Saturday, 31 January 2015

This is it

Greeks have had a taste for a week now of our new government headed by the SYRIZA party. It seems pretty obvious that our Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and his comrades have a plan for Grecovery which they reveal by dripping it onto us drop by drop, but it's basically part of their election promise: they want to press the re-start button. They want a debt write-off and repayments in teeny weeny amounts and/or in due time as they see fit; they refuse to talk to the monsters who keep lending us money, they want to talk to European leaders instead; they are betting on 'the other side' agreeing to this in order to save the euro which the other side created. The bottom line is that they (the Greek government) are hoping that we won't be asked to leave the euro and/or the EU. They (the Greek government) aren't going back on any of this. There are no ifs and buts in their argument.

Greece's so-called creditors (the infamous troika, who I think have rightfully been labelled kleptocrats) are really naive to believe that even when there is a change of government, things will carry on just like they did before - Greeks wouldn't have asked for a change of government in that case. So they have to accept that some things will change and they (the troika) will also have to re-route. If they (the troika) don't desperately need to get their money back from us, I suppose they will just be happy to forgive our debt and ask us to leave - this will have to happen so they can save face: Greece must be seen to be punished in some way for her 'errant' behaviour. Otherwise, the troika will have to bend to our wishes and re-route. If they don't, it's probably over for everyone - euro, eurozone and EU. The euro crisis has made politics so much more transparent. Paul Krugman's latest NYTimes article on Greece says roughly the same thing: the game is definitely over, and so is the experiment. 

I have a feeling that it's not Greece who is under pressure here, but the 'other side'. We don;t have money, and we don;t want to accept phoney do-gooders' money any more. So it's not a bad plan that the Greek government have after all, and it just may work. It reminds me of what my mother used to say about people who created personal disasters for themselves: 


"Aυτοί που τα φτιάξανε θα τα χαλάσουνε από μόνοι τους."
(Those who created it will break it up by themselves)

With all eyes on Greece at the moment, there is no need to read Greek news anymore. Our news is being reported the world over, and in all languages. And what's more: the conspiracy theories about the destruction of Greece have stopped - now we all now, we are in this together. Amen.

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Sunday, 25 January 2015

Elections (Εκλογές)

Back in the days when I was much slimmer and living in Athens, and I had just sorted out my Greek ID, as election days loomed, I had to sort out my voting rights in Greece, especially since in those days, not voting in an election was a punishable offence (that no one was ever punished for, as far as I know).

In those days, you needed a voting booklet together with your ID card in order to vote (I got mine issued in 1994, at a time when much of the Western world was already using email). The voting booklet looked like it had been made of recycled paper (at a time when recycling was a virtually unknown concept in Greece - the rubbish bins on the street stood side by side with bags of old clothes and tossed-away furniture). It had nothing printed on the outside covers to denote its contents.

You could only vote in the locality where you were registered, and most people had ties with their villages, no matter how tiny they were. Public employees were given time off work to travel to their villages if they lived far away, which applies for people living in main centres (eg Athens). Not so for non-state employees, who were never even considered when pension schemes, retirement and employment laws were being drawn up in Parliament (which is why everyone dreamed of a public service job). If you lived a certain number of kilometres away from your registered locality (was it 200km? I can't remember), and you couldn't get there in time to vote, you had to get a note from the local police station which excused you from voting (the information concerning addrresses was never able to checked - they simply went on trust). I got one of these συγχωροχάρτια ('forgive-papers', similar to the indulgentia) twice in my lifetime.

Once I left Athens and moved to Hania, I had no excuse but to vote. I used my booklet 5 times before it was abolished:

We now vote with just our ID cards. But the basic method of voting has not changed at all. It is still manual, there are no computers being used in the process, we don't vote by mail or online, and it looks rather old-fashioned. For some, this old-fashioned world reeks of the staleness that still characterises the Greek state.


From the 2012 elections - they make good scrap paper.

Greece and the Greeks have never really kept pace with each other. I don't think they ever will.

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Thursday, 22 January 2015

Brain-drained (Ανενγκέφαλοι)

"Young, gifted and Greek: Generation G – the world’s biggest brain drain," the headline reads, in a discussion about the Greeks that have left the country since the financial crisis hit.

Yes, they've gone, and we call this a brain drain, but as Aliki Mouri is stated in the article as acknowledging:
"...even in good times Greece had difficulty absorbing the surplus of professionals its universities produced..." 
These are the same people that wanted public-sector jobs, the same ones that are often blamed for the crisis:. Again in the same article, we read:
"The north German town of Minden was not on Roppa’s radar when she elected to study medicine at Athens University in the late 1990s. She made the move when it became clear the alternative was years on a waiting list for a position as a specialist dermatologist." 
A position where? In the public sector, of course.

