Taxi service

Taxi service
Dimitris' taxi is available for all your holiday needs. If you're coming to Hania and you need a taxi, we would like to drive you around. More info: drop me a line at: mverivaki hotmail com

Thursday, 16 August 2018

Off-season tourism

"Tourism is like a kitchen: you can cook in it, but it can also burn your house down."

A Dutch friend recently said this to me. His wife is from Bali, Indonesia, and they have both seen what happened to the area after it was bombarded for the last two decades with a lot of tourism. We are now seeing the effects of overtourism in Greece too, and they make for grim reading: environmental pollution, overuse of resources, together with overcrowding, are endangering both nature and people. Lo-cost airlines and accommodation services like airbnb are making it very easy for people to decide to travel, but this has had the nasty side-effect of locals being unable to find reasonable accommodation at a price they can afford: it's all too tempting for landlords to keep homes empty while they wait for tourists' big bucks. Overtourism is now a very hot topic, being discussed alongside climate change and the greenhouse effect. It is literally a problem in all the world's hotspots. So what's the alternative? Is all-year-round tourism a better option? Will that make some places crowded all year round? Or will it relieve the summer burden for those who wish to take a quieter holiday in a popular place? One can only try things out to see what will happen.


Santorini at the edge: overtourism on the island

While in London three years ago, we found ourselves at a loose end on New Year's Day, so our hosts offered to take us on a trip to the English countryside. "It'll be muddy, slushy and damp," we were warned. We had to decline, as none of us had appropriate footwear. As they set off to enjoy the damp, I had to quickly come up with another idea for ourselves to spend the holiday in an entertaining way. I suggested we go to Brighton. "Brighton in the winter?" my host said, laughing. "What do you want to do by the English coast  in the freezing cold?" Nothing in particular, I thought. I just wanted to see B town (as the locals call it).

Brighton shares a few similarities with Hania. It's a coastal summer resort town, as well as a university town, which means that it has a large moving/changing population all year round. Brighton is popular for its 'Lanes', which I later realised bore great similarity to our old Venetian walled town, where the buildings are situated on narrow roads that are now used as tourist businesses (shops, cafes and restaurants). I found it to be a compact, trendy, self-confident and perhaps rather smug town, just like Hania, with good entertainment amenities. Both towns offer permanent attractions that are open year-round (eg museums, souvenir shops, etc); it's only really the marine-related activities that aren't available in the winter (eg water sports facilities). And both towns suffer from the rose-tinted views of outsiders who wish to move there: they have a fantasy view of a well-liked town. But is it like that all the time?

But the two towns differ in some major ways. Brighton is a large town, mainly urban in nature, while Hania is much smaller with a small urban part compared to its rural 'sprawl'; this influences the infrastructure and entertainment facilities in each town. Brighton is also located close to the UK capital whereas Hania is an overnight ferry boat trip (subject to weather conditions in winter), or a one-hour (expensive) flight from Athens. The two biggest issues involved in island winter tourism are flight availability and weather conditions. Once the summer charter flight season stops, getting to Crete involves a bit of a trek. This can double the time it takes to get to the island, as foreign tourists would have to fly in via Athens. Hania doesn't suffer from a lack of domestic tourists, but these people are also more likely to come and visit relatives on the island, so they aren't really tourists per se. The main visitors to Hania in the off-season are school students on educational tours.

A pilot plan is supposedly starting in Greece this year that will extend the tourist season in Crete and Rhodes. Crete is located in the southernmost region of Greece so the weather is usually warmer than the rest of the country, but it's rather variable between October and March. At the end of the tourist season, the Cretan summer resort areas simply close down and don't re-open until March the following year. But the main town centre operates all year round; some shops have begun to diversify, adding non-tourist items to their stock, while other stores specifically open for domestic tourists (mainly school groups) and when a military ship is docked in the commercial port of nearby Souda Bay (an American military base is located in Hania).

The long train ride from London gave us a glimpse into the English countryside: squared green fields, more linear green fields, some forested areas, and a few dog walkers. There were very few people and houses on this route, with the overbearing wintry silence interrupted briefly by the industrial lights of Gatwick airport. Brighton was very cold on the day of our visit. Leaving the busy train station, we walked along a rather nondescript commercial road from the train station leading towards the touristy part of the town. Not all the businesses on this road were open, although I was surprised to see a supermarket operating.(I mean, it was New Year's Day, who needs to go food shopping then? And it's also very unfair on the staff - weren't they celebrating the night before?) Sunday/holiday trading is still being bitterly contested in Greece, but people in large cities, particularly Athens, generally like the idea of having open stores on Sundays because it's a reason to go into town. (In Hania, store owners hate Sunday trading, and most keep their shops shut.)

The cold English weather didn't stop people leaving the warmth of their homes to get blown about by the wind. The Brighton coastline was relatively busy: people were walking dogs, pushing prams with young children, or just strolling about, all well wrapped up against the cold air which tore right through us. The countryside is a place to be indoors in bad weather, but urban areas always have indoor activities taking place for all ages.

