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Friday, 14 July 2017

Filotimo (Φιλότιμο)

The BBC recently put up a discussion about a Greek word that can't be translated: φιλότιμο (fiLOtimo). The reason for this probably lies in the fact that Greeks can't quite themselves decide what it means:
"It seems that not only does the word remain untranslatable, but even Greeks themselves have trouble agreeing on a single definition."
As a linguist, I would say that there is a translation into another language for every one-word concept into a given language. For this reason, for 'filotimo', I would translate it as 'being noble': "having or showing fine personal qualities or high moral principles", according to Oxford. To paraphrase: 'being horourable without asking for reward'. So you will do the right thing, and you hope someone will notice, even though you know that it is also probable that no one will notice. Below, I describe my own unique example of filotimo.

Today, I visited the tenant of my house who can't afford to pay the rent. Yani's been living in the house for a long time now - honestly, I forget how long it has been, but it's well over a decade (it must be almost close to two). For the last two years, I've let him live there for free because he has been unemployed. But in truth, nothing is free these days - everyone knows that, and so does Yani. So every year at Christmas, he calls me up and asks me how much I paid in property taxes. Yani is showing filotimo: if he didn't call me, but waited for me to ask for the money, he wouldn't be called filotimo - he would be called πονηρός (sly, cunning). The first year I asked him for €400; the next year I asked for €300 (the taxes decreased). Because I have filotimo, I didn't lie to him to pocket a higher amount; in turn, Yani's level of filotimo is so high that he would never ask to see the paper that the taxes are written on.

Yani's filotimo doesn't stop there. Every summer, Yani phones me up and asks me what paintwork and minor renovations I'd like done on our house, the one where we live. That's why my house always looks freshly painted. In fact, this is why I saw Yani today. He called me to come to our house and see what work needs to be done. Note that I didn't call him. I have too much filotimo to treat him like my unpaid slave. Last year, he fitted a brand new aluminium window in our bathroom (the old wooden one had rotted). All we paid for was the window: he knocked out the old one, plastered the brickwork, placed a new one in, and then plastered and painted the chipped walls.  That took three days of his time. Yani has too much filotimo to pretend to ignore me.

Our shared sense of filotimo doesn't stop there. While living in my property, Yani has been doing it up slowly to his liking. My property is the best looking in the street. He explained to me that when he's out of work (he is a painter), he likes to keep himself occupied so he doesn't have to think about his unemoloyed older son, his younger son who is doing his military service, and his beloved wife who is forced to live away from her husband, in a village where she found well paid work looking after an old woman (she too fell into the hands of a family with a high sense of filotimo).

Today, Yani called me to pick him up (he can't afford a car) to bring him to my house so he could see what needs fixing this year. This gave me a chance to see the transformations he had done on my own property.

The story I have told you could have a different version: I would ask Yani to pay rent  - or leave. I could then rent my house (beautifully done up by Yani) via airbnb and demand €1,000 a week from tourists, to live in an 'art deco bungalow' (read: old-fashioned lower middle class small house) in a 'genuine Greek neighbourhood with authentic local character' (where the pavements - save my own - are still awaiting the council to pave them) with 'fruit trees' in the garden (old mandarin trees whose productive season is over), and ten minutes walk to the town centre (that is really the only bit worth advertising).

I have too much filotimo to throw someone like Yani out of the house, just so I could live in the hope that my lil' ol' house would be the one that an airbnb client would rush to rent, as if €1000 a week is a bargain. That's practically what I get paid in a monthly salary, yet this is the kind of price some properties in the town are going for at the moment. Filotimo has been lost among most home owners in Hania. If filotimo had an opposite, ie someone "having or showing BAD personal qualities or LOW moral principles", I would say that the word for this concept must be σκατοψυχιά (skatopsiCHIA), which comes from σκατό (skaTO), which means 'shit', and ψυχή (psyCHE), which means soul.

I dont know where the story of Yani and I will stop. One day, I expect to be needing the property. Or I may end up needing to sell it. And of course, we both hope things will be good enough one day so that we will all have work and we will all be able to pay our bills fair and square. I think Yani sounded optmistic when I spoke to him today: "Things seem more stable, Maria," he said to me, adding that he felt more at peace with his choices.

It's my understanding that not many people could display this level of filotimo for various reasons, even if they had a house to spare. Perhaps they are afraid of being regarded as too easy a walkover of some kind, and regard the person doing the 'walkover' as a kind of scrounger. Yani tells me that he sometimes feels that he is looked down on. I think I know what he is feeling: that as a pauper of some sort, certain segments of society may be thinking that he doesn't deserve to live so well. As for Maria, she seems to be having all the luck. Σκατόψυχοι όλοι τους - they lack filotimo.

I shared this story because I believe people should know that there are many ways to deal with the modern world's major problem of inequal wealth. I also shared it so that the σκατόψυχοι who read the story can rot in their own misery and jealousy even more. There are too many heartless people in the world that are simply thinking about how to make more money from their money so they can leave lots more to the kids - so that their kids can continue to be wealthy like them, and they won;t have to work. They are simply trying to ignore the fact that their kids won't necessarily have the chance to work because jobs are fast running out. Eventually, this problem will catch up with all of us.

