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Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Family feud and the Iggleza

When Greeks fight among themselves, it's often about in-family issues. This is of course not the image projected abroad about the Greek family. But Greeks do fight quite a lot among their own kin. What is there to fight about in a family? Property rights. It's always been like this. And if you search deep enough, you will find a property-fuelled family feud in every Greek family. (People that claim they don't have one have either forgotten it, or are ignoring it, or possibly don't realise that they have been duped.)

The Iggleza* in me tells me that if I can prove that something is mine, then it's mine, but if I can't prove that something is mine - even though I may believe that it is - then I must never think of it as mine. But that's just me, and I'm an Iggleza. I was taught to think like this by my family... who raised me in New Zealand... where I was educated... to think like that. What is known in English as 'common law' is known in Greek as 'Αγγλικό δίκαιο' - literally, 'English justice'.

There's a heap of Greek land and property out there that I would like to lay claim to. But nothing is in my name, and more importantly, nothing is my parents' names either. But I know that it was rightfully mine. But I aslo know that I will not be able to claim this property because I don't have any documentation for it. I like to know what is mine, and I don't mind sharing it. But that does not extend to land and property. I'm an Eggleza, and my home is my castle, not a hotel. So if land or property is not mine and mine alone, then I don't want to have anything to do with it.

My husband Dimitri (an only child) has similar views. His parents were both born in the same village, which means that somewhere in that village, there were at least two family homes that he could have inherited something from. Instead, he got, in his words, από τα τρία το μακρύτερο ('the longest of the three', ie nothing). He has never asked for anything that he knew he couldn't prove to be his, not even that room in his father's home, where he used to store his tools for working in the fields, which had been 'promised' to him - ie a spoken word, with no documents finalising anything:

- Hi Uncle (he said, speaking on the phone to one of his father's five siblings), the key doesn't seem to be working for the door where I keep my tools.
- I changed it.
- You changed it?
- Yeah.
- Er, why?
- How am I supposed to know if you gonna steal anything of mine?
- Can I get my tools out?
- Yeah.
- How?
- When I come over, I'll take them out for you.

That particular uncle lived in Ohio at the time (yes, that Ohio - we aint got no Ohio in Crete). Eventually, my husband got his tools out of the room of his paternal family home, and never entered that house again. He passes the house every time he goes to his parents' village (we live only 10 kilometres from it) when he goes to his olive field. Not once has he shown bitterness towards his uncle who now lives here with his wife. They don't live in the paternal family home - their house was made with US dollars, somewhere in Hania. When you enter it, you think you're somewhere in Ohio (according to my idea of an American home, influenced by the glossy magazines of yesteryear which I used to browse through). There's a lot of glass in it, explained by the fact that they never had children.

Initially, Dimitri did feel some bitterness about this situation because he is the only offspring of those six siblings that never owned a house in the village. He has inherited many patches of land, but there is not a single piece of land - despite some patches being very big, in Cretan terms - that can legally be used to build a house on. He ended up having to buy land to build on. After 35 years of renting, he felt a sense of relief that one can only sense when they never lived in a home of their own. My parents also rented a home, but not for 35 years. I too have rented, but only for 3-4 years. 35 is quite a different story, especially when, while you are building a home, your father suddenly dies and leaves you with all the debts involved in the building costs, as well as a beat-up taxi that Dimitri almost torched (his mother stopped him) because it was causing him so many problems. Dimitri ended up selling a piece of the land where the house was built, which he and his parents had bought, in order to continue to build the home we now live in, making our garden smaller (I often refer to the neighbour's house as the chicken coop that never was). I was lucky, Dimitri once told me. I sold off one third of that piece of land for the same price that I paid for the whole piece. That's what EU entry brought - a higher perceived value of a piece of land that, up until Dimitri bought it, was seen as less valuable, and there was considerable difficulty in selling it (that's another equally juicy story, but for another time).

Since building his own home, and later creating a family that he is proud of showing off, he easily forgets his past troubles with his kin. But every once in a while, something happens, a word is spoken, and the shit hits the fan. This time, it hit via his latest pet project, the garden he created in one of his maternally-inherited fields, after I posted some photos of it on facebook:

our main garden has moved to one of our village fields this year
Posted by Maria Verivaki on Saturday, 22 August 2015
A lot of people use facebook to spy on others. I am aware of this, but I am also a long-time user of facebook and I generally know how to protect myself. I use the rules of the Iggleza to know where I stand. In this case, I know that I cannot make any comment on this situation because this field in the countryside belongs to my husband, not to me, and even though it is fully registered with the authorities under his name and we can also pass it on legally to our children, the family feud in question is not my concern. I will simply be one of the beneficiaries. If I didn't care, I would not even bother to learn the story behind a comment that appeared on the post.

On this particular occasion, I have lived through the story over the years, so I cannot claim to be a passive observer. I know what hurt and anger this has caused over the short period that the family feud developed. Like all Greek tragedies, it was avoidable. Like most Greek tragedies, there are solutions. It's all got to do with negotiation, a term rarely linked to any meaning in Greece. And so it goes on - but it can stop: if only both parties decide to negotiate. (And eventually, I believe that they will.)

In order to understand how this kind of issue can arise, you have to understand that the idea of καταπάτηση (literally, stepping onto someone else's land) is as old as the hills in Greece. Land is owned by someone or perhaps a family. The plot is divided among the inheritors once the original owner dies. This is most often the children, but it can also be other members of a family, in the case of those landowners who did not have children of their own. It is rare for documents to exist in these kinds of dealings; they are all done informally, mainly verbally, and if there is proof of ownership (ie documentation) in someone's possession, it probably didn't go through legal channels, but was simply written up between the parties. In some cases, one side could not even read it because they were illiterate. People have killed each other over land ownership. It was easy back then to pull the wool over another person's eyes.

