Monday, 23 September 2013

Greeks revolting (Έλληνες επαναστάτες)

I don't normally apologise for anything in my blog, but I'd like to apologise on this occasion for the length of this blog post. It's long because it contains a week's worth of observations during the Greek high school teachers' strike. Hence, I have added sub-headings, to make things easier to read.

Discipline is a strong word. It conveys a controlling sense which has negative overtones in a liberal world (whose tolerance of liberalism led it hyper-tolerance). But discipline usually starts in the home, and it is often acquired by example. Who sets the example is a matter of culture - in the Western world, there is a national sense of what is normally regarded as disciplined action, but in an extremist country such as that which Greece has become, the state has never managed to impose discipline on its people. Nor, by extension, has any state institution. The lack of a standard measure of discipline in Greece is the root reason of most of Greece's problems. The Greek word for discipline is πειθαρχεία. But in Greek, we also have another meaning of discipline that is connected with education: that of παιδεία. These days in Greece, paideia is just as lacking as democracy, both of which were born in Greece. They have both been distorted to a form of brainwashing.

Morning routine
In the summer holidays (which are bloody long in Greeece - between 2 and 3 months, depending on which stage you are at school), I let the kids wake up whenever they want. But during school term, I have a routine, which I dislike breaking:
The breakfast bar - an old filing box, given a new leash of life. A possible winter project: cover it, make it look prettier, and hide its original use.
  • 6.53am: while it's still dark, the alarm rings (I have to get up to switch off), I get up and wake the kids
  • I start making my coffee
  • 7.00am: those still in bed get the sheets rolled off their bodies
  • 7.05am: those still in bed get the light switched onto their face
  • the kids prepare their own breakfast (helped by my establishing a breakfast bar on the kitchen table): choice of home-made jam or tahini chocolate spread (they always go for my jam!), butter, fresh bread, cereals, milk, cheese, and anything esle in the house that is vaguely healthy and can be considered breakfast food
  • the kids prepare their own school meals: anything including a piece of fruit, a home-made muffin, a home-made sandwich, etc - and don't forget your water bottle
  • 7.30am: last call for breakfast 
  • 7.35am: face, hands, shoes, bag (it had better have been prepared the night before!)
  • 7.45am: we're in the car and on the road
  • 8:00am: we usually manage to be outside the high school (and I am still early)
If I didn't do all this, then I could never get my kids to school on time with something in their stomachs before they got there. That's one of my jobs - to help my kids learn a routine that works well for them, which they can adapt in later life, according to their changing needs. It's my job to do that as the person raising them. If I didn't present this disciplined approach to our morning routine, what would end up happening is that my kids would get up just a few minutes before they needed to have left home to get to school, they'd eat nothing, they'd complain that that they are hungry, I'd have to fork out money for the school canteen, I'll end up with a constantly emptying purse, and they'd be fat. Or will they? 

Early start, early finish
Schools in Greece start at 8.10am all over the country. It's rather early, but if I were to try to explain this time within the framework of working hours in Greece, then it all seems to fall into place with the public servant mentality: 8:00am is regarded as the start of the working day for most Greek public servants (even in office jobs, many start at 7:00am, but most start at 8:00am - very few start after 8:30am). Needless to say, the earlier you start work, the earlier you are allowed to finish, in line with the communist-style 8-hours-work, 8-hours-sleep and 8-hours-play mentality. Teachers are public servants, hence it could be said that democracy is being served in this way in its full form (as long as you are a public servant, that is).   

To strike, or not to strike
On the first day of the Greek high school teachers' strike (Monday, September 16), I had to take my son to his school, to find out if his teachers had chosen to strike or not (the pseudo-rules of how to announce you are striking in Greece are explained here). I decided to wait outside the school until I found out what was going on, basically to save driving time and petrol money. When we arrived at 8.00am, I noticed how empty the front of the school yard looked, especially the teachers’ parking spaces. (Damn them, I thought; they had decided well before this morning that they would be striking. They were all still in bed while my son and I were at school.

Following the sheep
At 8.05am, my son comes out of the school and tells me that he may do 1 or 2 periods only. I asked him how he found that out. he said the other kids in his class told him. Then you really don’t know what is happening, do you?” Greek schoolkids are like sheep - they follow on from the others who seem to know what they are doing. Kids with older siblings possibly know the routine better. They are kept uninformed by teachers, which is why they resort to this tactic. But very few times do they actually know in full what is happening; they have roughly an idea of what is happening, and that is what causes a lot of confusion. Few of them make an attempt to know exactly what is happening. If only they knew something: if they did demand to know exactly what is happening, they would more likely extract this information on a more consistent basis, and their lives would change completely. 