We often hear about the "leaving Greeks" and the "Greek brain drain", but it is important to note that this is nothing new in Greece. Young gifted individuals have been doing this long before the crisis. Indeed, many young (and not-so-young) people have left recently, and their 'glad I left' stories are often published in blogs and fora, but we rarely hear about the failure stories, the ones about the people who left Greece during the crisis, but realised that they could not fit into their chosen new setting and returned home. There are plenty such stories floating about, but I think they are simply not sensational enough to be made into a 'newsworthy' story. It's not hard to track some of these down though, and the way most of those bandwagon-joining Greeks actually made their move does bring up a whole set of other questions.

Most Greeks who left Greece during the crisis do not fit into the truly desperate category - they leave with aspirations of greater comfort and high income prospects, which is probably the reason why many of them fail. Only the head-hunted can succeed in this way, and most of us simply don't fall into that category. I rarely hear Greeks mentioning the opportunity to widen their experiences abroad or to go on a working holiday. I often read the most embittered comments, mentioning things like 'getting married', 'starting a family' and 'having children', which is the last thing you expect to hear from people who find themselves in a similar predicament (ie they are out of work). This is a sign of the monorail lifestyle that most Greeks were on before the crisis: there is only one road, and you hop onto the train, all heading in the same direction. A country where people aspire to greater individual wealth rather than a greater collective spirit was never going to succeed economically in the first place.

People say politicians are to blame for what is happening in Greece, but surely people are just as much to blame, as they are the ones voting in the politicians - they mirror each other in many ways. As the election looms ahead of us this weekend, we will see exactly the same kind of choices being made now as they were being made a decade ago, when this new "Great Catastrophe"* could not even have been imagined. Despite the unsustainability of a bloated public sector, and the lack of creative alternative solutions for Greek tourism which would have maintained an advanced modern tourist industry, Greeks generally voted for the party that would maintain their privileges, or promise them something.

Pulse: Στο 4% η διαφορά ΣΥΡΙΖΑ-ΝΔ
Opinion poll, 21-01-2015
ΝΔ = conservatives (they will continue with the reforms as the EU/ECB/IMF demand)
ΣΥΡΙΖΑ = radical left (they reject austerity)
ΠΑΣΟΚ = socialists (ruled almost uninterrupted from 1981 to 2004; it is regarded as causing the economic crisis - the majority of its supporters defected to ΣΥΡΙΖΑ)
Ανεξάρτητοι Έλληνες = claims a patriotic agenda, but also claims not to be left or right; doesn't support ΝΔ; is contemplating to be part of a coalition if a majority party is not voted in
Χρυσή Αυγή = far right, mainly extremist: most of its members of Parliament are in jail - refuses to form a coalition with anyone
KKE = communist-style agenda (before the crisis, it was always the '3rd party') - refuses to form a coalition with anyone
Το Ποτάμι = claims to be centre-left, but is often regarded as centre-right, due to its leader who is a TV journalist; is contemplating to be part of a coalition if a majority party is not voted in
ΚΙΝ. Δημοκρατών Σοσιαλιστών = founded a few weeks ago by former PASOK dynasty family member George Papandreou
ΛΑΟΣ = run by a far-right uber-rich one-man show (he was implicated in off-shore scandals)
ΑΝΤΑΡΣΥΑ = anti-capitalism, far left
Άλλο κόμμα = Another party (including the 'Pirate' party, etc)
Λευκό/Άκυρο/Αποχή = Blank paper/Invalid/Abstain from voting
Αναποφάσιστοι = Not decided

This is probably not so different to any other country - surely it sounds logical that people vote for the privileges they believe they will maintain according to their voting choice. But it also isn't true everywhere: there are many people in the world that vote 'for the greater good' and 'in the interests of the country'. That is not the norm in Greece.

Let's not forget how against the tide Greece was operating compared to global politics, after its entry to the EU. In 1981, PASOK formed the first socialist government in the history of Greece, lasting for nearly 24 years, interrupted only for 3 years by a Conservative government. Compare that to the free-market economies dominating the UK and the US at the time, when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were running their respective governments. Greece was being governed by old communist-style closed-shop rules and regulations, making her look similar to her north, south and east communist/totalitarian regime neighbours.

