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Thursday, 29 October 2015

Old age (Γηρατειά)

Can anything stop us from losing our mind?
"Eating a Mediterranean diet rich in fish and vegetables may help prevent your brain shrinking for as long as five years, new research suggests."  http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/oct/21/mediterranean-diet-may-slow-the-ageing-process-by-five-years
We are seriously wondering about this in our house, as we watched the terrifying consequences of the developments of our 91-year-old yiayia's senile dementia. Up until two months ago, she was cooking her own meals and cleaning her house. She watched TV and read the Saturday local paper. She also pottered around the garden, and kept the front yard immaculately clean.

It was around this time when she also started telling us about the living dead: so-and-so died, she'd say, proceeding to tell us the gory details of their death. As far as we knew, these people were still alive. Sometimes old people confuse things, we'd tell the children. But we got worried, and hired help, a neighbor who was looking for this kind of work, and had experiencing in looking after old people. But imagine what this feels like for someone who had always tried to live independently. The relationship didn't quite work out.

There was also that time when she kept waking up at night and phoning us, to ask why we hadn't woken up yet, because it was time to go to work (it was often in the middle of the night). Checking her kitchen clock, we wondered if perhaps she had simply confused the time: the clock was indeed showing the wrong time. So we set it correctly, and changed the battery just in case. But the clock still kept changing time. So we removed the button that did this, to make sure that the time-changing gremlins didn't strike again. Yiayia then removed the alarm button and popped it onto the pin that had been left on the time-setting button. So we were back to square one. When we removed that button too, yiayia chucked the clock in the bin. "It's broken," she told us. "No, look yiayia," we said, holding it to her ear, "it's still ticking." But she wasn't convinced: "Only barely," she replied. It's just old age, we'd tell the children. But we were worried, so we called in a doctor.

"She's probably suffered a myriad of tiny strokes that were barely noticeable," he told us, and recommended donepezil and some sleeping tablets. It seemed to work, at least when she took it, that is. Yiayia had spent her life not just independently but also without taking any kind of medication whatsoever. All she ever took occasionally was paracetamol for a headache or other minor ailment. It was a shock to her that the doctor was suggesting that she take pills to live. "But there is noting wrong with me!" she kept saying. And she was right. Her blood tests showed no signs of illness. Normal reds, normal whites, normal cholesterol, normal heartbeat: in fact, normal everything. "She's really healthy," we told the kids, but we knew that there was something that was not really right.

She began moving the furniture around the house. She threw things out. We had to go through her rubbish every day: a cup, a plate, a bowl, even the remote control for the TV. And of course, food. "They've all been poisoned," she told us, howling with horror when we showed her what she was throwing out. "Get it out of this house immediately!" she'd cry, hitting her walking frame up and down on the floor. She was having psychoses. "It's a normal part of senile dementia," the doctor explained. "But she needs psychiatric help." At 91, I doubted that she would ever be able to receive help for her condition, not because the Greek health care system is broken, but because she would be unwilling to receive it. By this time, she had stopped taking all the medication she had been prescribed (we were giving it to her). She did not want our own help; how would she accept a change in environment and caregivers?

None of this terrified me personally as much as what was about to ensue, during her last week at home. Believing that we were poisoning all the food brought into the house, she stopped eating. She literally ate nothing all day. I checked her cupboards: apart from a few rusks, some olive oil, sugar, flour, rice and lentils, there was no other food. She had thrown everything else out, and refused to take anything we gave her. When she stopped eating our home-made meals, we brought in all sorts of other store-bought delicacies: she threw those out too, believing that the wrapping they came in was poisonous.

After three days, I insisted that we should take her to the hospital. Knowing that she wouldn't allow anyone to take her out of the house, I asked some big burly black-shirt-wearing relatives to help us coax her out. "You need to disarm her," I told them. "Take away the walking frame."  She had been using it like a deadly weapon, hitting anyone she had stopped trusting when they tried to approach her.