The main attraction for first-time visitors to Brighton is the pier which houses a permanent funfair on the site. It was quite full of family-oriented people on New Year's Day. I managed to get as far as the entrance to the pier but I couldn't get myself past the gambling machines (the rest of the family went about halfway through). One-armed bandits and other 'lucky' games under the general umbrella term of gambling are strictly regulated in Greece, and there is no such open space where this kind of entertainment can take place here. (This indulgence in lucky games is usually confined to adults, so for people like myself who don't see their entertainment value, it was rather off-putting to see young children using the slot machines.)

We had decided to have a good English meal of fish and chips while we were in Brighton. But how do you choose the 'best' place to have a meal in an unfamiliar area? There was a fish and chip shop located below the road, facing the beach, and it smelt 'clean'; in other words, the smell of the fried oil didn't have that over-used rancid smell (I know the difference well, given my experience with extra-virgin olive oil). We made a note of the place to take our lunch there once we had visited the area. We wanted to continue our stroll along the beach. It was almost two o'clock by the time we finished our stroll, and the weather had made us very hungry. Having lived for so long in Greece, I had almost forgotten what British lunch time means: it starts at about midday and is over by half past one. Two o'clock is pushing it. What ensued was an eye opener for all of us.

On entering the restaurant, I felt as though I had journeyed trough a time warp. Despite having visited London so many times, we'd never come across such a quaint, or should I say antiquated 70s style eaterie. There was nothing chic or sleek in this place. It did not remind me of the logo-ed, branded, plush looks and modern lines - and high prices, ultimately - of London's eateries. This place was still using vinyl tablecloth covers; what a breath of alternative air in contrast to London! I knew we would find good food in a place that looks like this: the best Greek tavernas are the ones that look like a mother/grandmother runs them - old, tired, well-used, rarely renovated. They are most likely to serve home-cooked food, all prepared the day it was served, and there won't be many items on the menu, as we confirmed about this place, when the somewhat tired-looking menu books were 'thrown' at us. The menu could be said to be thrifty - half a dozen mains, some drinks and a few snacks. In other words, a high turnover of the same items, making it more likely that everything would be relatively fresh. My eyes ran down the price list - this place was cheap, and the aromas of the food were tempting.

The people working in the shop were real characters, nothing like the faceless feckless long-aproned low-paid lads and lasses in the plush cafes. A somewhat old-looking man who smiled a lot was moving about slowly as he got through his chores in the restaurant which felt more like a sit-down snack shop. He reminded me of my father who walked and worked in the same way, in our fish and chip shop in NZ. At one point, he went outdoors and sat on a chair by an outside table, and lit up a cigarette. This was my family's first introduction to the concept of respecting the contentious global smoking ban at indoor places. Young Greek workers would do the same thing as this old man, but I doubt that older Greek men would.

The other two workers were a middle-aged man who was standing over the deep frying vats, cooking fish fillets and chips, and a middle-aged woman with striking straight long blonde hair. When she came to take our orders, I told her we weren't ready yet, which was a bit embarrassing since there were very few items listed on it! I was still in the process of explaining it to my family. I noticed her agitation, and told my clan to make up their minds quickly. During this time, more customers were entering the shop... but they were all being turned away, which explains the shop assistant's agitation - it turned out that we were the very last customers. I'm so glad we weren't turned away too! This was another surprise for my husband, who can't imagine a Greek turning away any willing customer; when it's closing time in Britain, they mean it! (This has happened to us before in London - we still can't get used to being 'on time' to eat.)


But when the time came to take our orders, the waitress was ever so helpful, telling us about the size of the servings, the way the fish is caught, everything being freshly cooked, and so on. In fact, we had a really good discussion about the business of fish and chips, because I was actively involved in my parents' business. Working in a fish and chip shop is smelly greasy hot work. We compared notes while my very Greek family listened and tried to understand what we were talking about. It was so kind of her to take the time to talk to us about her line of work, especially given that it was really the end of the day for her, and she was probably looking forward to going home for a rest.

While our lunch was being cooked, we took in the atmosphere, including the banter taking place among the workers. They all took on various chores concerning the cleaning up before they shut the shop. We had a fantastic view of the sea: the waves were quite frothy, the wind was had picked up, and people were looking for refuge. After we finished our meal (and what a great meal that was), we visited the Lanes area: there was hardly anyone around at the time (late afternoon), which felt nice because we had the 'space' to browse and shop.

And that's the trouble with overtourism: too many people in one place = loss of time and space, not to mention the safety aspect of having too many people in one area: just how many more people are too many people? Maybe climate change will be the answer to this urgent problem: soon, it will be warm enough to go anywhere at any time, and there will no longer be 'summer' holidays - it will just be 'time for a break' (fully-airconditioned).

On a brighter note, we have to remember that, despite wars and natural disasters, there are some places on earth which have been inhabited without interruption over the last 6-7 millenia, one of those places being Hania. Instead of looking at the 'forecasts' of overpopulated places, maybe now is the right time to look back to the local knowledge people from older times used in order to allow them to continue to live in a place whose natural environment suffered some kind of degradation:
"IK [indigenous knowledge] is now being admitted as a form of rational and accepted knowledge developed through generations of intimate contact by native peoples with their lands, having equal status with scientific knowledge. While indigenous peoples have sometimes caused extinctions and degraded environments, they have often persisted for ages in their territories by using detailed adaptive knowledge." (another quote from my Dutch friends)
All is not lost: it just needs to be monitored properly.

