Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Desensitisation (Aπευαισθητοποίηση)

I have just returned from a walk back to the service agency for my car. It's close to work, so I dropped the car off this morning, and I picked it up during my lunch hour. I like walking, in full knowledge that it is the only exercise I get and the only one I enjoy because I am a good walker with great stamina, and I can take interesting photos at the same time, which also gives me some time to contemplate on my life lived so far.
Today, for example, as I started on my short walk (not much longer than 10 minutes), I thought about what a shitty day it has been for me. I had just left the office after an electricity disconnection, which meant that my computer shut down automatically and I literally lost all the work that I had done on the horrendous translation I had been working on for the last hour or so. Some computers are connected to a UPS, others aren't; my computer clearly isn't.) I had called a technician to help me find the files (two of them, dangit), but for the time being, they they seem to be lost in cyberspace. Not that this is a major issue - I can re-translate this see-are-ay-pee all over again, but it was really boring, and that's what annoys me even more. The thought of starting all over again gave me a natural interruption to go for a walk again, like I did this morning, when I left the car at the service agency.
As I walked along the dull, dirty, dusty - and rather dangerous - road that links, the main town of Hania with the seaport of Souda (from where the overnight ferries to Athens leave), I considered the thought that this road must have caused most of our 850,000 (so far this year, which still has 2 1/2 months to finish) tourists a lot of agony as they were driving along it. For such a highly used road, it's very narrow and the footpath is cracked below the extra-large eucalyptus trees which line it on one side. Thank goodness our visitors don't know what a nuisance - and an even greater danger - these trees present in the winter when their branches break off during our infrequent - but rather heavy - storms, raising the risk of serious accidents and cluttering the roads during periods of high-risk driving conditions.

As I passed the eyesores that the Souda road is full of, it occurred to me that these dull depressing sights really didn't bother me in the slightest. I really don't care if the road remains like this forever; at any rate, I do not expect things to change in this sector during my lifetime. It's just some of the things all of us accept - or perhaps, better phrased, are resigned to accept - about our hometown. Everyone lives like this in Hania, even the rich and well-to-do, as I recently found out when I dropped my daughter off to a party in another part of town. The villas in the area, with their grassy lawns and swimming pools, their marquee tents and wallpapered walls, their unused kitchens and spacious σοφίτες* - they are all surrounded by unpaved narrow roads, unfenced olive groves, meowing stray kittens, and trash-lined pastureland.
To live in Greece does not mean that you must lower your own standards of living. Your perceived standard of private living will be much higher than what it will look like to the naked Western eye. To live in Greece means that your public standards of living have simply become desensitized to the point that nothing shocks you anymore. You are constantly reassured by the knowledge that you don't actually live like this in your own world. This is simply what it's like in the outside world.
σοφίτες, cf σοφίτα (so-FI-ta): attic, upper-storey rooms, above the main living space, below the ceiling, copied in the style of 'posh' Western homes. 

Bonus photo: the garden below is the same one as in the above photo.
(Better get back to work now, even though it's been a rather difficult day, and week for me. last week's electrical storm left us with no internet at home, hence my blogging absence. After today's lost efforts, I decided that, for the sake of my sanity, I should not immediately get back to my lost work - I can afford to write an interim blog post, before the new modem arrives.)

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Wednesday, 8 October 2014

OECD well-being indicators

Where is the best place to live these days? According to the most recent OECD report on regional well being around the world, it is Canberra:
While the Sydney Morning Herald headline said "Canberra the best place to live, in the world's best country", the rival Herald Sun headline went "Is Canberra really the world's best city? More like capital punishment". http://www.bbc.com/news/business-29531850
The interactive website of the OECD clumps Crete with the remaining Aegean islands:
Given that Crete is the largest island in Greece (and the fifth largest of the Mediterranean), the scores are totally misleading. An island like Crete with a population of 500,000 and four major urban centres, one of which constitutes the fourth biggest city in the whole country, cannot possibly be compared to a small Aegean island like (for example) Limnos, which has a total population count of 16,000. The housing score surprised me most: there is no shortage of homes for Greek island citizens, and Greek island houses are generally quite sturdy, despite our numerous earthquakes. Crete in particular is in a much better position earthquake-wise than other Greek regions. 