The doctors were very sympathetic. "There doesn't seem to be anything wrong with her", they said to us. "She's just senile." The A&E doctors called the resident psychiatrist who tried to give her some sedatives. But she refused to drink the water that had been laced with drops, nor did she accept to have anything injected in her. "We can't make her do anything," the doctors and nurses said, and we understood them to the tee: we couldn't make her do anything either. Yiayia went home, and continued her diet. For the last week of her life at home, she didn't take one bite of food.

How long can a person live without food before they faint, fall and create bigger problems than what they already have? It was either that, or residential care. State old-age care does exist, but it requires a lot of paperwork. For a start, the person entering state care needs to have thorough medical checkups before being admitted. Yiayia's issues did not allow us to go through this procedure. Private care differs not just in cost but also in terms of what kinds of cases they take on. We eventually chose a unit that is run by someone who has 40 years experience in geriatric care, 35 of which was spent caring for old people in state care.

Apparently, she's eating and has now started taking medication. But she's still not the yiayia we knew. I'm not sure if she will ever be again. The Mediterranean diet no doubt aided in her longevity. But it didn't stop her from the eventual decline that we all go through when we get old.

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Friday, 16 October 2015

Psychotic dementia (Ψυχωτική άνοια)

While walking around in Berlin three years ago with my family, we came across what looked like an open-air art exhibition containing many grey concrete slabs of various heights.



What do you do when you don't understand something? You look for a logical explanation, which in this case, I thought could be provided by a sign. There was nothing - yes, really, nothing! - around like a sign that could explain it. The slabs - known in the art world as 'stele', from the Greek word 'στύλος' meaning column - stretched for quite a distance across the road.There has to be a sign, we assured ourselves. Where could we find the sign, we wondered? We noticed some people in uniform that seemed to be guarding the area, so we tried to ask them to explain it to us.


We approached one woman who simply pointed to the other side of the block where the slabs ended. I heard her say something like 'information centre'. The walk to the other side of the block did not seem so far away, but something stopped us from entering the area containing the slabs. There were so many of them, they were not all the same height, the ground below them seemed to undulate as did the slabs, and they were not numbered or labelled. It just seemed so easy to get lost in their midst, despite the fact that I could discern the end of the path running through the slabs. After trying to keep up with my two young children who were running riot through them, I decided it was time to call it quits, and we came out of the block of slabs and back onto the pavement, which immediately comforted me from the feelings of confusion that I sensed while I was inside the block. At this point, we still had no idea what this block of slabs was all about.


We eventually learnt from another more polite guard that this was a memorial for the murdered Jews of Europe, and if we walked to the other side of the memorial (the one we'd walked away from due to the less informative guard's disinterest), we would find an underground information centre and find out more about the sculpture. I preferred to wait till I got back to an internet connection to read up about it, as we had already come across other sites in Berlin describing German atrocities, and we had felt rather overwhelmed by the sheer amount of surviving records contained in these places about this act of horror in global history. (Not to mention the fact that we have a number of similar memorial sites in Crete and have passed by many others as we travel around the country.) So we thanked the guard for the information and left the site at that point.


At the time, we couldn't really understand how this memorial could signify anything about the murdered Jews of Europe. When I came home, I looked it up:
"... the stelae are designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason" (Wikipedia),
Yes, I did find it rather too confusing for my liking. This is what hindered us from understanding the memorial. We don;t live in a state of confusion, and when we feel confused, we always look for a solution that will put an end to the confusion. Even during the Greek crises that have presented themselves over the last six years, we have actually been living in a confused state of order, not an orderly state of confusion. Perhaps there was that one moment of true confusion, during the referendum, when we really did not kow what we would wake up to. But that was short-lived, and in the end, it all came out in the wash. Hence, Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was out of my depth. I couldn't really understand the architect's intentions. It remained a mystery to me for a long time, until only very recently.

For the last two months, I've been watching my 91-year-old mother-in-law's slide into the state of senile dementia (it's definitely not Alzheimer's), and it feels pretty much like living in 'an uneasy, confusing atmosphere', amidst 'a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason'. What she once ate she now labels as poison. What she once regarded as her possessions are now seen as useless items that need throwing away. People she once knew and loved are now whores and bastards.

