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Monday, 27 March 2017

A non-EU Greece

Image may contain: one or more people, people sitting, people eating, table, food and indoor
My son making dakos in Budapest
On the 60th anniversary of the founding of the EU, my family was reaping the benefits of being a member of the EU. My son was visiting Budapest on an ERASMUS high school exchange trip (all expenses paid); my daughter was briefing a German exchange student who will be staying with us (after my daughter had visited her in Germany - again all expenses paid); we took a drive through a village in the Apokoronas region of Hania which had benefited from UK expat migration in the region; and we visited an English friend who came to Greece and ended up living, working, marrying, building a house and having children here. All the above were of course possible before Greece became a member of the EU, but not without the ease that they can all be done now.

I once visited Greece before it was a member of the EU, and I lived in Greece after it became a member. My husband was born before the EU was invented and he remembers the times before Greece was a member very well: he had studied in Italy for a year where he felt the stark differences between non-EU Greece and her EU neighbour. My husband also lived through the euphoria when Greece became a member of the EU in 1981 when he started working his father's taxi, and he remembers that first summer, when the town of Hania had never seen so many tourists before, and the tourist market suddenly took off, with the result that many local people's income increased due to the greater opportunities for work that came with the higher numbers of tourists.

At the time of Greece's entry to the EU, the EU looked like this:
File:EC10-1981 European Community map enlargement.svg
Greece had a cut-off disconnected look in her early EU days. Her borders did not connect with the borders of the other members of the EU, save the UK and Ireland, which were islands at any rate, and were 'close to' other members, geographically and politically. Her land borders were clearly connected to (at the time) communist countries, with one bit attached to Turkey. The countries surrounding Greece were all regarded as 'poor', like Greece herself. Italy, France and Germany were considered 'important' countries: we could name major brand names for major products coming from them, like Fiat, Renault, Mercedes. It didn't quite match 'ouzo', which seemed to be the most well known Greek product in my days (a bottle of which was always in the drinks cabinet, although we never drank the stuff ourselves). The story that went round in our NZ home was that Greece was regarded as the birthplace of democracy, so it had to become part of the EU for moral reasons. In other words, Greece became part of the EU because she was pretty, which is in agreement with an informal remark made by Jean-Claude Juncker two years ago just before Greece's July 2015 referendum:
"Greece joined the European Community in 1981 because we didn’t want to see Plato play in the second division”. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/03/greece-in-europe-a-short-history
The more official reason given was that Greece was strategically located, a factor which is now treated as a joke, given that her sea borders were never controllable, hence the migrant influx of the last two years. Coupled with Greece's uncontrollable money problems, Greece is now regarded as a hopeless liability.

The fact that Greece escaped communism and became a member of the EU as early as she did cannot be underestimated. The EU was officially formed a year after Hungarians protested against communism, a revolution that was crushed by the Soviets. Greece had rid itself of a dictatorship well before Spain, who entered the EU after Greece. On the fall of communism, Greece was flooded with Albanian migrants, many of whom had Greek origins, crossing the border, their emaciated bodies draped in WW2 styles (see LiFO's recent photo essay on their arrival to Greece after overnight walks over mountains: http://www.lifo.gr/articles/photography_articles/137769). That was nothing compared to the blood that was being spilled over the breakup of Yugoslavia: of the former six countries that made up Yugoslavia, only Croatia and Slovenia are part of the EU (and only Slovenia is part of the eurozone).

Throughout all these periods, which are very recent in our minds, Greece has remained at peace (save two weeks of war waged over Cyprus in 1974), and its economy has diversified from a mainly agriculturally based one. It was not the EU's fault that Greece's economy broke down: the reasons for this are well documented and still being talked about.

Rather than discuss the ways that Greece has benefited from being an EU member, I'd like to describe what I think Greece would be like right now if Greece were not an EU member. Let's pretend that we are not in the EU, and therefore, not in the eurozone either. We also never experienced communism. So what kind of country might we look like? Which other country may we resemble? That's a hard question to answer. It's also steeped in hypothetical thoughts, similar to most major mainstream newspapers, that seem to have absolutely no idea which direction the world is going towards. These days, we get very little 'real' news in the press - we only get opinions. So I would like to hazard a guess about what I think my country may look like as a non-EU Greece, given my knowledge of the countries that Greece is surrounded by, despite the fact that I haven't visited any of those countries myself (except Italy, over 25 years ago). I think we have direct examples of what Greece might be like now, had it not entered the EU. My opinion should be read in the same way that we read those major mainstream newspapers to gain more knowledge about an uncertain world that few are understanding at this moment.

A non-EU Greece would be a poor country. By poor, I mean that Greeks would not have been able to afford to build the modern homes they own, full of modern appliances, with expensive model cars in our garages or parked on the street. So they would not have been helped by modern technology to move away from a self-sustaining lifestyle. While supermarkets would exist, most products would be too expensive for most people. Those who would be able to afford supermarkets would be a certain sector of society that forms the ruling elite class, who would probably not allow the lower orders to gain access to power: we have very real examples of this pre-crisis). The poorer members of society would rely on emigres for top-ups, like they did in the past. Poverty does not mean that we would not have enough food to eat or a roof over our head: Greeks have always maintained a sense of pride about being able to feed themselves and keep a home. Apart from WW2 when food was confiscated by the Nazis to serve the needs of its army, Greeks have never gone hungry. Homelessness would not be a common feature of the country, either. The homeless would probably have other issues than purely economic ones that led them to their situation.

A non-EU Greece would be less cosmopolitan. Although tourists would come here, we would not travel so much to their countries, and therefore we would not know our tourists well enough. We would not be able to afford to travel much, and we would also be looked down on, and/or stopped from entering other EU countries. We would continue to strive for higher educational excellence, but it would be very introverted. We still have a very introvert education system, so it's not hard to imagine it in a worse condition. We'd be using the internet at a much slower pace than we supposedly already are. Greece was always more cosmopolitan throughout history than her landlocked neighbours, and Greeks have always travelled, but this was a privilege mainly reserved for the rich urban classes. Poorer rural Greeks emigrated - that's quite a different story to being a businessman and travelling for trade, while returning to your roots on a regular basis.

A non-EU Greece would use the drachma as its currency. The drachma would have a very low value outside the country. While my son was in Hungary, he was able to exchange euros for florints. He saw the problems of not having euro for a currency from a different perspective. The Poles in his ERASMUS group could exchange zloty for florint, but the Romanians were not able to exchange their leu: the problems that this caused were not just finance-related: it also caused status problems in the group. Some students felt the superiority-inferiority complex of not belonging. While the drachma would not work abroad,  it would however probably work well for Greece, because it would make life  cheaper. But we would not be able to afford luxuries, like brand names. Having your own currency means you can bend rules when it suits you: Greece would be a more corrupt nepotistic country. But that would probably force young people to learn to live on less money, which would stand them in good stead as they learn to live with a less predictable future int he global world.

In a non-EU Greece, young Greeks would be looking to get out of the country, like they are now, but for different reasons, and with a different status. Even as late as March 2017, just before the UK pulls the trigger to brexit the EU, Greeks are still signing up for employment in the UK. It's because they can, unlike Albanians and Macedonians, who do not have legal access to the UK job market. So if we weren't in the EU, then Greeks would be similar to Albanians who were born in Greece and were able to gain access to the EU market, and Macedonians from former Yugoslavia who change nationality by claiming that one of their grandparents was Bulgarian, for obvious reasons: Bulgarians are EU nationals, while Macedonians aren't. Unemployment would still be a problem in Greece like it is now, but probably not of the magnitude that it has now. Some of our older factories would still be working, because we would still have the drachma, and our labour costs would have remained cheaper. Entry to the EU threw that one out of the window. Family businesses would survive better than they do now, and their competitive value would be better than it is now because the drachma would still exist.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a non-EU Greece would be very vulnerable to war with Turkey. It happened in Cyprus in 1974, and Greece nearly went to war with Greece in 1987 (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek%E2%80%93Turkish_relations#Aegean_Sea). We've had some near misses ever since then, and unfortunately, this is continuing to this very day (see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/27/tensions-flare-greece-turkey-answer-provocation-erdogan). An isolated Greece would forever be a lonely Greece, scared of its shadow as it tries to hide amidst its strategic location. The EU's foundations were built on this very factor: that Europe never again experiences war.

