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Friday, 31 May 2013

Styrofoam coffee (Καραβίσιος καφές)

Although my whole blog is written especially for my kids, this post is written specifically for them, as they slowly come of age. 

During my trip to Iraklio last weekend, I met a young Greek woman who has been a teacher of English for the last decade, without any qualifications apart from a certificate of proficiency in English. This is a typical way to teach languages in Greece - a certificate stating your level of proficiency is usually regarded as adequate; no teaching methodology skills are needed when you do private lessons (on a one-to-one basis in people's homes), or teach at a private institute (the classic Greek frontistirio set-up). It took Thalia a while to build up her clientele, and initially she didn't want to work in a frontistirio, because it paid less per hour than the private lessons, but when she broke her arm a few years ago, she eventually realised that the state health insurance contribution her employer paid on her behalf had some value; thanks to this contribution, she has also been able to pick up unemployment benefit during the three summer months (although this is about to change, according to the new measures created by the financial crisis).

Thalia was quite excited to hear that I came from New Zealand, and showed great interest in my previous homeland. She wanted to ask me a lot of things about it, things that struck me as rather odd (eg "Can you go swimming at the beaches there?") possibly because I took them for granted, but also because I realised I was not in a position to answer factually (eg "What is the average salary?"), as I had been away from the country for so long. She has an uncle there, her mother's brother, who she tells me is constantly badgering her to emigrate. She likes the sound of this idea, but can't make up her mind about going. This has nothing to do with the fact that she is obviously ignorant of any of the NZ immigration pre-requisites; it has something to do with the fear of the unknown. Life has never really been perfect in Greece, but most of the problems in the country are of a predictable nature - we know what to expect. And I suspect that Thalia feels very cosy here too; we like to complain, but we know how good it feels to live in a warm climate near the sea in a comfortable clean house, and more importantly, in relative safety. So we don't feel the need to change it too quickly, until someone puts it into our mind (as has been done relatively recently) that we need to re-think our way of life and make changes. The choices appear complicated to people like Thalia because they generally don't know what it means to 'live better' than they do now. In all honesty, Thalia could have made the move away many years ago, but it sounded like her uncle only recently started making everything sound so much better over there. She is curious, but remains sceptical.

Living at home with her parents, Thalia does not pay board or food expenses. With her hourly wages, she is able to afford to go out for a meal and(/or??) drink on a weekly basis, drink styrofoam coffee twice a day, treat herself to a souvlaki every now and then, pay for the petrol she needs to get to her lessons with her car (which her parents had bought her - they still pay the road tax and insurance fees), and buy extra call units for her mobile phone. She also spends quite a bit on cigarettes per day; I counted 7 cigarettes on each day we worked together, during the breaks. With whatever remains, she can pick up a new fashion item, upgrade her cellphone, or go on a mini-break. During the Easter break, she went to Prague for four days with a friend. "It was very cold," she told me. "And the food was rather boring."

Thalia's spending habits remind me of my single days. Instead of mobile phone and mini-break costs, I'd spend money on rent, utilities and bus fares instead, until my dad helped me buy my first car - I was just a couple of years older than Thalia when I bought a very old and over-used Zastava which lasted me two years. I paid something like 150,000 drachma for it, ~ 440 euro in modern terms. Naturally, I was responsible for its maintenance, which turned out to be quite high, but at least I got to learn how to drive with that bomb. Its final resting place was a chicken coop in a nearby village; it is still providing shelter to some hens. (Which reminds me - I must take the kids to see it there one day.) I gave it up when I realised that it was burning fuel at twice the normal rate - it was unsustainable to drive, and a waste of money to fix. The deposit on my second car was my dad's wedding present. I bought it two months before I got married, paying off the installments over three years, by which time I had given birth to both my children. I still take them to school in that car; my son is starting high school next year.

