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Thursday, 15 December 2011

The way we were (Όπως ήμασταν παλιά)

I recently went to a Christmas bazaar, organised by the Cretan International Community (CIC), held every year in Hania to raise funds for charities. This bazaar is co-ordinated by non-Greek residents of Crete, so it's not surprising that many non-Greek activities take place. Here you will see a style of entertainment that is quite different to the well known Greek bouzouki, Cretan lyra, Greek dancing and Karagiozis puppet theatre for kids instead, you will see skiffle bands, trapeze artists and magic shows. There's also a great variety of items on sale that you wouldn't see in the average Cretan home. To begin with, let's take food: butterfly cakes, cupcakes with buttercream and sprinkles, chutney, chili sauce, kombuchi, fruit cake and roly-poly cake; handcrafts stalls selling hand-made cloth bags, caps, jewellery, candles, Christmas wreaths, greetings cards, and dolls' clothes; some bric-a-brac which includes antiques, old things people don't want anymore, and second-hand clothing. And lots of books, in English, German, French and Scandinavian languages.

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In the past, other people's trash didn't often get transformed into other people's treasure. Before the crisis, the general thought was "Καινούργιο σπίτι, καινούργια έπιπλα." Now it's "Τα παλιά έπιπλα θέλουν επισκευή." At least, that's what I've been hearing among my circles - people are even ready to recommend me an upholsterer, in that usual Greek 'use-my-friend' way. Greeks now know about second-hand clothing and other people's bric-a-brac. But 'artisan' jewellery with 40 euro price tags during an economic crisis? Hand-made dolls' clothes - have you ever seen Barbie wearing a woolly rib-knit sweater? Greeks haven't gone the whole hog yet. It's still a little difficult to find a place to leave things you don't want so that they can be given away to charity, which is the reason why I recently saw this Asian design curtain dumped (together with the curtain rail) by the bin. Given the occasion, I remembered to take a bag of clothes and toys my children had outgrown to the bazaar, giving it to the organisers of the bric-a-brac sale. 

The kids had a great time watching the performer on the monkey bike walking a tightrope, blindfolding a member of the audience and juggling knives over his head. The last time they saw entertainment like this was at Covent Garden in London (although we often see Northern European jugglers at traffic lights these days, along with the one-armed man, the paper-towel seller, the car-window cleaner and the simple beggar). I also bought them some butterfly cupcakes to try (which they thought were OK - if you aren't used to eating canned whipped spray-on cream as part of your daily diet, you'd think they were just OK too). While they enjoyed the show, I was able to browse through the second-hand 1-euro-each reading material . Among the dusty shelves of the well-thumbed books, I found a couple of long-forgotten gems, each one able to give the reader some idea of what endeared foreigners to Greece back in the days when she had a good reputation.

Foreign Women in Greece was originally published in 1978, and came out in 1984 as a revised (third) edition. It was basically an analysis of 148 questionnaires handed out to non-Greek women living and working in Greece. The Adjustment chapter is quite revealing:
"Almost all of the women who responded were unanimous in the things that they found valuable in Greek society: good food (the first to be mentioned!), friendly people, a more relaxed way of life, the warm climate, less violence than in most Western European and American cities, a healthy attitude towards children, little danger of narcotics, etc. We would like to emphasize these very positive factors."
Whatever changes have taken place in Greek society, it's heartening to know that this is what people liked about us 30-odd years ago, just three years after we'd entered the EC, as the EU was known back then. The questionnaires were mainly answered by women living in Athens, but there is also a chapter in the book entitled Greece is not only Athens, quoting women's opinions about life in villages and smaller towns:
"I like the way my children are allowed to grow up more slowly. They are not so sophisticated as children in England. There are not the problems of drugs, glue sniffing, drinking and smoking... Fresh air, slower pace of life, and far more friendly non-aggressive people than I ever met in Athens... A neighbour is always near to warn - get out of the road, does your mother know where you're going?... Everybody knows everybody else, and if anyone tries to cheat it gets around fast... Because you're a foreigner, the locals expect you to be different and they excuse your foreign ways rather than criticise them."
Similar ideas were recently expressed in the ekathimerini's Letters, by a Norwegian living on the island of Paros, who stated that he loved Greek society for its people and atmosphere, admiring the strong family bonds that he believes do not exist in his country: "Greek men [are] proud, and this is something that Norwegian men may have lost in the last 30-40 years of the feminism fight, maybe they have given up the struggle, the women in Norway seem to cope very well without men (ha ha)." Of course, not all the women surveyed were satisfied with the (at the time) Greek woman's lot:
"All this visiting and sitting around in tavernas and coffee shops is stifling and repetitive... lack of education and cultivation of the people - my heart goes out to Greek village women. They haven't even begun to realise how exploited and degraded they are."
The book was published at a time when women's issues were often classified under the umbrella title of 'women's lib'. Some of the survey data still applies for foreign women living in Greece:
"... 67% of the women who had a partner came to Greece because of their partner. Most of these women mentioned additional reasons, eg a wish to live in the south (presumably Northern Europeans), 60% of the women with a partner stated that coming to Greece was a mutual decision, 19% said it was their own decision and 12% the partner's."
That's why there has never been any "Foreign Men in Greece"equivalent: it's usually a case of foreign woman falling in love with Greek man and ending up living in Greece, a common trait in many culturally mixed relationships (the man takes the woman to his homeland).