*** *** ***

The present EU (pre-Brexit) looks like this (with Croatia in orange, signifying the last country to join the EU in 2013):

European Union Croatia Locator.svg

So the land borders of Europe are slowly joining up, and the EU territory looks more 'natural' but there are still elements of the map that look artificial: Switzerland claims to be a neutral country with its own currency - yet it is surrounded by eurozone countries. Some former communist nations are regarded as not ready to join the EU just yet - but they form integral parts of central Europe. Norway decided not to join the EU by referendum (twice!) - but its main trading partner is in fact the EU. The Ukraine borders Russian, but it wants to be a member of the EU, which looks like a natural extension of the map - but just how much can the EU be logically extended by? Could it ever include Turkey?

And which country would Greece have resembled had it been subjected to communism? I think Greece needed her dose of that too, but the right won the Greek civil war, and we missed our chance to be led by a leftist government, until 2015 (and we all know how that ended). Had we been a communist country, we probably would have joined the EUwhen Bulgaria and Romania did. I believe we would then have developed into a nice mix of those two countries: the poor Bulgaria with the proud Romania. And we still would have had our funny money, like they still do. There's still a lot of work to be done in the EU before we all truly become united.

Europe orthographic Caucasus Urals boundary (with borders).svgDespite the mess that the EU finds itself in today, I'm still glad to be a part of it. Europe is a culturally rich continent, and it is still very wealthy. EU funds have paid for many Greek modernisation projects. Even as an indebted country, Greece is still riding high because of those modernisations. What would Athens be without the metro and Eleftherios Venizelos airport? What would Hania be like if Ryanair wasn't flying in 1 out of every 4 tourists that we get in the summer? The concept of modern Greece is just 200 years old - as old as New Zealand, believe it or not - and it still needs fine tuning. But the EU is only 60: it's just getting over its teething problems. If Greece had not become a member of the EU, that wouldn't mean it would not be a great country. But by being in the EU, it is even greater. Thus:

Ζήτω η Ευρωπαϊκή Ενωση!

Image may contain: textPost Script: The UK was always an exception in the EU. Article 50 was created for the UK's whinging and whining, and it ended up doing the unthinkable, by using it. The UK was always good at divorce and no wonder: it invented it. So deluded were the Brits that it would (and should) be Grexit that they did not see it coming. Ha!

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

She, Daniela Blake

I spent a whole morning yesterday observing the goings on at my local ΙΚΑ (recently renamed ΕΟΠΠΥ, and even more recently, ΠΕΔΥ) branch, as I was waiting for my turn to update a health document. 

The woman walked through the doors, holding a plastic supermarket carrier bag in one hand and a water bottle in the other. Her black tracksuit pants looked rather tight on her - perhaps she needed a larger size. They were matched by a white cable knit jumper with a sleeveless jacket. Her sports shoes were well worn. Her curly dark hair was neatly tied back into a little pony tail. She looked young, less than a quarter of a century. The young child that was trailing by her side like a beloved pet dog on a leash looked clean and well dressed. Number 92 was lit up on the priority number system. She looked at her paper: 85. She passed by all the other waiting people and stood in front of an assistant who was serving another customer.

"My number'th passed," she said, showing them the ticket. "Can I get intyu the chew now?" She spoke with what seemed like a lisp; her two front top teeth were missing.

"Only if someone else lets you pass," the assistant said without looking up away from her computer screen.

The woman did not seem to comprehend what she was told. No one spoke to her. They all continued to do what they were doing before she entered: The customers who were being served by the two assistants stood steadfast in front of the window in fear of losing their priority; the assistants continued to type and stare at the keyboard; the people in the waiting room checked their documents and cellphones.

"Can I path thwoo now?" the woman asked again. She edged closer to the window and put her hands on the ledge. The man standing next to her in front of the assistant's window gathered his documents, fearful they may get dirty from the water bottle that was slightly dripping.

"You'll have to come back tomorrow," the assistant replied.

A slight pause as the woman comprehended that last statement. And then a cry of anger:

"You bissch! I'f been here since the morning, with my shild, and you won't sherve me! You bloody bissch!"

And still, no one paid the woman any attention. She grabbed the child (who was still smiling) and left the room, cursing as she left.

"What's the matter, love?" a old-age pensioner asked her.

"Bissches! They don't want to help me! They don't care!" By now, she was crying. The pensioner asked her what help she needed, but the woman continued to wail, patting the child's head at the same time as she hugged it close to her.

"It wath my turn! They diden let me thwoo! I'fsh been here since the morning, with my shild, and they won't help me!" The old man shook his head.

"What number are they at now?" he asked, but he did not get any reply. The woman was continuing to shout and cry. The man walked away, checking his priority number before going inside to see what number was blinking.

The woman was now talking on her cell (not smart) phone: "Bloody bissches! They tols me to come back tomowow! How am I gonna come back tomowow?! Bloody bissches! I'm gonna call the police!" She must have said the word 'police' a couple more times before the supervisor came out of her office.

"What does she want?" the supervisor asked. "Tell her to come and see me." The few people in the office that had managed to secure a seat did not want to give it up that easily. The supervisor repeated her call: "Can someone tell her to come and see me." In the meantime, the woman continued wailing and shouting.

"She should have been given priority before she started using the 'police' word," said a girl wearing jeans, who was sitting on a seat waiting for her turn. "Everyone can see she isn't well in the head."

"Why she not well?" said the Albanian sitting next to her. "She look okay. She just lose number."

"She doesn't understand what's going on", said the girl. "She needs more help than you and me. And she has a child! She needs much more help than us." The Albanian nodded knowingly.

"She looked perfectly fine to me," said a fake-blonde well-dressed woman on the other side of the room.

"As fine as an illiterate country bumpkin," said the girl in the jeans. "She has no idea what she did wrong."

"We're all in the same boat," said the fake blonde. "We're all waiting."

The woman's cries continued to be heard. The supervisor again asked the others waiting to call the woman in. She herself did not leave her cubicle to do it herself. A man eventually told the woman that they would see her now: The woman was still sobbing when she entered the room.

"Come now," said the supervisor, "tell me, what would you like to do? How can I help you?" The woman stopped sobbing and handed her papers to the supervisor. The transaction went through without a hitch. The woman and the child left quietly. All's well that ends well.

*** *** ***

While I was waiting to get my own paperwork sorted out, I took walks around the IKA (EOPPY- PEDY) area on the Souda road, which has never really got itself a proper facelift. It remains scruffy, despite the modern constructions that are replacing old rundown buildings. After a 4-hour wait, I got my job done too.



Although I'm trying to focus on what was happening in the case of the woman that I saw, it is fair to say that not only Daniel Blake types pass through IKA. Every sector of Greek society passes through those offices at some point. IKA is seriously understaffed - the staff are not incompetent. They are even quite polite these days. Health checks are available to everyone, whether they are registered in the system or not (see http://www.haniotika-nea.gr/dorean-exetasis-gia-olous-sto-p-e-d-i-chanion/). The Greek health system is much more democratic than the Daniel Blake type stories I read in The Guardian.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

GR80s

"Until then, there was just a low class of urban dwellers. In the 80s, the western world middle class culture was created, which is why the 80s were the 'womb' of the post-junta era, even though the dictatorship ended in 1974." http://www.lifo.gr/print/print_feature/130598 
Image may contain: one or more people and close-upWhile in Athens last weekend, I visited the highly publicised GR80s exhibition (see: http://www.gr80s.gr) being held until mid-March at the former gasworks of Athens (aka Technopolis, one of the hippest art and music centres in Greece: see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technopolis_(Gazi)). GR80s is an exhibition about the 80s decade, consisting of 18 thematic units that try to describe the zeitgeist  of the time, through pictures, posters, news clippings, music, videos, various artefacts collected from that time period, as well as a few short texts that briefly summarise the decade, according to the curators. GR80s has been given great prominence in the media, and since it opened a few weeks ago, it has been received with great acclaim.