But it isn't all Greeks' (and Greek politicians') fault, is it? It's Europe's fault too. When you lend someone money, you expect to get it back. If you keep lending people money in the form of new loans, even though they haven't paid back the old ones, surely you also keep tabs on them, checking up on how they spend it and how quickly they make repayments. I guess Europe (aka Germany) wasn't doing that at all. How dumb. No wonder Greece is in this mess.

Despite the weak situation of the economy which lessens Greece's stature in global politics, it's still all eyes on Greece, in the same way that Greece's woes dominated the G20 summit in 2011, when the then Greek prime minister thought it would be a good idea to offer Greeks a referendum deciding whether they would like to remain a part of the EU which reduced Angela Merkel to tears. As the weakest member of the EU, Greece still holds so much power: if Greece leaves the EU, the euro is in danger; but Greece can's leave the EU becasue there is no mechanism for throwing a member out - there is only a mechanism for adding more members. Not that it is impossible for Greece to leave the euro - but that will only happen if the euro ceases to exist, which tells us why it continues to exist: only Germany can push that button.

Promise a Greek what they want, and they will vote for you, even if it means that the country will sink. 600 cleaners in the Finance Ministry! Reminds me of the how-many-Irishmen-do-you-need-to-change-a-lightbulb joke. Tell a Greek that, if they vote for you, they will have to incur hardship, and you've lost them, end of story. Given that Greeks are so predictable in their voting, how will they vote this weekend?

 

Poor Antonis, the protagonist of Helena Smith's venomous post about my dying country (she has really aided the situation of the Greek bank runs), who hates his country. But it seems that he has another one to go to! I hope he reads this (I have left it as a comment in the article):  
Hey, Antonis, don't feel so sorry for yourself! You are leaving a beautiful country - Greece - to go to another beautiful country - New Zealand - and that is certainly something to be envied because I don't know many Greeks who are in your privileged position to be able to move from one beauty spot to another! I too have this privilege because I was born raised and educated there, and moved to Greece about 24 years ago. "ARE YOU CRAZY? WHY DID YOU DO THAT?" I hear you asking me. Well, there was a recession in NZ at the time, and despite my BAs and MAs and my good teaching and research skills, I couldn't get a job, which to my surprise I found that I could get in Greece! So count yourself lucky, mate - and learn to drink beer. From a bottle. At a pub. Standing up. The locals will love you. Of all the wonderful things that I did learn in and love about New Zealand, that was the one thing I could not get used to.
Oh, by the way, I didn't realise that photographers were in short supply in New Zealand. Or maybe that is just your hobby when you showed whoever it was around 'the wound of Greece'. Or maybe... you have some right to enter New Zealand, in the same way that I can return to NZ if I really wanted to (through my citizenship). Well, it's your choice, and you will be especially happy to do that since you hate this country.
But you aren't alone: I hear this a lot from many Greeks around me, that they hate this country. But they aren't like you: they aren't leaving. They seem to be stuck here, unable to leave (or unwilling to make the move). I can't really argue with my hot-blooded knee-jerking compatriots about why they hate Greece, but I am always left wondering something when I hear them say that they are not happy in their country: Did they ever stop to think whether Greece likes them? Just a thought.

As a family, we talk politics a lot in my household, over our home-cooked communal meals. One thing I know I have imprinted into the minds of my children is that they have no right to ever say "I hate my country". because, as I have explained to them, it will reverberate back on to them in a negative way. In my mind, Antonis' parents made a mistake somewhere along the line. For me, it really does all start in the home.

PS: It isn't only Greeks leaving their country in search of work.

* This name is solely used in Greece to denote the loss of the Greek colonies in Asia Minor in 1922.

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Saturday, 17 January 2015

Steak and kidney-less pie

One of our more memorable meals in London was taken on New Year's Eve at the Battersea Pie Station in Covent Garden. We had ended up there after attempting a walk along the Thames, starting from Cannon St. At Blackfriars, we were stopped by the crowd and safety control units who were policing the area and keeping people away from the riverside, due to the fireworks event that was schedule to take place later in the evening. Our detour away from the riverside took us through some very London sites of great historical interest. It almost felt Dickensian.

Poultry obviously takes its name from its former association with the chicken trade.

We were intrigued by what looked like a private function with a focus on seafood...

... and highly unamused by this vile-sounding Christmas food special! (It has been described as: "An overwhelmingly negative reaction, ranging from 'aggressively disgusting' to 'one of the worst things I’ve ever put in my mouth'. It gets points for effort, attempting to combine virtually every festive ingredient, but it tastes like someone has pushed their Christmas leftovers into a blender and served them with rice.")

