A history of abuse

I condescendingly ask my neighbor if she speaks “a little English”. That insult alone should have driven her crazy. But I think she’d rather have that kind of violence, instead of the bloody, hellish, Hannibal Lecter nightmare I’ve been day-dreaming about, involving her dog and her family. She does speak English, enough to understand my request.

I want them to tie the dog at night. Their dog enjoys the wonderful sport of barking at another dog, in a mock-fury, both of them safely on opposite sides of a tall fence. Like medieval knights. Most nights I don’t notice it. Some nights, though, I feel like clubbing the damn dogs with the bat I keep on the veranda.

Perhaps she spends too much time with school children, because her reply is typically childish: “There are other dogs, too, not just my dog”. She understands, though, that there is a difference. She can, in fact, tie her own dog. It’s almost impossible to control the others, they’re semi-stray.

She definitely feels that my request is another straw in a series of psychological burdens. I’ve seen it in Romania. Ordinary citizens get so much abuse from other ordinary citizens, not to mention the ongoing theft performed by the politicians. It is the same here. Everyone needs a break, that’s why they come to Possidi. To forget the every day issues of taxes, debt, ruin and despair.

I see the frustration and aggressiveness in her eyes and I completely understand. I tell her that it’s fine if she doesn’t want to tie the dog, I can’t make her. I tell her that I have no more arguments. Just wanted her to know that the dog disturbs me, my guests and basically everyone around.

She uses her angry momentum to point that we’ve been hit by thieves. “Well, the dogs didn’t stop them, did they ?” I almost laugh. I notice her humiliation. She winces at me, but I smile. She starts talking again, about other dogs and so on and I stop her short. “Listen ! I just wanted you to know this. That your dog disturbs us”.

She fails to understand that my mission is one of peace, of mitigating, of avoiding further disturbance. She only feels another external demand, another pressure, another annoying little request. I give her a symbolic choice. She can comply or refuse. Evidently, she has that choice (this is not Germany, or some other civilized country, where law enforcement could actually make her do something about the dog).

Secretly, though, I decided to talk to her mostly out of curiosity, to find out if she is aware of what her dog does. She is aware. There is, of course, another reason. The indescribably violent urge to fight back that I’ve subdued for so long.  You see, I have my own history of abuse.

Hovolo Hotel, Neo Klima, Skopelos

A bed that doesn’t creak, a shower with flesh-ripping pressure, free air-conditioning, breakfast included, very friendly staff, a good price and last, but not least, a sea view. And none of that “give me 5 Euros to turn on the air-conditioning”, like cretins do.

The things I’ve just mentioned will make Hovolo Hotel in Neo Klima, Skopelos, a memorable place.

Just like that lunch at La Bastide Moustiers, which, I later found out, boasts a Michelin Star. Or Viraggas Inn from Vrastma, hidden in the hills, but so pretty and quiet.

Hovolo should be an example to all Greek hotels. The imbecile receptionist at that hotel in Athens (the name of which I won’t even mention) comes to mind. That moron who questioned my ability to understand English. That guy should learn a bit from Hovolo.

It doesn’t take a lot to run a hotel smoothly. Just make sure your customers get what they’re paying for and be a little smart. Satisfied customers will tell 10 people about your hotel, but angry customers will tell 200. I’d tell thousands, which that moron from Athens should better believe.

“We have no Mythos, but I’ll go to the supermarket right now and I’ll get some”. That’s the spirit. +1 Hovolo.

“Here’s a map of the village, which looks like it’s been drawn by a child. It shows where the tavernas and shops are. We made the effort”. I’ll remember that.

Listen, Greek hotels ! What happened to cleaning the room, changing the towels and bed sheets ? Hovolo does that, you know…

A platform for people in wheelchairs ? Sure, Hovolo has that as well. How about transfer from the harbour ? It’s free. Hovolo has its own shuttle.

Ok, the coffee could have been better. But we didn’t get fried hot-dogs day in day out, like at that ridiculous Dani Hotel from Alikes, Zakynthos.

See ? You remember stuff like that.

