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Monday, 14 August 2017

Sojourn in the Netherlands

Image may contain: 1 person, standingTwo weeks in the Netherlands*, my lucky break this year. "How come, Maria?" I was often asked, as if it isn't common to travel abroad for work purposes. The short version of the story goes something like this: It was being increasingly noticed by various people that I have special skills, which were deemed useful enough and good value for the money I would be paid, so that I could be borrowed for a short period of time from my Greek work space by another EU member state. I spent two weeks based in Leiden from the last week of July to the first week of August.

On arrival at Schiphol Airport, I noticed my hosts were wearing coats, stuff we cast aside in Crete sometime in May, and don't use again until September. Cool, I thought, no more roasting in my own skin. My family was most jealous of this aspect of my working holiday. After settling into the hotel (a room of my own! no cooking - or even cleaning! - for the next two weeks!) and tucking into a lunch snack of satay, I visited my new work environment, which my boss explained was a short two-stop bus ride from the hotel (something like €2.20 return). "Can't I walk?" I asked. I was 'warned' that it was a 15-minute walk. Walking in Holland (which is not the same thing as saying 'The Netherlands' - there is an important difference: click here) is a breeze: cool weather, no hills, clearly marked paved roads linking the whole country seamlessly. (Pavements in Hania often come to an abrupt end, leaving you wondering where to walk, when there is clearly plenty of land ahead of you.) Being holiday time, the traffic was light, and there were fewer walkers and cyclists on the road, which meant that I often felt I had the whole place to myself. It sometimes rained when I was on the road, but if you are Cretan, you will find such Dutch summer weather very refreshing.

My work environment was a very peaceful one. You would not have suspected that there could be ten people working in the half dozen rooms of our office space in the Van Steenis building. Again, it may have had something to do with summertime; the university cafes and restaurants were closed, for instance. But generally, people don't create a lot of noise while they're working. They keep their voices very low. Even laughter is 'contained'.  It helped that my boss liked peace and quiet enough to make sure the environment was always as peaceful as a library. It made my Greek work environment sound more like a 'laiki agora'. (Είμαστε για κλάματα 😂 )

Office hours were not as rigid as I had initially feared. The people I worked with were mainly PhD students and professors, so work hours are more fluid. But there was a tacit agreement that hours must be put in, so a physical presence of at least 6-7 hours was required by all concerned; in other words, not much different to how we work in my own environment. The boss liked to see this kind of self-discipline in his team, and he expressed his appreciation. Some people happily stayed on until the building's guard came round to throw them out (at 11pm). They were mainly the ones that were feeling the pressure of needing to finish their PhD soon. Remembering my own study years, I suspect there are also other good reasons for staying on in the office: it's warm in the winter, the coffee is free, there are cooking facilities (microwave), and in this way, you can reduce your expenses in many ways. Student life is not cheap in our times. 

My new work routine entailed a fresh start with a huge hotel breakfast where I could also make a sandwich for lunch, which proved quite useful because, as I mentioned earlier, most food outlets in the Leiden University campus area were closed for the summer. After freshening up, it was time for a brisk walk, taking a new route as often as I could, before arriving at the office by 8.30am. I took advantage of the long daylight hours (the sun rose at about 5.30am) to see as much of the area as I could (urban, suburban, forest, recreational). I mostly left the office some time around 5.30pm, making my office hours in Leiden possibly the longest that I have ever worked; this mainly had to do with the project we were working on and the time pressure (we had two weeks to complete it - and we did). I also liked to come into the office early, before we began the project work, because I was able to finish some of my online Greek tasks (meaning that I had caught up with most of my Greek work by the time I returned home). During the day, there was also an obligatory coffee/lunch break. This was deemed very important by my boss because it meant we could catch up on non-work news. So the work day was broken into 'parts', and I still had plenty of time after work to do some exploring because it got dark just before 10pm. (Imagine the trip taking place in the winter - I'd be leaving for work and returning to the hotel in the dark, and it would have been quite cold.)  

One thing that surprises me was that no one actually left the indoor office space during the working day. So they didn't go out for 'fresh air' (not even on the day we were in the office from 8.30am to 8.30pm to meet our deadline) and they had no contact with the world outside the office, apart from the views from the office windows. If they smoked, they would have had to go outside. But smoking is definitely frowned on in the Netherlands and this is probably why I never saw any of my colleagues smoking. In the Netherlands, you get the feeling that smokers should not even be seen. For those who desperately need a cigarette (or is it a joint?), 'drop pits' are strategically placed outside buildings and many public outdoor spaces have 'rookzone' cubicles. Not that everyone obeyed such smoking 'laws' - cigarette stubs are found on the road (as are laughing gas canisters), and I saw people smoking right outside the rookzone. It is said that laws are made to be broken, but these ones in particular are just too easy to break: they make smokers look like pests (which is probably how most non-smokers regard them anyway), which probably has some backfire effect.   

I was based in a spacious room that was filled in a highly organised manner with very old books and journal articles on anthropological/ethnoscientific matters, most of which had been saved from destruction in the second world war. Some of the material contained in the room required the wearing of gloves and masks in order to use them. In the middle of the room were three large antique tables which were salvaged when another department wanted to renovate its installations and decided to throw them out. My boss asked to take them; to get them into our work space, the partitions of the office walls needed to be removed and put up again. A fair bit of recycling took place in the process. I felt very privileged to work in this room, especially when another professor asked me why I was placed here! It just seemed to be the most convenient room for the trio that made up our team to get the work done. 

My Dutch boss is a professor who had been born in a concentration camp during WW2 when Indonesia was under Japanese rule. He returned to the Netherlands with his parents in his early teens but due to his work interests, he has maintained long-term contact with Indonesia. One of the most memorable things I heard from him was that whenever he visits Indonesia, which is quite often, he always feels like a stranger in the midst, even though he speaks the language fluently, has an Indonesian wife, and is well known and highly respected: "The white English-speaking man enjoys unfair advantages wherever he goes," he told me. Together with the professor, I also worked closely with an Indonesian university lecturer. Every day we worked on our project together, and every day we measured our progress. We agreed on many things, and when we didn't agree, we still managed to work out an amicable functional solution: it's a Dutch quality to be very open-minded and to explore alternatives. So in essence, a mix of four cultures cooperated on the project: I had clearly brought in a double dose with my very Greek looks and my very native English accent. I was constantly asked about that. For some reason, it made a very clear impression on people. They were always wondering: "Which part of the English speaking world does she come from?" And generally speaking, it often came as a surprise to them that I would call myself Greek. I can't work that one out exactly; it may have to do with the unfair advantage that the professor had mentioned earlier. 