Image may contain: indoorI lived through the 80s in NZ. In 1978, my parents bought a fish and chip shop in a kind of dormitory suburb outside Wellington, and I started high school, where I wore a school uniform. That's about the time when my mother first started spending money on clothes for her children - she used to make a lot of our clothes before that. Mother would also send parcels (by sea) of our used clothes to her sister in Athens, adding a few household goods in them (the basic potato peeler in particular). Some time in the early 80s, my aunt (who had found a job as a cleaner in a factory in the highly industrialized suburb outside Athens where she lived) told her not to do that any more because she could now buy a lot of material goods in Athens. We kept in touch with most of our relatives in Greece, mainly by letter, but occasionally we would call them. We never expected them to call us because we always thought of them as not being able to afford to do so (even though international phone calls in NZ were also considered expensive). We understood poverty in the same sense that we had seen it during our last trip to Greece in 1974: all our Greek relatives had a roof over their heads, and lots of food, but they didn't have a lot of material goods; some of them worked while others didn't; and they didn't really have much contact with the world beyond their borders.


Image may contain: one or more people and people standingMeanwhile, my whole family worked in our shop on a daily basis, for almost a decade, with the kids going there after school. One minute I'd be serving a customer, the next I'd be doing my homework. Life wasn't hard in the sense of hardships: in the case of my family, it was all about hard work. Our money visibly went into the accumulation of goods. We renovated our house and bought an apartment in Crete, we wore nice clothes and were given presents of jewelry by our parents, we read teen magazines, listened to vinyl records and cassettes, watched US and UK TV series and rented videos. We (but not our parents) went to discos and ate out occasionally at the 'exotic' restaurants that had recently opened in Wellington's restaurant scene, including Greek ones.

No automatic alt text available.I did six years of free studies at university, finishing with a Master of Arts in 1990. I had gone on to post-graduate research because I had had trouble finding work before that with my arts degree: the NZ public service had stopped taking on employees, office work was getting harder to find, and ESL classes were no longer being subsidised, all due to a change in the political system: from safety net socialism, NZ was moving towards self-sustained capitalism (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rogernomics). I was in the situation of being overqualified for most jobs and unqualified for others. But I still had to find something to do even though my studies did not lead to any particularly sought after qualification at the time. With my savings, I decided to do my OE (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overseas_experience). I arrived in London where I started my journeys through Europe which would eventually land me in Greece in 1991.

Image may contain: one or more people and indoorI was surprised at what I found in Greece: people weren't poor like we remembered them 17 years before that. Many people under 40 had done some kind of tertiary studies, and most people were working, albeit with much lower salaries than what we were used to in NZ. Cafes and tavernas were often busy nearly every night of the week, and full at the weekends. Prices were much lower here than what we were paying in NZ for similar services. So there was still plenty of food to eat, and everyone had a roof over their head, mainly in the form of apartments in Athens, while our relatives in Crete lived mainly in detached houses. They all wore nice clothes and my aunt would joke about the potato peelers my mother used to send her: Athens was full of supermarkets by that time and most people owned a similar potato peeler.

Image may contain: 2 people, people sitting and indoor
This all made me wonder: what if my parents had stayed in Greece instead? How different would their life be, had they stayed here? Would it have involved just as much hard work as what we were used to in NZ? Would we be just as comfortable, like most of the Greek side of our family? With the benefit of hindsight, our personal lives all seemed to be going down the same path, despite coming from different directions. Both my mother and her sister could rightfully be described as coming from the peasant class in Greece. They had left their villages and entered menial labour in NZ and Greece respectively: ie they had both entered the urban working class. From this rapid rise in societal class emerged the middle class of Greece, which was practically non-existent before the 80s: you were either very well off, or just making ends meet. My aunt remained working class but my parents differentiated when they bought a business which moved them into the SME (small medium enterprises) class, and their income level rose to allow them to afford a more comfortable life: ie closer to the middle class of society. My aunt stayed poor, but living frugally all her life, she was able to help her children (who also remained in the working class) to build modest homes with her savings, while the children from Kiwi side of the family all entered the middle class as university graduates. We had arrived, so to speak.

No automatic alt text available.The Greek 80s were a time of great hops and simultaneously great change in Greece, the decade of out with the old and in with the new. The Greek 80s are often regarded as a highly misunderstood decade because of their emphasis on mass overconsumption and the rise of populism - with the implication that the political decisions taken in the 80s are 'responsible' for the present day crisis that Greece is going through because they surreptitiously paved the way for its arrival, ushering in the great catastrophe that Greece experienced in 2010 when the effects of the crisis became evident as the bubbles began to burst all around us. We are now seen to be living with the consequences of that decade's thinking. Greece was left unguided as she entered the western world, with EU entry in 1981. Had she (or her partners) realised that she needed a bit more help (and a lot more monitoring), perhaps it would not have gone so horribly wrong. EU entry gave Greece - and the Greeks - the chance to renew their identity, and to a certain extent, we did just that: we became very vain. Vanity's consequences led to our eventual economic downfall, which then led us to an identity crisis (a similar one that the UK and the US are in right now).

No automatic alt text available.By the time I arrived to Athens in September 1991, Greece was swinging: no one was really poor, and most Athenians had embraced materialism to the point that the poor and frugal life of the past had been eradicated. No doubt many treasures were lost in that decade, as people threw out their old (read: vintage) home furnishings to replace it with more modern items. The 90s signalled an awareness in modern thinking, but not a rise in webification which was happening throughout the rest of the western world. In the 00s, wealth was out of control which imploded in the 10s with the economic crisis (but those decades are for another discussion). In retrospect, I would say that the main difference with Greece was that she was constantly coming, but never really arriving.  Things have speeded up now, given that Greece finds herself in a similar situation now as NZ was in the 80s (as I describe above) - but we are still not there. We have not quite arrived yet. But GR80s shows us that we actually have come a long way: we did not quite get there, but we are ahead in the game of working out who we are and where we are going.

Image may contain: 2 people, people sitting, living room, table and indoorGR80s is fully bilingual in Greek and English, and uses multimedia audiovisual resources, with some real-life, real-time re-enactments from that decade, in the form of a fully functional home, complete with ringing doorbell, a TV playing shows from the time, a telephone from which you can hear conversations with an 80s ring to them, and real life actors pretending to live in the house, and uttering the punchlines of the era through their unscripted dialogue, which the public are also invited to take part in (once they realise that the couple in the house are actors - my daughter caught onto this before I did). I could tell you a lot about what I learnt from that exhibition, but I would only be regurgitating someone else's words (which you too can read here: http://www.gr80s.gr/index.php/en/exhibition by checking the list of the thematic categories covered), so I've gone one extra step and translated what is being said about GR80s in the Greek press, which is raving about it as nothing short of brilliant. The blue highlights in the texts below are my own.

*** *** ***

"So that's what the 80s were like" by Dimitris Politakis (02/08/17 - click here for the Greek original).
We may find its stereotypes choking, but it was the last decade that was looking forward.

No automatic alt text available.I've thought about popping in to see the exhibition a couple of times to gaze, with the distance of time, at the various totems and fetishes of the era - almost all of them utterly and painfully familiar - but I haven't been able to visit this great exhibition about the Greek '80s. The truth is that it keeps me tripping over and it prevents me from confronting something that inevitably resembles an entertainment mausoleum for the whole family (for the old to remember and the young to wonder), something between a vast theme park and a little train of horrors, from which several skeletons step out along the way, which had experienced the great glories of 30-35 years ago, between the period of the Metapolitefsi [the Political Change that occurred in Greece after the Papadopoulos dictatorship] and the "dirty '89" (I always liked that term, it had a Clint Eastwood vibe to it). I have a personal issue with the '80s. I am not bothered so much by their impression on society but on me personally. I clearly have my origins in them, and since then. There is a world inside of me that never experienced mobile phones and the internet (the fresher generations can't even begin to conceive this, as such a fact cannot be digested in any way).  

Image may contain: 1 person
It has nothing to do with nostalgia, it's just that one recognizes a place of origin that is more important than that which any surname can imply. I find it quite impossible to imagine that I could have gone through pre-puberty and adolescence (ie years of an endless and agonizing expectation) in another decade, as it seems inconceivable not to have spent my childhood in the '70s, in the alleys, streams and spaciousness of suburbia, and then home for lunch, a bit of school pseudo-homework, and "Little House on the Prairie" on TV. In other words, imagine that I was a teenager in that premature '80s Change and had got into trouble with some ragbags and political youth groups, or in the '90s ... hmm. Now that I think about it, the '90s passed by me like a brutally stretched, prolonged adolescence (like a teenage fixation, if we analyse it pathologically), but that's why they seem - despite looking like they were so much more FUN - less significant, cloudier in relation to the' 80s, where I think I remember everything.

