sense of civility and propriety.

A secondary cause, at least for the vacationing Brits, are the tour operators themselves. They frequently advertise Greece and other destinations to youth as low-cost places to let your inhibitions go with impunity. Consequently, Brits arrive fully believing that whatever they do in another country will have no repurcussions for themselves. Unfortunately, the aftermath of their behaviour is not just a bad hangover. Too many other tourists and locals who have the misfortune of being around them are suffering the consequences as well. I think it's high time Britain initiates an awareness campaign to combat and discourage the excessive consumption of alcohol in its population before they find vacation destinations completely forbidden to them. The onus should not be on the countries which receive the tourists to prevent such acts but on Britain in order to change its current reprobate reputation.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005 

How Much Does the Stamp Cost for an Email?

If only it were a Greek classroom.

Owning a business means you often get solicited for jobs. The fact that people ask for a job at our stores is a good thing...the fact that so few of them are barely qualified to be a store clerk is not. We aren't overly demanding in our expectations either. Our employees don't need to be MBA grads, multilinguists or even have previous work experience. We just need someone who:
  • has basic knowledge of computers and home entertainment systems
  • has an interest in movies
  • has a basic grasp of english (since 90% of our movies, games and entertainment system instruction manuals) are in the English language
  • can be flexible with working hours
  • appears to be responsible and honest

Many of the hopeful candidates do meet 3-4 of the requirements. Incredibly enough, they don't meet the most important requirement...basic computer knowledge. Many of them have never used a computer in their lives let alone know how to differentiate between hardware and software. I tell them repeatedly that their degree in biology, french, or visual arts is of no use to us without unless they can boot the PC, launch the store software, backup the transactions to the Zip and explain the difference between RAM and a hard drive to a potential purchaser. My 11 year old son can do all of this. He's had a computer since he was 7. It's astonishing that a 21 year-old university graduate can't.

What's even more puzzling to me is that they don't even see a problem with their computer illiteracy. I ask them how they expect to even get a job at Pizza Hut without knowing how to use a computer. They believe that computers are overrated and therefore, my shock over their lack of computer skills is unwarranted.

To top it all off, I have never ONCE received a curriculum vitae from any of them. When I ask them to email it to me when they get it, they blankly stare at me. "Email? You mean fax?" It's that bad.

Is the Dept. of Education and the schools themselves to blame for this gross oversight in the child's curriculum? Yes, I do believe they are partially responsible since not enough importance is placed on computer literacy and the need to prepare our children for a global workplace. I've asked my son's PTA why there aren't computer lessons in the curriculum for all the children instead of it being treated as a fee-based extracurricular activity for a dozen children on 3 outdated computers . They say that there just isn't enough money to get them. I can appreciate that given that Greece spends the least amount of money on public education in the EU. This year, I'm going to propose to my son's school that we attempt some sort of fundraiser or sponsorship deal with local business for new computers. Where there's a will, there must be a way. Unfortunately, it's easier to find the ways than the will in others.

Parents are also partially responsible. I've tried to convince many parents at the stores to buy a starter PC for their children instead of a PlayStation console which is roughly the same price (once you factor in the cost of a memory stick, game and remote control). So far, it's a lost cause. Parents have told me they were raised without a computer and they got along just fine without one. They've told me that since they know nothing about computers, their child will only meet paedophiles on the Internet. Apparently, ballet and karate lessons are the keys to a child's employment success rather than computer literacy. This prevalent attitude must change before our children find the doors of employment opportunity closed to them in adulthood.

Monday, August 22, 2005 

Apateones and Kleftes

A tourist and his money are soon parted.

I have returned from the land of sun and sea to the land of concrete and smog just to update my blog for my readers. How I wish that were actually true...but the fact remains that I have returned because real life (work, bills, house repairs) has a filthy habit of infiltrating my utopian fantasies all the time. I hate it when that happens.

