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Monday, 16 May 2016

Foreign students in Hania: Constructive criticism

This article forms the second part of a two-part post that will be translated into Greek for dissemination among the Greek media. It will be edited at a later date, to include photos.

The foreign students of Hania who find themselves living and working on an extended study visit at the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania (MAICh) are a source of pride for the town. When MAICh recently asked them about their lasting impressions of Hania, their responses hinted at the many assets of the town: The Venetian harbor offers a refuge away from the stresses of the daily routine; the strategic location of the island does not compromise its safety; the climate and history of the town make it a magnet for foreign visitors; the open-mindedness of the community endears the visitors to the locals. The students' remarks are particularly revealing as to what should be preserved and maintained in Hania to ensure the town's sustainable survival in a very connected world, and specifically in the highly competitive tourist industry. At the same time, Hania should be capitalizing on its success in this respect, in such a way that its true assets are disseminated to a wider audience.

Keeping in mind that nowhere is perfect, the students were aslo asked to describe some of the problems that they encountered in Hania, and Greece generally, which they think need action to be taken for Hania to be an active member of the global community and a marketable Europe. Their comments could serve as a catalyst for further change where needed. Of course, it goes without saying that the local community already has some idea about some of the problems plaguing the town, but has not been provoked into making the necessary changes. The students of MAICh may just be the catalyst needed, as they force us to look at ourselves in the mirror. Their constructive criticism is particularly revealing.

Shopping hours in the town pose the biggest problem. It seems that Greek shopping hours are quite unique to the country:
"Even after two years of living in Hania, I cannot understand and I still always wonder when the stores open. I still do not understand shops' working hours!" (Walid, Algeria)
"The working hours of the shops are almost never written on the entrance door." (Bobi, fYR Macedonia)
"The working hours of the city are something which I could never understand. Several times I go to the city to get something and I come back with empty hands - it’s a real disappointment!" (Zahreddine, Algeria)

Tourism potential was also noticed by the students. Sometimes, Chania can be just 'too' peaceful:
"Regarding tourism, it could be better in Hania, since there are a lot of opportunities for more money can be made through tourism. It needs more development." (Ahmed, Morocco)
"What I dislike in Chania is the winter, where activities become limited and the population suddenly becomes less than in other seasons."(Abdelmalek, Tunisia)

The problem of stray animals that plagues all of Greece make a bad impression, as Walid (Algeria) points out: "Walking around the town, you see families having a quiet dinner and no one has issues with that - except the barking dogs! There are a lot of stray dogs all over the place."

The problems of the road network have not gone by unnoticed, as Ada (Albania) notes:
"I always enjoyed walking from MAICh to the centre of Chania, but I found the footpath too narrow."

While Cretan cuisine is known for its delicious fresh food, Haifa (Tunisia) thinks that the food choices could actually be improved: 
"The food is «not well diversified». If you don’t want traditional food, you can't find many international restaurants." 

Finally, Greek bureaucracy is notorious for its slow pace and confusing paperwork. Even MAICh students got a taste of it when they tried to use some services. Gohar (Armenia) thinks visa rules discriminate against foreigners:
"After two years of studying here I wanted to extend my visa. However, when I went to the immigration office, I was told that if I want to stay here there is only one way: to marry a Greek! Many of my friends have studied in other EU countries and after graduation they were able to get a visa for a year, so that they could look for work. No matter how hard the situation in Greece is right now, you have to give an educated immigrant a chance." 
Zahreddine (Algeria) describes how a simple procedure such as opening a bank account ended up feeling labyrinthine: "It took me more than 3 months to open a bank account. Most banks wanted to see my original birth certificate translated into Greek and stamped by the Greek embassy in my country, in addition to other seemingly unnecessary documents. Eventually, I found a bank that did not require so much paperwork, but I still had to wait for nearly one month to have this done!" 
The students were also asked about whether living in Hania helped them to understand Greece better, given that they are studying here during a period when the country is facing social, political and economic turmoil. Many students immediately grasped the similarities of their own cultures with Greece through their stay in Hania:
"Palestinians and Greeks are very similar. We share notions of hospitality." (Anas, Palestine)
"When I arrived in Chania, my first contact was with the taxi driver. I was already very surprised, as he physically looked like me! We had almost the same body language, mind and reasoning." (Walid, Algeria)

While Greece may be similar to her neighbors, she is also recognizably different:
"Greece is a portal for the oriental world through the eyes of the occident. By living in Chania and having Greek friends from all over Greece, I understand that Greece is a cradle for many cultures that have influenced it, but I can also distinguish differences between Crete and other Greek regions." (Abdelmalek, Tunisia)
"I believe that there is a slight difference in the mentality between Crete and the rest of Greece. In my opinion Crete and Chania are the no-stress zones of Greece, with an easygoing lifestyle. So in order to better understand Greece fully, Chania is probably not enough." (Bobi, fYR Macedonia).

The students are in Greece at a time when the country is going through great social, economic and political changes, so it is interesting to see how the Greek crisis has been interpreted by them:
Walid (Algeria) reminds us of how lucky we are: "The taxi driver told me that he has olive trees and agriculture, which sheltered him from the Greek crisis. In my country, we have been living most of our lives in a deep crisis, so I was surprised about the political situation in Greece because I cannot feel the crisis in Crete, least of all when I go out at night in the city!"

Haifa (Tunisia) agrees with Walid:  "I used to hear that Greece is in crisis and a lot of negative claims, but when I came here, I realized that it is not really that bad.You cannot actually feel the crisis as a MAICh student. The main problem is maybe with people's salaries which are lower than in other European countries, and I notice that some items of food or clothing are a bit more expensive than expected."

Zahreddine (Algeria) saw through the media propaganda against Greece: "Before I came to Chania, what I saw in the media made me think that the situation in Greece is unfavorable. Some friends even advised me not to go there. But when I arrived in Chania and saw the beautiful houses, the fancy cars, the nice roads, the supermarkets full of customers who are both locals and tourists, I realized that the perception I had was completely wrong. I don’t know if this is true only for Chania and Crete because there is a lot of tourism and agricultural activities. Chania taught me that Greek people, unlike my general perception of Europeans, are warm and friendly, and pay a lot of attention to family values."

Chaima (Tunisia) thinks that Greece has helped her to constantly look for solutions to any problem she encounters: "Living in Chania has allowed me to 'taste' the beauty and uniqueness of Greece. But what I understood by living here is how important it is to always search for solutions when considering the economic situation, not only just to survive, but to make the best out of life, enjoying in the hardest situations."

From their time in Greece, students learnt about the meaning of Greek hospitality, which they believe has influenced them a great deal:
Gohar's (Armenia) attitudes to the meaning of life changed because of the time she spent here: "Before coming to Chania, I was thinking only about studying and working hard to earn money and buy or have whatever I want. Living in Chania has changed my point of view. During the summer I saw many tourists coming for their holidays and enjoying two or three weeks here and then going back to their routine. So they work the whole year to earn money to come here and enjoy those few days. The Cretans don't have to do that, because they live one of the best places on Earth! Greek people do work hard, but they know for sure how to enjoy their lives. They know how to live right now, and to enjoy each moment!"

L'didja (Algeria) has also understood that special essence of life that Greece conveys: "Living in Chania made me understand how polite, helpful and kind the Greeks are. I understood that family, friendship, solidarity and generosity are values and principles of society in general. It is true that Chania is less harmed by the crisis, but I have seen places in Greece with complete roads of shops closed, looking like a haunted place, which might have been very lively in better times. But I have also seen how Greeks love life and try to enjoy it to the maximum. They always find a way to have fun and never miss a chance to gather, drink and dance all together."

Liliya (Russia) has noticed the warmth of the Greek people: "Greeks are very friendly and kind, they have such warm hearts, just like their weather in summer! Their life goes very 'siga siga'... They just enjoy it!"

It should be borne in mind that most of the students at MAICh are not from European countries. So my final question was about how their stay in Hania, as a part of Greece, has helped them to understand Europe better. Our wider European family might learn a thing or two about Greece when they hear what MAICh students have learnt about Europe through living in a small Greek Mediterranean town:

For Abdelmalek (Tunisia), Chania was the first European city that he experienced: "Compared to other European cities I have visited, Chania feels a bit different; it feels more oriental. But due to the huge numbers of tourists from all over Europe, especially from the north, Chania helped me to understand common European culture and something about the current situation Europe finds herself."

L'didja (Algeria) points out the more humane aspect of Greece compared with the image Europe is usually known for: "While the rest of the world starts to enter the selfish race where everybody cares only about himself, in Greece, your family cares about you, your neighbor ask about you and we still greet old people out of respect even if you don’t know them. I understand that the Greek participation to Europe brought opportunities to Greece such as funds, programs and the ability for youth to travel all around Europe freely. It’s also a curse in the way that European standards tend to homogenize everything. For instance, agricultural products such as the cheese, wine, even ouzo, must be packaged and labeled, while small traditional production units living with a small income can’t afford the process that raises the price of the product but spoils the product itself. This benefits neither the producer nor the consumer. I understood that the European ideal as planned in the very beginning was a utopia and that this colossus was actually built with the sacrifice of the weakest."