Image may contain: 1 person, standing and indoorWhat has however remained with me is not so much the performances of the epoch - the café-disco-tutorial lessons-shoulder pads-gaiters phase, and the like - but a lasting impression: those evenings when I returned home with the trolley bus, that there is a future out there for me, a long and undeclared one full of exciting surprises and twists. It was not just that I was a teenager and I saw before me seven lives and a few more, it was the last futuristic period before the odometer was reset and postmodern relativism swept it all away and the carousel started turning with all kinds of revivals, recycling, remakes, remodelling and rebooting. Who would even think to organize a festive exhibition in the '80s about the Greek '50s? No one! That past was a thankless, gray and dimly lit universe without neon and fluey hues, and only someone who is paralyzed by nostalgia would dare to say that it was better 'then'. In the '80s, despite the permanently unstable political climate and the various premature 'births' that would eventually give birth to the successor of the Change, there was a widespread impression of a path towards prosperity and reconstruction, without any pending bills, misunderstandings and collective illusions.

Perhaps more interesting would be a corresponding exhibition on the taboos and totems of  the '90s, related much more to the current quagmire, not only as a genealogy of the Crisis, or as the first seed to be sown of the suffering that we are now going through, and our absolute inability to finally agree not just on the easy parts, but also on more difficult issues. Poor and arrogant, we triumph, as undignified losers...

My photos of the exhibition

"Why are the '80s an absolute minefield for history?" by Kosta Katsapis, Historian at Panteio University, Curator of the GR80s kiosk "Working class culture and workers' demands" (02/02/17 - click here for the Greek original).
Fragmentary studies for this critical period are strictly necessary.

No automatic alt text available.Braudel once said that "the secret object of history, its deeper motive, is the interpretation of synchronicity." Therefore, each palpation of the historical past can only be related to the questions raised by the present, the doubts and insecurities that are formed in the present time. The '80s are not only an exception but they are the epitome of the above finding. The '80s are indicated in the context of the economic crisis as the matrix of "evil", and at the very same time, the last period that deserve to be remembered as the "years of innocence". This contradiction should not be a cause of worry, since the '80s are, at any rate, synthesized from both the contradictory developments and no other time period that existed before or followed them (the most charismatic political figure of the same period, the cosmopolitan intellectual, yet at the same time an unrefined populist, being Andreas Papandreou: he was the Great Contradictor).

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The 80s saw politicization reaching its apogee while party affiliations began to organize the personal life and social relations of the individual, in the most outrageous way by today's standards: take, for example, the case of the "blue" and "green" cafés (see photo inset). This however incubated pluralism and the explosion of individualism that would prevail in the next decade. It vindicates the political struggles of many decades; it therefore constitutes as sovereign, legitimate and legitimized the oppressed left narrative, while at the same time it chops off its foundations, enabling the layers hitherto excluded from prosperity to enter mass consumption and the Western lifestyle. Therefore, the history of the 80s is an absolute minefield, a fact that is due not only to fragmentary studies which up to now have been carried out on this decade and make this previously uncharted territory substantive, but also because of the strange peculiarity of the period, which allows different kinds of - and often diametrically opposed - approaches, evaluations and (unfortunately) certainties.

Image may contain: 1 person, sitting and indoorTherein also lies the major difficulty that has had to be overcome in order to set up the GR80s pavilion about "Working class culture and workers' demands." In the beginning, as is common, a question is posed: what is the difference between 'populist' and 'working class inclusion' in the '80s? The answer might seem easy, but the phenomena are quite deceptive. Already during the '80s the concept of a working class culture became a privileged field of ​​conflict between those who reminisce in or fantasize about a lost purity, and those who see the authenticity of the populace's soul in marginal, heretical and provocative manifestations of daily life, at least among the mainstream intelligentsia, for example in the skiladika [low class cabaret style music joints]. In this context, it was decided that the pavilion should take into account not only the secular synchronous approaches which have their origin in academic environments, artists or generally among the intellectuals (eg the film "Rembetiko" or the TV series "The Minor Note of Dawn"), but also in the debate about working class culture that is now regarded as largely obsolete and has disappeared from the public eye, the one that is regarded as "bothersome". And it is annoying precisely because it reflects the ongoing progress made by the (until then) grass roots layers, in terms of civilization, of prosperity, integrating, sometimes inelegantly in our own eyes, in a clumsy way or with notoriously bad taste, the symbols of a culture which for them composed a charmingly attractive terra incognita.

No automatic alt text available.Therefore, the authenticity of working class culture (if ever it existed) is aimed at being identified not in the intellectuals of the universe, many of whom have (if they do at all) a marginal relationship with working class neighborhoods and their realities, nor in the often excessive and equally constructed obsessions of lovers of marginal cultures. Conversely, if there is some kind of working class culture that is able to be an exemplary model for understanding the 'lay' people and their culture in the '80s, it can probably be traced in the place where, day by day, a hybrid reality is shaped, where the past coexists with the present - that place where the heavily populist identities feel secure enough to move away from the culture of need and its often pre-modern values ​​and to integrate new consumption patterns, survival strategies and behaviors: behaviors which with a fair amount of malice would be accused by "koultouriarides" [a disparaging way to refer to pseudo-intellectuals] as a vehicle of the enforcement of kitsch and the bad taste which (supposedly) is often associated with the 80s.

Image may contain: indoorTo solve the puzzle, it was decided albeit informally but very obviously to focus on a suburb whose development largely reflects the progress of the working classes towards prosperity or, in sociological terms, "upward mobility", which characterised the '80s of - in Papandreou's terms - the "disadvantaged": the suburb of Gerakas, which is a kind of unexpressed case study for the pavilion "Working class culture and workers' demands," ​​a suburb where the "honest toiler" - as the hopeless romantics would call them - lived during the period under consideration, namely former internal migrants, public and private employees, workers and the self-employed. Many of them movingly kept records of their everyday life and even more movingly and with abundant kindness responded to the call of GR80s for cooperation. Without them, it would not have been possible to set up the pavilion. (The author publicly thanks Despina Daliani and Athena Manzano, and the members of the association "Gerakas' source" for their trust and valuable assistance on this matter.)

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More articles on GR80s in English:
http://www.ekathimerini.com/212863/article/ekathimerini/life/the-1980s-anatomy-of-a-watershed-era
http://www.ekathimerini.com/216042/article/ekathimerini/life/rewinding-to-the-era-of-analog-politics
http://www.ekathimerini.com/215939/article/ekathimerini/life/athens-show-revisits-politics-arts-lifestyle-and-technology-in-80s-greece

And more in Greek and other languages:
- 'I was there' - a photoset of the GR80s opening night:  http://www.lifo.gr/guide/culturenews/i_was_there/130758
- GR80s series of articles on LIFO (most widely read print and web magazine in Greece): http://www.lifo.gr/topics/view/93
and http://www.lifo.gr/tags/%CE%94%CE%B5%CE%BA%CE%B1%CE%B5%CF%84%CE%AF%CE%B1+%CF%84%CE%BF%CF%85+%2780 (don't miss out on seeing the 80s house: http://www.lifo.gr/articles/urban-life_articles/130450 )
- French interest in GR80s: http://www.liberation.fr/planete/2017/02/02/la-grece-des-annees-80-une-expo-antidote-a-la-crise-a-athenes_1545785

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Friday, 3 February 2017

Hidden London

London is not the easiest introduction to a Cretan about the ways of the north. There are some things that you can understand better inter-generationally and (not 'or') with experience. Age helps, but cultural education starts very early. Even I make bloopers along the way, but the difference between me and my family is that I know how to correct myself. During our recent winter holiday in London, we went to a 'curry house', a Pakistani restaurant that we often visit when in London. Before we got there, I found a few sites of interest along the way to extend the journey. Here are a few things we discovered about London that you may or may not find in a guide to the city, with a Cretan twist.

