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Monday, 16 December 2013

Personal crisis (Προσωπική κρίση)


I was in Iraklio on Saturday, working at the English examinations. I decided to leave the house early because I wanted to do a bit of exploring in the city before starting work. I parked the car close to the examination centre (an inner-city school in a built-up, congested, and perhaps one could also say, working-class area or maybe even poor neighborhood , and went on a short walk into the city centre, in search of an arts centre where a photography exhibition would be opening in the evening. I knew roughly where it was located, and simply asked people for directions just in case I got lost. I firmly believe you can never get lost in coastal areas. In Crete's case, either you are heading for the water, or for the mountains - one way or the other, one of them will come into view eventually, and you will know which direction you are walking in. The walk didn't take me longer than 15 minutes  including the information stops along the way.
Saturday, 7.30am, at the Vrises turnoff between Hania and Rethimno
Iraklio is a walled town, but unlike Hania, many of the town's walls are still intact and they are very well maintained. Compared to Hania, Iraklio is BIG: it is home to approximately 175,000 people (in the urban part alone - the figure refers only to the town). It has an Athenian feel to it: the part inside the walls (where I walked to) will remind you of Plaka in Athens in many parts, where the roads are very narrow, more like pathways, and the old houses have a romantic grandeur about them. But they stand side by side with derelict rundown properties too. The newer parts of the town directly outside the walls (where I was working) will remind you of a built-up congested neighbourhood in Athens, something like Pangrati, with its narrow one-way streets, heavy traffic, bumper-to-bumper parked cars, apartment buildings with shops on the ground floor and homes on top, and its generally run-down look. Most of the time, you cannot do much more to an inner-city area apart from splash a bit of paint and seal the cracks in the walls. Such areas will still look old and tired no matter how much veneer you add to them - to improve them in any way, they may need to be demolished and something new built in their place, which will probably sell more expensively and push the locals out of the area as they won't be able to afford to live there any more. We've already seen that happen in many places around the world - lucky for us, this trend has not caught on here.
Imagine this window opening as you are walking by it, and a n old man pops out his head. You ask him if you are heading in the right direction for the Lions (a central point in Iraklio) and he says: "Is your name Anna?" I told him it wasn't, and he told me not to worry, if he didn't guess right the first time, he never asked again. And yes, I am heading in the right direction for the Lions.
I found the exhibition centre, and as I had no interest in the shops which had just opened up for the day's trading, I walked back to the examination centre. The stores in Iraklio are much more enticing than those in Hania - the products are often of higher quality and cheaper. These are some of the advantages of living in a bigger place. On my way back to the exam centre, I met up with some of my colleagues, who had also come from Hania; they were doing a bit of shopping while they were in the Big Smoke. They asked me which direction the exam centre was in. I pointed to the road across from where we were standing: "It's about a 15-minute walk from here, all straight ahead, no turns."
A memorial service for a loved one was taking place as I walked by this church while I was heading towards the Lions. About 8 Roma children were waiting coming in and out of the yard. The liturgy had just finished and the congregation was  in the yard, having the customary coffee and cakes (it must have been a forty-day memorial service). When I walked back past the church after my walk in the town, I caught the Roma children each carrying a very full plastic plate with goodies that have been left over.
"Oh. I'm not walking that far," one said. I could have said '10 minutes', but I didn't want to mislead them - I am a fast walker. Besides, I knew that these particular ladies would not want to walk, even for 10 minutes. They headed for the taxi stand while I walked. The taxi would not be that expensive (probably something like €3-3.50 euro), and with the congestion, it probably would have taken them the same amount of time to walk as it would to be driven there (in fact, I found them in the main office when I arrived there myself!), but each to his own. I preferred the walk, as I knew that I would be sitting down for a good many hours in the exam centre and I had driven to work, whereas they had taken the KTEL (long distance, city-to-city) bus; they had spent a good 3 hours sitting in wide seats, chatting, moving about, and they may have had a bit of a snooze as they would have caught the bus quite early.
The warmest thing at work was a mug full of tea. The room was cold, as it would be when it's full of schoolchildren during the week. My kids spend the morning in freezing schools: just when the day starts to warm up, it's home time. 
