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Sunday, 29 December 2013

Τα φάγαμε όλοι μαζί (We ate it all together)

The following story was inspired by the recent tragic death of a 13-year-old Serbian girl from carbon monoxide poisoning, due to the lack of heating and the electricity being disconnected in her home


some time in September...
The old tenant
Borys was now owing three rents, and had promised the landlord that he would pay up as soon as he was paid from his job some time in September. But when the electricity was disconnected, he decided that he had had enough of repaying everyone he owed money to. The situation was getting out of hand now. He had already decided to leave both the house and the job, even though he had not been fully paid by his boss, who still owed him last month's pay. The owner of the petrol station did not seem to be short of customers or cash; he was just like any employer, keeping his worker on a leash, to make him come back the next day to work in the hope that he would eventually be paid. One day, some day, any day. Eventually. Borys never lost hope. And all the while, the new wages were accruing. The new boy who had been on the job since mid-August was the son of the brother of the owner; Borys could guess easily that his own time would be up soon. Blood is thicker than water. He was packing his few belongings in the flat, ready to move, when his cellphone rang. It was his friend, Janusz, whose house he would be staying at. Janusz had a good boss. He was settled in Thessaloniki, and his wife had recently given birth to their second child. Borys knew Janusz from his youth as they both came from the same village in the homeland. If this had not been the case, Borys knew that Janusz would not have helped him. Janusz kept a low profile simply for the reason that if he were more extroverted, the floodgates would open, and Janusz would be inundated with offers for help from all the other Bialobrzegians in the city. 

The new tenant
"Hey, Borys."
"Cześć." Borys wondered if Janusz was having second thoughts. 
"Have you left the apartment yet?"
"No. I'm still here."
"Good... Agnieszka wants to move in."
"Agnieszka?" Another Bialobrzegian. But she has a daughter. What is she going to do living in a house without power? The debts on the electricity alone were already over a thousand euro.
"She's just been evicted. She doesn't care about the electricity. Here, talk to her yourself."
So Borys waited at the apartment until Agnieszka came to the house, with her own meagre belongings packed into two sports bags, and Irena, her fifteen-year-old daughter. She explained that she would continue paying the 150-euro rental whenever the landlord called round. But how should she explain the disconnected electricity to him, Agnieszka asked Borys 
"Oh, you know how landlords are," said Borys. "They prefer one in the hand than two in the bush. And DEH never asks you to pay after they disconnect you - you only pay once you ask to be re-connected."

The taxi driver
Babis had been waiting for a fare at the same taxi stand for just over an hour before the woman and the girl boarded. That was pretty good, he told himself: the usual wait at this busy intersection was nninety-five minutes at this time of the day. He could tell that the females did not take taxis often so he swtiched on the double tariff immediately. This was going to be his last fare for the day before he handed over the cab to his partner, and business had not been good at all. The busy summer season was practically over; he did not want to think about the winter waiting time at the same stand.

Babis often reminsced about the past when everyone took taxis at the drop of a hat. Five years ago, he was being taxed at eleven percent on a flat rate of eleven thousand euro per annum, even though he made a gross income of a hundred thousand euro a year. That was never declared of course. Why should it be declared? No one asked hm to declare what he was earning. They simply taxed on him on what they believed he was likely to be earning, which was all wrong anyway, but what fault of his was it? That was the rule back then, and he had no reason to question it. Now, he was being taxed on the first euro he made, and he found that grossly unfair, especially when there were days when he did not even make enough money on his shift to cover his daily expenses: he needed at least thirty-two euro a day just to cover the operating costs.

He turned into the street requested by his fares. The meter had written up 9.50 euro. "Ten euro in all," he said. If they asked him what the extra 0.50 cents was for, he'd say that he didn't have any change to give them. He didn't offer a receipt - they didn't look as though they would ask for one anyway.

The tenant's daughter
Irena had been enjoying life in Thessaloniki in the last two years that sh ehad moved here with her mother. The best part was the weather: in the summer, it was sunny all day; even in the cold wintry weather, there was still a lot of sunshine. It hadn't been easy for her mother to keep both their heads above water as their standard of living fell lower and lower every day but it beat the monotony of Bialobrzegi, where a gray cloud seemed to cover the sky, like a grey tarpaulin keeping away the sun's rays and dimming the sky all winter. It rained in Thessaloniki but nothing like Bialobrzegi, where the drizzle never seemed to stop. Irena was happy with her schooling in Greece. She had initially been placed in a younger class, but her hard work had persevered and this year she would be placed with her own age group. She liked the freedom of Greek school too: no school uniform, no school fees and no school books to buy - everything was given to them free of charge. She did not feel any poorer than the other children in the school - her high school was located in an impoverished area, most children dressed in a similar cheap fashion to her own, and practically all children were now receiving some food donated by charities. She felt no different from the other pupils in her class.

Despite not having power in the house, Irena and her mother were never without a charged mobile phone. They knew of people who had free electricity by way of illegal re-connection, so they could recharge the battery there, but these houses were a little far from the apartment, so they couldn't make use of the 'service' as often as they wanted. Irena's best friend Mariza always let her charge her cellphone when she visited her. Once a week, she would stay overnight at Mariza's, a treat which she appreciated because of the small perceived luxuries: a plate of piping hot stew, a comfortable bed with freshly washed sheets, and the general family atmosphere of Mariza's household. She always felt welcome at Mariza's. But it was this welcoming feeling that made her aware that she may easily end up outstaying her welcome. So Irena never remained at Mariza's longer than one overnight stay. And only once a week.

The landlord
Andreas was beginning to regret owning so many properties. What was once easy to build and claim, was now a nightmare to maintain. Things had reached their height. The apartment block consisted of eleven flats, and right this minute, five were sitting vacant. More would have been vacant, if Andreas had not been lenient about allowing the tenants to stay in the flats without an electricity supply. He could not afford to pay the debts accrued on the power supply for each absconding tenant, so he rented them out without electricity and told the tenants that if they wanted to reconnect, he would deduct the costs off their rent. The absconding tenants would sneak off at all hours, so he couldn't catch them in the act. And anyway, he was tired of doing this. He was tired of chasing others to avoid being chased himself. It was enough that he knew he was getting some rent rather than nothing. How had things come to this? Only five years ago, the apartments would be rented the moment that the previous tenant emptied them, and people rarely moved houses in those days, staying in one place at least 3 years. He had stopped paying the property taxes after he applied for a court injunction to avoid paying them. Heating fuel was out of the question this year, not for his own apartment, not for any of the other apartments in the block. Without power supply in most of the apartments, the whole block was beginning to resemble a ghost town. At night, it was dark and lightless, a lonely and dangerous sight. At least he still had the power on in his house.

In better days, Andreas picked up ten monthly rentals. On average, three hundred euro from each one, times ten - three thousand euro a month. With his salary from his job at the city council, that made the phenomenal sum of four thousand four hundred euro coming into his hands every month, not including his wife's salary, which he never counted because it never came into his hands - that was spent on her own maintenance: clothes, shoes, bags, hairdresser's, cosmetics, cigarettes and drinks out with friends. Although things had changed, he found it hard to admit this, and so did his wife, although there were times when Andreas thought that she could not even see the changes. Life continued as it always had, in some respects. She was not used to paying any expenses towards the home. This was not her fault, Andreas often said to himself. Sometimes it crossed his mind that it was his fault that he had 'taught' her to be the way she is. Maybe it was his unstressed attitude that made her feel that things were still under control. She was still the same, just like she was when they married - fashionable, well-manicured, smiling. Maybe he was to blame - he kept the financial problems well hidden...

The new tenant's husband
Stanko had lived in Greece for about eighteen months, but decided to return to Warsaw six months ago, where he lived with his married daughter. He felt safer among his own kind. He had followed his wife, together with their younger daughter, to Greece after she told him how much better things were there than in Poland, and he decided to take a chance and see things for himself. But after the initial phase of migration - which did not last much longer than a month  for Stanko - where the novelty of living in a sun-filled world aroused excitement, and the ancient history that he had learned during his communist schooling came alive side-by-side with the awe of Byzantium, he had tired of Thessaloniki. He had spent most of his life in Warsaw. He only moved to his wife's small hometown after the fall of communism because he had lost his communist-appointed post in the capital city, and he had more contacts in Bialobrzegi that could help him keep his family fed than in Warsaw.

