Sunday, 1 January 2012

An optimist's approach to the crisis (Μια αισιόδοξη προσσέγγιση στην κρίση))

Happy New Year everyone. Καλώς σας βρήκε, I hope.

Pomegranate charms
Just before we left the office before Christmas, my colleagues and I attended a small art exhibition of Christmas gifts and New-Year good-luck charms. I was quite surprised by the price tags on these hand-made items: wreaths for 60 euro, wall mirrors for 75 euro, pomegranate-shaped metalware with a slightly ephemeral-looking 2012 hanging off them for 15 euro. We're in the midst of a crisis, right? I knew I couldn't afford anything displayed there, and if I bought anything, I would only be doing it to show solidarity to the artist during the crisis. But at that particular moment, my own wallet was empty, containing just a 6-euro supermarket voucher which I had obtained through loyalty card bonus points. I felt very embarrassed about not being able to buy something, especially when I noticed that other people were bringing out their wallets. But I didn't have any cash on me. So I really couldn't afford to buy anything. I didn't really want to, either: I didn't need anything that was on sale.

The people buying were all women, picking up mainly small trinkety items that cost under 10 euro: a candlestick, a tea-light in a wine glass, a 2012 good luck charm shaped like a key ring, among others. I overheard a couple of women mentioning that every year they always used to buy a new decoration for their Christmas tree, but this year, they found it hard to do this, and they regarded this as a bad omen for the coming year.

I have the idea that buying new Christmas tree decorations is something that people with a lot of excess cash can do, in other words, people who live in highly consumeristic societies, where impulse buying and sales spending sprees are encouraged because salaries are high enough to include a certain amount to be used exclusively as disposable income, building up a materialistic legacy of clutter. These women were mothers of children who are at the end of their teenage years: they were talking about things I thought only children would be asking for. Not to mention the guilt trip I felt: we all live in the same consumer world, but we don't spend our money in the same way. My kids often complain that their classmates seem to 'have more' than they do. It also reminded me of something I recently read in a newspaper: 
"Sometimes I see the Greeks as big babies. Crying because they don't get their chocolate milk... The Greeks should be men and face it like a man instead of like a little crying girl. Come on. Grow up." (Elroy Huckelberry, Letters to the Editor,
The New Year must begin on a more optimistic note. Hence my first post for 2012 will tell you all about a few good effects of the crisis on my family. It's better to treat it as a learning experience since we are going to be living it for quite a while.

lunch at maich colleagues
WORK: I've still got a job (a number of people I know don't). My income has been reduced enough to feel the pinch, but we still pay all our bills and don't borrow money; we just don't save much these days, because there is very little left over. My husband's line of work has suffered much more. The taxi stays idle for many hours, because people don't take taxis as often as they used to. They are now considering them a luxury (like in other parts of the world - hello, welcome to the real world). He works about 30-40 hours a week, hardly ever at weekends.  Sometimes on Sunday mornings, he trails into town in the taxi, mainly to have a chat with his colleagues. It's a luxurious feeling amidst a serious economic crisis when there are two people making an income in the same household, and our work environments are relatively convivial.
taxiHOME LIFE: Due to the low demand for taxis, my husband now works fewer hours. Since he faced up to this fact, he's become calmer; he doesn't get stressed about there not being enough work. He's stopped working the dead hours (nights), and spends more time with his children, both at home and in the fields. Always a keen gardener, he now spends even more time gardening, hence we have more fresh food available to us. In his spare time, he helps the children with their school homework, combining their history lessons with stories of his past that tie in with the present (when life was a little harder because things were different).

My husband works for himself, so in a sense, he can't lose his job. What if I lose my salaried work? For one thing, the house will be cleaner, the garden will have fewer weeds, and I won't need a car, because I won't be going anywhere, hence no petrol needs. There'll be more foraging, I'd have all day to spend time raising animals for food and planting crops. The bills will continue to be paid: they always get paid first. Oh, and I can spend a lot more time blogging, which I find very rewarding. It's not going to get worse; it might just get easier, especially in places like Crete.

