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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 http://www.timesunion.com/news/world/article/They-stole-my-money-Greek-dreams-of-retirement-11158190.php). 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 http://www.ekathimerini.com/218626/article/ekathimerini/business/under-500-euros-per-month-for-12-mln-pensioners



©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

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.
letters
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.
mumdad
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. 

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Monday, 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 http://www.tovima.gr/finance/article/?aid=871310) 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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Monday, 27 March 2017

A non-EU Greece

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My son making dakos in Budapest
On the 60th anniversary of the founding of the EU, my family was reaping the benefits of being a member of the EU. My son was visiting Budapest on an ERASMUS high school exchange trip (all expenses paid); my daughter was briefing a German exchange student who will be staying with us (after my daughter had visited her in Germany - again all expenses paid); we took a drive through a village in the Apokoronas region of Hania which had benefited from UK expat migration in the region; and we visited an English friend who came to Greece and ended up living, working, marrying, building a house and having children here. All the above were of course possible before Greece became a member of the EU, but not without the ease that they can all be done now.

I once visited Greece before it was a member of the EU, and I lived in Greece after it became a member. My husband was born before the EU was invented and he remembers the times before Greece was a member very well: he had studied in Italy for a year where he felt the stark differences between non-EU Greece and her EU neighbour. My husband also lived through the euphoria when Greece became a member of the EU in 1981 when he started working his father's taxi, and he remembers that first summer, when the town of Hania had never seen so many tourists before, and the tourist market suddenly took off, with the result that many local people's income increased due to the greater opportunities for work that came with the higher numbers of tourists.

At the time of Greece's entry to the EU, the EU looked like this:
File:EC10-1981 European Community map enlargement.svg
Greece had a cut-off disconnected look in her early EU days. Her borders did not connect with the borders of the other members of the EU, save the UK and Ireland, which were islands at any rate, and were 'close to' other members, geographically and politically. Her land borders were clearly connected to (at the time) communist countries, with one bit attached to Turkey. South across the sea was like another planet: North Africa was dominated by Muslim totalitarian regimes. The countries surrounding Greece were all regarded as 'poor', like Greece herself, except for Italy who, along with France and Germany, were considered 'important' countries: we could name major brand names for major products coming from them, like Fiat, Renault, Mercedes. This didn't quite match 'ouzo', the most well known Greek product in my days (a bottle of which was always in the drinks cabinet, although we never drank the stuff ourselves). The story that went round in our NZ home was that Greece was regarded as the birthplace of democracy, so it had to become part of the EU for moral reasons. In other words, Greece became part of the EU because she was pretty, which is in agreement with an informal remark made by Jean-Claude Juncker two years ago just before Greece's July 2015 referendum:
"Greece joined the European Community in 1981 because we didn’t want to see Plato play in the second division”. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jul/03/greece-in-europe-a-short-history
The more official reason given was that Greece was strategically located, a factor which is now treated as a joke, given that her sea borders were never controllable, hence the migrant influx of the last two years. Coupled with Greece's uncontrollable money problems, Greece is now regarded as a hopeless liability.

The fact that Greece escaped communism and became a member of the EU as early as she did cannot be underestimated. The EU was officially formed a year after Hungarians protested against communism, a revolution that was crushed by the Soviets. Greece had rid itself of a dictatorship well before Spain, who entered the EU after Greece. On the fall of communism, Greece was flooded with Albanian migrants, many of whom had Greek origins, crossing the border, their emaciated bodies draped in WW2 styles (see LiFO's recent photo essay on their arrival to Greece after overnight walks over mountains: http://www.lifo.gr/articles/photography_articles/137769). That was nothing compared to the blood that was being spilled over the breakup of Yugoslavia: of the former six Yugoslavian states, only Croatia and Slovenia are part of the EU (and only Slovenia is part of the eurozone).

Throughout all these periods, which are very recent in our minds, Greece has remained at peace (save two weeks of war waged over Cyprus against Turkey in 1974), and its economy has diversified from a mainly agriculturally based one. It was not the EU's fault that Greece's economy broke down: the reasons for this are well documented and still being talked about.