Don't for a moment think I'm trying to show piety of any sort. Sometimes, enough is enough. Through a formal court injunction, I evicted the previous tenants 15 years ago, precisely because they were σκατόψυχοι.

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Tuesday, 13 June 2017


"Walls are hot right now" 
Banksy, wall artist, and creator of the newly opened Walled Out Hotel in Palestine

The Byzantine and Venetian fortifications of Chania - Click to enlarge

The oldest walls delineating the limits of the town of Hania were built about 1500 years ago by the Romans who ruled in the East - those who conquered modern-day Istanbul (formerly Constantinople and originally Byzantium) at one point - otherwise known as the Byzantines, hence the 'Byzantine wall' (the green line in the above photo) as we refer to them in Hania. These walls were loosely based on the origins of the town which lie in the area of Kastelli, generally regarded as the oldest part of Hania. The Byzantine walls were built to protect the town from Arab invasions, but they were probably not very effective because the Arabs eventually invaded anyway, and despite their short rule, when the Byzantines took back the town, they needed to strengthen them due to the destruction that they had incurred.

The fear of losing what you gained - even if it was gained using illicit, violent means - was great in older times. Building a wall around your belongings has always been regarded as a way to keep yourself and your property safe. Even so, the newer Byzantine walls again failed to protect the town from invaders. The Venetians (Romans from the West) had conquered the city by the beginning of the 13th century. Their arrival also entailed a greater population. Builders began adding extra stories on the existing buildings, and new ones began to be built beyond the Byzantine walls. Since the town had expanded, new walls were in order. These newer walls - known as the 'Venetian wall' (orange line in the above photo) - began to be built soon after the Venetians established themselves in Hania, as they too feared attacks from other invaders (Arabs, Ottomans).

But the Venetian walls - built mainly by forced labour from the region - took a long time to be built. The Venetians weren't really very popular in Hania. For a start, they got rid of the high priests in the town, and installed their own ones. Different language, different customs, and a clearly urban attitude among the mainly rural people of Hania kept the two worlds apart, to the extent that the Venetians (read: Catholic) were living in the urban part of the province, while the Cretans (read: Orthodox) lived in the villages. The town of Hania was being constructed according to Venetian architectural standards - but beyond the urban area, the province remained decidedly Greek.

The arrival of the Venetians transformed Hania into a very beautiful one with distinct Venetians features. Hania was regarded as a mini-Venice. The Venetians built impressive walls around the modern town they created, with ramparts built at vantage points, enough room for a deep moat around the walls, and a large fortress on the west side. But these walls were not without their problems, which were known to the Venetians. They needed constant repair which was too costly to be done at regular intervals. It was to be expected that they too would eventually fail to secure the town against attacks. Barely had the fortress on the west side (known as 'Firka') been built than the Ottomans (read: Moslems) invaded and and conquered the island. The proposed moat had never actually been used, despite its existence. So the Venetian walls really did not live up to their expectations.

The Ottomans really didn't care much about the walls. They had already realised that the walls weren't very useful in performing their original function, so they basically went into decline after that. The Ottomans took over the Venetian buildings without changing them very much, and added a few landmarks of their own, like mosques and turreted towers on the churches and monasteries. Churches became mosques, storage areas, even soap factories. Such is the fate of the spoils of war. But the Ottomans were considered 'nicer' conquerors than the Venetians, because they reinstated Orthodoxy in the town, doing away with Catholicism. The Ottomans simply took over a pretty much ready-to-use town. When Greek independence became an issue of concern to the West, the Ottomans - who stayed in Crete longer than any other Greek territory of the time - must have realised that their time was almost up. Crete became a nation state in 1898, eventually joining modern Greece in 1913. It's been Greek ever since then.

When the Ottomans finally left Hania, and the Greeks took over, no more walls were built. The old walls were allowed to remain, but parts of them were knocked down in order to make way for roads. Ease of access was regarded as more important than preservation of the existing architecture. By then, Hania had become an important centre of trade as the capital of the Crete. Before town planning restrictions came into force in 1960, parts of the Venetian walls were knocked down to make way for roads, and people were living in houses built on, in and around both the Byzantine and the Venetian walls. The walls were therefore still serving a purpose, but it was quite different to their original use.

It's interesting to consider the failures of the fortifications of the town of Hania in the present time, when walls continue to be built (or are at least int he planning stages), and people continue to cross hypothetical walls - country borders - in order to reach their desired destination. The European Union is a prime example of having broken down barriers between countries by doing away with borders. But just 25 years after the fall of communism and the Schengen convention, borders are being reinstated in the EU, and in quite a few cases, physical walls are going up, such as the one between Hungary and Serbia, to stop immigration coming in mainly from Greece and Italy. Natural borders like the sea are no deterrent. A physical wall in such cases is impossible.