Nowadays, purchases of land all require documentation because nowadays all land must be registered. But amongst villagers, the old transaction method for buying/selling land can still be used because not all land is registered. In the case of unregistered land, siblings, cousins, and others may own a piece of land that borders another sibling's, cousin's or other's piece. When one party wishes to sell (or to buy), they often inform the neighbour who may wish to buy it from (or sell it to) them in order to extend the land under their ownership (or get rid of it for monetary gain, because they no longer have any need for the land).

The original land in question was part of a bigger plot that was owned by... was it Dimitri's maternal grandfather, or his maternal grandmother? At any rate, it was divided in two: the 'upper' part (further away from the main village road) was given to the son (Dimitri's uncle), and the 'lower' part (close to the main village road) was given to the daughter, my mother-in-law, Dimitri's mother. (There were other children too, but they all died in infancy and one was killed in WW2 by being shot in the back by a Nazi while he was sitting in the local cafeneio. His father - Dimitri's grandfather - had been killed by execution only a short while before that.) The field was all planted with olive trees, and the upper part still is. Dimitri and his mother (his father had died by then) removed the olive trees form their part (the lower part) and planted orange trees instead.

This is not the only field that was passed on to my husband. Due to the piecemeal nature of land ownership in Crete, some patches of land that a person owns may never be used. You simply can't maintain everything you own when you end up with so many pieces here and there. So when Dimitri's uncle (the owner of the upper part) asked him if Dimitri would 'sell' another patch of land under Dimitri's ownership with just 7 olive trees on it, so that the uncle could extend his own 7-olive-tree patch (he would then have a total of 14 trees on one piece of land), Dimitri obliged, by being given a similar number of trees from the upper part, at the point where the upper and lower parts bordered each other. This seemed to be a fair deal on both sides, and was accepted by the uncle's children, Dimitri's cousins. The trees that Dimitri acquired in exchange for the trees that he handed over were planted in two πλάτες (singular: πλάτη) which we could translate as 'terraces' for the purposes of this post. Dimitri says that his uncle told him to take two terraces.

Now, here is where the παραξήγηση (misunderstanding) lies: what constitutes a terrace of trees? Before I explain that one, I have to explain why we put up a fence around our piece of land, despite the fact that no other piece of land in the area has a fence that rings right round the field. The Iggleza in me likes fences: fences make good neighbours. Most Cretans will not put up a border around their land patches, claiming high costs (yes, it is expensive). The most that anyone will do if they want to put up a fence is to place some chicken wire around their land supported by loosely planted posts. Chicken wire is flexible, it can break, it can be torn by force, etc, etc. Posts can also be 'transplanted'. The reason why we decided to put up a proper fence around the property is because Dimitri decided that he would like to own more fruit trees, and the olive-turned-orange grove was the perfect place to plant those trees. These trees have now borne fruit - apart from watermelon in the summer and bananas and apples int eh winter, we don't buy any fruit. Coupled with our vegetable garden (I don't buy vegetables except for leeks because we don't plant them), we save a lot of money by growing our own fruit and veg.

So when Dimitri decided to build a fence around his property, he had to work out the borders. We actually do have documentation showing proof of ownership (and we think the cousin does too, but we don't know for sure, because we don't ask other people about their business - the Iggleza in me just minds her own business - and people don't offer to tell you either), but a piece of paper (or even  a GIS screenshot) just gives you the theory. You need to see how borders are actually marked in order to understand how land is claimed. Some people use a pile of stones. Others have built stones to resemble a wall. Other plant a stake in the ground, others use specific trees as markers. There is also the method described above, with chicken wire.

But all the above-mentioned forms of demarcation are subject to 'changes'. Dimitri has related many funny incidents that he has seen over the years, of 'moving borders' (which give way to the καταπάτηση described above). On another piece of land, he noticed that another uncle had planted baby olive trees right against the chicken wire on the uncle's side of the fence. As the trees grew, the chicken wire bent, and... lo and behold, his uncle's field grew larger, because he kept moving the chicken wire to accommodate the trees. Being the nice guy he is, Dimitri didn't say anything to the uncle. He asked his cousin to deal with the situation, and to this day, he has no problem with the cousin in question. When Dimitri wasn't using one of his fields, he drove to it one day to find it planted with broad beans. Knowing that the broad beans needed to be watered, he hid his car one day and waited to pounce on the planter - who turned out to be none other than his uncle. And so on, and so forth. Every Greek has a funny story to tell about cases of καταπάτηση.

Getting back to our issue: what constitutes a terrace of trees? He had told his cousin at various times that he was thinking about placing a fence around the land. There was no question that he owned two terraces of trees. By terrace, Dimitri took that as meaning something resembling a step on a staircase. The upper part of the field is located on a slight gradient, which requires the land where olive trees are planted to resemble a staircase, for ease of harvesting the olives. So when he marked out where to place the fence, he used the end of the staircase as the point where the border would be placed; in other words, the border was located at the point where the next step would start.

Sounds simple. So where's the catch? According to his cousin, the word πλάτη (terrace) means something else. It's not defined by the place where one row ends and another begins. It's defined by... I couldn't understand that one. At any rate, her meaning of the word gives the idea that that we have committed the ultimate land crime: καταπάτηση. We are transgressors! How much land have we stolen? Apparently, it's 25 metres (the length of the border, by 1m (the width believed by the cousin to have been transgressed), divided by 2 because on one side of the field, we have not transgressed. In other words, we are talking about a triangle of land totalling a 12.5 square metres. Rather than argue with his cousins about the meaning of the word πλάτη, my husband (in close consultation with the preceding owner of the land - his mother), decided to accept the transgression, which was caused not just by our not understanding her definition of πλάτη, but also because we pulled a straight line from one end to the other. In other words, it was also due to a mistake.