Amusing stories about Brighton: 
http://www.publicgriefjunkie.com/blog/the-trouble-with-brighton-4401.html
http://sabotagetimes.com/life/why-i-hate-brighton/
http://sussex.tab.co.uk/2013/12/13/why-brighton-is-shit/
http://www.knowhere.co.uk/Brighton/East-Sussex/South-East-England/info/worstthings
Amusing stories about Hania (in Greek):
https://www.insomnia.gr/forums/topic/237732-%CF%80%CE%B1%CF%81%CE%B1%CF%84%CE%AC%CF%89-%CF%84%CE%B9%CF%82-%CF%83%CF%80%CE%BF%CF%85%CE%B4%CE%AD%CF%82-%CE%BB%CF%8C%CE%B3%CF%89-%CF%80%CF%8C%CE%BB%CE%B7%CF%82-%CF%87%CE%B1%CE%BD%CE%B9%CE%AC/
https://www.insomnia.gr/forums/topic/579557-%CF%87%CE%B1%CE%BD%CE%B9%CE%B1-%CF%86%CE%BF%CE%B9%CF%84%CE%B7%CF%84%CE%B7%CF%82-%CE%B1%CF%83%CF%87%CE%B7%CE%BC%CE%B1/
For amusing stories about Hania in English, just read my blog: I write plenty of 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. 

Saturday, 28 July 2018

An Athenian tragedy

The web abounds with bucket lists of to-do's in Athens: see the Acropolis, visit the museums, have a kebab at Monastiraki, coffe and cake at Little Kook, and don't forget to visit Anafiotika (which happens to be the first illegally built settlement that was legalized in Greece in the year 1855). But there is no bucket-list of not-to-do's, one of which might be to move there. Daily life in Athens is rarely about the Acropolis for most residents: when searching for sustainable city living, Athens will probably be at the bottom of most people's lists - factors such as the lack of green spaces, congested roads, badly insulated homes, inadequate commuter services and the psychological damage that strikes and protests do to the local residents turn people away from the city.
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Agriculturl land eventually turns into settlements and trees for shade...
Above: Aerial photos of Mati in 1945 and 2007. (photo from https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1673137949406830&set=a.475562845831019.1073741826.100001319224494&type=3&theater)
Below: Mati in June 2018 and after the fire.
But the city beckons and this is true for all of us. The pull-push factors involved in large city life all over the western world show how bipolar we all are when it comes to our feelings for city life. We may either love it or hate it - but we all need it at some point in our life. And some of us jsut cant do without it. On the one hand, you can find anything you want and not just need in a city; on the other however, large western cities can sometimes feel overwhelming: concrete jungles, urban sprawl, a polluted atmosphere all create a stifling environment. We all feel the need to get away from that whenever we can, no matter how much we love city life. 

From the great upheaval of WW2 in Greece, which left sustainable well functioning rural communities completely destroyed from the atrocities of the Nazis, came the need to leave the countryside and venture to the city to find one's luck. Domestic migration to Athens consisted of the farming class coming to the city to find better luck. Once you come to the city, you dont go back to the countryside, except perhaps to retire, when another member of the family needs the family home. In this way you have sealed your fate, and there's no turning back. 

But the rural instinct of the Greek always gnaws away at his/her conscience. A place to plant a garden, some trees for shade, the cool breeze of the sea - and all of this preferably close to the city. Very close. Find some land, grab it, build on it, plant trees around it, use a generator if you have to! dig up a well! and legalise it later (if ever)! Illegal construction has been a facet of Greek life for a century or so. And all within easy reach of the city: love it or leave it, we have to be near it. 
«Είμαστε καλά»
EIMASTE KALA - WE ARE OK
(from http://www.iefimerida.gr/news/434240/martyries-sto-iefimerida-den-mas-proeidopoiisan-astynomikoi-i-pyrosvestes-metaxy-mas) 
Formerly rural land gave way to forested settlements. They sprung out of the need for city people - whatever their class, income and occupation - to get away from the concrete jungle without being far away from it. In the words of a famous Greek composer, Yanis Markopoulos, "Greeks want a computer by their side for their daily needs, but at the same time, they want to plough their land". Indeed! We all want a place in the sun with trees for shade and a view of the beach. 