MONEY: When there's a lot of extra money available, you end up spending it because you have this idea - and it wasn't a mistaken one in the past - that the coffer will always be refilled and your money won't run out. Urban Hania is a highly materialistic society: shops are full of 'stuff'. Avoiding the consumer society trap is easier if you live in a rural area; you go into the town centre after you've collected a number of chores that have to be done there. I wasn't much of a big spender before the crisis, but now I can feel justified for not spending, and glad about not wasting what I had. All our taxes are paid, all our bills are up to date, and we buy what we need. The last point is the butt of jokes by some of our friends, who claim that if all people were like me and my husband, then shops like periptera (kiosks), mini-markets, cosmetics shops, brand-label clothes stores, goldsmiths, and a whole lot of other showy businesses would never survive. To put it another way, we simplify our needs according to our finances. That's why a lot of Northern Europeans come to live in Crete - to simplify their life. Look at Holland's eye-watering 249% household debt - that's not living in the real world.
TAXES: The new taxes (the solidarity tax and property tax) were paid on time. In some households I know, these taxes didn't get paid: some people are objecting to paying at all while others claim they don't have any money to pay them with. I find this hard to believe: in 2009, 7 out 10 people told the tax authorities that they had an annual income of below 12,000 euros (the tax-free ceiling at the time), while 4 out of 10 households claimed their annual income was even lower than the new tax-free ceiling of 5,000 euros. They're simply trying to wriggle out of paying. They've been lying to the tax department for years. My salary will have all the new 2012 taxes deducted on a monthly basis from now on. I'm starting off the new year debt-free.

Learning English at home - with mum
DAILY EXPENSES: Bills are the first thing to be paid in our house; we don't owe any money to anyone. Our electricity bills are the lowest among our close friends, due to forward planning: we use gas for cooking, we don't worry about ironing, we use the dishwasher only on 'bad' days, the air conditioner only when the heat is unbearable (6-10 times per year), we always switch off computers every night, we've sensitised the kids to switching off lights in a room when it isn't being used, and we don't use the washing machine every day, nor do we use the extra hot cycle where the water needs to be heated to an extreme point. Phone companies offer all sorts of sensible deals these days for more talk time at less cost. Water bills in rural areas are still reasonable (because they are usually not connected to sewerage systems yet). That's a good thing. Petrol has always been expensive in Greece; we don't own a gas guzzler and we shop at places on our way to and from work to reduce costs.

The major adjustment we've made in our daily expenses is with heating fuel, which is now very expensive (more than 1 euro/litre: it used to be about 0.60 cents/litre). If there's less money available, it's one more thing that needs to be reduced. This year, we installed a wood-burning heater in our first-floor house. It also has an oven compartment! It keeps the house quite warm and the firewood is from the trimmings of our village trees. It's made a big impact on our life in the first three days of its use!

FOOD: We can still afford to eat good food. Our meals are prepared from scratch. Apart from bagged staples like rice, pasta, sugar and flour, my family's food hardly ever comes prepared out of cans or cardboard boxes. By planting a garden, maintaining fruit trees, using our own supply of olive oil everywhere and limiting meaty meals to once or twice a week, we consistently manage to keep our food expenses down, at the same time as including locally grown seasonal food in most of our meals. We never used to go out much for a meal in the past, except in the summer, as a change from the usual routine. Not much has changed on this front, except that we're more likely to go out for a souvlaki instead of a taverna. Our food continues to be frugal and very high quality, all thanks to our own effort.

But there are also a few points which should be noted as changes to the way I prepare my family's meals, because I possibly did not go out of my way to adhere to them in the past.

Because the price of meat has gone up, we now steer clear of buying meat from the supermarket because that's where it's more expensive to buy it from in Hania. Instead, we choose to support small-enterprise butchers who often locally raise a significant proportion of the meat they are selling, and, generally speaking, sell more cheaply. Of course, the meat is better quality, and the butcher is more cautious to sell something good to the customer, because he doesn't want to lose us. Obviously, that's a good thing: cheaper prices, higher quality food, supporting small enterprises.

Nuts are full of protein, and can take the place of meat. The price of locally grown chestnuts is only 4 euro/kg (compared to beef which is over 10 euro/kg). Readers of the Guardian already know the merits of my chestnut stifado, a dish often associated with meat, not nuts. There are many ways to cut down on food expenses without losing out on the nutritive qualities.

I also make a lot of pies these days, with my own home-made pastry. A lot of our food is prepared in large batches: it saves both time and money.

BISCUITS and CAKES: Cretan free-flowing olive oil can replace butter in all sweets, with little experimentation: 250g butter is equivalent to 1 cup olive oil. Our cookie jars are always full.

Life isn't perfect; it's not perfect anywhere. Wherever you are, it can still be very good. We have to change with the times. Some people like to think of this change as a step backwards. I like to think of it as a change towards some common sense. It's all in the mind.

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