You may wonder why Dimitri didn't warn his cousin that a fence was going to go up. I want you right this minute to pretend that Zoe Konstantopoulou is his cousin. By the time she decides what the accurate definition of πλάτη is, πολλοί γαϊδάροι θα έχουνε ψοφήσει, as my mother used to say (literally, 'many donkeys will have died'; figuratively, we can't waste time waiting); we didn't have the luxury of so much time. One could say we pulled a fast one over her, but was that really our intention? We had told her we were intending to build a fence around our property, and she could have come to see it for herself... if only she actually lived here (she lives elsewhere in Greece). So many Greek landowners live far away from their land, and they treat the land as if they own it, despite not having any documentation for it. They are just waiting for a chance to sell it at a high price. The owner of another field next to ours lives in Australia. He hires local help to maintain his olive grove, and (I think) he gets some of the olive oil produced from the harvest sent to him in Australia, but he too hasn't fenced his field. Why he hasn't done this, I cannot answer. It's just very provocative to think that you can be an absentee landowner and expect everyone to keep off your land just because it isn't theirs. That's not the way the real world works. That's why we put up a fence around our orange orchard: there were apricots on the tree one day, and the next day there weren't.

The cousin discovered that the fence had been put up when she came one day to visit her field. It just happened to be the day that the builder was there. So the deed was almost done. I suppose she came to see the end result. While the builder was laying the initial foundations for the retaining wall that was going to support the πλάτη, he called my husband:

- Hi Dimitri.
- Hi Yani. How's the building going?
- It was going fine until a few minutes ago.
- Why? What's wrong?
- Do you know where I am?
- You're not at the field?
- No.
- You're not in the hospital? (Dimitri was terrified that the builder had had an accident.)
- No.
- The where the bloody hell are you?
- I'm at the police station. Someone's reported you for building without a licence. 

The builder was eventually released without any other incident taking place, and Dimitri was also not bothered by anyone else about this incident. Planning permission states that any time when concrete is poured onto land, a licence must be requested to do this. We never requested a licence. We knew that a licence was required but we decided to risk it. It was considered an archaic law and not always followed to the letter. When it was ascertained that we were building a fence and not a house, and the documentation for land ownership was shown, the matter was dropped. We did not request a licence because it would have cost 1,500 euro to get one (!) and we would have to wait for at least 6 months (more likely longer) till it was issued (!!), and the construction budget was calculated to at least 10,000 euro (!!!) - the fence cost us close to 15,000 euro in the final count. Sometimes you do what you gotta do.

Who might have 'planted' us to the police? We have our suspicions. Dimitri was friendly with another builder who sometimes did odd jobs for him. When he saw someone else doing building work on our land, he ----. I was going to say he got jealous. That fence looked big, and expensive, and above all, nice. The other builder had lost his privileged position with my husband: there were better builders out there, after all.

Since we accepted the transgression that we had stepped on someone's land, even if by accident and unintentionally, we tried to make up for it by offering trees from another piece of land that bordered with theirs. After some humming and hawing, the matter was left to lie. The outcome of that was - and here the feud begins - that the families cut ties with one another after being as thick as thieves for nearly 60 years. All for the sake of 12.5 square metres of land that no one is doing anything with (we haven't planted anything in that disputed piece of land - it just supports the wall). That facebook comment was the first time in - how many years? - that the transgression has resurfaced. Via the Iggleza who should not have anything to do with the matter - because both the land and the transgression do not belong to her.

I showed the comment to my husband. I showed the comment to our children. They in turn took a laptop downstairs to the grandmother and showed it all to her too. She kept a cool disposition throughout the explanations of what had taken place. I expect that she will eventually hold the key to the resolution of this crisis. She's 91, and she has seen many more serious crises in her life. This one will be child's play for her. I am sure it will be played out soon. Let's wait and see.

In the meantime, I am enjoying the fruits of our labours on that field. We have all contributed to our new garden. My 13 and 14 year old children pulled out a wheelbarrow full of rocks from each hole that was dug in that land and is now growing a tomato or pepper plant in it. We have oranges, peach, nectarine, fig, mango, lychee, plum, lemon trees which gives us a wide variety of fruit. We grew a zillion green beans on it this year, as well as peppers, tomatos, corn, zucchini and cucumber. The field gives my husband a chance to get away from suburbia. By cajoling the children to come and help him with the field work, they have subconsciously learnt how to be farmers. More importantly, they have attached themselves to the land. If you don't live near your land, you will be unable to nurture a relationship with it, except as a memory. I have no intention of letting anyone take that joy away from my family. Accusations are one thing, sabotaging our daily life with other people's misery is quite another, in this rather selfish world that we are all living in.

*** *** ***

*Iggleza = Cretan pronunciation of Engleza (Εγγλέζα); - literally, 'English woman'; figuratively, 'someone who thinks like an English person', a term Greeks often use to describe me (ie when they think I am not acting/thinking like a 'real' Greek). 

Έλα απόψε, σαν Εγγλέζα, φως μου να φερθείς (1940)
Έλα απόψε, σαν Εγγλέζα, φως μου να φερθείς,  Come tonight, like an English woman, be my light
στις οχτώμιση το βράδυ, ραντεβού να `ρθεις, at eight thirty in the evening, come to see me on a date
Στο στενόμακρο δρομάκι, τ’ ανηφορικό, To the long and narrow path, the steep one,
θα σε περιμένω να `ρθεις, κάτι να σου πω, I will be waiting for you, to tell you something
Θέλω πια να σου μιλήσω, σκέτα, παστρικά, I just want to talk to you, nice and neat,
όλα της καρδιάς μου, να σου πω τα μυστικά, everything in my heart, to tell you my secrets

The reference to the time (8.30) is what differentiates the Greek from the English woman. The English woman will be on time.