The weekend country house becomes the permanent dwelling in retirement. Eventually, the houses are passed on to their children/grandchildren. Such settlements are not built on the lines of a class society: there is a mix of wealthy and low-income earners. Whoever got there first secured their future - and in turn sealed their fate. What bound everyone was their close connection with with the city, the Big City. Musicians, film directors and actors neighboured civil servants, electricians and lawyers. Democratic equality on the face of it all... but dig deeper down and you will find the clearly more privileged set. The owners of the 'fillets' are more likely to be the leaders of these little communities. Nepotism secures similar positions for their family members too. Some of us are more equal than others.
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Due to the low visibility, the 26 people who died on this 'fillet' of land couldn't see the gate that led down the cliff to the beach. The land is owned by local politicians in the area. (photo from https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=2058344330843598&set=a.158834907461226.36984.100000041524137&type=3&theater) 
But the essence is the same: everyone wants a place to get away from the city, at the same time as being close to it. Weekends at the country house, a home to retire to, a place to drop off the children in the summer... As parents frantically searched for their children in the fire, most of them already knew where to look: the grandparents were found hugging their grandchildren, locked in embrace. It took three generations to for their choices to seal the family's fate.

Amid fear and suspicions,
with agitated mind and frightened eyes,
we melt and plan how to act
to avoid the certain
danger that so horribly threatens us.
And yet we err, this was not in our paths;
the messages were false
(or we did not hear, or fully understand them).
Another catastrophe, one we never imagined,
sudden, precipitous, falls upon us,
and unprepared -- there is no more time -- carries us off.

Lest we forget!
Never again!
Cry the beloved country!

We were lucky to survive a fire in our neighbourhood five years ago.
On pulling the plug on something unsustainable, you might like this book: Little Infamies by Panos Karnezis,

©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, 12 July 2018

QUIZ! So you want to live here...

First things first: Greece's tourist numbers here have crashed through the ceiling. People are dying to come here for a holiday. Among those, there is now a growing number who want to stay longer than their planned holiday. Greece is now looking like the last bastion of paradise on earth. Many people are now looking into retiring here - and they aren't even Greek. If you are one of those people, can you hack the pace?

The Venetian port in Chania, earlier this month

This all sounds quite paradoxical since we are still hearing/reading stories in the mainstream media that many Greeks are still trying to find a way to leave the country due to unemployment and lack of opportunities. Just last week, it was predicted by the Greek statistics office that Greece's population is projected to fall by 30% by 2080. Sounds about right - if one presumes that absolutely nothing will change. Yet, we should all know by now that nothing remains stable these days and everything does actually change so quickly. Add to this the extremely negative reporting on the part of the global mass media about the end of the Greek memoranda - few want to believe it (such misery poos that most people are these days), even though Alexis Tsipras wore a tie, as he promised he would when this happened, after his party grabbed power in January 2015.

The conclusion: Greece remains an enigma at best. Such an outcome will not be very helpful for those non-residents who are trying to find a way to make a decision on how and when - and if - they can live here on a more permanent basis.

I've devised a little FUN quiz to assist you in your decision-making. The quiz is intended to give you a Greek idea about wanting to spend a long period of time in a country you do not know very well but have obviously been attracted to. I stressed the word FUN: remember that I am not a life coach; I'm just having a bit of fun. Keep in mind that I am living live in  a place where many people dream of retiring.

The quiz is not intended for young people looking to take an extended holiday here, or wondering if they can start their career here. If you have money, you can take all the holidays you want; otherwise, Greek employment opportunities are all about low paid contract work or government positions which only Greeks can apply for, generally speaking, or you work for yourself and you take what you can get. Nor is this post intended for people who have are greek or have a Greek spouse, and/or have inherited property here. If you have money and family in Greece - an added bonus is to have Greek heritage - then everything is possible.

SO: Are you (really) one of those people who can hack the Greek pace of life? How (really) likely would you be able to live here long-term?

1. What are you most looking forward to when you retire? What do you think you will be doing in Greece most of all?
A. spending time with the family
B. experiencing the good life at retirement age
C. living a low-key lifestyle (cooking, gardening, hobbies, staycationing)
D. socialising, eating out, joining clubs, etc to keep active

2. Where do you want to live in Greece when you retire?
A. in a villa-style large purpose-built house with a pool and landscaped garden
B. in a comfortable apartment with all the basic amenities and a good sized balcony
C. in an old home in a mountain village (I will be renovating the house)
D. in rental accommodation - I don't want to buy property

3. How long do you want to be in Greece continuously throughout the year?
A. all year round - this will be my permanent home
B. most of the year - I will travel in and out of the country for various reasons (work, family, holiday, etc)
C. 6 months here and 6 months there (where I used to live)
D. less than 6 months here, and more time elsewhere

4. How well do you know the Greek language?
A. I'm Greek heritage and I speak it with family
B. I don't speak or read Greek at all
C. I can understand signs and some headlines, I can order food and do my shopping, but I can't read a formal document and I don't always catch what people are saying around me
D. I don't really understand spoken or written Greek but I studied Ancient Greek at school

5. What kind of people do you get along best with?
A. I get along with everyone
B. I'm a bit of a loner
C. I like to be around friends
D. I like to be close to family

6. How worried are you about getting ill while living in Greece?
A. I'm quite healthy so I don't think I'll need to use the local healthcare services.
B. I'm quite healthy but if I need medical care, I'll go back home for healthcare services.
C. I prefer private healthcare services.
D. I will use public healthcare services wherever I find myself.
E. other: ..................................................................................................................................

