During a couple of summers while in college, I worked as a bartender at a hotel bar in southern Greece. It was not a big place – just a couple of tables and three or four stools at the bar. Most of our customers were hotel guests who came in for a quick drink before dinner: vacationing Greeks from Athens, British secretaries looking for romance, and sun-burned backpackers and families from all over the world.
During my first summer at the hotel, there was an older English gentleman, formerly of the Royal Air Force, who spent a lot of time at the bar telling stories about World War II. The man also presented himself as a connoisseur of all things having to do with alcohol and liquors.
One night when he was there, another customer asked me the difference between two bottles of Ouzo on the shelf. When I said I had no idea except that we charged more for one than the other, the Englishman asked me to pour him a shot of each so that he could answer the question himself. The gentleman sipped from one glass and then the other. Ah, he said. And he proceeded to give us a detailed explanation.
A couple of nights later, another customer happened to ask me the same question. Doing my best to repeat exactly what the Englishman had told us, I was pleased that the hotel owner happened to be sitting at the other end of the bar at the time. It gave me the opportunity to show off my new knowledge.
The hotel owner listened to what I told the customer, but didn’t say anything until the customer finished his drink and left. Then the owner asked me to follow him out to the kitchen. There, behind the door, was a vat that must have been three feet tall. When either Ouzo bottle was empty, the owner brought it back to the kitchen and re-filled it with the cheapest stuff he could buy. He had another vat for brandy. In other words, it didn’t matter if you were paying for one-star, three-star, or five-star Metaxa, you were drinking the exact same thing. Very few people can tell the difference, he told me. And those people are not hanging out at this bar.
I was thinking of this story recently while reading about the financial crisis in Greece. I have no clue on the reasons behind the crisis. Credit finance, financial reform, deficit management, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. At the same time, I couldn’t help thinking that the traditional Greek disdain for rules and regulations– and the relaxed attitude toward life that for me encapsulates much of what is so beautiful about the country – must be at least partially responsible for some of the current problems.
There is a reason for the strict liquor laws that would have shut down the hotel owner immediately if he tried to pull something like that in, say, Germany or the United States. In fairness, there is also something charming about not having too many rules or regulations — or at least not enforcing them to the same extent that we do in this country. Greece’s limitations are also part of its strengths. You couldn’t change one without also changing the other.
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