5pm local time here in Greece – a good time to call my dear friend Judi in Toronto. I think there’s about a 7 hour difference. We have a long chat, and Judi tells me how awful the weather is and that, at her age, she shouldn’t be shovelling snow from the front yard. Also Toronto is much more dangerous now, and the mayor is a fat drunk and a suspected drug addict.. I feel I can top this by describing life here in Athens plagued by strikes, demonstrations, having to spend a whole day to pay an electricity bill, earning half what we used to (increased taxes, which is something I thought only Germans paid) and bills, bills, bills, not to mention neo-Nazis roaming the streets of our city.
Then we get on to health. I have a number of complaints including back pain, and explain I don’t relish going to the hospital here and fighting my way through the hordes in the almost vain hope of cornering my doctor. Not like those spotless, efficient hospitals in Canada. However, when Judi begins to describe her aches and pains I end up by feeling positively glowing with health. That round definitely to her.
We ring off, enjoying a feeling of mutual catharsis, as if all the ills in our bodies had been evacuated by a powerful laxative.
The next day, after my coffee in Omonia Square, where I have to listen to the Bulgarian waitress bitching about the way she is treated at the Aliens Bureau, I stroll along Athinas Street, and through the Flea Market in Monastiraki, where I stop for a chat with my Scottish friend, Mary Ann, who works in a tourist gift shop. She is thinking of moving back to the UK, as her husband has lost his well-paid job. I sympathise with her and tell her all I do is work to pay bills and new taxes and can’t hop off to an island every weekend as we used to do, and what with strikes and demonstrations life isn’t what it used to be, and I’m tired of losing the best part of a day just to pay an electricity bill. I feel better having got that off my chest. She agrees with everything I say.
A few metres further on I stop for another chat with the Greek guy who sells leather belts. He complains that tourism is down 30 % (it’s always 30 %), and that the tourists who come don’t have any money anyway, and that what he earns is hardly enough to pay his rent. I agree and explain that I seem to work to pay bills and am fed up with strikes and demonstrations and having to spend a day just to pay an electricity bill. He listens sympathetically and also agrees with everything I say, I think. I try to make him feel better by telling him that in Mandra, a village near mine, nearly all the shops have shut and the owners are starving to death.
Next stop is my local ouzeri where the waiter explains that custom is really down and nobody ever leaves a tip, not even wealthy Americans. I commiserate and tell him I’m tired of working just to pay bills, and have no money for extras such as island hopping at the weekend. He sits down next to me and broods, saying he’d like to move to Germany where his cousin works.
As I sip my ouzo I stare at the crowds for a while before heading back through the Flea market and on to Bairaktaris, my favourite taverna. Here it’s merry bedlam. Someone is playing a guitar inside and there isn’t a place to be had. It’s packed with locals and tourists alike, chatting, drinking, laughing and generally having a good time. I order a plate of stifado and half a litre of chilled white wine. The Albanian waiter who knows me slips me a shot of tsipoura, and tells me the wine is on the house too, as well as a plate of meze. A noisy band from South America is playing to an appreciative crowd. Americans in long shorts and Japanese in large groups are photographing everything. Gypsies are selling colourful balloons, the guys from Africa watches and DVDs, and finally the sun is shining. It’s a marvellous atmosphere.
Who would want to live anywhere else?