The furniture at Hovolo reminded me of Hotel Mercure, from Bordeaux. At Hovolo, we had a couch and one of those cylindrical pillows, which was as long as the bed was wide and for the first time in a very long time I felt like I had enough support for my neck to read a book in bed. The room had wooden shutters and a thick courtain. We had a small fridge and a kitchenette.

And the beach was 100 m from the hotel. No shops, no souvenir stores, no usual seaside bullshit. It’s a quiet, peaceful and very very relaxed place. That I obviously recommend.

There is something strange in the woods of Skopelos

Someone made a horrible mistake with the Skopelos maps for tourists. On these maps, there’s a red road from Skopelos Town straight to Neo Klima, the “resort” where we were staying. The map legend conveniently says red roads are “main roads” (no mention of tarmac), yellow roads are “asphalt roads” and white roads are “dirt roads”. The road I’m talking about is drawn on the map as red from end to end.

One evening, I decided to take that road. Little did I know, obviously.

It went quite well for about 10 km. The road, although narrow and abrupt, seemed fine. It was dusk, and I had been reading Stephen King. Besides, my wife always has premonitions with shortcuts.

We were both silent, trying to ignore the GPS’s constant babbling, knowing it had it all wrong. Very wrong. Turn right. And fall off this cliff, GPS lady ?

“One wrong turn and we’re screwed”, my wife said. I knew that. My instinct performed well that night and I actually made no wrong turns.

It was a beautiful route, though, through pine forests. Some isolated houses, a cluster of lights in a valley, indicating a mountain village.

Then we got to an intersection, with a nice wide road, which goes up to the island’s helipad and crosses the main road. I should have taken that road.

A few km up, the tarmac ended and then I realized what it means to get a map wrong. There followed about 6 km through the forest, on a dirt road. It wasn’t actually so bad, but it did have the ocasional diagonal ditch, boulders and potholes.

The hard part was looking at my wife, who had a “I told you so” look on her face and maybe she even said it once or twice.

I lowered my window and drove carefully, 10-20 km/h, smoking a cigarette, until I realized that a beast might rip my arm off and then I put the cigarette out, raised the window and took a few deep breaths. Enough to get a little whiff of goat. The smell grew thicker and thicker, although there were no goats anywhere. I didn’t ask for a confirmation from my wife, for fear of another “Told you so”. So, I’m happy to say that there might just be a ghost flock of goats on Mount Daphni, on the island of Skopelos.

At one point, as we had passed the watershed and started descending towards the west coast of the island, I noticed a car on one of the many paths that spread from the road. I don’t know what exactly was happening in that car or who was more afraid of who, but they started the engine and got right in front of us. Thoughts of rape, torture, hold-ups, axe murders and bloody pine trees swarmed through my head, I admit. But probably through the mind of the guy in the other car, as well.

They changed course after about 500 m, taking a sharp left, which apparently led nowhere on my GPS and looked more like a precipice. They might be stranded even now.

And then, abruptly, the road became nice, polished, brand new tarmac again. As if the Greeks said: We can do it, but we won’t.

It was the shortest distance from Skopelos town to Neo Klima, but undoubtedly one of the longest trips I’ve ever taken.

An essay on the blasphemy of action

When I was selling cars for a living, I sometimes felt taken advantage of. Every single customer had a particular problem, ranging from the usual “old lady wants a red one” to “I have money, but my boss doesn’t want to declare my income to the tax authorities.

I always tried to find a solution. Made phone calls, found the illusive “red one”, with alloy wheels and leather seats and without climate control, just normal simple air conditioning. I’d call several leasing companies, banks, insurance companies, got quotes from various mechanics, obtaining a price for oil changes, filters and brakes. I was always careful with terms and conditions and never made a promise that I couldn’t scrupulously keep.

I did all that for my commission, of course, and to keep up with my monthly quota. A quick fix in the delivery area ? A little more gas in the tank, for the 3 km drive from the parking lot to the showroom, so that I wouldn’t run out in mid traffic ? I managed with a smile, a joke and doing favors for the key people.

In the end, I made a lot of customers happy, for an ever diminishing pay. Perhaps I should have acted more Greek.