On another note, the English accent continues to mesmerize Greeks. You may be speaking a heap of BS, but they just love to hear that accent. It's like listening to the Queen and they think she is speaking to them.

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Monday, 17 August 2015

Snap elections? (Πρόωρες εκλογές΄)

Summertime is holiday time in Greece. Except if you're a Greek politician. These days they are lucky if they can arrange a day trip or perhaps a weekend away from work. They are now working on call, just like doctors, who are called in at all hours of the day and night to save lives. Their job: to save Greece. Just what they are saving Greece from is unclear these days: when the cicadas are singing, life looks very rosy. While Greeks go about their summer business and flock to the beaches, Greece seems to be just pulling through.

It was not always like this. Back in the good old days when Greece didn't need to worry about where her euros came from, the Greek parliament would wind down by the end of June and wouldn't reopen until some time in September. Parliamentarians went to their summer homes, their island homes and/or their favorite resorts, and took good long rests. They were never bothered by anyone at this time. Their main public appearances were at restaurants in their summer holiday clothing. These days, they are more likely to be photographed sleeping in Parliament as the government fast-tracks reform packages in exchange for bailout money.

Syriza MPs getting a snooze in, during a debate in the Greek Parliament that lasted from Wednesday night to Friday morning. 

This year, life in Greece has felt very unstable. We have no idea what is in store for us, except the paying of more taxes. Not even August has felt normal: only just last week, we had rainstorms in Crete. (Although I do in fact remember this happening on the very same day - 14th of August - 12 years ago. Not quite climate change after all.)
14th of August, 2015, 2.15pm - by 3pm, I had turned on the lights in the house. A Kiwi friend flying into Hania for her holidays on this day thought she had landed in Wellington. Watch the fata morgana effect of last week's rainstorm on the video link below.

Because of the fast pace of change in the Greek political climate, it is difficult to know what is going on. Having said this, Greek politics are much more transparent than they ever were in the past. I seem to remember who is who these days and I can put names to faces and vice-versa. What's more, it's quite obvious what is happening: In a nutshell, Greece needs money, creditors won't give up funds without firm promises, and not everyone agrees with the promises. These issues are being debated in Parliament under time constraints. In essence, the Greek economy is no longer under Greece's jurisdiction, given that we are in great debt and we have no way of printing our own money, so there is no need to debate any economic issues. But debate is part of a democracy, and debate we must. The outcomes of these debates are not really the problem: it's the origin of the number of 'agree' and 'disagree' votes that is now creating the unstable political climate in Greece.

By the end of this week, Greeks will know whether we are in for a new round of elections. The governing party SYRIZA, in its origins a far-Left party, was voted in in January of this year as government of Greece with a majority, at roughly 29% of the vote. But that majority was not enough to allow SYRIZA to govern on its own. So SYRIZA joined forces with ANEL, a minority far-Right party with less than 6% of the vote, to form a coalition. Their sole common interest was that they were both against the Memorandum of Understanding (read: loan agreement) that the previous coalition government had signed up to.

Six months later, SYRIZA has changed course, by pushing a new Memorandum through the Greek Parliament. This did not go unnoticed by Greeks, other Europeans and the global Western world. In a normal political climate, it could be said that SYRIZA moved from the Left to the Centre. But Greece's politics are not normal at all: the Memorandum was not voted in by a SYRIZA/ANEL majority - a good many SYRIZA Members of Parliament voted against it but it was supported by the opposition parties: NeaDimokratia, PASOK and ToPotami.

Understandably, things have come to a head: SYRIZA is now unable to rule with a majority of its own members. Tsipras called a confidence vote scheduled for this week, and if he loses it, he will probably call snap elections. No one really knows the outcome of the confidence vote, even though Greeks are generally agreeing on the idea that they don't want to go back to the polls this year. But so much has changed over the past six months. As SYRIZA rethinks their original agenda, so do Greeks rethink the reasons why they voted in SYRIZA. SYRIZA remains the most popular political party in Greece, and Tsipras remains the most popular leader. This is despite veering towards the Centre rather than remaining on the Left. I call it 'growing up'. Pavlos Tsimas, a Greek journalist writing for the Huffington Post, calls it 'coming of age':
"We succumbed to magical thinking when we believed that we could write off our debt without penalty, that we could, with some difficult trickery, of the kind that they do in the West Indies and at the Zappeion, reduce deficits without austerity, that with our vote alone we would change the whole of Europe, that we could stick out our tongue at the Eurozone, without jeopardizing our participation in it, when Alexis said he would make a proposal to Merkel that she wouldn't be able to refuse, or when Yanis tried to convince him that if we ran out of negotiating time, we would breach payments and introduce a fancy, virtual currency in our transactions, the world would fall on its knees offering us gold, frankincense, and myrrh...
We lived through it; it ended on July 12; the agreement confirms the end of an era. We are now experiencing an era of "coming of age," where we know that desires do not shape reality, that fantasy does not have power, that we are obligated to make choices, each of which has consequences."
SYRIZA received a mandate at the beginning of the year to trash the memorandum. We just got a new one. Then it received a second mandate when the people of Greece voted overwhelmingly to reject the troika's creditors' deal June 2015 deal. We still signed a deal. If elections go ahead, and we have to have another election, will SYRIZA/Tsipras get lucky again? At least 40 SYRIZA MPs did not support him recently, while the opposition parties did, when new measures concerning early retirement and taxation of farmers were passed through the Parliament. Who is willing to vote no confidence in the PM and risk losing their parliamentary seats?