Rather than discuss the ways that Greece has benefited from being an EU member, I'd like to describe what I think Greece would be like right now if Greece were not an EU member. So let's pretend that Greece isn't in the EU, and therefore, not in the eurozone either. We also never experienced communism. What kind of country might we look like? Which other country may we resemble? That's a hard question to answer. It's also steeped in hypothetical thoughts, similar to most major mainstream newspapers, that seem to have absolutely no idea which direction the world is going towards. These days, we get very little 'real' news in the press - we only get opinions. So I would like to hazard a guess about what I think my country may look like as a non-EU Greece, given my knowledge of the countries that Greece is surrounded by (despite the fact that I haven't visited any of those countries myself, except Italy, over 25 years ago). I think we have direct examples of what Greece might be like now, had it not entered the EU. My opinion should be read in the same way that we read those major mainstream newspapers to gain more knowledge about an uncertain world that few are understanding at this moment.

A non-EU Greece would be a poor country. By poor, I mean that Greeks would not have been able to afford to build the modern homes they own, full of modern appliances, with expensive model cars in our garages or parked on the street. So they would not have been helped by modern technology to move away from a self-sustaining lifestyle. While supermarkets would exist, most products would be too expensive for most people. Those who would be able to afford supermarkets would be a certain sector of society that forms the ruling elite class, who would probably not allow the lower orders to gain access to power: we have very real examples of this pre-crisis. The poorer members of society would rely on their land for a good deal of their food needs, while staples like wheat and rice will not be cheap if their futures prices go up. Greeks would also rely on emigres for top-ups, like they did in the past. Poverty does not mean that we would not have enough food to eat or a roof over our head: Greeks have always maintained a sense of pride about being able to feed themselves and keep a home. Apart from WW2 when food was confiscated by the Nazis to serve the needs of its army, Greeks have never gone hungry. Homelessness would not be a common feature of the country, either. The homeless would probably have other issues than purely economic ones that led them to their situation.

A non-EU Greece would be less cosmopolitan. Although tourists would come here, we would not travel so much to their countries, and therefore we would not know our tourists well enough. We would not be able to afford to travel much, and we would also be looked down on, and/or stopped from entering other EU countries. We would continue to strive for higher educational excellence, but it would be very introverted. We still have a very introvert education system, so it's not hard to imagine it in a worse condition. We'd be using the internet at a much slower pace than we supposedly already are. Greece was always more cosmopolitan throughout history than her landlocked neighbours, and Greeks have always travelled, but this was a privilege mainly reserved for the rich urban classes. Poorer rural Greeks emigrated - that's quite a different story to being a businessman and travelling for trade, while returning to your roots on a regular basis. A country that borders an important sea such as the Mediterranean has the advantage of being less introvert and our marine trade would certainly continue - but this is alas a privilege that few would be enjoying; the masses would see mainly the coast and not much beyond that. Take Turkey as an example: what social mobility do the majority of Turks enjoy in modern times?

A non-EU Greece would use the drachma as its currency. The drachma would have a very low value outside the country. Many Greeks are wondering whether Greece should go back to the drachma, but they claim they can't make up their minds because they don't know what life under the drachma in this day and age may be like. My son provided the answer for that after he recent trip to Hungary, where he was able to exchange euros for florints. He saw the problems of not having a credible currency from a different perspective. The Poles in his ERASMUS group could exchange zloty for florint, but the Romanians were not able to exchange their leu. The problems that this caused were not just finance-related: it also caused status problems in the group. Some students felt the superiority-inferiority complex of (not) belonging. While the drachma would not work abroad,  it would however probably work well for Greece, because it would make life cheaper. But we would not be able to afford luxuries, like brand names. Having your own currency means you can bend rules when it suits you: Greece would be a more corrupt nepotistic country. But that would probably force young people to learn to live on less money, which would stand them in good stead as they learn to live with a less predictable future in the global world.