Zahreddine (Algeria) found the contrast between London and Chania overwhleming: "My visit to Chania is my second visit to Europe after London, and I was very surprised when I saw the huge difference between these two cities. Where London is so crowded and busy, and people are much more individualistic and self-oriented, I feel that Greeks have strong family bounds just like we do in my country. With this being said, I would say that life in Chania is much different than in Europe and I still have to learn more about Europe and other European towns."

Gohar (Armenia) notes the homogeneous nature of Greek society compared with the more obvious multicultural look of other parts of Europe: "The lack of immigration in Chania is what makes you feel that you are not living in a European country. Most MAICh students know at least 3 languages, among which are Russian, Arabic and of course English. These students are not being given a chance to become an asset for Greece's international development and international relations, even though they are highly skilled people. Most EU countries give these people more priorities. Of course, not all students will stay here after graduating but at least some of them could do so if they wanted to stay."

This contrasts sharply with Haifa's (Tunisia) observation that Greeks live harmoniously among foreigners:
"Chania represents Europe well Europe in the sense that you can see different cultures co-habiting together and accepting each other. You can really feel at peace here."

Anas (Palestine) mentions that Greece is really quite unique in Europe: "The idea that I had in my mind was that Europe is a great place full of opportunities and development and it's people are all working and living very decent lives, but I think it isn't fair to stereotype Europe by my visit to Crete since Greece nowadays is a really special case as a result of the crisis, which makes it really difficult to judge."

Walid (Algeria) realised how deceptively misleading the stereotypes of Greece and Europe are, as they are portrayed in the media: "Greece was my first contact with Europe, a Europe that I saw quite perfect in terms of working and earning money but not too human, with very cold relations between people because it's a very individualistic society, where everyone thinks only of himself, which is opposite to my own upbringing. Contrary to what I thought the Cretans are far from being individualistic. They live like one very big family. People are amazing - even when you do not need help. people will still try to help you, and it feels incredibly safe here."

Rhona (UK) worries that the European contrasts may break up the European Union: "I learnt quite a lot about how people live in other European countries from some of the other MAIX students, and also from the non-European students.The UK will soon vote on whether or not to leave the EU.  I don’t know whether it’s worse to stay in or go out, there are so many problems with the EU. But I really do worry that if either the UK or Greece leaves the EU that I will no longer have the right to return to live in Crete, a dream that keeps me going!"

This contrasts sharply with Valentina's (Italy) view about why Europe needs to remain united: "Living in Chania made me realize the true meaning of the European Union. Living among people going through an economic crisis which also affected my own country made me realize that it is precisely in times of crisis and difficulties that the sense of Europe and union must prevail rather than grandstanding by individualistic behaviour."

Perhaps Omar (Syria) sums up Greece's role in Europe in the best way: "For me Chania was such lovely town, in term of the connection between the Mediterranean I am familiar with and Europe which was new to me at the time of my arrival to Greece. It felt like I was somewhere in between. In the strteets you can see the European style so clearly, but suddenly you find yourself standing in front an example of oriental architecture. Now that I am living in Sweden, I sometimes really miss that Mediterranean air because it is completely lacking here. For me, Chania will be always the place which delivered me to Europe with Mediterranean hands."

Due to the unique nature of the city of Chania in Greece and Europe, MAICh's foreign students probably make the best ambassadors for Greece. Their study time in Hania plays a significant role in their career paths, as many Maich graduates go on to Ph.D. studies in renowned universities around the world, and not just in their own home country. Through MAICh, they have been given a chance to live in a unique European environment which will no doubt positively influence their life in the future, in a way that a European capital city, including Athens, could not have done so. MAICh students become a true asset in their community from their unique experience of living in one of the most unusual towns in Greece and Europe.

©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.

Τα Χανιά είναι μια όμορφη μεσογειακή πόλη με μακρά ιστορία που ζωντανεύει μέσα από τα πολυπολιτισμικά μνημεία της. Εύκολα μας μαγεύει η ομορφιά της, ακόμα σαν μόνιμοι κάτοικοι, ξαναζώντας την ιστορία της πόλης μέσα από κάθε διαφορετική στιγμή που περνάμε σ'αυτή. Η μικρή της έκταση δεν είναι κουραστική αλλά ούτε και βαρετή. Συναντούμε παντού γνωστούς ώστε να μην αισθανόμαστε ποτέ μόνοι, ενώ την ίδια στιγμή, μπορούμε να κρυφτούμε στα σοκάκια της παλιάς πόλης διατηρώντας την ανωνυμία μας. Με την εκτεταμένη επαρχία της και τη μαγευτική ακτογραμμή, τα Χανιά προσφέρουν άφθονες επιλογές για να περνάμε όμορφες στιγμές, άσχετα ηλικίας και προτιμήσεων. Οι καλοκαιρινοί μας τουρίστες πιθανότατα συμφωνούν με τους ντόπιους - τα Χανιά είναι μαγευτικά, και θεωρούνται πλέον «προορισμός», όπως διαπιστώνεται από τα τουριστικά πακέτα, στις κορυφαίες επιλογές των Ευρωπαίων για τις καλοκαιρινές τους διακοπές.

Υπάρχει και ένας σημαντικός μεσοπρόθεσμος πληθυσμός στα Χανιά - άνθρωποι που έρχονται εδώ για την δουλειά τους ή για σπουδές, όπως οι φοιτητές του Μεσογειακού Αγρονομικού Ινστιτούτου Χανίων (ΜΑΙΧ). Προέρχονται κυρίως από Βόρεια Αφρική, Μέση Ανατολή, Καύκασο και Ανατολική Ευρώπη, με μια μικρή ομάδα από τον υπόλοιπο κόσμο, συμπεριλαμβανομένων της Ελλάδας. Κατά τη διάρκεια των μεταπτυχιακών σπουδών τους στο ΜΑΙΧ, μελετούν θέματα επείγουσας παγκόσμιου ενδιαφέροντος, όπως την κλιματική αλλαγή και την ανίχνευση της απάτης στα τρόφιμα, καθώς και την διαχείριση του αγροτικού τομέα. Στο τέλος των σπουδών τους στο ΜΑΙΧ, συνεχίζουν με διδακτορικές σπουδές σε γνωστά πανεπιστήμια σ'όλο τον κόσμο, και καταλαμβάνουν θέσεις υψηλού επιπέδου στον ακαδημαϊκό κόσμο, την κυβέρνηση και τις ιδιωτικές επιχειρήσεις. Δηλαδή γίνονται πρεσβευτές της Ελλάδα, δεδομένου ότι οι σπουδές τους εδώ διαδραματίζουν σημαντικό ρόλο στην σταδιοδρομία τους.

Οι ξένοι φοιτητές των Χανίων είναι μια πηγή υπερηφάνειας. Μας υπενθυμίζουν πόσο προνομιούχοι είμαστε που ζούμε σ'ένα σύγχρονο αλλά επίσης χαλαρωτικό περιβάλλον. Το παλιό λιμάνι προσφέρει ένα καταφύγιο μακριά από το άγχος της καθημερινότητας. Η στρατηγική θέση του νησιού δεν θέτει σε κίνδυνο την ατομική ασφάλειά. Το κλίμα και η ιστορία της πόλης είναι ένας μαγνήτης για τους ξένους επισκέπτες. Η ευρύτητα του πνεύματος της κοινότητας φέρνει τους επισκέπτες πιο κοντά με τους ντόπιους. Οι παρατηρήσεις των φοιτητών τoυ ΜΑΙΧ είναι ιδιαίτερα αποκαλυπτικές ως προς το τι θα πρέπει να διατηρηθεί στα Χανιά για να εξασφαλιστεί η βιώσιμη επιβίωση της πόλης σε ένα εξαιρετικά συνδεδεμένο κόσμο, συγκεκριμένα στον τομέα της άκρως ανταγωνιστικής τουριστικής βιομηχανίας, ώστε να αναδειχθεί ο πραγματικός πλούτος της πόλης στο ευρύτερο κοινό. Ας διαβάσουμε τι έχουν να πουν, στα δικά τους λόγια.

Η Chaima (Τυνησία) πιστεύει ότι τα Χανιά αποπνέουν μια ζεστασιά που δεν εκφράζεται εύκολα με λόγια: «Καταρχάς, η ηρεμία και ομορφιά των Χανίων είναι ο καλύτερος συνδυασμός για να απολαύσεις τη ζωή προετοιμάζοντας την μελλοντική σου καριέρα. Όταν γυρίσω στη χώρα μου, θ'αφήσω ένα κομμάτι του εαυτού μου εδώ. Αυτή η ζεστασιά που ένιωσα εδώ είναι πολύ ιδιαίτερη και δεν μπορεί να περιγραφεί εύκολα." Ο Abdelmalek (Τυνησία) λέει ότι τα Χάνια του έδωσαν την ευκαιρία να είναι πιο καινοτόμος: «Σπουδάζω κοντά στην ύπαιθρο σ'ένα ήρεμο και υγιεινό περιβάλλον που παρέχει έμπνευση για δημιουργική σκέψη."

