Saturday, 21 April 2012

Wait (Περίμενε)

A couple of Saturdays ago, before I started on the household chores, as I was getting my daily global news fix over a cup of coffee, I found myself without an internet connection. The phone line went dead, which meant that there was no web connection, either; in Greece, one depends on the other. This is actually not a common situation - our landline/web services in the village are quite good and very stable. On the occasion where the line has been disconnected due to a general problem in the area, stormy weather, or maintenance work, the lines are back up and running quite quickly.

This time, the line did not come back. It stayed that way the whole weekend. Nor did it come back the whole week after that. Or even the following weekend. Not having a phone these days is of course a minor inconvenience in a world which relies increasingly on mobile phone usage. But having no internet spells disaster. While a web connection is available through a mobile phone, it cannot be compared to a proper computer connection. For a start, it is an expensive way to keep connected in Greece. The screen is small, the typing tedious, the editing limited. Files can't be shared in the same convenient way over the web, nor can they be changed and stored appropriately. The problem did not stop me from writing blog posts, but it did slow me down. I could not upload photographs from my private collections. I could not manipulate them for the purposes of the blog. I could not remain updated on world events, nor could I follow my friends' daily updates.

I reported the problem to my server - the main telephone company in Greece, the once infamous OTE (
Οργανισμός Τηλεπικοινωνιών Ελλάδος) - as soon as I realised that the problem was taking on a more permanent nature. Throughout the period of inconvenience, every day, I would call the ΒΛΑΒΕΣ department to ask for an update. In total, I called them 11 times (once on each weekend day, and twice - before I went to work, and after I came back home on finding a dead phone line - on weekdays). We often think of Greek service staff as slack, impolite and incompetent. But if you phone the service department of OTE, you will find that this is not the case at all:

- The line was answered promptly (so people were at their workplaces)
- Τhe call assistant (probably different ones most of the time) always answered with the same - memorised statement: Βλάβες ΟΤΕ, Θέση (number), πως μπορώ να σας εξυπηρετήσω?
- The call assistant was able to check on the history of the problem at a glance (so they knew how many times I'd already called them before)
- The call assistants always responded to my requests in a consistent manner
- There was never any instance of what could be construed as rudeness (despite my irate tone of voice towards the end of my ordeal)
- The calls always ended with the same expression: Ευχαριστούμε που μας καλέσατε.
Every single time, the same discussion would take place, with the same set expressions. As the days grew into weeks, I kept asking the assistants if they had any idea what exactly was the problem (works in progress, I found out on the fifth day) and when the problem would be fixed (‘by tomorrow’ was the standard response, as reported by their superiors).

OTE work in progress: there were four points like this one on the same road

Of course, the call assistants themselves could not fix my problem. They could only pass on my messages to the bigwigs who were supposed to be able to fix it. I had already spotted the work gang on the main road; none of the neighbours had a phone line, either. Something was going on which was only known to the OTE clan, as no information was being provided to the crew in the lower rungs of the ladder, and therefore to the customer. We were not even warned that this would be occurring. We were left without a phone for eight days. At one point I wondered if we would have a phone line by Easter.
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Two decades ago, when I arrived in Greece, OTE was a wholly Greek-owned business, and it ran like just like one would expect a Greek-owned business to run: service was slow, queues were large, there were never enough assistants in the large dull grey-walled offices of the state-owned company. To apply for a phone line in your house meant a long long wait for one to be made available, and they were expensive to install. The state was making easy money by simply being inefficient: there were not enough lines, and when one was available, the willing customer would pay the state to take it!
Making an international call was expensive, and since I didn’t have a phone myself, in order to call my parents overseas, I often went to the OTE office in Omonoia Square which was lined with private phone booths. I can’t quite remember the system, but I do remember that I’d have to wait for a booth to empty, and an assistant would unblock the phone. Then I’d dial the number, make the call, and watch the meter ticking away furiously. You could see how much money was being spent on the call, so that you could budget according to what you could afford.  At the end of the call, your exit from the office would entail passing by the cashier so that you could pay.
I remember once when the office wasn’t very busy, and I waited patiently with the correct change in my hand to pay for a call I had just made. The state-paid assistant, a young woman, was talking to someone else in the office. She did not even bother to look up at me. She knew what I was there for, to pay for the call I had just made. I waited like a zombie at the cashier, pretending that I didn’t have anything else to do and could wait for this stupid girl who, despite her younger age, had greater power ove me than I did over her. At one point, I pretended to make some kind of shuffling sound with my purse, to cover my embarrassment at having to wait for the oaf to move, even though I realised that she had actually seen me, and she was making me wait on purpose. When I felt that I had had enough of her rudeness, I stretched my arm out as widely as possibly over the counter and left the money in front of her. Then I turned around to leave; in those days, no one waited to pick up a receipt of payment for anything. I knew this trick would work to catch that git’s attention; she actually called out to me: “Περιμένετε!” She was not being paid to be productive, or efficient, or because she was qualified to do the job, so there could only have been one reason why she tried to stop me from leaving until she had checked the money I had left on the counter: she was probably afraid that I might have short-changed her, and she would have had to fork it out of her own pocket at the end of the day when the day’s takings did not tally.  
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In both cases, then and now, we are reminded of the way the system works and who pulls the shots. In the past, every state employee knew the power they held over mere mortals like myself. Now, it’s not quite the same thing, but there are still people in the Greek system who remember the good old times well enough to want to keep holding onto them. The polite call assistants of today were probably never part of that rotten system; what’s more, they are performing a specific job according to the instructions they are given, which now mainly come from none other than Deutsche Telekom, because OTE, a former Greek SOE, is now mainly German-owned. But the actual job will only get done when it suits the present power holders, who are based in the upper ranks of the business. Efficiency and politeness only count towards image building. The call assistants have been assigned this precious task – making the company look good. Below the German veneer, it’s the same old Greek way of doing business – ‘όλο στο περίμενε’.
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