In a non-EU Greece, young Greeks would be looking to get out of the country, like they are now, but for different reasons, and with a different status. Even as late as March 2017, just before the UK pulls the trigger to brexit the EU, Greeks are still signing up for employment in the UK. It's because they can, unlike Albanians and Macedonians, who do not have legal access to the UK job market. So if we weren't in the EU, then Greeks would be similar to Albanians and Macedonians: some Albanians are born in Greece, so they are able to gain access to the EU market. Contrast this to Macedonians from the former Yugoslavia who change nationality by claiming that one of their grandparents was Bulgarian, for obvious reasons: Bulgarians are EU nationals, while Macedonians aren't. Uemployment would still be a problem in Greece like it is now, but probably not of the same magnitude. Some of our older factories would still be working, because we would still have the drachma, and our labour costs would have remained cheaper. Entry to the EU threw that one out of the window. Family businesses would survive better than they do now, and their competitive value would be better than it is now because the drachma would still exist.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a non-EU Greece would be very vulnerable to war with Turkey. It happened in Cyprus in 1974, i.e., before Greece entered the EU, and Greece very nearly went to war with Turkey in 1987 (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek%E2%80%93Turkish_relations#Aegean_Sea) - i.e., when Greece was already a member of the EU. We continue to experience near misses ever since then, and unfortunately, this is continuing to this very day (see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/27/tensions-flare-greece-turkey-answer-provocation-erdogan). An isolated Greece would forever be a lonely Greece, scared of its shadow as it tries to hide amidst its strategic location. The EU's foundations were built on this very factor: that Europe never again experiences war.

*** *** ***

The present EU (pre-Brexit) looks like this (with Croatia in orange, signifying the last country to join the EU in 2013):

European Union Croatia Locator.svg

So the land borders of Europe are slowly joining up, and the EU territory looks more 'natural' but there are still elements of the map that look artificial: Switzerland claims to be a neutral country with its own currency - yet it is surrounded by eurozone countries. Some former communist nations are regarded as not ready to join the EU just yet - but they form integral parts of central Europe. Norway decided not to join the EU by referendum (twice!) - but its main trading partner is in fact the EU. The Ukraine borders Russia, but it wants to be a member of the EU, which looks like a natural extension of the map - but just how much can the EU be logically extended by? Could it ever include Turkey?

And which country would Greece have resembled had it been subjected to communism? I think Greece needed her dose of that too, but the right won the Greek civil war, and we missed our chance to be led by a leftist government, until 2015 (and we all know how that ended). Had we been a communist country, we probably would have joined the EU when Bulgaria and Romania did. I believe we would then have developed into a nice mix of those two countries: the poor Bulgaria with the proud Romania. And we still would have had our funny money, like they still do. There's still a lot of work to be done in the EU before we all truly become united.

Europe orthographic Caucasus Urals boundary (with borders).svgDespite the mess that the EU finds itself in today, I'm still glad to be a part of it. Europe is a culturally rich continent, and it is still very wealthy. EU funds have paid for many Greek modernisation projects. Even as an indebted country, Greece is still riding high because of those modernisations. What would Athens be without the metro and Eleftherios Venizelos airport? What would Hania be like if Ryanair wasn't flying in 1 out of every 4 tourists that we get in the summer? The concept of modern Greece is just 200 years old - as old as New Zealand, believe it or not - and it still needs fine tuning. But the EU is only 60: it's just getting over its teething problems. If Greece had not become a member of the EU, that wouldn't mean it would not be a great country. But by being in the EU, it is even greater. Thus:

Ζήτω η Ευρωπαϊκή Ενωση!

Image may contain: textPost Script: The UK was always an exception in the EU. Article 50 was created for the UK's whinging and whining, and it ended up doing the unthinkable, by using it. The UK was always good at divorce and no wonder: it invented it. So deluded were the Brits that it would (and should) be Grexit that they did not see it coming. Ha!

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Wednesday, 8 March 2017

She, Daniela Blake

I spent a whole morning yesterday observing the goings on at my local ΙΚΑ (recently renamed ΕΟΠΠΥ, and even more recently, ΠΕΔΥ) branch, as I was waiting for my turn to update a health document. 

The woman walked through the doors, holding a plastic supermarket carrier bag in one hand and a water bottle in the other. Her black tracksuit pants looked rather tight on her - perhaps she needed a larger size. They were matched by a white cable knit jumper with a sleeveless jacket. Her sports shoes were well worn. Her curly dark hair was neatly tied back into a little pony tail. She looked young, less than a quarter of a century. The young child that was trailing by her side like a beloved pet dog on a leash looked clean and well dressed. Number 92 was lit up on the priority number system. She looked at her paper: 85. She passed by all the other waiting people and stood in front of an assistant who was serving another customer.