At 8.10am, the bell rings. The children are all assembled informally in the school yard. I hear the headmaster speaking to them via a megaphone. As he calls out the name of each class group, rounds of cheers are fired by the children. Some children file out of the school just as soon as they had arrived for the day. This meant that either they had no lessons for the day at all (because all their ‘professors’, which is what all high school teachers are called - with the use of the same title at university) - were striking, or they had a free period before their first/only lesson for the day.

I told my son to inform me about the strikes in the way that the headmaster had explained on the first day: by phone – according to the headmaster, they are allowed to use the staff telephone to do this. Only a few parents, mainly the mothers of first-year pupils, were waiting outside the school in their cars, like myself, with the same hope I suppose that they wouldn't have to drive back and forth from home to school and home again. But I saw my son come racing out of the yard at 8:13am to tell me hurriedly through the car window: One lesson only, we’re having it now, then school's over!” He was excited, happy, almost glad of the outcome.

A sea of faces
Naturally, I waited till he finished - I would still have time to drive him back home and go to work on time myself. For the next 45 minutes, I sat in the car, observing an hour of life passing by outside a small village school. My first observation was rather amusing: I saw a boy I had never seen before, who I thought looked just like his father. We were classmates together at one point in New Zealand and although I hadn't seen his father since his wedding day, the face of the father was unmistakably imprinted on the son’s face. In that sea of Greek boys' faces, I remembered this boy's father as his spitting image. (He does indeed live in the area, something I knew before I came here.)  

Children were milling in and out of the school by now, while some were still arriving. A very few were coming on motorbikes (and another tiny minority on bikes). Not a single motorcyclist was wearing a helmet, despite the declaration that we were asked to sign in the junior high school about means of transportation to school: if the children used a motorbike, they had to ensure that the child (who wouldn’t be legally licensed to drive a motorbike anyway at the age of junior high school, unless he is repeating classes and he is in his late teens) would be wearing a helmet. One child walked by wearing shorts, with a thick scab visible, nearly 3 inches wide, from the very top of his left leg to the very bottom, probably acquired during the summer. He didn't look more than 15 years old. No doubt, he would be having sleeping problems. 

For every two years that I have lived in Greece, I can name a dead or seriously injured motorcyclist (always a young person) that I know or whose family I know of. This month, I added another to the list: one of the two motorcyclist deaths that took place on the same day in Hania during our mini-break in Southern Crete. A trainee policeman who would write you a ticket for drinking and driving died in the same way. The woman refuse collector he smashed into has now had her leg amputated. She was an immigrant, living and working in Crete - her life has been shattered by this event.
Junk food
Most kids were carrying a schoolbag. A few were also carrying mobile phones (not allowed according to a teacher I spoke to about this). Most weren't eating anything, but a visible minority were eating packaged food: large chocolate bars, crisps, baked-till-dry salty pastry snacks, ham-and-cheese filled bread rolls (doesn't that cost something like three times to buy it ready than it does to make it at home?) and packets of chocolate biscuits. Drinks ranged from locally produced soda (I was surprised to see this - no one was drinking global labels like Sprite or Coke), juice boxes (we're in the πορτοκαλοχώρια - orange-producing village - here!) and styrofoam coffee (they probably cost 7 times to buy out than to make them at home). One girl even arrived licking an ice-cream rocket cone. No one was munching on fruit or anything that looked barely home-made. (My son had an apple in his bag. I know that one day, he may be embarrased about bringing the apple out of his bag. That's why I insist on a large breakfast every morning. You won't need to eat much until lunch time then.)

Some of the kids eating this food - both boys and girls, from both senior and junior high school as the schools are located in the same place - were overweight; but some were not at all overweight. It's not the junk food that's making the fat ones fat. It's probably a combination of factors, such as eating large portions of food and inactivity, just as much as eating hi-fat, hi-sugar, hi-carb food. This store-bought food, which requires a small fortune to buy on a daily basis, points to the fact that in this school catchment area, which ranges from the rural lowlands to the remote highlands of Hania, there is no shortage of money. It should also be noted that there were more children eating nothing, and they too came in all shapes and sizes. Obesity and junk food are only partly related - junk food is just one factor in a collection of factors, working negatively towards obesity.
Our celebration meal last night, a happy junk food treat - my son got the first prize in his category in the Pan-Cretan fencing competition held yesterday in the town of Moires (Iraklio). This is one of their favorite junk foods: fried potatoes with bacon, cheese and pink sauce. 
It's not a crime to eat junk food, but there is a place and time for everything, and it's not for breakfast on a school day. When Greek kids eat junk food, it is not a sign of poverty. It's a lack of discipline. Neither does junk food signal a lack of decent food in Greece. It signals a mismanagement of priorities. I can guarantee that in the houses of those village children, there is something stewing on the stovetop or roasting in the oven every single day. 

