Gordon G Hall
Writer and Neo-Philhellene

Articles about Greece
Greek Bathrooms

Greek bathrooms are an afterthought. Indeed ‘Bathroom’ is hardly the correct term for these dark dingy little holes that lurk betwixt the washing machine and the security door in Greek apartments. Very few of these stale-aired pits boast an actual bathtub. Those that once might have aspired to such decadence now sport a tub that has long since shed any pretence of being enameled. I suppose they do install baths with plugs, but these handy objects must spirit themselves away into the night, never to be replaced.

In tourist hotels the visitor is lulled into complacency by the glistening marble of the walls and the ‘sanitised’ loo seat of the en-suite. A small notice, possibly in English, stating that you must not put paper down the bog is the only indication that Greek plumbing is of a startlingly primitive nature. This is all too obvious outside such a sheltered environment

I had misguidedly rented a flat in Kato Toumpa. As far as apartments in Thessaloniki suburbs go it wasn’t that bad. It is true that the walls needed a very substantial coat of paint and the furniture would have purpose if the Greeks celebrated 5th November with a roaring bonfire. There was a curious lack of any electric sockets in the kitchen, and the absence of air conditioning did not bode well for the heat of the summer. Nevertheless it would have been survivable, had it not been that ‘bathroom’ .

Yes, there was a bathtub. I eyed it with distaste. The whole of its lower surface was a uniform grey colour. It was not only filthy but, should I be brave enough to sit in it, my nether regions faced the prospect of being rubbed down with something akin to grade 40 sandpaper.

There was a catholic collection of pipes and tubes, some copper, some plastic, and a couple of flexible steel things. They looped and sagged around the room in a contortion of amorous webs. Some ended abruptly, others disappeared into holes broken into the plasterwork.

I have encountered many weird and some decidedly insanitary lavatory pans in my travels, but this innocent looking white receptacle, aligned at an indecisive angle between washing machine and basin, contained within in its murky depths that which I think it best to draw a veil over. Suffice it to say that a month of scrubbing with the most vicious concoction of chemicals available from the local supermarket made no impression at all upon this Thing.

The basin was new. It gleamed at me, smugly from its lair, an ancient cabinet. Incongruously green I discovered that it possessed an evil nature by virtue of the absence of any form of overflow. Thus whilst concentrating upon the morning shave it was all too easy to leave the water running just enough to quickly fill this shallow beast. It then began to surreptitiously discharge itself with fearsome accuracy in the direction of what might politely be termed my lower belly. A creeping dampness was the first indication of a soaking patch of embarrassment that called for a change of trousers and underwear.

Clearly I needed to move house. Indeed had the bathroom been spotless I would have felt compelled to move Basecamp Gordon from such an unedifying location. Those born and bred in this nondescript suburb will no doubt seek to die with the words ‘Kato Toumpa’ carved indelibly upon their hearts. But less committed mortals would find it hard to find many kind words for this product of the lack of post-war building policies. So the search was on for pastures fresh. I eschewed all locations save those in the very centre of Thessaloniki. If I was indeed going to live in this city then I was not going to suffer another Kato Toumpa.

The system for letting apartments in this country is fine, if you are born and bred in Thessaloniki. I wasted a couple of weeks scouring the internet, finding pleasant properties, and phoning Agents whose English was almost as doubtful as my Greek. It took me that fortnight to realize that these advertised properties had long since been let and are left on the ’net as some form of promotion. It is possible to discover Real Estate offices, but few have what I would regard as a normal shop front. Mare located on the first or second floor of apartment blocks. Gaining access to such is a minor challenge, especially if the main door is locked and you are presented with an array of names, all in Greek, without reference to the Company name of the Agent. The only solution I could find was to ring each bell in turn and asked the disembodied voice that barked from the intercom if it spoke English. This would result in a tirade of Greek – that might, or might not, be entirely friendly. Occasionally the door release button would be pressed. Access thus achieved it was simply a matter of wandering up the stairs, stopping at each floor to peruse nameplates.

Once in the hands of an Agent it is difficult to wriggle free. This is due partly to the crisis, but mainly because the client pays half the Agent’s fee. The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors would no doubt frown upon such practice, for the Agent becomes a two-faced go-between, acting for both seller and buyer. The Agent therefore likes to get to know you, the process is however a very friendly one. My visits to properties were interspersed with multiple sojourns in cafes that involved lengthy discussions about things sporting, cultural and amorous. Indeed I played chess in a bar for three hours with one Agent. He beat me, twice. Work in Greece is a way of life and is best treated as a pleasure.