In essence, he had friends in both Warsaw and Bialobrzegi, but in Thessaloniki, he had no one. He found the other Bialobrzegians too village-like for his upbringing. At least, in Bialobrzegi, he shared many common social themes among other residents. But in Thessaloniki, the Bialobrzegians seemed to live like urban peasants; none had lived in towns much bigger than Bialobrzegi until they came to Greece, and they had only passed through Warsaw in transit, so to speak. Agnieszka was enthralled by the sunny weather, and Irena was easily influenced by this too. Irena had not spent enough time in Warsaw to fall in love with the capital city of her homeland, so it did not surprise him that she was happy where she was now. Bialobrzegi must have seemed a hole to her compared with the vibrant nature of any large city in the world, but it was impossible to become any more of a burden to her older sister as things stood. Stanko had his reservations about living under the same roof as another family, as he knew he was intruding on their privacy. But his son-in-law was a very good-natured man, and he felt fortunate to know him not just as a relative, but as a friend. He felt safe where he was for the time being, depsite being unemployed and unable to contribute to the family income. But things were difficult everywhere, and he preferred to be where he was now than with his wife, who he felt was chasing an unrealisable dream: in his opinion, nowhere was better, it was all the same. Things were difficult everywhere, but Agnieszka saw things differently. And Irena had to stay with her mother at this stage - there was nowhere else to go for the time being.

The neighbour
Soultana immediately noticed the absence of the shifty-looking immigrant in the neighbouring apartment. She did not like his looks, but she felt safer with him in the house than the two females she now saw coming and going from the apartment. Two female immigrants living alone, practically unemployable. How would they be surviving in a city rampaged with unemployment? Now that winter was coming on, how would they keep warm? It was common knowledge what kind of service unattached females could offer, and this is what Soultana was afraid of. The previous tenant before the man was in exactly that line of business. Often during the nights, Soultana would wake up on the pretext of wanting to go to the bathroom. But this only started when she was widowed, not before. She was afraid living on her own, but there was little else she could do about it. She had no other family member to move closer to, no children, no sisters or brothers. She was alone, and she was familiar with the apartment where she was living now, as she had come to move here with her husband, when he retired. It was her refuge, but lately, Soultana did not feel safe anywhere. When Soultana woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, she could hear the front door of the apartment opening and closing, and more than one set of footsteps at the door. She never saw anyone except the female tenant during the day, and rarely in the morning, but she knew there was more than one person going through that door, and only in the wee hours. Heard but not seen.

The only thing that comforted Soultana was that she had seen the older of the two women presently living in the apartment cleaning the windows of a nearby store, and she had also seen her cleaning the staircase and lobby area of the apartment block. Perhaps she was living here in return for doing other jobs to the rich owners of the apartment block, who she did not particualrly like, after the incident where they evicted another family in the block: a decent-looking, ideal family, which had fallen on hard times during the crisis. This was apporximately two years ago, after they fell in arrears for three months. Now look at the likes of the new tenants that were coming in. Maybe it would have been better to keep decent people in the flats and have them maintaining the property rather than throwing them out just because they didn't have the rent. Maybe this woman was different to the other solo female immigrant tenants that had passed before through this house. The younger girl, with her pale complexion, looked so fragile. But still... Soultana continued to suspect. Guilty until proven innocent. They are all the same, she thought.

The high school teacher
Mariana felt exhausted thinking about the start of the new school year. She knew it was going to start with strikes, she knew this was unfair to the students and the parents, and quite frankly, she did not want to strike. She was tired of striking because it never had a single positive consequence for the last three years. No one got a raise anywhere in the public service, nor were their jobs secure, so why would anyone expect teachers to be immune from these ills? She knew what awaited her: first, the union would call an indefinite strike; then the teachers would all strike on the first two or three days; then most would go back to work after the third day of the strike; then most would say they couldn't afford to strike, and the strike would fizzle out. So what was the point of it all?

She looked through her register of the students in her group. Some Greek names, some foreign ones. Not many surprises: the class group (second year of junior high school, Form B3) remained relatively unchanged since last year, her colleague (the previous form teacher) told her: Νικόλας Αθανασίου, Θεοδώρα Γερασιμίδου, Κωνσταντίνος Γρίβας, Irena Szczyz, at which point she stopped to contemplate the name. The high consonants-to-vowels ratio told her that the name was probably Polish. She wondered what a Polish girl was still doing in a crisis-ridden Greece. Trying to pronounce the Polish name made her feel even more tired. She closed the folder and tossed it onto the pile of paper debris in the middle of the communal teacher's desk in the staff room. She would not need to worry about how to pronounce the girl's name for at least a week, if not longer. She picked up her bag and left the school, bidding goodbye to the headmaster, who was the only member of the teaching staff in the school at the time. Mariana was usually the first one to come in and the first to leave after the headmaster. Even during the strikes, she maintained this routine.

The events organiser 
Things were not going well with Eleni's business. It was the tail end of summer and she partly expected this. She had made good money in fact during the summer, with weddings, christenings, and garden functions for all sorts of business-related events, but there was very little money left over to tide her through now that she was not making good money. The real problem she presentely faced was the bills that kept piling up: the rent was due, at the same time as the electricity, the internet-landline connection, social security payments, her regular cellphone bill, and the water bill. She had left the last two electricity bills unpaid during the summer, in the same way that many people did: the estimate comes two months after the last reading of the meter, but you don't pay until the next meter reading period, which gives you four months to save the money for the final bill, which had now come to the phenomenal amount of five hundred and thirty euro! All that, just for the use of a fridge, a computer/scanner/photocopier, an electric cutter, a blow-dryer (essential for drying glue/paint/polish quickly when she was pressed for time), a phone charger and an air-conditioner in her office. Her mother had warned her against letting the bills pile up and reprimanded her in the first few months of opening up the business when she had asked to borrow some money to tide her through. She had always intended to pay it back, but this didn't eventuate. Summer proved a busy period for the business, and she needed to take a short break away from work, away from home, away from Thessaloniki - a 'mental holiday break', she called it. She went to Crete for a week at the beginning of September with a friend ('it's cheaper to travel in September, Mum', 'no I'm not spending everything I make', 'you know how hard I work'). Only ten days back, and she was now feeling overwhelmed.

While she was thinking of the mess she was in, the cleaning lady arrived. She had an agreement with Agnieszka that Eleni would give her a one-and-a-half-litre PET bottle of olive oil every fortnight in lieu of payment. Agnieszka had pleaded with Eleni to take her on, even if it was only two afternoons a week. Eleni really couldn't afford a cleaning lady, and had initially turned her down, but then reconsidered the offer because it occurred to her that she couldn't afford the time to clean up all the bits of paper and string and cuttings that fell to the floor, or wipe away the paint and glue drippings, and the dust that the detritus of the unhealthy urban environment created. She needed her frappe time, she'd tell her mother, to join her friends at a cafe or bar somewhere in the town. 'And anyway,' she told he mother who raised her eyebrows when by chance she once saw Agnieszka working in the shop, 'Agnieszka said she doesn't mind being paid in arrears.' What she did not tell her mother was that she was siphoning their harvest of olive oil from the barrel that they had filled in the last fruit-bearing year from the trees in their fields. It would hardly be missed, Eleni hoped.

She wouldn't have had to resort to doing this, if she had been paid for the two reception functions that she had organised six months ago for the Aristotelian University. State enterprises always paid in arrears, only after the funds come through on their side, and they paud their creditors even later. She kept all this at the back of her mind, knowing that these jobs (which came her way via word of mouth, a close contact) always paid out in the end, and no one lost their money. But it took a long time, and even guaranteed work was no longer guaranteed. So she continued to worry, but put on a brave face. It'll be alright in the end, she kept telling herself, even though it may not necessarily be. 

The immigration officer
Timoleon came into the office at approximately ten in the morning, two hours after he had clocked in. Between eight and ten, he was at the ground-floor cafe of the police headquarters drinking his subsidised frappe with other colleagues from different departments. He turned on his computer and and then went from one office to the other, chatting with other colleagues. There was a large pile of folders on the left side of his desk. The pile continued onto the floor, with another large pile of folders stacked haphazardly by the side of his desk on the ground, with some folders snaking their way to the wall behind him, which formed the end of the pile; any new folders would be placed behind the last one at that end. On an average day, he would view five to six folders, not much more. A stamp here, a signature there, a quick check of the visa expiry date, and placement of the folders on the 'expired visa date' pile, which were to be picked up by the next agent, who worked at a similar pace to Timoleon.

Timoleon had long given up getting through the pile. This did not have anything to do with the recent government edicts stating that employees would be made redundant, or that they would be mobilised to other deparments where they were more needed, or that their pay would be cut. Timoleon, who held a civilian's position at the police station, had given up working through the pile because he knew that no matter how fast he worked, the pile of 'expired visa date' folders would keep on growing. No one had picked up any of the folders since June, ever since ERT was closed down overnight. Work-to-rule was in force, and even if Timoleon wanted to break it, he knew he would simply be spoiling it for the majority. He learnt that in the very first week of being on the job, twnety-five years ago, when he did in fact get through a pile of folders in what seemed like record time according to his then colleagues: "Don't work so fast, Timoleon! What are going to do in the office with the rest of the time when you have nothing to do?"

