Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Materialism (Υλισμός)

Dear Linux/Ubuntu/Chrome (to whom it may concern), the word 'Zealand' does actually exist, it always collocates with 'New' and I do not wish to 'add' it to my own personal list of non-standard spellings or idiosyncratic vocabulary. The alternative spellings offered ('Zeal and', 'Zeal-and', 'Dreamland') are unsatisfactory. 

I had an interesting conversation yesterday with a mother of a child at the fencing club. We had not met before, and we did not know much about each other in the first place; only our children's activities brought us together. My Greek accent (as usual) was the instigation to a deeper conversation about 'different' children, the kind that don't go with the usual flow (I like to describe them as the kind that create streams from rivers).

"You're raising them without materialistic values," she noted. I have to admit that she left me speechless with this statement. It's not something that Greeks would first notice about me, and if they do, they will think there is something wrong with you if you are not materialistic (eg you are poor, uncultured, strange, etc). Material comforts are very important to Greek people, and this is mainly why Greece is in crisis now. The pre-crisis social class system in Greece placed a lot of people in the classic middle class, who would never have been categorised in this way had they been living in another Western country. 

Of course, there is a minimum of material comforts that we all need to make our lives easier, but we take these comforts for granted because we think they are 'standard' fixtures everywhere: running water in an in-house kitchen and bathroom, electricity, a phone line, an internet connection, a fridge and washing machine, a separate room to prepare and cook food. These things are seen as 'normal' in the Western world. In mountain villages of Crete, these things only came, one by one, since the 1980s, while internet connections aren't yet possible everywhere; some people still live with outhouse toilets.

What the other mother meant was that I'm trying to raise my children by making them realise that nothing will come to them easily. We don't buy things just because other people buy them. Buying things means spending money - if we don't include something in our budget, it has to be negotiated. Just because other children have a play station in their home, or a cell phone in their pocket, is not a reason for it to come into my own children's home or pocket. If that were the case, then I shouldn't have an internet connection at home; most of my children's classmates don't have one (they buy pre-paid limited-use card units). 

The discussion with the other mother reminded me of a Greek friend who has been talking to me about emigrating to New Zealand. He feels he can't offer a middle class life anymore to his family in Greece, despite having his own home and virtually all the creature comforts a low-income person living in a non-Western country could dream of. But there is one thing holding him back: he's been offered what he feels is a low salary there, something in the range of $NZ100,000. 

$NZ100,000? It sounded like a lot of money to me. My friend explained that it wasn't feasible to cover his living expenses without his wife working, and they want to start a family.  I don't know how much the average salary is in New Zealand, or the average cost of living or even what expenses are involved in living in New Zealand these days, as things will have changed very much since my time there, and anyway I wasn't a home or car owner while I lived there. But $NZ100,000 sounds a like a lot of money to me. Converted to euro, it's something like €63,000, which is twice my own home's combined income! Can I really not live well on this amount?

I know I'm not highly materialistic, which is probably why I can live with much less money than most people. But my understanding is that I actually have more money than these very materialistic people, probably due to the fear of 'a rainy day'. I also notice that these people aren't very frugal anyway. They often complain about not having enough money, but their spending habits don't seem to indicate that. 

If you own your own home, are happy to drive an old car, don't take your kids to unnecessary frontistiria, use the car economically (during times of high prices per litre - it's €1.73 at the moment), buy treats occasionally, pay for occasional trips to the doctor (I don't wait for the 'free' state services of EOPPY to solve my health problems), book 1-2 weeks away from home on a low-budget holiday, and cancel the holiday if you do home renovations, you can raise a family quite happily in Greece on €30,000. We have a garden because we like to plant a garden; it's a nice hobby. We cook at home a lot because it's healthier and cheaper. We don't have gym subscriptions, we don't rush off to the hairdresser's as soon as our fringes grow, we don't indulge in consumeristic spending sprees, we don't spend unnecessarily on accessories and clothes, we don't buy to-go coffees on a regular basis, we don't leave the house without filling up a water bottle, we don't plan to install a swimming pool on our property. For all these 'necessities', there are frugal substitutes.

If I wanted to emigrate, I'd do it only if I could live better than I already do where I am. I don't think I can do this by making a similarly 'low' income like the one we make in Greece. Thinking back to my time in New Zealand, I'd be worried about the stress level it would cause me if I couldn't keep up with the Jones. Not that I'm keeping up with them here either, but I notice how important some things are to others: Does it matter that my children's bedding doesn't have a cartoon character? And if it did, is it important to have the full range (not just the sheets, for example)? Who really cares if my car is a Hyundai and not a Lexus? Am I really a scrooge for not going to the cinema and waiting for the DVD to come out? Do I really need the full colour range of the same scarf to go with all my coats? (Isn't 1-2 coats enough to have?) What does it really say about me if I don't have a cable TV connection? It's just not easy to be middle class anywhere these days - we had it too easy in Greece for too long on this one. It's all a matter of personal happiness. 

This does not mean to say that my children do not ask me for things. They say that they need things that I feel they can do without. But most kids do that anyway. I notice that the more we discuss this issue in our house, the less likely they are to make unnecessary demands. I bought them a Nexus 7 for Christmas, the most expensive present I've ever bought them in my life. We talked about it for at least three months. They have understood that this is the only present they will get for the whole year and maybe longer. They don't yet get pocket money, and they don't have close relatives in Crete that shower them with presents (probably as a result of the combination of a lack of grandparents and having older parents).

My friend says it isn't easy to discard materialism when this is what you have been used to all your life, especially when your parents raised you on it. If you've been exposed to life in a big city, living on the idea that you can have whatever you want by using your disposable income, then it's difficult to change your standards. It's difficult not to fall into the traps of consumerism, especially if you've never been through this phase. We all have our consumeristic moments. In a way, the crisis is forcing people to be more frugal, but it will take a long time for people to pass on these changes to the next generation. 

On a personal note, I had a very materialistic mother. She died young, and I was left with all her crockery, cutlery, kitchen tools, pots, pans, blankets, sheets, tablecloths, napkins and I can't think of what else I have of hers that reminds me of her materialism. My mother's materialism made me condemn it. I could have discarded all the mismatched old-fashioned dinner plates, but I chose to keep them. For this reason, I didn't need to buy much when I began living on my own. Even when I moved into a home with my husband, I still kept them. I didn't need the expense of creating a new home. This is why my home furnishings don't look modern, and this is also the reason why my Greek home looks unique among the rest. And no, we will not buy a Nexus 8 to replace the Nexus 7 (or whatever the next edition will be called).  

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I told the other mother that I thought she was really quite clever to realise this about my family in such a short time of having met me, and I asked her if she was born and raised here. She told me she was from another Greek island and came to live in Hania when she got married; she has spent all her life  in Greece.

"But you do have a different air to your way of thinking," I said.

"It must have been something in the water," she joked.

I doubted that. It must have been something to do with the people that raised her.

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