30 octombrie 2013

The sad face of Greece

In front of our hotel, in Plaka, just a whisker to the very heart of Athens, there is a tiny restaurant. Its keeper, a milk-chocolate-skinned woman, tries to summon customers in: "hello, my friend", "how are you tonight my friend?", "have a good night my friend". She wears a slightly loose yellow shirt and makes large gestures. A big smile. No fat, the bony type, but not skinny. I have no idea what she wears as trousers or skirt. The face, the contrasting yellow shirt and brownish skin, the large gestures are the ones to put for the show. Two young kids complete the picture. The eldest is around 4 and wanders around wearing a large transparent plastic container around his head. It is large enough to avoid involuntary suffocation, but the original function was to hold some five liter of water.

The yellow-shirt lady looks in her mid-40s, but should be 30, 35 at most. Not a beauty, but pleasant. She started saluting us two hours earlier, when we arrived. This is the local custom, to lure or even push customers in the taverna. The other shop-keepers on the street did the same, promising to entice us with their amazing dishes. After all, we have a booking in the next door hotel.

We took dinner a couple of streets uphill, and now we're back in our room. The hotel's wireless connection is like a ghost. You connect, but with no line in the graphical display that shows the strength of the signal. It takes ages to load a banal webpage.

I need to know if Petrolul managed to score again after Swansea's rebuke, so here I am, in the lobby. The wireless connection is even SLOWER, as compared to our first floor room. And this is not a cheap hotel, I can assure you.

It is about 11pm. A lonely customer sits at the table in the dirty restaurant across the narrow street. He is an old Greek, savoring a beer. The man looks like he enjoys too much drinking. An old British couple gets summoned by the Egyptian woman. Is it still open, they ask? All other commerce on the street has already closed down for the night. They take a beer and an orange juice.

I cross the two-meter-wide street. I take a retsina. It proves to be middle quality at best. I ask for an Internet connection. The Egyptian woman does not understand enough English to figure out what I ask for. She shows a business card, with the name of the shabby tavern on it, and points to the tablet I hold: "search this name there and you find", I get instructed. The tablet finds no wireless network named similarly to the place. I gave up. Three minutes later she asks if I found their place on the Internet. I say I will look for it later. When leaving, I have with her a short conversation which reveals her personal history: born in Egypt, married with an half Greek-half Egyptian. The whole restaurant is on the Internet, I will learn. This includes the full staff.

But this will come later. In the meanwhile, the British couple receives melon "on the house". I also get mine. It does not go well with retsina, but it's tasty. The old Greek speaks on the phone. He looks addicted to alcohol, but drinks his beer slowly, like a Belgian.

Disappointment comes as a cloud on the Egyptian women's face. The British couple lives the next day, to a Greek island, and they will not be her customers anymore. They say goodbye.

A very large, blonde, and very white-skinned girl helps the yellow-shirted Egyptian to carry a big garbage bin. I ask for the bill. It’s 3 euros, I gave her two coins, of two Euros each.

I receive another retsina, on the house. I refuse: I have already drunk enough. I also refuse the offer for packing it. She says that I should get it for free tomorrow evening. She immediately returns with two half-liter bottles of water, similar to the one I had with retsina. She says ‘it is for the wife and daughter’, and explains, mainly by hands, that they might have been already sleeping.

I stand, and I leave. In the middle of the street, she explains me her story and the rather ditty restaurant is a family business, their only source of income.

The husband also shows up and salutes. In the coming days they will wave and greet us all the time but will not manage to summon me again. Their marketing was too loosely targeted and lusting for customers brought them no further profit. Maybe redesigning the product, cleaning and renewing the place would be more efficient.

Otherwise they will end up with the three tables where Greeks enjoy Friday and Saturday evenings, speaking and laughing loudly, while the yellow skirt of the Egyptian woman brings the orders. As happens in Greece, the husband will stand or will sit on a chair, in front of the taverna, luring customers.

I have no idea if she has several long-sleeved yellow skirts, or if she washes it daily. I also do not know if they acted the same before crisis, if she undertaking male roles is part of the Egyptian heritage or simple desperation. But I red in their eyes barely hidden sadness.

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