At least I have returned with a blog topic already prepared...exposing the rip-off artists in Greece. I've been meaning to write this blog for awhile now and I should have written it before the tourist season started but as usual, I'm a day late and a dollar short. So let's just say I'm 11 months early for the next tourist season.

I consider myself to be an authority on the subject for the simple fact that each and every scam I'm about to relate now has been attempted on me. Many of my Greek and non-Greek friends including my husband never believed that these things could happen just to me and refused to believe that they happened at all...until they started watching these people the way I do. Now, they're believers. Granted, the scams don't happen as often to them as they do to me for the simple reason that they don't speak Greek with a heavy accent. It's common knowledge to any second language speaker that an accent is unjustly equated with stupidity all over the world.

Even if the scammers say they don't understand English, just repeat the words "apateona!" (cheater!) or "kleftis!" (thief!) and they'll get the message fast enough.

The Bill
If you haven't asked for a menu then be prepared for portions that you never ordered or which cost more than the listed price included in your bill. I always do a mental tally in my head before the bill comes so I know that a salad, plate of fries, coke and pastitsio doesn't cost 85€. The most common place for overcharging on a bill will be in the beverages since people usually order a lot and can't remember if they ordered 6 sodas or 7 and a bottle of water. I think waiters purposely write worse than doctors to make the price check that much more difficult. A 2 or 3€ overcharge in this section doesn't sound like much to complain about but if the waiter does it 10 times a day, he'll be driving a Mercedes by the end of your vacation and you'll be waiting for the bus wondering how it all happened.

The Change
When you pay for a 26.65€ bill with a 50€ bank note, count your change immediately. The waiter will start counting the change aloud for you and the scam goes like this: as they start laying down the notes in front of you, they will skip a number. So they'll give you the 35 cents first and say "27" and then they'll lay down a 1€ coin and say "28" and then very quickly say "30" withOUT laying down the 2€ coin and continue with on with two 10€ notes. It's as easy with that, you see 4 or 5 coins on the table, hear him count and assume he's actually done what he said he did and promptly put all the change (minus the 2€ he neglected to give you) in your pocket. It's like the shell game...you know the one...with the bean under one shell and no matter how focused you think you are, the bean is never under the shell you were watching. I warned my own parents to do this when they were here and they were insulted that I thought they couldn't count change. But sure enough, right in front of my eyes, they were ripped off by 2€. Of course, when you tell the waiter that you're missing the 2 euros in change, he will immediately apologize and blame the heat, his long shift or the number of people he had to serve in the past 30 minutes and you will believe him. You stop believing him after you continually find yourself 2 euros short 5 times in a week by different waiters.

One time, in Plaka (a tourist trap underneath the Acropolis), I was shortchanged 5€. And when I told the waiter I was missing the 5€ he came up with a new excuse...he didn't have any 5€ notes to give me because he just didn't have any. Somehow, in his twisted reasoning, this was an acceptable excuse. I told him that he had better find my 5€ before I found the nearest police officer and le voila...he reached into his pocket and to his "disbelief", he "found" a 5€ note to give me.

Convenience Stores
The Receipt
Check it. Make sure that only the things you bought actually appear on the receipt. More often than I care to count, mysterious 5€ charges have shown up on my receipt. When I question the cashier, they are always 'shocked' as they studiously analyse the bill and then they blame the heat, their old age, or the sticky buttons on the cash register for the mistake. A lot of times, they'll say the prices aloud (just like the waiter in the second restaurant scenario) while they punch in a different amount on the cash register. So you buy a 1.80€ bottle of Coca Cola, he says "1.80" and punches 2.80€ on the register.

Often, they will start up small conversation with you just to judge your knowledge of the local area. If they feel you're sufficiently stupid, the bottle of suntan lotion that a local pays 10€ for, will cost you 15€. Since there are rarely any prices on a lot of convenience store items, they can often get away with it.