Greeks have a bit of madness, I’d say. Something is off. I don’t know quite what it is. Waiting for problems to go away. Preferably the guy with the problem to go away. Waiting for the problem to move to some other authority. Even inventing another responsible authority. Perhaps it’s me, with my absurd ambitions of getting things done on the spot, identifying the source of a problem and fixing it. Or getting people in touch with someone who might be able to help them.

I don’t know if my reflex to find a solution is a reminiscence of my car selling years. It could also be that in my family whenever you needed a certain tool, for instance, that particular tool was missing from the house. A key for the gas bottle. Pliers or Phillips screwdrivers. Maybe that determined my obsession for perfectly working systems. Such as running water.

About 3 days ago, the water pressure dropped. This is not unusual in Greece, as workers go on “strike” by turning off water, or electricity, thus cutting off their company’s income and putting in peril their pay checks. It’s madness, but its source is frustration with Greece’s financial problems. It is understandable, to some degree, especially since these shortages usually last for 20 minutes to 2 hours.

But I knew that this wasn’t the case this time. I checked my neighbor’s water pressure, it was fine. Therefore, the problem was with our pipes. This water pressure thing is nothing compared to the Greek approach to solving it.

Naturally, I turned to the plumber who fixed a problem for us in winter. Unfortunately, back then, the guy sort of asked too much. 120 Euros for running some acid through the system, to flush out a lime deposit that had clogged the hot water pipes. He took 100, because we only had 50 Euro bills and he had no change. He said we’ll give him the 20 later. That was in March.

After telling the landlady that this was not something us tenants should pay, she called the plumber, told him he’s a crook and he should simply keep then hundred Euro, and then she told us she’ll deduct 100 from our rent. All was well afterwards.

Obviously, the plumber was pissed and refused to come help a second time, for fear his schemes might fail again. I called him 2 days ago and he evasively said he’s “away”.

Another neighbor suggested we should hack into the reserve tank, by turning some valves. It didn’t work, of course.

So, I went to another neighbor, she called somebody and told me a plumber will be coming that day. Of course, nobody came. I was anxious to get a definite answer from her, something like “Yes, I understand you have a problem, and I am able to help you, by either calling somebody myself, or by telling you whom to go to”. Or “Listen, retarded foreigner, I have no inclination to assist you with your mad decision of having running water at a sufficient pressure for taking a shower”. She was quite merry, smiling, asking me what I do, telling me her son has a proficiency diploma in English, then she calls him and puts me on the phone. He was sleeping, or perhaps drunk. She seemed very pleased that she helped and ecstatic about her son talking to me in English.

Today I went down to the supermarket, to ask for advice. The owner seems to be a very enterprising Greek and surely he’ll come up with a solution. He must have a plumber !

The man understood immediately what the problem was and delegated. He called his Albanian worker and lent him to me. I took the Albanian up to the house, he made the same checks that I had done 2 days ago. He then found the correct solution. “Let’s go to the administration”. I had no idea we actually had an administration, but we do. The neighbors never thought about this, apparently. None of them told me we actually have an administration. But you’ll have to admit that this is the correct way to deal with the problem. Go to the people in charge.

We go to the office and we find a teenager boy, pimples and all. He reluctantly makes a phone call. He listens to the story, but I feel he’d prefer we just got out and went to the beach. He’s helping his uncle, that’s why he’s in the office. He doesn’t work there. He called his uncle. His uncle comes.

The uncle is in fact the man in charge. He comes to the house, believing I’m some retarded foreigner who simply turned off his water and can’t remember it. He makes the same checks the Albanian and I made previously. He realizes there’s a clog. He tells me that yes, that neighbor called him yesterday. I politely refrain from asking “So, why haven’t you done anything since ?”.

He says “I’ll find somebody” and leaves abruptly on his motorbike.

I go again to the office and find him there. I’d like to know when exactly will a plumber come, in case the answer will be “tomorrow”, and I’ll be forced to go find a plumber on my own. He quickly disappears inside one of the newly built apartments, yet unoccupied, but where the water pipes are already clogging.

