Saturday, March 5, 2011

A Guest Rant, Greek Style

What a ranting week this has been.  Actor Charlie Sheen revealed to the world that he’s exactly what people assumed, Wiki-Leaker Julian Assange took a big, splashy one all over himself, and mega-designer John Galliano decided to publicly circumcise his career down to mini.

I guess that’s why it didn’t come as such a surprise when a friend of mine from Greece—Athens to be precise—decided to tee off in an email to me on life these days in Greece.  But first, a bit of background:

At the foot of the Acropolis
We are living in interesting times, in the full sense of that Chinese curse: confusing, hard to grasp, and incredibly fluid.  No one seems to know where things are headed, so I take that as an opening for my unsolicited observations. 

Wherever I look there are severe public fiscal crises, virulent demonstrations, and endemic distrust of politicians.  Be it Greece, California, Wisconsin, or [fill in the blank].  And the bitching…complaining is far too weak a word…is endless.  And no place is the current state of the world more in evidence than in the eastern Mediterranean basin.

A street in Athens' Plaka
I can’t imagine anyone seriously lumping the U.S. into the Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, et cetera situations—for though they surely share outraged populaces, the reasons and degrees of dissatisfaction are very different.  But lying as it does just across the sea from those North African countries, Greece faces an unfair tarring by that eastern Mediterranean brush.  Greece is first and foremost a democracy and a member of the European Union, but one that allows what many consider beyond the pale public demonstrations.  Yes, Greece faces more serious challenges than it has in decades, but not to a change in its form of government. 

Against that background let me share my friend’s tale of her day in Athens...

My doctor wanted me to have a cardio-stress test, and referred me to another doctor who worked out of one of Athens’ prominent private hospitals—the sort supposedly offering better care for its patients than public hospitals.  It was raining when I got there and the parking lot was full.  I had to drive around for twenty minutes to find a space then walk a very long distance back to the hospital.  Admittedly, by then I wasn’t in a good mood. 

Not the doctor in the story
Smokers were massed immediately outside the hospital’s main entrance creating a fog of tobacco smoke for all to pass through.  So much for the country’s anti-smoking efforts.  I was directed up to the cardiology area, a place crammed with entire families offering support to their patient family members in a manner and volume reminiscent of a party.  I squeezed past the partiers to get in line.  In Greece, lines such as this often seem to require two employees to wait on one customer.  Why that is I do not know.  But it encourages those with just questions to step in front of everyone else and make the wait for those in line even longer.  Finally, it was my turn. 

Sort of.  The secretary told me I must first pay and handed me an almost illegible photocopy of a form to take downstairs to the cashier...and then come back and wait in line again.  At least she said it with a smile.

I went, but there was no cashier at the cashier station, only broken computers with plugs and wires pulled out.  I asked around and was sent next door to another building to pay.  There I found living, breathing people, but with two serving one and line jumpers asking questions.  Everyone seemed struggling for attention.  That’s when I wrote a SMS to the doctor who’d put me in the middle of all this—and who, by the way, did not give me a receipt for my cash payment of her fee (so much for Greeks paying taxes)—telling her, “I’m out of here.”  I wonder whether the experience itself was intended to be my true stress test?

But wait, there’s more. 

I left the hospital at 1:30 and hurried to the post office to mail a letter to the United States.  Post offices here close at 2 PM, no matter how long you’ve been waiting in line.  I was relieved to find it empty except for one customer and two postal workers. 

The free clerk was sitting in a chair and I asked if he could help me.  He seemed offended at that, and told me to “take a number.”  After my morning at the hospital I actually found what he said funny.  I took number 122.  The display screen read 119.   The clerk sat there doing nothing but watch his colleague wait on the other customer.  Number 120 came up—even though there was no 120 or 121 to serve in the place—and the clerk wandered off to make a joke to a woman in a backroom.  He walked back and sat down in his chair.  Number 121 came up, no one stepped forward but the clerk still did not move.  Finally, 122.  It was now my turn.

Not a Greek postal worker wave.

I walked over and handed him my letter.  He said, “Oh, you need stamps, and I don’t have any.  You’ll have to go to the other line.”  By now there were several people lined up at the other window and it was almost 2 PM.  No way they would let me ahead of them, my being number 122 or not.   The clerk reached to toss my letter over to his co-worker.  I grabbed it and said in English, “Stop, I have stamps!!!” 