Athens does not seem to fare much better than the 'Aegean Islands and Crete' in terms of jobs, environment and housing, while income levels appear to be higher in Athens: 
This does not seem to make any sense - the island environments cannot really be compared to the highly urbanised Athenian environment, while income levels, which are generally low all over the country, do not take into account the purchasing power of the average citizen in each region. 

Comparing the results for the place where I live now to the place where I was born, New Zealand has also been assigned a rather messy classification: I doubt the average New Zealander answers 'the North island' when answering the question 'Where do you live?'. This details is even more suspect, given that the 'best place' to live in the world is 'Canberra', which is a city, not a region (like 'North Island'). And a city can never be compared to a greater region. But Canberra and Wellington (for example) could be compared to each other. 
It's rather surprising to find environment given full marks for 'North Island', especially when compared to Greece's islands - I wonder what is missing from the Greek island environment, for them to get such a low score. More surprises: the 'North Island' and the 'Aegean Islands and Crete' have very similar income levels. 

A city I haven't lived in but have visited often enough to be able to compare with where I live is London: 
We understand from recent news reports that there isn't enough housing in London. Housing is also a very expensive commodity for all residents despite their income levels. From what I've seen of housing in London, I really don't think that housing there is three times better in 'Greater London' than it is in 'Aegean Islands and Crete'.

These figures really don't make much sense to my sensible mind. They appear to be completely generic, and totally unrepresentative of the true quality of life found in them. The OECD admits this to a certain extent:
How’s life?  The answer can depend on what region you live in.  Evidence shows that some factors that most influence peoples’ well-being are local issues. http://www.oecd.org/regional/how-is-life-in-your-region.htm 
It has done more specific case studies of various regions, but there are unfortunately very few of them. A comparable one for Crete may be of Sardinia. To get more information about Sardinia, you can go to this link and click on the bubble on the map.

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Monday, 6 October 2014

Exiting the euro

There's no fear of exiting from the euro, especially when you don't have any. This is a translation of a conversation (as it appeared in protagon) overheard on a bus.

The bus was empty when two men entered it carrying plastic bags. Wearing clothes that looked like they had been through heavy use, their faces looking down towards the floor, unshaven to a degree of resignation - forget about a bus ticket... One was fifty and not much more, the other sixty and not quite. They sat in the seats right behind me and started chatting conspiratorially, in whispers, but my eavesdropping self turned on his antennas: 
"- He sucked the faith out of us, till he gave us those bags ... A fine worm that monkey was after all at St N--... 
- Yes, damn him... pauper's certificate, unemployed certificate, certificate after certificate and more bullshit ... But you know us, you karagiozi, I wanted to tell him... Nothing has changed. 
- I sent the wife last time and he didn't give her anything ... He'll be requesting a passport soon. 
- So much for the Benevolence Association - rice, pasta and toilet paper ... 
My donations of food parcels periodically to the local food banks look like this one.
- Meropi told me about an organisation in the centre ... I don't remember the name ... one of those quirky ones, ending in –ιs. They hand out oil, she tells me. 
 Fuck it, if only, but ... If we wait for the the commissioner at St. N-- ... They hand out oil only at Christmas. Try to find out where this place is, you never know ... 
- She says... You know, she doesn't say anything unless she's seen it for herself. 
- Maybe it's one of those coupon bullshit jobs like the other time? What can I do with a 30% discount, when I don't have the 70% to start with? 
- What can I say?… Let's see what St K-- will give ... from Monday … 
- At least there, the Benevolence Association lasses are a little thick, the priest's a bit of a halva, and they don't ask for too many docs …
- Are you coming to the soup kitchen tomorrow?
- I don't know if I will be able to make it, I wanted to go first to the neighbourhood laiki (street market) when it closes … And anyway, by the time I walk from the kitchens to my house, carrying the plastic tub with the hot food, it's become ice-cream.
- I was thinking of giving you the extra packets of lentils, 3 half-kilo packs, and you can give me the kritharaki (orzo pasta rice). 
- Yeah, let's do it … that's a good swap… It's a shame to waste it, especially since the kritharaki tends to get wormy if it its kept a long time … I've got five, no wait, maybe six packets, I can't remember. Anyway, how much more boiled pulp can we take?
- Lentils with no oil, on the other hand …
- You can make lentil salad, with a bit of lemon…
- Ah, gourmet dining… If you're around until four, I'll be there and we can do the swap..."
My stop was coming up, so I got off my seat, stealing a glance at the two men as I left the bus. "No fear of the country exiting from the euro" reads a newspaper headline hanging on the kiosk near my stop.  
Have you seen worms in pasta and rice packets? They float to the top when you boil them, so they can easily be skimmed off the top of the pot. (As for flour, a sieve normally does the trick - before you intend to use it, of course.) 
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Sunday, 5 October 2014

Junipers and sea daffodils (Κέδροι και κρινάκια της θάλασσας)

Despite the sunny weather, it's getting quite chilly now, which means that beach weather will be coming to an end soon, and the coastal habitat will get a rest from too much human activity.

