Thursday, 1 March 2012

There is money (Λεφτά υπάρχουν)

I am the epitome of Mrs Frugal. I believe that I have always been frugal, but now, it is of crucial importance to be even more frugal, even if that sounds like a misnomer. Only three months ago, I never needed a top-up. My purse always managed to fill up with money the day after it emptied. I've always been quite proud of this: it means that I know how to live within my means.

But for the past three months, this wasn't possible in the technical sense. Many times, I have had not much more than a 10-euro note in my purse, which I have kept there for ages - at least three weeks, not breaking it unless it was absolutely necessary. I've had to ask my husband to pay for expenses that I normally took care of. For example, I stopped buying bread, and reminded him to pick up a loaf (always a cash purchase) while he was on the road in the cab. I had to ask him for money for the children's after-school activities. I only spent money at the supermarket because they always accept credit cards. I could have taken cash out of an ATM, but that money is actually used to pay (automatically, without having to queue at cashiers) two landlines, two mobile phone accounts, two electricity bills, all the supermarket shopping, all my car petrol (1.80/litre from the cheapest garage in Hania) and all the newly introduced taxes. If I took money out of that account, I would run a real risk of emptying it and not have enough to pay my regular bills.

 We haven't turned this on for over two months.

You must be wondering what my husband's been doing with all his money while his wife is paying all the bills. I noticed some fresh pork in the fridge, which he recently bought from a small-scale farmer. I recently helped him order a few spare parts for the taxi from eBay. When his mother ran out of heating fuel for her house (as an 88-year-old pensioner, she can't be expected to use a wood fire), he filled the fuel deposit tank for her, which cost him a mere nine-hundred-and-fifty-four euro (954 in digits). It is clear that neither of us needs to keep a tab on each other's spending. We were made for each other.

We were not surprised by the very recent news that caused a furore last week, until yesterday's climax with the publication of the name: a Greek member of Parliament (with Cretan origins) had apparently taken a million euro out of the country (a completely legal transaction) last March, at a time when Greeks were being urged to keep their money in the country (which had been downgraded by S&P et alia to junk status). The issue that arose with this kind of transaction was not its legality (it was legal), not even its origin (which still remains at doubt), of the use it was made (now being disputed), but its morality: who was that VIP in Greek society that had so much money to spare? did that person support the safety of the Greek banking system? did that person vote for the austerity measures that will make the Greek people suffer for the next decade (only a projection: most people believe it will take two decades for the Greek economy to pick up in any way), including the lowering of the minimum wage by 22%? (And the answer to the last question is: YES.)

Dora Dora the explorer, had a million bucks leftover
She don't need no fish and chips, husband just bought one whole ship
She was waiting just like us, the millionaire to be announced
And when she heard her name be said, she must have felt like dropping dead
"Oh no, you know, it can't be mine, it's in another person's name"
He bought it back from the US, to his homeland, μητέρα Grèce
But it was useless over here, so it became an Englander
"Whatever you may say of me, it's legal tender," so said she
Dora Dora the explorer, had a million bucks leftover...

Greeks believe that politicians are wealthy lying cheats; whether this is true or not, this is how Greeks have come to view their politicians nowadays. It is no coincidence that a PASOK MP was booed on Clean Monday at a taverna by opposers of the austerity measures, while some others took away the dishes from his table, or that another politician, while being interviewed by the local press (he was smiling while saying something to the likes of 'it's a happy day for all of us, we Greeks love our traditions, χρόνια πολλά με υγεία' etc) was being beaten at the same time with a walking stick by an old-age pensioner. Politicians in Greece are now a hated breed; compare this to just two years ago, when they were revered for favoritising citizens who promised them their ballot.

Dora Bakoyianis is the leader of the political party of her own creation, after splitting from the party that her father, Konstantinos Mitsotakis, once led (Nea Dimokratia), because she was not voted in as its leader after Konstantinos Karamanlis (nephew of another leader of Nea Dimokratia, also named Konstantinos Karamanlis) stepped down. She didn't like the new leader Antonis Samaras, who turned voters against her father, and hence cost the party in a previous election. She has a brother who is a member of Parliament (with Nea Dimokratia - he didn't join her in her new party, and neither did her father) who was implicated in the Siemens bribes-for-toys scandals, and a son (he didn't follow his mother either) , the present mayor of a Greek town close to the hometown of her late first husband, Pavlos Bakoyianis. Nepotism all the way...

Yesterday, I received a telephone call from the tenant of a property that I own: an old house in Hania. It was bought 90% with inheritance money, where a caretaker had been appointed in case both my parents had died. This was to ensure that when I finally got it into my hands, the money would be spent the way my parents wanted. Every Greek person's dream is to own their own house, and this is what my parents wanted for their children too. They planned things that way.

  • Literally: Wealth does not pass three generations.
  • Meaning: It's rare that the wealth of a family can last for three generations (the 2nd may see the value of hard work, but the 3rd forgets it). 
  • Explanation: In business, the first generation works extremely hard, so that the second generation reaps the benefits. By the time the third generation arrives, the wealth is squandered.
Dangghit had not paid me any rent (250 a month) for the last three months, hence my empty purse. Dangghit had a job as a cleaner at a small supermarket, but lost it during the crisis. Her husband paints houses, but there is little call for this work now. She called me one day, crying that she did not have the money to pay me the rent. I told her not to worry, we are all in the same boat, and I would rather that she lived in my house (where the family of four - five if you include aging parents that come from Albania to stay with them from time to time) and looked after it (like they had been doing for the last five years while they have been living there), than for my house to look empty, and be prone to vandals or squatters.