Oyster cards
3.6m London travellers ‘fined’ for Oyster card errorsLondon's transport system is a good, albeit complicated, introduction to the ways of the north. The stations are modern, the pace is fast, the system is automated, and some human movements may look robotic to the uninitiated. We've been using London's 'oyster card' transport ticket system for a few years now. It's the easiest cheapest way to get round London, rather than buying individual tickets every time you use public transport. We just 'top up' our cards with credit every time we want to use them. The maximum amount of money an oyster card will charge you depends on the places you travel, but it's equivalent to a day pass according to the London 'zones' you've traveled in. The card will let you begin your travels if you have enough money in it for the hypothetically cheapest fare, and it will let you finish the journey even if the card runs out of money along the way (because you went on a longer journey); therefore, it still runs in 'overdraft' mode, ie you owe money on it, which can be paid back before your next journey. Because oyster cards cost £5 to buy, without any credit on them, it will usually work out cheaper to top up your card rather than buy a new one. Whichever way you travel on the London trains, you will notice that they are expensive.

Some stations don't have barriers, so you can enter them even if you don't 'touch in' (I did this once by accident - if there was a barrier, this wouldn't have happened), but if your destination station has a barrier (in the previous case, mine didn't), you won't be able to get off the platform without embarrassing yourself as a fare dodger, unless there is no barrier. So as a rule, if you don't touch in, you mustn't 'touch out', otherwise your card will be credited for the longest possible journey on that train line, because the card will think you just tapped in rather than out (thankfully, I knew the rule). Confusing, isn't it? Pity the Athenians, who are now waking up to a new dawn, as the barriers at the metro platforms finally get put in place. A similar system to the oyster card is now working too, called the ATH.ENA card.)


Knowing how to use the train system of one of the largest capital cities in the world takes some getting used to. Experience comes with time, and age makes you less flexible. I now watch my kids handling the whole process more quickly than I do, even though I taught them to use it. 

So the first thing we do before catching a train is to check how much money is still on our oyster cards. On that particular day, each card had about £2 on it, so I topped up the adult cards with £10 each, and the children's with £5 (they travel half price until their late teens). It's better to top up the oyster card as you need it, rather than adding a lot of money to it, in case you lose it: as tourists, we don't have 'registered' cards, which means that in case of loss, we can't claim back the remaining credit on them. When you touch in, you'll hear a sound which tells you that your card was read properly by the card reader. So sound is very important when you use the trains. My husband once passed through a no-barrier station thinking he'd tapped in. He tapped out at the end of the journey, but the card thought he'd just tapped in, so he was charged for the complete journey of that particular train line. I tried to teach him how to use the system: 'SLAM the card on the reader, don't pet it as if it's a cat!' (There are ways to get your money back: it takes a bit of patience.)

With our travel cards sorted out, we began our journey into London's city centre, which is a bit of a misnomer since London is not a small city. The best way to see the city is to walk as much as you can. You won't save a lot of transport money by walking if you come into the centre from far away as your oyster card will be 'capped' to the maximum amount equivalent to a daily travel card, but you will see more of the real city, instead of being stuck in the twilight zone of the 'tube', as the underground train system ferries you about in the darkness of the tunnels. 

The Shard
As London stands today, it's in the midst of a concrete-glass-steel reconstruction, as it races to become the leader of the global connected world (while the UK's prime minister rushes to take the country out of the EU), and it keeps changing appearance on a regular basis, every time a new building starts to be constructed. It's both frightening and exciting: you have to try to keep in mind the end result of the hideous construction sites, otherwise the city will look like a cruel, heartless and ugly monster. But if you are lucky to see the end result one day, it may leave you gaping in awe. The Shard looks like just another tall building when seen from far away against London's horizon. It felt formidable seeing it from close up. It's about as tall as the Eiffel Tower.
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If you come from a small town and this is the first time you see a skyscraper, it can feel very intimidating. Having lived all my life in seismic-prone regions, the first thing that comes into my mind when I see a skyscraper is earthquakes. It's an awesome experience to look up to the top of the building and to literally see it scraping the sky. (You can go to the top floor of the Shard for £30 or so per person if you can afford it.)

The Beatles
I added a brief surprise detour to a place whose significance my family knew nothing about, nor would they understand what I was talking about if I told them what we were going to do there. They often let me lead the way: they know I know the Anglo-Saxon world in a way that they don't, and perhaps can never know it, especially now when the Anglo-Saxon world is barricading itself and turning turning inwards. I too make 'mistakes' when I find myself in that world (which used to be the only world I knew a quarter of a century ago), but I know how to hyper-correct while I am maneuvering myself in it. They don't: that's the difference between me and the rest of the family. It takes years of experience to understand the highly developed world. The internet has brought us closer together, but it does not replace experience.

Now imagine the conversation:
- Where are we going?
- We're going to a pedestrian crossing.
- A pedestrian crossing? Is that all we're going to see?
- Yes, in a sense.
- OK. And what are we going to do there?
- We're going to take a photo.
- Of the pedestrian crossing?
- Of US on the pedestrian crossing.
- Why?
- Because that's what people do there.
- They take photos of themselves walking across the road?
- Yes, but it's a special road.
- Why?
- Because. You'll see. Promise.

While all my English language books are visible to everyone on the shelves in our living room, my vinyl collection from abroad is still in storage: I would have to wait until we got back home to show everyone my Abbey Road album. I liked 60s music and during my teens, I built up a small collection of records with my pocket money (earned by working at my parents' shop every day after school). My kids are too young to know about the Beatles, and Greece's 60s came a little later than the 60s (some time in the 80s, in my humble opinion, when wealth was more widespread and everyone could afford more or less the same things) which means that my husband missed out on the furore that the Beatles caused in their heyday. He knows that they were a 60s pop group, but he did not live through the craze that swept through the Anglo-Saxon world in those times. For a start, television was not so widespread in Crete in the 60s; Crete was quite considered remote from the Greek mainland back then, and it was hardly urban compared to Athens' sprawl. Greek youth culture was more developed among the wealthier class. Young Cretans did not have a rapport with the outside world. I recall a story my late mother told me, which shows how she came to understand the concept that was the Beatles: Even though she was a relatively newly arrived Cretan immigrant to NZ, she could recall the traffic jams and crowds of people in the area of the St George Hotel where the Beatles stayed in Wellington, during their NZ tour. She may have never heard their music, or cared for it, but she had experienced the concept. My husband started school at the beginning of the 60s, in a rented house in one of the poorer neighborhoods of Hania; only the very well to do had 'pickup' players and records.

Platform screen doors
The Abbey Road crossing is located near St John's Wood station on the Jubilee Line. This gave us a chance to see one of London's more modern train stations. At the London Bridge stop, the platform has barriers (known as 'Platform Screen Doors') that separate passengers from the trains, in order to stop people from jumping/falling onto the tracks. So two doors have to open before you get onto the train - the platform door and then the train door. The significance of the double doors has a more sinister meaning than just passenger safety, ie to stop people falling onto the tracks accidentally. The act of falling onto them deliberately, ie the concept of 'one under' (or 'track pizza' in American English) is a relatively new one in Athens. Despite the rise in suicides in Greece over the period of the crisis, the Athens metro is not the place where it is commonly performed: there was one incident per year per year in the last two years so far. But 2017 has not started very well - a man fell onto the tracks just last month, although he was pulled up in time.


Abbey Road crossing
Coming out of the station at St John's Wood, the area looks quiet and feels very suburban, whereas in actual fact, it is anything but so. The area hides great affluence: Lord's Cricket ground, Regent's Park, the London Zoo, the Sherlock Holmes museum and Madame Tussauds are clustered close to it. The Abbey Road pedestrian crossing is located within a few minutes walk from the station. We headed straight to the crossing. Not many people were walking towards it on that day, so I hoped that it would not be very busy, and we could take our photo in relative peace. This was not quite the case: a busload of Italians had arrived before us, and they were all having a jolly time on the crossing. The presence of the Italians softened the stark austerity of this otherwise ordinary looking London street. They were talking loudly and laughing, Something rarely heard on London streets. The media often talk about the lack of affordable housing in London, but most of the time, you cannot be sure if people actually live in any of the buildings. The streets are noisy from the sound of the traffic, not from human voices. That's an aspect of northern European culture which southern Europeans find hard to cope with: in the north, people are seen but not heard, while in the south, people are heard without necessarily being seen. To understand the significance of this, think about your neighbours: we can hear ours more often than we can see them. They will not lower their voices to keep the area peaceful. If they're having a party, we'll hear that too. But Greeks are also slowly but surely becoming more sensitive to too much noise: one of my neighbours called the police last summer to get another neighbour to lower the volume of the music they were playing at an outdoor party. If they had specifically come to inform us about the party, perhaps we would all be more accommodating, by arranging to go out ourselves or buy earplugs. When no notice is given, people are less compromising.
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Had only the regular users of the Abbey Road crossing been there on that day, I would have had a harder time taking a good photo. I could say that the Italians did me a favour getting there before we did, since it helped my family to better understand what the fuss was about, and to calculate aspects of safety concerning how to get into the middle of the road and snap the photo. If you are a Greek driver, you won't realise how patient English drivers can be. Regular drivers passing through the Abbey Road crossing slow down for photo-takers, showing relative courtesy towards a very banal activity. Every now and then, they honked the horn lightly to remind the sightseers that they shouldn't loiter. This is how I was able to stand in the middle of the road to take a reasonably good photo, at least in terms of the photography process.

