Thursday, 31 January 2013

Ρεμπετομπλούζ (Greek blues)

In Greece, there are many stories to tell every day. Sometimes, the stories of the day are unrelated, like the incidents you see taking place on the road, with different people as actors. But most stories eventually marry well with each other, despite the different actors. Here are three different incidents which tell the same story.

Yesterday, I took my son to the police station to have his national identity card issued, now that he is of age. The office is run by civilians. I had to show my own identity card as a form of verification, because my son is a minor. The officer filled in some details on a piece of paper, then she asked me to hand the documents to her colleague on the other side of the room. The first clerk noticed that I was born in New Zealand.

"Don't you want to go back there?" (Blah, blah, blah - if you have been following this blog long enough, you will know the answer to that question.)

"I hate it here," she answered, something you least expect a state employee to tell you on the job.

"Are you from here?" I asked her, not sure how much prying I was going to be able to do. The uniformed police officers who issue passports in the same building do not exhibit such candidness and they are as humourless as one would expect people in their position to be.

"Yes, been here ever since I was nine," she said. "I was born in Australia, and I've always wanted to go back!" Typical Greek procrastination, I thought to myself. The woman was older than me, which means that she would have been 'stuck' here for at least 40 years!

"But why don't you like it here?" I asked her, wondering when she was going to tell me to shut up.

"Hania is the most beautiful city in Greece with the worst people," the other civilian piped up.

"Exactly!" her colleague agreed. "People in Hania have a very high opinion of themselves." There is a certain truth to that. People in Hania have much more money than other people in Greece, due to the combination of tourism and agriculture. When you are involved in some way in both fields (which is very common, due to the nature of employment in Hania), you should not find yourself out of pocket.

"Are you from here too?" I asked her.

"Yes, but I was raised in another city of Greece," she said. "And I wish I were still there. I had more genuine friendships there; people here are more interested in your finances than other aspects of your life." This has always been a problem of small town life anywhere. The main problem with Hania is that people are richer than other Greeks. Having been born outside Greece, I thought I should have my say in the discussion.

"The locals are very spoilt here, which causes their children to be equally badly behaved."

"Absolutely true!" both women said simultaneously. "We're full of rich business owners who charge the earth for what they sell, and they don't pay taxes!" They went on to explain to me that high ranking tax officers recently came down to Hania to do random checked. Apparently, the whole of Hatzimihali Yiannari St (a main shopping area in the town centre) is now in the poo.  

My son is regarded as a problem case in his Greek village school. I am told he daydreams in class, he is slow at copying form the blackboard, he doesn't always do his homework, and he disrupts the class. I never thought my child had serious social problems, until I was told that he kicked a smaller child (and made him cry, presumably). I wasn't surprised when the headmaster told me to see a child psychologist about this. As a conscious parent, I made an appointment with the appropriate health centre to have my child 'seen to', mainly as a way to show I am cooperating with the school.

The first meeting involved only the parents. On hearing the name of the (primary) school that my son attended, the psychologist said: "Oh, we have a lot of children coming from there - the headmaster sends them all the time."

From this, I gathered that I had just wasted my time, my husband's time, the psychologist's time and the state's resources, on trying to fix a most likely non-existent problem; even if there were a problem, the headmaster was simply passing the buck by avoiding the matter himself. Worse still, I have since discovered that the younger child my son had been in a fight with was recently suspended. And all that, from an insignificant Greek village school.

The consultation went on without a hitch. I felt supported throughout the discussion; the psychologist asked us if we wanted to bring our son back for a private consultation (without the parents - the second phase of the analysis). I agreed, as I feel this is the only way I can justify what I have been doing so far in trying to raise my children in a part of the world where irresponsibility reigns. The appointment has been scheduled but has not yet taken place.

While I was weeding the garden yesterday, a neighbour, who had heard the church bell toll in mourning style (she knew the deceased - a 96-year old woman from Smyrna), was wondering what time the funeral was going to take place. The notices are usually posted on the electricity pole near my house. Evgenia and I initially started chatting about the daily routines of nothing in particular, which eventually led to a discussion of Greece's current affairs; the crisis is a central focus in any discussion these days.

She told me about how her husband can't find work these days easily (he's a builder), the low pay he gets when he does find work ("anyone building these days is virtually doing it at bargain prices," she complained), her annoyance when her unemployed sons (in their 20s) complained about being roped into the olive harvest this year (they said they were tired after working the summer season at their uncle's restaurant), and the very high taxes we are now all paying,. Her biggest worry is watching her husband get stressed, which then streeses her out too.

"And why are we to blame for all this?" she exclaimed, supposing that I would agree with her (well, I suppose). Evgenia has been a housewife all her life, at a time when women her age were looking for hotel cleaning work - there are plenty in the area.

"Well... we knew what was happening, but we just watched," I started. She frowned and looked at me sympathetically.

"You were born abroad, so you could probably see it happening all along," she sighed. "But even so, we pay our taxes, and all the state does these days is ask us for more." Evgenia is right; we do pay our taxes indeed, and we know that if we don't, these debts will never disappear from our name.

"Δεν τα φάγαμε μαζί," she ended. She, like most Greeks, fails to understand that we are all in this together, and that we could easily find ourselves and everyone else around us to blame for the Greek mess if we simply thought about our actions as a reflection of the country, rather than a reflection of ourselves. Her husband had recently put up a sign near their house which I happened to notice (being the observant type) as soon as it went up:
FIREWOOD - 150/ton - 6912345678
The sign had come down as quickly as it had come up. I doubt he had sold all the firewood he had collected. He was probably reminded by someone that being so upfront with prices and cellphones could also mean that he may be caught by the taxman. In this day and age, you never know who is reporting you. And it is highly doubtful he intended to pay any tax on his profits. (On another note,  150/ton for firewood is 50 more than you'd pay at other places - what on earth was he thinking?)

I let Evgenia have her cry about the high taxes and electricity bills of all the properties they own, none of which are rented: a house to live in, another house the same size as their home where her mother lives alone, another over-sized house in another village near the sea, built on the pretext that they would go there to retire once their sons got married and inherited the other homes... all built and extended by her builder husband, in the days when life was really cheap and the taxman was in no rush. Just before she left, she asked me what classes my kids attended at school.

"I like your kids," she told me. "I watch them from the balcony of my house. They dabble in everything, don't they? I see them helping in the garden, carrying firewood, hanging around their dad in their garden, biking in the village. They look very street-wise, almost like small-sized adults in farmer's clothing. And they speak English with you, don't they? They're set up for the modern world already."

If you don't understand the lyrics (not even in translation), you probably need to add a bit of madness to your life.

Evgenia's observations have convinced me that I am at least taking the right direction; even though I am often surrounded by a lot of madness, greek stories like the ones I have related to you today encourage me to keep going.

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