Beyond Europe, Donald Trump intends to build a wall to stop people entering the US from the Mexican side, while Theresa May wants the UK to leave the EU to curb migration. Yet Turkish authorities continue to turn a blind eye to people departing from its shores as they make their way to Greek territory, while Greek authorities continue to turn a blind eye to the disappearing migrants that were initially registered here. Whether a wall - physical or hypothetical - is able to prevent the movement of people is pure conjecture - history tells us that walls do not stop people's movements. The Cretan waters surrounding the island are a great deterrent to the movement of people as they are very rough and they are considered too dangerous to cross on a rusty leaky dinghy. But only a month or so ago, 60 illegal migrants were found hiding in caves near the north coast of Hania (they were temporarily housed in the gymnasium where my children do their sports activities), and another 113 were found on the south coast of Crete; the determined will always find a way to execute their plan.

Image may contain: stripesWalls come up and walls fall down. Sometimes they come back up again. Since the late 1980s, the existing walls in Hania have been prominently restored, with work continuing in the present day. Some of the houses were removed from the walls, and a whole hotel was knocked down on the western side of the fortifications, so that the walls could be renovated, restored and displayed. These fortifications are being given a new lease of life for sentimental and historical reasons: for tourists to marvel at, and for future generations to learn the history of the town. As recently as last month, the wall on western rampart was damaged due to bad weather. This part of the wall is deemed a precious relic of our history and will be restored: in fact, it isn't the first time that it has fallen and been restored according to historical records.

Walls against 'invaders' continue to be built, restored and maintained. But they aren't really working.

Image may contain: one or more people and outdoor

Collage of Hania's walls by Vaggelis Diamantakis: Byzantine walls (961 -1204AD) red colour. Venetian walls (1204-1645) yellow colour. Hania was captured (sic) in 961AD by the Byzantines led by Nikiforos Fokas who took it from the Arabs and they rebuilt the city with fortifications on the Kastelli hill, turning Hania into a walled city. Of the Byzantine wall, what remains is the north section near the coast  and a small part on Sifaka St.  

My photos were taken on a recent trip to Iraklio, Crete's biggest city, showing another use for walls in modern times: as an outdoor art gallery. This post is based on discussions I had with a group of 60 students from MAICh, when I conducted a tour of the old town of Hania with them at the beginning of the year. See for more information about Hania's landmarks. 

Monday, 22 May 2017

If they could hear themselves speak

"What you expect woman? Yes, just this! What you expect? Everyone live like this. There has been a war. Houses bombed. I know plenty people live worse than this. What you want? ... There has been a war here. Everyone live like this." Small Island by Andrea Levy)

The conversation that follows is based on a recent Associated Press article about the latest Greek pension cuts (see The conversation between the Greek pensioner and the non-pensioner Greek citizen chronologically follows the discussion in the article. I use the term 'Greek citizen' for the non-pensioner because I want to include the many non-Greek-heritage citizens in Greece (Albanians, Bulgarians, etc) who are also entitled to a Greek pension, in antithesis to the long-term exclusively Greek-heritage pensioners interviewed in the article, who have been paying into the Greek pension system (the one the Greek pensioners are getting their pension from) ever since the Berlin wall fell.