The SYRIZA rift is looking now like a civil war within the party. Some of the rebel SYRIZA MPs have categorically stated that they will not support the Prime Minister in a vote of confidence. The heads of NeaDimokratia and PASOK have already stated that they will not support Tsipras in a confidence vote - but that is not to say that all their MPs will vote in the same way: party politics is very fluid these days in Greece. ANEL is most likely going to support Tsipras - they know they are toast if another election is called for, where Tsipras looks set to win an outright majority with SYRIZA, even though not all the present MPs will be a part of that new government. ToPotami is most likely going to support Tsipras - they are hoping to be part of his coalition (they go any way the wind blows warmer). KKE (the so-called communist party of Greece) always votes NO for everything - their recent announcement concerning the confidence vote sounds like the Delphi oracle has spoken:
«The issue is that the people must entirely remove their trust in the memorandum parties, the EU and the capitalist path, which has brought us to today's barbarity, and to trust KKE, the only power which struggles with conscience and stability, towards an exit from the crisis in favour of the people.»
Golden Dawn is also a NO party and is often ignored by the other parties. Why they don't do the same with KKE is anyone's guess - both parties are not fit to rule, nor do they have any desire to cooperate with anyone else.

So what if we did end up going to elections? SYRIZA is leading the polls, and Tsipras is often regarded as the most suitable person to be Prime Minister. One of his rebels is already talking about pushing the anti-Memorandum concept: Tsipras' response is that this shows a breaking of ranks - so they clearly won't form a part of the government, were SYRIZA to win by a majority, and it does seem that this is going to happen. They won't need to form a coalition with homophobic anti-immigration ANEL - ie ANEL knows that an election will turn them into an opposition party with no clout. The main opposition party, NeaDimokratia (centre-Right) is very weak, as it supports a Memorandum - so there is little to choose between SYRIZA and NeaDimokratia. PASOK (supposedly centre-Left) may even end up outside Parliament after a new election - they are regarded as the banana republic among the Greek political parties. The ToPotami newcomer believes it is gaining the centre ground - it claims it doesn't want new elections, but it's hoping to become at least a member of the coalition. It's a pro-Memorandum party; ditto NeaDimokratia (see above).

As if the farce is not complete, no matter how many Greek MPs give Tsipras the confidence vote to carry on with the implementation of the Memorandum, we are awaiting the thumbs up from Germany, among other European states, who must also democratically decide if they will support the new loan agreement for Greece. If global democracy is all about saying YES to white man's capitalism, why don't we all just say YES and get on with the show? We'd all be enjoying our summer holidays now.

16th of August, 2015, two days after the rains - I spent my Sunday at these Cretan beauty spots.

Elections are disruptive. If they take place in September, that means school won't even have started before it's closed down again (schools act as polling stations). If it takes place in October, we'll be on tenterhooks till then. What Greece will lose over this time if elections are to be called is more trust. The world does not feel confident about what is happening in Greece. So it isn't the Greek economy itself, or a lack of funds - it's the lack of trust in Greek institutions to stop chewing the cud and begin to implement reforms. 

Another unusual phenomenon was observed last week: 
"GREEK ECONOMY BOUNCES BACK WITH 0.8% GROWTH IN Q2: Greece’s economy grew by 0.8% in the second quarter following zero growth in the first three months of the year, according to statistics service ELSTAT. This came as a complete surprise to economists who had expected a 0.5% contraction. The first quarter was revised higher from a 0.2% decline. The figures put Greece ahead of the UK, which expanded by 0.7% between April and June. The GDP figures are for the period before Athens introduced capital controls and shut the Greek stock exchange and the banks."

It may sound difficult to believe, but it looks like there is plenty of money after all in Greece (see my previous post on capital controls). What a shame there isn't any real consensus on how to build trust and confidence in a country that truly has it all: great food, (generally) great weather, great landscape and scenery, great natural resources and, according to what tourists say, great people.

UPDATE 18-08-2015: The latest news seems to suggest that snap elections will not take place in September. In other words, we will simply be on tenterhooks throughout the fall...
UPDATE 19-09-2015 on Twitter
State TV ERT reports Tsipras spoke to Greek President Pavlopoulos last night. Content not known but speculation is about snap polls
I wish they'd make up their mind...
UPDATE 20-08-2015: The government resigns, elections are called.
UPDATE 21-08-2015: Greece has a new political party - the Left Platform is calling itself Popular Unity "Λαϊκή Ενότητα". The share of the pie is diminishing... Varoufaki and Konstantopoulou are not part of it: it is headed by Lafazanis and includes Lapavitsas, the people entrusted by Syriza - when it was a Leftie - to steer the unreformist policies. and

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Monday, 10 August 2015

Capital controls (Kεφαλαιακοί περιορισμοί)

The imposition of capital controls (CC) prior to the Greek referendum is regarded, generally speaking, by western commentators, as disastrous for the Greek economy. I think that shows how little global economic experts understood how money worked in Greece up until CC were imposed. They only realised what was happening now, post-CC. Capital controls are viewed as a sign of the degeneration of an economy. But Greece's economy had degenerated well before that, without any form of CC. So where was the harm in imposing CC?

Initially, CC harmed what was left of the economy because money could not be sent abroad to pay for merchandise and materials needed for industry. But in a cash based society like Greece, this was hardly an issue:
"Thousands of businesses have indeed been harmed but the type of business that has mainly evolved over the decades has been based on borrowing, low productivity and rampant tax evasion – something which needed to end."
It takes two to tango, it's not rocket science, and it certainly isn't just a Greek problem. Without CC, tax avoidance was rife. Prior to CC, Greek businesses were using cash in their business dealings, the perfect way for both sides of the transaction to avoid taxes and hide their activities.  But this isn't the reason why CC were imposed. The reason is a much more selfish one. Greeks brought the situation on them themselves by taking their money out of the bank, believing that the Greek government - whichever one it was, left right or centre, whether they voted it in or not - will fail, taking us out of the euro. While this was a real possibility given that the German FinMin Wolfgang Schaueble had had enough of Greece and had made this abundantly clear by the time of the referendum, Greeks never really estimated the potential dangers of taking their money out of the banks.

