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Monday, 29 June 2015

Travel advice for Greece

On opening my 'regular' news websites today, I cannot believe the CRAP I am coming across about Greece. This post is intended to inform travellers to Greece about what is happening right this minute as I write: this 'advice' comes from a real Greek who lives and work here, and not an automated western-world governmental response to an unknown situation.

In Hania, I saw three things over the last two days - a bank run on the ATMs (that;s now over becos capital controls have been put in place - 60 euro per card), a petrol run (people are topping up out of panic) and a supermarket run, because people are topping up on staples. By staples, I mean real food that you can cook with - flour, rice, beans, sugar, pasta: stuff like that, not junk and ready to eats. (Greeks still know how to cook real food. Not all people do).

I only use credit cards at the supermarket and when I buy petrol. I never ever use cash for these purposes. Today I went to two supermarkets: they both accepted my credit cards (a different one was used for each supermarket) without any problem. 

I only use two petrol stations in my town: the ECO on the road out of Hania going onto the motorway, and the big BP (Kapetanakis) in Souda, as you leave Souda to get onto the motorway. I never use any other places - I know that these two places reputable. (Because I always get the petrol I expect to get.) On Saturday night, I was able to top up the car at the ECO station with my credit card. But  I heard that Kapetanakis is not accepting a debit card. A debit card is seen as withdrawing money from the bank straight from the account, but if banks aren't open, they will not be able to process the transaction. A credit card is like making a purchase, which will be paid later. Interest will not be charged on overdue payments while the banks are closed, ie while you will not be able to make a payment; this applies to Greek bank holders, not foreign bank accounts. (i read this in a report this morning - i need to find the link and will post it here once i find it - some information can be found here in Greek: http://www.tovima.gr/finance/article/?aid=717627 , and there is a bit about it in the Guardian live updates here http://www.theguardian.com/business/live/2015/jun/29/greek-crisis-stock-markets-slide-capital-controls-banks-closed-live#block-5590e9cfe4b024248ae9a664 ). 

Tourists with cards linked to foreign banks do not have capital controls forced on them while they are visiting the country. This advice comes from the news reports I am reading this morning: http://www.ekathimerini.com/4dcgi/_w_articles_wsite2_1_29/06/2015_551651 The capital controls on ATMs are only for Greek banks. 

I think that the problems for tourists are mainly in the places they choose to spend money on - small tavernas in small places may not do credit cards. I think this is their problem and not the tourists'. If in doubt, just ask, and if they say they don't accept credit cards, go elsewhere. Anyone who allows you to use a credit card is not ripping off the tax department (cash-only businesses are definitely not showing all their income).

I think that small out-of-town petrol stations are asking for cash only, so that they can force your cash out of you, so that they can hoard it. There is no other real explanation not to accept a credit card. You really need to look for places that will always allow you to use a credit card - they are most likely to be found in the urban areas rather than the rural areas. Reputable businesses do not hoard cash.

When I travel out of Greece, I always use my credit cards to make transactions. I do not actually use much cash at all. This is very unlike most of my compatriots who are cash hoarders. I don't like carrying a heap of cash on me. If you feel comfortable with that, then do it. I wouldn't. If you absolutely need to pay in cash, then have some cash on you. But that's the difference between a reputable business and a fly-by-nighter. I rarely need to pay by cash, but then again, I rarely go out for a meal. 

By the way, public transport is free up until the day after the referendum (ie July 6). See http://www.ekathimerini.com/4dcgi/_w_articles_wsite1_1_29/06/2015_551653

On the issue of Grexit: Greece will never ever ask to leave the euro (€) or the EU. I can guarantee that. The only way for Greece to not be part of the euro (€) or the EU is for someone to deny her access to it. In other words, someone else will make her leave. If you ask Greece to leave, she won't. You will have to force her out. (So what Cameron is saying here http://www.ekathimerini.com/4dcgi/_w_articles_wsite1_1_29/06/2015_551663 is effectively BS.) If you wake up to hear that Greece is out of the euro (€) or the EU, then you can guarantee that someone threw her out - she didn't leave of her own accord.

On the day of the referendum (July 5), there will be no hint of panic or chaos. I can guarantee that. Most people will go about their normal Sunday duties (sleep in, have lunch with family/friends, go to the beach if they live on the coast). There will be a hieghtened sense of security, so don't be surprised to see more police in the area - see http://www.ekathimerini.com/4dcgi/_w_articles_wsite1_1_28/06/2015_551641 This is to be expected.