The Cretan coastline is lined with some of the most interesting Mediterranean flora, most of which is, these days, facing great risks from the changing nature of the landscape. Uncontrolled tourism, logging, forest fires, camping and general trampling, coupled with global climate changes, are leading to the restricted growth and regeneration of endangered plants such as junipers and sea daffodils. The flora found on the coastline of Crete are under constant threat of destruction, especially during the tourist season: campers who were surveyed to find out whether they knew that the juniper tree habitats were protected or not were cutting the dry stalks of the juniper tree to make a fire, but they didn't realise that this breaks down the root system and dries up the plant. Despite this fact, the plant itself is not under any formal protection orders.

The walking paths around the beach of Elafonisi have all been demarcated so that people and cars (which often park directly beside endangered native species) do not damage the flora of the area, namely Juniperus species and the sea daffodil, Pancratium maritimum, as well as other species.

Juniper trees, as well as sea daffodils, are found mainly along the coastal sandy dunes of Crete. Their habitat is considered both rare and aesthetically beautiful, which has led to its classification as a 'priority habitat' by the EU Habitats Directive, leading to its protection. So the habitat is now being protected from further damage from the risks involved in the highly connected world we live in, even though the actual species located in this habitat type may not be protected individually.
The sea daffodil - Pancratium maritimum - is found all over the Mediterranean coastline, but it's considered an endangered species in places like Crete due to tourism - too many cars, too many people, too much trampling. There are signs on the beach reminding people not to pick or disturb it, even though it is not officially protected by an law. 
This 2008 photo shows that the sea daffodil is less prevalent than it is in 2013.
Both the juniper and the sea daffodil are found on the most popular beaches of Hania. Crete's large tourism industry has placed them at risk of great damage. In other less touristy areas of Greece, these species are gaining habitat, but in Crete, if an attempt was not made to protect them, they would now be faced as endangered species. Swaths of sea daffodils are now seen on our beaches, but it was not like this at all in our recent past - better educational awareness of the locals (and tourists) has helped such species to survive better in Crete. The signs that have gone up in Elafonisi for the junipers, and the local beaches on the north coast of Crete for the sea daffodils, are a clever 'trick' that seems to be working - the signs all over our beaches have actually helped the daffodils to multiply and stay on the ground, they aren't being picked and our parched-looking soil in the summertime gets a boost from these wild flowering plants. The venture of protecting it was undertaken on a local level in Crete. 

2013: These signs have remained virtually untouched at my local beach - Greek and foreign tourists are more environmentally aware than in the past, thanks to small efforts such as these ones. 
Interestingly, the island of Limnos came up in a discussion of juniper coastlines in Greece (in a MAICh seminar I attended recently), where the sea daffodil was also mentioned as a point of comparison. Limnos is a not-very-touristy island compared to Crete. The sea daffodil was mentioned in relation to the importance of protecting various plants in certain areas; in Limnos for example there are a lot of sea daffodils and not many tourists, whereas in Crete, the opposite is true, and the loss of one is due to the rise in the other - and so it is for juniper too. 
 Juniper bush on Grammenos beach, Paleohora
The speaker at the seminar said that the authorities in Limnos, when asked to make special arrangements to protect the sea daffodil, rolled their eyes at the idea because there are so many of them. But in places like Cyprus, where the habitat of the sea daffodil is under threat due to tourism (just like in Crete), huge efforts have been made willingly on a very short stretch of coastline. So there is a difference in people's attitudes towards protecting something, and there are different reasons for such attitudes.
A close up of the juniper berries - they are highly aromatic and can be milled when dry to be used as pepper. I gathered two dozen of them for personal use.
The once not-so-environmentally Greeks are now making greater efforts to protect their surroundings, even at a personal level. Funds are always hard to find these days, but the willingness of the people is there. What was once seen as the domain of municipal authorities is now being dealt with by concerned individuals. It's just another sign of a a re-examination of one's values, and their relation to one's identity.
Above: Juniper and sea daffodil, Grammenos beach, Paleohora.
Below: Juniper tree gum, seeping out of the bark; aromatic nut not commonly used.