Timoleon picked up the first file on the top of the pile on his desk. Upon opening it, his first job was always to look at the photos in the file. This one belonged to a woman. Dark hair, pale face; typical Eastern European looks. Her name was given in Latin letters: Agnieszka Szczyz. With so many consonants, it was impossible to know how it would be transliterated into Greek, let alone pronounced. He browsed through her history, learning nothing special about it in particular. Her visa had expired many months ago, as had so many that he had been looking through in the past month. An address was included in her paperwork; not that Timoleon was inclined to pursue it - he knew that the woman had probably changed address at least twice so far. When he had finished looking through the file, he placed all the papers back in it, being careful not to lose any (he always counted the documents he took out of each folder, and wrote the number in a corner of his diary planner on today's date). Then he got up out of his chair, and walked to the other side of the room, placing Agnieszka Szczyz's file at the end of the 'expired visa date' pile, which had reached the far corner of the wall already, and would soon continue to the other wall adjoining it. Timoleon found the whole situation banal. 2013, and they were still dealing with paper! If only someone would flick their cigarette onto the files: the only way to start something afresh is to destroy its remains. It reminded Timoleon of what his daughter once told him, which she had learned from her English teacher at the frontistirio: 'that's how London got rid of the plague". 

The public power corporation worker
Domna was always described as a very conscientious office worker. She was responsible for checking the unpaid accounts, and sending the technicians to disconnect the electricity of the non-payers, and worked strictly according to the rules. But she also used her very human side in her work; whatever overdue accounts were brought to her attention, she would always consider them from every aspect: was the non-payer a regular non-payer? did they have special circumstances? was the overdue bill for a very low amount? She was praised for her attention to detail on such matters. This is why no one suspected her of overlooking anyone's overdue accounts, or letting them off and keeping them connected when they should have in fact been disconnected. No one would ever have suspected that she had purposely overlooked her brother Andreas' home meter. The tenants' meters were being disconnected one by one for non-payment, but even though Andreas had not been paying his own electricity bills for the last eight months, he still had power being supplied to his house. 

30th November 2013, 7pm
The cold in the apartment was now unbearable. The warmest place in it was the kitchen, and only when the gas cooker was working. The gas bottle had emptied on Friday night, just as Agnieszka was frying eggs in some olive oil that she had been given by Eleni a month ago. Eleni's work had now slowed down in the winter, and she had told Agnieszka  not to come again to clean the office until she called her, which she promised her she would do a couple of weeks before Christmas when work would pick up again for the seasonal celebrations. Agnieszka  could see the brightness of the flame dimming on the cooker. She had only managed to cook one egg right through. As soon as she cracked the second egg into the pan, the flame went out. She hoped that the egg would cook at least lightly from the heat of the pan, just enough to make it palatable, but no such luck. The egg white was still translucent. 

She left the cooked egg on a plate on the table for Irena, along with a slice of bread, and set to work making hers more edible by adding some bread torn into small chunks. The egg remained uncooked, but at least it didn't feel like gloop, now that she had something to chew on.

"Where's your plate, Mama?" Irena asked her mother.

"I'm not hungry right now, sloneczko," Agnieszka replied. "I'll have it a little later." Irena knew that there was enough food to last them the next few days, so she believed her mother. Poverty did not always entail hunger. She sat down in a corner of the living room with the most light and ate her dinner in silence. She was looking forward to the week that was coming, goong to school, being among her friends, and especially for Friday night, when she would again sleep over at Mariza's.

Agnieszka went outside onto the balcony, where there was a small barbecue with some coals in it. She occassionally cooked on it in the summer, even setting a pot over the burning coals. She tore some supermarket brochures and set them underneath the coals. She was going to cook her remaining egg over the coals. Before she lit them, she had an idea: why not bring the barbecue indoors, to create some warmth and light at the same time?

1st December 2013, 8am
Irena was still sleeping when Agnieszka woke up on Sunday morning. The embers of the barbecue had not lasted all evening, but the room did not feel so cold as it did on other nights. Seeing it was Sunday and she could not refill the gas bottle, Agnieszka would cook a meal on it again, like she did the previous day. She did not remove the barbecue from the room. It had done its job the previous evening, and would serve many purposes today too.

1st December 2013, 8.30pm
Andreas had already suspected that Borys had left the apartment to someone else, obviously the woman who was handing him the rent whenever he knocked on the door. He did not even know her name! But she had not opened the door in the last two weeks, when the rent was due. He decided to tackle the issue this evening, not knowing what would come out of it. He needed to pay his son's rent in Volos, where he was studying archaeology, and had been short of cash for a while now; his own bills may have gone unpaid, but he did not want to have to deal with the eviction of his own helpelss child.

He had noticed for days now that the apartment, from street level, was never lit. He knocked on the door, but no one asnwered. He knocked again, harder. He heard the door of the next-door apartment opening and closing pretty much immediately; Soultana must have been wondering what was going on, but didn't want to get involved. He knocked again, this time sounding out a warning: "Open up, otherwise I'll knock the door down!"

Agnieszka opened the door timidly. It was pitch dark inside. Only the lobby area was lit; using this light, Andreas peered into the dark room, and found it satisfactory. Nothing looked seriously amiss: just a normal looking home, with no lights on. Agnieszka was frightened; she knew why Andreas was knocking on the door.

"Look," he started, "you shouldn't even be here, you know that, in a house where you can't even cook or heat yourself. Now, there isn't much I can do about keeping you here, if you don't pay me what you owe."

"Oh, please, Kirie...," her voice trailed off, as she did not know his name, "please sit down," she pleaded with him, offering him a chair in the hallway. She was feeling dizzy. Initially, she did not hear the knocking on the door, only when it got louder. She closed the door behind her; she did not care for the darkness in the house, which was barely lit by an gas lamp; the greatest shame was being heard by the neighbours. "I am so sorry... I have been so busy," she said, trying to remember all the excuses that she had piled up in her brain for this day when it came, but her headache was too strong. She explained that she had the rent money, and would go to get it from the bedroom. She had simply put off paying it, as if it could be something that would eventually be forgotten, although she knew very well that there was little chance of that happening. Andreas felt relieved, although he tried not to show it; the hard stance he took as a landlord worked as a cover for his fear of being declared bankrupt. As Agnieszka disappeared into the darkness, Andreas looked around the flat. He was curious to see how people forced into living in darkness actually lived.

1st December 2013, 9pm
When Agnieszka came round, she could still feel the dizziness that had caused her to black out. She tried to get back onto her feet, but kept tripping over. She tried to work out where she was: she could see the bathroom door in front of her. But the last thing she could remember was going to the bedroom, not the bathroom, before she fainted. She staggered away from the bathroom door, making her way to the kitchen on her knees. She had only the light that shone through the windows in the living room which did not have shutters. The room therefore received some glow from the street lights, which is why she always drew back the curtains at night. 

And there on the floor she found Irena, crumpled from a fall, as if she had been knocked down and never regained consciousness. Agnieszka was shocked into alertness when she saw the lifeless body of her child in front of the sofa, which she had almost tripped over. She began to shake Irena, becoming more violent the longer Irena lay still. Agnieszka began calling out her daughter's name, her wails becoming louder and louder, but in vain. Physically, Irena was present, but her spirit seemed to have left her exhausted body. And then a miracle happened: Irena's lips twitched. She was alive! Thank God! Agnieszka had saved her at the very last minute. She ran to open the windows of the house to let in some air. And that was when she saw Andreas' body slumped behind the sofa where she had moved the barbecue so that it remained out of sight. 

1st December 2013, 11.00pm
The police officer
As soon as Manthos saw the barbecue in the room, he understood what had happened. It didn't need much thinking. The two women were lucky to be alive. The older one had regained consciousness before the other two victims, due to her being further away from the direct source of the carbon monoxide fumes. The younger one must have had a strong set of lungs. But the older man who did not survive was found right below the barbecue. When his identity was acertained and his wife was located, she tearfully informed them that Andreas had been suffering from panic attacks for a long time now. She could not tell the police officer what her husband was doing in the unlit apartment, as she was not at home when Andreas had gone there. (She had been to the home of her hairdresser who set her hair once a week. She had stopped going to her regular hair salon due to the costs; it was cheaper to get the job done in a private home.) Perhaps the older woman was a prostitute. Manthos had seen much pass before his eyes in the last three years. Women were prepared to do it anywhere, even with children around. And men were no longer able to communicate with their wives; in their search for a way out of the crisis, they would find solace in strangers. Their pretty wives no longer interested them.

