Monday, 16 April 2012

The way we are: Poor, not hungry (Φτωχοί, όχι πεινασμένοι)

On Easter Sunday morning, I made an omelet with half an egg and the butter that was sticking on the sides of the plastic tub which I had bought it in. The egg was a remnant of yesterday's kalitsounia-making, an Easter tradition of Crete: these little pies are brushed with egg, so you will invariably end up with some egg remaining, as it is a little difficult to get the perfect formula so an not to have any filling/filo/egg remaining. The butter (an expensive imported variety that I had bought on sale) made the house smell like a French kitchen, which did not escape my husband's notice.

The omelette didn't get a chance to be photographed - it went as quickly as these kalitsounia did once they were cooked (my little pies with home-made filo are at their pre-cooked stage).

The omelette was not being cooked for us to eat. It was Easter Sunday yesterday. We hadn't had meat for the last ten days of Lent! A lamb roast was in the oven, pork chops were on the BBQ, and we were waiting for our friends to come for lunch. I had cooked this omelette for the dog, as a way to avoid wasting food. But the dog didn't get a chance to sample my French cuisine. Husband had it all.

So butter does indeed taste good. But good butter is very expensive, much more expensive than olive oil where I live. So I can't afford to make this omelette as often as I can use olive oil. But that's OK - I'm not going to be hungry, I reminded myself, all the while pretending to be comforted by the thought that butter is not as good for your health as olive oil is. Being poor does not equate with being hungry.

Alki Zei, a former political refugee and one of Greece's most respected living writers, is as old as my mother-in-law. She lived through the WW2 famine in Greece, which she recently spoke about in the Greek online LIFO magazine, where she warned of the severe consequences of division in society - the traumas of the Greek civil war live on:
"Την περίοδο της Χούντας είχαμε αρχίσει να ενωνόμαστε. Ακόμη κι εγώ, που μέχρι τότε έλεγα ότι δε θα μπορούσα να κάνω παρέα με έναν δεξιό, έπαψα να τους ξεχωρίζω. Αυτό που θέλω να πω είναι ότι τότε έγινε μια συμφιλίωση. Ας μην αρχίσουμε λοιπόν πάλι τα ίδια. Είναι πολύ πληγωμένη αυτή η χώρα. Φοβάμαι το διχασμό. Είναι χειρότερος ακόμη και από την οικονομική κρίση." "During the Junta, we had begun to become unified. Even I, who until then could not make friends with a right-activist, stopped distinguishing them from myself. What I want to say is that there was a kind of reconciliation then. Let's not begin the same old things again. This country is very traumatised. I fear division. It is even worse than the economic crisis."
This is the biggest crisis in Greece at the moment, political division, not how much money is one's pocket. Alki Zei has been through much more difficult times, including real hunger. This dark period in Greece's contemporary history, in a sense, belittles the crisis that Greece is going through now:
"Είναι βαριά αυτά που ζούμε, δε μπορώ να πω. Επειδή όμως έχω περάσει πόλεμο, κατοχή, δικτατορία, εξορία, δε με βαραίνει τόσο αυτό που συβαίνει. Ξέρω ότι όταν θα βγω από το σπίτι μου δεν υπάρχει περίπτωση να με συλλάβουν ή να πυροβολήσουν. Κατανοώ όμως τους ανθρώπους που αισθάνονται ένα τεράστιο βάρος. Κατανοώ τους ανθρώπους που είναι απελπισμένοι. Το μόνο που με ενοχλεί είναι ο παραλληλισμός της σημερινής κατάστασης με την Κατοχή και τον Εμφύλιο. Θέλω να σας διαβεβαιώσω πως τίποτα δεν συγκρίνεται με την πείνα της Κατοχής." "These are heavy times that we are living, I don't doubt that. But I have lived during war, occupation, dictatorship, exile, and they don't weigh so heavily on me. I know that when I leave my house, I will not be arrested or shot. But I understand the people that feel this huge burden. I understand the people who are desperate. The only thing that annoys me is the comparison of today's situation with the [Nazi] Occupation and the Civil War. I want to make it clear that nothing can be compared with the hunger of the Occupation."
The 'hunger' that  Greece faces nowadays cannot be compared to the hunger that people suffered during WW2. We are basically not a hungry race. Yes, we are poor, but we don't have to be hungry. I was recently reminded of this when I added to the food collection box at my children's school. "Make sure it's got a long shelf-life," my daughter warned me, as she had been instructed to by the school principal.

The supermarket bag that I gave her to add to the box (with pasta, rice, sugar, flour and lentils) remained there for a week, along with a few other bags of donations. I know how difficult distance is when distributing food, but if people were really in need of food, those bags would have been removed earlier. Those items were still lying in the box until the school closed for the Easter holidays (ie a month).