My team shared many qualities, among which I would include a cooperative spirit, a hard working nature, a disciplined work regime, and a rare highly prized human trait: humility. Some of the most influential people in my life were very humble. The supervisor of my Master thesis would tell me never to use university degree abbreviations after my name because it would detach me from the people I would be involved with in my research work. The point was not to use our privileged background as a way to open doors. Likewise, my uneducated mother who was very proud of her university educated children never let me hide behind my degrees. She never praised me about this in front of friends and relatives: 'It doesn't make you a better person than the rest of us', she would often remind me. She was aware that as a family, we didn't actually have any connection with university educated people, and her anxiety probably had to do with the fear of her children losing contact with the world she had brought us up in. So in my family we never bragged about being highly educated. When I mentioned this to my Dutch boss, he told me I was also a humble person, which I found to be a humbling experience - until I realised that our team all shared ths trait, and it is probably what made the team successful. It was a source of pride for me to be included in the company of such people.

It rained almost every day I was in the Netherlands, with cloudy grey ominous skies to match, but being summertime, it wasn't really cold. I had packed clothes I would normally wear in Crete in spring. The rain did not bother me, as anyone in Greece during the summer would tell you. Water is life, and the Dutch clouds are quite spectacular to look at, especially in combination with a view of a windmill. (In contrast, the burning Greek summer heat is hell. The average Greek will agree with me: most of us are very tired of the heat by now.) The way that the Dutch constantly battle with water against all odds probably explains their progressive outlook, and the way they embrace the future and the technological advancements it brings. The past is a history lesson for them, not a way of life (like it is in Greece, where people still fear losing their past, something that cannot be lost in the first place).

Food was an interesting concept in the Netherlands. You could eat all kinds of food you wanted to eat. But food in the Netherlands is not just for eating: food is business. The Netherlands is so highly urbanised that it is nearly impossible to 'grow/raise your own' food. Business provides you with food both to sustain you and for your pleasure. It's rare to hear someone say - like we often hear in Crete - that they were given food grown directly by a friend/relative. Everything you eat comes from a shop. In essence, you can only know about the origin/contents of your food if it is labelled. This raises the question of whether you trust food labels, which, increasingly, we find we cannott. But we have to eat to survive, so we will buy and eat food whether we trust the source or not. As an example of this, the Dutch egg scare broke out while I was in the Netherlands. My friend texted me over breakfast: "Don't eat the eggs!" As I left the breakfast room, I noticed an egg picture on the first page of the morning newspaper. And when I went to work, my boss also told us not to eat any eggs until the end of the week. Never mind the eggs you have already eaten, or avoiding whole eggs which is easy; but what about egg as an ingredient? It goes into so many ready-to-eat foods which have been prepared a long time ago: mayonnaise and mustard, cakes and biscuits, processed meat products and ready-to-eat meals. The whole country must have already ingested toxic eggs in some form well before they were warned about the batches which had the toxic substance (fipronil) identified in them. This kind of problem shows the hazards of leaving all food production to business; in a highly urbanised society, it is unavoidable anyway.

I didn't really miss any food from Greece while I was in the Netherlands, except perhaps our evening summer meal of watermelon, paximadi and mizithra, and mainly for sentimental reasons.  I could eat anything I wanted in the Netherlands. The hotel breakfast was based on international hotel food and included Dutch treats like poffertjes, hagelslag, ginger cake, and raisin bread. For lunch, I bought something from the supermarket which could be eaten at room temperature or heated in the microwave oven in the common room of my work space. (In my Greek work environment, we have fresh warm meals and salads, all cooked by a resident chef, who also cooks for dormitory residents and conference attendees). I found supermarket food democratically cheap enough for all pockets, and there was a wide range of prepared foods to choose from - but not necessarily very tasty; it had a certain 'sameness' about it. Not being able to prepare food in the hotel (I didn't have a kitchenette or even a fridge), I wasn't able to keep food in the room for too long, so a lot of my food was heavily packaged. I was quite surprised by the lack of recycling facilities in both the office and the hotel. Greeks are often berated for our lower level of recycling in general - I didn't expect to encounter a lack of easy recycling options in a highly urbanised north European country; I thought this kind of thing would be a priority here. I think it's safe to assume that 100% recycling is not really happening anywhere in the world.

I enjoyed tasting whatever took my fancy as I exploring the town, like frites (€2.50), 'kapsalon' (€3.50) and Thai takeaways (€8). The most memorable weekday meal I had was after a visit to Leiden's Burcht: a meal of mussels at a restaurant right in front of the castle steps (€27.50 with wine). I was also treated to a home-cooked meal at Den Haag, where we ate on a rooftop, it being such a lovely warm evening. Every Friday in the late afternoon, our department had a communal meal (highly unusual in this kind of work environment, or so I'm told), with contributions by all members of the department, including wine. I got to taste a lot of Indonesian delicacies here. I always carry Cretan specialties (mizithra, paximadi, olive oil) with me when travelling, so I was also able to take part in preparing something for this meal. My weekend meals were had in various parts of North Holland: fish tapas in Hoorn, Chinese stir fries cooked by a friend in Bergen, 'bitterballen' for a lunch snack at Alkmaar, dim sum in Rotterdam, tuna melt by the North Sea at Egmund ann Zee. This really was a working holiday for me, as I made the most of my new surroundings.

Dutch hospitality is not the same as Greek hospitality, but it is a great form of hospitality nonetheless. The Dutch are an incredibly well informed race, and everyone speaks English. So when you ask for information, the Dutch will share it with attention to detail, and always with a smile. They aren't snobs, and see you as their equal. They like 'direct' talk. They also believe that they are a fair society. They celebrate diversity and for this reason, they treasure assimilation - in the Dutch people's eyes, we are all subject to the same rules. I felt quite safe in my new surroundings. Privacy and personal spaces are well respected in the Netherlands, as are cleanliness and tidiness. Working towards the common good is of greater priority than personal interests; this cannot be said for all societies. Last but not least, it was quite surprising for me to discover that the Dutch are quite family-oriented, something not always associated with highly Westernised societies.