The family had not seen the Abbey Road album cover before we came here, so I had to give them instructions: "I Want You to stop in stride on the crossing." Some of them understood what I meantL the younger and the more outgoing you are, the easier this will be. My daughter clearly knew what she was doing after watching the Italians taking photos. She is experienced at taking selfies which also helps. My son seemed to know what he was doing too, but he probably decided to show solidarity to his father, who was totally clueless; when husband has his photo taken, he clearly poses, like most people his age would do, and doing the splits while being photographed is obviously not part of his culture. "OK, The End, no loitering," I reminded everyone, so we could hurriedly Come Together to get back to the station. It was probably the weirdest thing they had ever taken part in, the closest they had come to a real life meme (although I did once glimpse a photo of one of them doing the ice bucket challenge - you never know what they are up to when you aren't looking).

Transport etiquette
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Touch in, pass through the gate, don't loiter, walk forward, don't step back, check the platform, mind the gap, wait for the doors to open, wait for the passengers to exit, get onto the train, wait for your station, get off the train before those waiting, clear the doors, find the exit, stop on the escalators on the right, walk on the left, run only if you have to, get to the exit, touch out, clear the station, just keep moving. If you take a wrong step while performing this act, it is immediately visible to the other actors around you. Everyone in London has to know how to use the tube in order to avoid holdups. Except maybe Her Majesty, although she has been seen on the tube on occasion - no doubt the doors were held open for her, if she used a ticket, it would have been as a token gesture, and she didn't have to follow the rules exactly. My children need about a second to go through the barriers from the moment they touch in; my husband still needs more than a second - just to touch in.

Borough Market
Our next stop was the Borough Market, which, as we were to discover, has now become a tourist trap. Along the south bank of the Thames, nearly all the restaurants are branded, there's very little in the way of traditional atmosphere, and someone's always trying to selling you something overpriced. We have better memories of Borough Market from previous visits, but there is no turning back to old times: reviving the market's ordinariness will look like a recession rather than progress.
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Pie, mash, mushy peas and gravy from a stall in the Borough Market
Our good experiences of Borough Market in the past are based not on the products on sale at the market, but on the sellers we meet there. We once met a Greek woman there who was selling Greek extra-virgin olive oil. Across from her stall were some Italians, also selling olive oil, among other Italian products. She told us sales were very slow, because local customers in the area were not really very well informed about what constitutes good olive oil (something I could confirm with a trip to the supermarkets there). Another of our favorite stall holders is the Kosovar manager of a paella bar. Whenever we're in the area, we pass by and say hello, and he treats us like old friends. We talk about our messy politics with him and his Greek-speaking Albanian staff. When we're there, it feels just like home to us - we may be in the centre of London but at that moment, it feels more like I am on the Balkan Express; the ride is bumpy, but the end of the journey feels sadder. We've also bought fantastic French cheese from the market. It's hard to find something 'traditional' now; everyone these days is creating their own traditions.  

Southwark Cathedral
Near one of the entrances to Borough Market is the very well preserved Southwark Cathedral. Entrance to the cathedral is free; by buying a guide (£1) to the church, you have permission to take photographs inside it. The last time we were in the area, the church wasn't open for visitors because a service was taking place. We took the opportunity to enter it today, as a chance to warm ourselves up in the process. (It was very cold in London over New Year's...  a bit like what January 2017 turned out to be in Hania!)
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Religious tourism is always of interest. The Gothic style of architecture is so very different from the Byzantine one that we are used to, and in Hania, we have nothing to compare it with. But it is not just the architecture that is worth noting: Churches in the western world make for an interesting case of trying to hold onto a concept which no longer has a strong following in a liberalised world. Let's face it: we are not very religious these days. So why do we need churches which costs £4,500 a day for maintenance costs (as the cathedral guide informed us)? The way Southwark Cathedral was being used at the time might be of interest tot he Greek Orthodox church too, as people move away from strict adherence to a creed, and use churches more for their social aspects rather than their religious function. For example, Greeks generally don't get married too quickly in a church these days: it's expensive. In Crete, they are more likely to marry at a registry office to legalise their union, and have a church wedding later (complete with white wedding dress), preferably after the first child is born, so that the wedding and baptism take place together.
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Southwark Cathedral provides a peaceful setting to get away from the cacophony of the street noises. As we entered, we were most impressed by the clearly Christian Orthodox icons that we found in it, which obviously makes the church very welcoming to visitors, irrespective of which denomination they belong to. We found the addition of a lit-up Christmas tree rather odd, detracting from its religious function. But it also made for a more convivial environment, similar to the use of organ recitals and concerts that arouse the interest of more than just religious devotees. These are all ways to create a new use for an obsolete concept whose historical significance in the ares makes it too precious to turn into luxury apartments, as many churches in the west have been transformed. Greece has, perhaps sadly, too many churches that are not being used, but their redevelopment at this time is a culturally sensitive and highly controversial issue. We don't place Christmas trees in our churches; we don't have organ music; we rarely see religious iconography that is not part of the Byzantine tradition. Some lessons could be learnt from less traditional churches concerning the survival of the Greek Orthodox church and its place in a modern changing world.

Hay's Galleria to Tower Bridge
Despite the chilly weather, we continued our walk to the restaurant, passing through what looked like a mixed-bag cluster of relatively new buildings along the south bank of the River Thames. Hay's Galleria is not a gallery as its name suggests; it's more like a high class restaurant and shopping hall. Affluent, indulgent, plush, it looks like it's catering for very expensive tastes - or, at least, for people whose tastes are based on brands, similar to Attika Mall in central Athens, a soulless virtual reality playground for the wealthy. Everything looked too expensive for our own pockets. It wasn't busy when we passed through it, neither in the late afternoon, nor in the evening on our way back. Perhaps rich people's tastes have changed too; you don't flaunt your wealth these days. It reminded me of a time when someone asked us to book a table on their behalf at an expensive restaurant in Hania, 'something in the range of 50€ per head', they asked. They did not realise how egalitarian the town where I live is. To pay 50€ per head in a town like Hania, you will have to go to a popular Japanese restaurant and order a bottle of wine per person together with the meal. Good food out need not be expensive, and expensive restaurants don't necessarily serve the best food either.
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Hay's Galleria overlooks the Thames, and it has a steampunk sculpture in the middle. How do you explain steampunk to someone whose appreciation of art is limited? I think you don't. Art is not only subjective, it can also be very abstract. This sculpture was installed here as a tribute to the area's working class past. Personally, I couldn't make the connection between the sculpture and working class society. We wandered out of mall to the chill of the outdoors, walking by the river past the egg-shaped City Hall and over the Tower Bridge where you can get a good look of the Tower of London. The skyline of the buildings in this area of London is quite spectacular and worth spending some time gazing at it: many skyscrapers with the kinkiest names - the Walkie Talkie, the Cheese Grater - and more going up. What was once a dirty dingy dockland has now all been gentrified. Despite the mix of mainly new buildings with many old ones, nothing looks neglected or forgotten.
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Whitechapel
Over the Tower Bridge and north-east of the Thames, the area is not very tourist-oriented (you will understand why later) and finds itself in the midst of gentrification, a kind of slash and burn process if you will, which is redeveloped into something that bears no resemblance to what existed before. Some parts of Whitechapel have been renovated while others are undergoing the process. Along some of the streets, you can see old and new London staring across at each other, or standing side by side, like strangers forced to live together. What was once considered an area for immigrants and the working class is now undergoing transformation for the investment of the wealthy/elite classes. What once may have been some kind of factory is now an apartment block. The warren of small streets hiding behind Commercial Road in the Whitechapel area hold the greatest surprises. Here, you will get a glimpse of those empty London homes that are being used as 'gold bricks': rich people who do not live in the area are buying up the properties, mainly as a way to invest their money for lucrative profits. People who grew up in the area are most likely unable to afford such properties. Some properties may be rented out, but the rents will be very high, hence the kind of people who live in the properties will not necessarily need the kinds of stores that a neighbourhood survives on, to provide a community feel. Most absent of all is the sight of perambulators and the sound of children. Since the buyers do not live in them (and if they do, it's only for a very short period of the year), the area has no need for the traditional elements of a typical British neighbourhood: what do you need a betting shop, florist, teahouse, chicken shop, drycleaners, among others, if there are no people in the area?
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The streets here are well lit, despite the lack of sound and light coming from the apartments, with most of the curtains drawn, although I did spot a nice sofa set with cushions - it looked as though it had never been sat on. The main signs of life are seen in the concierges who wander around aimlessly in the empty lobbies of these empty buildings. They are probably doubling up as security guards, only coming out of the buildings for a quick smoke. A few of the ground floors of those buildings are occupied and used as 'stores' of a kind, mainly real estate agents: money brings money.
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Most of the empty shop fronts have a very enticing sign on them: "This could be your next business!" But imagine how hard it must be to entice businesses to set up there that rely on street trade, when the area which is void of people.
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We landed in the midst of this gentrification without actually intending to. My online phone map gave no hint of what we could expect. I was actually looking for a particular street next to what looked like a compact streetless zone, where there was either an empty plot or just one big building. What it actually consisted of was lots of apartment blocks, some roads for cars, and a few pedestrianised areas. We weren't really sure if we should risk walking through the area, in case we hit on a dead end. At one point we passed by what looked like a beautiful landscaped garden which was sectioned off (read: gated) so that the public could not wander around in it, probably for the exclusive use of the very large apartment block that was facing it. The fencing and trees still had Christmas decorations on them.
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The road led through to a small well-lit piazza - that was once again void of people - graced by a very snazzy sculpture of galloping horses, light and sound effects included, to make them look as though they were moving. It is very entertaining, as it distracts one from thinking about the complex factors that gave rise to the development of the area.