Overnight, Greeks could not take money out of the bank with the freedom that they once could. Very few people used cash cards for transactions and even fewer 'trusted' credit cards, because they were ignorant of how they worked. There was not even a transition period for the changeover. It just happened. Former Greek FinMIn, the flamboyant Yanis Varoufakis, insisted that Greece's creditors imposed CC on the country, but I think that's far-fetched - CC were needed in Greece well before they were imposed. By the time of the referendum when CC were imposed, people had gotten to the stage of hiding their money 'under the mattress' so to speak:
"The introduction of capital controls, for example, resulted in a huge increase in the use of plastic money, with more than a million new cards being issued within a month and a doubling of the number of such transactions. At the same time, the cap on withdrawals will see money that has been “mattressed” gradually being spent until the cash in circulation comes down to a fraction of what it is today."
When a friend abroad casually mentioned that he would be visiting Greece soon 'to inject some euros into the Greek economy', my husband responded by saying 'Don't worry, there are plenty of euros in Greek gardens':
"In a country where cash is king and undeclared transactions still make up about a quarter of the economy, about 1 million debit cards have been issued by banks since the government closed lenders for three weeks and imposed controls on euro bills. Emergency measures that some officials warned might spur the black market are showing signs of doing the opposite... Supermarket and gasoline sales paid by debit cards doubled in the wake of controls; usage in the countryside tripled... more buying and selling of goods and services goes through the books."
Much has been written about the negative aspects of capital controls, but the best source in my opinion is from the Greek bankers themselves, who write in Greek. Here is part of an article written by a Greek banker (he works in Eurobank) which appeared in this Sunday's print edition of the respected Greek newspaper To Vima, and has now also been published on the web. It's worth noting what is being discussed in Greek, a language generally unavailable to the English-speaking world:
"The imposition of capital controls found a large number of Greek citizens unprepared and therefore "excluded" from a number of banking transactions, first and foremost the inability to use cash to service their everyday obligations. Precisely this is why from the very first days of enforcing capital controls, banks were barraged by debit card requests and accessibility to alternative (electronic and telephone) trading networks.
"What troubled the domestic banking system for many years and which the banks was trying to promote, on the basis of international experience, simply occurred by necessity, abruptly and without any adjustment period. It is indicative that in Greece card payments in all forms represented only 6% of total payments in the country, one of the lowest rates in Europe, compared with 24% which is the European average and 42% are in Denmark.
"International experience also certifies the inverse relationship between the informal economy and the use of electronic money. It is indicative that in northern European countries (eg Denmark, Sweden), where the use of electronic money is highly developed, it has almost eliminated the informal economy, in contrast with countries of the South or the former Eastern bloc where cash is more common and there is a flourishing underground economy and tax evasion.
"Despite the initial shock caused in our country, capital controls can gradually change consumer behavior and habits and form the basis of a wider reform of a part of the banking and trade sector, mainly in the behavior of citizens in terms of their obligations to the State. It is obvious that every online transaction leaves behind a tax footprint, thus facilitating both the attempt to increase tax revenues and enhance transparency, actively and effectively limiting tax evasion.
"This change has occurred since the imposition of capital restrictions to date, certified by the available evidence from Greek banks, according to which there was a significant increase in demand for debit cards, which surpassed 1 million. Before capital restrictions, on average fewer than 100,000 cards per month were issued. In the same period more than double new codes were issued for the use electronic banking. With a daily limit on withdrawals remaining at €60, consumers increasingly use their debit card for daily transactions, so that the turnover of debit cards was higher for the first time in July than that of  credit cards, following the trend prevailing in the rest of the European Union. In particular, the turnover of debit card acceptance terminals (POS) more than doubled compared to the previous period. The increased use is observed in both the existing and the new-card customers, who replaced cash with cards as a payment instrument for their daily transactions (such as supermarkets, petrol stations etc.).
"Furthermore, it is noteworthy that the card acceptance environment varies. Companies and services, several of which were perfectly set up for fraudulent tax evasion, have expressed the intention to use card payment options at points of sale. The demand is great even from less traditional sectors such as small businesses and individual professionals (eg, pharmacists, doctors, dental clinics). A large number of fast food services (cafes, etc.) that do not accept cards are now asking to install contactless payment terminals. Many taxi unions also want to equip drivers with portable card acceptance terminals (mPOS). It is estimated that in the next two years the installed base card acceptance terminals (POS) in the country will reach about 400,000 (more than double from the current number of 150,000).
"These developments are expected to contribute significantly to efforts to reduce operating costs of banks, by the transfer of transactions from the bank branches to alternative distribution channels, ie ATM, POS and e-Banking. But the most significant development in the expansion of electronic transactions is the positive contribution to the economy and the strengthening of the country's finances to combat the underground economy and tax evasion."
What is going to happen to people who are hiding their money in the garden or under the mattress? A law is being proposed that will allow people to bring back their money to the bank, with a 45% tax slapped on it if they cannot prove where the money came from (ie whether it was legally earned or not). That of course will deter even the most patriotic among the cash hoarders. Suitcases are being checked at airports, to ensure people are not taking money out of the country. So in effect, what is left for them now is to use that cash up - and eventually it will come back into the system.

Capital controls sounded nasty to begin with, but that's what's propping up the banks now. For a state full of cash hoarders, this is probably the best way to stabilise the economy. Even some state benefits are being paid out by prepaid cards - if you are too poor to eat, this is a good way to make sure you will spend your money on food, and not, say, cigarettes. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

When CC were announced, my husband was furious with me. "It's all your fault," he cried, "you never once went to the ATM to withdraw some cash! Now we're gonna lose all our money!" So why didn't he go to the ATMs to withdraw cash? See above discussion...