Image may contain: 1 person, ocean, cloud, sky, beach, outdoor and natureFlat spotless Holland and hilly dusty Crete could not be more opposite to each other. The landscape makes you in some way: the Dutch live in a highly interconnected small densely populated country, in contrast to a sparsely populated Greece with highly concentrated populations in only a few major urban centres. The Netherlands are only slightly larger than the Peloponnese, yet the population is more than one-and-a-half times that of Greece. Grassy, cloudy summertime Holland stands starkly against brown-dry, blue-skied Crete. But the starkest difference would have to be the peace and quiet of a country where law and order are regarded as a sign of civility and highly regulated. If you're Greek, the concept of a quiet peaceful coastal road in summertime is stuff made of dreams. Cars and motorbikes screech past you, horns honk at the drop of a hat, people shout at each other, the neighbours' hens cackle all hours of the day, children's cries fill the streets in summer (even Dutch kids sounded 'quiet!), dogs (both homed and homeless) can be heard barking even in the wee hours of the morning, and cicadas chirp well until the late evening. You also have to put up with everyone's different tastes in open-air music. Greece is a very noisy society. This made me wonder: how do northern European tourists tolerate us given that they are used to such quiet surroundings? One answer could lie in the old adage that opposites attract. Then again, maybe things are peaceful up there now, because half the population is on holiday - in Southern Europe!

*Sorry, no photos, because it takes ages to upload them! I have posted some on facebook if you care to see them.

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

Friday, 14 July 2017

Filotimo (Φιλότιμο)

The BBC recently put up a discussion about a Greek word that can't be translated: φιλότιμο (fiLOtimo). The reason for this probably lies in the fact that Greeks can't quite themselves decide what it means:
"It seems that not only does the word remain untranslatable, but even Greeks themselves have trouble agreeing on a single definition."
As a linguist, I would say that there is a translation into another language for every one-word concept into a given language. For this reason, for 'filotimo', I would translate it as 'being noble': "having or showing fine personal qualities or high moral principles", according to Oxford. To paraphrase: 'being horourable without asking for reward'. So you will do the right thing, and you hope someone will notice, even though you know that it is also probable that no one will notice. Below, I describe my own unique example of filotimo.

Today, I visited the tenant of my house who can't afford to pay the rent. Yani's been living in the house for a long time now - honestly, I forget how long it has been, but it's well over a decade (it must be almost close to two). For the last two years, I've let him live there for free because he has been unemployed. But in truth, nothing is free these days - everyone knows that, and so does Yani. So every year at Christmas, he calls me up and asks me how much I paid in property taxes. Yani is showing filotimo: if he didn't call me, but waited for me to ask for the money, he wouldn't be called filotimo - he would be called πονηρός (sly, cunning). The first year I asked him for €400; the next year I asked for €300 (the taxes decreased). Because I have filotimo, I didn't lie to him to pocket a higher amount; in turn, Yani's level of filotimo is so high that he would never ask to see the paper that the taxes are written on.

Yani's filotimo doesn't stop there. Every summer, Yani phones me up and asks me what paintwork and minor renovations I'd like done on our house, the one where we live. That's why my house always looks freshly painted. In fact, this is why I saw Yani today. He called me to come to our house and see what work needs to be done. Note that I didn't call him. I have too much filotimo to treat him like my unpaid slave. Last year, he fitted a brand new aluminium window in our bathroom (the old wooden one had rotted). All we paid for was the window: he knocked out the old one, plastered the brickwork, placed a new one in, and then plastered and painted the chipped walls.  That took three days of his time. Yani has too much filotimo to pretend to ignore me.

Our shared sense of filotimo doesn't stop there. While living in my property, Yani has been doing it up slowly to his liking. My property is the best looking in the street. He explained to me that when he's out of work (he is a painter), he likes to keep himself occupied so he doesn't have to think about his unemoloyed older son, his younger son who is doing his military service, and his beloved wife who is forced to live away from her husband, in a village where she found well paid work looking after an old woman (she too fell into the hands of a family with a high sense of filotimo).

Today, Yani called me to pick him up (he can't afford a car) to bring him to my house so he could see what needs fixing this year. This gave me a chance to see the transformations he had done on my own property.

The story I have told you could have a different version: I would ask Yani to pay rent  - or leave. I could then rent my house (beautifully done up by Yani) via airbnb and demand €1,000 a week from tourists, to live in an 'art deco bungalow' (read: old-fashioned lower middle class small house) in a 'genuine Greek neighbourhood with authentic local character' (where the pavements - save my own - are still awaiting the council to pave them) with 'fruit trees' in the garden (old mandarin trees whose productive season is over), and ten minutes walk to the town centre (that is really the only bit worth advertising).

I have too much filotimo to throw someone like Yani out of the house, just so I could live in the hope that my lil' ol' house would be the one that an airbnb client would rush to rent, as if €1000 a week is a bargain. That's practically what I get paid in a monthly salary, yet this is the kind of price some properties in the town are going for at the moment. Filotimo has been lost among most home owners in Hania. If filotimo had an opposite, ie someone "having or showing BAD personal qualities or LOW moral principles", I would say that the word for this concept must be σκατοψυχιά (skatopsiCHIA), which comes from σκατό (skaTO), which means 'shit', and ψυχή (psyCHE), which means soul.

I dont know where the story of Yani and I will stop. One day, I expect to be needing the property. Or I may end up needing to sell it. And of course, we both hope things will be good enough one day so that we will all have work and we will all be able to pay our bills fair and square. I think Yani sounded optmistic when I spoke to him today: "Things seem more stable, Maria," he said to me, adding that he felt more at peace with his choices.

It's my understanding that not many people could display this level of filotimo for various reasons, even if they had a house to spare. Perhaps they are afraid of being regarded as too easy a walkover of some kind, and regard the person doing the 'walkover' as a kind of scrounger. Yani tells me that he sometimes feels that he is looked down on. I think I know what he is feeling: that as a pauper of some sort, certain segments of society may be thinking that he doesn't deserve to live so well. As for Maria, she seems to be having all the luck. Σκατόψυχοι όλοι τους - they lack filotimo.