Even while I was living and working on my own, I still prepared and cooked most of my meals. I loved the idea of going out, but I was very careful with my spending habits. Most of my colleagues were members of the 'you only live once' league - they went out for a meal at least three nights a week. That doesn't count going out for a drink, which took place at least twice a week. I just couldn't bring myself to be that nonchalant. It's a personality thing, I think. It's the reason why I was more than happy to take on as much declared work as I could during my single days. Although I hated working at frontistirio (because it involved working daily in the evenings), and I knew it paid less than private lessons, I always thought it made sense to work in an organised school, before setting my self up on my own. Private lessons make you a freelancer, not a business owner, and they offer no security. I was working towards getting away from Athens one day and living differently in the future, whereas they were living life as if it would never change from what it was like at the time.

My first freddo-cappuccino, while working at the English examinations in Iraklio. We were given coupons to exchange for a drink or snack at the tuck shop of the school where the examinations were held. The organisers made it clear that the coupons had to last us for the two days we worked. All meals (plus overnight hotel accommodation) were provided, apart from the Saturday evening meal. But Saturday lunch was so filling (and stodgy) that I didn't finish it. Instead of throwing it away, I packed the remainder and ate it for dinner at the hotel, after finishing work in the late afternoon (7.30pm). Besides, I knew that next day's breakfast would be a huge one with many second helpings. Because we were literally sitting down all day, I took a long walk around the city of Iraklio to help my swollen feet relax, before getting to the hotel. My colleagues all took cabs for that short ten-minute walk from the examination centre to the hotel and then they went out for a meal (we had to be back at the examination centre the next morning at 8am). I was being well-paid for this weekend work; I couldn't stand the thought of spending this money flippantly. Perhaps if I did not have a home to maintain and children to raise, I'd have done the same thing as my colleagues - but maybe not: it's a personality thing.
Lunch on the job - breakfast was much better.


Styrofoam freddo cappucino coffee wasn't quite as hip back in those days. Even though it's like the only coffee most people seem to drink these days, I still have little idea what it tastes like. I can't even express it correctly which is evidence that I do not know how to ask for it! I always make my own coffee in the morning, and so does my husband. I drink mine at home and have another one at work (made in the cafetiere). My husband takes his in a portable cup; he prefers to sip it slowly in the taxi as he waits for the first fare of the day. I also admit to knowing full well the cost difference between home-made coffee and styrofoam. It's huge. If I bought styrofoam coffee on a daily basis, then I wouldn't be able to tell my kids that they should make their own chocolate milk instead of buying it ready shaken.

I was tempted to try styrofoam coffee while in London. I wanted to do the normal city thing, which I later realised would be impossible in my position. For a start, I did not need to run to catch a train, like everyone else was doing. I was on holiday, not going to work. Just before we caught an early morning train, I bought a styrofoam coffee from the tuck shop at Brockley station. I wish I knew how full the train would be at that moment as we made our way to Canada Water. I would never have bought one had I realised what I was in for. 'Packed like sardines' is an understatement: 'human marmalade' is more like it. I don't know if this is the reason why the coffee tasted so bad, or if it was just bad coffee 'de facto'. I learnt my lesson.
People marmalade at Canada Water - not only was it the wrong time to be drinking styrofoam coffee, it was also the wrong place to be touring with kids! This is mainly the domain of the new social classes in the UK: "Technical middle class", "Emergent service workers" and "New affluent workers".
I've heard that suspended coffee is all the rage in places with growing poverty. Not that I can't afford to drink styrofoam; I just know I can't have everything in life. Since I'm not poor, I would probably not feel comfortable going into a store and asking to be the recipient of a suspended coffee. I guess I wouldn't find myself in the stores that offer it, either, since I don't buy styrofoam coffee myself. Now that I have a home to maintain and children to raise, my needs have changed; as my needs change, my spending habits change too. Most of us have seen better days, but that should not be a reason for being unable to cope with the bad ones:
"... coping with poverty is to be flexible about what you really need. If you can't change what you need, if you have to have cigarettes or alcohol, that's when you really will be fighting poverty.
I wondered what exactly Thalia wants to change in her life that is bringing up the dilemma of emigration in her mind. She's definitely not poor. What's more, her life sounds like a happy one. She has a loving family, she lives in a freehold property, and what's more, she lives in one of the nicest parts of Greece (and Europe, and the world, for that matter), but her life - and more significantly but less consciously, her thoughts - have been affected by the crisis, like everyone else's. Her hourly wage at the frontistirio was lowered, and she had to 'put some water in her own wine' (she lowered her hourly rates for private teaching). And of course, fewer students are enrolling in language courses these days. It's an honest living, but it is very piecemeal and this worries Thalia about her future here. She is right to worry - it isn't just that the locals have less money to spend on language lessons, but she also faces stiff competition from both qualified teachers (unlike herself) and the internet. The classic way to learn something (in the classroom) is no longer the case. The world is changing, at a very fast pace, and forever.
The Iraklio skyline on a late summery afternoon. Iraklio is not the prettiest of cities, but this is due mainly to the fact that it works like a urban centre rather than a quaint town, such as what Hania is. Cities have more facilities than small towns, and people cooperate better than they do in towns. They come from all sorts of places and fall into various social categories. Towns are much more localised.
Thalia's uncle has been living in a small NZ town - she can't remember the name of the place, but she thinks it's in the North Island (I am beginning to doubt that she even knows the difference between the North and South Island) - for over two decades now, where he married a Kiwi lady who he met while she was holidaying in Crete. He eventually moved to her homeland because she couldn't take the isolation she was faced with in the Greek village where they first set up home. Despite getting divorced, her uncle decided to remain in NZ, where he ran his own glazier's business; he was too well settled in his NZ life to return to Greece. Όπου γης και πατρίς, he would often say on the few times he called his family in Greece. That was before the crisis; now he's telling his nephews and nieces to leave Greece and come over to NZ, with promises of good jobs.