Greek pensioner: I began receiving a pension when I was 50!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: I won't receive a pension until I am well into my 60s.
Greek pensioner: Greece once had a generous pension system!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: The pension system was too generous to be sustainable, which is why I may not have a pension in the future.
Greek pensioner: I left Greece in 1964 and worked for 15 years in Germany!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: I am thinking of emigrating to look for a job in another country because I can't find stable work in Greece.
Greek pensioner: I have unemployed children!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: I am not in a good financial position to raise a family.
Greek pensioner: Rising taxes are eating into my lifetime savings!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: It's extremely difficult to save any of my income.
Greek pensioner: My pension used to be €998 plus €300 supplementary pension and I now get only €710 in total!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: My salary at the moment is about €800 and my pension will probably work out to just over half that.
Greek pensioner: I moved out of my small Athens apartment to give it to my son, and I now live in a single room on the last floor of the building!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: It's good that neither you nor your son have to pay rent.
Greek pensioner: I secured homes for my children!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: I really hope I can maintain the property my parents left me, otherwise I will have to sell it to avoid incurring taxes I cannot afford to pay.
Greek pensioner: I retired 15 years ago with a pension of €2400 and and now at the age of 71 it's been reduced to €1100 and with the new legislation I will end up €800 or less.
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: As I mentioned earlier, that last amount is what I get as a salary in a full-time job, and my pension will probably work out to just over half that.
Greek pensioner: I wasn't an employee of the state, getting state money!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: Neither am I. State jobs are harder to enter these days and they don't pay well.
Greek pensioner: I worked for 36 years!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: I really hope I will be in employment for that long, as all my contracts are short-term and I don't really know what work I will get after they end.
Greek pensioner: I'm burning through my savings just to pay taxes!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: I pay everything with my salary because as I mentioned before, I find it impossible to save any money.
Greek pensioner: Food prices have gone up, so I buy only the essentials and keep an eye out for special offers!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: Me too. That's how most people in Greece do their shopping.
Greek pensioner: I can't go out to dinner with friends!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: Thankfully, souvlaki is still cheap.
Greek pensioner: I am looking after my grandchildren so that my kids can go to work!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: As I mentioned before, I am not in a good financial position to raise a family.
Greek pensioner: It never crossed my mind that there would be a time when this carefree period — let's call it that — would turn into anxiety!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: I've never really experienced a financially carefree period in my life, and I can't envisage it in the near future.
Greek pensioner: After 36 years of working, I retired on a pension of €1800 that's been steadily cut to €1000!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: Your pension is a bit more than my full-time salary.
Greek pensioner: I wouldn't object to cuts of €100-300 if it was to help the poor, but an €800 reduction is too much!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: An €800 reduction in my salary would wipe out all my present income.
Greek pensioner: I pay higher taxes on the property I inherited!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: As I mentioned earlier, thank goodness we don't have to pay rent.
Greek pensioner: I can't go anywhere!So I shut myself off at home!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: I don't go on holiday often, and I only fly when Ryanair or Easyjet are having a sale.
Greek pensioner: One of the few pleasures I have left is my daily coffee with friends!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: When I go out for coffee, it's usually to those stand-up places in mini-markets where the coffee is cheap, with seating on the road where you hear the roar of the traffic as it goes by, so you can't hear yourself speak and you inhale a lot of pollution.
Greek pensioner: The new austerity measures are likely to cut my pension to about €600!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: Well, that's what I told you I get for working.
Greek pensioner: I will start having a very, very hard time now!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: I sometimes feel that my whole life will be very hard.
Greek pensioner: At the moment, thank God, I'm not hungry!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: Neither am I. But I worry about how I would be able to afford food if I dared to start a family.
Greek pensioner: The family silversmith business is struggling due to a dramatic fall in sales!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: On low salaries, we don't first think about buying unnecessary items. A smartphone is more useful than jewelry, for example.
Greek pensioner: I see the future in very uncertain terms!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: Most Greeks see the future in uncertain terms these days.
Greek pensioner: Whatever we had set aside is all gone on taxes!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: As I mentioned earlier, my salary pays for everything, including taxes.
Greek pensioner: I help my children with my pension!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: As I mentioned before, I am not in a good financial position to raise a family.
Greek pensioner: I used to get a reduced widow's pension of €780 euros, but that's been trimmed to €760, and the two annual pension bonuses I used to receive have also been cut!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: Excuse me, but I think I've been repeating myself for long enough. I've already told you that a pension that size is what I get for working full-time, and I am not entitled to bonuses. And I also mentioned that my pension will probably work out to just over half that. So your whinging and whining is starting to sound very selfish. Everyone's in the same boat. 

Except perhaps for the εφοπλιστές. They swim amidst the bigger fish. More than 1 in 6 Greek pensioners are aged 55-62: see

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Wednesday, 17 May 2017

People waiting

“Come on you. Let’s go you, people are waiting.” 
Quote from "America America" by Elia Kazan

Immigration is high on the agenda of the global world these days. Not all doors are open though; some doors are even having walls built over them so that they can never open. Βarriers to immigration have been coming up and down over the years, so Trump's (physical) wall and Brexit's (figurative) wall are not new in this respect. As 'special relationships' begin to disintegrate, even race and wealth factors don't factor into the barriers: the doors just try to stay shut, as in the New World (places like the US and Australia) which is trying to limit immigration. There are reduced employment opportunities now for the growing population of the world due to automated technology which has changed the job market, coupled with the situation where people who are looking to migrate for better opportunities in life are all trying to get to the same places. But it pays to remember that in the world's history, there have always been periods of limiting migration and periods of opening up opportunities for it. At present, we find ourselves in the limiting part of the cycle.

If my parents were still alive, they might be bewildered by this: they migrated at a time when migration was very common. "Don't forget us," my father said to his friend as he left Greece on a ship from Pireas bound for Wellington. His friend settled there with his wife and children. Eventually, they met my mother who was visiting Wellington while she was working in a boarding school in the small agricultural town of Fielding 160km away. My mother had a two-year contract to work there, after which she could choose to stay in NZ or go back home. But before the two-year contract was over, she was already married to my father in NZ, with my father's friend acting as best man.
keratas taverna
Dad - left - as a teenager at Keratas taverna in Platanias, Chania, Crete

My parents never met in person until a week before their wedding. They got to know each other through my father's friends, photographs, and letters they wrote to each other. My mother kept this 10-month long correspondence with my father, which I found after their deaths, and I decided to read the letters only recently. (My father's letters stayed in Greece and were probably thrown away.) Although they are in essence love letters, they told me much less about love than about commitment, compromise and assurance. The fifteen letters in total (an excerpt from each one in consecutive order is included in this post) reveal the novelty and excitement of getting involved in something completely different, as well as the fear of leaving not so much one's homeland, but rather, leaving behind the most important people in one's life, their immediate family members. The letters are really about the pain of making the decision to emigrate for a better future, while their immediate past keeps chasing them back.

