Monday, 4 February 2013

Closed for lunch

One of Greece's traditional quirky sides is the closed-at-lunchtime custom. Between 2(-ish) and 6(-ish), most small businesses are closed. I suppose it's still a habit all over the country, even though the hours have been deregulated and anyone can keep their business open any time between 8am and 9pm. So when supermarkets and chain stores, as market-driven capitalistic ventures, remain open throughout the day, all other privately-owned and often family-operated businesses are closed.

Shop hours in Greece have always operated according to a very unique timetable: Mondays and Wednesdays until 2.30-3pm; Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 8-9am until 2pm at which point they close and re-open at 5.30-6pm (or 6.30pm in the summer) until 8.30-9pm; Saturdays 8-9am until 2pm; and never never on a Sunday.

I work regular office hours, starting as soon as I get into the office after taking the kids to school, until 4pm. When I leave work, the only food stores open (apart from places to eat and drink prepared food, eg cafes, zaharoplasteia) are the supermarkets. We often hear about how people hate going to supermarkets because they are expensive, or they don't sell that special product you really want, or they are capitalists and drive small businesses out of business - but if they aren't open after I finish work, I can't go to them to buy what I need.

Even my students from the Mediterranean and Europe often exclaim shock when they see an empty town at times they would have thought the commercial area would be buzzing. "Is it because of the crisis?" a Lebanese student once asked me. "Because we've been through crsises of our own, but we don't let that stop us from getting on with life." Another out-of-towner was surprised that she couldn't buy any cigarettes at the kiosk because even that was closed down at lunchtime.

If someone came to Hania in the middle of a European winter and took a walk in the middle of town at about 5pm on a Thursday (which is when this photo was taken), they would easily be convinced that the economic crisis has gripped the country, unless they knew that in and hour or so, this street would be buzzing with life and dazzling with lights.

Just because the shops are closed, don't imagine long leisurely lunches and snoozey siestas. The problem isn't that the proprietors are eating and sleeping when they close down their shops. They simply haven't acclimatised to the present conditions. No one is forcing them to in this respect, even though the conditions and notions of the concept of work have changed drastically as of late. And if they don't need to work long hours, then they won't bother; in other words, they are making enough to keep afloat, even during times when supposedly it is hard to keep a business open.

If I really want to buy that sweet tasting mizithra from the Agora market in the town or some locally raised pork from a small butcher, I have to go home first and come back into town when the shops open in the afternoon (which is actually evening to most people in Western countries), thereby spending more time and money on the road. I could also hang around doing nothing, or spending money on cafes, until the shops open. Or I can just buy a substitute product from the supermarket which is open all hours of the day on my way home from work. And that's what I usually do, of course, and I end up buying all sorts of other stuff from the supermarket while I'm there, so small shops usually miss out on getting their  fair share of my money, since I can get stationery, underwear, slippers and even crockery at the supermarket.

I've noticed that some small businesses are now starting to operate all day, eg many chemists, some large fashion outlets, a few butchers, among others (while the κινέζοι and the gypsies have always done so). Whenever I see such businesses open, I make a mental note to remember to support them. They're embracing the new world, however harsh it may seem, and I'd rather have them succeed instead of the businesses that close down at lunchtime and re-open in the afternoon. But when I hang around in town after work, waiting for my kids to finish their after-school activities, I generally don't see many businesses open, so there's absolutely nowhere for me to shop at, except at the supermarkets or the souvenir shops, and I definitely don't need the services of the latter.

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2 comments:

  1. When I travel I try so hard to acclimatize myself to the customs. When I was in Greece I didn't find it quite so prevalent since I was probably off somewhere hiking or enjoying the sun. In Italy it was disconcerting in the small towns of Calabria.

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  2. Bonkers. It would be so frustrating to experience that as someone living there. Common in Spain, to close for a few hours in the afternoon, though. But I have only been on holiday there and on Crete.

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