Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Economic crisis (Οικονομική κρίση)

The recent economic recession began hitting the global business world in the last few months of 2008, at the end of Crete's tourist season, so that its effects weren't immediately apparent here. Winter is a rather quiet time in Hania anyway; tourist-related businesses (the main export) are closed, so it was a case of wait and see for most people. The sectors that suffered during this low-key period were mainly those related to the construction business (fewer people spent money on building houses, and Northern European retirees weren't keen to invest in such ventures as readily as they have been in the past).

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Trying to make an easy buck at the old Venetian harbour in Hania; clockwise starting from top left: gypsy balloon sellers, gypsy children 'playing' accordion, Chinese peddler selling Made-in China gadgets, Pakistani (orange T-shirt) selling pirate CDs/DVDs
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At the start of this year's tourist season, Crete showed signs of feeling the pinch. Nevertheless, Calendar Easter (one week earlier than Greek Orthodox Easter) did see a steady trickle of tourists coming into Hania. Young family groups were conspicuously attired in their summer outfits, their children decked out in swimsuits even while they were walking on the street. It was an odd sight for most of the locals, who would never go swimming at this time of year (the water is still quite cold), nor would they think of leaving the house without a jacket at any hour.

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Is this what we should expect in the summer?

Greek Easter, on the other hand, was very quiet. At this time, Hania is usually quite busy, with people from the mainland coming to Crete to celebrate Easter with their extended families. But the streets were very quiet, judging from the lack of congested streets. At the same time, seasonal workers (especially coach drivers) in the tourist trade reported that they weren't being re-hired for the new summer season. My husband (taxi driver) also noticed a drop in takings in the last month (when the tourist season opened), compared to the same period last year. If this continues right throughout the summer (read: tourist) season, then the effects of the economic recession will have a serious impact on Greek people's financial situations after the summer, when jobs and cash will be less easy to find. The crisis is always in the back of our mind.

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May Day fell on a Friday this year, kicking off the start of a three-day weekend, which began as a beautiful sunny spring day. This good weather continued on into Saturday. Feeling a tad decadent and highly elated after yesterday's fabulous outing in the countryside, we were in a good mood. After spending the whole day at home tidying up the house and garden, we decided to take our first stroll for the year in the old Venetian harbour of Hania, a virtually cost-free form of entertainment in the town, which never fails to please.

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Al fresco dining by the old port

We parked the car on the outskirts of the town, just outside the old city walls, a few minutes on foot to the harbour area. The very first taverna that we came across was doing brisk trade. There were about a dozen large παρέες (parees) dining al fresco, serenaded by a guitarist singing ballads.

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Few signs of an economic crisis here...
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Just round the corner, the old and young, locals and tourists alike, were strolling around in the picturesque narrow alleyways of the Venetian harbour, which is full of quaint side-streets, each forming a unique picture-postcard view. Further along the harbour by the quay, we noticed that every cafe, restaurant, bar and taverna had just enough customers to keep them going; that's a very democratic spread of trade. As it was early in the evening, the locals were only just coming out; tourists eat much earlier than Greeks, so the restaurants would be busy all night, catering to different customers as the hour changed.

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The souvenir shops were rather quiet, but their wares looked tempting; plenty of tried and true kitsch (the Made-in-China I-love-Greece trinkets that are usually sold all over the country), as well as some more unusual upmarket ornamentals, made of natural substances like wood (slingshots), cotton (towels) and hand-made one-of-a-kind garments.

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I think the one below would look good on my car:
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Everything has a new fresh clean look to it, just like the town itself in early spring, as if it's been washed and scrubbed, so that the colours have been brough to the surface from their dusty past. Hania is always a joy to look at, at the beginning of the tourist season.

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Chilling out in the old harbour of Hania
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An important football match was taking place between Olympiakos and AEK; the places that were equipped with a television were filling up quickly. The strollers who weren't dining or wining would stop every now and then to watch the game at different places as they continued on their stroll. Shouts of glee were heard from all over whenever Olympiakos scored. Whoever wasn't interested in football could ignore them and just chill out and watch the reflections of the lights of the businesses around the harbour floating on the surface of the water.

Hania is beautiful in the spring; the day is just warm enough without being scorching, and the evenings are just cool enough to sit outdoors without feeling cold. When you find yourself among so many other people - young and old, tourists and locals alike - enjoying themselves peacefully, it is very hard to believe that we are in the grips of a serious economic crisis.

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With so many choices for food, The mere sight of relaxed people eating and drinking whets the appetite. The ambience of the old Venetian port in Hania whets the appetite; with so man choices for food and drink in the area, it's hard not to be tempted to stop at some place. It's just as much fun to sit at one of these places and just people-watch after a leisurely stroll in the side streets.

We chose a fast food outlet near the entrance to the harbor area from the town, close to the fountain (σαντριβάνι - santrivani) and the 'chains' (αλυσίδες - alisides) which block out vehicles from entering the main square in front of the harbour; these two spots are central meeting points in the harbour, mainly used by young people to get together with their 'parea' (pαρεα - group of friends).

My children were so pleased they were finally getting the chance to eat the kind of food they view as 'real food'; hamburgers, club sandwiches and french fries.

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A good family fun night out
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My husband ordered a gyro (souvlaki in a pita bread), and I had a BLT crepe (μαλακία - malakia). We finished this off with one ball each of ice-cream in a waffle cone. It's easy to make an outing of the beautiful Venetian harbour on a more regular basis; keeping our visits down to an average of once a month lets me enjoy it more whenever we're down there. We easily tire of the same old thing. Total cost: 17 euro for the meal, and 6 euro for dessert.

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Signs of globalisation are everywhere in the old harbour, from Starbucks to Made-in-China.

I've told one slight lie in this story; there was one place in the harbour that night which lacked business: Starbucks. It has been open in Hania for the last year. The locals don't understand the concept behind it, while the foreign tourists who come to Crete don't come for this sort of thing - they know there are better places to go to in the area. Of the restaurant chains listed in Wikipedia, Hania has only Dominos Pizza and Starbucks (ie no KFC, McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Burger King, etc). If Starbucks wasn't busy while all the other places were, then who is it aimed for in a place that doesn't seem to be wanting its business? Find out here; with their US base located in the area, it doesn't seem feasible to get them congregating in such a conspicuous place.

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What a good thing we went out on Saturday night; Sunday morning was cold, and goot cooler by the hour. A cold wind was blowing most of the day, and the rain which had been forecast for the whole country started in the afternoon.

The central heating had been turned off almost a month ago; it's the first time I needed to switch on the electicity to warm up the boiler for hot bath water. By Monday morning, it was pouring cats and dogs. It's raining, in fact, as I write. That's spring weather for you in Crete. I was a little hasty in putting the children's raincoats into the charity bag; lucky I haven't dropped it off yet.

I just noticed my last three posts were based on wining and dining out of the house. It's time I curbed my spending. And while I haven't been into Starbucks yet, I do intend to one day; I've heard that they make good cappuccino...

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