New Year's Eve is a very quiet day for London business people, but even when London is supposedly sleeping...

... it keeps changing looks, as it prepares for various events, and this time, the portaloos made it look like it would be welcoming the New Year with a heavy bout of drinking.

We eventually needed to use a bathroom ourselves, so I popped into a Pret-a-Manger and bought some Christmas mince pies which I'd really wanted to try while in London.

When I asked for the bathroom facilities, believe it or not, this place did NOT have toilets! So we held off, in the hope that we would eventually find a place to take a leak legally.

At The Strand, the former Aldwych tube station, often used as a film location, looked ghostly silent. This street was cut off to strollers due to the fireworks event.

Somerset House was looking very festive with its ice rink (where we found some free bathroom facilities).

I had a quick browse through the ridiculously overpriced Fortnum and Masons shop (it was sponsoring the ice rink) - 50 pounds for a set of 6 Christmas crackers, did I read that right?!

A short stroll away, we found ourselves at Covent Garden. Cold weather makes you feel hungry all the time. I chose the Battersea Pie Station, in the hope that I would find some steak and kidney pie (and Cornish pasty - another of my favorite pies in New Zealand). We weren't disappointed. My family lets me do the ordering most places when in London, because they know I know the food well enough. My early life in colonial New Zealand stopped abruptly just when New Zealand's food tastes became more international, so I still have fond memories of New Zealand old-fashioned comfort food, which were invariably British-based.
Chicken and mushroom pie, steak and kidney pie, and Cornish pasty - ~20 pounds, with a bottle of beer and a cup of tea.
Back home, when I decided to make a steak kidney pie myself, I found it near impossible to find kidneys! In Greece, the sale of beef and chicken kidneys has been banned since the mad cow furore - which started in the UK; yet, they aren't banned there! Although lamb's kidneys are still available for purchase here, when I tried to track some down, I found that they are never severed from the actual animal, so you have to buy the part of the animal that they are connected to. This is done for transparency reasons: in this way, the butcher is showing you that the animal was healthy - if the kidney is missing, the buyer may wonder whether the animal was sick. 
I used this very easy-to-follow recipe as the basis of my beef stew and pastry. The beef stew was cooked last night, the pastry was made this morning, and we had the pie for lunch with some leek and potato soup. 

To replace the umami taste of the kidneys, I bought a packet containing two slices of kavurma, adding some mushrooms and soya sauce (I was out of Worcestershire sauce) to my beef stew. I think the taste was successful, and the whole family enjoyed the pie, which will be made again eventually, because I froze half the stew. Slow-cooked food takes a long time to cook, so why not make a double batch and save your time later?

Bonus photo: A chat with the butcher where I bought the beef also revealed another mysterious EU meat regulation, which forbids lamb's spleen from being sold - but cow's spleen is permissible!

At any rate, if you have close relations with someone who raises their own meat, you can procure everything. I had lamb's spleen in sheep's intestine last week at an inner-city cafe bar, where the landlord-owner-cook prepares everything freshly and to order.

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Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Food for the brain

Belated Happy New Year to everyone.


We still haven't cut the vasilopita in our house, so we ourselves are slightly delayed in our own celebration of the change in the year. We were rather busy (over-)enjoying ourselves during the festive period.


A very educational meal at a Pret-a-manger outlet near Hyde Park: The choices were made by myself, so that the family could experience 'alternative' food. Crisps need not be potatoes; I also introduced them to the idea of 'corporate responsibility' towards a society (stuff I know about, 'cos I proofread Master's students' theses about them). Total cost for 4 hot drinks, 4 wraps/sandwiches and two packs of crisps: 24.50 pounds.

On reflection, my decision to the take the family to London during this time was the best decision I ever made in my life. It was based on a number of factors, mainly that of creating one's own happiness, which I feel need to be written down for the record, so that those who read this in the future (hopefully, my son and daughter) will remember how and why their mother made the (extravagant-sounding) decision to take the family on a (second) holiday abroad.


My favorite fresh market is the Lewisham street market - it is very cheap (most stuff is sold in bowls, all for just 1 pound), and this Christmas, I got to try brussel sprouts, kale, parsnips, swedes and turnips, some of which I added to a roast with a chicken (3.50 pounds).