Manthos looked around the house. It was not just its non-electrified state that would have told anyone of the misery that the two occupants were going through. The barbecue inside the room, the heavy blankets covering the sofas, the empty gas canisters on the balcony, together with the items of food that were left out on the balcony to keep them from spoiling as the women were surviving without refrigeration - it all reeked of poverty.

Manthos had seen many homeless people around the city, sleeping anywhere they could find some peace and quiet, setting up semi-permanent makeshift quarters in the less noisy areas, which were often the most troubled places. Most of the homeless did not want to be moved to a homeless shelter. They had lost all their dignity in being homeless; by living on the street, they could maintain their independence. Many were the times when Manthos and his colleagues would turn a blind eye to them, as if to respect their wishes. As he looked around the cold dark room, he could now see how the streets could be better than this apartment. It was a trap, a prison. Waking up every day to this stone cold atmosphere must have felt worse than the warmth of sleep. The state of sleep felt more desirable than awakedness.  

2nd December 2013
The government
"We send our condolences to the family of the victim who tragically lost his life in his own home. Our thoughts at this moment are with his family. We will do everything within our power to help them. The costs of the funeral will be met by the municipality, to ensure that the victim receives a dignified farewell to his final resting place."

The opposition
"Another death has been added to the growing list of tragedies directly related to the severe consequences of the politics of the memorandum, and the grim reality that thousands of Greek families are facing. The right to adequate heating and cheap power are a human right that may not be compromised. Society demands that we do not grieve any more victims. The memorandum must be overthrown."
~.~.~
Τα φάγαμε όλοι μαζί (We ate it all together) is the infamous phrase that Theodore Pangalos, a former left politician, used in the Greek Parliament in 2010, a year after the economic crisis broke out, as a way to explain to people what happened to Greece's financial resources: 
"The answer to the outcry that exists against the politicians of the country when they are asked 'Where did the money go?' is this: 'We appointed you. We ate it all together. Within the context of a customer-relationship policy, corruption, redemption and humiliation that the concept of politics itself denotes." (Theodoros Pangalos, House, 21.09.2010)
Pangalos also wrote an e-book with the same title, which defines the concept of shared responsibility and complicity of citizens as the "party" took place, the amounts, when, how and who 'ate' it, and how responsibility is distributed from top to bottom. Even if we believe that we didn't eat it all together, in some way, we did, actually. Not only that, but some of us are still eating. 
~.~.~
It's been a difficult four years for Greek people, as we all re-assess our existence in this country. Things have changed too quickly for most people to take in the changes. I think that next year will indeed be a better one. It won't be too different from this one, but it will be better because most of us will have learnt to live with the problems plaguing our country, and most of us are in fact working towards an improved version of Greece. Not all, unfortunately, but at least the latter are back in the majority.

Greeks' misery at this very moment is grounded in the harshness of winter. Once the weather gets better - about three months away - people's mood will change. They will be instantly uplifted by the coming spring weather. This needs patience, which in many people is wearing thin these days. But that's all most of us have left. We're all in the same boat and it's not rocking so hard these days, but it's been drifting off course for a while now.

Happy New Year, everyone.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Dinner in half an hour

The freezer was stocked full. So was the pantry. The fridge was a little bare. Xanthipi had run out of time that afternoon, so she hadn't gone to the supermarket. There was hardly any sliced ham; even if there were, she found only four slices of bread in the bread bin, which would have to be left for breakfast the next day, so making sandwiches for dinner was out of the question. There was a small block of feta cheese, some carrots, olives, and a few other bits and pieces which would not constitute a meal if they were left in their cold raw state. So the real problem was not a lack of food in the house, but a lack of immediately edible food. Kosmas was due back home from soccer practice, Nafsika had just returned from volleyball, and Omiros was chopping the wood from a fallen tree trunk that he had picked up in the local park (he happened to see it before anyone else got their hands on it).

Xanthipi had only just walked into the house herself, after a late afternoon lesson with one of her students, the son of one of a colleague. He had not done his homework, he had failed the English examinations twice already, and the worst part was that the child seemed completely lost. He was not one for self-study, and his parents were not in the position to teach him study habits. Nor were they in the position to pay for private lessons. Xanthipi felt cornered when she accepted to help him. How can anyone charge a reasonable price for this kind of work in this day and age? It was also not possible to do this work for free - no one has that luxury in this day and age, either. So she offered to help the boy for the next few days, until his examinations, and did not ask for a specific price. "Whatever you wish to pay, it's fine by me," she had told her colleague.

Xanthipi was now getting stressed over what to cook for the evening. She had found an empty pot of what had earlier contained fasolada, so there were no leftovers. The family would all be starving as they slowly began pouring into the house at the end of day, all at the same time, walking into the kitchen every five minutes, wondering what there was to eat.  Xanthipi picked up the menu card of the local souvlatzidiko tucked neatly away behind the spice jars. She didn't open it to see the menu; she just looked at its cover where the phone number of the business was written: 81818, she memorised. Then she rummaged in her handbag to find her mobile phone and came up with her wallet instead. That's when she remembered that it held a ten-euro note that had been there for a long time: it was supposed to be there "in case of emergencies".

Plastic money covered all her needs these days, so she rarely needed to go to the ATMs. Cash was only really useful for a styrofoam coffee or to buy a loaf of bread from the bakery. The former is not an emergency, while the latter may sometimes be. But now that she was nowhere near a bakery, she could not even use it on that. She debated in her mind whether souvlaki constituted an emergency on that night and decided against it. There was no choice but to cook.

From the freezer, she took out a packet of boneless chicken pieces (8 pieces - she had bought half a dozen of those packets when they were on special at the supermarket) and placed it in the microwave to defrost. Then she cleaned and chopped some onion and garlic; while doing this, she thought about what she would make. How about some chicken in red sauce? But where are the carbs? And where are the veges for that matter? She opened the food cupboard where she found half a packet of orzo pasta. Another look in the freezer and she found half a packet of peas that had become such a tight ball of ice that she had to smash the packet against the floor to ascertain the volume of its contents. She set to work, turning all that dry and frozen food into a dinner in half an hour.
~ . ~ . ~ 

"Are you eating too, Mum?" Nafsika had asked when Xanthipi told her to set the table.

"Of course!" Xanthipi replied, although she knew she would not be eating much at the table. It was a common joke in the family that mother never ate at the table, even though she always set a plate for herself. While Xanthipi was pan-frying the chicken, she had nipped a bit off here and there to make sure it was cooked right through and the taste was right. While she was cooking the pasta, just before she thought the pea and orzo dish was ready, she had scooped up a spoonful with the mixing spoon and checked its taste too, burning her tongue in the process. While cooking, she had nibbled on a bit of crumbled feta from the remaining block and dipped a piece of bread that had not been cleared from the table after lunch into the oil on the plate containing the feta. She topped each bite off with an olive. And while everything was simmering, she also wondered what meal she could prepare for next day's lunch, but decided it was impossible to cook another meal that night. She was too tired, more mentally than psychologically.

Now everyone was sitting at the table. Although it was still quite early in the evening, it felt late since it got dark so early. She let everyone dish out their own portions, stealing glances at their plates to ensure that they were helping themselves to ample portions.

"Come on folks, eat up!" She urged them to take second helpings when she noticed only three pieces of chicken gone from the pan. Was there something wrong with the taste, perhaps? "There's plenty for everyone!"

"Aren't you going to eat any, mum?" Kosmas asked her.

"You know I've already eaten," she reminded him. "I always eat while I'm cooking."And this was true. Her hunger had been satiated for the evening with the feta and bread and oil and olives, and she did not hanker for the taste of chicken. Besides, she was the only one in the family keeping warm and cosy by the stove, while everyone else had been outside expending energy in the cold outdoors. Her only concern was about the smell coming from this cheap chicken. While she was cooking it, she detected an eggy scent, so she sprinkled various spice powders over it, in an attempt to mask the off-putting smell. This seemed to do the trick, given that no one was complaining about the taste of the chicken, and she knew that they all liked pan-fried chicken - but why weren't they serving themselves second helpings?

By the end of the meal, there were two pieces of chicken left, and a good serving of pea and orzo leftovers, just enough for the next day. She was glad to see this, as she now felt more confident about the next day's lunch, which was usually cooked on the previous night and warmed up the next day. If they needed to add a bit to the meal before she came home after work, they could always open a can of tuna to go with the orzo. And for an evening meal the next day, it would definitely be souvlaki, just as long as she rememebred to get to an ATM before coming home. At any rate, she needn't feel rushed the next day, as she had no extra lesson that night after work. The evening ended warmly with a bit of TV-watching near the hearth. She always fell asleep within five minutes of the programme starting, and often woke up after everyone had gone to bed, after which she staggered off the couch and got herself tucked in too. Her conspiracy theory was that Omiros got to bed before her so he could fall asleep before she started snoring; now, she had to put up with his.