Commercial Road
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We wove through the nameless streets until we came out to the high street, close to where the restaurant was located. Commercial Road is a completely opposite experience to the gentrified streets we had just emerged from. It maintains its ethnic identity as the home of mainly South Asian immigrants, and it is still closely linked to the 'rag trade', as evidenced from the many clothing and bag stores located here, selling not retail but wholesale. The traders are mainly South Asians, having taken over from the Jews who took over from the Huguenots, an almost uninterrupted stream in the area of cloth makers and sellers. It was quite revealing to see well known bag and clothing designs in one area, as viewed from the shop fronts here, and to imagine how those items on display make their way not just to this road in London, but throughout the rest of the world, including Greece. The styles look very familiar even though they are not branded. They can be found in both cheap and expensive stores, on any high street almost anywhere in the world. They make you think seriously about who may be making these items, whether they would wear/use them themselves, how much they are getting for this work, and what the end price of these items is in our stores. 
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The restaurant
We arrived at our destination restaurant - and were surprised to find it looking rather empty: in past visits, we could not always get a table and would have to wait! Initially we thought it might be closed for the holidays; the main hall was not well lit up, and there was only one person sitting at one of the many tables in the dining area. You have to understand that this was a big indoor restaurant, in our terms at least, since we are used to seeing large outdoor seating areas and small interiors! We could see only a couple of people in the kitchen, which is usually bustling with activity, creating steamy windows and a noisy atmosphere with the clatter of pans and mumble of voices. Then we thought that perhaps we had arrived too early; it was only five o'clock and dusk had already set in. Don't the English eat much earlier than the Mediterraneans?! Finally we saw the door opening and a man came out. He didn't even notice us: I couldn't work out if this was because we were not from his cultural group, or because we didn't look like potential customers. So we asked him if the shop was open: of course it was, he told us, with a surprised look on his face. Service couldn't have been faster today for us!
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Chili peppers and Asian food are not really a mainstay of Greek cuisine, but Greeks are getting more used to this kind of food. There are now Japanese and Chinese restaurants open all year round in Hania, as well as an Inidian restaurant which opens in the summer - it still caters mainly for tourists. The world is coming closer in terms of food, but in attitudes, they couldn't be further away from each other, as we have seen in the current global political arena.

Bonus photos: London by night - the city is more exciting in the dark.
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The red words are all Beatles songs from their Abbey Road album. I deliberately highlighted them when I tried to listen to some genuine Beatles music on YouTube. Some bastard's bought the right of access to them, so you can hear hardly any of their tunes on the web. Not even the Beatles can own thier songs. At least we can now sing Happy birthday without paying royalties, but I would also like to hear the Beatles on youtube, and I don't mean cover versions of their songs!

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Buying olive oil from a supermarket

This story goes back further - some useful pre-reading:
I don't buy olive oil because we have our own supplies of 'green gold', made from the harvest of the fruit of our own olive groves, but if I were living far away from my own supplies, I would have to work out how to keep myself supplied with quality olive oil, and I would probably do most of my shopping at the supermarket. So how does one go about choosing the product that will best suit one's needs?

In Crete, we always talk about λάδι (= oil) when we talk about olive oil. The more correct term would be ελαιόλαδο (= olive oil). But we generally assume that everyone is using the same λάδι in their food. We produce so much olive oil in the first place - there isn't a place in Crete where an olive tree isn't visible - that we naturally assume that everyone uses olive oil in their food preparations.
https://www.facebook.com/maria.verivaki/posts/10211156424883512

This bring us to another issue: Why do olive oil packaging labels use the words 'extra-virgin' to describe the olive oil? The answer to that questions lies in the acidity level of the olive oil: There will be times when your olive oil will not be extra virgin olive oil, because there are times when olive oil need not be extra virgin. Confused? I hope this post will help you. As you read through it, please DO open the embedded facebook posts, and check the comments in them, because this post is based on them. (If you can't see the facebook post, click on the facebook link instead.)

For a start, it should be mentioned that olive oil is more expensive than other cooking oils. That's what makes it the most controversial cooking oils in the world: Its high cost of purchase urges buyers to seek the best quality for the money they pay for it. Olive oil quality is determined by factors such as the following:
- Variety of olive used
- Location and soil conditions where the olives were grown
- Environmental factors and weather during the growing season
- Olive ripeness
- Timing of the harvest
- Harvesting method
- Length of time between the harvest and pressing
- Pressing technique
- Packaging and storage methods
(from http://recipes.howstuffworks.com/how-olive-oil-works2.htm)

Don't be fooled by things like the colour of the oil, the container shape/design, the label design and the brand name under which the oil is being sold: they do not determine the quality of the product you are buying; you may be paying a premium price for such things without realising it. Such factors all have to do with our perceptions of beauty, which as we all know is in the eyes of the beholder.