I shared this story because I believe people should know that there are many ways to deal with the modern world's major problem of inequal wealth. I also shared it so that the σκατόψυχοι who read the story can rot in their own misery and jealousy even more. There are too many heartless people in the world that are simply thinking about how to make more money from their money so they can leave lots more to the kids - so that their kids can continue to be wealthy like them, and they won;t have to work. They are simply trying to ignore the fact that their kids won't necessarily have the chance to work because jobs are fast running out. Eventually, this problem will catch up with all of us.

Don't for a moment think I'm trying to show piety of any sort. Sometimes, enough is enough. Through a formal court injunction, I evicted the previous tenants 15 years ago, precisely because they were σκατόψυχοι.

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

Tuesday, 13 June 2017


"Walls are hot right now" 
Banksy, wall artist, and creator of the newly opened Walled Out Hotel in Palestine

The Byzantine and Venetian fortifications of Chania - Click to enlarge

The oldest walls delineating the limits of the town of Hania were built about 1500 years ago by the Romans who ruled in the East - those who conquered modern-day Istanbul (formerly Constantinople and originally Byzantium) at one point - otherwise known as the Byzantines, hence the 'Byzantine wall' (the green line in the above photo) as we refer to them in Hania. These walls were loosely based on the origins of the town which lie in the area of Kastelli, generally regarded as the oldest part of Hania. The Byzantine walls were built to protect the town from Arab invasions, but they were probably not very effective because the Arabs eventually invaded anyway, and despite their short rule, when the Byzantines took back the town, they needed to strengthen them due to the destruction that they had incurred.

The fear of losing what you gained - even if it was gained using illicit, violent means - was great in older times. Building a wall around your belongings has always been regarded as a way to keep yourself and your property safe. Even so, the newer Byzantine walls again failed to protect the town from invaders. The Venetians (Romans from the West) had conquered the city by the beginning of the 13th century. Their arrival also entailed a greater population. Builders began adding extra stories on the existing buildings, and new ones began to be built beyond the Byzantine walls. Since the town had expanded, new walls were in order. These newer walls - known as the 'Venetian wall' (orange line in the above photo) - began to be built soon after the Venetians established themselves in Hania, as they too feared attacks from other invaders (Arabs, Ottomans).

But the Venetian walls - built mainly by forced labour from the region - took a long time to be built. The Venetians weren't really very popular in Hania. For a start, they got rid of the high priests in the town, and installed their own ones. Different language, different customs, and a clearly urban attitude among the mainly rural people of Hania kept the two worlds apart, to the extent that the Venetians (read: Catholic) were living in the urban part of the province, while the Cretans (read: Orthodox) lived in the villages. The town of Hania was being constructed according to Venetian architectural standards - but beyond the urban area, the province remained decidedly Greek.

The arrival of the Venetians transformed Hania into a very beautiful one with distinct Venetians features. Hania was regarded as a mini-Venice. The Venetians built impressive walls around the modern town they created, with ramparts built at vantage points, enough room for a deep moat around the walls, and a large fortress on the west side. But these walls were not without their problems, which were known to the Venetians. They needed constant repair which was too costly to be done at regular intervals. It was to be expected that they too would eventually fail to secure the town against attacks. Barely had the fortress on the west side (known as 'Firka') been built than the Ottomans (read: Moslems) invaded and and conquered the island. The proposed moat had never actually been used, despite its existence. So the Venetian walls really did not live up to their expectations.

The Ottomans really didn't care much about the walls. They had already realised that the walls weren't very useful in performing their original function, so they basically went into decline after that. The Ottomans took over the Venetian buildings without changing them very much, and added a few landmarks of their own, like mosques and turreted towers on the churches and monasteries. Churches became mosques, storage areas, even soap factories. Such is the fate of the spoils of war. But the Ottomans were considered 'nicer' conquerors than the Venetians, because they reinstated Orthodoxy in the town, doing away with Catholicism. The Ottomans simply took over a pretty much ready-to-use town. When Greek independence became an issue of concern to the West, the Ottomans - who stayed in Crete longer than any other Greek territory of the time - must have realised that their time was almost up. Crete became a nation state in 1898, eventually joining modern Greece in 1913. It's been Greek ever since then.

When the Ottomans finally left Hania, and the Greeks took over, no more walls were built. The old walls were allowed to remain, but parts of them were knocked down in order to make way for roads. Ease of access was regarded as more important than preservation of the existing architecture. By then, Hania had become an important centre of trade as the capital of the Crete. Before town planning restrictions came into force in 1960, parts of the Venetian walls were knocked down to make way for roads, and people were living in houses built on, in and around both the Byzantine and the Venetian walls. The walls were therefore still serving a purpose, but it was quite different to their original use.

It's interesting to consider the failures of the fortifications of the town of Hania in the present time, when walls continue to be built (or are at least int he planning stages), and people continue to cross hypothetical walls - country borders - in order to reach their desired destination. The European Union is a prime example of having broken down barriers between countries by doing away with borders. But just 25 years after the fall of communism and the Schengen convention, borders are being reinstated in the EU, and in quite a few cases, physical walls are going up, such as the one between Hungary and Serbia, to stop immigration coming in mainly from Greece and Italy. Natural borders like the sea are no deterrent. A physical wall in such cases is impossible.

Beyond Europe, Donald Trump intends to build a wall to stop people entering the US from the Mexican side, while Theresa May wants the UK to leave the EU to curb migration. Yet Turkish authorities continue to turn a blind eye to people departing from its shores as they make their way to Greek territory, while Greek authorities continue to turn a blind eye to the disappearing migrants that were initially registered here. Whether a wall - physical or hypothetical - is able to prevent the movement of people is pure conjecture - history tells us that walls do not stop people's movements. The Cretan waters surrounding the island are a great deterrent to the movement of people as they are very rough and they are considered too dangerous to cross on a rusty leaky dinghy. But only a month or so ago, 60 illegal migrants were found hiding in caves near the north coast of Hania (they were temporarily housed in the gymnasium where my children do their sports activities), and another 113 were found on the south coast of Crete; the determined will always find a way to execute their plan.

