Monday, 26 December 2011

Another world ('Αλλος κόσμος)

I thought I wouldn't blog during the interim period between Christmas and New Year's, but something caught my attention on Christmas Eve, when we spent our time with a well-to-do family who have never travelled abroad. Their teenage children have only visited the parts of Greece where their parents have family. 

I woke up early on Christmas Eve. Despite it being a Saturday, I did not have the luxury of sleeping in. I had been waking up at 7pm for 2 weeks in a row, weekends included, to work at the external English examinations and take the kids to their pre-Christmas sports events. The Christmas carol singers could be coming at any time, and they usually start early. I prefer that they do not still find me in my pyjamas. I gave in to the children's demands - they got their Christmas presents a day early. I could not put up any longer with their whingeing and whining.

For a simple vegetarian pre-Christmas meal, I decided to pick a cauliflower head from the garden. I nearly died when I saw only one cauliflower in the whole garden, which was filled with brocoli heads, something I hadn't noticed before. This winter has been colder and damper than other winters, so we hardly went into it. The man at the garden centre had obviously made a mistake. Half the private gardens of Hania must be overloaded with brocoli this winter. Nevertheless, we are not complaining. They grew of their own accord, with practically no help from us. They will make beautiful and very welcome presents for our friends, they can go into the deep freeze and I will find ways to use them all.

The cauliflower was cooked with xinohondros, a good start to using up that two kilos worth of traditional Cretan sour milk pasta I bought for my mother-in-law, which she didn't like. In all fairness, she did like the last lot I bought in - after I had bought it twice before, in different packaging, at 8-10 euro a kilo. If she couldn't see the maker's fingerprints kneaded into the dough, she thought it wasn't genuine. I remember that last lot - it's the same stuff I bought her last year, and she said that she didn't like it. I'm just waiting for her to tell me the same thing now, soon, one of these days. Xinohondros is not something my kids will remember lovingly. I doubt they will actively seek it out when their turn comes to prepare meals.

Dimitri picked up the wood fire heater today. He left it on the truck until he found a friend to help carry it into the house. He is now breaking a hole in the wall to pass the funnels through. Today of all days, the living room is filled with concrete dust. I shouldn't be worried - I haven't done any dusting anyway. If I stopped him from doing it today, he would have got up on Christmas Day and done it then. He insisted on drilling through the wall with the electricity mains still on, because only that way (he claimed) would he know if there was a danger of passing through any kind of cables. "If I get electrocuted, make sure you can quickly switch off the mains so I don't sizzle," he said to me. If that's the way he wants to play it, I told him that I was leaving the room and while he's drilling, he should make sure he's smiling (για να τον δούνε όλοι χαμογελαστό). I don't know how he actually managed not to get himself electrocuted - the hole showed up 5 cables passing through that part of the wall. He'd chewed through their plastic coverings with the electric drill.

Despite it being a non-working day for all of us, we all ate lunch at different times of the day. Everyone was in and out of the house all day. The kids were playing with their games and popping in and out of their grandmother's house. Dimitri was pottering around in the garden while I was doing the same in the house. The table was set and cleared for each eater before the next one came along. But we were not disconnected - each one's actions depended on the other and we would all bump into each other on a regular basis, trying not to get into each other's way too much. There weren't many carollers this year after all (only 3 sets of 2). At least there's plenty of change left over for the New Year's round.

After lunch, I made some chestnut truffles to take to S and Y. I kept a dozen for us. They turned out very well. S is still not able to walk after his operation and has been off work for nearly three months. Y is working day and night like a dog. He blames the government for everything, while Y's just seen her salary drop to just over half the amount she used to receive and is simply trying to get early retirement as a state employee. Their house was freezing - they're not using the heating. I wonder how they keep it so clean - it looks totally unnatural, something like out of Home and Garden. The curtains are really flouncy and perfectly set. For such bulky curtains, they seem unruffled. She used to bring in a cleaning lady once a week, but I can't believe she's still doing that with their massive drop in salary. She cooked up some kalitsounia for us. Apparently she made them herself instead of buying them this year. She's even making her own bread. But she still managed to buy her goddaughter a Zara outfit (must have cost at least 100 euro).

Y wanted to hear about out last holiday abroad (2 years ago), and was stunned to hear that we were planning another one next year. (I don't shop at Zara.) But she's totally Greek on this one. For a start, she can't understand why I'm not worried if the kids will miss out on school for a week. It's hard to explain to someone that children will learn more in one day at a London museum than if they were at school for the whole week at Greek school, if they have never actually been to Lodnon or have anyone living and working there to tell them about this. Then, she couldn't understand why we were booking the trip 8 months early. "How do you know you are actually going to be able to go on holiday then?" How do you go about explaining this one to people who have never been beyond the borders of their own country?