My colleagues in this line of work are mainly, in their grand majority, Greek-something women like myself, in their mid-30s to early 50s. They had come to Greece in her heyday when the going was good: there was a lot of money going around, people were generally more optimistic, and everyone seemed busy. And rich. They were all helped by their Greek-heritage parents who had connections to the island to set themselves up here, with money earned abroad; few of us with Greek-heritage parents who lived abroad are renting. We still all have work, even though the pay is less now, given that prices for English lessons have dropped, and fewer children are attending private after-school lessons, a natural effect of the economic crisis. So my colleagues are coping with similar financial issues like myself: we have less money, but we still have jobs. But there is one major difference between me and my colleagues: we are all growing older within a crisis-riddled lifestyle, but they are growing older all by themselves. They are now faced with the dilemma of whether to stay in Greece for no other reasons than that they have a home (which is getting expensive to maintain), and that they have a source of income (which is lower than what they had in the past, and continues to diminish).
The narrow roads of Iraklio are romantic and lonesome at the same time. The picturesque old houses sit side by side with derelict ruins.
I'm not propounding the benefits of marriage and having children. I'm simply pointing out one of the biggest problems plaguing modern western developed nations, where people have the option of sorting out their basic needs (food, shelter, work) with a great degree of independence, but by doing so in a place like Greece, they unknowingly create another problem: they suffer from a great deal of loneliness which they were not inflicted with in the days when the crisis had not been brought to the fore. The economic situation has forced us all to downsize in many ways, including entertainment. It is a fact that single working people have more disposable income, and they are also more likely to spend money on entertainment than people raising children. But in a crisis, they too are affected. Either they have less money to spend on entertainment, or the actual modes of entertainment that they were once used to are now more restricted. They may also have grown out of them, so to speak. So, they often end up without the means to be entertained.
The Lions, Iraklio - the business around this central point in the town were relatively busy, as most central focus points often are in any urban centre. But the most places beyond here were relatively quiet, with just 1-2 tables taken.
If you are single and unattached, then living in a place like Hania at this time means that you end up spending a lot of time indoors, alone, without anyone to speak to, except on the computer. You may also have seen some of your friends leaving Greece, with or without a family (they may have been unattached or married, with or without kids), something that did not occur to you to do too, because just 2-3 years ago, you thought you were coping quite well on your own, despite the economic problems. Now that these problems have grown bigger and you've gotten older, you feel the heavy burden of independence, and you wonder why you did not leave when you could have done so. Hania is not an easy town to grow old in alone. Eventually, it will get tiring. And boring. And incredibly lonely.
An arty corner of Iraklio - on the left is a Chinese restaurant, on the right an enticing bookstore; the building in the background is where the photographic exhibition took place.  
You are then plagued by one more dilemma: should you stay or should you go? You begin to count your blessings, but the fickle nature of the issue makes it difficult to arrive at a decision. Will it be easy to set yourself up, all over again, all alone, in a more progressive world, which has a higher standard of living, which comes with a greater cost of living? Or will the costs and expenses involved in making such a move cancel out the advantages? Is it a good time to start all over again? Or is it too late? And what are you heading out to find? It's not the work or the money that you lack; it's the company. Again, you think how much easier it might be to cope with such changes if you had someone to share the burden of change with. The feeling of insecurity arising from the economic crisis has an effect on your psychological security. It may hit you that your independence was artificial - you thought you were independent because you were paying your own way, but with less money and fewer outings, you find yourself dependent on others' company, or at least a third party that can offer you the comfort you need to get through the evening without remembering that you are alone in a very small town. Company is not easy to find these days in a very troubled world. Having a partner/children/family makes up for the need to find company, as you rarely find yourself alone most of the day. But if you have none of that, you are not just alone, but also very lonely.
One of a number of well-preserved Venetian arches in Iraklio - this one is now called the New Gate, the last to be built in the town (it was renovated in the 1970s); construction began on it in 1587. 
More often than not in our times, people tend to blame the troubles that befall them on the economic crisis. But the crisis has shown up an identity crisis that was brewing well before the economic crisis sank in. And for a certain sector of society, this is now turning into a personal crisis. Our rather cold winter this year has forced many of us to count our blessings. Huddling up in a blanket or by the fire watching a film among company feels so much more uplifting than sitting in a room all by yourself with a bar heater by your legs to stop you from freezing. If a comedy is showing, your laughter will be heard by no one. Summertime, with its visiting relatives, foreign tourists, sunny skies and outdoor life, seems so far away.

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