Image may contain: stripesWalls come up and walls fall down. Sometimes they come back up again. Since the late 1980s, the existing walls in Hania have been prominently restored, with work continuing in the present day. Some of the houses were removed from the walls, and a whole hotel was knocked down on the western side of the fortifications, so that the walls could be renovated, restored and displayed. These fortifications are being given a new lease of life for sentimental and historical reasons: for tourists to marvel at, and for future generations to learn the history of the town. As recently as last month, the wall on western rampart was damaged due to bad weather. This part of the wall is deemed a precious relic of our history and will be restored: in fact, it isn't the first time that it has fallen and been restored according to historical records.

Walls against 'invaders' continue to be built, restored and maintained. But they aren't really working.

Image may contain: one or more people and outdoor

Collage of Hania's walls by Vaggelis Diamantakis: Byzantine walls (961 -1204AD) red colour. Venetian walls (1204-1645) yellow colour. Hania was captured (sic) in 961AD by the Byzantines led by Nikiforos Fokas who took it from the Arabs and they rebuilt the city with fortifications on the Kastelli hill, turning Hania into a walled city. Of the Byzantine wall, what remains is the north section near the coast  and a small part on Sifaka St.  

My photos were taken on a recent trip to Iraklio, Crete's biggest city, showing another use for walls in modern times: as an outdoor art gallery. This post is based on discussions I had with a group of 60 students from MAICh, when I conducted a tour of the old town of Hania with them at the beginning of the year. See for more information about Hania's landmarks. 

Monday, 22 May 2017

If they could hear themselves speak

"What you expect woman? Yes, just this! What you expect? Everyone live like this. There has been a war. Houses bombed. I know plenty people live worse than this. What you want? ... There has been a war here. Everyone live like this." Small Island by Andrea Levy)

The conversation that follows is based on a recent Associated Press article about the latest Greek pension cuts (see The conversation between the Greek pensioner and the non-pensioner Greek citizen chronologically follows the discussion in the article. I use the term 'Greek citizen' for the non-pensioner because I want to include the many non-Greek-heritage citizens in Greece (Albanians, Bulgarians, etc) who are also entitled to a Greek pension, in antithesis to the long-term exclusively Greek-heritage pensioners interviewed in the article, who have been paying into the Greek pension system (the one the Greek pensioners are getting their pension from) ever since the Berlin wall fell.

Greek pensioner: I began receiving a pension when I was 50!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: I won't receive a pension until I am well into my 60s.
Greek pensioner: Greece once had a generous pension system!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: The pension system was too generous to be sustainable, which is why I may not have a pension in the future.
Greek pensioner: I left Greece in 1964 and worked for 15 years in Germany!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: I am thinking of emigrating to look for a job in another country because I can't find stable work in Greece.
Greek pensioner: I have unemployed children!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: I am not in a good financial position to raise a family.
Greek pensioner: Rising taxes are eating into my lifetime savings!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: It's extremely difficult to save any of my income.
Greek pensioner: My pension used to be €998 plus €300 supplementary pension and I now get only €710 in total!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: My salary at the moment is about €800 and my pension will probably work out to just over half that.
Greek pensioner: I moved out of my small Athens apartment to give it to my son, and I now live in a single room on the last floor of the building!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: It's good that neither you nor your son have to pay rent.
Greek pensioner: I secured homes for my children!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: I really hope I can maintain the property my parents left me, otherwise I will have to sell it to avoid incurring taxes I cannot afford to pay.
Greek pensioner: I retired 15 years ago with a pension of €2400 and and now at the age of 71 it's been reduced to €1100 and with the new legislation I will end up €800 or less.
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: As I mentioned earlier, that last amount is what I get as a salary in a full-time job, and my pension will probably work out to just over half that.
Greek pensioner: I wasn't an employee of the state, getting state money!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: Neither am I. State jobs are harder to enter these days and they don't pay well.
Greek pensioner: I worked for 36 years!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: I really hope I will be in employment for that long, as all my contracts are short-term and I don't really know what work I will get after they end.
Greek pensioner: I'm burning through my savings just to pay taxes!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: I pay everything with my salary because as I mentioned before, I find it impossible to save any money.
Greek pensioner: Food prices have gone up, so I buy only the essentials and keep an eye out for special offers!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: Me too. That's how most people in Greece do their shopping.
Greek pensioner: I can't go out to dinner with friends!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: Thankfully, souvlaki is still cheap.
Greek pensioner: I am looking after my grandchildren so that my kids can go to work!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: As I mentioned before, I am not in a good financial position to raise a family.
Greek pensioner: It never crossed my mind that there would be a time when this carefree period — let's call it that — would turn into anxiety!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: I've never really experienced a financially carefree period in my life, and I can't envisage it in the near future.
Greek pensioner: After 36 years of working, I retired on a pension of €1800 that's been steadily cut to €1000!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: Your pension is a bit more than my full-time salary.
Greek pensioner: I wouldn't object to cuts of €100-300 if it was to help the poor, but an €800 reduction is too much!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: An €800 reduction in my salary would wipe out all my present income.
Greek pensioner: I pay higher taxes on the property I inherited!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: As I mentioned earlier, thank goodness we don't have to pay rent.
Greek pensioner: I can't go anywhere!So I shut myself off at home!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: I don't go on holiday often, and I only fly when Ryanair or Easyjet are having a sale.
Greek pensioner: One of the few pleasures I have left is my daily coffee with friends!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: When I go out for coffee, it's usually to those stand-up places in mini-markets where the coffee is cheap, with seating on the road where you hear the roar of the traffic as it goes by, so you can't hear yourself speak and you inhale a lot of pollution.
Greek pensioner: The new austerity measures are likely to cut my pension to about €600!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: Well, that's what I told you I get for working.
Greek pensioner: I will start having a very, very hard time now!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: I sometimes feel that my whole life will be very hard.
Greek pensioner: At the moment, thank God, I'm not hungry!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: Neither am I. But I worry about how I would be able to afford food if I dared to start a family.
Greek pensioner: The family silversmith business is struggling due to a dramatic fall in sales!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: On low salaries, we don't first think about buying unnecessary items. A smartphone is more useful than jewelry, for example.
Greek pensioner: I see the future in very uncertain terms!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: Most Greeks see the future in uncertain terms these days.
Greek pensioner: Whatever we had set aside is all gone on taxes!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: As I mentioned earlier, my salary pays for everything, including taxes.
Greek pensioner: I help my children with my pension!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: As I mentioned before, I am not in a good financial position to raise a family.
Greek pensioner: I used to get a reduced widow's pension of €780 euros, but that's been trimmed to €760, and the two annual pension bonuses I used to receive have also been cut!
Non-pensioner Greek citizen: Excuse me, but I think I've been repeating myself for long enough. I've already told you that a pension that size is what I get for working full-time, and I am not entitled to bonuses. And I also mentioned that my pension will probably work out to just over half that. So your whinging and whining is starting to sound very selfish. Everyone's in the same boat. 