I never believed any of the eurosceptic nonsense that was being blasted by the right wing media, especially on TV. I sincerely thank the Greek private tv channels for their fear-mongering referendum propaganda (that we would be kicked out of the euro, and eventually out of Europe). They consolidated my big fat Greek OXI vote, unwittingly undermining the conservative vote that they thought they were supporting. Instead of hoarding cash, I checked my kitchen larders and stocked up on staples. I reckon I'm fully stocked on rice, beans and pasta until Christmas.

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Monday, 3 August 2015

Urban shift

I bumped into a friend from Athens the other day, one of so many friends I have seen this summer, from beyond the borders of my island and indeed my country: it seems that everyone is coming to Crete for their holiday. He looked very relaxed sitting on the roadside outside his son's office. His son moved to Crete, where his father was born, about two years ago from Athens, for employment opportunities. The road was busy and noisy, but this didn't seem to bother my friend. He was taking in the sweet breeze that descends on the island after sunset on a hot summer's day.

"Καλά είστε εδώ," he said, meaning something like 'you've got it good here', something I've never denied. In Crete, we live well, with good food and a more relaxed lifestyle. But I wanted him to explain what HE meant by this. What did he see?

"It's not a jungle here," he said. "You don't feel like you are in danger, you can live peacefully, without so much stress." He began to tell me about the problems of burglaries in Athens. But we also have an increased crime rate in the area. "Ah, but do burglaries happen at night, too, while you are in the house?" I think not. We generally feel safe at night, behind locked doors. I began to understand what he meant. The impoverishment of Greek citizens has given rise to many problems in Greek society. The rate of burglaries rose during the crisis, as has suicide. Desperation has caused many problems. These problems occur all over the country, but they will naturally be more visible in large urban conglomerations.

My friend lives in one of the areas of Athens that is considered very poor, in terms of median levels of incomes. When we want to measure poverty, income level is one of the most often used indicators. But this is completely misleading, in my opinion. I know the area of Athens where my friend lives, and I would never consider it poor, despite the fact that income levels are low. The concept of poverty has been confused by the media, both Greek and global, and we are led to believe that it has to do with a lack of money. But the media rarely explains how it is that there exist a significant number of people living in impoverished areas without their actually being poor. I usually dismiss news stories appearing in Bloomberg and Financial Times about the Greek economic crisis, because they are very skewed to analyses of figures - but these figures rarely show up the facts, one of which is that Greeks are managing to survive with less money. It's not a fact that the global world wants to become widely known about Greece, for obvious reasons: capitalism thrives on wanting more, not making less.

My friend knows my family well. He's in his seventies, and he grew up with my mother's family in a mountainous remote village. Homes were remotely located, but his family home was the closest to my mother's family home, so the 6 children in his family played with the 5 children in my mother's family. We have always maintained a friendship, even among our children. "You haven't been up there recently, have you? " I admitted that I hadn't. The family property was sold in the late 1950s (or early 1960s?) and my mother's family moved to lower ground. They never ever wanted to talk about it or even to return to the village. When my mother died, I tried to find out more about where she came from, but one of my relatives refused to discuss it, muttering something about πολύ δύσκολοι καιροί (very hard times) and μεγάλη φτώχεια (great poverty). And this is pretty much how my friend described living int he village: great poverty, in very hard times. That's mainly what they remember of their village.

 Although the area where Zorba the Greek was shot on location is not a mountainous village (the villages of Akrotiri and Apokoronas), it was considered very remote and difficult terrain to live in because the area had no water reserves and the land was very rocky. The houses shown in this segment of the film are similar to the rough houses that my parents lived in before they left Greece for New Zealand. Zorba's dance was shot in Stavros, Akrotiri, Hania, Crete. To watch the whole film, click here

For a start, it should be noted that living in a mountain village in Crete was never easy in pre-1970s Crete. Water came from wells and had to be carried to houses. Electricity was non-existent. Houses were rough structures, and animals had to be accommodated too. Families were big and houses small. Most food was produced on hilly slopes; planting and harvesting was a difficult job. People walked to the town starting from the wee hours of the night in order to get to the town in the morning to sell their produce - it took about four hours. They sold produce in exchange for staples that they did not grow, eg rice and sugar. Then there was the walk back home in the afternoon.  This is what people like my friend remember when they think about mountain village life. It was never easy. In contrast, life on the lower slopes was much easier in every respect. But to live on lower ground in Crete, you had to earn money, and since paying jobs weren't plentiful, my friend moved to the city.

In World War 2, Greek village life was destroyed. The Nazis burned houses, confiscated food and killed men. This destruction eroded village life and it was not possible to continue to live in the villages without great hardship. My friend was born in 1940; although he was too young to remember what happened in the village during the war, he lived through the crisis that followed. He eventually moved to Athens in the early 1960s as a young man, where rapid industrialisation was taking place and many labourers' jobs were opening up. He found work in the shipyards of Scaramanga. But he also needed a to live somewhere.

The Greek government did not provide housing for the migrants coming from the rural-urban shift. It could never provide enough housing to accommodate all the people in need: in 1922, the population exchange between Greece and Turkey meant that half a million people left Greece and moved to Turkey, and one-and-a-half million people left Turkey and moved to Greece.  The the second world war struck, and many homes were destroyed and many more were needed once again. Greeks were left to their own devices - they had to sort out their housing needs themselves.