Very little loitering was taking place. Who wants to loiter in the burning heat, under a scorching sun, on the concreted road outside a rather ugly-looking school? Across the road form the school, the area is filled with orchards groves and olive groves. It is a busy road linking the south with the north of the island. Most of the kids who were leaving the school moved away from it, probably going home, or perhaps hanging around in a more convivial environment close to the school. Those who had classes but were enjoying a free period in the first hour had to keep close to the school in order to hear the bell. Some parents came to pick up their kids, but most children would be going home on the school buses, whose drivers had been informed to come and pick them up early. 

Village schools are handy in this way: they do not attract undesirables. In the town cetre, there is more serious cases of loitering. It isn't the children that are loitering, though. 

At one point, a group of 5 kids passed by my car in a straight line. The sole boy in the group was wearing very brightly coloured clothes, dressed in a similar way to when I saw him on the first day of term. He had a Jennifer Aniston haircut (when she had cut it short, pageboy style, just above her shoulders), his pants were bright red, his t-shirt bright blue, and he was walking boldly in the middle of a group of girls, just like he was doing on the first day of term. His clothes were just as much out of the closet as he was; he made no attempt to disguise his homosexuality, and he was not being chastised or ostracised for who he was. In fact, I've never seen any prejudice against gays in Greece. There's always been a certain amount of tolerance to homosexuals. They are still treated as 'different', like anyone else who stands out form the crowd, but they are not targeted, as it sounds like when you read the Greek anti-press which often clumps minorities together, eg homosexuals with HIV+ carriers. Gays who get into confrontations usually do so for other reasons, and their gayness is then used derisively. It's not usually their gayness that gets them into a confrontation in the first place.

But the boy's - possibly - effeminate clothing and hairstyle still have to make us question why he prefers to stand out in this way. After all, he could have been heterosexual and still worn these clothes. This comes as no surprise to me - this is exactly how homosexual men are depicted on all Greek TV shows that feature gays. It's like they do it on purpose, that a gay man can only be effeminate. So this village boy's role model is mainly this one: the effeminate gay men on TV. But gay men that I have come across are never like that in the first place. As for gay Greek women, who? They are invisible in our society, as if they do not exist. (But they do, and Greeks can name well known ones - we just don't call them lesbians in the written press.) Greeks are still learning about the homosexuality issue. They aren't brilliant students, but at least we aren't Russia (but we probably won't become the Netherlands, either). 

Other mothers
During this time, I stayed in the car, pretending to read a book about herbs, with the window open (it was very hot). I tried to look like I was minding my own business (while I made notes of my observations). Mothers came by and stopped to make some polite standardised chit-chat. Greek village housewives do not have much to in the morning. Some walked a little further down the road to have a drink at the cafe close by to the school. From the chit-chat, it seems that they are resigned to the situation at hand: they have lived through similar circumstances, they are used to it, and they don't seem to believe that much change can take place. They have not lived in a different environment, and I probably seem too foreign to them. 

I asked them why they should support the striking teachers. Their answers were very typical of what most Greeks would answer to this question: "But what can they do when their jobs are at stake?", "They are within their rights", "It's up to them if they wish to strike", "They are being treated like slaves". They answered like sheep, with cliches; they had either once worked for the private sector or had never had a paid job, let alone been a public servant. They shrugged their shoulders and moved on. One mother claimed that she supported the teachers' strike, because they are helping the cause for anti-slavery: "When our children are supposed to find jobs, all there will be is slaves' wages." This particular mother was very strong-minded. She is a cook, and had been on a €1,500 salary, which has now been reduced to €800. (Just for the record, I am a Masters' graduate, and I barely managed to reach €1,200 at the most, which has now gone down slightly.) She was getting a high salary because her union had argued that cooks did βαρέα-ανθυγιεινά (heavy-duty and unhealthy) work, so they should be paid extra money for that, managing also to secure early retirement for them. This occupation has since been reclassified to 'normal working conditions'.