When I bought the house, my widowed father was still alive. I had searched for and chosen it myself, but he wanted to approve it first. When he saw it, he fell in love with it. He did not notice the peeling paint on the walls, or the tiny bathroom with just an ancient toilet (pull-the-chain type) and shower tap in it, or the brick-built storage areas, under the chipped marble sink, with no doors on them. neither did he notice the rotting fence sectioning off the property from the others on the street.

"Buy it," he said, "and I'll come and live in it." He didn't end up doing this because he had become involved with the local village slut, who preferred a cosy apartment in the town centre, with all the modern comforts. He may have come from a poor Greek village, but the thirty years he had spent living in New Zealand obviously bestowed on him a certain amount of common sense (despite his transgressions with a divorcee 22 years his junior, a mother of two adult and one primary-school daughters), much more than his never-travelled, never-been-abroad compatriots, who were curious to see who had just bought the dumpster.

The 'dumpster' was a small but compact detached house, with patches of garden flanking it, and a yard behind it. Apart from the two bedrooms, medium living room, large separate kitchen and tiny toilet, it also had a basement and a shed suitable as a storage area. It had been built in 1960, by an urban Hanioti who married a village Haniotissa many years his junior. He left her a childless widow early in life; she returned to the village. The house was rented out to an old couple whose children had grown up. Eventually, they were too old to live on their own and they moved into their children's home. The owner decided that she was too old to start looking for new tenants; she decided to sell the house.

The classic 60s urban house design in Greece look very much like my house. The house had been built on what was then the outskirts of the town of Hania. It was built very hurriedly because the area was at the time not within the town planning area, so the construction work was done without a permission. The builders would work at night, not during the day (out of fear of being caught). The signs of their hurried work are still apparent in the brickwork. I had the outdoor stucco taken down as it was cracked, allowing moisture to seep into the walls and damp to build up during the winter. The bricks had been laid side by side with no cement in between them (this is visible in the top photo). This was done to speed up the work. The only cement was layer on top of each row of bricks in order to make the next layer stick on the top.

An interested buyer came along, a priest, looking to buy a house for his daughter who was getting married. The house was being sold for 18 million drachma*. Over a six-month period, the priest managed to bargain it down to 16 million drachma, which the aged owner agreed to. Then the priest decided to offer an even more reduced price (500,000 drachma less than the agreed one). The woman was fed up; she revoked the sale. That's when I came along. Neither my father nor I bargained the price. When we agreed on the 16 million drachma price tag, the woman put up the price to 16,400,000. We showed our annoyance - but we still agreed to pay the difference as long as she made up her mind about the price. In the end, we bought the property**.

"Oh, my God, Mary (hinting at my at-the-time unmarriedness)," the neighbours exclaimed in horror when they walked in uninvited after seeing the door open one day when we were checking out our new purchase. "Could you actually live here?" they said, raising their palms to their cheeks, as their eyes popped out of their sockets when they saw the condition of the house. After spending 1.5 million drachma legalising the property (it had never been registered at the council), I also spent 3.5 million drachma doing it up, and indeed, I did end up living in it for two years, until my wedding day, when I was whisked away to my husband's (bigger, more modern and more recently built) house.

I was most surprised to hear from Dangghit. I had specifically asked her not to call me if it concerned the rent. There was nothing we could do about it, and we are all in the same boat. She thanked me for my patience and told me that she had recently found a job (looking after a yiayia, 6 hours a day, for 350 a month), and would I please come round to collect the rent (200 - she had decreased it herself).

It felt good to have some spare cash in my purse, after a quarter of a year living off a virtually empty one. But what strikes me now, as I look at this money in amazement every time I open my purse, is how easily I got used to not having money. This 'extra' money is clearly not absolutely necessary for me or my family. I feel guilty for having it in my possession. After learning to live off the smell of an oily rag for so long, I don't know what to do with it. My bills have been paid and I already have what I need: but in times of austerity, it's difficult to think about having money for things I want instead. I always thought I was an average Greek; the Greek information media has made me believe that I'm a very privileged person, some kind of exception to the rule.

When I think of that noble Greek politician, and her husband's extra cash, and what he did with it, and how few people will benefit from it, I can't help feeling that this Greek politician has set an example for the rest of the country. Instead of showing some kind of solidarity towards the plight of her stricken nation by keeping money in the Greek banking system (and what is 1 million when 64 billion took flight within the last two years, mainly to UK banks, not Swiss accounts, as was previously thought), her money (for what is his is hers too, or at least that's what I've been taught to believe) was used to buy a new toy. In a sense, she is saying: The country may be on its way to getting fucked, but I don't need get fucked along with it. I must remember that when the next new tax is introduced.

It was Apollo who said Γνώθι Σ' αυτόν. Greeks live up to their ancient ancestors' expectations: they know themselves well. They don't need to listen to others make jokes about them; they do it quite well themselves. To non-Greeks, the jokes sound racist, but this is because non-Greeks don;t realise that they are actually jokes created within Greece. let me bring you into the conversation:
Greece - the only African nation with white people. No, that's not the one in this case.
Greece - the last Soviet communist country. Not exactly, but I'm getting warmer.
Greece - a poor country full of rich people. Greek dirty laundry - it fits the bill exactly. 

The 1 million transaction is not the only one made by members of the Greek Parliament (or their family members); apparently it is one of many such cases. What is disappointing about the accusation is that it wasn't a case of any brave or noble person trying to restore public confidence in the broken political system: as a friend of mine explained, it's a matter of settling old scores between crooks. The accuser is no better than the accused. Λεφτά υπάρχουν; Ναι, λεφτά υπάρχουν.

*In 2001, 1 = 340.75 drachma. If/When (depending on your point of view) Greece goes back to the drachma, 1 may cost up to 1000 drachma.
** The poor priest, I was told by the neighbours, would pass by the house every now and then before I moved into it, lamenting his decision.

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