I can guarantee that if you are planning to come to Greece soon on holiday, you will probably have a really good time. As a Greek, I wouldn't travel out of the country now. I haven't made any travel plans at all. Why miss out on a Greek summer? 

UPDATE 30-6-2015: just popped into the INKA supermarket for my MiL's food needs - the supermarket accepts both debit and credit cards - it's a heap of shite what we are being told, that some companies can only operate on a cash basis: quite simply, they are evading taxes and hoarding cash.

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Sunday, 28 June 2015

Referendum (Δημοψήφισμα)

It looks like we are going to get a referendum next Sunday after all, as it was just voted on in the Βουλή. I don't think my fellow compatriots are in a position to make this kind of decision, which is of a political-economic nature, but since we have been given the chance to vote, we can either take it up and be part of the action, or deny the chance to take a pro-active approach to deciding our future. So here is my reasoning about how I will vote:

I think the whole Greek issue is one of misunderstanding. The Greek side are passionate, the non-Greek side are astute. The Greek side accuse the other side of blackmail, but any person with an Anglo-Saxon education (like myself) should be able to clearly see that the non-Greek side is simply using literal meanings and facts and figures to get their point across. One side is playing with a WORD file while the other side prefers EXCEL. (Not my metaphorical phrasing - I heard it a while back.) This is why a political level agreement was needed on the Greek problem. But who will sacrifice their politics to find a compromise that will make everyone unhappy to some extent? No one. Both sides have something to lose in this issue: one side is worried about a lack of funding, while the other side is worried about setting a precedent. I guess this is part of the compromise. We're all going to be unhappy to a certain extent.

Apparently we are going to be asked something like:
Should Greece accept the loan/bailout package as outlined by the creditors?
I think I know what a YES vote would mean to that: not much will change in my life as I know it up to now. Greece has been a bailout addict for a number of decades now. But I don't know what a NO vote will really mean, because we haven't had it explained to us. There is no Plan B (except for wait and see). We are all hypothesising about what might happen in the event of a NO vote - we don't actually have any real idea what it will mean. But I don't even want to hear of Greece taking out a new loan that will not be repayable. I don't believe in loans. I've never taken one out, and I hope the same goes for my kids, that they will never ask for a loan. More importantly, I don't want any potential grandchildren to still be paying this loan off when/if they are parents themselves. That's why I'm voting όχι.

I'm not voting NO to Europe or the eurozone - I'm just voting NO to a new loan, or bailout, package, program, memorandum, and any other way it is also known. I hope NO means that Greece gets no more money from strangers, and she can learn to live within her means, and she learns to use her resources wisely in order to ensure this. If the referendum question was:
Should Greece remain in the European Union?
I'd immediately know what I'd answer to that: ναι!

If the question was:
Should Greece remain in the eurozone?
I know the answer to that one too: ναι!

I will leave it up to Europe and the eurozone to decide if they want non-Anglo-Saxon Greece in their Anglo-Saxon club. Let's face it: while Greece is a lovely country, she can look like she is veering right off course concerning many aspects of western-world life as we know it.
The issue of filling up your petrol tank, emptying supermarket shelves and flocking to ATMs to withdraw money reeks of an urban crisis. People who live in apartment blocks in Crete don't have gardens and may not have access to their fields. If you come up to my house, you would not even suspect what was happening. 

I live on the island of Crete, where things are really "not that bad". For those that have been following my blog over the years, they will understand what that means. For those who haven't, if I were to explain this in one sentence, I'd say that we will never go hungry on this island. I don't want to kick the can don the road with a NO vote which will eventually catch up with us again: better to go bankrupt now in the summer, before the cold weather sets in - we can start to clean up our act under more favorable conditions. As I write, the ATMs are empty, people began hoarding basic items by clearing shelves in the supermarket, and petrol stations are drying up. This is the knee-jerk reaction to any major event that could cause turmoil: people panic. I watched people last night trying to withdraw money from empty ATMs: what made them decide that they needed to withdraw 800€ (I watched them as discreetly as possible as they pushed the buttons on the machine) on a Saturday night? It is sheer panic and nothing else. I have to hand it to the 10-year-old that I overheard in my loud noisy boisterous Greek neighbourhood last night:
Daddy says that if we go to an ATM now, it'll give us drachmas.
Panic brings out the worst in us.