~ . ~ . ~ 

On coming home from work the next day with the supermarket shopping, Xanthipi noticed that most of the orzo pasta had been eaten, save one serving; just enough for her in other words, since she had not tasted her creation when it was freshly cooked, apart from a teaspoonful. She left the shopping on the floor and placed the orzo in a bowl. She had used a small jar of her own home-made pepper sauce to make it, prepared from the previous summer's harvests, and now that she was heating it for herself, after allowing the flavours of the dish to blend better overnight, the scent of summer was exuding from the microwave, and wafting into the dining room.

She opened the fridge, where she found the two leftover pieces of chicken sitting on a small plate, looking quite unwanted. Why on earth had they not been eaten, she wondered. Was no one hungry?

"Nafiska," she called to her daughter, "why didn't you eat the chicken?"

"I ate nothing, mum, I was feeling very bloated after all those crisps. We were at the theatre today, remember?" Xanthipi had forgotten about that. When the children were on a school outing, she let them take a packet of crisps and store-bought biscuits instead of a proper lunch, in order to avoid oily leaks and bruised fruit while moving about.

"How about you, Kosmas?"

"Oh, two of the other kids in my class were celebrating their nameday, and they'd bought a whole lot of cakes to share with us." It's St Nicholas' feastday, Xanthippi suddenly remembered. She had phone calls to make in the afternoon to her Nikos and Nikis.

"Besides, mum, I didn't really feel hungry," Kosmas added. "I thought Dad might've wanted to eat the chicken."

"Well, what on earth did your dad eat, then?" She called out to Omiros who was in the yard, piling the chopped logs from the previous day on top of the tidy heap that he had created against the wired fence. As a long-term unemployed male, with few prospects of getting work now that constrcution, and hence carpentry, his trae, was on the decline, he had learnt to pace himself, working slowly enough to never be left with nothing to do to take up his time during the day. In this way, he avoided boredom.

"I opened a can of tuna and had that with the remaining orzo," he informed her. "Which reminds me," he started, and Nafsika knew what was coming. "Don't buy that cheap tuna brand again, because it tastes off." Not that he knew how much the tuna had cost, but he knew that Nafsika always bought the chepaest brand.

"Yeah," chimed Nafsika, "the tuna stank up the whole house! Can't you smell the tin in the bin?" Nafsika had a sensitive nose, just like her dad.

"Well," Xanthippi was flabbergasted, "why didn't you just eat the chicken instead of opening a can of tuna?"

"I thought you might be hungry after work," Omiros replied. "Did they leave you anything?"

Xanthippi then sat down to eat the leftovers, thankful that everyone was safe and sound at home, and no one was hungry. Tonight was Friday, and there was no need to cook a meal for the next day. The family could have a souvlaki in the evening. And just like she did on most souvlaki nights, she'd just nip off a bite from Omiros' souvlaki to satisfy her hunger. And if anyone asked her to have some more, she'd remind them that she didn't really like souvlaki.

"Well, what you would like instead?" Kosmas had once asked her.

"Chinese," she answered. For now, this was not possible, and they all knew it, so she could not complain if they called her fussy.

*** *** ***
"The magi, as you know, were wise men – wonderfully wise men – who brought gifts to the new-born King of the Jews in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the Magi."
Gift of the Magi, by O'Henry, 1905
Merry Christmas, everyone. I'm taking a break over the holidays, to recharge my batteries.

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Monday, 23 December 2013

Chicken soup (Κοτόσουπα)

I used to cook mainly with plant-based foods, and there wasn't much meat in our meals. Meat was left for the weekends, with maybe a mince dish in the middle of the week. But that's not working much these days - the children are growing fast and they seem to want to eat much more than they ever ate before. Not only that, but I can tell that they want to eat more meat. I started adding chicken to many of our meals just for them, which they appreciated. As they grow older, they are also more open to eating a wider variety of dishes, which means I am freer to cook more creatively.

Last week, when we were all feeling very poorly due to the cold weather, I made the kids their first chicken soup. In many countries, chicken soup is a staple meal for winter, cold weather and sickness. But soup has never been regarded as a 'proper' meal in Greece, and the main kinds of soup made by Cretans were never really very satisfying (they were generally very smelly, and terribly boring-looking). Fish soup is still widely popular, but it's a smelly business. Chicken soup is much less hassle - and it is really cheap to make, now that we can buy chicken backs.
I've been buying chicken backs for a while now. We are still lucky to be able to get the necks too. In more developed countries, the necks are no longer sold because they are used in the food industry to make canned/frozen/bottled stock. In Crete, I have yet to find ready made stock - and it doesn't sound like something I would want to buy anyway!
In pre-crisis Greece, chicken backs were thrown away - literally. Anyone who wanted to cook for their pets (like I did) could pick up chicken backs (with the necks attached) for free from the supermarket. I used to do this all the time. Not only that, but I would cook them, remove the meat and add it to chicken pie or a stir-fry, and voila, I would be feeding the family cheaply (the dog would eat the bones, and some rice/macaroni cooked in the broth, if I didn't need the stock for making pilafi or soup).
An old photo, dated 25/3/2011 - discarded supermarket chicken backs, turned into dog food, stock and pie meat. What made me feel embarrassed to blog abut this photo was that I would be called stingy, cheap, μίζερη. But that was simply other people's mistaken perceptions - I was simply ahead of them when it comes to survival skills. I suppose they know this now - I had a feeling people would eventually see things my way...

I would never tell anyone what I did (I am only telling someone now, by writing it) but I don't understand why my compatriots would attach so little importance to food that was fit for human consumption. They had no idea of the true value of something that they were paying for. In fact, I couldn't understand a lot of things about pre-crisis Greece, but those days seem to be over. Greeks seem to be understanding the rest of the world better these days, and trying to catch up with the way the modern world is going - showing compassion, sympathy and solidarity with poorer people. One could say that we are now living in the post-crisis period. This suggests that 'the crisis' is over, and in essence, it is: Greeks are now learning to live within their means, they accept their new reality, and they know there is no going back to the past:
"The crisis is changing Greece for the better, he told me. The bloated, clientelist public sector that employed unqualified people in return for political support, is being reformed. Greeks are learning to live within their means. Tax evasion is no longer accepted. A new culture of solidarity has emerged: a feeling of "we are all in it together". There is even a spirit of entrepreneurialism being born. It is, he said, a painful transition - but a necessary one. Psychiatrists talk of the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Maybe Greece, which has known much grief, is edging towards the final stage. I meet far more now who tell me that if they could choose between going back to 2004, when Greece basked in the Olympics and European football victory and felt wealthy - or now, pushing on, out of all this - they would take the latter. The realisation has dawned that pre-crisis Greece was an illusion: it was a party which just had to end."(Mark Lowen, 23/12/2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-25431288)
We need to remember what kind of crisis we are talking about - the state of the economy may still not be good, but the real crisis was never the economy: it was in the Greek identity.

My chicken soup was based on the ingredients list in the BBC link. I tweaked it a bit to make the soup more suitable to my family's taste. The whole family loved this soup, even my husband, who thought he'd had enough of chicken soup in his youth (I can imagine what his mother was making - it was never as good as my version), and cheap chicken while he was serving military duty.

You need:

a few glugs of olive oil
2 roughly chopped onions
2 finely chopped sticks of dark green Greek celery (it resembles lovage and is far more common than regular celery as it is known in western countries)
2 roughly diced carrots
2-3 boiled potatoes
4 chicken backs with necks attached
salt and freshly ground pepper

Boil the chicken backs in a medium pot with plenty of water with the potatoes till the meat is very soft and close to falling off the bone. While the pot is boiling, heat the olive oil in a pan or pot and add the carrots, onion and celery. Saute till slightly softened.

When the chicken is ready, remove the chicken backs and potatoes from the stock. Strain the stock clean. When cold enough to handle, remove the meat from the bones EXCEPT the necks, and add to the strained stock. Add all the cooked vegetables, including the potatoes, broken up into chunks. Now puree half the soup in a blender. Pour the blended soup back into the pot with the rest of the soup and mix well. Add as much water as needed to fill the pot. Mix everything till well blended. Season with salt and pepper.

Serve in individual bowls with a chicken neck for decoration.