So that was all part of living in Greece in the good old days: a safe friendly environment, a good place to raise children, but maybe not such an exciting place...

Greece. Annual Edition of the Greek National Tourism Organisation Athens in December 1978
My next little gem of a find was a book containing over 300 glossy photos of Greece, a yearbook edition by the Greek National Tourism Organisation (1978), in German, entitled simply Griechenland. It was aimed for German travel agencies, to entice tourists to Greece. I didn't expect to find this book still listed for sale, so it came as a surprise to find at least half a dozen of these books still floating around the web, selling at about 4 euro. I've also seen other issues from different years lying around in cafes.

This book, despite its purely commercial purposes, was never sold for profit. It was simply given away. But it's clearly the kind of book people with lots of disposable income buy to keep on the coffee table or as a present for a friend. I can imagine this kind of book gracing diaspora Greeks' offices. Greece could have been making 'easy' money out of this kind of marketing, not using it simply to entice tourists to visit Greece. The photos these yearbooks contain are classic images of Greece. For example, the GNTO's current downloadable gastronomy brochure contains an image (on page 8, loukoumi and mastiha) which was included in the 1992 yearbook - τα χάπια μου, παρακαλώ, τα χάπια μου, θα ξεράσω.
(I think I spoke too soon - look at the latest GNTO campaign: these pictures are going to be plastered all over 7 million US diners' cheeseburger placemats). 

But all is not lost. This book was aimed for the at-the-time growing German tourist market to Greece, making them now one of Greece's biggest tourist groups, surpassing the United Kingdom's previous first place. Despite Greece's miserable economic outlook, 2011 was actually a record year for Greek tourism - over 16 million arrivals - with more Germans than Brits coming to Greece. In such terms, this book succeeded in its aim. The 1978 edition contains photographs of familiar Greek tourist sites before they were desecrated by hyper-mass tourism: 200+ shots (taken in 1977 or earlier) of scenes from daily Greek life, and another 100 depicting plant and marine life. It should not surprise anyone that Europeans find the Greek biodiversity so alluring: despite Greece having one of the lowest environmental protection indices in the whole of Europe, she has one of the highest biodiversity indices (exactly the opposite case exists in Sweden). 


The photos, surprisingly, did not include taverna shots with wicker chairs and lazing tourists. But the dozen or so food-related photographs revealed just how little has changed since that time: 35 years later, it is reassuring to know that some things have remained stable. Greeks are still eating the same food, maybe because it's still really good. It's one aspect of Greece that tourists still come for, and would be saddened to see it change. No wonder Greek cookbooks are selling like hotcakes right at this moment in North America. That's something people like about us: our food.



The photographs from the book that I have included in this post are timeless shots which can still be taken today (only the people will be wearing more modern clothes). The roast lamb on the spit clearly marks the photo as a typical Easter Sunday shot, as does the lagana bread with the olives and pickled peppers (clearly taken on Clean Monday). Greek coffee is still popular despite the rise of frappe, but watermelon, figs, corn and grilled octopus are a relish of the late summer season. Koulouria (bagels) still look just like they did so many years ago and still constitute a very popular snack. The Cretan paximadi (rusks) doesn't seem to have changed much either. The simple Greek tomato salad, served with some feta cheese and wine in a copper-coloured metal carafe, can taste so unforgettably good on a hot summer's day, just after a cooling swim in the Mediterranean...


My bazaar (if somewhat bizarre) book finds tell us a little about what people once liked - and still like - about Greece. At the same time, we also gain an insight from those slice-of-life snapshots into the reasons why we have changed. In some cases, it was inevitable; in others, we had to.

UPDATE 15-11-2012: The CIC Christmas bazaar will not take place this year due to unavailibility of venue. It may take place as an Easter event instead.

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