My parents didn't finish primary school, but they were literate in the way that most people of their time were literate: they could read and write, but didn't necessarily spell words according to standard Greek spelling rules; they rarely used stress marks or punctuation: no commas, no full stops; new lines indicated a new paragraph or idea, while capital letters often highlighted words or they were used randomly at the beginning of a word. But they wrote in a way that anyone could read their letters: as long as you can read the Greek alphabet and understand  basic Greek grammar, you would be able to understand their letters. Even my mother's mother was literate in a similar manner, from the one sample I have of her writing (she received many letter from her children in NZ). The only real difference between my father's and grandmother's written language skills is that my father wrote words using standard Greek pronunciation, whereas my grandmother wrote everything as it would be spoken in a Cretan accent.

My father's letters always started and ended in the same way, a hint of the importance of the formalities at the time in Greek letter writing. You always ask about the recipient's health at the beginning of a letter:
My dear Zambia, gia sou. I hope my letter finds you (singular) in full health and happiness in the same way that I am well and happy, at the time of writing. Dearest Zambia, I received your letter and I read your news with great happiness and was glad to hear that you are well. 
... and you always send greetings to them at the end:
With this news, I close my letter. You have lots of greetings from D., M. and children, and all the cousins that are here. Send my greetings especially to our little sister (my mother's sister who was also living in NZ). Regards with love, your future husband, Manolis, gia sas.
The letters (and a card) that Dad wrote to Mum

My father was writing his letters from Athens, in the port town of Pireas, to my mother who was living and working in NZ. But in that year of correspondence with my mother, he travelled regularly to Crete. Crete was the reference point of all his letters:
Last Saturday I went to your house and met your respectable parents and I left a ring, the ring which will unite us for ever. I hope they wrote you all the details. I am very happy in general with all your relatives, parents and brothers, they gave us a huge welcome, even though you were not there. The truth is that that particular night was really rather sad but with God's will, everything will be forgotten one day. 
The sadness of the event was not so much that my mother didn't attend her own engagement party; it was because she was not in the country. In my mother's case, the need to emigrate was greater than the need to find a partner: my mother was the oldest among her siblings and her family was very poor, too poor to marry. An arranged marriage would be a much easier way to find a partner than to wait for Mr Right to come along. Poor girls were not seen as desirable - except to poor men:
I noticed that you wrote that you have understood that I am a good man. In this way I have understood that I have found a truly good girl to live with in love and happiness for the rest of my life, as it has been determined by the all powerful God. 
What's a poor man to do in a country that could not provide for him? My father realised that he would be leaving his family soon:
Zambia, I have ordered the wedding rings in the size according to the little paper that you sent me in your letter. Concerning the issue of the invitation [to come to NZ] which you wrote about, you say you have to spend a year [in NZ] to be entitled to get the invitation process going, and I have been told that it takes a long time, so the earlier you start it, the better.
Immigration involved a lengthy waiting period, which does not seem to be too different from our times. Applications are processed one by one, on a case by case basis, they go through different offices and officials, and the process can seem drawn out:
Two days ago I came back from Crete and I read your lovely letter and I am very happy to see that you are well. I didn't write immediately because I was arranging to fix (ie fill in) the documents you sent me but I was told to ask and find out what to write in the question where the paper asks me to complete some information I don't understand, so I to our koumbaro A. to tell me what to write. Surely he too will have fixed such a document and he will know, in case I make a mistake. I will wait until he replies before fixing it. I am waiting for his reply. Better to delay it a little than to make a mistake and need to redo it.
While you wait for the process to catch up with you, you do a lot of thinking. Doubts cross your mind when you suddenly realise that what you are about to do, but the need to maintain stability in your life overrides the fear of the unknown:
So my dear Zambia, I will fix the paper that you have sent me in the way A. told me to do it in his recent letter, and I will send it to you. But before I make these plans for the invitation, I want you to write to me about how life is there, and if it is like here. There is no reason for me to leave, and for the two of us to live alone far away from our own people, if you can come back here instead, I am not going to go back to the village except for a volta (short holiday). I can work here [in Pireas], I can earn a little or a lot, we will live according to our class, but again if you see that we can be better off there, I may as well come, to stay for a certain period of time and then we will see. I can't write anything else to you about this, because I don't know where is better. But you've lived here, and you are over there now, you must have come to some conclusion where life is better, and to act accordingly. Ι will send you the paper and I will wait for you to write to me what you are going to do, if you will start the procedure for me to come or if you will come back here. As you wish, I leave you to your will.
There is a clear sinking feeling in my father's letter that he has no other choice but to leave. This is confirmed in his next letter:
I note that you wrote that of those who have gone there (NZ) some like it, whereas others don't. I want to find out if you money remains (you don't live hand to mouth), to save some money so we can return here and do something (set ourselves up). That's why I wrote to you to tell me how things are there because if we are to work and just make ends meet and not be able to earn the money for the return tickets, we may as well stay here (Greece). That's why I wrote to you. At any rate, A. wrote to me that I would be earning 80 pounds a month and if this is so, it sounds good. You asked me to write what job I do and how much money I make here. Wherever I go to work, they say they will pay you 64 drachma as a basic wage. I was working at the port and getting 650 to 700 drachmas a week but they cut my number of working days since Christmas so I am going to go and find work where M. is working, whenever they need an extra hand. Since Easter when I returned from Crete I got a job at the ship repair yards and I was making 58 drachma clear there but I had also fixed my papers to get a job in a factory which makes refrigerators, stoves and other things (ΠΙΤΣΟΣ) and they informed me to go, so I left the ship repair yards, and I've been at the factory since last week, but I don't know what fees they will take off my wage (ie taxes) and I don't know what I will clear, but whatever job anyone has here, life is very difficult for those who do not have a home and are renting.
Having your own home has always been important to Greeks, and never more so than now in difficult times. It seems that it's also important to most people in the world judging by the value of house prices in western society, but there is a clear difference between owning a house in the New World and owning a home in a country like Greece: the house where a family lives is never seen as an investment property, it is always regarded as a home that will always be in the possession of the same family. It can be divided up into smaller homes to avoid rentals for future generations, or it can be passed on to one child while other children inherit something else, eg an orchard or olive grove. Post-WW2 village life - where more than likely there was a family home - was clearly not viable for both my parents: my father did the odd job for wealthier relatives while my mother was an olive picker who was not always paid for her work, so they both migrated to the capital city eventually. Dad found port and factory work, but Mum went to Athens only to do a paid training course in housekeeping and English language learning in preparation for emigration. If they could have secured their own home in the capital city, I think they would not have left Greece. And here lies another big difference between the Greek 60s migrants and the neo-immigrants of today: the rural poor - people who literally had nothing to lose - were emigrating in the 60s, while in our times it is the educated urban class, who often maintain home ownership in Greece (among other income earning assets), that are emigrating.