Η Haifa (Τυνησία) παρατηρεί την ανοιχτόμυαλη φύση των ντόπιων απέναντι στους ξένους: "Οι Χανιώτες αποδέχονται τους αλλοδαπούς και είναι περίεργοι να μάθουν για αυτούς και την κουλτούρα τους, και πως έφτασαν εδώ. Ποτέ δεν αισθάνομαι ότι με απορρίπτουν επειδή δεν είμαι από εδώ."

Ο Walid (Αλγερία) αισθάνεται πολύ χαρούμενος που βρίσκεται στα Χανιά για σπουδές: «Το κλίμα, τα σπίτια, τα φυτά - όλα έχουν ένα ανθρώπινο μέγεθος. Βλέπω συχνά ανοικτές πόρτες και οικογένειες να τρώνε μαζί, που με κάνει να νιώθω ασφάλεια. Οι ντόπιοι δεν διαφέρουν πολύ απ'τη δική μου χώρα. Το παλιό λιμάνι είναι ένα από τα πιο καταπληκτικά μέρη. Μου θυμίζει το Κάσμπα του Αλγερίου: στενοί δρόμοι, πολλά λουλούδια, πολλές γάτες, ένα εκπληκτικό μείγμα αρχιτεκτονικών στυλ και πάνω απ 'όλα, μια έντονη ανθρώπινη ζεστασιά. Φτάνοντας στα Χανιά, θυμάμαι την πρώτη μου ανθρώπινη επαφή με τον οδηγό ταξί. Έμεινα έκπληκτος που φυσιολογικά μοιάζαμε! Εύκολα καταλαβαινόμασταν μεταξύ μας αν και δεν μιλούσαμε την ίδια γλώσσα. Αμέσως ένοιωσα ότι δεν ήμουν μακριά από το σπίτι μου."

Στον Anas (Παλαιστίνη) αρέσει η αναρρίχηση: "Προσωπικά μου αρέσει το φρέσκο ​​αεράκι που αναπνέω παντού στα Χανιά. Μου αρέσουν ιδιαίτερα οι ορεινές περιοχές των Χανίων. Θα μου λείψει πάρα πολύ όταν οι σπουδές μου τελειώσουν." Απίσης ο Ahmed (Μαρόκο) νιώθει ευχαριστημένος που διάλεξε να σπουδάσει μακριλα από μια μεγάλη πόλη: «Τα Χανιά είναι ένα βήμα στη ζωή μου που έχει διαμορφώσει το μέλλον μου, μακριά από τραπεζικές αυτοκρατορίες και την εκβιομηχάνιση." 

Η Ada (Αλβανία) γοητεύτηκε από την ευκολία με την οποία η φοιτητική ζωή συνδυάζεται εύκολα με τον τουρισμό: «Τα Χανιά είναι μία από τις καλύτερες τοποθεσίες για σπουδές. Μπορείς να κάνεις τον τουρίστα και τον φοιτητή ταυτόχρονα." Επίσης η Rhona (Ηνωμένο Βασίλειο) βρίσκει τα Χανιά πηγή έμπνευσης:. «Οι φιλικοί, ευγενικοί Κρητικοί ποτέ δεν γελούσαν στις προσπάθειές μου να μάθω ελληνικά, δείχνοντας πραγματικά ευχαριστημένοι που ένας ξένος έκανε τον κόπο να μάθει την γλώσσα του." Η Valentina (Ιταλία) πραγματικά αισθάνθηκε σαν στο σπίτι της στα Χανιά: "Τα τοπικά έθιμα ήταν κοντά στη δική μου πραγματικότητα, καθώς και η φιλοξενία των Κρητικών που με έκανε να νιώσω πολύ ευπρόσδεκτη."

Η Gohar (Αρμενία) παρατήρησε την ανθρώπινη διάσταση της επικοινωνίας: «Στα Χανιά θα αισθανθείτε σαν να είστε στο σπίτι σας από την πρώτη μέρα. Έμεινα έκπληκτη ότι έιδα γιαγιά και παππού να πίνουν μαζί το πρωινό τους καφεδάκι σε ένα καφενείο - δεν το βλέπουμε αυτό συχνά στην Αρμενία. Το ίδιο και οι νέοι: δεν συνομιλούν συνέχεια με smartphones, και απολαμβάνουν την συνομιλία με τους φίλους τους. Η επικοινωνία εδώ είναι πιο πολύ πρόσωπο με πρόσωπο. Σαν αλλοδαπή φοιτήτρια, δεν αισθάνθηκα ποτέ διακρίσει - μπορώ να πω ότι ένιωσα πολύ ασφαλείς."

Η L'didja (Αλγερία) θυμάται την πρώτη φορά που είδε το Ενετικό λιμάνι: "Μόλις μπείς στο χώρο του λιμανιού, μια καταπληκτική θέα σε χτυπά. Καμία εικόνα στο διαδίκτυο δεν μπορεί να σε προετοιμάσει για αυτή την στιγμή. Αισθάνομαι ασφαλής και αρκετά μακριά από το άγχος που θα αντιμετώπιζα σε μια μεγαλούπολη. Ο ιδιαίτερος πολυπολιτισμικός χαρακτήρας της πόλης δεν υπάρχει μόνο στην αρχιτεκτονική, αλλά και στους ίδιους τους Κρητικούς, την κουζίνα τους, και τις παραδόσεις. Νομίζω ότι αυτός είναι ο κύριος λόγος που κάνει τους Κρητικούς ιδιαίτερα ανοικτοί σε διαφορετικούς πολιτισμούς."

Ο Zahreddine (Αλγερία) αμέσως αντιλήπτηκε την Μεσογειακή φύση των Χανίων: «Όταν έφτασα για πρώτη φορά στα Χανιά, παρατήρησα ότι η φύση, το κλίμα και πολλά άλλα χαρακτηριστικά της πόλης ήταν εξαιρετικά παρόμοια με αυτά που έχω ζήσει όλη μου τη ζωή. Συνειδητοποίησα ότι είχα μόλις έρθει στο ιδανικό μέρος για μια επιτυχημένη διαδρομή σποδών. Είναι ένα μέρος όπου μπορεί κανείς να συναντήσεις ανθρώπους από όλο τον κόσμο. Υπάρχει κανείς που δεν του αρέσει το παλιό λιμάνι; Ένα από τα καλύτερα χαρακτηριστικά των Χανίων είναι η υπερυψωμένη θέση με θέα το γαλάζιο της θάλασσας, τη πανέμορφη μεσογειακή πόλη και τα ψηλά βουνά καλυμμένα με χιόνι, ένα σπάνιο μείγμα που υπάρχει μόνο σε πολύ λίγα μέρη του κόσμου."

Η Liliya (Ρωσία) τονίζει τη σημασία του κλίματος στην επιδίωξη της προσωπικής ευτυχίας: «Ποτέ δεν έζησε σε μια τόσο όμορφη πόλη όπου το καλοκαίρι διαρκεί έναν ολόκληρο χρόνο! Φαίνεται αδύνατο για τους φίλους μου στη Μόσχα να πιστέψουν ότι το Νοέμβριο τρώγω μανταρίνια κατευθείαν από το δέντρο, και να κολυμπώ στη θάλασσα!" Και Ο Omar (Συρία) θυμάται την φρεσκάδα της διατροφής:. «Τώρα που ζω στη Σουηδία, μου λείπει πραγματικά η μεσογειακή ατμόσφαιρα. Η χορτοφαγία δεν είναι εύκολο πράγμα στην Σουηδία - δεν τρως φαγητό που συλλέχθηκε από την ίδια περιοχή όπου ζεις."

Ο Bobi (Μακεδονίας (πΓΜΔ) επισκέπτεται συχνά την Ελλάδα αφού η χώρα του γειτονεύει με την δική μας και πιστεύει ότι τα Χανιά ξεχωρίζουν από τα άλλα μέρη που έχει επισκεφθεί: "Έχω μεγάλη εμπειρία από την Ελλάδα, αλλά η Κρήτη και τα Χανιά ειδικότερα είναι κάτι το ιδιαίτερο. Οι άνθρωποι εδώ είναι πιο ανοιχτόμυαλοι. Είναι το πρώτο μέρος στην Ελλάδα όπου έχω δει μιναρέ και καμπανοστάσιο στην ίδια εκκλησία. Οι άνθρωποι είναι γενικά ζεστοί, φιλικοί και εξυπηρετικοί, όλο με το χαμόγελο. Αξίζει να σημειωθεί ότι δεν αλλάζουν στάση όταν τους λέω από ποια χώρα κατάγομαι! Μου αρέσει που τα περισσότερα παλιά κτίρια εξακολουθούν να φαίνονται σαν τη στιγμή που χτίστηκαν. Αισθάνεσαι σαν να είσαι στην Ελλάδα, την Ιταλία και τη Μέση Ανατολή την ίδια στιγμή. Αισθανεσθαι την επίδραση του κάθε έθνους που έχει πατήσει το πόδι του στο νησί. Είναι ένα εξαιρετικό μέρος για χαλάρωση."

