Chris Blackhurst: In the Aegean it's business as usual, but where are the jobless Greeks?
Midweek View: Unemployment is twice the eurozone average, yet here I am being waited upon by people who are not Greek
The young waiter in my hotel apologised. She was Hungarian, she said, and her English was not perfect. She went and got a colleague, who was Polish, to translate my wine order. At the bar, the staff comprised two Poles, a Hungarian and a Latvian. The hotel's entertainment staff, there to keep young children happy, consisted of an Italian, a Pole, a Czech and a chap from Brazil.
We've got used to such demographic breakdowns in the service sector in this country, in our bars and restaurants in particular – it's almost a novelty in central London to be served by anyone in a pub who hails from the UK – but this wasn't Britain.
I was holidaying in Greece, where unemployment for the 15-to-24 age group is running at 57.5 per cent. Overall, the Greek jobless figure is 26.9 per cent, more than twice the eurozone average of 12.2 per cent.
Of those without work in Greece, almost two out of three have been unemployed for more than 12 months. Since 2009, when the country's economy hit the buffers, hundreds of thousands have been laid off. According to the Hellenic Statistical Authority, between 700 and 1,000 jobs are being lost each day.
Yet, here am I, sitting on a Greek island, being waited upon by people who are not Greek. In fact, as I went round the resort, most of the staff appeared to be from anywhere but Greece. Only the cleaners and gardeners were identifiably Greek. The rest came from afar, mainly from central and eastern Europe.
Now, it may be that the hotel feels it must employ non-Greeks to cater for the non-Greek clientele. But questions to the management elicited the sort of response you would receive from catering bosses in this country: the restaurant and bar staffs work long hours; you can't get local people to work like that, certainly not at the rates we pay; they'd rather receive benefit than work; it's seasonal work and locals are looking for something more permanent.
I was in the middle of the Aegean, and I know that Greece's mainland is hit harder by the crisis than the islands. Nevertheless, it was a surprise.
Certainly, for proof of a nation reeling under the euro-cosh, there was none. The prices were higher than I remembered from a year previously. And, sure enough, when I questioned why they were so high, the shopkeeper shrugged and said it was not his fault – everything was more expensive this year.
The hotel ran out of items. So, suddenly and weirdly, to the consternation of our children, there were no Greek potato crisps to be had anywhere in the hotel's four bars and shop. Likewise, the supply of locally produced wine mysteriously dried up (no great hardship there, except that the much better-tasting French and Italian wines were frighteningly expensive). The crisps and wine reappeared, but only after three or four days.
It may have been that the hotel was running a tight book and keeping its stock levels deliberately low. But in years of staying at the same place I'd not experienced shortages before. Plus, the delay in restocking did not make sense – the hotel was losing valuable business.
There were mutterings among the guests about the quality of the ingredients in the food. Again, was it the management trying to cut corners or was the recession to blame? It was hard to tell.
There was one constant from former trips: tax, or rather, the lack of it. The nearby harbour still contained gleaming, swanky yachts bearing Greek flags. Their wealthy owners were as polished and as smartly turned out as ever. Paying by cash rather than card always resulted in a smiling nod.
Greece, it was clear, remains a society where payment of taxes is largely to be avoided or even evaded. Buy anything imported and the duty is high. That, at least, was the shop's excuse. But do the owner and his employees themselves pay income tax? That question is greeted with a knowing laugh.
There are those who insist that the eurozone wobble is over, that Greece is reforming and applying strict measures to bring its public spending to heel. They may be right, but not on the admittedly cursory, fortnight's evidence I saw.
Where is growth going to come from? The absence of the seeds of future prosperity is worrying. What I sensed was a nation going through the motions, paying lip-service to the strictures from elsewhere – while continuing to operate as normal.
That can't augur well. But it did make for a great holiday.
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