Sometimes, there was nothing new for my father to write to my mother. So he would ask her about the the progress of his case in the immigration process:
Zambia, I noted that you wrote that you went to A. who told you that he wrote to me. Could you check if he has sent in my papers, if he hasn't done so already, because I hear that it takes a long time for the officials to start dealing with them. And please ask him to tell me the date he sent them in, so I can ask when they will arrive approximately.
It sounds like he was in a rush to leave. Reading between the lines, I think he was just feeling the pressure of the waiting time. He mentions the same thing in the next letter:
My Dearest Zambia, I don't believe you will misunderstand me for writing back so late but this delay happened because I received a letter from the British embassy and they were asking for some documentation from me and I went to Crete to get them and I then came back to Athens and they sent me from one office to another until today when I was checked by some doctors and now, I've finished with all this business and all that remains is the notification for me to come. That's why I hadn't written to you and I know that this would have worried you but now that you have read that everything is ok, you will be happy and all your worries will be over. I was worried too until today when I arranged all the papers.
But he didn't stop writing to my mother, even when there was no new news:
My most beloved Zambia, gia sou. I hope my letter finds you in full health and happiness as it leaves us. My Dearest I received your letter and I am glad that you are well. I noted that you wrote that you are waiting for a letter from the embassy. Well, when you receive a letter, write to me and tell me what they say. From here, I have no other news to tell you...
I remember my mother saying that she would never write more than one letter back to her prospective husband: it was always get-one-letter, write-one-back. I remember her telling me this as she laughed about it: "I didn't want to be taken for a ride". And my honourable father knew this, so he kept writing, even when he didn't have much news to write about. It is said that when you don't do much, you start meddling:
My Dearest I received your letter and I am glad that you are well. So, I got a letter from A. but he didn't write anything about what you wrote to me, about sending me an address so I can go there and ask if I can leave earlier. I am wondering where he went, so I can go and ask too, because I go to the embassy to ask and they say they don't know. 
My father was feeling the pressure of the time passing, in other words the time being wasted, when what he wanted to do was get on with the life he had been planning:
Well Zambio mou, yesterday as soon as I arrived from Crete I read all the letters that had arrived and immediately I went with that man who A. had written to me about, together with a clerk at the embassy, and they told us that as soon as the conditional visa comes, they will inform us. Well, that man who A. told me about told me to write to you not to pay any money to anyone until I get that conditional visa so that he can fix my passport, and later, we will send you the address of the office of the representative of his agency so that you can go with A. to pay the costs of my journey to come over. I asked him about the price of the ticket and he said that there's a 3,000 (drachma) difference between the plane and the ship, but you will arrange what's best, I don't mind how I come.
We can surmise from the above that there were charlatans everywhere. But what most excited me was the different journeys available in those days: you could take the slow cheap one by boat, or you could take the fast expensive one by plane. These days, a long boat journey would be classified as an expensive cruise holiday while budget travellers book lo-cost airlines.
Dad's first few months in New Zealand, with Mum - left - and the "little sister"

