Friday, 25 December 2015

The Eight Euro Challenge

A friend of mine who is something of an epicure has just spent a week or so in Barcelona where, as anyone knows, there is excellent cuisine to be had, even at the lower end of the price range. Nevertheless, I was astonished - and a little envious - when he reported that he had enjoyed a three-course lunch - with wine - for a very reasonable €8.00 (£5.86 or $8.72 at today’s rates). I paid more than that for a sandwich at Manchester airport last week.

I was waiting for a flight to Athens, where my partner and I are now sitting out the “festive” period in an apartment in Piraeus, living like the locals: except that we can’t speak Greek and have only the faintest idea of how the locals conduct their lives. News reports back home give the impression that they are mostly unemployed and up to their ears in debt but I’m sure the picture is more complex than that. From our terrace we can see plainly the constant procession of ships bearing cargo and passengers to and from the port, a promising if anecdotal indicator of rude commercial health. In any case there are plenty of restaurants, ouzeries and tavernas open for business; plenty of scope for an eight euro lunch, I would have thought.

We dipped our toes in the water at one such, jammed between the fishmongers lining a back street near the port: it was inexpensive but not close to the benchmark. In one sense, however, we did get more than we bargained for. A man, perhaps in his thirties, and a boy, possibly his four-year-old son, came and took a table nearby. The waitress brought them drinks and snacks, the man lit a cigarette and the boy, already bored, wandered about, practising moves with his plastic sword. Seeing the boy’s need for distraction, the man pulled two small crabs from one of his bags of shopping, placed them on an empty chair and encouraged the boy to beat them with his sword until they stopped moving which, mercifully, they soon did. Meanwhile the waitress reappeared and watched admiringly for a minute or two. At last the man put the leaking crabs back into the bag and wiped the chair down with a napkin.

There are questions to be asked here: whether the man should be encouraging the boy to be violent; whether the spectacle was “tasteless” given the proximity of diners; whether there is such a thing as cruelty to crustaceans and, if so, whether there is pertinent legislation; and whether I should have raised an objection on any or all of these grounds. On this last I admit to timidity on account of being a cultural outsider: but if I had not been?

If this incident is seen as representative of the cultural differences ingrained in the various communities that make up the EU, then it is easy to see that pan-European legislation will inevitably be controversial. The wearing of seat belts and crash helmets, for example, is mandatory throughout the EU but Greeks appear to have an opt-out clause on this, just as they do on the paying of taxes. And as for smoking! Part of our “live like the locals” project involves shopping for groceries, to which end we ventured into a small butcher’s shop nearby not noticing, until it was too late, that the old man in charge was smoking a cigarette underneath the turkeys hung above him. Perhaps more up-to-date habits of health and safety will prevail once the older generation dies off but, until then, if you want to experience cultural difference, then you take the rough with the smooth.

I’m still working on “the challenge”, by the way, but have managed to set another meanwhile: a three-course lunch in a Michelin starred restaurant for €30 (wine not included). You have to put up with smokers at the next table, mind you.

Fishermens' chapel, Piraeus

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