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Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Customer relations (Πελατιακές σχέσεις)

A facebook freind recently asked: "How do you reconcile the rise in college graduates with the general dumbing down of society, and the increase in poor service in all places in general? Any ideas on how this happened?" My response: "the ease with which education can be acquired these days all over the world".

Last night, I spent time in the company of a cousin my age who has never received an education beyond primary school. He's in state employment, a position he earned through the once common nepotistic way that uneducated villagers got into the public service. Through his contacts, he even managed to find a state job for his wife. His hope in life was that his four children would one day earn their daily bread in that similar breezy way that their father had been doing up until two years ago when his state salary was suddenly cut in half and he ended up not even being able to afford to pay off his state-provided house mortgage.

 Gerasimos believe that "If you have bread and olive oil, you'll never go hungry."

Gerasimos did not expect things to turn out this way. He had voted PASOK all his life, and fought tooth and nail to keep his job when a Nea Dimokratia government took office (because as most Greeks know, state job holders are often demoted if they are not from the 'right' party). "I'll show you all!" he used to bell out in the room over dinner parties of bygone areas, "when PASOK comes back into power again, I won't even have to clock in to work!" As history tells us, such times never came, and the ones that did almost cost him his livelihood (he has now taken up the mortgage issue with lawyers, arguing that the state gave him his job, the state gave him his mortgage, and the state took away his salary, therefore it is the state's fault entirely that he does not enough money to pay off his mortgage - he is awaiting the verdict).

Because he had never received an education, coupled with the circles that he was now moving around in due to his state job, he made a great effort to do his utmost to educate his children. He has a genuine desire to see his children in a better position in life than he is himself, and he knows that to achieve this in this day and age, he must give them the best education possible.

"If I have a full table, then I lack nothing," Gerasimos often says. 

So he started spending his money on private afternoon preparatory classes for all of them, the infamous frontistiria as they are known in Greece. He did not make a special choice in frontistiria, follwoing the age-old greek tradition of choosing the closest one: kids generally go to the closest frontistirio in their neighbourhood, in the same way that their parents would use the local corner store, the local supermarket, the local souvlatzidiko, the local zaharoplasteio, the local church, and every other local you-name-it. Germasimos paid his monthly dues to the frontistirio regularly, and also managed to secure his family a good deal, given that he was politeknos (ie he had more than three children, which earns Greeks special rights). He had always reported proudly to us that his kids were doing very well at the frontistirio, and one of them even got a prize for coming first in class.

Eventually, he stopped renting a house, and moved into his own home. The move entailed a change in neighbourhood. A change in neighbourhood often means a change in corner store, supermarket, souvlatzidiko, zaharoplasteio, church, and of course frontistirio, because it may not always be feasible transport-wise to use the same services. He was in for the shock of his life. The owner of the new frontistirio where he enrolled his children reported to him - well before report cards were due - that these new students were not in fact the A-grade students that their report cards from the previous frontistirio claimed them to be.

ramni hania
"If I can produce it myself, I will." And Gerasimos does.

How can this be? Gerasimos wondered. The children's grades were so high in the previous frontistirio! Could the previous frontistirio owner have been lying to him? It certainly seemed that way, especially since his eldest child had to sit the external examination three times in order to earn a certificate of proof of English skills. Gerasimos felt that someone had passed one over him. To his horror, he realised that the former frontistirio owner was simply treating him like a good customer, giving his kids good marks while he paid him his hard-earned money (which is now meted out less readily by his employer, the state). The kids had learnt very little in the half a dozen years that he had been sending them to the frontistirio; because Gerasimos had no idea what they were studying, no idea about how to help them in their studies, and no ability to check their work due to his own ignorance of anything to do with learning, he simply relied on the final end-of-year report card with their average grades to see how his kids were doing. But the grades were simply inflated because Gerasimos was being treated as a paying customer that needed to be satisfied. The truth was revealed when he moved neighbourhood and chanced on a frontistirio owner who took a more serious and realistic approach to teaching.