"My number'th passed," she said, showing them the ticket. "Can I get intyu the chew now?" She spoke with what seemed like a lisp; her two front top teeth were missing.

"Only if someone else lets you pass," the assistant said without looking up away from her computer screen.

The woman did not seem to comprehend what she was told. No one spoke to her. They all continued to do what they were doing before she entered: The customers who were being served by the two assistants stood steadfast in front of the window in fear of losing their priority; the assistants continued to type and stare at the keyboard; the people in the waiting room checked their documents and cellphones.

"Can I path thwoo now?" the woman asked again. She edged closer to the window and put her hands on the ledge. The man standing next to her in front of the assistant's window gathered his documents, fearful they may get dirty from the water bottle that was slightly dripping.

"You'll have to come back tomorrow," the assistant replied.

A slight pause as the woman comprehended that last statement. And then a cry of anger:

"You bissch! I'f been here since the morning, with my shild, and you won't sherve me! You bloody bissch!"

And still, no one paid the woman any attention. She grabbed the child (who was still smiling) and left the room, cursing as she left.

"What's the matter, love?" a old-age pensioner asked her.

"Bissches! They don't want to help me! They don't care!" By now, she was crying. The pensioner asked her what help she needed, but the woman continued to wail, patting the child's head at the same time as she hugged it close to her.

"It wath my turn! They diden let me thwoo! I'fsh been here since the morning, with my shild, and they won't help me!" The old man shook his head.

"What number are they at now?" he asked, but he did not get any reply. The woman was continuing to shout and cry. The man walked away, checking his priority number before going inside to see what number was blinking.

The woman was now talking on her cell (not smart) phone: "Bloody bissches! They tols me to come back tomowow! How am I gonna come back tomowow?! Bloody bissches! I'm gonna call the police!" She must have said the word 'police' a couple more times before the supervisor came out of her office.

"What does she want?" the supervisor asked. "Tell her to come and see me." The few people in the office that had managed to secure a seat did not want to give it up that easily. The supervisor repeated her call: "Can someone tell her to come and see me." In the meantime, the woman continued wailing and shouting.

"She should have been given priority before she started using the 'police' word," said a girl wearing jeans, who was sitting on a seat waiting for her turn. "Everyone can see she isn't well in the head."

"Why she not well?" said the Albanian sitting next to her. "She look okay. She just lose number."

"She doesn't understand what's going on", said the girl. "She needs more help than you and me. And she has a child! She needs much more help than us." The Albanian nodded knowingly.

"She looked perfectly fine to me," said a fake-blonde well-dressed woman on the other side of the room.

"As fine as an illiterate country bumpkin," said the girl in the jeans. "She has no idea what she did wrong."

"We're all in the same boat," said the fake blonde. "We're all waiting."

The woman's cries continued to be heard. The supervisor again asked the others waiting to call the woman in. She herself did not leave her cubicle to do it herself. A man eventually told the woman that they would see her now: The woman was still sobbing when she entered the room.

"Come now," said the supervisor, "tell me, what would you like to do? How can I help you?" The woman stopped sobbing and handed her papers to the supervisor. The transaction went through without a hitch. The woman and the child left quietly. All's well that ends well.

*** *** ***

While I was waiting to get my own paperwork sorted out, I took walks around the IKA (EOPPY- PEDY) area on the Souda road, which has never really got itself a proper facelift. It remains scruffy, despite the modern constructions that are replacing old rundown buildings. After a 4-hour wait, I got my job done too.



Although I'm trying to focus on what was happening in the case of the woman that I saw, it is fair to say that not only Daniel Blake types pass through IKA. Every sector of Greek society passes through those offices at some point. IKA is seriously understaffed - the staff are not incompetent. They are even quite polite these days. Health checks are available to everyone, whether they are registered in the system or not (see http://www.haniotika-nea.gr/dorean-exetasis-gia-olous-sto-p-e-d-i-chanion/). The Greek health system is much more democratic than the Daniel Blake type stories I read in The Guardian.

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