Sunday, 2 September 2012

Student food parcels (Η φοιτητική κουζίνα της μαμάς)

It's that time of year again - university students on our side of the world are preparing to return to their studies, which are becoming ever more expensive. Parents are constantly on the lookout to find an economical way to educate their children. In Greece, it should be noted that there are no such things as student loans, or state-subsidised student housing, which is only available to certain categories of citizens and it is still severely deficient. The university may have a student restaurant where students may find a homely meal available to them but that often entails trekking out to the place where this is available, which may not suit the student's timetable or location - it's not always on campus. It is also rarely the case that a student is able to study in his/her own hometown (except possibly in the case of Athenians who are able to find a study place in their hometown); they usually move away from home.

University education in Greece, provided through the state system, is, like primary and secondary education, 'free'; all sensible people know that in this world, there is absolutely no such thing as a free lunch, hence the inverted commas. For the most part, Greek university students rely totally on their parents for all the finances involved in studying. Very few work part-time while they study, because there are few jobs available, part-time work is not so highly valued in Greece and parents want to ensure that their children can devote the appropriate time to their studies. This doesn't mean that Greek students never work and study at the same time - there are just fewer of them than one would find in Western countries. Those with financial difficulties at home try to secure pocket money through some kind of work; Greeks studying abroad don't need to do this because there is obviously enough money available for them to study.

This whole mindset implies that parents must save money for their children's education, which they do; when Greeks save money, it is mainly for this reason, the welfare of their family. It also implies that Greek university students come out of university debt-free. In monetary terms, this is exactly what happens: they don't owe anyone a penny. But it is obvious that they are indebted to their parents for having given them the chance to study at an advanced level. This is just one of the hidden aspects of life in Greece, which few foreigners can understand, the idea that parents will help their children in such a way that it is repaid by children looking after their parents at a later stage, ie by looking after them in their old age. It is often stated in the media that Greeks are doing this less often due to the crisis because they can no longer afford to, and that traditional family relationships are breaking down - from the evidence I have around me, I don't believe this at all: it is just one more case of misreporting what is really going on in Greece.

For Greek students staying in their home country for tertiary studies, the system works something like this: When the university entrance exam results are announced, prospective students begin to count up the points (μόρια - MO-ri-a) they have earned according to their grades. According to this points system, they are eligible for study places at certain tertiary institutes, which they can apply for after the minimum points for each faculty are announced. Hence, they are accepted on the basis of what they scored, without being specifically selected by the university (a socialist archaic system, but Greece is changing and that will eventually change one day too, but no one knows when).

When the choice of university has been made, the first step for most students is to find housing. This may sound strange to non-Greeks, but Greeks prefer their student children to live in their own place, unless they know someone from the same town/village/neighbourhood that happens to be studying in the same place. The idea of 'flatting' with strangers is not at all common here, which is understandable when you think that the family is much more important in Greece than friends.

If you've lived at home all your life and you are still in your teens, you won't become independent overnight. Sleeping in a home all by yourself , shopping, cooking for one, learning to be economical, - these are totally novel concepts for you. If you're Greek, you can rely on your parents to help you out here. Parents go with their children to find accomodation (after all, they are paying for it) and they often furnish the apartment where their chidlren will be staying while they study. Greek rental properties are usually not equipped with furniture when rented out; since the crisis, second-hand stores have sprung up and recycled self-styled furniture is now more readily available (and so are cheaper products that can be bought new - that's one of the many positive things to come out of this so-called crisis).

And finally, I touch on the subject of student food parcels, as in the title of the post: Greek parents send their children food. I can see your horrified looks, I can sense your scoffs, I can hear what you're saying right this minute: They send them their food?! Can't they take this as an opportunity to learn how to buy, prepare and cook meals for themselves?!

Sure they can, and a good number do. But when they are lacking in time, and as students, I am sure that this will happen regularly, they will probably keep themselves nourished with takeouts. Maybe they will make a salad for themselves every now and then, while some time will be spent preparing heat-and-eats from the supermarket. Pasta is always an easy choice, so are eggs and sausages. When all else fails, bring on the bread and olive oil, with maybe a bit of cheese. All great food choices, both nourishing and filling, and reasonably cheap. But nothing like mama's kouzina, which is not only homely, but in Greece, it can also feel like eating cheap Greek frugal food at a good taverna. 

What will students do to feed themselves, if they have been supplied with the money and not the know-how or the availability of time to do this? They'll eat souvlaki one day, microwave pizza the next, some more takeout meals and some more supermarket heat-and-eats. They probably won't make yemista or fasolada and they may miss their mother's (or grandmother's) Sunday roast - just think about how feasilble it is to cook such dishes for one person - and think about how expensive it is for parents to provide the money for their children to be able to purchase the ingredients needed to make any meal. Supermarkets exist, but a large shopping trip, buying bargains when they are available, is out of the question for students, because they will not have appropriate means of transport to cart it all back home. The local store near their home will be more expensive than a supermarket, and bargains must be hunted. The Western notion of cheap food does not exist in Greece. Cans of baked beans and packets of instant noodles are not actually as cheap as one would think in Greece: Greek food traditions do not encompass such meals, nor do they include eating store-bought packaged just-heat-and-eat meals on a daily basis. Greeks who don't cook much will prefer takeouts rather than buy a can of baked beans.