The International Olive Oil Council designates 'virgin olive oils' as: "the oils obtained from the fruit of the olive tree (Olea europaea L.) solely by mechanical or other physical means under conditions, particularly thermal conditions, that do not lead to alterations in the oil, and which have not undergone any treatment other than washing, decantation, centrifugation and filtration". But the end product is categorised in different ways, because of the many different factors involved in making olive oil. From the same species of fruit, Olea europaea L., we can have:

- Extra virgin olive oil, characterised by a free acidity of not more than 0.8 grams per 100 grams
- Virgin olive oil, characterised by a free acidity of not more than 2 grams per 100 grams
- Ordinary virgin olive oil, characterised by a free acidity of not more 3.3 grams per 100 grams
- Lampante olive oil, characterised by a free acidity of more than 3.3 grams per 100 grams, which is not intended for human consumption (it has industrial uses)
- Refined olive oil, obtained from virgin olive oils by refining methods, which is then characterised by a free acidity of not more than 0.3 grams per 100 grams
- Olive oil, consisting of a blend of refined olive oil and virgin olive oils, which is then characterised by a free acidity of not more than 1 gram per 100 grams
- Olive pomace oil, obtained by treating pulped olives with solvents or other physical treatments
(from http://www.internationaloliveoil.org/estaticos/view/83-designations-and-definitions-of-olive-oils)

By the above definitions, my family's production of olive oil is always extra virgin because we never produce olive oil with an acidity level of higher than 0.8. This is no surprise as Crete's olive oil industry is based solely on the production of extra-virgin olive oil, while 80% of Greece's annual olive oil production consists of extra virgin olive oil. To distinguish between very low acidity and and higher acidity in the extra virgin olive oil category, we also have the designation of 'extra-extra virgin olive oil' when the acidity is no more than 0.3-0.4

From the above, we can understand that:
- Not all olive oil is extra virgin.
- Not all packaged olive oil has been produced in the same way.
- The acidity level of olive oil plays a role in its quality.
How virgin an olive oil is will therefore affect olive oil prices: Acidity is the key here.
https://www.facebook.com/maria.verivaki/posts/10211271807047994

There are also other factors involved in pricing olive oil: In the present olive oil producing season, Greek producers have received good prices for their product, based on the hindered production of other olive oil producing countries, namely Italy and Spain. Italy's trees were ravaged by disease in early 2016 while Spain's were highly affected by drought. Greece's trees do not yet show any signs of the Italian disease, while the very dry summer weather suddenly eased in December which saw a lot of rain in Greece. The rain came at just the right time for olive, as it is usually ripe by this time, and olive oil production is in its full swing at this time.

Since the acidity level of an olive oil is important in pricing the product, the acidity level is the very first thing that will be checked by a producer in Crete. This may sound incredible because in international terms, the acidity level is NOT required to be stated (see https://www.oliveoilsource.com/page/labeling-regulations#Primary). Acidity level can be implied from the name on the label, eg 'extra virgin olive oil' implies that the acidity level is no more than 0.8. But low acidity can also be reached by mixing and refining techniques; therefore, the original acidity level at the time of production loses its importance, (see http://www.oliveoiloftheworld.com/2013/01/22/acidity-levels-in-extra-virgin-olive-oil/).

If you rely on the information on the labels of the products you buy to provide you with all the information you need about a product - and you trust it - you can leave it at that, and feel that you are getting value for money. But if you know that olive oil producers are getting higher prices for their product based on the acidity level of the product, surely that should be just one more factor that you should be considering when you are buying olive oil. After all, most extra virgin olive oil labels state words to the effect of:

"... produced entirely by mechanical means without the use of any solvents..."

which one would think could be taken for granted. But very few packaged extra virgin olive oils will include the acidity level on the label. Most olive oil labels will include information about the origin of olive oil, and will even tell you if it is a 'mixie-mixie' kind of oil (my terminology, to describe a product that contains a mixture of olive oil from different countries). Why the need for such wording, and nothing about acidity?

Despite the fact that mentioning the acidity level of extra virgin olive oil on a label is not a legal requirement, many Greek producers of extra virgin olive oil still mention it. It's no surprise then, when a customer finds acidity level mentioned on the label of packaged olive oil of a Greek origin:
"My customer told me she was purchasing an EVOO from Greece with an acidity level of .3%. She wanted to know if the EVOOs I carried had the acidity level listed on the label like hers. Much like customers that look for the words first cold pressed/ing on the labeling because marketing tactics tell them to specifically look for those words,  her concern arose because of this newest method to market olive oil... the acidity levels of extra virgin olive oil mean very little unless someone has a medical condition where a .5% to .8% would cause stomach upset.  So long as the oil is real EVOO (and many are not even though they claim to be) there is no reason to choose based on acidity. It should be based on taste and what one wants to do with the olive oil." http://www.oliveoiloftheworld.com/2013/01/22/acidity-levels-in-extra-virgin-olive-oil/
If there is NO reason to choose extra virgin olive oil based on acidity levels, why does acidity level determine the price of olive oil? Ignoring the acidity of an olive oil may be misleading for a number of reasons:
- The lower the acidity of freshly produced olive oil, the higher the price it can command.
- Low acidity extra virgin olive oil has a lighter taste, which is why it's the best choice for drizzling over your salads.
- Higher acidity levels are better for use in cooking, ie the process of heating olive oil, because they reach a smoking point more quickly; therefore, cooking with a low acidity olive oil may feel like you're boiling your food rather than frying it.
- Very low acidity in olive oil is a sign of less ripening of the fruit, so it can taste more peppery, with a bit of a zing to it when it goes down your throat. This has to do with the sensory perceptions of the product: Some like it hot, some like it cold.
- High acidity olive oil cannot be labelled extra-virgin.
Is the acidity level of an olive oil really a non-issue, given the above information?

 *** *** ***
When I visit friends in London, I always bring some of our own extra-extra virgin olive oil supplies to them as a present. I put into a clean coca-cola type bottle (they are very strong) and securely fasten the cap. Then I seal the cap with cellotape. Then I place the bottle on a plastic bag and tie it up with cellotape, repeating the last step twice. I also checked the olive oil selection at the two supermarkets that I went to: Waitrose, Greenwich... https://www.facebook.com/maria.verivaki/posts/10211422859184203

... and Sainsbury's, Lewisham Shopping Centre.
https://www.facebook.com/maria.verivaki/posts/10211455161471740

Hardly any of the labels mention the acidity level of the product. I found only one in Waitrose (Morgenster, South Africa), and only one in Sainsbury's (Iliada, Greece). Both these olive oils were produced in one region, whereas the other olive oils were made from a mixture of olive oils produced in different places: in other words, mixie-mixie, according to my terminology. Without doubt, such oils are more difficult to control for quality. Own-brand labels are far more common than any other kinds of olive oil. Own-brand supermarket olive oils are a kind of '[generic' of olive oil, and they do not state the acidity level of the product. You cannot guarantee quality in such cases. Monovarietals (olive oil produced with one variety of olives) are rare, as are olive oils produced in specific geographical regions. Supermarkets are competing with each other for prices. And in London, it is only natural to assume that specialised products will command high prices, perhaps too high for the average shopper to consider paying at a supermarket counter.

Crete is a major producer of olive oil, so you may be surprised to see a similar 'small' range of olive oil products being sold at our supermarkets. This is probably because the average buyer of olive oil from the supermarket is NOT Greek! Most of us have our own supplies of green gold. Those who do not will probably not buy their needs from the supermarket... They will buy it from a producer they know, or go directly to an olive oil factory and buy it in bulk. What use is a 1L bottle of olive oil - or even a 5L canister of olive oil! - when the average amount of olive oil consumed per capita per annum in Crete is... 25-30 kilos?! It's a little lower for the rest of Greece - Cretans use more olive oil than other Greeks (and according to statistics, they eat more cheese too, even more than the average French person).

Even so, it is worth noting what local Greek supermarkets are selling. Not all olive oils sold in Crete mention the acidity level on their packaging. Here's what I found at LIDL, a German supermarket chain...
https://www.facebook.com/maria.verivaki/posts/10211586562956695?pnref=story

... and SYNKA, a supermarket chain founded in Hania:
https://www.facebook.com/maria.verivaki/posts/10211586529915869?pnref=story

I was mainly interested in extra virgin olive oil. All the supermarkets I took photographs in (both in London and in Hania) sell a variety of olive oil types, not just extra-virgin olive oil. I did not make a point of including the prices for all the olive oil labels I photographed. Sometimes price is misleading: is it a sign of quality, or is it a sign of status? Likewise, if you have a preference for 'organic', you may end up paying more money for organic olive oil, even though its quality as olive oil may be compromised.
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Olive oil sold at SYNKA supermarket, Hania. Notice that you can also buy seed oil here too. If you don;t have your own supplies of olive oil, using seed oil to fry with will turn out cheaper.

To conclude, I would say that the best extra virgin olive oil is that which is produced locally. Buying your own country's production is probably the best way of going about buying olive oil for your own use. This includes non-traditional, new producer countries that have entered the olive oil market relatively recently, like South Africa and the US. If you are using olive oil in its raw form, you should be using only extra-virgin olive oil. If you are using it to cook with, you can buy non-extra virgin olive oil which will be cheaper. Finally, since most of the packaged extra virgin olive oil sold in a local Greek non-international supermarket chain mention an acidity level on the label, and it's mainly our tourists who buy such packaged products, you can bet that they are buying very good quality extra virgin olive oil to take back home with them.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.