I now understand better why Greeks may be seen as supporting the teachers' strikes, and hence the status quo. They want the freedom to express their opinions and be who they want to be, simultaneously being employed on well-paid salaries, because without these two elements, they fear slavery. Slaves to who though? It can't be the Germans: my son bought home yet another paper that I had to sign for his second foreign language choices (the first foreign language choice in Greek schools is compulsorily English). "Tick German," he told me, "everyone wants to do German, not French." So that's how they are hoping their kids won't end up being slaves - by learning German. (I wonder how they'd react if Chinese was offered as a foreign language choice.)  

One of the mothers mentioned how she had always supported the sit-ins that take place every year, when children overtake the school premises, stay in the buildings at night and forbid entry to the teachers. "Would you seriously allow your child to do that?" I asked her, clearly showing my annoyance - this is something that we are not used to in the Western world, children as young as 12 taking over the school premises and not allowing teachers to enter (considered perfectly normal in Greece). She explained that she was never allowed to stay overnight at school, so she only attended the sit-ins during the regular school hours, and then went home. 

So what did she achieve when the school remained closed, and the children who went to school expecting to do lessons found that the teachers had been thrown out, the teachers didn't make any attempt to enter the school, the headmaster allowed the children to have their revolution, and the school buildings and furniture were destroyed, which meant more money being needed to repair the self-inflicted damages, and more complaining teachers, students and parents when the repairs were not made swiftly?

The mother may or may not have been aware of her adherence to a specifically Greek form of liberalism, which the Western world has already explained as a pseudo-left trend. Her answer was that she was glad to have had the chance to be able to express herself in a 'free' and 'democratic' manner, and she hoped the same for her kids. Another mother admitted that the only time she agreed with the sit-ins was when Papathemeli introduced a law back in the mid-90s to stop cafes in densely populated areas from continuing to blare loud music past 2am which prompted young kids like herself at the time to revolt by staging sit-ins at their school, destroying the equipment and trashing the premises at the same time, without the police being called to intervene. What is now seen as, fair, logical and reasonable, ie showing some consideration for others and having no-noise times, was regarded as a breach of freedom in her time! 

How my kids spent the national strike day - it took them three atempts to get this almost right.

National strike day
The second day of the strikes ran much like the first day. My son had 3 periods, so I arranged for his father to pick him up. On the third day - which was supposed to be a national public sector strike day for the whole country - we still had to go to school and we still had to wait to be told if his teachers would be striking. The cats teased the mice that day - he had no lessons. Coincidentally, neither did my daughter at her primary school, but she was informed the previous day, as is done in primary school. What's the difference between primary and secondary school? One of the mothers insisted that even primary school teachers did not have to tell people if they were striking until the last minute. "They're going against the law," she claimed. But they were showing more respect than the secondary school teachers to both parents and pupils.

On the last two days of the week, he had four periods on each day. This is despite the fact that on that fateful Thursday, there were two revolutions taking place on the streets of Greece: the national public sector strike which was continuing from the day before, and the anti-fascist demonstrations against the death of the far-left musician by a far-right fish market worker. So on the day when the public sector should have shown its full force, it ended up showing its full weakness - after three days of strikes, most teachers went back to work. Not even acts of fascism were strong enough to make them revolt - their pockets spoke more loudly. (I wrote this part of the post on Saturday morning; by Saturday afternoon, I heard that the teachers' 5-day rolling strikes are over, after just one week. Too few wanted to continue with a five-day strike, so a two-day strike is being proposed (a three-day strike was ruled out - again due to low participation levels). Either their pockets spoke louder, or they have tired of the 'nothing' revolution, and are showing acceptable of the inevitable). 

Their inspiration for the task - and the follow-up (an essay in English). They combined English language, physics and environment lessons together with pairwork in this project. I cannot afford to give up my salary and home-school them. But that doesn't worry me - I'm good at supplementing their schoolwork.