If Greece were a richer nation, perhaps people would plead to the government to build them homes while they slept on the streets or in community spaces until a home was found. But this is not the Greek way. What people did instead was to build their own homes on whatever vacant land they found close to their workplace. This is how Anafiotika was built in the early 1800s, on the slopes behind the rock of the Acropolis in central Athens. Anafiotika is a name taken from the area's original inhabitants who came from the island of Anafi, neighbouring Santorini. Legend has it that their fame in masonry was so well known that they were invited in the mid-1800s by the newly-appointed German King of Greece to build the palaces and grand mansions that Athens was lacking when she became the capital of the newly established Hellenic Republic. Their own island homes had been ravaged by an earthquake, hence the need to move away, or rebuild. They hastily erected their Athens homes overnight, taking advantage of an Ottoman law which stated: "if you could put up a structure between sunset and sunrise, the property was yours." The paradox was that during the day, the Anafiotes built palaces for the rich and powerful, but at night they built simple island dwellings for their poor needy selves.

My friend lives in Paralia Aspropirgou in Athens, close to many of his Cretan friends who also left the island at about the same time as him, and went to work in the same kinds of jobs in the same general area.  The area is industrial in nature, with island communities found among the industrial buildings. The houses were also built at night so that the authorities would not see them sprouting up. They were built with any materials available to the inhabitants: plastic sheeting, wood from pallets, discarded hoardings, old barrels, the rocks from the land itself. The style of housing was similar to the houses that these people left behind in their villages - small and functional with a garden and yard. I know these houses well - my aunt lives in a similar house in the same area as my friend. I have always referred to their neighbourhood as Little Crete. These houses were slowly improved and modernised over time, so that they no longer resemble their origins. The housing communities in Paralia Aspropirgou were considered illegal, but eventually legalised - during my own time in Greece (which is not that long ago, after all!). I witnessed the change in the area when the streets were named and tarmac was laid on the roads. My aunt complained that they never got the plumbing right: whereas once the earth paths soaked up the rain, the water now created mini-floods atop the concrete.

My friend told me about his garden in Athens. "It's a hectare in size. My other son bought the land behind the family home, with a mind to building his own family home, but he decided to build elsewhere instead, and he left me the land, which has a well in it. I grow all my vegetables on it all year round and use the water in the well." Wells are now taxed with the new measures - if the authorities can find them, I guess. Whatever the case, being able to grow your own food and keep chickens for meat is considered very important to people with rural origins. It is a way of being able to control something in your life, which is constantly coming under others' control. And that's why it's important to have a home of your own in Greece, and why Syriza is going to protect the ownership rights of the first home, despite the new measures on foreclosures, which will allow banks to put homes up for auctions. It doesn't matter if your home is large or small, whether you cook using electricity or a wood fire, if you heat it with electricity or, again, the wood fire: it's yours, and will keep you safe during times of trouble.

The Greek urban migration in modern times (1950s) is portrayed poignantly in Alekos Alexandrakis' film Συνοικία το όνειρο (A neighbourhood called Dream). On first coming to the city, people lived in slums. The film shows grinding urban poverty in Athens when people who had recently moved to the city in search of a better life, employment opportunities, and a general moving away from the confines of village life. They established shanty towns. The neighbourhood of Assyrmatos where the film was shot on location was and is still is located on the foothills of Filopapou hill, close to the Acropolis. Some of the images contained in the film are highly disturbing - they show poverty and misery in its raw state. (No wonder my family can't and refuses to this day to talk about it.) The conclusion of the film is that the sense of belonging that one feels in a family is what stops a person from self-destruction.

The film is in Greek, but it is also intelligible to the non-Greek. There are also images in it which will melt the heart of anyone who has visited Athens. Start at point 0.20.00-0.22.00 and watch the young woman leaving the slum where she lives, and see where she ends up. (And if you have patience, you will see who she ended up with.) Another segment starting from 0.40.41 - where are we? There is also another great moment at 1:30:30 right at the end. Browse through the scenes and see the wretchedness of the living conditions of a Greek slum (the area continues to exist but it looks nothing like this now). 
Excerpt from the newspaper article "Ελευθερία" 4 - 8 - 1961, reporting on the censorship of the film "A neighbourhood called Dream" - because it showed 'too much poverty'. Its being banned from being played in Greek cinemas all over the country forced the economic ruin of the director/lead actor Alekos Alexandrakis, as well as his marriage breakdown (with the lead actress). The film was regarded as communistic propaganda by the government of the time.

The Greek films of the 1960s-1970s generally show happy glamorous people living in beautiful large glamorous houses and apartments; this film, made in 1961 with the musical score written by Mikis Theodorakis, was banned, only to be allowed to be shown in CENSORED form (!) due to public outcry among the Greek literati, and only in URBAN centres! Villagers would have been shocked to see the concept of grinding urban poverty that it showed - they thought that they, the rural dwellers, were the true poor. So the film still has resonance today when a severely impoverished Greece is trying to ward off further impoverishment.

Πολιτεία - City: music by Mikis Theodorakis, sung by two great Greek voices, Grigoris Bithikotsis and Stelios Kazantzakis. The album appeared in 1961. The lyrics describe, in its severest form, the feelings of deprivation of people who have recently moved from the village to the city's 'new' suburbs, which were in effect slums. Δραπετσώνα and Βρέχει στη φτωχογειονιά are two striking examples of such lyrics. (Use an online translator if you don't understand the Greek lyrics in the links.) 

Will the Greek city ever escape urban poverty? According to the writers of the new measures that have been enacted by law in the Greek Parliament, they will supposedly force us into the right direction. Perhaps... but most likely not. Greece will remain Greece and Greeks will remain Greeks. Greek city life offers more opportunities for entertainment these days than employment. For city living to be sustainable, we need to create work opportunities. Since Greece has no money at the moment for creation of any sort, state jobs are hard to come by, which means that the private sector will not flourish either. The state is owned by Brussels; we've been under foreign ownership for so long that we are used to it. And they are used to us. Some things don't change.

THE CITY Constantine P. Cavafy (1910)
You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world. 

For more information on the film Συνοικια το ονειρο¨ for an English synopsis for older photos of the area that the film was shot for a recent review for a full critique

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