7. What is your preferred mode of transport?
A. I always use public bus services
B. I always own a car
C. I prefer to be driven
D. I like to walk

8. How important is weather to you?
A. Very important - I don't like the cold.
B. Not so important - I'm used to cold weather.
C. Insignificant - I'm not migrating for better weather conditions.
D. Extreme temperatures make me very uncomfortable

9. How much money do you believe you will be able to spend per YEAR and per PERSON while you are living in Greece?
A. €8,000-€10,000 at the most
B. no more than €15,000
C. at least €20,000
D. more than €20,000

10. Where do you want to be buried if you die?
A. Knock on wood!
B. I don't care - I'm dead.
C. I have taken care of that aspect.
D. I expect my family to take care of that.

How would you feel if:
11. you saw a limping cat on the road?
A. I would feel sorry for it but I wouldn't do anything else.
B. I would report it to the local authorities.
C. I would take it home and look after it and then I'd ask someone to foster it.
D. I would try to locate the closest SPCA.

12. a gypsy woman asked you to buy a rose while you are dining at a taverna?
A. I would check that my purse isn't missing.
B. I would ask her to leave.
C. I would buy the rose.
D. I would ignore her.

13. you see your neighbour hosing down her balcony if every day?
A. I would suppose this is a sign of cleanliness for him/her.
B. I would be shocked that s/he is wasting so much water.
C. I would worry that s/he thinks I'm not as clean as her/him.
D. I don't see what the problem is.

14. you suddenly feel you're having breathing difficulties/you broke your leg and you are alone?
A. I'd start screaming and call for help.
B. I'd wait until help arrived to explain that I need help.
C. I'd try to find my phone to call someone.
D. I'd be very worried.

15. you are at someone's house and they ask you to dine with them - and they present you with a dish of snails?
A. I'd try them.
B. I'd place the dish as far away form me as possible.
C. I'd tell them I don't eat snails.
D. I'd leave the plate in front of me but I won't eat them.

16. you are driving along in the countryside and you come across a pile of trash on the roadside?
A. I would suppose this is a local dumpster.
B. I would be shocked that rubbish is being left on public spaces..
C. I would go and check out what has been dumped: one person's rubbish is another's treasure.
D. I don't see what the problem is.

17. you bought an ice cream from the canteen at the beach and you can't find a recycling bin to throw the wrapper into it (there is only an 'all-purpose' trash bin)?
A. I'd chuck it in the all-purpose trash bin.
B. I'd be shocked that the council/business did not think of placing a recycling bin in the vicinity.
C. I would ask the canteen where the nearest recycling bin is.
D. I don't see what the problem is.

18. you saw a neighbour pulling up a flower bed that you had planted on the roadside just to brighten up the area?
A. I'd ask her why s/he did that.
B. I'd plant some more at a later time.
C. I'd be horrified that someone could be so callous.
D. I'd ignore him/her.

19. you've run out of gingernut biscuits?
A. I'd order some more off ebay.
B. I'd buy some cinnamon biscuits.
C. I'd ask other people where I could buy some.
D. I'd ask someone to bring me some when they next came to visit me from abroad.

20. it's a 40-degree-Celsius day and you've got friends visiting from abroad who had planned to walk from Souyia to Loutro that day because they are leaving Greece the next day (they live in Alaska)?
A. Wish them luck and wait for them to return.
B. Warn them about heatstroke/fatigue in overly hot temperatures, and let them decide what to do.
C. Tell them to come back next year to do the walk and suggest something else to do instead.
D. Tell them to stay at home in the aircon or go to a beach or visit a pool.

How important to life quality are these things to you?
31. noise levels?
A. Extremely important
B. Quite important
C. Not very important
D. Insignificant

32. a holiday once a year away from home?
A. Extremely important
B. Quite important
C. Not very important
D. Insignificant

33. seeing family regularly?
A. Extremely important
B. Quite important
C. Not very important
D. Insignificant

34. drinking alcohol?
A. Extremely important
B. Quite important
C. Not very important
D. Insignificant

35. fast removal of unwanted graffiti?
A. Extremely important
B. Quite important
C. Not very important
D. Insignificant

36. following health and safety regulations?
A. Extremely important
B. Quite important
C. Not very important
D. Insignificant

37. road safety?
A. Extremely important
B. Quite important
C. Not very important
D. Insignificant

38. paying taxes?
A. Extremely important
B. Quite important
C. Not very important
D. Insignificant

39. maintaining a flower garden?
A. Extremely important
B. Quite important
C. Not very important
D. Insignificant

40. swimming pools?
A. Extremely important
B. Quite important
C. Not very important
D. Insignificant

Finally, what would you do if:
41. a war involving Greece broke out?
A. get on  the next plane out of the country before the airports close.
B. stay where I am.

42. your partner died?
A. I'd feel very lost and lonely in a foreign country.
B. stay where I am

(Hope you had FUN doing the quiz; my analysis in my next post.)

©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.