Even if the YES vote wins, I will still be happy with that because it's all I've ever known of Greece - that she is an indebted country. Whatever happens, I think Greece is still going to be a great country, and people will always be guaranteed of having the time of their life when they visit Greece.

The Greek Collection - work in progress: "All eyes on Greece".
The outcome of the Greek referendum will have far-reaching consequences; it is not just about Greeks continuing to fool the rest of the world about their virtuousness in implementing sound fiscal policies (my opinion, of course); it is also about the rest of the greedy world who may eventually have to deal with the real possibility of other countries following suit: saying NO when they usually said ALRIGHT. Tsipras was brave to make this move; it's something that Papandreou mentioned he would do back in 2010 but decided against it after being pressurised by the EU, which in turn was worried about the stability of the euro at the time. The EU feared that the euro would fall and the EU would break apart if one of its members were 'allowed' to be bold enough to escape its noose. The EU now says that they have a stability mechanism in place so that an GREXIT will not have serious consequences on the global economy. (Yeah, right.)

I feel sorry for the Greek people because they have been aided and abetted all their lives into making bad voting choices, and now they are being forced to make a crucial political decision themselves, after having elected a government only five months ago to make important decisions like these ones. The average Greek citizen is neither knowledgeable or experienced enough to make such a decision. That's why we choose politicians to represent us in parliament. So even our politicians are useless. And who do politicians come from? The people themselves.

I think there is only ONE way out of the crisis - Greece needs to go cold turkey: stop accepting other countries' money, see where your country stands financially on its own, and then find ways to make money in your country for your country. I can only deem this solution to be the right one. It's from that 80s era that did Greece in. Before that, Greece was poor. Then Greece became a member of the EU in 1981, and suddenly, unprecedented personal wealth became the norm. Now we are seeing what this wealth entailed: bad choices that looked good only on the surface.

As a final word, I am reminded of the words of Nikos Kazantzakis (1883-1957), the greatest Greek writer of modern times (writer of the classic Zorba the Greek), who was born in Crete, died in Germany, and was laid to rest in the old city walls of Iraklion on the island of his birth:
I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.
UPDATE: "In the interest of transparency and for the information of the Greek people, the European Commission is publishing the latest proposals agreed among the three institutions (European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund), which take into account the proposals of the Greek authorities of 8, 14, 22 and 25 June 2015 as well as the talks at political and technical level throughout the week." (click on the PDF at the bottom of the page)

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Tuesday, 23 June 2015

On being European

It might just be the case that Greece and not Britain will be the first country to hold a referendum about staying in or leaving the EU, if Grexit became a reality. If Greece were to leave not just the eurozone, but also the EU, this would have repercussions on identity. Greeks have a very ambivalent relationship with the EU, not helped by their constant reference to Europe which does not include Greece. "Europe wants this," 'that's what Europeans do/say", etc.

Judging by the recent photos being spewed across the internet, the Greek people seem to have overwhelmingly supported staying in the Eurozone, and judging by the recent pro-Europe demonstrations, the message these gave was that this is where they want to stay.

Pro-Europe demonstration outside the Greek Parliament, at Syntagma Square, with the Grande Bretagne Hotel in the top right hand corner.
I came across an interesting discussion on the page of a Greek facebook friend, who ridiculed those who took part in the pro-Europe demonstrations because, as he argues, Greeks do not understand what being a European means:
"Europe is all those things that are hated by those who want her just for her money." (Vasilis Sotiropoulos)
He goes on to explain:

"... we never wanted to help shape Europe. We only wanted to participate and to 'benefit', that's all. When did we ever make a serious proposal about an issue that concerned the whole of Europe? When I was an intern in Brussels [the author is a lawyer], all the countries, even the new ones at the time, drew up proposals on issues that concerned Europe as a whole. All we were doing at the same time that this was happening was appointing senior officials to various positions. And we were also asking for solutions to issues that did not concern them as well. We are one of the most isolated and 'umbilically-tied' countries of all the 28 EU countries. And that's diachronically. Europe for us was just a little holiday, somewhere to have a cappuccino. We never ever took the reform process that was going on over there seriously. Yet other countries much smaller than us with smaller geopolitical strength put forward proposals and followed directives. And now we want to support Europe, to save ourselves, and for no other purpose." (Vasilis Sotiropoulos)