I started off by telling her that tickets are very cheap then, so even if I don't end up going on my holiday, it will not seem like a big loss. Athens-London costs about 50-55 euro a person if we book a ticket in July for April. But if I booked the same flight now, it would cost 125 euro at least. It took her a while to realise that we felt contented by the thought of losing what seems like a low amount of money if we couldn't take the pre-booked holiday after all, instead of spending three times more by booking closer to the day. "And even then, you might not be able to go," I reminded here, "so you'd be losing that large amount due to a last-minute cancellation at the eleventh hour." She sounded hopeful of taking a holiday to Paris or London sometime soon, and asked me to help her book a it when she had decided on the dates. She doesn't have an updated Greek identity card, let alone a passport. I know she won't be going anytime in the near future.

S then asked us how we got around in Paris and London. He found the whole idea of rushing around on trains and buses tiring. "Of course it's tiring," I tried to explain to him, "that's why the holiday is so much fun!" He thought it would be easier to rent a car and drive instead of walk. It's not their fault that they don't understand why you don't hire a car in Paris or London. They never will until they decide to go there one day themselves. And I doubt that they will ever go. S has never been on holiday abroad (which is why I know that Y will never go on holiday either) because, as he claims, he can see everything that we saw on Google Earth.

Y inquired about the cost of accommodation. I recalled that we had paid 100 euro a night in Paris. It sounded quite reasonable to her - but she was taken aback when I told her that we slept in bunk beds, one on top of another, in a hostel and not a hotel, where you had to make your own bed (sheets provided) and you only got a towel if you paid 1 euro for it. "That's not a holiday!" she exclaimed, horrified, "that's just plain torture!" Most Greeks see holidays in this way: find a nice hotel, get up late every morning, have a leisurely frappe before going out to the car which will take you straight to the door of the attraction that you are visiting. My family has never been on that kind of holiday. Well before 10am, we will have had breakfast and vacated our room. It won't see it us again until well after 8pm. She said she wanted more luxury than that while on holiday. I reminded her that she can have any luxury she wants as long as she is willing to pay for it.

"Do you have breakfast at the hotel?" Y asked curiously. I explained how breakfast varied between Paris and London, but it was essentially the same kind of thing: something filling and highly recognisable in global terms, which warmed you up and gave you enough energy to tackle a very packed morning, walking, standing and admiring the new sights. As I spoke to her, my mind was already wandering, thinking about the magical places we had visited on our previous holidays. The images I was conjuring up in my mind could not be explained in a few hundred words spoken in a couple of minutes. I would need a memory stick holding all our photos, a laptop, a television with cables linking it to the laptop, and a whole afternoon stretching into the evening to show them what we saw, what we learnt and how we felt during those precious moments of outside our own borders.

Y showed some interest in the food costs, which she regarded as the only other expense while on holiday, after travel and accommodation have been arranged. I've gained valuable insight into the cost of feeding a family cheaply while on holiday through the internet and by asking other travellers, or locals if I know any. My sources have led me to the cheap eateries in the town, as well as some basic knowledge of the cheap local street food. But as I explained to Y, we always carried a well-sealed bottle of our own olive oil in at least one suitcase, some rusks and a bag of our orchard's oranges. Before I could tell Y that these items staved off hunger during a peckish moment, until the next time we ate a sit-down meal, she thought we were mad. "That's not a holiday!" she repeated, "that's plain drudgery!"

Despite what they were thinking, it didn't take long for S and Y to put two and two together: they realised that our holidays were affordable and fun, and they were now even starting to understand the way we planned things out. "So I could budget for 3,000 euro for the four of us for an 8-day trip to London?" Y asked me. She wasn't far out; over the years, this is how much our EU holidays generally cost us for 8-10 days for the whole family. There is not much inflation involved, and we've been travelling for 5 years in this way. In times of crisis, there are always bargains available as the travel world is affected in the same way as people's own pockets. As long as you budget carefully, you can still afford to maintain the lifestyle you were used to living. 

S and Y have a much higher combined income than our own,and they are not in debt. But their holiday mentality is that of a typical case of a middle-class Greek family. Greek people generally do not travel cheaply. Walking around with a backpack and children in tow is not everyone's cup of tea. Greeks like to take holidays within their own borders, venturing further afield nearly always only in groups on package tours. Holidays are usually associated with the peak summer period which involves a lot of chilling out and little movement in a coastal region or island, or during peak festive periods like Christmas or Easter, when Greeks are more likely to visit family or take seasonally-associated vacations, eg a ski resort in the winter or well-known tourist resorts in the spring. None of these kinds of holidays are, in my mind, particularly educational. Nor are they cheap; such a holiday can cost the same amount of money as what we spend when we go abroad. Although Greeks are now embracing the internet in many ways, making their own travel arrangements is still not on the top of the list, possibly due to the language barrier, which I notice is constantly being broken down, now that most of the global sites that Greek people use are being translated into Greek (although I always stick to the English-language pages).

The kids had a great time at our friends' house (apart form the sniffly noses and wheezing coughs they developed while they were there). Their own children have their own rooms, each with their own TV, their own computer, bedroom furniture and all sorts of other knick-knacks and gadgets, so it was a hi-tech experience for my children, who lack these western-style creature comforts. They are still quite young, but already, they have developed the travel bug, and a desire to see something new. But I can't help thinking that my children's minds are more open to new ideas, and that less things will shock them because they have already seen a much bigger world than their own. 

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