Monday, 11 June 2018

The Greek tourist industry: some good, most bad, and plenty ugly

Here we go again: Greece is smashing its own records for summer tourism, as it has been doing for the last 4-5 years at least. Year after year, more and more tourists are coming to Greece. As we maneuver our way through our crowded streets and beaches, we wonder how sustainable the situation will be in the future if tourism continues to grow uncontrollably.

Where once apartments housed locals, they have now been turned into tourist accommodation; I saw someone closing off a balcony on a multi-story block just last week, presumably because that space is going to be turned into a room advertised through the likes of Airbnb. As I watch Santorini's cliffsides sprouting new concrete every year, I keep wondering what might happen if an earthquake struck them. (A new Atlantis, perhaps?)

Neighbourhood shops that once sold fruit and veg to the locals are now selling pareos, jandals (flip flops so those of you who don't know what jandals are) and bucket-and-spade sets to the itinerants wandering through what was once a clearly Greek neighbourhood. Thank goodness Hania is still a clearly summer resort town. By the end of September, the (overpriced) pareos will disappear, replaced by bags of wood for heating fuel (€5 will last you for a couple of nights if used sparingly); the (made in the PRC) jandals will go and poker sticks for the fireplace will appear (Jumbo sells them for €4); the (bucket-and-spade sets will be taken down to make way for (more) kids' €2 lucky bags. 

Which leads me to wonder: who can afford to holiday here? Do a quick web search to discover prices for European summer flights, accommodation services (hotels/airbnb) and domestic transportation (ferry services in particular). You can find prices to suit all pockets; but if your pocket is not full, you must fulfill three conditions in order to land a good price: (1) don't travel in the high season (late June/July/August/early September) because it's more expensive, (2) forget the Cycladic islands (Santorini, Mykonos, Naxos, Paros) because they are over-booked - unless you (3) book early (the previous year before you come) or land on a special. And if you look poor enough in Greece (at least 'on paper'), you may be eligible for state-subsidised tourist packages. Think of is as living in Tower Hamlets and getting free entry once a year to the Tower of London.)

Tourism, as the industry sells it to potential customers, is becoming more and more absurd. In a recent opinion piece (see http://www.lifo.gr/print/shortcut/195681/den-mas-afinei-ki-o-toyrismos-ston-pono-mas), Dimitris Politakis laments over the state of Greek tourism. Greece (especially the islands) has become a playground for the rich while for the average Greek, a Greek holiday is close to unaffordable, unless you have a country home or a relative to house you (etc). Otherwise the summer holiday of the average Greek is likely to comprise a whitewashed roof to avoid the heat, an airy balcony to enjoy the cool evening air once the sun goes down, or an aircon unit whirring away all day while we surf the web on our wifi looking at other people's photos of places we thought we would try to visit this year, but alas did not manage for some reason, usually connected with finances.

Politakis touches on a number of pressing issues concerning the state of tourism in Greece. The most significant one is that as Greeks, we no longer feel that we are on the receiving end of the industry: we are on the other side, as underpaid and overworked labourers catering for the whims and desires of people much wealthier and with more time to spare than ourselves:
"Can't tourism leave us alone in our misery?" he asks. "Sometimes the 'heavy industry' of the country is unbearable, especially when it seems to work against us. Are the islands really still ours? Let's suppose we still have them in our possession. What use are they to you if you cannot visit them when you want, when even the last white-washed roof is booked and/or overpriced?" 
"At least we still have our islands," we used to say as a bitterly optimistic conclusion in discussions among our own people when we talked about the doom-filled prospects of the modern Greek metropolitan life of our recent past which was being swamped and consumed by the European bureaucracy that stagnated it. But even those islands are up for sale, as Politakis points out, continuing his rant of uncomfortable truths about the way Greece - and Greeks - are regarded as a new kind of freak show, which the intrepid traveller is encouraged to rush out to, lest the spectacle dies away too quickly (or blows up): 
"... [We are constantly hear that] 'we' are breaking tourism records. From the sturdy flourishing herds that disembark from the cruise ships in Fira and Oia (for many years, if you spoke to a Santorinian about the crisis, they would laugh their heads off, but karma is a treacherous bitch), to the casual 'neopaganists' who roam Gavdos [the southernmost land mass in Europe off the southwest coast of Crete], the old-fashioned tourist 'cutouts' in Plaka ... forming the newly built and awkward-shaped shaped downtown...  [a] panspermia of tribes and ages among the foreign visitors... the bitter and exuberant hype of vulgar exotism that we have been force-fed for so many years, about the "New Berlin" or the "New York of the 1980s", ...the mausoleum-like (and grotesque) graffiti, whose chaotic routine makes you want to scream."
He finishes his rant with an excerpt from Don Delillo's The Names, which describes tourism as 'a parade of nonsense':
"... Being a tourist means escaping responsibility. Errors and faults do not stay attached to you like they do back home. You can wander among foreign continents and languages, suspending all your logical thinking. Tourism is the parade of nonsense. You are expected to be a fool. The entire mechanism of the host country aims for travellers to behave foolishly ... Nonsense is the pattern, the degree and the norm. You can exist at this level for weeks and months without rebuke or serious consequences. Like thousands of others, you are granted immunity and broad liberties. You are an army of idiots in brilliant polyester shades that ride camels and take pictures of each other, devoted, delirious, dysenteric. You have nothing to think of except the next misshapen event... ".
We have probably all fallen victim to this scenario at various points in our life while on holiday. We find ourselves somewhere and we want to experience as much as we can, because we're not likely to visit the same place again - there are so many places to visit! - so we rush from one place to the other, trying to fit it all in, before it's time to go, and all we remember after that is some negative encounter on the metro (you had all your cash stolen by a pickpocket from your backpack, which of course you were wearing on your back). That was the real experience after all, it wasn't natching the last cheap seat on the cheapest route, with a cheap room offer to match.