Μην ξεχνόντας ότι πουθενά δεν είναι τέλεια, οι φοιτητ'ες επίσης περίγραψαν μερικά από τα προβλήματα που αντιμετώπισαν στα Χανιά, και την Ελλάδα γενικότερα, για τα οποία νομίζουν ότι πρέπει να αναληφθεί δράση ώστε τα Χανιά να είναι ενεργό μέλος της παγκόσμιας κοινότητας και της εμπορεύσιμης Ευρώπης. Είναι αυτονόητο ότι και η τοπική κοινωνία ήδη ξέρει καλά τα προβλήματα που μαστίζουν την πόλη, αλλά ακούγεται διαφορετκά όταν μας τα υπενθυμίζουν ξένοι. Οι παρατηρήσεις των ΄ξενων φοιτητών είναι ιδιαίτερα αποκαλυπτικλες και χρησιμεύουν ως καταλύτη για περαιτέρω δράσεις, καθώς μας αναγκάζουν να ασκήσουμε πιο σκληρή κριτική στον εαυτό μας. 

Σχετικά με τις ώρες των καταστημάτων, υπάρχει μεγάλο πρόβλημα με τις ώρες λειτουργίας. Οι ξένοι φοιτητές δυσκολεύονται να καταλάβουν πότε οι Χανιώτες κάνουν τα ψώνια τους μέσα στη πόλη: «Οι ώρες εργασίας της πόλης είναι κάτι που δεν μπόρεσα ποτέ να κατανοήσω. Αρκετές φορές έχω πάει στην πόλη για να αγοράσω κάτι και γυρίζω στο ΜΑΙΧ με άδεια χέρια!" (Zahreddine). Αυτό επίσης σχετίζεται με την εμπορευσιμότητα των Χανίων ως προορισμό: "Θα μπορούσε να υπάρχει περισσότερος τουρισμός στα Χανιά, δεδομένου ότι υπάρχουν πολλές ευκαιρίες, οπότε χρειάζεται περισσότερη ανάπτυξη." (Ahmed). Ο χειμερινός τουρισμός σίγουρα αποτελεί μια λύση: «Τον χειμώνα οι δραστηριότητες μειώνονται σημαντικά, επίσης και ο πληθυσμός" (Abdelmalek). Το πρόβλημα των αδέσποτων ζώων που μαστίζει όλη την Ελλάδα κάνει μια κακή εντύπωση: «Περπατώντας γύρω από την πόλη, βλέπουμε πολλά σκυλιά που δημιουργούν προβλήματα με το θόρυβο που κάνουν. Ενώ υπάρχει ηρεμία και ησυχία στην περιοχή, Τα σκυλιά που γαβγίζουν χαλάνε την ηρεμία και γαλήνη της περιοχής" (Walid). Επίσης κακή εντύπωση κάνει η οπτική εικόνα του οδικού δικτύου: "Μου αρέσει να περπατώ από το ΜΑΙΧ στο κέντρο των Χανίων, αλλά ο δρόμος δεν έχει καλά πεζοδρόμια και είναι κάπως στενός" (Ada). 

Η ελληνική γραφειοκρατία είναι διαβόητη για την αργό ρυθμό της. Ακόμα και οι ξένοι φοιτητές πήραν μια γεύση από αυτό όταν προσπάθησαν να χρησιμοποιήσετε κάποιες υπηρεσίες. H Gohar πιστεύει ότι πρέπει να αναθεωρηθούν κάποιες διακρίσεις εις βάρος αλλοδαπών φοιτητών: "Ήθελα να επεκτείνω την βίζα μου, αλλά οι αρμόδιοι μου είπαν ότι για να μείνω παραπάνω χρόνο στην Ελλάδα. υπάρχει μόνο ένας τρόπος: πρέπει να παντρευτεί έναν Έλληνα! Πολλοί φίλοι μου έχουν σπουδάσει σε άλλες χώρες της ΕΕ και μετά την αποφοίτησή τους ήταν σε θέση να επεκτείνουν την βίζα τους για άλλο ένα χρόνο, ώστε να μπορούν να ψάξουν για δουλειά. Άσχετα πόσο σκληρή είναι η κατάσταση στην Ελλάδα αυτή τη στιγμή, θα πρέπει να δώσει ευκαιρίες και στους μορφωμένους μετανάστες." O Zahreddine περιγράφει τις δυσκολίες μιας απλής διαδικασίας, όπως το άνοιγμα τραπεζικού λογαριασμού: «Χρειάστηκα πάνω από 3 μήνες για να ανοίξω τραπεζικό λογαριασμό. Οι περισσότερες τράπεζες ήθελαν να δουν το πρωτότυπο πιστοποιητικό γέννησης μου μεταφρασμένο στα ελληνικά! από το. Τελικά, βρήκα μια τράπεζα που δεν απαιτούσε τόσο πολύ γραφειοκρατία, αλλά πάλι χρειάστηκε να περιμένω για περίπου ένα μήνα μέχρι να τελειώσει η δουλειά!"

Οι φοιτητές ρωτήθηκαν επίσης για το πως τα Χανιά τους βοήθησαν να γνωρίσουν καλύτερα την Ελλάδα, δεδομένου ότι σπουδάζουν σε μια περίοδο που η χώρα αντιμετωπίζει κοινωνική, πολιτική και οικονομική αναταραχή. Οι φοιτητές αντιλήφθηκαν τις ομοιότητες με τους δικούς τους πολιτισμούς, αλλά είναι επίσης εμφανώς διαφορετική: «Η Ελλάδα είναι μια πύλη για τον ανατολίτικο κόσμο από τα μάτια της Δύσης. H Ελλάδα μου φαίνεται σαν ένα λίκνο πολλών πολιτισμών που την έχουν επηρεάσει. Μπορώ επίσης να διακρίνω τις διαφορές ανάμεσα στην Κρήτη και σε άλλες ελληνικές περιοχές" (Abdelmalek). "Πιστεύω ότι υπάρχει μια μικρή διαφορά στη νοοτροπία μεταξύ Κρήτης και την υπόλοιπη Ελλάδα. Κατά τη γνώμη μου, η Κρήτη και τα Χανιά είναι οι ζώνες απαγόρευσης άγχος της Ελλάδα, με ένα πιο βολικό τρόπο ζωής." (Bobi).

Είναι ενδιαφέρον να δούμε πώς η ελληνική κρίση έχει ερμηνευθεί από τους ξένους φοιτητές: μας θυμίζει πόσο τυχεροί είμαστε: «Είστε πολύ τυχεροί στην Κρήτη. Ένας ταξιτζής μου είπε ότι έχει ελαιόδεντρα και ασχολείται με τη γεωργία, που τον προστατεύει από την κρίση. Στη χώρα μου, έχουμε ζήσει το μεγαλύτερο μέρος της ζωής μας σε μια βαθιά κρίση. Έτσι μένω έκπληκτος με την πολιτική κατάσταση στην Ελλάδα, γιατί δεν μπορώ να νιώσω την κρίση στην Κρήτη, τουλάχιστον όχι όταν βγαίνω έξω τη νύχτα στην πόλη!" (Walid). «Συνήθιζα να ακούω ότι η Ελλάδα βρίσκεται σε κρίση, αλλά όταν ήρθα εδώ, κατάλαβα ότι δεν είναι ακριβώς έτσι τα πραγματικά. Φυσικά και δεν μπορώ να αισθανθώ πραγματικά την κρίση ως φοιτήτρια τους ΜΑΙΧ. Το κύριο πρόβλημα είναι ίσως με τους μισθούς που είναι χαμηλότεροι από ό, τι σε άλλες ευρωπαϊκές χώρες, και παρατηρώ ότι ορισμένα είδη τροφίμων και ρούχα είναι λίγο πιο ακριβά" (Haifa). 

Ο Zahreddine κατάλαβε ότι δούλευε κάποιο είδος προπαγάνδας στα διεθνή μέσα ενημέρωσης κατά της Ελλάδας: «Πριν έρθω στα Χανιά, αυτό που είδα στα μέσα ενημέρωσης με έκανε να σκεφτώ ότι η κατάσταση στην Ελλάδα είναι αρνητική. Κάποιοι φίλοι με συμβούλεψαν να μην έρθω. Αλλά όταν έφτασα στα Χανιά και είδε τα όμορφα σπίτια, τα καλά αυτοκίνητα, τα μαγαζιά με γεμάτα ράφια και πελάτες, ντόπιους και τουρίστες, συνειδητοποίησα ότι η αντίληψη που είχα ήταν εντελώς λάθος. Δεν ξέρω αν αυτό είναι αλήθεια μόνο για τα Χανιά και την Κρήτη, επειδή υπάρχει πολύ τουρισμός και γεωργικές δραστηριότητες. Τα Χανιά μου δίδαξαν ότι ο ελληνικός λαός, σε αντίθεση με τη γενική αντίληψη μου για τους Ευρωπαίους, είναι ζεστός και φιλικός, και δίνει πολλή προσοχή στις οικογενειακές αξίες».