One last piece of advice: Always check the expiry dates on all perishable food items. And this includes even major grocery store chains. I have a block of cheddar cheese I have to return tomorrow yet again to a grocery store because it's covered in green mould. There's another supermarket chain I refuse where I refuse to shop at all because every time, their pasta, rice or spices had bugs in them.

Retail Stores
In retail stores, sales clerks have a different tactic to extort money from you. They will state an item's place of manufacture other than where it was really manufactured. For instance, leather good stores will always tell you their products are made in Italy even though you can read "Made in Bulgaria" stamped on the tag in plain view. Gift shop clerks love to tell you that the little plaster replica of Hercules was made in a pottery shop in Athens while the 6pt. type on the bottom of the statue will say "Product of China".

Once, in a major Greek retail clothing store, I was going to buy a chocolate brown virgin wool coat on sale for 700€ as declared by the 30% "EKPTOSI" (sale) sign hanging over the coat rack. When I got to the cash register, the woman in front of me had just finished paying the 700€ for the same coat in white. However, when I went to pay for mine, it suddenly cost 900€. No matter what I told the sales clerk...from the fact that it was the same coat I had just traded with the previous lady so she could get the white one or the sale sign hanging above the rack...would change her mind. I left the coat on the counter and walked out.

Cabs are, by far, the easiest way for you to be parted from your money. Anyone who has travelled to any city outside their own knows this. You will find yourself paying for the fare of the passenger who was in the cab before you as well as your own fare. You will be asked for surcharges that don't exist. You will be taken to the wrong destination because the driver "didn't understand" your accent and have to pay for it. You will dropped off 5 blocks from your destination and pay the hyper-expensive "flat rate" to that destination even though flat rates don't exist for inter-city destinations. And as soon as you open your mouth and declare to the cabbie world that you're a foreigner, the metre gets switched off and then you're really at their mercy. By the time you realize that the street signs are written in Romanian and it's already 3 hours into your trip, it's too late. All I can say for anyone taking a cab anywhere in this world, keep your eyes open and make sure you get the driver's cab ID number and threaten him with the destination of "astinomiki tmima" (police station) if you know you're being ripped off.

Greece is a beautiful country to visit and you can have a great time if you just remember to bring your brains as well as your passport and suitcases.

Sunday, August 14, 2005 

Sun, Sand and....SeaWitch!

My Frappe a la Mer Awaits Me
In about 2 hours, I'll be joining the rest of the Athens summer refugees for a week in the sun next to the sea. I will return on August 22 ready to blog again. Have a great week!

Friday, August 12, 2005 

The National Obsession With Change

The Bane of My Existence

Greek retail businesses are obsessed with change. Unfortunately, the change they're obsessed with is not the transformation variety. It's monetary. Wherever you go, whatever you buy, at whatever amount, cashiers will narrow their eyes and ask the dreaded questions "mipos exeis psila?" (do you have the exact change?). If you say "no", their reaction ranges from a simple sigh to visible anger. Now, I can understand their frustration if it's a small store and you bought a package of gum for 0.60€ and pay with a 50€ bill but even if you pay with a euro coin, they still demand exact change.

One time, I took a taxi from Syntagma Square to my house and the fare was 3.50€ and I paid with a 10€ bill. It was 3pm and you'd think he would have had the change for me. But no, he assumed that giving me 5€ in change was an acceptable solution while he pocketed the 1.50€ tip. I used to let the 50 cents go from time to time but this time I was fed up. I told the driver to go to every corner store until he could find me MY exact change or he would take me to the police station to file a complaint. I got my change and I barely had both legs out of the car before he sped off.