And it's now the turn of Greece to suffer the same fate as most other highly touristic venues, where hype works its magic by transforming them into a bucket-list destination rather than a place to live your dream. Tourism is no longer an experience that broadens the mind; you do it because it's a fashion, and this year, Greece is trending. As for the Greeks, they should know better than to complain, what with their never-ending crisis and impoverishment...

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Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Ελλαδισ-τοωn: Sρεακιng Grεεκ αbroαd ιn ρυblιc

One of my most awkward Greek-identity moments occurred in London, this past Christmas, while on a train with my family. We'd just arrived at Gatwick airport and were on our way into central London. We entered the train not-so-quietly, but as least 'Greekly' as possible: when we spoke Greek to each other, we spoke in low voices, so as not to make spectacles of ourselves, and we tried not to speak too much Greek. As the Greek saying goes: δεν είσαι στο χωριό σου.

At the same time, sitting next to us on the other side of the aisle were a bunch of young Greeks who babbled away in their mother tongue, without any inhibitions whatsoever. Most likely they were arriving back to their workplace after visiting family in the homeland for Christmas holidays, and since they all got off together at Purley Station, they probably all lived close by to each other, but not necessarily flatting together. What surprised me most was not so much that they were speaking within earshot of people around them who did not know them or understand their language, but that they were speaking loudly enough (and passionately, gesticulating where necessary) for us to hear them, even though they knew we were Greek, keeping very little of their conversation private. Even my family thought they were 'overdoing' it a bit. For all intents and purposes, they may as well have been in their own village.

Twelve years ago when we started travelling regularly to London, whenever we heard people speaking Greek in public places, we would often say hello to them, as an acknowledgement of our common identity ('hey there! you are not alone!'). We would often come across Greeks in London. I don't mean bumping into Greeks in specifically Greek London enclaves (a Greek restaurant or other kind of Greek business, a Greek Orthodox church). I mean in the tourist areas, clothes shops, markets, etc. They were doing pretty much what we were doing (they were also tourists). In the early days we would also make the fatal mistake to ask them which part of Greece they came from: many of the Greek speakers we bumped into were in fact Cypriot Greeks. But this did us a lot of good: as 'Greek' Greeks, we learnt early on in life that we were not 'unique' due to the language we speak.

But those times seem to be long gone. Hearing Greek being spoken in public in London has become quite common in recent times. And for the last 4-5 years, I notice an 'indifference' among Greek speakers who chance upon each other in and around London to connect with each other, in that spontaneous way we used to do when 'the gypsy found his people and his heart raced excitedly' (as the Greek saying goes: 'βρήκε ο γύφτος τη γενιά του κι αναγάλλιασε η καρδιά του'). More often than not, someone speaking in public in Greek will ignore another Greek speaking in public (unless the two sides are known to each other).

Most people may be wondering what concerns me here: strangers don't just strike up a conversation just because they speak a common language. They don't now, at any rate. But they used to; as Greeks, we all remember a time when they did. The lady walking up and down Ladywell Station talking in Greek on her cellphone didn't bat an eyelid as she passed us. Neither did the man standing right in front of us in the queue at the Natural History Museum, as he read aloud from his Greek museum guide. Nor did the Greek mom calling out to the Greek dad to help her put the toddler in the baby stroller. And nor am I alone in noticing how unlikely it is that London Greeks will acknowledge the other Greeks around them, as I recently discovered in a Greeks-abroad forum, where a member writes:
"... when I come across a group of people on the road speaking Greek among themselves, if I too am speaking Greek as I approach them, maybe talking in Greek on the phone or with friends, they go silent."
What has caused us to become so dismissive of each other?

I myself would have put it down quite simply to numbers: in the UK - and London in particular - where once we were few, we are now many. So one can reasonably assume that in a smaller place, where there are fewer Greeks, on hearing a stranger speaking Greek, their compatriot would quite possibly want to connect with them, even if they don't know them: it's nice to acknowledge a compatriot; it may help to combat loneliness; it makes you feel you aren't alone in an ever-increasingly lonely world; it's a human instinct to want to be close to your own people; and it may even be a way of making new friends in a new town. And even though it doesn't mean we will end up becoming friends, we just might end up doing this in fact.