I refuse to be a problem that goes away, wait patiently and finally he comes to talk. He did call a plumber and even gives me the man’s phone number.

I call the plumber, amazingly he speaks English. He’ll be coming over in one hour. One hour and a half, maybe. That sounds great, doesn’t it ? His hour and a half expired about half an hour ago. Perhaps I’ll forget the whole thing and never call him again. Problems must be tested like that. What if they simply go away ? What if there is no need to act, in the end ?

Millions of people have problems with plumbers every day. Some have even written books about it. I recall Peter Mayle’s frustrations in France, the country we’ll be moving to in the fall. A year ago, a problem like this would have driven me mad, basically. It would have fueled my hatred, my violence and depression. I noticed today that I’m basically cured. I can take all this with a smile. But the whole thing puzzles me. I’m aware that sometimes foreigners are treated not like “real people”. Foreigners sometimes make strange demands, impossible to comply with. Perhaps Greeks act like this because we’re foreigners, as if we’re just a dream, an illusion and they’ll wake up and we’ll be gone.

Perhaps this is how things happen here. Never today. Never for sure. It’s the Balcans, a culture impossible to describe unless you live here and experience it firsthand.

Could it be laziness ? I don’t think so. It’s something else, far more mysterious and strange. A congregation of minds unsure if this world is real or a dream.

Is there really a problem with Adrian’s water pressure, they might ask themselves. Are we being tricked ? Is it a scheme intended to make us act upon something that might be imaginary ? Let’s wait it out. Let’s not rush into the blasphemy of touching the mirage.

There is something off with these people.

About the riots in Greece

Family members, friends and others are increasingly concerned about my welfare. To them, Greece looks pretty much like a battlefield, with fierce fighting, casualties, combatants and sometimes hidden snipers. Although there is a real war in Libya, less than 600 km away from Athens, Syntagma Square and the narrow streets of Plaka still hold the headlines.

From afar, it looks like this: starving Greeks, fighting for a morsel. Bankrupt banks, queues for bread, violence, crimes and, most disturbingly, misdemeanors.

Even a trip to the supermarket might turn fatal. My father asks me what’s going on. Why have I chosen to live in such an unstable and violent country ? The national debt casts a shadow on my financial status. Friends ask me if one can find gas at pumps.

Well, to be completely honest, I must admit that it is quite hard these days to find bread at Arista Supermarket. I’m referring to Ciabata bread, which pops up irregularly at the bread stand. It might just be a marketing scheme, to make customers loiter around the supermarket, waiting for the delicious Italian loaf.

The strikes do affect us, though. Most of all, the ferry strikes. Our trip to Skopelos still hangs in the balance, for instance.

There are water shortages, which turn our lives into hell for a couple of hours. We don’t know what causes these one hour/week shortages. Could be the workers going on strikes, or mere negligence.

There is a lot of negligence here, starting with leaving the cars unlocked and windows down at Arista. Also, the German nudists’ attire does leave some bits to be desired.

There is also violence, apart from the daily exploits of seagulls, geckos and hawks. For instance, one of our neighbors roughed up his two and a half years old son, by pulling his ear, for the heinous crime of pushing all the color pencils off the table and onto the floor.

About gas at pumps… now that’s a different story. It is sometimes hard to get a full tank without the aid of an employee. You sort of soil your hands a bit.

Perhaps it’s time to learn the truth about riots in Athens. It’s simply part of the local traditions. Much as killing a pig for Christmas, in Romania, or unleashing fireworks at Easter in any decent, well-respected Greek town.

The anarchists in Athens will keep clashing with police forces, but it’s mostly done for sport. Some say it’s the lack of other, more physical interactions, such as those with members of the opposite sex, but that’s just crude student jokes.

What is the difference, really, between fighting in Athens and, say, the bull run in Pamplona ? Or the old, violent, form of football in England, 150 years ago ?

Let’s not give in to wicked rumors spread by those who seek to show Greece as a nation falling apart. Or by those who gain by showing Greece in a bad light, thus increasing their tourism revenues, on the expense of the scared tourist.

Take it from someone who actually lives here. We’ve never felt safer anywhere else.