The most recent experience was on Thursday at 4pm in a corner store on Kallithea. I bought 11.50€ worth of items and paid with a 20€ bill. The owner of the store berated me for not having exact change and told me to go "break" the bill at another store. Try to find another store open at 4pm in Athens during the summer mass vacation exodus. I told her as much and tried to explain to her that it is not my fault that she doesn't keep her cash till stocked with an appropriate amount of change like we do at our stores every day. Then she mocked me and said "So you're telling me you don't mind when customers don't have change? You actually smile?" I said, "Yes, I do...the only time I don't smile is when the customer refuses to pay."

As a customer, I am daily subjected to the rudeness and downright hostility of cashiers because of my inability to always produce 96 cents in change. As a business owner suffering the present state of the Greek economy, I have vowed never to get upset with a client for wanting to pay ... even if he pays 1.80€ charge with a 50€ bill. I instead, ask him/her politely if they have a smaller denomination on them so as to prevent their pockets being stuffed with 24 2€ euro coins. If they don't have the change, then I give them the coins. They get upset but maybe next time they'll remember to try to pay with a smaller denomination.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005 

The Mad Hatter and His Rabbit Hole of Debt

Giorgos Laughs While Greece Goes Bankrupt

Will someone PLEASE stop this man before he actually manages to bury Greece for centuries to come in debt?
Given the unexpectedly higher debt, the Finance Ministry now looks more likely to borrow about 38 billion euros for 2005.--Ekathimerini, Aug. 10, 2005

Giorgos Alogoskoufis, Greece's Finance Minister, keeps telling us (and really I can't count HOW many times he has said it) "the public debt can be managed without any negative repercussions for social spending." How can the debt keep spiralling out of control and it not have any negative repurcussions? Did this man study economy or children's fairy tales in university?

I do not have the least bit of confidence in this mans skills as a Finance Minister and apparently neither did Ecofin when he was laughed out of Brussels with his budget proposals. Back then he told us that he would have Greece's economy under control and under the 3% Growth and Stability Pact Limit. Just look at what he said last September...

According to Alogoskoufis, the 2005 deficit will be around 2.8 percent. This will be managed through elimination of Olympic expenditure — which has accounted for 1 percent of GDP — from the budget, and also through additional revenue generated by tax reforms that are estimated at another 1 percent of GDP.--Ekathimerini, Sept. 6, 2004

He relied on a substantial increase of foreign investment, a substantial increase in tax revenues and privatisation to achieve his Wonderland budget plan. All of his little schemes have failed miserably.

It's also a bit late in the game to be using words like "unexpectedly higher debt" as words of reassurance to the public. As a Finance Minister, he shouldn't be getting any unexpected surprises if he truly IS in control of this country's finances. He's been in office for almost 1 year and a half and he can't keep swallowing the "red pill" aka The Olympic Debt (which he keeps revising upwards from $4 billion, to $6 billion to $9 billion and now to almost $13 billion), in order to stay in Wonderland. It's time he wakes up and faces reality that Greece needs a capable Finance Minister not the illusion of one.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005 

3 Things For a Better Athens

1. Gypsies selling their wares via megaphone and truck at 9am on weekends.
...or any day of the week for that matter. They go up and down the streets at 5km an hour blasting their voices through megaphones to make sure that the deaf woman on the 45th floor heard them. Noise pollution HAS to be reduced in this city so let's start doing something about it.

2. Laikes.
These are street markets and every day of the week, you can find them in every single district in Athens. They used to be a cheap way to get fresh Greek produce at cheap prices. Now, they're just as expensive as the stores and the produce isn't that great or cheap anymore. And it's not just produce they sell. Everything from silverware to curtains can be found there and I don't believe that it's fair to stores who also sell the same products and pay rent, taxes and give receipts. I've never gotten a receipt from a laiki. Another reason I'd like to see them go is because they occupy 6 or more city blocks. With parking spaces disappearing faster than people are buying cars, it would be nice to be able to find a space without having to spend 45 minutes looking for one on laiki day. For those of you who think I'm exaggerating, come to Dimosthenous St. in Kallithea on a Monday morning at 9am and see how impossible it is to find a parking space. The solution is to designate a large warehouse in every district and allow them to set up shop there much like meat, fish and flower markets to be found in most major cities.