Except perhaps for the εφοπλιστές. They swim amidst the bigger fish. More than 1 in 6 Greek pensioners are aged 55-62: see

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Wednesday, 17 May 2017

People waiting

“Come on you. Let’s go you, people are waiting.” 
Quote from "America America" by Elia Kazan

Immigration is high on the agenda of the global world these days. Not all doors are open though; some doors are even having walls built over them so that they can never open. Βarriers to immigration have been coming up and down over the years, so Trump's (physical) wall and Brexit's (figurative) wall are not new in this respect. As 'special relationships' begin to disintegrate, even race and wealth factors don't factor into the barriers: the doors just try to stay shut, as in the New World (places like the US and Australia) which is trying to limit immigration. There are reduced employment opportunities now for the growing population of the world due to automated technology which has changed the job market, coupled with the situation where people who are looking to migrate for better opportunities in life are all trying to get to the same places. But it pays to remember that in the world's history, there have always been periods of limiting migration and periods of opening up opportunities for it. At present, we find ourselves in the limiting part of the cycle.

If my parents were still alive, they might be bewildered by this: they migrated at a time when migration was very common. "Don't forget us," my father said to his friend as he left Greece on a ship from Pireas bound for Wellington. His friend settled there with his wife and children. Eventually, they met my mother who was visiting Wellington while she was working in a boarding school in the small agricultural town of Fielding 160km away. My mother had a two-year contract to work there, after which she could choose to stay in NZ or go back home. But before the two-year contract was over, she was already married to my father in NZ, with my father's friend acting as best man.
keratas taverna
Dad - left - as a teenager at Keratas taverna in Platanias, Chania, Crete

My parents never met in person until a week before their wedding. They got to know each other through my father's friends, photographs, and letters they wrote to each other. My mother kept this 10-month long correspondence with my father, which I found after their deaths, and I decided to read the letters only recently. (My father's letters stayed in Greece and were probably thrown away.) Although they are in essence love letters, they told me much less about love than about commitment, compromise and assurance. The fifteen letters in total (an excerpt from each one in consecutive order is included in this post) reveal the novelty and excitement of getting involved in something completely different, as well as the fear of leaving not so much one's homeland, but rather, leaving behind the most important people in one's life, their immediate family members. The letters are really about the pain of making the decision to emigrate for a better future, while their immediate past keeps chasing them back.

My parents didn't finish primary school, but they were literate in the way that most people of their time were literate: they could read and write, but didn't necessarily spell words according to standard Greek spelling rules; they rarely used stress marks or punctuation: no commas, no full stops; new lines indicated a new paragraph or idea, while capital letters often highlighted words or they were used randomly at the beginning of a word. But they wrote in a way that anyone could read their letters: as long as you can read the Greek alphabet and understand  basic Greek grammar, you would be able to understand their letters. Even my mother's mother was literate in a similar manner, from the one sample I have of her writing (she received many letter from her children in NZ). The only real difference between my father's and grandmother's written language skills is that my father wrote words using standard Greek pronunciation, whereas my grandmother wrote everything as it would be spoken in a Cretan accent.

My father's letters always started and ended in the same way, a hint of the importance of the formalities at the time in Greek letter writing. You always ask about the recipient's health at the beginning of a letter:
My dear Zambia, gia sou. I hope my letter finds you (singular) in full health and happiness in the same way that I am well and happy, at the time of writing. Dearest Zambia, I received your letter and I read your news with great happiness and was glad to hear that you are well. 
... and you always send greetings to them at the end:
With this news, I close my letter. You have lots of greetings from D., M. and children, and all the cousins that are here. Send my greetings especially to our little sister (my mother's sister who was also living in NZ). Regards with love, your future husband, Manolis, gia sas.
The letters (and a card) that Dad wrote to Mum