Η Chaima πιστεύει ότι η Ελλάδα την έχει βοηθήσει να αναζητάει συνεχώς λύσεις για κάθε πρόβλημα που αντιμετωπίζει: «Αυτό που κατάλαβα με το να ζω εδώ είναι πόσο σημαντικό είναι να ψάχνεις πάντα για λύσεις σε μια δύσκολη οικονομική κατάσταση, όχι μόνο απλά για να επιβιώσεις, αλλά για να μπορείς απολαμβάνεις ότι καλύτερο έχει η ζωή, στις πιο σκληρές συνθήκες."

Οι φοιτητές έμαθαν για την έννοια της ελληνικής φιλοξενίας, που πιστεύουν ότι τους έχει επηρεάσει σε μεγάλο βαθμό. Η Gohar πιστεύει ότι το νόημα της ζωής άλλαξε για αυτήν λόγω του χρόνου που πέρασε στα Χανιά: "Πριν έρθω στα Χανιά, σκεφτόμουν μόνο για τις σπουδές μου, να εργάζομαι σκληρά για να κερδίζω χρήματα και να αγοράζω ότι θέλω. Κατά τη διάρκεια του καλοκαιριού στα Χανιά είδα πολλούς τουρίστες που έρχονται για τις διακοπές τους και απολαμβάνουν δύο-τρεις εβδομάδες εδώ και στη συνέχεια πηγαίνουν πίσω στη ρουτίνα τους. Έτσι λειτουργούν όλο το χρόνο για να κερδίσουν χρήματα για να έρθουν εδώ και να απολαύσουν αυτές τις λίγες μέρες. Οι Κρητικοί δεν χρειάζονται να το κάνουν αυτό, επειδή ζουν σε ένα από τα καλύτερα μέρη στη γη! Ο Έλληνας εργάζεται σκληρά, αλλά ξέρει σίγουρα πώς να απολαμβάνει τη ζωή κάθε στιγμή!"

Οι περισσότεροι φοιτητές στο ΜΑΙΧ δεν προέρχονται από ευρωπαϊκές χώρες. Έτσι, το τελευταίο ερώτημα που τους θέσαμε ήταν σχετικά με το πώς η διαμονή τους στα Χανιά τους βοήθησε να κατανοήσουν καλύτερα την ευρύτερη ευρωπαϊκή πραγματικότητα.

Η L'didja ανησυχεί για το μέλλον του αγροτικού τομέα: "Αντιλαμβάνομαι ότι η ελληνική συμμετοχή στην Ευρώπη έφερε ευκαιρίες στην Ελλάδα, αλλά τα ευρωπαϊκά πρότυπα είναι επίσης και μια κατάρα με τον τρόπο που τείνουν στην ομογενοποίηση, για παράδειγμα, τα γεωργικά προϊόντα, όπως το τυρί, το κρασί, ακόμη και το ούζο, που πρέπει να συσκευάζονται και να επισημαίνονται, ενώ οι μικρές παραδοσιακές μονάδες παραγωγής με μικρό εισόδημα δεν μπορούν να αντέξουν οικονομικά τη διαδικασία που αυξάνει την τιμή του προϊόντος, αλλά χαλάει το ίδιο το προϊόν."

Ο Zahreddine βλέπει την πιο ανθρώπινη διάσταση της Ελλάδας σε σύγκριση με τον Βορρά: "Πριν έρθω στα Χανιά, πήγα στο Λονδίνο. Η διαφορά είναι τεράστια μεταξύ των δύο πόλεων. Στο Λονδίνο ο κόσμος φαίνεται συνέχεια απασχολημένος και οι άνθρωποι είναι πολύ πιο αυτο-προσανατολισμένοι. Στην Ελλάδα μετρά πιο πολύ οι οικογένεια."

Η Gohar σημειώνει την ομοιογένεια της ελληνικής κοινωνίας σε σχέση με την πιο προφανή πολυπολιτισμικό βλέμμα του σε άλλα μέρη της Ευρώπης: "Υπάρχει έλλειψη μετανάστευσης στην Ελλάδα. Ενώ οι φοιτητές του ΜΑΙΧ γνωρίζουν τουλάχιστον 3 γλώσσες, μεταξύ των οποίων είναι ρωσικά, αραβικά και αγγλικά, δεν τους δίνεται ευκαιρία να γίνουν ένα περιουσιακό στοιχείο για τη διεθνή ανάπτυξη της Ελλάδας, ακόμα κι αν είναι άτομα με υψηλή ειδίκευση. Άλλες χώρες δίνουν περισσότερες προτεραιότητες σε τέτοιους ανθρώπους." Το ίδιο αναφέρει και ο Anas: "Η ιδέα που είχα για την Ευρώπη είναι για ένα εξαιρετικό μέρος γεμάτο ευκαιρίες και ανάπτυξη. Η Ελλάδα σήμερα είναι μια πραγματικά ιδιαίτερη περίπτωση, ως αποτέλεσμα της κρίσης."

Η Rhona ανησυχεί ότι οι ευρωπαϊκές αντιθέσεις μπορεί να διαλύσουν την ΕΕ: "Το Ηνωμένο Βασίλειο θα ψηφίσει για το αν πρέπει ή όχι να φύγει από την ΕΕ. Δεν ξέρω αν είναι χειρότερο να παραμείνουμε ή να βγούμε άλλα πραγματικά ανησυχώ ότι δεν θα έχω πλέον το δικαίωμα να μείνω στην Κρήτη, ένα όνειρο που θέλω να πραγματοποιήσω."

Η Βαλεντίνα πιστεύει ότι η Ευρώπη πρέπει να παραμείνει ενωμένη "Από την εμπειρία μου στα Χανιά συνειδητοποίησα το αληθινό νόημα της Ευρώπης. Η οικονομική κρίση επηρέασε και την Ιταλία και σκέφτομαι ότι είναι ακριβώς σε περιόδους κρίσης και δυσκολιών που η αίσθηση της Ευρώπης και της Ένωσης πρέπει να επικρατήσει και όχι μια πιο εγωιστική συμπεριφορά."

Ίσως ο Omar συνοψίζει το ρόλο της Ελλάδας στην Ευρώπη με τον καλύτερο τρόπο: "Στα Χανιά σύνδεσα τη Μεσογείο απ'όπου και εγώ κατάγομαι  με την Ευρώπη. Ένιωσα σαν να ήμουν κάπου στο ενδιάμεσο. Οι δρόμοι φαίνονται καθαρά ευρωπαϊκοί, αλλά ξαφνικά βρίσκεσαι ανάμεσα ανατολίτικη αρχιτεκτονική. Τώρα που ζω στη Σουηδία, πάντα θα θυμάμαι τα Χανιά ως την πόλη που με παράδωσε στην Ευρώπη μέσω μεσογειακά χέρια."

Λόγω της μοναδικότητας των Χανίων, στην Ελλάδα και την Ευρώπη, οι ξένοι φοιτητές του ΜΑΙΧ κάνουν ίσως τους καλύτερους πρεσβευτές της Ελλάδας. Οι σπουδές τους στα Χανιά διαδραματίζουν σημαντικό ρόλο στην πορεία της σταδιοδρομίας τους, αφού πολλοί απόφοιτοι του ΜΑΙΧ συνεχίζουν τις σπουδές τους σε φημισμένα πανεπιστήμια σ'όλο τον κόσμο, όχι μόνο στη πατρίδα τους. Το ΜΑΙΧ τους δίνει την ευκαιρία να ζήσουν σε ένα μοναδικό περιβάλλον το οποίο θα επηρεάσει αναμφίβολα θετικά τη ζωή τους στο μέλλον, με έναν τρόπο που μια ευρωπαϊκή πρωτεύουσα συμπεριλαμβανομένης της Αθήνας, δεν θα μπορούσε. Οι φοιτητές του ΜΑΙΧ είναι ένα πραγματικό περιουσιακό στοιχείο για τα Χανιά.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Going cashless in Greece

Last month, my car insurance agent called me to let me know that my policy had expired and how much the new policy cost.

"Do you take credit cards?" I asked her.

"No, sorry, we don't have a machine yet."

In Crete, the word 'yet' in collocation with EFT-POS is actually a euphemism for 'We only want cash', 'We refuse to use plastic money', etc. There is nothing wrong with cash of course, and we still have the choice between cash and plastic. But after seven years of crisis, bank coffers being emptied, a period of banks being closed and limits being placed on cash withdrawals, one would think that since everyone has the option of using plastic money now (imposed last year by the banks' closure for close to a month June-July), businesses would give you this option. My quibble with cash comes from having to go out of my way to a cash machine to withdraw ludicrous sums of money: after discovering that the business you wish to deal with does not have a POS machine 'yet', you have to waste time going to an ATM to withdraw money, and waste more time returning to the shop/company. And the simple fact in Greece is that with plastic, you can spend as much as your card rules allow you to, whereas with cash, you can withdraw only 420€ per week. So in effect, I have money to spend, but many businesses do not wish to take my money in the form that I have it in. That's a kind of discrimination, in my humble opinion.