The most important reason for my rather last-minute New Year's plans was to show my children (primarily) that life is dull, boring, sad, etc only if you allow it to be. As I said in my last post for 2014, Life doesn't always go as planned... You may or may not be the perpetrator of all your own misery, but you can usually be the creator of all your own happiness. But nothing will happen if you don't plan it to take place, which may mean that you have to act in an original way, perhaps appearing unpredictable among your friends and family. In most cases, you can envisage the consequences of most of your actions: if they seem dull, boring, sad, etc, then try to change your actions and behaviour before the consequences become history.

Battersea Pie company in Covent Garden, New Year's Eve - I grew up in New Zealand savouring the taste of steak and kidney pie and Cornish pasty. Total cost: 20 pounds (with a cup of tea). 

Despite the pervading belief in the west that Christmas is now far removed from its religious context, it is still one of the biggest events of the year. (In Greece, Easter is far more important than Christmas.) But Christmas is actually a very quiet time in Crete. Some small events take place for Christmas, but they do not penetrate society in the same way that Christmas events do in western countries. Hence, Christmas/New Year's time is not really very exciting in Hania.

The best souvlaki we have ever tasted is found in Camden market. Souvlaki Superstars import all their meat and pita from Greece. They have been there for two years, but they are unsure of their future now that the Camden markets have been sold to developers - this part of the market will be the first to go. It's a difficult time for them, as they moved on from their own country only to be moved on in their new one. 3.50 per large souvlaki, much larger than the ones we normally eat in Hania.

Staying in Hania for the New Year almost ripped my heart out this year. I can't fool my kids anymore during these festive periods. Gone are the times when I'd take them into the town and say "Look! The Christmas tree! And the boat! And here's Santa!" They don't fall for that any longer. The town is gaudily tinsel-clad, the events that take place in the town are usually geared towards young children, our friends are very predictable in their habits, the food always consists of standard Cretan menu items (unless I am the host for the day, but I knew I couldn't have this happen this year for various reasons: one friend has developed a fear of driving, while the other always prefers the ancestral village home in the mountains), and in short, a certain misery pervades, often caused by cold weather and a belief that life is bad. Among people who own their own home, don't have debts, have a job, eat high quality food and can afford to educate their kids, I'd say that these folks really have no understanding of true misery. This year, I had to get out of here, even if it meant on my own.
The cheapest time to enjoy Christmas pudding is ... after Christmas, when it's discounted by 50% at the supermarket! Sticky toffee apple pudding, with clotted cream and last season's foraged blackberries. Total cost: 7 pounds.

Giving my children a wider experience of the world has always been a priority. This is how they will become well educated. Greek schools do not give many opportunities for mental stimulation.  My children are not born geniuses, but their school grades are very good. This has something to do with the Greek education system. It's ... predictable (it is all based on set textbooks). I use my knowledge of this predictability, and steer my children's learning around being prepared not just for the lessons they are learning, but the lessons that will come. Hence their good grades. They do not have preparatory classes, extra lessons, outside help, gadgets, or whatever else it takes to give them the upper edge - they just have better planning skills, and a wider experience of the world. It is difficult to find suitable rewards for this: good planning skills are rarely rewarded in Greece, primarily because they are not found in a text book. There is so much junk that we can buy for kids, most of which will be used once or twice, before it takes refuge in a dark corner, and will not come back into use for a while. A stimulating holiday with many new experiences will forever remain etched in their minds.
Best meal out ever: fish and chips in Brighton. My kids learnt a lot of things about British food during this wonderful experience. Total cost of meal: 37.50 pounds. 
Above all, we have gracious hosts in London. They like our independence when we stay with them. so that they can do their own thing while we come and go, doing our own thing and meeting back at their place for a meal. This year we prepared communal meals nearly every day with them. (Eating out in London can be ridiculously expensive.) The nicest thing that they said to me this time was: "It's really good that you can always find something new to do while you are here and you are never bored." I take it that this means that we can come back again, with our gifts of freshly pressed olive oil and home cooking. Without this free accommodation, I probably would not have the opportunity to visit a very different world to my own - but I'm sure I would still be finding ways to make my own and my family's life happier.

Bonus photos: As a teacher, I couldn't help posing brain teasers to my son who wanted to visit the public library in Lewisham. So I asked him questions like 'What might Gay and Lesbian contain?', 'Why might the book Gay Life and Culture be located in the Politics section instead of Gay and Lesbian?', 'What about Sex Life? Why is that in the 'Psychology' section?'
I think I'm a good teacher for teaching people about alternative views, perhaps because I'm a little alternative myself, despite my conservative background. You can't get this sort of social education in Hania, 'cos there's no reference starting point for it to begin with. Ignorance causes the biggest problems in society, which is the basis of western-style humour, as we have seen throughout this year's holiday period.

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