My father was writing his letters from Athens, in the port town of Pireas, to my mother who was living and working in NZ. But in that year of correspondence with my mother, he travelled regularly to Crete. Crete was the reference point of all his letters:
Last Saturday I went to your house and met your respectable parents and I left a ring, the ring which will unite us for ever. I hope they wrote you all the details. I am very happy in general with all your relatives, parents and brothers, they gave us a huge welcome, even though you were not there. The truth is that that particular night was really rather sad but with God's will, everything will be forgotten one day. 
The sadness of the event was not so much that my mother didn't attend her own engagement party; it was because she was not in the country. In my mother's case, the need to emigrate was greater than the need to find a partner: my mother was the oldest among her siblings and her family was very poor, too poor to marry. An arranged marriage would be a much easier way to find a partner than to wait for Mr Right to come along. Poor girls were not seen as desirable - except to poor men:
I noticed that you wrote that you have understood that I am a good man. In this way I have understood that I have found a truly good girl to live with in love and happiness for the rest of my life, as it has been determined by the all powerful God. 
What's a poor man to do in a country that could not provide for him? My father realised that he would be leaving his family soon:
Zambia, I have ordered the wedding rings in the size according to the little paper that you sent me in your letter. Concerning the issue of the invitation [to come to NZ] which you wrote about, you say you have to spend a year [in NZ] to be entitled to get the invitation process going, and I have been told that it takes a long time, so the earlier you start it, the better.
Immigration involved a lengthy waiting period, which does not seem to be too different from our times. Applications are processed one by one, on a case by case basis, they go through different offices and officials, and the process can seem drawn out:
Two days ago I came back from Crete and I read your lovely letter and I am very happy to see that you are well. I didn't write immediately because I was arranging to fix (ie fill in) the documents you sent me but I was told to ask and find out what to write in the question where the paper asks me to complete some information I don't understand, so I to our koumbaro A. to tell me what to write. Surely he too will have fixed such a document and he will know, in case I make a mistake. I will wait until he replies before fixing it. I am waiting for his reply. Better to delay it a little than to make a mistake and need to redo it.
While you wait for the process to catch up with you, you do a lot of thinking. Doubts cross your mind when you suddenly realise that what you are about to do, but the need to maintain stability in your life overrides the fear of the unknown:
So my dear Zambia, I will fix the paper that you have sent me in the way A. told me to do it in his recent letter, and I will send it to you. But before I make these plans for the invitation, I want you to write to me about how life is there, and if it is like here. There is no reason for me to leave, and for the two of us to live alone far away from our own people, if you can come back here instead, I am not going to go back to the village except for a volta (short holiday). I can work here [in Pireas], I can earn a little or a lot, we will live according to our class, but again if you see that we can be better off there, I may as well come, to stay for a certain period of time and then we will see. I can't write anything else to you about this, because I don't know where is better. But you've lived here, and you are over there now, you must have come to some conclusion where life is better, and to act accordingly. Ι will send you the paper and I will wait for you to write to me what you are going to do, if you will start the procedure for me to come or if you will come back here. As you wish, I leave you to your will.
There is a clear sinking feeling in my father's letter that he has no other choice but to leave. This is confirmed in his next letter:
I note that you wrote that of those who have gone there (NZ) some like it, whereas others don't. I want to find out if you money remains (you don't live hand to mouth), to save some money so we can return here and do something (set ourselves up). That's why I wrote to you to tell me how things are there because if we are to work and just make ends meet and not be able to earn the money for the return tickets, we may as well stay here (Greece). That's why I wrote to you. At any rate, A. wrote to me that I would be earning 80 pounds a month and if this is so, it sounds good. You asked me to write what job I do and how much money I make here. Wherever I go to work, they say they will pay you 64 drachma as a basic wage. I was working at the port and getting 650 to 700 drachmas a week but they cut my number of working days since Christmas so I am going to go and find work where M. is working, whenever they need an extra hand. Since Easter when I returned from Crete I got a job at the ship repair yards and I was making 58 drachma clear there but I had also fixed my papers to get a job in a factory which makes refrigerators, stoves and other things (ΠΙΤΣΟΣ) and they informed me to go, so I left the ship repair yards, and I've been at the factory since last week, but I don't know what fees they will take off my wage (ie taxes) and I don't know what I will clear, but whatever job anyone has here, life is very difficult for those who do not have a home and are renting.
Having your own home has always been important to Greeks, and never more so than now in difficult times. It seems that it's also important to most people in the world judging by the value of house prices in western society, but there is a clear difference between owning a house in the New World and owning a home in a country like Greece: the house where a family lives is never seen as an investment property, it is always regarded as a home that will always be in the possession of the same family. It can be divided up into smaller homes to avoid rentals for future generations, or it can be passed on to one child while other children inherit something else, eg an orchard or olive grove. Post-WW2 village life - where more than likely there was a family home - was clearly not viable for both my parents: my father did the odd job for wealthier relatives while my mother was an olive picker who was not always paid for her work, so they both migrated to the capital city eventually. Dad found port and factory work, but Mum went to Athens only to do a paid training course in housekeeping and English language learning in preparation for emigration. If they could have secured their own home in the capital city, I think they would not have left Greece. And here lies another big difference between the Greek 60s migrants and the neo-immigrants of today: the rural poor - people who literally had nothing to lose - were emigrating in the 60s, while in our times it is the educated urban class, who often maintain home ownership in Greece (among other income earning assets), that are emigrating.

Sometimes, there was nothing new for my father to write to my mother. So he would ask her about the the progress of his case in the immigration process:
Zambia, I noted that you wrote that you went to A. who told you that he wrote to me. Could you check if he has sent in my papers, if he hasn't done so already, because I hear that it takes a long time for the officials to start dealing with them. And please ask him to tell me the date he sent them in, so I can ask when they will arrive approximately.
It sounds like he was in a rush to leave. Reading between the lines, I think he was just feeling the pressure of the waiting time. He mentions the same thing in the next letter:
My Dearest Zambia, I don't believe you will misunderstand me for writing back so late but this delay happened because I received a letter from the British embassy and they were asking for some documentation from me and I went to Crete to get them and I then came back to Athens and they sent me from one office to another until today when I was checked by some doctors and now, I've finished with all this business and all that remains is the notification for me to come. That's why I hadn't written to you and I know that this would have worried you but now that you have read that everything is ok, you will be happy and all your worries will be over. I was worried too until today when I arranged all the papers.
But he didn't stop writing to my mother, even when there was no new news:
My most beloved Zambia, gia sou. I hope my letter finds you in full health and happiness as it leaves us. My Dearest I received your letter and I am glad that you are well. I noted that you wrote that you are waiting for a letter from the embassy. Well, when you receive a letter, write to me and tell me what they say. From here, I have no other news to tell you...
I remember my mother saying that she would never write more than one letter back to her prospective husband: it was always get-one-letter, write-one-back. I remember her telling me this as she laughed about it: "I didn't want to be taken for a ride". And my honourable father knew this, so he kept writing, even when he didn't have much news to write about. It is said that when you don't do much, you start meddling:
My Dearest I received your letter and I am glad that you are well. So, I got a letter from A. but he didn't write anything about what you wrote to me, about sending me an address so I can go there and ask if I can leave earlier. I am wondering where he went, so I can go and ask too, because I go to the embassy to ask and they say they don't know. 
My father was feeling the pressure of the time passing, in other words the time being wasted, when what he wanted to do was get on with the life he had been planning:
Well Zambio mou, yesterday as soon as I arrived from Crete I read all the letters that had arrived and immediately I went with that man who A. had written to me about, together with a clerk at the embassy, and they told us that as soon as the conditional visa comes, they will inform us. Well, that man who A. told me about told me to write to you not to pay any money to anyone until I get that conditional visa so that he can fix my passport, and later, we will send you the address of the office of the representative of his agency so that you can go with A. to pay the costs of my journey to come over. I asked him about the price of the ticket and he said that there's a 3,000 (drachma) difference between the plane and the ship, but you will arrange what's best, I don't mind how I come.
We can surmise from the above that there were charlatans everywhere. But what most excited me was the different journeys available in those days: you could take the slow cheap one by boat, or you could take the fast expensive one by plane. These days, a long boat journey would be classified as an expensive cruise holiday while budget travellers book lo-cost airlines.
Dad's first few months in New Zealand, with Mum - left - and the "little sister"