I was too tired to argue with the polite little old lady who runs the insurance company. I was also too polite to argue with the young man she employs in her business. I do not believe that in this day and age, older business people deserve respect as of right, but I've known her for years, and I didn't want to upset her little world until I had sorted out my own priorities. What I should have done was look up online insurance, but in the run-up to Easter, with friends and family visiting, I decided that I was just too damn tired to do anything. So I wasted my time by:
- making a special trip to an ATM, something I rarely do, and hence I regard it as a time waster)
- taking the cash to the insurance agent's office, where I picked up a receipt as proof of payment - but not the policy itself
- making another trip to the insurance agent's office the next day to pick up the official policy, which becomes available only after the company that the agent works for is debited with the money

Madame Insurance Agent probably had to waste her time depositing the same cash I gave her in a bank in order to get the confirmation needed for my policy to be issued. Then again, she probably has e-banking and she might be hoarding the cash. Either way, we had both just used up time with little to show for it. Take all my money, I often say to my family, just don't waste my time. I will find money again, but I will never be able to make up for lost time.

During the Easter break, I went out for dinner to a restaurant in a tourist area. When the time came to pay, I was mighty pissed off that the establishment did not take plastic. (They did not even issue a receipt, but tax evasion is not the point of this blog post). In my opinion, tourist businesses that do not accept plastic are not professional. (It is obvious anyway from the fact that they do not issue receipts.) Cash-only and tax evasion do not necessarily go hand in hand, but in a world that is so highly connected, and with the ECB's recent decision to phase out 500€ bills, everyone needs to use plastic. So if a business does not accept plastic, I personally believe it is in denial of reality, and therefore I do not wish to do business with it.

It was at that point some time around mid-April when I decided to go cashless. I simply refuse to use cash, end of story. It helped that I decided to go cashless close to the Easter holidays because the kids didn't have school, hence no school expenses, which are usually conducted by cash (eg the school canteen, school trips, etc). It also helps that when the children go back to school next week after the holiday period is over, they will be starting their examination period, so they won't have to go to school on a daily basis for the next eight weeks (the Greek education system is for another blog post too).

Yes, I still have some cash in my purse - about 10€ in small change - because, as with everything, there are exceptions to the rule:
- the price of small water bottles is regulated in Greece: they cost just 50 cents. I will not die of thirst on principle. So I will always have cash at the ready for water when I need it while on the road. On that note, I do fill up water bottles at home and take them with me. But I'm talking about dire situations where I couldn't do that.
- we buy the local paper every Saturday, a habit from the days when my mother-in-law lived with us and she liked to read that particular issue. If I'm out in the town on Saturday, I'll continue to buy that paper, for tradition's sake.
- my husband has a phobia of the house running out of bread. He always buys it, but sometimes he runs out of time or he isn't in the region of his favorite bakery and he asks me to buy it. So I will always have cash on me to buy bread, for the sake of a happy marriage.
- I occasionally buy cold coffee when I'm at the beach. I can bring my own from home, but I don't do this simply because beach canteens are one of those businesses that I like to support because they are an essential part of the seasonal local economy. I always get a receipt for my purchase of a super-cold 'fredo' (cold cappuccino), which is paired with a view out to the Mediterranean sea, and this feels like luxury to me without breaking the bank.
- Another part of the seasonal local economy that I strongly support is the school canteen. My teenagers have a big breakfast at home before setting off to school. But they are in their growth stages, and they still get hungry. Sometimes they take a banana or a piece of pie (when I've baked it) with them... But it's not fashionable, and I totally understand how they feel. School tuck shops have felt the effects of the crisis; I regard them as a worthy business, so if I can support them in some small way, I will.

But that's pretty much it. There are no other exceptions.

"Don't think you'll be changing Greece by what you're doing, Maria," my very Greek husband said to me. He forgets that when we married, I put all the house bills on automatic payment. I didn't do it to change Greece: I did it to change my life. I have practically forgotten what it means to queue. For the last 12 years, I've also been e-banking. Greece didn't change because of what I was doing: Greece changed because it was inevitable that she would. Nowadays, more and more people are doing what I was doing yonks ago. They are just catching up with me. I was simply ahead of my time. At this point, I would like to recount a number of experiences where our friends have asked us to buy them cheap airtickets, etc off the internet because they themselves don't have a card, but these are of course very personal experiences. Suffice it to say that I flatly refused to help my friends out with these requests: 'Sorry, I can't do that, you have to get your own plastic issued'. You can guess how badly I came out of these experiences. And of course, you can guess what my friends eventually did: they got some plastic issued in their name. All was forgotten; 'nuff said.

Most branded stores accept plastic, so I will always be able to shop for food, clothing and electronics. Supermarkets and branded shops accept plastic for anything over 5€. I don't often change my home/bath/kitchen accessories, but if I do need anything, I will find a place to do it with plastic, or buy off the internet. These days, I always ask a business if they accept plastic. So I will give myself the choice of doing business with them before they force their business on me. At the moment, I haven't found out which souvlaki store uses plastic, but I'm looking forward to the looks I will get when I ask at a souvlatzidiko if plastic is accepted. I never buy myself a souvlaki (I am too good a cook to eat food off the street), so we are talking about a sum of at least 10€ (which is a decent sum of money for plastic, isn't it?) when I buy it for the whole family. Ditto for coffee outlets, something I rarely drink on the road anyway (see the exceptions above). But I do actually buy good-quality coffee for my coffee machine at home with plastic - the store also sells spices, nuts and other goods, so I certainly am not limited to branded stores. I just need to ask if a store accepts plastic.

I don't smoke, therefore I rarely need to use a periptero (kiosk located on the street). I also don't buy print newspapers and magazines - everything I need is available on the web. I drive, therefore I don't use taxis, except if I have to (eg during public transport strikes). I guess I will have to forego my love for shopping at the laiki (street market), which I haven't done lately. I think it's the cash reason: I rarely have cash in my purse, so I am actually unable to shop there.  I won't even make exceptions for dining out: if I'm the one paying, it has to be by plastic. Otherwise, I'll have to entertain at home, which is not hard to do when you are good enough at cooking like myself. I can't keep making exceptions for everything.

Going cashless in a place like Hania will not be easy, but I am a very organised person, and I think I will not have any real problems going cashless. My husband is a taxi driver who is still mulling over the idea of accepting plastic in the cab (see above for commentary about tourist businesses). Since I am too principled, I won't be using him as a cash alternative. I liken my husband to the insurance agent: eventually, life will catch up with both of them. He's lucky he's got me for support. But my insurance agent will be losing a customer as of sometime close to the end of this year. I don't know what support she will have to make up for that loss. Maybe she'll start using plastic too.

Bonus photo: 

While in London, we ate out at a well known restaurant that does not accept credit cards, only cash. My husband and Greek friend were very intrigued to hear this, as they feel that big brother is always watching you in London and they couldn't understand how it was possible to make a blatant 'cash-only' statement like this in a highly regulated place like London. When it was time to ask for the bill, we were all quite shocked that it came informally - it was simply the order which we had placed, it was written in Chinese, there was no English on the paper, and the only symbols we understood on that paper were the numbers, which referred to the money we owed. My husband then wondered what would happen if we asked for a properly issued receipt. So I decided to run that experiment too. The informal receipt was taken from us and we were given a paper with a rubber ink stamp on it, and a tax number for the business. I'm Greek enough not to be fooled by such practices: I simply do not accept that all this restaurant's income is declared. Tax evasion is NOT just a Greek problem; it's rife everywhere. Cash is part of the problem.

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Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Foreign students in Hania: Lasting impressions

This article forms one of a two-part post that will be translated into Greek for dissemination among the Greek media.I've posted it today just before Greek Easter when Hania will be inundated by a lot of visitors, and the summer season is about to start. The article will be edited at a later date, to include photos and more students' comments. 

Hania is a beautiful Mediterranean town with a long history which comes alive through its multicultural monuments. It is easy to be astounded by its beauty even if you are a long-time resident, as you relive the history of each part of the town through each different moment that you pass through it. The town is small enough so as not to tire you getting from its one end to the other. Its compact size enables you to bump into someone you know as you walk around it, so you never feel alone; at the same time, the old town’s hidden alleys enable you to remain anonymous if you so wish. When counted together with its extensive countryside and its magical coastline, Hania also feels quite big in that you have ample choices about where and how to spend your time, and more importantly, to have a good time, no matter what your age or tastes. Hania’s very short-term residents - the tourists - leave their reviews about the town on social networks, and they would probably agree with many of the above points, given that Hania is now regarded as a 'destination' in holiday packages, and it does well in the top choices for European summer holidays.

But Hania also has a sizeable number of medium-term residents, people who come here for work and studies, such as the students of the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Chania (MAICh), one of four research and post-graduate study centres that form part of CIHEAM, an intergovernmental organization made up of 13 Mediterranean member countries. These students come from North Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus and Eastern Europe, with a small contingent coming from the rest of the world, including Greece. During their one to three years of post-graduate studies at MAICh, they work towards a Master of Science degree in topics of urgent global interest such as: climate change and land cover mapping, food fraud detection, olive genomics, conservation of rare endemic flora, business management in the rural economic sector, and management of biotic and abiotic resources with minimum environmental impact. At the end of their studies at MAICh, these students go on to PhD studies at renowned universities all over the world, and they also take up high level positions in academia, government and private business. So they become ambassadors for Greece in effect, since their study time in Hania has played a significant role in their career path.