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Newly impoverished (Πρόσφατα εξαθλιωμένος)

The bell at the village church was tolling in mourning mode. This is the first sign to most of us that someone in the area has died. The funeral service was for an old woman who had been bedridden for a while. One could call it a 'happy' funeral, of a person who died in old age, having been through the whole cycle of life as Greeks often know it: prosperity, descendants and a life surrounded by the love of one's family. The funeral gave us a chance to catch up with neighbours who we do not see very often. In the dearth of winter, we are all trying to keep our heads above water by staying inside the warmth our homes can offer, and we rarely venture out unless we have jobs to do.

I didn't recognise Mattheos immediately - it had been at least a year since I last saw him, and maybe two years before that. Our lives never really had much in common, apart from my husband's line of work (he owned a taxi but did not operate it) but every now and then, we bump into each other, on occassions like these. But this time, I mistook Mattheos for a very old man who had not slept in a proper bed for many weeks. His face was gaunt and hollow, he looked depressed, and his vision was more of a gazing stupor.

"How's it going, Mattheo?" my husband greeted him cautiously, aware that something was not quite right.

"How can it be going?" he replied, puffing nervously on his cigarette. "No one can work out where things are going these days. But when you're surviving on your mother's €400 monthly pension, it certainly isn't going ahead." His reply did not hide his own fate. It was shocking to hear Mattheos speak like this; we had known him in much better times, when he was living with something like a personal €4000 monthly income.

"€400? But what about your rental income?" my husband prodded him a bit more.

"Rental income? Oh, that's over. Who pays rent these days?" To a certain extent, Mattheos has a point. Tenants don't always pay up because they don't always have the money to pay. To avoid payment, they may abscond and change address. Those that stick it out are always owing in arrears. And even if landlords ask them to leave or get them evicted, who will come after them to take their place? So Mattheos' apartment block - built by his father - is now a white elephant and a costly one at that.

"But weren't you taking that businessman to court over non-payment?" Mattheos had once discussed with us taking the tenant of the ground floor to court because he had not been paying him. Many apartment blocks in Greece are often built in such a way that the ground floor is some kind of store/firm while the other flats are homes.

"Oh, that," Mattheos replied slowly. "Well, to get to court, I need to pay the lawyer €2000 to continue with the case... but I really can't afford that now." He sounded lost, as if he could not believe that this fate should have befallen him.

"Are your tenants at least paying the property tax?" This tax is tacked onto the electricity bill; the tenants of homes are still paying that on behalf of the landlord, but it is deducted from the rent.

"Well... I don't know," Mattheos said. He had already lost count of the expenses that he had to maintain and he was beginning to show signs of not understanding the situation he now found himself in.

"But your father had left you some money, hadn't he?"

"Oh, that's all gone now," Mattheos said, shaking his head. "If you keep withdrawing and you aren't making an income, then eventually, it all runs out." Mattheos' father was a hard-working family man. Over the years, he had amassed a small fortune working a licensed delivery truck, and had built a small apartment block with 4-6 flats in each one, on each of two sections of land that he had bought as he worked, earned and saved. These were inherited by his children, one for each of them, as well as some money he had put aside for a rainy day, which never seemed to come, because Mattheos' father never stopped working, even when he retired and gave up the truck work. The truck license was converted to a taxi licence by Mattheos, while his father continued to maintain the family land, inherited plots covered with olive trees, vineyards and orange trees.

"Well," my husband said, realising that the conversation was not leading to a good ending, "you must have plenty of time to spend working on the fields." My husband knew that Mattheos had given up working the taxi a long time ago; he didn't really need to work, in essence because he had rents coming in, and since he hadn't created his own family, but continued to live with his parents in their modest home (compared to the apartments they had built), he didn't really have many expenses. Most of the money he made from the rents went on maintaining an expensive car, hunting trips and taverna meals. He had various girlfriends from time to time, but no relationship lasted very long. Mattheos had inherited quite a lot of olive trees and sometimes sold the produced oil to the olive press. In fact, we had bought olive oil from Matthoes' father when he was alive, at a time when our olive trees were not producing enough olives: our fields had burnt to the roots of the trees, but eventually sprang back to life, after two decades of being carefully nurtured and tended, so we don't need to olive oil any now, as we can exist on our own supplies.

"Oh, I haven't worked the fields in the last three years," Mattheos replied. "I leased them out to another farmer because I got tired of packing 20-kilo sacks on my back."

"Ι see.. so I suppose you get a share of the harvest for your own needs?" My husband was trying to sympathise with him, as he knew what back-breaking work olive harvesting is. We don't do it ourselves, as we are both working, and we are very happy with our hired help, an Albanian family living permanently int he area. They get a share of the produce in lieu of payment, which they can then sell or keep. As they harvest many land-owners' fields, they often sell it.

"Well, this year, there won't be any olives to harvest, because our fields cropped last year." Olives bear in alternate years, which is why we needed to buy olive oil when we ran out of the year's harvest. But in the last two harvests, the trees bore enough olive oil for us to keep for two years until the trees bear again. Cretans generally use olive oil that is up to 2 years old for this reason, despite what the most learned olive oil expert will tell you, that olive oil loses its quality after 18 months. (This is true, as it is of any stored product - το ίδιο που μας κάνει: Cretans continue to use their own oil supplies like they did in the past, without any fear of loss of quality. If that is all you have, that is all you use.)

"Well, I needed to sell the oil last year to make ends meet, what with the new taxes and all that other shit we've been loaded with, so I don't have any oil left at the moment. I suppose I'll be buying some cooking oil soon, maybe when my mother picks up her pension next month." If Mattheos is living off his mother's pension, I guess he's ruined. Eventually we said goodbye to him, and left the funeral ourselves. He did not drive off in his luxury car, and I wondered if he still owned it, or at least maintained the costs needed to run it. We saw him driving off on a motorbike, his mother sitting behind him on the side.

In a nutshell, Mattheos once had a lot of money to play with. So he stopped working, and just played. He must have felt extremely rich to not be able to feel the need to look after anything he owned, as if there were a bottomless pit full of money that he was drawing from that would last him a lifetime, and he could just toss away what he didn't need, or not cover the pit for fear that some notes may fly out when it got windy. Now he may feel as though he is being defrauded by the state because it continues to ask for money in the form of property taxes, money which Mattheos is clearly not making, nor is he able to pay his dues to the state.

Matthoes is typical of the newly impoverished Greek: just like Mattheos, many Greeks find themselves in similar situations for various reasons, the main one being that when they had had a lot of money, they were not adequately educated about how to keep it or make it grow. They were not taught how to invest it to make it work for them them in the future; maybe the future did not worry or interest them, as the present once seemed as good as it could get. The main problem for these Greeks now is that they face the prospect of sliding into lawlessness as their debts accrue. No one is immune from irregularities, as the recent arrest of a former Greek minister of transport shows: he was caught driving with fake licence plates on a luxury car, which he couldn't afford to maintain now that he is a pensioner; despite having 28 properties to his name (he is related to two former prime ministers), he is now subject to hefty luxury and property taxes (supposedly when he returns from his Christmas holidays in Kuala Lumpur - he didn't even show up at the trial the other day). So he de-registered the car from use, stopped taking out insurance on it, but couldn't bear to part with it, and drove it illegally. He was detected by police during routine checks while driving through a red traffic light.
Πριν κάποια χρόνια αγόρασα το σεμνo και ταπεινo jeep που βλέπετε στις φωτογραφίες. Μου στοίχισε περίπου 100.000 ευρώ, αλλά τότε έβγαζα από μίζeς και bonus στο Υπoυργeίo μας δεκάδες χιλιάδες ευρώ κάθε μήνα. Τώρα είμαι ένας απλός συνταξιούχος, με λίγα μετρητά στη τράπεζα και μόλις 28 ακίνητα στο όνομά μου. Αυτό δεν μου επιτρέπει να κυκλοφορώ με 4.200cc και να πληρώνω 1350 ευρώ τέλη κυκλοφορίας ανά έτος, αλλά και άλλα 1000 ευρώ ασφάλεια και εκατοντάδες ευρώ για σέρβις. Αποφάσισα μετά τη χθεσινή μου περιπέτεια να πουλήσω το αυτοκίνητό μου όσο όσο για να πληρώσω τα πρόστιμα αλλά και τα δικαστικά έξοδα από τη σύλληψή μου με πλαστές πινακίδες, ασφάλεια και χωρίς δίπλωμα. Είναι σκληρός ο αποχωρισμός μου από το αγαπημένο μου Touareg αλλά δεν μπορώ να κάνω αλλιώς. Έχω κάνει το σκaτo μου παξιμάδι και πιστέψτε με θα μου στοιχίσει που θα το δώσω, αλλά έτσι είναι η ζωή. Πληρώνουμε τα λάθη μας. (This 'ad' for a used car appeared in www.car.gr/4485155 three days ago - the entry was deleted as soon as it was detected. It translates reasonably well.)
Financial security ruins you, as Nigella Lawson once said, which is why she doesn't want to leave her kids too much to inherit. She knows what she's talking about: she had so much money to burn that she herself would leave it on the toilet cistern. I suppose that if she ran out of toilet paper, she could use the paper notes instead, as money meant so little to her. The perception people have of an idea perpetuates the idea, a bit like a brand - once that idea is challenged and people's perceptions of it change, the brand collapses, with little to take its place.