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Thursday, 2 October 2014

Plantain

It isn't just foodies who like to browse through food stalls when travelling in foreign lands, as we are all, to some extent, attracted to the unusual. When in London, I like to look at the fresh food stalls in Lewisham, which display quite a few imported species of fruit and vegetables that we do not see in Hania, and I wonder how they are prepared and what they taste like.
Apart from the tomatos, bell peppers and avocados, everything else looked quite foreign to me. Our supermarkets stock only one kind of mango (always imported), and one type of okra (only when it's in season). Taro (κολοκάσι) is now making an appearance, but potatos,onions and garlic continue to be the only root vegetables we see in our fresh markets. Ginger is now a staple in supermarkets, but it's still only imported.  

This year, I decided to buy some plantains to take back and cook at home. I bought them in a very unripe state - they were bright green, with no black markings. At first sight, of course they look like bananas, which often confuses the uninitiated. My family couldn't believe that they could be anything else.
I bought the plantains at the same time, but they all seemed to be at different ripening stages after nearly three weeks sitting on the kitchen work bench.  
Plantains don't really look any more exciting than bananas. Plantains are always cooked (the German word for plantain is Kochbanane - 'cooking banana', which expresses it succinctly), unlike bananas which are eaten raw, even in their unripe state. But even bananas were once an exotic species for Crete/Greece, and they haven't even been around for a century here:
In the early 20s, a monk from the area, returning from the Holy Land, brought with him a few banana plants and planted them in the Monastery of St. Antoniou of Arvi (in Iraklio, Crete). When the plants fruited, nobody tasted them despite their nice fragrance, since they knew nothing about them. But a few plants were planted in gardens and fields as ornamentals. A few years later a doctor who was in the area and knew the fruit, not only tried it before the astonished inhabitants, but bought a bunch of bananas. In the early 30s the first crops were a fact. Bananas, grown in sacks with straw or paper, were transported by animals to Viannos, and from there by truck to Iraklio and then by ferry to Athens. The Cretans were still not eating them. Ten years later the banana cultivation started in Malia, on the north coast of Crete. At that time the price was 25 drachmas per oka (old measuring system) in the winter which fell to 5 drachmas in the summer. At the same time the price of olive oil did not exceed 7 drachmas per oka. In the early 50s the Cretans 'discovered' banana as a fruit and began placing the product on the markets of the island. Demand is great, but is not covered by production. In the late 50s, banana imports began during the winter from African countries and South America. (For more information, click on this link.)
Bananas only became a common commodity in the Greek market after entry into the EU. Before that, they were considered exotic and expensive. When I was teaching in Athens in the early 1990s, a student recounted this story to me: her parents had been to London to visit friends, where they purchased a large bag full of bananas which they took on the plane back to Athens. At the airport, they took a taxi to take them home, where they unloaded their suitcases and bags - but the driver didn't see the bananas on the ground and he squashed them with the wheel by accident, much to the dismay of my friend's parents, who had transported them to Greece like precious cargo!


My plantain dishes, all cooked with our own olive oil.

After nearly 3 weeks of having the plantains sitting on my kitchen bench, I decided that the time had come to try cooking them. My recipes come straight from the internet, my first source for anything I don't know. Apparently, you can eat them both as a savoury and a sweet. The green ones are better as a savoury, while the riper ones are better as a sweet. I chose to use one less ripened plantain to make tostones which are very popular in the Americas, eaten with rice and beans, and a simple sweet plantain dish with the most ripened plantain, similar to the fried banana dessert in Asian restaurants.

My family's reaction to the plantain recipes was as could be expected of people eating unusual food for the first time. They said that it wasn't the most exciting thing that they had ever tasted. Perhaps it's true that plantains aren't the most exciting food species around. But they are forgetting something. I told them to imagine that this was a common meal in their home, like it is for many other people around the world, and also to imagine that the plantain is all they may have had to cook with. I know that they enjoyed the meal much more than they would have, had we not had this little talk.
The last plantain was eaten last night, and I can tell you that it brought back memories of our recent trip to London, knowing that there won't be any more plantains to eat for quite a while...

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