It's not always like this. Some moments are better than others. But other moments are more terrifying. Our view of normality has been crushed. We don't know what to expect from one moment to the other. All we are left with is to hope that we will live more better moments than terrifying ones. Wishing for a better day is like wishing for a miracle. It's never a full day, just a few moments. We are living in a state of uneasy confusion. That memorial in Berlin describes exactly what we feel like. I now live with the contented feeling that finally, I understand the  confusing memorial I visited three years ago with my family.

(All photos taken at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (German: Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas), also known as the Holocaust Memorial (German: Holocaust-Mahnmal), April 2012.)

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Sunday, 11 October 2015

Greece inside out

American Scott Walters started it with his guide to England after his visit to 'mostly small towns', with his generalisations such as 'People don't seem to be afraid of their neighbours or the government(see https://www.facebook.com/iScottFL/posts/10207706696650031). His facebook post practically went viral. Then along came Paul Owen's '(very) rough guide to America from an Englishman in New York': 'It’s best to think of the police as a sort of occupying army and avoid them accordingly – particularly if you are not white' (see http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/oct/08/america-guide-englishman-new-york). More recently, Madhvi Pankhania gave us 'an English view of Australia': 'Australians can be sensitive – convict jokes will go down like a lead (see http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/oct/11/so-long-and-thanks-for-all-the-flat-whites-an-english-view-of-australia).