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Saturday, 21 December 2013

Herring - Renga (Ρέγκα)

Thinking back to my New Zealand days, I was not really deprived of my culture's culinary specialties. My mother cooked most of them, and for the things she couldn't cook, there was a Italian delicatessen near our home (which was primarily known for its European immigrants at the time) where we could pick up Spanish olive oil, sardines preserved in salt, Greek table olives, Italian salami and salted herring, which we called 'RENG-ga' (ρέγγα). Renga was one of those specialties which we bought once in a while, and ate a tiny bit of as an accompaniment to bean dishes. The renga was prepared and kept in the fridge.
Nowadays, we are all better informed about healthy cuisine, and we generally know what's good for us and what isn't. Salty food is not really good for our health; nevertheless, we still like to break the rules every now and then. Salted herrings are one of those every-now-and-then foods that we like to to eat, mainly to remind us of older times, and people who are no longer with us. These delicacies are widely available in most deli counters at the supermarket and most of the main markets in the town. It's been two years since we last bought renga - I decided that it was time to revive the renga tradition in my own home once more time this year.

Salted herrings are an imported product in Greece. These fish had always been popular in old-time Crete, especially among villagers who could not get access to fresh fish on a regular basis. Thus, they bought salted fish back to their homes in the remote inland or highlands, which could be stored without refrigeration, as was common in older times. The fish could be kept for as long as necessary, wrapped up in a piece of paper and placed in plastic. Salted fish was popular on certain feastdays during fasting periods, eg 25 March and Palm Sunday.


Salted herring is slightly burnt over an open flame, basically to heat it and remove the skin. The cooking process involves high heat to give a smoky taste to the herring. This is best done with a gas flame or even just a piece of paper set alight, with which you scorch the fish all over. Once you do this, you then open the fish and break it into small pieces, peeling away the remaining skin. The bones need to be carefully removed although they are soft and don't sting; the head and tail are generally not eaten, although gourmets may tell you that they contain the most taste.

If there is any roe in the fish, this is carefully removed, so as not to lose any. Lemon juice and olive oil are beaten together to create an emulsion, and the roe is placed inside this. With a fork, the roe is broken down and beaten into the emulsion. Then the broken fish pieces are placed into the mixture, as a marinade which removes some of the saltiness of the fish.

The renga is served like a side dish, mainly to accompany bean dishes. Renga is also a comfort food for the winter.

I prepared my renga last night to go with a curried black-eyed bean soup, but as it's a bit of a smelly and oily business, I wasn't able to take photos easily. I'm showing you my cousin Eirini's photos instead; it was she who inspired me to prepare renga for one more time. Eirini mashes the roe into the olive oil and lemon juice marinade, which thickens it slightly. In my own photo (below), the liquid is clearer because I had no roe to mash in. My fish is also whiter as I did not smoke it for as long as Eirini did.


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Friday, 20 December 2013

Dirty habits (Βρωμερές συνήθειες)

The smoking laws in Greece are often deliberately flouted in cafes and other public places. It's one of those vices that Greeks seem unable to control. They can control it if they want, but they simply don't want to. They are, to state it in a nutshell, disobedient and arrogant with their smoking habit. If you go to a cafe in Greece, you risk coming out smelling like smoked salmon. The laws against smoking indoors in public spaces cannot be monitored adequately due to lack of agents to do this (eg the municipal wardens that used to do thsi were recently sacked due to the public sector cuts). As for the cafe owners, allowing smoking in their cafe is an overt sign of how powerful the customer-client relationship is: if a cafe owner asks a patron to refrain from smoking in his/her cafe, the customer is highly likely to search for another place where they can practice their habit unhindered. I think that they see their right to smoke as more important than the place they choose to frequent.

I remember the early days of the law when it was first brought in: people were, to some degree, more courteous and mindful of the new law, and it was not unusual in Hania to see these laws being respected. Now I see more and more people smoking indoors in cafes, using a 'trick': the cafe-owner provides both indoor and outdoor seating space, but the two spaces can barely be separated because there is no door. Instead, there is a carefully planned indoor-outdoor flow with the doors having been opened and pulled right back to the wall, so it looks as though the whole cafe is an outdoor-based one, when in fact one part of the seating area is clearly under a roof.

Smokers who flout the rules really don't have any consideration for the law or other people's health. I have little sympathy for them, especially after an incident I experienced about a year ago. I was working in a room with a smoker who was using an e-cigarette. Because I had never worked with this person before, I let her choose where she would like to sit while she was assessing English students' spoken language when I interviewed them. I let her choose because I know that many of my colleagues lack my confidence in being able to work anywhere, anytime and anyhow. She wanted me to sit with my back to her (never done that before...) while the student sat in front of me, because, as she claimed, she could see the student's face, and understand them better. Despite my belief that she was citing a load of quaff, I abided by her wishes. Some people are too attached to the neo-liberal world we used to live in, and it is not my business to knock them off their pedestal. They need to see that for themselves.

Having never worked before with this woman, despite the fact that I had seen her around in the examiners' circles for a long time, I was surprised that she had not become more casual and accepting of other people's habits. For example, I did tell her that I believed my head would be in the way of her direct line of communication with the test-taker, and therefore her understanding of the discussion might be impeded; what's more, I would also be unable to communicate with her at all if I needed to for whatever reason. But she insisted that she had always worked like this throughout her examiner's career, and it never caused anyone else a problem. Not wanting to be her problem, I simply conformed.

I wondered how her rigid habits had been tolerated by other long-time examiners like myself. In fact, I knew who her previous partners were, because, for a long time, examiners had been able to pair up with whoever they preferred, rather than working with the people they were assigned to work with. This is how I managed to work with a range of different people:  I never asked to work with only whom I wanted to work with - I only worked with whomever I was assigned to work with, and I never asked to change my assigned partner. For a long time, she was only working with her buddies, after arranging this in advance. Since the crisis set in, and fewer and fewer examiners are now being hired (because of the diminishing numbers of test-takers), her buddies were not always chosen for this work. So it was inevitable that one day, she would be working with someone she did not know.

The smoke emitted from an e-cigarette does not smell, so you would not really be able to detect it unless you can see the person smoking. Over the course of the day, as my colleague felt more relaxed (probably because she was drugging herself with the e-cig), she did not bother to hide her dirty habit in the room where we were assessing young students' (ie children's) level of spoken English. At any rate, I would have found out about it, because she regularly needed to recharge the battery of the e-cigarette while we were working. She smoked right throughout the two days I worked with her. I did ask her not to smoke, but she claimed that she was not subjecting anyone to her passive smoke, something I could only expect to hear from an arrogant smoker who cannot and does not wish to exercise any form of restraint, refusing to discipline themselves to working in a different way. Maybe it's because you can't teach an old dog new tricks? That's why laws are created - not because people are generally not aware of their dirty habits, but because they generally don't bother showing common courtesy. They need someone else to point that out to them.

I know I should have reported her to the authorities, but Greeks aren't tattle-talers, and I found it very hard to convince myself that I should become one. Besides, all those other teachers she had worked with probably never 'told on' her, so what I was intending to do by reporting her? I might even turn out to be the reason why she might end up at the brink of bankruptcy if I got her removed from her privileged position (believe me, it is a privilege to be working as an examiner). My sympathetic conscience got the better of me on that day, which is really quite stupid, because her e-cigarette was not the worst thing that she could be accused of. While I was interviewing test-takers and she was supposedly assessing them, she was actually fiddling with her mobile phone, and when she heard the cue that the interview was over, she would then scribble down some marks on the assessment cards. She had not bothered to listen to a word those children had said, after all those costly lessons, despite the fact that their parents had paid between 150-180 euro for their child to be professionally assessed. To be fair on myself, I did tell her that I found it annoying that she was playing with her cellphone while she was supposed to be listening, and she did stop doing this. But she did not stop puffing away on her e-ciggie.

This year, I was called up again to work in the examinations. When I went to pick up my contract, I saw my colleague's name in the list, and I secretly hoped that I would not be paired with her (you learn this on the day - and thankfully, I did not have to work with her). The woman in the office checked my name off the list. She wasn't sure where the contracts had been placed, so I tried to recall the procedure usually followed, and we eventually found them in the office.