Speaking English caught him off guard and he suddenly became more responsive (as if Greeks weren’t deserving of his attention).  He weighed the letter but had to ask his co-worker for the rates to the U.S.  Rather than telling him she took her time handing him a list of international postage charges.  He told me the price.  I stepped aside to let a young Greek man behind me take his turn as I put my stamps on the envelope. 

The poor guy asked for stamps.  He was met with the clerk’s “I have no stamps” line, delivered with a “why would you expect to find stamps in a post office attitude,” as the clerk went back to sitting in his chair. 

I burst out laughing, and asked the young man if he wanted to buy stamps from me—and cut out the post office.  He laughed, too.  What else can you do in these times, enduring such everyday struggles for services that most developed countries take as a given.  There is much to love about my country, but my day epitomized what is very wrong with it.


Thank you for that front line report from Greece.  Now, back to Charlie Sheen…

Jeff — Saturday


  1. The efficiency at the post office in Greece is matched by that of just about every department of motor vehicles in any state in the Union.

    Drivers' licenses expire on the birthday of the driver. My birthday is in mid-fall. I went in to renew it about two weeks before it expired. Thanksgiving day is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, about six weeks after my day at the DMV.

    The line extended of petitioners stretched out the door but that did not distract any of the employees from their duties, i.e., anything and everything that had nothing to do with the business of the Department of Motor Vehicles.

    There were three people on duty. One was dealing with the public. The other two were in consultation on the best places for the turkey and Pilgrim cut-outs. Did anyone complain? Who would dare?

    Things have improved. Moving into the 21st century, licenses can now be renewed once on line. But license holders still have to go to have their pictures updated. The threat that any small thing might lead to a slow down in service means that no matter what the picture shows, people are satisfied with it even if shows the license holder as twenty years older than they are in real life.


  2. Jeffrey, this is the kind of thing that drove me to Thailand, but (as Beth noted) it happened -- and happened, and happened, and happened -- in the U.S.

    I personally am sick to death with being blown off by overpaid, high-benefits public servants who can't be fired and whose salaries come out of my pocket. It's no longer so difficult to figure out where the expression "Going Postal" came from = the people who brought those guns to work were surrounded all day by people like the one in your Greek post office and Beth's DMV.

    I say fire them all on one day and open their jobs to a merit competition. The people who get the salaries have to be able actually to do the work. They don't get liftime job protection; up until they've got twenty years in, they can be fired because of complaints. And ENCOURAGE the public to complain.

    Something is wrong when most of us pay taxes to employ the rest of them, and the rest of them treat us as an inconvenience. Can 'em, I say.

  3. My Greek post office was on strike the day I tried to pick up a package. Packages arriving from abroad must be signed for...never delivered to the residence. The phones at the aliens registration office have been down for weeks. No one ....or at least very few there speak languages other thn Greek. Written instructions or regulations are not readily available. One can get ticketed for parking in zones that are not identified as such....I actually found a no smoking sticker IN An a nonsmoking room in a Greek makes me glad that there is a growing movement to refuse to pay the roadway tolls on the national road. Lawful/lawless continuum is shredded. Civility? Diogenes still searching.

  4. WOW. A lot of venting out there. And I'm not just talking about Beth, Tim, and--uhh--I feel strange saying "Shrew" since I truly relate. These days Diogenes is probably using his lamp to light up smokes.

    I announced this piece on my Facebook page and gripes similar to yours came pouring in from folks around the globe who prefer to say what they think on FB rather than through a blog comment.

    No wonder FB is now valued at $65 billion, it actually can bring down governments.

    Thanks to all of you for pointing out just how similarly we all suffer at the hands of the public sector. It's sort of like the comaraderie born of living through the same natural disaster. We're not endorsing the event, just bonded by it.

    I can't wait to get back to Mykonos where all is just pelicans, peace, and prosperity. Yeah, right.

  5. Ranting is healthy for the soul. Especially in this age in which everything has gotten so big, so convoluted, and so counter-intuitive that common sense is a fossil in the Museum of Thought.

  6. Tim, with all these memorable quotes you keep giving me, in order to keep track of them I may soon have to lease space on Sarah Palin's palm.

  7. Not as much empty space there as there is in her mind.

    On the other hand, there's a chance of retrieving it from her palm.