I'll take a stab at continuing the meme, with my view of Greece, although I won't be writing as a citizen of another nationality. I can no longer genuinely say I'm a New Zelander without feeling like I'm fooling you. I'm describing Greeks as a 'Greek-something' (both an insider and an outsider). I've based my ideas below loosely on the three above quoted posts.
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  1. Greece is a really safe holiday destination. Greek street protests take place in well-defined spaces, and it's very easy to be a bystander watching a protest safely from a short distance.
  2. Greeks are often heard shouting in a group; they are actually having a normal conversation with one another.
  3. Traditional Greek food is really tasty and quite cheap. But it looks rather plain, and not at all refined. That's because Greek tavernas serve the kind of food a mother or grandmother would cook for her family.
  4. If you order some 'toast' in Greece, you'll get a hot ham and cheese sandwich, not dry blackened bread. English toast is generally regarded as something you eat at a hotel breakfast.
  5. Whatever you order in a Greek restaurant, it comes with fried potatoes, including 'toast' (crisps/chips might be served as an alternative to fried potatoes).
  6. Souvlaki (aka yiro, gyro sandwich) is the national takeout meal, eaten at least once a week. Fasolada (bean soup) and fakies (lentil soup) are two other nationally unifying dish - they're each made once or twice a month by all homecooks throughout the year in most parts of Greece.
  7. Greeks eat a lot of junk food but they also eat a lot of home-cooked food; that's why they tend to be chunky/stocky. 
  8. Although organic food is gaining ground in Greece, it's not quite as popular as locally produced fresh seasonal products. To be able to grow your own food is regarded as a source of pride.
  9. Although feta cheese is well known all over the country, all regions produce their own varieties of different kinds of cheese, wine, bread, sausage, cured meats, etc. Places located 50 kilometres away from each other count as 'different' regions - they will each have their own different names for the same product. 
  10. 'Kek' is what the round cake with a hole in it is called (the one Mrs Portokalos calle 'kek' in My Big Fat greek Wedding). All other types of cake are known generically as 'gliko' (sweet). 
  11. The kafeneio is the equivalent of an English pub: it serves both coffee and alcohol, as well as food. Like pubs in small English towns, kafeneia are more like community living rooms. 
  12. The kafeneio is also a political unit. You frequent the kafeneio that expresses your political views. 
  13. Politics is talked about everywhere by everyone. 
  14. The Greek political left is not the same thing as what is regarded globally as the political left. Syriza called itself a centre-left party, when initially it was regarded  as a radical left party by the global press. 
  15. Young Greeks often marry at a municipal office these days. They have a church wedding after the birth of their first child. 
  16. Greeks are on the whole smart casual dressers. 
  17. Greeks are defined by their accents. 
  18. Taxi drivers know all the local gossip, as do hairdressers.
  19. Greeks generally don't drink tea. When they do, they think of it as something used for medicinal purposes only (eg when you feel ill). 
  20. Wherever you are, you can ask for a glass of water and no one will expect you to pay for it. The price of plain bottled water is regulated by the government, and it's very cheap. (In the Athens museum area last summer, a small bottle cost 0.35 eurocents; at most kiosks, this bottle will be sold for no more than 0.50 eurocents.)
  21. The Greek public health system is a shambles, but the doctors are almost universally excellent.
  22. Things don't always happen/start right on the stated time. They may happen/start 5 or 15 or 30 or 45 or 60 or more minutes later.
  23. Greeks are dreadful drivers, but their parking skills is second to none.
  24. Greek roads leave a lot to be desired, but you can actually drive quite safely on them. 
  25. Greek homes are to be envied - most people live in very modern apartments or houses with fitted kitchens, and not the little whitewashed houses often depicted in tourist images of Greece.
  26. Everyone has a washing machine (we don't do laundromats) but driers are rare - that's because there's a lot of sunlight throughout the year in Greece, despite the cold winters.
  27. Contrary to popular belief, it does actually get very cold in Greece in winter.
  28. Apartments for rent usually come unfurnished; Greeks think the idea of sleeping in someone else’s bed is disgusting. 
  29. Contrary to popular belief, the Greek police are very helpful and friendly. This change has come about since the crisis. 
  30. The buses and (sometimes) the trains may not look very flashy, but they do work. The Athens metro is the fastest and cleanest metro I've ever encountered.
  31. It may look all Greek to you initially, but contrary to popular belief, the Greek letters of the alphabet are very easy to learn and there are strict pronunciation rules for letters and combinations of letter (unlike English). 
  32. Everyone seems to have a profession of some sorts. Greeks are often introduced to other people first by their name and then by their profession. Education matters, and this attitude cuts across every social class.
  33. Unlike her European counterparts, the capital city of Greece, Athens, is one of the cheapest cities to live in in Greece. Petrol is cheapest in Athens.
  34. 'Petrelaio' is diesel; unleaded petrol is 'venzini'.
  35. It may seem like Greeks drink a lot of soft drinks, but they do actually prefer their own regional brands. Greek soft drinks have an awesome taste.
  36. Macedonia will always be Greek to the Greeks, even if it's also Macedonian. It's still Greek to them.
  37. Contrary to popular belief, the Greek woman rules the roost. She just lets the man think he wears the trousers.