The end of the waiting time was fast approaching; preparations for departure were now beginning:
I was late in writing back to you because I was in Crete and D. sent your letter down to me and that's why I didn't write from there (in Pireaas) and now I came back on Saturday and I went to T. about the chest you wrote about that you wanted me to bring to you, and he told me that I can take only one suitcase with a maximum weight of 20kg, just like you already told me, so I will send the chest by ship which will leave from here on 2 February for New Zealand and it will arrive in a month. Now concerning my arrival, I don't know when I will come because A. wrote that he went to the embassy and they told him that they have sent the required documents for me to get a passport issued and I went to the embassy here and they told me that it hasn't gone there yet and when it comes they will inform me.
And that moment eventually came:
So, I want you to know that today I am going to Crete and I will return on the 10th of the month because they told me that I will leave some time between the 15th of the month to the 20th, now which day exactly I don't know, however they told me that by the 20th, I will have left. They told me that they will inform you and you will know which day I will come. That's what they told me at the agency. And as I already wrote to you, I won't be able to take more than 20kg, so concerning the things you wrote to my mother about, my folks will send them to us by ship.
Dad finished that letter with a post-script:
PS: Dear Zambio I had writtten the letter in Athens, but I hadn't got round to sending it so I am posting the letter from Crete. I am leaving Crete on the 12th of the month and then I leave (Greece) whatever day they tell me. I am coming soon. In any case, everything is ok now.
Of course, everything worked out fine, otherwise I wouldn't be writing this story:
Well, Zambio mou I know that you are worried I am coming later than we had agreed, and that's why I am writing to you. If my letter comes before I come, you will be comforted, I know, I am going through the same feelings, because they told me that I would be leaving by the 20th of the month and I went to Crete and I came back with your brother here (to Athens) and we have been here now for 8 days and today they told us that I will leave on the 26th of the month because they told us that I would have to stay two nights in one place if I left with the earlier plane, I can't remember the placename they mentioned, and then I would leave and go to another place and stay there too, and I would have to change 4 planes to come over, but as we agreed today with the people at the agency for the plane that leaves on the 26th of the month, I will have one stop in Sydney where I will stay for 15 hours and then I will leave for Wellington but I will need two planes to get there [he was probably flying into NZ through Auckland], but don't worry, I just want someone from all of you over there, if it is easy for you, to wait for me at the airport as they told me that they will have informed you, and you will know when I will be arriving.
And yes, 'they' were all waiting for him at the airport. The letters stop here. My father arrived in NZ on the 31st of January 1965, starting work immediately at the Prestige nylon manufacturing plant in Pirie St. My parents married a week later (it happened to be Waitangi Day). I was born a year later, and the rest is history, I guess. 

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Monday, 3 April 2017

Empty shops

One of the classic descriptions of the appearance of Greek cities today is the 'empty shops' syndrome, which stretches as far back as the beginning of the crisis:
From the empty shops, to the half-full theatres, restaurants, concert halls and hotels, the signs are everywhere: economic crisis has come to Greece and it is biting hard.  (7 Feb 2010)
The blame for the empty shops syndrome is, of course, being laid firmly on the economic crisis:
In pictures: Athens' empty shops testament to austerity (24 Sep 2012) 
Greek debt talks: Empty shops and divided societies; "none of them were closed before the crisis." (10 June 2015)
A more recent quote about empty shops hints at the deceptive nature of the Greek crisis:
Central Athens is seeing fewer stores closing, while in areas such as Peristeri and Kallithea [west Athens suburbs], more businesses are shutting down. (13 April 2016)
Somewhere, something is happening, while elsewhere, it is not.

It shouldn't be forgotten that the empty shops syndrome is not limited to Greece: all over Europe and the United States, many streets are lined with empty shops in what would once have been bustling commercial districts. But the abandonment of commercial activity in these areas should not be seen as a sign of an economic crisis alone: it's more likely a crisis of values, which preceded any economic crisis.  The closed shops syndrome can be equated with the demise of the printed press, and the decline in standards of television shows: society is changing radically, due to technological progress, changes in attitudes concerning desirable places to live, the different ways we work nowadays, and changes in living standards, notwithstanding job opportunities, of course. We can infer from the above articles that a healthy society is one where shops don't have boarded windows. But for shops to be working, you don't just need money in people's pockets; you also need people. So when the people go, the shops go too:
Across the city of Athens, 300,000 houses and flats are empty. Where most capitals suffer from a shortage of housing, a combination of changing demographics and the financial crisis has led to a surfeit in the Greek capital. (3 July 2015)
Where did the people go? Why did they leave? What crises do the loss of the people allude to? A recent article in the Greek press (see analyses these issues without the rose-tinted view of the economic crisis being blamed for everything, and describes the multiple crises that led to the closed shops and boarded windows in Athens:
"The main reason for the new unpleasant reality is the ongoing recession and the empty wallets of the consumers who are moving very cautiously, in reaching into their pockets. But the roads that once knew glory days are also affected due to a series of other factors, such as increasing purchases made on the internet, the creation of large shopping centers that facilitate consumers in their shopping, and even the movement of populations away from the center and out to the suburbs." (ToVima)
Monastiraki, in the flea market
(which is a tourist area)
Take for instance Patission St, which is described in the article as being one of the meccas of Athenian shopping streets in the past, but is now filled with empty shops. Located on Patission St is the Polytechneio, one of the most important university establishments in Athens, where demonstrations are common, street bins are burned, and riot police march against protesters: eventually, shoppers get tired of being harassed, and they give up on this area - and find another one. So the fall in their prices (both to buy and to rent) is no surprise: the prices rarely reflected the 'events' that took place regularly here. At some time, the bubble had to burst. And when it did, shop owners had existential thoughts:
"From [2008] onwards, the situation took a downward turn, year on year the fall was great, and there were large differences that made you think that there was no longer any reason for your shop to exist . There were winter afternoons when I was sitting in the shop all day and not a single person entered. I felt scared." (ToVima)
In other words, they closed down their business because they were afraid of being alone in a depressed area.