The cost of feeding a student nourishing food is hard to gauge, especially if students are given money by their parents to spend on their food needs. It is hard to control this expense, unlike with rent (€200-400 monthly depending on location), electricity (€50-70), phone and internet connections (€50), mobile phone costs (€20-30), water usage (€10-20), stationery (€10-20), cleaning costs (€10-20), book costs (variable) and transport fees (€30-50), including long-distance travel costs (cheap tickets are available when booked early). Some provision must also be made for pocket money - a movie and a drink shouldn't be seen as a luxury every now and then, like once a month (€50). Already, the costs total about €600*. Health insurance costs are covered by parents' insurance for young unemployed people who are studying. Adding food costs to this amount will raise the monthly costs of putting a student through university to approximately €900 per month, which is what is considered a good monthly salary these days in Greece.

Greek mothers (and no doubt, many people in other crisis-ridden countries) have some tricks up their sleeve foodwise to help lower the cost of supporting their student offspring. When their student offspring is visiting them (Christmas, Easter, inter-term periods and during professor strikes - they happen regularly), they bring back the cooler bins and tupperware that their parents had prepared for them from their previous trip. These are refilled with frozen leftovers, home-grown produce, and specially prepared items like cookies, cakes, etc, for the student to take back with them. When the student is away and has eaten up all these home-made goodies, their mother will continue to send them a cooler box full of goodies by bus with appropriate refrigeration units, together with other bulk supplies which don't require refrigeration. It's easier to do this over land than over the sea, but there are also businesses specialising in moving such goods around the country.

The effort that a mother makes to prepare the items for the cooler bin is minimal if you think that cooking for most Greek families comes as second nature; the main cost involved is the transportation, which is similar to sending a parcel from one town to another. That's really very cheap. It's also a way to control the food expenses - parents know what their children are eating, and they know how much money they need to provide them with.

Providing your child with home-made meals while he/she is studying, whether at a home institute or abroad (sending food parcels to students extends there too) may sound ludicrous, especially since leaving school and studying away from home is often seen as the first time a young person is living away from their parents. In most western countries, this time is seen as the first move a child makes into the young adult world: the child's bedroom is replaced by a student dorm flat, pocket money becomes a student loan, home-cooked meals become 11p-packs of instant noodles and people learn to share expenses and duties. The idea of being dependent on their parents sounds conflicting: at a time in their lives when western young adults begin to assert their independence, Greeks seem to stay stuck to their childhood ways. But this is not the case at all - it's just one way that parents feel they can help their children to get through the difficult - and expensive - years involved in the upbringing of their children. As mentioned above, we don't have dorms and student loans, flatting isn't common, instant food is not the norm, and life is generally very costly. So you have to find another solution to give your child the chance to study for a better future. Few Greek parents will even put it into their mind to stop their child's academic progress. This is why Greeks are actually generally well educated, having some degree of some sort from some tertiary institute, regardless of the fact that they can't get jobs due to the unemployment problem.

Txtmsg to my son, 10 years from now: "sent u lentils+my tom sauce; dads growg onions+garlic now; click link 4 recipe; freeze portions in yoghurt pots; sorry cant cook 4u, off to shanghai tonite for cookg demo" 

Rural parents and farming families are at a particular advantage - they can send their children fresh produce from their own farm. Imagine not having to buy any fruit or vegetables, or picking up some freshly slaughtered meat or some freshly made cheese during your last visit home. Imagine having as much olive oil as you need because your parents are producers. No doubt, it is much cheaper than anything a student can buy and prepare to cook at home.

Here's how Greek food blogger Vicky Koumantou looks after her daughter's food needs while she's studying medicine at Ioannina. This article was published in a Greek newspaper in early June.

Let's take a look at a food parcel sent from Athens to a student of medicine in Ioannina. Vicky sends her daughter Anna a box every now and then, whose contents may last for a month or two, depending on how many dry goods it contains. Here's what Vicky put in Anna's 'Santa Claus' packet, as she calls it: home-made savoury biscuits and sweet cookies, marmalade, tomato sauce, cakes and sweet breads; frozen home-made moussaka, beef schnitzel, cheese pies and bougatsa (cream pies); freshly bought asparagus spears, mango, pineapple and avocado (exotic items that may not always be available everywhere in Greece at reasonable prices); and a present of chocolates from grandfather.

If it's part of your food culture to cook family meals, then it's probably part of your food culture to eat well. If you are eating well, you want to make sure your kids are eating well too. Politics, economic difficulties and women's lib advocates will not be able to stop you from doing this. Home cooking is an ancient substance, and if you know how to spread it beyond the borders of your own home, your family will be bound together no matter how different each member is. As a commentator on Vicky's blog mentioned (in Greek), after having been through a phase where she thought a woman cooking for her family was simply a slave, when they (the family members) come together at the table to eat the food they know well made by their beloved people, home cooking offers fullness and pleasure that is unattainable at any other dinner table. No wonder younger Greeks still know how to cook their grandmothers' recipes - that's what they've been eating most of their life.

*All expenses calculated by my own reckoning; I'm more frugal than most people. 

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