I am not surprised to hear that Thalia is tempted to take up the offer. But Thalia has never visited NZ and had never thought of going there until now; she is being lured with what I would call false promises. Her uncle insists that because she speaks English, she will find a job easily. I am not going to doubt this as I really don't know the job situation in NZ at the present time; but I do know how easily people with accented English are passed over almost everywhere in the English-speaking world. It's a bit like anywhere, really; foreigners, no matter how readily accepted they are into society, remain foreigners for much longer than they would like to believe, even when they themselves feel that they have adapted well into their new environment.

"Will I be able to teach English in New Zealand?" Thalia asked me. Had it not occurred to her that NZ is an English-speaking, I wondered. Thalia and her uncle are talking at cross-purposes. When a Greek hears about a "good job", they usually think that the job pays a lot of money and the work conditions involve an office environment; it rarely involves getting your hands dirty. But when a Greek-New Zealander talks about a "good job", they probably mean that the job is an honest one with a decent employer - the money part may play some role, but it will be a much smaller role than the work conditions. Landing a job in NZ was never a final destination; it is a dynamic one, changing in nature as a person develops. Not so in Greece, where the destination is reached as soon as you land yourself a 'chair', which you try to hold on to for the rest of your life. Thalia still has a chair in mind when she thinks about employment.

Of course, Thalia has no idea about any of this, and I could see that she was not even at the catching up stage needed to understand this. Δεν ξέρει που πάνε τα τέσσερα, so to speak - the whole question is way way WAY out of her depth. For a start, Thalia doesn't know what it means to look for a job. She never really went through the job search process; she got her present work through contacts. Thus, she has never really been through what is often a gruelling process in the Western world: the job interview. Despite her many years in teaching the English language, she still sounds, thinks - and acts - like a Greek; she has no idea of what it means to be a global citizen, someone who can move about in the world without being ethnically tied, someone who does not have an idiosyncratic nationalistic hangup about how things are done. We like to think that people are the same everywhere, but that isn't true at all. Most people have not grasped the high connectivity that people share in today's world, and Thalia is a typical example of that.

Thalia's ignorance of the ways of the world beyond the borders of her island is weaving a complicated web around her that will contain many snags, but I can't tell her that. She needs to find it out for herself. So I hope Thalia ends up going to New Zealand, even though I firmly believe that she is setting herself up for failure.

I don't think she won't find a job, but I don't really think she will find the kind of job that she was expecting to find. Her new job will probably be something like a frontperson for a small business, say a gym receptionist. She won't find a job working at a supermarket: "I could do that back home," I can imagine her insisting indignantly. At least she will get herself a little holiday in an exotic part of the world; after that, she may return to Greece and recount her tales of New Zealand reality, after spending two (but not more than three) months. Perhaps she can update me.

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