It's a rather damning indictment of the way Greeks view Europe. From my own experiences, I tend to agree with the author. I also liked my pensioner uncle's analysis of how Greeks think, as he explained to me yesterday:
"Rules are only for some people. When we take out loans, we are told we have to pay them back. But we see people not paying them back all the time. So what if the government took out a loan? It can't repay it, so it shouldn't bother repaying it. We Greeks don't care for rules. We care only about having lots of money. We don't like ANY rules. Look at the smoking ban: who really abides by it? Go into the kafeneion at the plateia and tell me if no one smokes in it."
But we do know that in other countries of Europe, the smoking ban is kept! So what does that tell us about Greeks? We seem to be a very unruly bunch. So to be European kind of means that we are more law-abiding. But is it truly possible for the average Greek to not support Europe? Are we the cultural outsiders of a concept that we (in the form of Ancient Greeks) invented?

I think Greeks need to get a grip of themselves. They overwhelmingly support staying in Europe, but they don't realise what exactly that entails, apart from monetary benefits. That will only help them in the very short-term. Being a part of the EU is not just about the money. Again, Vasilis Sotiropoulos has a good analysis of what it means to be part of the EU:
"Those that do not want Europe, let alone to stay in it [ie the EU], are those who say that the Lisbon Treaty is the "Protocol for the Zion elders" [ie they are racists], who declared to the UN Commission for Discrimination in 2009 that in Greece there are no Nazi organizations who were opposed to integrating the decision on combating racism through criminal law [Golden Dawn is a member of the opposition in the Greek Parliament], the politicians who revile other states and citizens for their family life [see what MP Nikos Nikolopoulos said about the PM of Luxembourg], those who are in favor of discrimination in family law rights, those who deny the right of ethnic self-identification [Greece has a bad track record concerning immigrants and minority groups], those who were in favor of the confiscation of the former royal property without compensation [the ruling to compensate the former royal family of Greece for property confiscation was sanctified by the European Parliament], those who have adopted the slot machine laws, those who led Greece to fines on landfills and other environmental violations (my own home town is a classic case], those seeking arrests and imprisonments for satirical or fictional reasons that aim at religion [eg theatrical performances being cancelled in just the last 3 years due to fanaticism by those opposed tot he ideas that the performance represented], those who are opposed to electronic voting [many Greeks are still against electronic transactions], those who disagree with the protection of personal data, those who are opposed to generic medications [ditto as for electronic voting], those who are in favor of imprisonment of people without their having been indicted. Such kinds of people want something else.(Vasilis Sotiropoulos)
It's farcical to think that a member of the European Union would not espouse the above values. If they don't, there must be something wrong with them.

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Thursday, 4 June 2015

Book quilt

Dear ______,

How are you? We hope you and You-know-who are both well and happy. At the moment, we are in the middle of our school exams. We know that this is a poor excuse to talk to you less often and we feel terrible about this, but we hope this letter makes up for the lost time(s). So far, we have been tested on Maths, Physics, Biology, Modern Greek, Composition, Ancient Greek, Religion, the Odyssey, the Iliad, English (we didn't have to study for that) and German. (Mum helped us to study for that, but she thinks it's not the most useful foreign language to learn. She wants us to learn Chinese during the summer.)

We also think it's time we presented you with a gift. You've given us so many, and all we say is 'Thank you.' It's time we gave you something more tangible, as a keepsake. Actually, Mum made this gift for you, and not for You-know-who, because she says that if she gave it to You-know-who, then You-know-who would probably flog it on e-Bay. That's why Mum made this quilt just for you, to settle the ownership issue. (If she made a bigger quilt for both of you, You-know-who might divide it into two, take one piece and flog that on e-Bay).

My fourth quilt - a book quilt for a friend

We watched Mum making this quilt over the last three weeks. She was working in the living room, while Dad was watching TV and we were studying. (We like studying in the living room, each of us taking up one sofa. Mum says she now wished she had bought us a desk for our rooms from a second hand shop, like her parents did, because it would have been cheaper, since we don't use our desks. But she remembers that when the bedrooms were being renovated, Hania didn't have second-hand shops. There are lots now.) The noise from the sewing machine drove Dad nuts, so she'd take her sewing machine into the kitchen and do her sewing there. We really didn't know what she was sewing at first. It simply looked to us as if she was cutting up fabric and sewing it back together, with totally unmatched colours. We didn't worry so much because we'd seen her doing this before. She's made quilts for all of us. When she started making them, it looked like she was going crazy, cutting up large pieces of material into smaller pieces and then putting them back together again. We could never really see the patterns in the fabric which she could see.