Although I had not found a new place I was desperate to leave Kato Toumpa. I needed to escape the two-year contract that I had, foolishly, signed. I invented a sick relative in the UK and went to see my Landord’s solicitor. We had a friendly discussion in partly Greek, partly in English but mostly in French in his office, just off Aristotelous. We drank coffee, we discussed Europe, we drank more coffee, we talked about things literary, I signed something foregoing my deposit, and after a final coffee I walked out the door a Free Man. I had just two weeks to find an apartment or I would be joining the doen and outs in sleeping on a partk bench.

The days ticked away all too fast. My friends helped me to look at possible places, but none were suitable, I sensed a mild feeling of rising panic. Then I struck gold, a penthouse just behind the Paralia. So that Saturday evening I was sitting in the plush downtown office of my putative Landlord who was happily bending the Greek taxation laws to breaking point. I would sign an agreement to rent his property that would involve ‘paying’ a very small rent to a family company in Cyprus. In reality I would pay a rather more substantial amount from my UK bank to a cash-collection in his name at Western Union. He would furnish the apartment for me with the essentials – except for a bed – and I would take the electricity in my name. We drank coffee. We shook hands. The Deal was done. There were just three days to get the new apartment into shape and get myself moved.

My excellent Landlord was as good as his word and a modicum of furniture arrived on the Monday morning. I needed a bed. I girded my loins and set off by bus to IKEA, emerging three hours later the owner-to-be of a bed and other flat-pack sundries. The convolutions, in Greek, of getting the items picked for me, delivered, and then hoisted to the eighth floor were extreme, but success was achieved and by the next day I had negotiated the Allen-key assembly and thus had a double bed to collapse upon. But I had no electricity.

It was moving day. My chess-playing agent offered to transport my suitcases, computers and cleaning things from Kato Toumpa. He arrived in the smallest filthiest car that ever graced a Greek road and we squeezed everything, and ourselves into it. Door to door delivery was achieved by halting the car in the single-file one-way street and divesting it of cases, bags, and packages. In the meantime those whose automotive passage was being thus hindered sounded a cacophony of frustration.

Being without power meant no light, no heat, and no cooking. I was in desperate need of electricity and a visit to the local DEH office was clearly indicated. Clutching my signed and stamped copy of the false lease I braved this peculiarly Greek institution. Flashing red lights indicated the progress of what looked like three different queues. I fumbled a Greek question and was dismayed to learn that I needed the ‘B’ queue. A machine spat out my number – 103 – they were currently dealing with number 63. A coffee was called for

Half an hour later I returned to find that they had reached 97. I sat down to wait, and to cogitate upon this arcane system of becoming an electricity customer. No chance of a quick phone call, or an online application. Here it was footwork and waiting – a return to the age of steam. I duly waited.

When your turn comes it is no good being caught napping. You have to be quick. If you do not go to the booth indicated by the flashing reds within about 10 seconds the next customer is called and you lose your place. I made it, but only just. The clerk did not speak English. Our business was conducted mainly by mime. Production of passport, AFM and stamped lease was sufficient to ensure the creation of two pages of small print – in Greek – that the clerk and I both signed. Only one more queue – to had over a deposit of €130 and electricity was to be mine by that evening. And the extraordinary thing was that I was indeed relieved from cold and starvation before nightfall.

I have strayed from bathrooms. I have been distracted by the intricacies involved in the abandonment of the Black Hole of Kato Toumpa and thus ensuring my continuing presence in this land fit for an Odyssey. I reveled in the glory of the shiny successor to the Black Hole. It walls glinted with marble. The floor gleamed with mosaic There was a faux-Gold tap arrangement for the bath. And yet . . . this was a Greek bathroom, and the tub, for it had a splendid tub, had two large and totally inexplicable chips in its enamel.

Whilst exhibiting none of the malevolence of the late, and unlamented, Black Hole, this Shiny Palace possessed a warped sense of humour that ensured its place amongst Greek bathrooms. I stripped to the buff, eager to shower my pink and substantial body. I clutched my sponge and wrapped myself, somewhat imperfectly, in in a towel and flung open the glass shower door to step in.

I reeled back.

This was no shower, but a Gordon Trap. It was an internal flue. Had I continued my progress it would have deposited me eight floors lower down in a crumpled heap.

Despite this I love Shiny Palace. But it is still an afterthought, a small and unloved intrusion into the architectural scheme of things. In the UK I luxuriate in a well-carpeted bathroom, scattered with candles and having a pleasing view from two large windows. I will forever be frustrated by the inability of Greek architects to adopt the concept designing bathrooms that are fit for purpose.

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