  38. In general terms, German habits are regarded as a source of derision (in tourist areas, Germans stand out by wearing white socks and sandals); Israelis are regarded as strange people (in tourist areas, Israeli cruise ships are guarded by the local police because they are 'afraid of attacks': attacks from what? See No. 1); Americans and the British are seen seen mainly as idiots, even though Greeks are infatuated by London and the English accent. 
  39. Turkey is regarded as a nice place to go on a short holiday, but only the coastal Mediterranean parts; the Turks are our friends, but Turkey is still the enemy. 
  40. Cypriots are not Greeks - Cypriots will also remind you of this. Some Cypriots speak Greek, which is where the confusion lies - Cyprus is another country, not a Greek island. 
  41. Greeks still throw used toilet paper in a bin and they never flush it in the toilet. Toilets really do block if used TP is flushed down the loo. (On a positive note, Greek beaches rarely get flooded with sewage - now you know why.)
  42. Greeks are not at all as homophobic as they are often depicted in the foreign press. But Greek gay men do not fit the global paradigm of homosexuality. 
  43. Greeks call black-skinned people 'mavri' (mavri = black), not because they are racist, but because they are describing black people's skin colour and they regard them as an ethnic group (however wrong that may be). Greeks aren't as racist as the global press makes them out to be - they are more likely to be intra-racist, ie they may have something negative to say about another Greek person from a different region than their own - it's got to do with feeling superior. 
  44. Graffiti is so ingrained in Greek culture that it is taken for granted. No one ever really talks about it. Except for foreigners. 
  45. Ditto the above for stray cats and dogs. 
  46. Greeks love a good joke. But they don't like/get English humour. They prefer American comedy.
  47. Many motorcycle drivers are seen riding without a helmet. It may not always kill them, but it's generally young males that get killed when they fall off a motorcycle (and in 99% of cases, they weren't wearing a helmet). 
  48. The word 'malaka' may be a term of endearment among in-groups. But if you don't belong to the in-group, it's best not to use it. You'll be asked 'who are you calling a malaka?' instead of getting a friendly welcome.
  49. Queuing is now becoming more orderly in Greece than it used to be. The global media likes to show long queues of Greek people waiting for their turn (especially during the pre- and post-referendum period with the closed banks). But queues are rare outside Athens. 
  50. You don't have to tip. Really. But a tip is always appreciated and you will be thanked profusely for it.
  51. Bargaining is regarded as part of Greek culture, but what most people don't realise is that it's usually the customer who demands to bargain. Greek prices are always pretty much fixed.
  52. If you do want to bargain, you probably won't get a receipt for the product/service you were buying. (Serves you right.)
  53. There seem to be a lot of newspapers for the country's size. Most people buy a Sunday paper mainly for the offers included in it (eg supermarket/petrol vouchers, etc). Internet news sources now abound.
  54. On television news and other shows, one person is rarely talking at one time. Although this seems confusing to most people, it doesn't seem to impede Greeks' understanding of the discussion.
  55. Some olive trees in Greece are older than America.  
  56. Almost everyone in Greece has been through a private language institute where they learnt English. 
  57. Almost everyone in Greece speaks a reasonable level of English. Even the elderly seem to be able to understand what a foreigner is asking them and they are able to point them in the right direction.
  58. Cold coffees in Greece are awesome. My favorite is freddo cappuccino, and it has the same awesome taste wherever I've had it. (Most people like to drink 'frappe' - ice-cold 'beaten' Nescafe.)
  59. Drinking beer on the road from a bottle is regarded as very bad taste. Drinking beer without food is OK as long as you are sitting down and you are at a cafe/bar kind of place. Since beer is always served cold, drinking beer is not really seen as the coolest thing to do in the winter, unless you find yourself in a heated space.
  60. The Acropolis is the most awesome rock in the universe. It's taken by the Greeks for granted only by those for whom it is part of the daily commute scenery (ie Athenians). 
  61. The universal greeting is "yiasou" (or 'yia'. The universal farewell is also "Yiasou" (or 'yia'). 
  62. Greek tomatoes really do taste different from tomatoes from other countries. 
  63. It's generally believed that Greeks are racist against the Roma. It works both ways: the Roma tend to keep themselves apart from the mainstream community. 
  64. Olive oil in Greece is known as 'oil', because that's what most if not all people use on a daily basis in their cooking. We differentiate among seed oils, naming them according to their origin. But olive oil is just oil.
  65. Greeks love their cars. They long for the days to return when they will be able to afford the car they gave up in the crisis due to the high taxes. Cars are regarded as a work of art which is why they don't have bumper stickers because Greeks don't want to dirty them). 
  66. Greeks like having euros. They remember the drachma with nostalgia, but they know it looks like Monopoly money compared to what they've got now. 
  67. Greeks hate winter because it costs them money to keep warm, and because they are outside people, and winter keeps them inside. 
  68. World War 2 is remembered by Greeks in a similar way as the Holocaust is remembered by Jews.
  69. Greeks love to smoke and the smoking ban is broken many times. But they do smoke more cheaply nowadays: they usually roll their own and they also do e-cigs. Nota bene: if you go to a bar/cafe.taverna and expect other patrons not to smoke, you are the crazy person, not the smokers. I know this rule well: that's why I rarely go to these places. I hate cigarette smoke. 
  70. Greece is changing. Every Greek knows this, and regrets it in some ways, but also understands that this has to happen. 
 Thanks to Chris Murphy and Frances McKenzie for their input.

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