My son tells me that classes will be back to normal on Monday (not surprising, given Saturday's newspaper article - see above paragraph) with six-period days. Is that what a 5-day rolling strike is all about? If it's a choice that the worker can make, in this case, the teachers are preferring the work. But is a teacher a worker? I've been a teacher all my working life, but I've never felt like a worker. The word 'worker' conjures up a different image in my mind: someone whose work environment is boring, tiring, dirty, monotonous. That cannot possibly describe the work environment of any teacher, no matter how much they like their job. If they detest it, then they probably did not have a calling for the profession.
Your teachers can often predict if you have a calling to be a teacher. My school report for 1977 (above: Primer 5; below: Primer 6) is typical of my Clyde Quay School reports in general, and of course I remember all my teachers: Sara was an American Jew who had migrated to NZ and had taken up NZ citizenship, and Paul was a half-Greek Kiwi (which explains the report being written in Greek, for my parents - Paul's mother wrote it for him). High school was different.
Approachable teachers
This diatribe is not a criticism of Greek teachers' teaching. We haven't seen much of that yet! They may be highly intelligent (my son told me how he really liked his only maths class to date because the teacher appeared very knowledgeable), they may also be nice people (they are just people after all, first and foremost), but they need to remember that they are doing a job which you must have a calling for. I don't think that this is what they all had in mind when they were given their jobs. Their strike behaviour is bound to reflect negatively in their teaching if none of them put students before their political convictions. For example, students remember their teachers by saying: "Oh, that one always goes on strike". You cannot write off your students, keeping them in the dark until you feel like opening up to them again, and expect to gain their trust. They need to really think about this - they are not just public servants when they come to school to be in contact with children and young people. 

Having said this, the headmaster made a positive impact on my son: On Tuesday, he talked to his class group for two periods, possibly using the teachers' strike time to help keep the kids in school longer. He probably found a moment to talk to all the new class groups in this way during the week. "He seems really nice, Mum," was his impression. My own thoughts on the headmaster are generally very positive too, from the few occassions that I've talked to him; my son knows full well how easy it is to get on the wrong side of a headmaster/teacher, and to be ignored, neglected and misunderstood.

Lack of discipline
Discipline shows respect, and vice-versa. If I learnt anything from the strike period, it is that a large minority of Greeks lack discipline in their own homes, and therefore by extension, respect towards their fellow Greeks. Rules are treated contemptuously - they are not for us, they are only for other people. Kids eat junk food for breakfast and they ride motorbikes without a helmet or license - parents give them the money to do this. Teachers act secretively, keeping information from their pupils. This is how they expect the student to be kept in their (lower) place. But they are not showing respect to the intelligence of the open young minds of their students, some of whose parents are not teaching their kids any discipline. While they all collectively enjoy a high level of hedonism, when economic problems arise, they cry wolf; economic problems are never explained by the possibility of misplaced priorities. Greece can't get her house in order because in many cases Greek homes lack order. But no one would admit the latter - if I said this to those other mothers, they'd think of me suspiciously: she is a ξένη, she is not really Greek, she has been raised like a Protestant. 

Distorted democracy
I think it is fair to say that there is a large group of Greeks that have a rather distorted view of democracy. They regard the new fiscal order as a form of slavery, even though they have amassed enough personal wealth to continue living as if nothing has changed. They want the right to continue amassing wealth without losing their comforts, and they are not prepared to give up something in order to win something else. A friend of mine called Greeks left-wing capitalists, alluding to their communistic work ethics which they combine with their delight in amassing consumer goods. They fear slavery but they don't realise that they are already slaves to money, wanting more to have what they they think they deserve, without really having earned it in the first place, or even having compared costs to see what they can afford. If it took two decades approximately for some Greeks to admit that Papathemelis may have been right when he was seen as "trying to control nightlife and as being contrary to the Greek spirit of leisure", perhaps they will need another two decades to see why they really can't both have their cake and eat it. And when that day comes, they will know for sure that they cannot have everything, and that they cannot go back to the days when they believed that they could. 

Greece seems to be a very divided country at the moment, with her visible extremism, but the different labelling of political parties is a misnomer. The far left is no better than the far right (they are both enti-establishment and violent), while the centre is not in a position to exercise self-power: they are simply there to execute the EU's/IMF's orders. The leader of the main opposition to the government even went as far as to ask schoolchildren to support their teachers in their 'cause'. Tsipras thinks he can brainwash them, and why not? Most voting Greeks have been brainwashed into believing the promises of one political party or another. Tsipras also knows how effective it is to draw people near him in their young age - he spent a lot of his time in his youth staging sit-ins at school, holding banners and protesting on the street. (That's one reason why his English skills are severely lacking - his rich dad's money was not enough to keep him in frontistiria; there was a lack of discipline in his home, for sure.) People relate to him well - they can see themselves in his person.

The murder of the musician confused the teachers' strike, exacerbating the tension, causing a melee, making the strikes lose their focus. We don't know which revolution we are fighting for anymore, or whose side we are on. Are they much different anyway? If we still had παιδεία, we would know that they are not.

It's Monday morning now, and I'm about to take my son to school again and wait at the gates until he tells me what he is told will be happening for the day. It's difficult to imagine that I will have to go through this for the next 6-7 years. The teachers will get tired of this game, and their pockets will suffer. I don't think it will last long. Patience...

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