MAICh recently asked the students about their impressions of Hania as a place to live and work. Their insights are generally very positive. As a study location, MAICh students are in general agreement that Hania has one of the best combinations that make it conducive to higher studies: a good climate, a peaceful atmosphere, a vibrant nightlife and more importantly, a very human dimension. Here is what they have to say about Hania as a study choice.

Chaima (Tunisia) thinks that Hania exudes a warmth that cannot be expressed in words: "Chania is a perfect location for studies. First of all, the calmness and beauty of Chania are the best combination for enjoying life and building up knowledge towards a career. Since it is a very touristic place, you have the chance to meet new people every day, to see how others are, to learn about them and about yourself. When I finally leave Chania, I will have to leave a piece of me here. This warmth is very special and can't be described: it can only be felt." 

Abdelmalek (Tunisia) says that Hania has given him the chance to be more innovative: "Chania is a small and quiet town, making it very favourable for studies. The institute is located close to the countryside with a calm and healthy environment that provides the inspiration for creative thinking. Of course many students want an urban life style and night life during weekends, which is also available in the touristic part of the town. So, this diversity gives students choices in how they can spend their time." 

Haifa (Tunisia) has noticed the open-minded nature of the locals towards foreigners: "Hania feels like a multicultural community where people accept you as a foreign student and are curious to learn from you. They ask you questions about your country and why you are here. You never feel rejected or disrespected because you are different. Hania is a great location for studies, with its calm and friendly environment. People are also very helpful. You can even study outdoors due to the good weather. The landscape is beautiful and encouraging, so you really feel relaxed and not stressed at all. Hania responds to your needs if you like calm places. When you aren’t busy studying, Hania is great for walks and there are endless places for coffee with friends. But if you want to go partying or have a drink, you can also enjoy yourself with your friends at the old harbor." 

Walid (Algeria) is happy to be studying in what he regards as a very safe environment: "The climate is amazing and I love that the houses have a 'human' size surrounded by many plants and flowers. I often see doors left open, so it feels very safe! You can see families having a peaceful meal together. People's faces do not differ from those of my country. It is such a beautiful town, and I feel it isn't very different from my own home town. The old harbor is one of the most amazing places ever. It has a lot of similarities with the Casbah of Algiers: narrow roads, lots of flowers, lots of cats, an amazing mix of architectural styles and above all, an intense human warmth. Arriving in Chania, I recall my first human contact, with the taxi driver. I was surprised to find that he physically looked like me, and we had almost the same body language, mind and reasoning. I immediately understood that I was not far from home. Crete feels like heaven. The beaches can drive you crazy. You have just to swim at sunrise at the beach in Souda, or take a coffee at sunset at the old harbor, or just spend the afternoon at Agious Apostolous beach, and then you will understand why God never talked about work in heaven! It is so hard to work when you live in such a heavenly island.”

Anas (Palestine) has enjoyed exploring Hania’s landscape: "I think Chania is a very good place to study and live. The weather is really good and personally I love the fresh air that I breathe everywhere in Chania. I like climbing so I especially like the mountain areas of Chania. The people are charming and very easy to get on with. You can speak with anyone at any time and they respond with a smile. I think I will miss being here very much when my studies finish." 

Ahmed (Morocco) is glad to have had the chance to study away from the ‘rat race’: "Chania is one step in my life that has shaped my future, far from banking empires and industrialization - the Cretans prefer cash! I enjoy being in a piece of heaven on earth. I find the people here close to my culture: warm, disordered, and never on time!" Ahmed (Morrocco)

Bobi ((fYR) Macedonia) had been visiting Greece for a long time before he started studying in Hania, but he believes that Hania stands out among the other places he has visited: "I've been coming to Greece for as long as I can remember, almost every summer for just a few days, because my country neigbours Greece. So I have a wide experience of Greece, but Crete and Chania in particular are something special. The people here seem more open-minded; it is the first place in Greece where I have seen a mosque and a church side by side. Most people are warm, friendly and helpful in every way and they smile a lot. It is worth mentioning that they don't change their attitude when I say which country I come from. Chania is for sure the best city for studies. It is simply amazing. I love how most of the old structures are still looking like the time they were built.  You feel like you are in Greece, Italy and the Middle East all at the same time. You can feel the impact of every nation that has set foot on this island.  It's a great place at the weekend to relax and recharge your batteries after a week of work and study. I feel completely relaxed after a trip into the town of Chania; even if I felt under any stress, it just disappears instantly when I am in the town." 

Ada (Albania) was mesmerised by the ease with which student life melded into tourism: "Hania is one of the best locations for studies. It gives you the opportunity to enjoy yourself even if you have a lot of studies - you can be a tourist and a student at the same time. The climate, the nature, and the people helped me cross every barrier that I encountered throughout my studies."

Rhona (United Kingdom) found Hania to be an inspiration: "I think Chania is an excellent study location. It inspires me for so many reasons: the friendly, kind and helpful people I met, who never laughed at me trying to speak Greek and seemed so genuinely pleased that a foreigner had bothered to learn some; the stunning beauty of the town and its surroundings; the nature, plants, flowers and trees that were everywhere and their scents; the traditional foods, horta and herbs; the long and interesting history and its visible signs from Minoan times to the present all around; the sea and the beaches; the mountain views; the sunny blue skies, the sunsets, the night skies so full of stars; the sounds of nature, goats, sheep and chickens in people’s gardens, and the traditional Cretan music, which inspired me so much that I bought a Cretan lyra a few years after being in MAIX, even though I’m not a musician, so I’m trying to learn that, but it’s extremely hard, especially in England without a teacher. I learnt a lot about Crete during my stay in Chania as a student. It’s a different world there!"

Gohar (Armenia) noticed how genuinely communicative people are here: "Chania is one of the cities where the local community makes you feel so at home from the first day. I was amazed to see a grandma and grandpa going for a morning coffee in a local cafe - we don't see much of that in Armenia. The same with the young generation: when they are out for a coffee or drink, they are chatting and not using smartphones all the time. They are enjoying a conversation with their friends. Chania is a very social community that prefers face to face communication, while other developed cities have now embraced online communication. Since the city has a long history with a diversity of cultures, there is that feeling of a multinational community. Being an international student here, I have never felt discriminated against or treated badly. I can say that I felt safer here than in my home city." 

L'didja (Algeria) is impressed by the pureness of the air, and the uncontaminated nature: "I remember my first trip into the town. The first thing I noticed was how clean the city is: the air seemed so pure and you could smell the sea as you approached the Venetian port. Once you enter the area of the harbour, a spectacular view is offered to you. For me, seeing it in real life was better than any image I had seen on the web. It was something that can’t be translated into a simple picture. What I like most in Chania is the peaceful feeling that it impresses on you. I feel safe and quite far from the stress that you face in a city. I like the beauty and authenticity that I can discover at the corner of each street, its multicultural character which is not only present in the architecture but also in the Cretans themselves, their cuisine, and traditions. I think this is the main reason that makes the Cretans particularly prone to be open to different cultures." 

Zahreddine (Algeria) immediately understood the nature of the Mediterranean when he realized that his North African homeland did not differ so much from Hania: “When I first arrived in Chania, I noticed that nature, the climate and many other features of the town were extremely similar to the ones in which I had lived my whole life. I realized that I had just come to the perfect place for a successful study journey. Chania is a small touristic city with amazing places to visit. When we feel the pressure from our studies, we can come into Chania to wind down and recharge our batteries. As a matter of fact, I consider myself lucky to pursue my Master's in the island of Crete, and Chania precisely, a place that people dream of visiting to see its spectacular beaches, historic sites, and the genuine hospitality that it offers. The old town is just amazing and it reminds me of the Casbah in my country with its calm neighborhoods and yards full of rose bushes. Is there anyone that doesn't like the old harbour? It is a place where one can meet people from all around the world and indulge in real Mediterranean cuisine, especially the seafood which I personally like very much. You hardly ever feel stressed in Hania’s calm atmosphere. The people are so friendly, and there is very little of the hustle and bustle that is often associated with European cities. There are no big buildings or busy metro stations to make you feel sick. For me, one of the best features of Chania is to go to an elevated place with a view of the blue sea, the beautiful Mediterranean town
and the high mountains covered with snow, such a rare mixture that exists in only very few places in the world."

Liliya (Russia) highlights the importance of the climate in pursuit of personal happiness: "I never lived in such a beautiful town where summer lasts a whole year! It seems impossible for my Moscow friends to believe that in November I can pick mandarins, lemons and oranges directly from the tree, and I swim in the sea while they are already wearing jackets in cloudy, rainy, cold weather with temperatures next to zero! For me it is so important for there to be many warm clear days even in autumn and winter. You don't feel depressed when you look out the window because every day you see blue sky and sunshine! In my first year in Chania I have had more sunny days than I actually had in the whole of the four years I spent in Moscow!" 

Omar (Syria) is no longer at MAICh, but he remembers how good the food was here: "I now live in Sweden, but sometimes I really miss that Mediterranean flair when I see the traditional places they have here. I miss the vegetarian food which was harvested from the same area where we were living. Chania, for me will be always the place which welcomed me to Europe in Mediterranean hands."