"You must be an old-timer," the woman said. I told her I'd been working for over a decade in this job, and I also told her how much I appreciated being selected to work, because I know times are hard now and not everyone is being selected, even though they'd appreciate the work too.

"Yes, that's true," she said. "Some people don't realise what a privilege it is to be asked to do this job. They just come for the money, the food and the hotel [sometimes, an overnight stay is needed, when there are many students taking the exams]." I was a little shocked to hear this coming from a person in her position.

"I've noticed that too," I said. "Some don't even seem to be qualified to do the job." The grand majority of English teachers in Greece are employed as native speakers rater than qualified professionals. "The last time I worker here, my partner was smoking an e-cigarette throughout the examinations, and playing with her cell phone while I was interviewing." I added this as an aside, thinking that it was plainly obvious to the woman, as she had seen all sorts pass before her eyes over the many years she had been in the job.

"Who was that?" the woman asked me, just like that, without any warning. I asked her if it was necessary to tell her, and she told me that she had black-listed other teachers (no wonder I don't see some old colleagues any longer) for similarly unprofessional reasons, and there was no reason for an unprofessional colleague to be working when someone else could do the job more professionally. Guilt overcame me at that moment, but not because I was about to tell her the name of the eejit I worked with last year. I felt guilty because, thanks to the none-of-my-business stance that I had taken, I had denied another colleague of work this year - I noticed that the name of a woman I had worked with on a regular basis in the same job in the past was not included in the list.

I knew it had been wrong of me not to report my colleague's behaviour in the first place, but I was worried that if she were not given any more work, she would suspect why this might have happened. Given that she was asked to work again, I suppose I can rest assured that the leak will not be discovered by the time the following examination period comes round. Conscientious Greeks feel guilty these days when they know they can do their job better and they don't act complacently. They also know that having work these days is a privilege. By not reporting the bad colleague, I was indirectly responsible for a good colleague being passed over; I am now guilty twice over.

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Thursday, 19 December 2013

Cinammon orange biscuits with chocolate glaze (Χριστουγεννιάτικα μπισκοττάκια)

A colleague recently bought some biscuits into work which her children had made. The combination of orange, cinammon and chocolate created a very tasty flavour. I asked her for the recipe, which comes from an advertisement by a Greek flour and confectionery company (ΓΙΩΤΗΣ), published in one of the latest issues of Gastronomos, a Greek gourmet magazine.

I'm loking forward to making these biscuits at the weekend. In the meantime, here's the reicpe (it makes approximately 50 biscuits).
Crafted by children - in Greece, Christmas time is generally all about them and ultimately for them.
You need:
200g self-raising flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup butter (my friend used a mixture of butter and olive oil)
1 1/2 cups blanched ground almonds
1 large egg
80g icing sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons of cinammon
Grated zest of 1 orange
Grated zest of 1/2 lemon
1 shot of cognac (most Greek cooks keep a bottle of Metaxas in the house)
125g cooking chocolate
1/2 cup cream
1 tablespoon cinammon flavoured liqueur (my friend didn't use this)

Beat the butter and sugar till well combined. Add almonds and egg and beat till well blended. Add cinammon, zest and cognac and beat well. Sift flour and baking powder, and fold it into the mixture, beating just as much as needed.  Cover with plastic wrap and place in the fridge for 2 hours.

Heat oven to 160C and grease two baking trays. Divide dough into four pieces. Roll out each piece on a floured surface to just under 1cm. Use cutters to make Christmas shapes, place on baking tray 2cm apart from each other, and cook each tray 10-15 minutes till golden. Remove from oven and allow to cool 10 minuted before removing them from the tray onto a cooling grill.

Melt the chocolate in a double boiler, and gradually add the cream and liqueur. Allow to blend without boiling. Dip the biscuits into the chocolate, allow excess chocolate to drip off, then place biscuits on greaseproof paper. Allow the chocolate to set before placing biscuits on a serving plate.

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Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Syria (Συρία)

One of my students recently left the institute today. He came to say goodbye to me. He was one of the most polite and most hard-working students among the many good people that have passed through our institute. He was never an A-grade student, but he would be the one to get the 'Most Likely to Succeed' award for his year, if we were to hand out such an award.

How do you feel about going back?
Oh, I'm happy, very happy to be seeing my family again.
And is it safe to return home?
Yes, where I live, it is safe.
But don't you fear the journey?
Yes, I am very worried about it, but I know it will be safe once I arrive. 
Once you get into Syria, how will you know when it's safe to travel?
Well, I can travel during the day - nothing will happen then. But the journey is not safe at night. I know there will be gunfire then. So I'll just travel by day.
So... when are you leaving?
Tonight. I leave with the boat.
So soon! Good luck!... I hope we will see you again.
Yes, in two months, I expect to come back. 
Good luck, then, till we see you again... goodbye...
Goodbye, Doctor, I will see you again soon.

He hasn't returned yet, but I believe he will. With so much talk of Syria, he is often on our mind, and we all hope to see him back again soon.

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Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Hot 'n' spicy (Πικάντικο)

Heat in Greek food is generally limited to the temperature at which it is served. Chili powders and hot sauces are not generally part of the local cuisine of Crete, although they are all now readily available in our supermarkets, but traditional Greek food as it is served in local restaurants is generally not spicy. Foreigners in Greece, more travelled locals and immigrants all bring more tastes into the country, and people are now more willing to try novel tastes.

I am always hesitant about adding too much heat in our food in the form of chili because I worry about how the children will react to it. They've tasted a wide range of cuisines through our trips abroad, but it's one thing to eat out in a foreign country and another thing to eat at home in your own country. My husband was hooked on Indian food the first time he tried it in New Zealand at a food court. Indian stews and vegetable curries reminded him of similar textures in Greek food but without the heat, which added an extra dimension to the flavour. My kids needed a bit more convincing, and I'm happy to say they have become more accepting of hot tastes, so I now can cook one spicy meal for the lot of us. But I still always ask the kids if they mind my making something spicy. "Not too hot!" they always say, which sometimes leads me to under-spicing my food, to my dismay.

I always wondered how children born in cultures whose cuisines are well known for being spicy get used to heat in their food. An Australian friend recently told me what her Indian friend - now a grandmother - did to get her children accustomed to eating hot'n'spicy food. She started her children on hot food when they were about 2 years old. The amount of chili added to their meal serving was the size of a pin-prick, as much as will cling onto a single tine of a fork. This is done daily for a few days, before a second tine of chili is added to their meal, and the process is repeated. Eventually, children become accustomed to heat in food, and they eat the same meals as their parents.

Stewed pork with some curry laksa paste, and boiled broccoli and cabbage with a hint of curry laksa flavour. The paste contained dried chili, prawn paste, turmeric, lemongrass, garlic, onion, galangal, oil, sugar and salt (and flavour enhancer E261). I felt sure that a taste/aroma was missing from the curry, something like coconut milk - thanks to facebook, I got some instant replies: yes, coconut milk is added to such a paste, and if you don't have that, you can add potatoes to the stew, so that when they cook through and break down, their starch thickens the sauce. Thanks to Alex for the paste and Kristen for the coconut powder.

I was recently given a sachet of ready-to-use curry laksa paste, a Singaporean/Malaysian specialty, which I was looking forward to trying now that the cold weather that has set in. Heat in food is often associated with cold weather for most Greeks, although I do understand that it is eaten all year round in places like India. I defrosted some pork, cut it up, browned it in olive oil with some chopped onions, and then I opened up the sachet to add to the meat. It looked like a lot of paste to me, and of course, it smelt different to what I usually use to spice my food, not to mention the hot smell that it gave off. I didn't add it all, out of fear that I may make the meal inedible for the family.

My curry laksa soup was not really soupy, or even as red as it should be, but it tasted great. 

If I didn't get the proportion of heat right for the family's tastes, I would end up with a meal that would not be eaten. This is also acceptable because even in spicy cuisines, the heat ingredient is often left on the table so that diners can add as much as they want. I spent most of my Sunday morning fretting about how much this meal would be enjoyed. I wanted to have the curry as a soup, which meant that I would add vegetables and noodles to it, but I couldn't imagine the family eating curry laksa soup, on which point I was right: they asked for plain boiled rice to go with the meat. We are all creatures of habit in some way; novelties need to be introduced to us at the right place at the right time.

Finally, the moment to serve the meal came, and I waited with bated breath to hear the verdict. Too hot or just right? And what do you think they said? "Mum, didn't you say this was supposed to be a spicy meal? There's hardly any chili in it!" Oh well, at least I have just enough paste left over for another curry laksa - next time, it will definitely be hotter!

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