All the while, I could see through this facade; I had encountered it many times in my teaching career in Greece. My first boss told me that in his first year of being a frontistirio owner-operator, he had 50 students. The second year, he had 15. He had judged the students too harshly, giving them very low marks if they did not do well. He realised that this was bad for business, so he didn't do that again. In other words, the system had sucked him in. He wanted to offer a reliable product, but the system was too ingrained in people's minds - they wanted somethng that looked good: it didn't necessarily have to work well.

"My land, my life." Gerasimos will kill for it.

Every time I met up with my cousin and we talked about life in general over dinner parties where he served us roast lamb and fried rabbit that he had himself raised, potatoes that he had grown, wine that he had made, all produced on his village land. But Gerasimos and I were never really close. I met him when I first came to Greece, and simply passed him over. I did not want to keep company with people whose values were ethically unsound, who had not earned their status, and who regarded a state sector job as the be-all and end-all in life. But after I got married, Gerasimos became very close with my family, through my husband. The two men are very connected to the earth. They are both very proud of their ancestral land, working very hard on it whenever time permits, which is unfortunately not as often as either of them would like, because we are all in paid employment and we need to be at our posts during our work hours. We share produce with each other, visit each other's fields, and generally talk field-shop whenever we get together with him.

I now realise how little I understood Gerasimos, as well as how much we misunderstood each other. Gerasimos and I may be in a different economic position in life, but we are one and the same. He had to make a living somehow. He had no skills, no knowledge, no qualifications, no certificates, nothing to prove his value. He put his trust in the system, becoming a customer to a political party. I put my trust in my skills and qaulifications, believing that they will help me through life and I will be rewarded according to my knowledge. Now we both know that the system was rigged because it was never fair to everyone,m or transparent to Greek people as a whole. We are both victims.

Στα χρόνια της υπομονής, δεν μας θυμήθηκε κανείς ...
"During the patient years, no one remembered us" (so don't expect them to remember us now)...
Note the presence at the table of the smiling PASOK leader (2008 video). He smiles less often these days. .

I asked Gerasimos what he would have thought had his kids continued their studies at the former frontistirio, and ended up sitting the external examinations through it instead of the new one. He said that if this happened, after getting such bright marks on their report cards, he would believe that his children were not trying hard enough. Had the system not been busted, he would have blamed his kids, telling them that he had paid good money to give them a good education, and they were wasting their chances. Now he knows that all that time, he had been paying for a fake education. He was a customer of an educational institute, and the educational institute was a business. In the same way, he was a customer to a political party, believing that he will secure his livelihood in this way, while the political party paid him off with benefits and perks, believing that in this way, that it will keep its customer happy. The two entities were bound together for their survival, the one cheating the other: in the case of the frontistirio, Gerasimos secured a low price while staying in the same neighbourhood, and the institute secured his patronage while delivering seemingly high quality goods (ie the good grades on the report card).

"The village always draws me back." But we can't always be where we want.

Being in the trade, I knew all this of course, but I never said anything to Gerasmimos. Before the economic crisis which brought down the old school, if I had mentioned this to Gerasimos, he would have thought I was some kind of nutter. He has reminded me many times in the past: "This isn't New Zealand, Maria!", meaning that if I don't also play by the system's rules, I won't get anywhere in life here (which I regard as akin to telling you to 'go back where you came from'). Gerasimos had to learn the truth by bitter experience, as he did just recently, when he discovered that the law has no mercy: when he was stopped for careless driving, not wearing a seatbelt, having an unfit car on the road and driving while under the influence of alcohol, not even his relatives in the local police force or even the infamous fakelaki could get his car licence plates back for him. His bolshiness almost cost him a night in prison. Bribing wouldn't have worked either: to get his licence plates, he had to pay through the legal channels.

Luckily for both of us, our children are all young enough not to have to worry about their being caught up in the same system. By the time our children finish their college education, Greece will have changed so much that the Greeks will have not have had any other choice than to change with her. We are now seeing the outcomes of all these customer relations: politicians are accusing each other of maintaining customer relations which ruined the country. It could be the case that this phony kind of relationship might return to our shores, but the world is too connected to allow this to happen. Already, I envisage a generation that will be free from this burden.

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