But as the quilts all grew, we began to see what she was making, and we all really liked them. Even the cat liked them. Since there isn't enough space anywhere to lay out a quilt, as she was making each one, she would spread it out on the floor in the living room. The cat would walk around the room slowly and then take a last step on one of the corners of the quilt and sit there. Then we'd go and pick it up off the quilt and put it on the rug, but the cat would go back to the same spot on the quilt. Eventually, it would get the message and leave the quilt alone. But it really did prefer the quilt. (Don't worry about the cat sitting on your quilt: Mum put the quilt in the washing machine when she finished it - it's fully washable. It won't smell of Mum's cooking, either, when she was working in the kitchen on it. Mum always laughs when she reads crafts sites selling 'pet-free, smoke-free' products. "The Western world thinks it can be so sterile," she says.)

We would really like to present you with the quilt ourselves, but travelling is getting a little difficult for us now. We don't want to leave yiayia alone at home. She's in her nineties now, and looks like she's on course to celebrate her 100th birthday. Now that it's not cold, she goes out into the garden and does some weeding, or she looks after her rose bushes. She always cooks for herself, and she washes and irons her own clothes too (by hand). She doesn't take any medications. She says that if she has to take medicines to keep her alive, she'd rather die. But even though she feels so strong for such an old person, we don't feel we can leave her alone on her own while we go away on holiday to see you. So that's why you'll have to come and pick up the quilt yourself. It's time you took a Cretan holiday yourself, come to think of it.

We told Mum that she can go on holiday by herself and take the quilt to you, but she said that the political and economic instability that Greece is going through right now doesn't give us the luxury of making holiday plans. We told her that if she books flights early, she will get a better price, but she said: "Booking flight tickets for a future date just might mean that our holiday plans may coincide with national elections, or the closing down of banks, or even the airports, if things get that bad." We know what an election is, and we heard about the banks in Cyprus not letting you take money out, but we don't know what she means by the airports closing down. She says it has happened before in Greece, in 1974, while she was holidaying in Greece with her parents (and Cyprus was involved in that episode too):
"After three and a half months, our holiday had finally come to an end: our return tickets to New Zealand stated 21 July 1974 as the departure date. On the eve of our departure, we woke up on a hot summer's day in Pireas. It was a local holiday in the neighbourhood, as the district church was celebrating its patron saint, the Prophet Elias. Our bags were packed and ready for our departure the next day. Peace and quiet is expected on holidays, and the neighbourhood was silent. My father's sister told us to get ready to go to church. She was about to prepare a picnic to eat near a park in the churchyard's garden. We turned on the radio to listen to some music. Every single radio station we tuned in to was playing the same pre-recorded message: "... state of war..., ... emergency... γενική επιστράτευση (mobilisation of military forces into combat)..." Now my aunt was worried. Turkey had invaded Northern Cyprus and the Greek airports closed down to all international flights. Overnight, from holidaymakers, we had officially become overstayers." (http://haniadailyphoto.blogspot.gr/2008/07/bad-timing.html)
It's difficult to believe that things like this have happened in our country. We don't feel this fear at all, but our parents tell us these stories about our country's past, and we try to relate these details to the present, but it doesn't always seem to fit in well. We think we have a lot of freedom here, and we can live pretty much how we want, just like you. Mum agrees with that. She says Greece is one of the most democratic countries in the world, and it is little wonder that democracy was invented in Greece. But she also says that too much democracy is not good. Even Dad agrees with her on that one.

Mum says that you should not think of this quilt as a big present, because she made it entirely from scrap material (even the batting) that would have ended up in the wood-fired heater (ready to be used next winter) if she didn't look up the internet for ideas on how to use fabric scraps. "I could make a hundred book quilts if I wanted to, it won't cost me much at all," she said. She says the same things about the food she cooks, too.

We hope you enjoy the book quilt. Till you come to visit us, we will enjoy looking at it.

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