Valentina (Italy) really felt at home while she was in living in the MAICh dormitories: "Living in Chania was a bit like being at home. The local customs were close to my own reality as well as the hospitality of the Cretans that made me feel very welcome. Day after day, I would make small discoveries while walking through the small streets of the town Chania is not just a tourist place, but also an ideal place for students. The city can be appreciated all year round."

The foreign students of Hania who find themselves living and working on an extended visit in this enchanting Mediterranean island are a source of pride for the town. They remind us of not just how lucky, but how privileged we are to live in a part of the world that does not exert on us the pressures of modern-day life. The old harbor offers a refuge away from the stresses of the daily routine. The strategic location of the island does not compromise its safety. The climate and history of the town make it a magnet for foreign visitors. The open-mindedness of the community endears the visitors to the locals. The remarks of the students of MAICh are particularly revealing as to what should be preserved and maintained in Hania to ensure its sustainable survival in a highly connected world. Perhaps the time has come when Hania should capitalize on its success in this respect, in such a way that its true assets are disseminated to a wider audience. 

Click here for Part 2 of this article:, dealing with students' perceptions of how Hania can be improved, what Hania taught them about Greece, and how they view Europe in relation to their time spent in Hania. 

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Thursday, 14 April 2016

The state of Greece this minute

In the real world all over, we all live and deal with problems that arise on a daily basis, but we also find workable solutions to them so that we can carry on with our lives. In Greece, the opposite seems to be true. It's a very sorry state of affairs in Greece these days, with multiple crises playing out simultaneously and relentlessly. Barely do we hear of the exacerbation of one disaster than another one strikes, so that no single crisis can be mitigated to relieve the losses before the onset of the next one.

The economic crisis of the last six seven years can be summarised in one event: the closing down yesterday of ΗΛΕΚΤΡΙΚΗ ΑΘΗΝΩΝ, a 66-year-old Greek business dealing in the sale of electronic home goods, locking up 45 branches and putting 450 people out of a job. The company's announcement of the closure stated the following:
"Despite the company's continuous efforts, the state of the economy, the further weakening of the purchasing power of consumers, the capital controls, which among other things strengthened foreign suppliers' suspicions against Greek companies, coupled with the attitude of the lending banks, have made it impossible to continue the operation of the company. The business plan, which was co-decided by the banks, suppliers and shareholders in April 2015, had created reasonable prospects for the recovery of the company. The events, from June 2015 onwards, undermined and then canceled everything. The result was a tight liquidity problem, lost market share and an increase in losses. Thus, ILEKTRONIKI ATHINON, having exhausted all possible options, was led to today's painful decision...  The current development is destroying the largest Greek player in the industry, the only one that directly competed with multinationals, which are the only ones coming out favorably from this situation."
The company did not even owe their employees any wages: it simply could no longer cope with the highly competitive (and trusted) multinationals, given the uncertainty and instability of the Greek political, social and economic situation. This is basically the reason why many Greek businesses have closed down or moved their business headquarters abroad.

To make matters worse, the government announced a rise in VAT to 24% (up by 1% from its present 23%):
"A «tombstone» has been laid on any hope for tax relief by the proposal to increase the higher VAT rate by one point, from 23% to 24%, a tax levied without exception on all households."
"If the numbers don't add up, it may be the case that the lower rate of 13% will also be raised to 14%, taking with it the lowest rate of 6.5% up to 7%."
The present high VAT tax rate includes all processed food, even basic items such as sugar, flour, tea and coffee. It also includes things like a can of tuna, margarine, chewing gum, salami, tomato sauce, 'toast' bread (the stuff used to make toasted sandwiches, but never eaten with a main meals), honey, juice and chocolate and beer - in other words, items that make life more pleasant. Services that will also be affected in the same way are taxis, florists, restaurants, the building sector and transportation. In short, it will kill any hope of trade recovery, and even people like myself will have to reconsider shopping at places that will offer me a discount if I don't ask for a receipt. How much more can we really cope with?

The migration crisis seems to have abated in terms of new arrivals - the media reports that fewer are coming. But what can we do with those desperate - and very demanding - wretches that are already here, have set up camp in public spaces, and refuse to budge from the squalid conditions that they have established for themselves? The police have *kindly* asked them to go to an established migrant reception centre - but they don't want to go! The police have informed them that it's better to go there because there are bathroom and kitchen facilities - but they don't believe the police! And so far, above all, the police have not used any force on the migrants - instead, the police are beating up Greeks who stop the police force from executing their normal course of duty! The migrants do not realise that they are being pig-headed by refusing to be taken to care facilities. They think it's their right to block Greek roads, block the railway tracks, trespass on private land, eat/shit/sleep at the ferry ports, break down barricades put up by less-welcoming governments, and refuse to obey the authorities. They are exacerbating the problems they face and have turned ordinary Greek citizens against them.

One step in the right direction in the migration crisis was today's arrests of people who describe themselves as 'activists' and members of 'NGOs'. Good riddance to bad rubbish, as far as I'm concerned:
"As tensions flared anew at Greece’s border with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia on Wednesday, police detained five foreign nationals – a German, a Briton and three Norwegians – who are alleged to have committed a string of offenses while acting in purported solidarity with refugees who want to cross the border. The German woman was arrested near the Idomeni refugee camp after officers found a can of pepper spray in her possession. The other four activists were said to be carrying transistor radios that were allegedly tuned into the frequency used by the Greek Police (ELAS)."
These NGO activists have infiltrated the pop-up camps of the migrants under the pretense that they want to help them. But what they are really doing is spreading rumours that the border will open soon, and telling people to stay put, or - worse still - to gather together and break down the barbed wire fences. These fake activists are the ones that have caused the greatest damage to the work of the police in trying to move the migrants in the most humane way out of public spaces; these self-labelled NGOs deliberately disseminate misinformation among a dangerously determined mob who are still mired in conspiracy theories. This situation has culminated in a degrading image of Greece, as disheveled people with aimless angry looks on their faces squat wherever they find. 

It's hard to tell if the migration crisis has had any effect on tourist bookings for the summer. I can tell you the Crete welcomed A LOT OF people over the calendar Easter holidays, with Northern Europeans flocking here. I don't think we've seen so many tourists before so early in the season, ie late March-early April. I mention the tourism sector, because this is what creates the greatest impact on the revenues of the country. Without it, Greece is pretty much stuffed, as tourism cuts across all sectors. I have read sources which say that the tourism sector *only* accounts for something like 15-18% of Greece's revenues, but these sources are completely fooled: a mainland non-tourist village service station's income for instance will not be included in the tourism sector's revenues, because it's not a tourist-related business. But by renting a car through a car hire firm, a tourist who decides to do a road trip through, say, Arta to Karpenisi, and detours to see, say, the wildlife refuge of Viniani which is close to the desolately empty Lake of Kremaston, when suddenly he realises he is running low on petrol, and then searches for a service station in the closest village of, say, Viniani and finds it closed, so he goes to Marathi and finds it open, by buying for his tourist rental car petrol in some off-the-beaten-track place, he has boosted energy revenues indirectly via the tourist sector. So I refute the idea that tourism accounts for a low percentage of the GDP - absolute rubbish. Thus, we need to maintain a positive image of Greece, so the migration crisis needs to be addressed promptly.I t could be other factors (eg the Brussels terrorist attacks) that have slowed down tourist bookings in Greece (see, but Spain has seen a rise so there is no reason for Greece not to see a rise too, as it is considered a safe and cheap destination. The migration crisis is not helping. 

There has always been an education crisis in this country, but I have softened my stance since my kids started high school. They attend a village school with very caring teachers, and they love it (their village primary school experiences were not at all so loving). But this time, the rotten core is starting to show in the PRIVATE (not the state) sector. The Association of Private School Owners/Operators recently made this announcement: 
"... the Association of Teachers often operate under heavy pressure from several owners falsifying school procedures, counterfeiting scores and timetables etc. It is known to us that most private schools have been established via an unprecedented system of non-freedom, arbitrariness and lawlessness. This situation primarily harms the public interest, as some private schools issue doubtful titles in legal terms, creating inequality among students of these schools, and the private schools which are operating legally, and the public schools."
I've always suspected that the private schools in my area run simply to keep the rich/privileged together and to hand out grades under the table, and now this seems to be proven. The reason why they have made this announcement is because, from now on, private school teachers will not be able to set their final exams in the final year of senior high school - a registered state school teacher will do this, who will also mark the students' papers (see

*** *** ***

Many people blame the current government for all the ills of society and the chaotic state of the country. OK, let's admit it. SYRIZA has made a lot of mistakes, and they keep making more mistakes. Is that a reason to call an election? It depends on the level of hatred that you feel for the government. If you hate SYRIZA, you will call for new elections. If you acknowledge that Greece's problems are the result of decades of social, political and economic mismanagement, you will realise that no matter who is in charge, even if you do prefer the privately educated ranks of the opposition, nothing will sort itself out quickly. This IDENTITY CRISIS will be with us forever, as long as there's still a debt to pay, and no new ways to repay it. 

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