Monastiraki, across from the square
(where the buildings are neglected)
As we became richer, our housing choices changed. Instead of living in tiny apartments, we moved out to the greener suburbs, where shopping centres and large supermarkets were built to cater for our needs. Most likely, we kept the little apartment we used to live in as an extra income. So the shops in the area had to change their wares to suit the pockets of the tenants of those formerly owner-occupied houses (where there would have been more disposable income). And now that there is an economic crisis - if people can't pay the rent, they won't be buying from boutiques, either.

It's not all doom and gloom though. A once popular business can survive by relocating, going where their old customers moved to. You can't be selling items favoured by the middle class when the middle class has left the area and the working class moves in. A business may also have to morph into a new form in order to survive, a bit like Nokia: from making boots, they went to making phones.
"The high consumption of clothing and footwear lasted for about twenty years, until about 2000 [ie after we got into the EU]. Since then, there has been an increase in consumption of technology products. If someone spends €900 on a cellphone, they won't be spending much money on clothes." (ToVima)
The empty shops syndrome didn't actually start with the economic crisis:
"Before the crisis, until 2007-2008, the landlords demanded €2,000 a month for a small shop. They reached the point where they were used to seeing them vacant. But they wouldn't drop the prices. In recent years, they have put water in their wine and prices have fallen below €1,000, even maybe less than €500." (ToVima)
Mitropoleos, behind Ermou Street
In other words, what has happened is market correction. There is little remaining of the 'goodwill' factor involved in businesses, because new shops have to start from scratch: a new form of business, based on a new model, with new items, for new customers. It's all changed. Except in one place in Athens: Ermou St, in the city centre:
"... there are now two kinds of shopping streets: first, there are the so-called small but important ones whose business core is based on cafes, clothing and footwear, such as Tsakalof, Ermou, Voukourestiou and Patriarchou Ioakeim Streets, and then there are the commercial streets with large stores such as Heliopolis and Vouliagmeni Streets." (ToVima)
So it wasn't really the economic crisis that led to the empty shops syndrome: there were many other factors at play. The economic crisis came into play in the following way: In the past, private businesses sprung up where there was a good source of money, rather than a demand for a product. After entry to the EU, many people landed jobs in the public sector. They then had more disposable income, which was being spent on thing like shoes and clothes, sweets and fast food, cafes and tavernas, as well as all-night entertainment. When the house of cards began to fall, the public service stopped hiring, and the businesses that the public sector was propping up began to suffer in a domino effect. That was the effect of the economic crisis. But the origins of the closed-down businesses had deeper roots.

*** *** ***

In Hania, we are definitely much luckier than other parts of Greece. We don't see many closed or boarded shops these days. This can be partly explained by our tourism industry, which keeps money rolling into (and out of) the system. The empty shop windows are located in places similar to Manousogiannakidon St: streets that run off the outskirts of the main town centre, which are mainly residential - in other words, the buildings were never really made for shops and the areas were never really shopping precincts (they were mainly residential - the most that they could sustain would be a convenience store and a bakery), When the crisis first struck, the main shops to close down were 'boutiques' located in the narrow streets of the old town (places like Potie St), which sold 'exclusive fashion' at high prices. For a while, these streets remained boarded up, until a new use was found for them: cafes and bars now line these streets. Locals still have money for daily cheap outings in the town. You can mull over a €3-4 cup of coffee for a long time at an al fresco cafe,  chatting with a friend as yo both enjoy the good weather, giving good value for money. The added bonus is that these places are no longer empty and they give life to the city, making people feel safe as they walk through them. These streets also open up other shop opportunities - shops open where the people go. So it's not all bad down here: there's plenty to buy and eat in Hania in terms of day-afternoon-evening activities. But not so late at night... One of the most interesting changes in Hania's entertainment scene is that we don't have a night life here. So, no discos, party-places and all-night bars, not even in the old harbour. Perhaps we are being influenced by our tourists: they come here to see and do a lot of things, and by the end of the day, they are tired and just want to laze around in their rooms, a bit like us... :)

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