3. Street Beggars
How many times I've seen little children no more than 5 years old begging in street squares or traffic lights by themselves late at night? When I talk to other people about it the response is that "they're Gypsies or Albanians". ???!! That was the answer. They don't matter because they're Gypsies or Albanians? Well, it matters to me. They're children first and foremost and they should not be on the streets period. (90 percent of the 300 children arrested for begging each year at the streets of Athens are Albanian...why are they arresting the children and not the adults? Or are they only arresting Albanians which is even more worrisome to me.)

Last Friday, I was at the Nea Smyrni square and a young woman with her baby was begging there...in 40C weather and the baby had no hat or water. I couldn't BELIEVE people were giving this woman money instead of calling the police on her for child neglect. I tried calling them on my cell phone but as usual, no units left on my card. I instead, walked over to her and yelled at her for being so stupid and selfish and informed her I would call the police. She got up and moved. Most likely to another square where she could beg in peace.

Now, many people reading this will assume I'm cruel and heartless but the facts can't be ignored. By paying these beggars money, we only encourage criminals to exploit these children. There are already far too many news articles regarding child exploitation in Greece. Children are taken from their parents in countries bordering Greece or even here in Greece for the sole purpose of begging or worse...child prostitution. It's time we stop supporting this illegal, abhorrent racket and start arresting and imprisoning those responsible. Get those children off the street and into homes and schools for a better future. If you want to help them, send your money to a reputable NGO (see below) instead...at least your money has a better chance of helping children with a notable charity than the exploiter who forces them to beg.

SOS Children Villages Worldwide--the world's largest orphaned and abandoned children's charity
Amnesty International--campaigns for international human rights including children

Monday, August 08, 2005 

In the Beginning...I Had My Doubts

Adam and Eve, Domenichino

For several months now, I haven't been able to get rid of a nagging question in my head. If Adam and Eve were the first humans on earth as Christianity, Judaism and even Islam would have us believe, what language, if any did they speak? The answer to this question is of major importance to me because it may discredit the accuracy of the Bible itself. If religious scholars believe Adam and Eve spoke and wrote in a Semitic language then this completely contradicts the evidence that archaeologists, historians, linguists and anthropologists have found...namely, that the Sumerians were the first people with a written language.

Many theologians, both Christian and Jewish believe that Adam and Eve were created about 4000BC and that they spoke and wrote in Hebrew or Aramaic. This is an amazing coincidence since this also happens to coincide with the time that the creation of the first written language by the Sumerians happened. ..around 3500BC or earlier.

So, if actual historical evidence proves that Sumerian writing predates Hebrew and Aramaic, then Adam and Eve could not have been the first people on the earth if they spoke Hebrew or Aramaic which weren't created until 1700BC.

I bought the book "Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years" in the hope that it might provide me with an answer that all my internet research could not. Although it's a really interesting read and full of archaelogical facts , it did not include comparative biblical history to the scientific claims. This didn't come as a surprise since the author, Jared Diamond is a scientist first and foremost with a degree in physiology and just as skilled in evolutionary biology and ecology. But he does agree with the rest of his peers in one regard...that Sumerian was the first written language created by humans.

It is still my theory that Adam and Eve could not have been the first humans on earth based on the simple fact that Eve had instructed her children to write what they had learned and since the Bible scholars say that they spoke Hebrew/Aramaic, then Adam and Eve's existence pre-dated the existence of the language they spoke and wrote. Just the fact that Greek and other cultures' mythological stories mirror many of the same stories before Christianity displaced them is enough reason for me to doubt the accuracy of the Bible as the only source for man's history.