This was bought home to me recently when one of my readers who is holidaying in Crete at the moment had contacted me before she came, asking me about what she can do for the 'poor' people of Crete. "Go and eat in the Greek tavernas and buy local stuff," I replied. She wanted to know if it's useful to bring clothes that she didn't need any more, to give to a church or other organisation that passed them on to the poor.

What should I have told her? To pack old clothes and cans of food in her suitcase?! Most people here have clothes, despite the fact that may not be new, or they may not be the latest fashion, with a few signs of wear and tear on them. My children are among them. I myself give all their hand-me-downs to other children who need them (via a church group), and there are also now council places where people give their old stuff. (I have no idea how they distribute this stuff.) Packaged food eg pasta, rice, sugar, flour, etc sounds good in theory. Fresh food (eg vegetables, meat and cheese) goes off if it doesn't get to the right places quickly enough - but that's what people in the lower income bracket would really like. They don't want - and don't need - more stodge, which gives rise to obesity. The fattest people in the world are not necessarily the richest!

The way the world is being shown the Greek crisis on TV is highly misleading. The Guardian has even created a regular column called "Greece on the breadline". But Greece isn't a starving nation, as it was in the WW2 period. Hers is a money-poor and resource-rich crisis. In Athens (like any other capital city in the world), you will see the worst cases of the crisis; this is often what is mainly shown on television. But if you come to Crete, you will wonder where the crisis is hiding.

In some of the worst moments of the Greek crisis, we have seen people organising themselves against its effects: there are places where people can pick up some food, old clothes and shoes, as well as some basic medication. If I felt desperate, I know where I can find all this for free. What I can't find for free is someone to pay my bills. As we say in Greek: "To φαγητό είναι το λιγότερο." (Food is the least of our worries.) We may be poor, but we aren't hungry; I personally refuse to be beaten in that respect. Alki Zei also believes we have not reached a state of famine in this crisis - we have reached a state of ultimate change:
"Αλλά ευτυχώς, δεν έχουμε φτάσει ακόμη στην πείνα της Κατοχής κι ούτε πιστεύω ότι θα φτάσουμε. Η οικονομική εξαθλίωση είναι μια μορφή βίας επειδή σε αλλάζει. Αλλάζει τον χαρακτήρα σου. Σε αλλοιώνει. Σε αλλοτριώνει... Η φτώχεια το ξυπνάει. Όπως είπα και πριν, η φτώχεια τον αλλάζει τον άνθρωπο. Από την άλλη, όσοι περάσαμε την πείνα της Κατοχής, δεν αλλοτριωθήκαμε. Ξέρετε γιατί; Επειδή εμείς είχαμε να αντιμετωπίσουμε συγκεκριμένο εχθρό αλλά ταυτόχρονα, είχαμε και πολλές ελπίδες. Σήμερα, ο εχθρός δεν είναι συγκεκριμένος και η ελπίδα είναι σχεδόν ανύπαρκτη." "But fortunately, we haven't yet reached the hunger of the Occupation, nor do I believe that we will reach it. Economic misery is a form of violence because it changes you. It changes your character. It makes you change for the worse. It alienates you... Poverty awakens this feeling. As I said before, poverty changes man. On the other hand, those who went through the hunger of the Occupation were not alienated. Do you know why? Because we had to face the enemy, but at the same time, we had many hopes. Today, the enemy is not specific and hope is almost non-existent. "
Let's not forget the words of Alki Zei: we are free people, who are presently living in a mundane world. There is hope, but we each have to find it for ourselves.
"Είναι πολύ δύσκολο να είναι κανείς αισιόδοξος σήμερα. Ίσως βοηθούν τα βιβλία, το θέατρο, οι μουσικές. Για μένα μια κάποια λύση είναι να βρίσκονται οι άνθρωποι μεταξύ τους. Να συζητάνε. Αυτό κάνω κι εγώ με τους φίλους μου, οι οποίοι είναι νεότεροι από μένα. Ο μόνος συνομίληκος φίλος μου είναι ο Τίτος Πατρίκιος. Ξέρετε, η εγγονή μου λέει συχνά: «Η γιαγιά μου είναι πολύ έξυπνη επειδή κάνει παρέα με νεότερους από εκείνη»." "It's very difficult these days for someone to be optimistic. Maybe books will hep, theatre, music. For me, one solution is for people to find themselves with other people. To discuss it. That's what I do with my friends, who are younger than me. My only friend who is the same age as I am is Titos Patrikios. You know, my granddaughter often tells me: «My grandmother is very clever because she keeps company with people who are younger than her.»"
Alki Zei is a true Greek role model that inspires hope in Greek people's souls. You can read all of Alki Zei's interview with LIFO here.

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