All the above assumes that Greeks seek Greek companionship and they want to be with other Greeks in a foreign country. Given that the online forum where this discussion appeared is a very popular one for Greeks in the UK - bringing them together in a similar way to a kafeneio without the kafè - it certainly makes sense to say that Greeks like being around other Greeks. But that would assume that they will also want to speak with other Greeks when they hear Greek being spoken on the street, in a shop, in a queue. So why, then, are they ignoring each other?

Maybe it's because they don't feel so alone after all. Greeks are very cliquey, and they are bound to have already made some friends in their new homeland - and those friends are bound to be Greeks. Yes, Greeks do prefer each other's company for socialising (according to online surveys, discussion sites and by their own admittance). Moreover, a clique is private, and its members are usually part of an 'in' group, all known to each other, with common interests and purposes. Do you really want to invite a stranger to join you? Probably not - we choose who we speak to.

There's also that element of privacy associated with speaking a 'foriegn' language in multi-culti places with English as the official language. In a big city like London, where the official language is English and English is also the lingua franca, you generally tend to assume that people don't understand what you are saying when speaking in your own native language. And what you are saying in such moments is often private. So when you realise that someone is understanding what you are saying, an automatic reflex is to shut yourself up or to shut others out. At the same time, you don't feel it's your business to intrude in other people's conversations, even if you do speak their language. People don't feel there is any need to butt in and we should mind our own business: haven't we got better things to do? Time is precious (I've got a train to catch!) and we can't be wasting it on striking up conversations with strangers about nothing of interest, and listening to other people's nonsense. So you just pretend you're Chinese, and you don't understand them, even though you do actually, and the things they are saying make you want to laugh out loud, as loudly as you have never laughed in London before - but you stoically show no recognition, maintaining the emotionless stiff upper lip, as you continue to eavesdrop: so this is what it feels like to be English.

Maybe there is also a bit of logic to the dilemma of why we ignore each other. We are strangers to each other; speaking to strangers is 'weird'; we don't speak to everyone on the street in Athens, so we don't have to do it here; and anyway, would the English do it? (And whether the English live in London in the first place is a matter for a different discussion.) It feels silly, a little awkward, feeling that need to have to talk to someone just because you heard them speaking the language of your private thoughts. And anyway, it's the UK, remember? You're not in Greece! You're here for work, not to make friends with other Greeks, as if you're still hanging onto some kind of lost Atlantis. There are other ways to strike up a conversation with a Greek, aren't there? (You can find them on facebook.) This isn't KTEL after all, where for some unknown reason, you feel you should talk to the person sitting next to you on the bus, eventually concluding that you may even be related to them. Get real: it's 2018!

But there's also that niggling feeling that you're underestimating your race. It's one thing to strike up a conversation out of the blue, and quite another to give some help. If someone looks like they need some help, wouldn't it be only right to try to help them? Surely we would help someone in our own country, and this act wouldn't be linguistically based. Surely some people wish others would do this more often, for their own sanity. It's really quite nice every now and then to talk about insignificant things. There's nothing wrong with chit-chat. Shop workers just love it. Plus, it makes you smile more when speaking your mother tongue.

Maybe we just want to avoid being spoken to, because we want to protect ourselves from the ills of our own race. We can be snobs, we are jealous, two-timing gossipers, with a superiority complex, and we see each other competitively, dominated by 'simferon': whoever wants help will just take it and then disappear afterwards without acknowledging anyone. We know our own race! And our race is rude! It doesn’t take much effort to be polite, but we are more likely to speak to the English (speakers) than we are to speak to our own kind. We've lost our sense of community (unlike the early immigrant Greek communities in Australia and America, for example). But we have never actually been collectivists - Greeks are individualists by nature.

We may also suffer from some form of subconscious 'grecophobia': we don't always like ourselves. We find the 'foreign' more attractive. We are more likely to share personal details with strangers than Greeks. We don't always trust our own kind, and we fear opening a discussion out of the blue, in case we end up feeling we have to become friends with them. What if this stranger turns out to be an Ελληναράς? The Greek riff-raff has now entered London, whereas pre-crisis, it was only the 'good' ones! Maybe they aren't even Greek! Albanians speak Greek too - because many were born and raised here! And if they want to be Greeks - like the Bulgarians, perhaps?! - well, you're just egging them on! (But if the Albanians stop speaking Greek when they realise you're listening, you think they fear being discovered due to their accent.) Τι σκατοφάρα που γίναμε! There are times when we are just so ashamed being Greeks. Virgil knew something when he wrote: Aeneas Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.

"It is an extreme act of luck to be born Greek, and also to die as a Greek. 
The in-between stage, however, is a great misfortune." Arkas

Μας έφαγε η φιγούρα! We are no longer those Greeks that we once were! We have lost our filotimo! What has happened to us? Maybe, just maybe, we have become eugenised. As my US friend mentioned to me recently:
"There's a big gap between the old immigrants and the new immigrants. The old ones don’t want to feel obligated to take on the burden of the new immigrants. But the anonymity of life is such a huge factor in big cities. One feels closer to a clerk in the grocery store than to neighbors!"
UPDATE: Check out the comments for more good discussion.

(Thanks to the facebook group Greek Professionals in London, which inspired this post.) 

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