Saturday, August 06, 2005 

Road Trips

While driving to the Eleftherios Venizelos Airport this morning to pick up my sister arriving from New York, the thought popped into my head that I haven't heard of any fatalities on the Attiki Odos. (a 60km or so stretch of highway bypassing Athens linking directly to the airport completed over a year ago)

This may not be news in some countries, but in Greece, it's a rarity. A road which doesn't have an accident every 20 minutes? Downright abnormal. But there you have it. Just Google "attiki odos + fatalities" and you come up with 19 returns...most of those being reports instead of news items.

I came to the conclusion that the roads in Greece themselves are more to blame for driver fatalities and accidents rather than the drivers. Yes, I know that most of those involved in accidents are guilty of committing unsafe driving offences such as speeding or unsafe lane changes but I believe this is the result of poor road conditions and negligent monitoring of drivers on those roads.

Most of the roads in Greece are poorly lit, 2 lane cow paths with a severe shortage of signage originally constructed to accommodate 100 vehicles and a couple of donkeys. Because of these factors, drivers realize often too late, that the exit they need seems to appear out of nowhere so they resort to unsafe lane changes in order to take them. Because the roads are often poorly lit, you don't see bicycles, cars in the makeshift 'breakdown' lanes or animals until it's too late. Because many roads don't have enough lanes to accommodate the traffic, many drivers resort to speeding, unsafe lane changes and/or road rage brought on by driving for hours in substandard driving conditions. Since the police seem to be only present at major intersections leaving or entering large cities, trucks with improperly secured loads, vehicles with malfunctioning head/tail lights, drunk drivers, underage drivers or drivers without licences often go unchecked which, of course, makes the entire road network a deathtrap waiting to happen.

The Attiki Odos by comparison, is well-lit, well-monitored (this morning, a truck carring a full load of metal products was pulled over by an Attiko Odos official) and plenty of clearly visible signage. For the first time, I didn't mind forking over the 2.50€ toll fee to drive on a motorway in Greece. It was a small price to pay for my peace of mind and a safer road. If King Costas really wants to make a dent in this country's abysmal road fatality statistics, then privatisation of the entire national road network is the best way to go.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005 

The Omni100 HTPC

After 18 months of computer paraphernalia, manuals, books, and cabling strewn about my house, my husband has finally finished his piece de resistance...the HTPC. For those of us who have had it *up to here* with computer acronyms, the HTPC simply means Home Theatre Personal Computer and this little box is amazing. It's a one-stop shop for every audiophile and cinephile out there.
I'm so impressed with the work my husband has done, I decided to devote this blog to his determination, ambition and creativity. I've also decided to give myself a pat on the back for having learned not only how to use it but just what all those THX, DVI, DTS, ProLogic and DivX acronyms mean. Learning Greek was only marginally more difficult.
Last April, I bought him a computer magazine and he saw an article on the future of HTPCs and decided then and there that he didn't have to buy one, he could build it himself. I thought "sure, go ahead...that'll keep you busy for a bit", not imagining that this little box would revolutionize my life. I use it all the time. I never load a CD in the CD player anymore. All my photos and MP3s are now stored on this device. Now, I can force all my friends to 38 years of SeaWitch family pictures on the Big Screen!
I surf the internet on it and I copied all of my DVDs to make backups. Now, when my son's friends watch movies, the DVD isn't broken into several pieces or scratched beyond all recognition.
I can rent 10 movies at a time and copy them to the hard drive and watch them on my big screen in the comfort of my own living room with no one to bother me. I've stopped going to the cinema. The greatest thing for me is the fact that now I can see movies in digital and audio perfection. I was disappointed when we got our first projector and hooked it up to the DVD player because it really didn't look any better than the blotchy cinema quality but I tolerated that because at least I didn't have to listen to 20 poeople yapping to their boyfriends/girlfriends/kids on their cell phones or spoiling all the scenes by laughing before the lines were spoken.
The only thing this contraption doesn't do is housework. But that's OK. If he sells enough of them, I can hire a full time maid! Just think...even MORE time to blog!