The end of the waiting time was fast approaching; preparations for departure were now beginning:
I was late in writing back to you because I was in Crete and D. sent your letter down to me and that's why I didn't write from there (in Pireaas) and now I came back on Saturday and I went to T. about the chest you wrote about that you wanted me to bring to you, and he told me that I can take only one suitcase with a maximum weight of 20kg, just like you already told me, so I will send the chest by ship which will leave from here on 2 February for New Zealand and it will arrive in a month. Now concerning my arrival, I don't know when I will come because A. wrote that he went to the embassy and they told him that they have sent the required documents for me to get a passport issued and I went to the embassy here and they told me that it hasn't gone there yet and when it comes they will inform me.
And that moment eventually came:
So, I want you to know that today I am going to Crete and I will return on the 10th of the month because they told me that I will leave some time between the 15th of the month to the 20th, now which day exactly I don't know, however they told me that by the 20th, I will have left. They told me that they will inform you and you will know which day I will come. That's what they told me at the agency. And as I already wrote to you, I won't be able to take more than 20kg, so concerning the things you wrote to my mother about, my folks will send them to us by ship.
Dad finished that letter with a post-script:
PS: Dear Zambio I had writtten the letter in Athens, but I hadn't got round to sending it so I am posting the letter from Crete. I am leaving Crete on the 12th of the month and then I leave (Greece) whatever day they tell me. I am coming soon. In any case, everything is ok now.
Of course, everything worked out fine, otherwise I wouldn't be writing this story:
Well, Zambio mou I know that you are worried I am coming later than we had agreed, and that's why I am writing to you. If my letter comes before I come, you will be comforted, I know, I am going through the same feelings, because they told me that I would be leaving by the 20th of the month and I went to Crete and I came back with your brother here (to Athens) and we have been here now for 8 days and today they told us that I will leave on the 26th of the month because they told us that I would have to stay two nights in one place if I left with the earlier plane, I can't remember the placename they mentioned, and then I would leave and go to another place and stay there too, and I would have to change 4 planes to come over, but as we agreed today with the people at the agency for the plane that leaves on the 26th of the month, I will have one stop in Sydney where I will stay for 15 hours and then I will leave for Wellington but I will need two planes to get there [he was probably flying into NZ through Auckland], but don't worry, I just want someone from all of you over there, if it is easy for you, to wait for me at the airport as they told me that they will have informed you, and you will know when I will be arriving.
And yes, 'they' were all waiting for him at the airport. The letters stop here. My father arrived in NZ on the 31st of January 1965, starting work immediately at the Prestige nylon manufacturing plant in Pirie St. My parents married a week later (it happened to be Waitangi Day). I was born a year later, and the rest is history, I guess. 

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

Monday, 3 April 2017

Empty shops

One of the classic descriptions of the appearance of Greek cities today is the 'empty shops' syndrome, which stretches as far back as the beginning of the crisis:
From the empty shops, to the half-full theatres, restaurants, concert halls and hotels, the signs are everywhere: economic crisis has come to Greece and it is biting hard.  (7 Feb 2010)
The blame for the empty shops syndrome is, of course, being laid firmly on the economic crisis:
In pictures: Athens' empty shops testament to austerity (24 Sep 2012) 
Greek debt talks: Empty shops and divided societies; "none of them were closed before the crisis." (10 June 2015)
A more recent quote about empty shops hints at the deceptive nature of the Greek crisis:
Central Athens is seeing fewer stores closing, while in areas such as Peristeri and Kallithea [west Athens suburbs], more businesses are shutting down. (13 April 2016)
Somewhere, something is happening, while elsewhere, it is not.

It shouldn't be forgotten that the empty shops syndrome is not limited to Greece: all over Europe and the United States, many streets are lined with empty shops in what would once have been bustling commercial districts. But the abandonment of commercial activity in these areas should not be seen as a sign of an economic crisis alone: it's more likely a crisis of values, which preceded any economic crisis.  The closed shops syndrome can be equated with the demise of the printed press, and the decline in standards of television shows: society is changing radically, due to technological progress, changes in attitudes concerning desirable places to live, the different ways we work nowadays, and changes in living standards, notwithstanding job opportunities, of course. We can infer from the above articles that a healthy society is one where shops don't have boarded windows. But for shops to be working, you don't just need money in people's pockets; you also need people. So when the people go, the shops go too:
Across the city of Athens, 300,000 houses and flats are empty. Where most capitals suffer from a shortage of housing, a combination of changing demographics and the financial crisis has led to a surfeit in the Greek capital. (3 July 2015)
Where did the people go? Why did they leave? What crises do the loss of the people allude to? A recent article in the Greek press (see analyses these issues without the rose-tinted view of the economic crisis being blamed for everything, and describes the multiple crises that led to the closed shops and boarded windows in Athens:
"The main reason for the new unpleasant reality is the ongoing recession and the empty wallets of the consumers who are moving very cautiously, in reaching into their pockets. But the roads that once knew glory days are also affected due to a series of other factors, such as increasing purchases made on the internet, the creation of large shopping centers that facilitate consumers in their shopping, and even the movement of populations away from the center and out to the suburbs." (ToVima)
Monastiraki, in the flea market
(which is a tourist area)
Take for instance Patission St, which is described in the article as being one of the meccas of Athenian shopping streets in the past, but is now filled with empty shops. Located on Patission St is the Polytechneio, one of the most important university establishments in Athens, where demonstrations are common, street bins are burned, and riot police march against protesters: eventually, shoppers get tired of being harassed, and they give up on this area - and find another one. So the fall in their prices (both to buy and to rent) is no surprise: the prices rarely reflected the 'events' that took place regularly here. At some time, the bubble had to burst. And when it did, shop owners had existential thoughts:
"From [2008] onwards, the situation took a downward turn, year on year the fall was great, and there were large differences that made you think that there was no longer any reason for your shop to exist . There were winter afternoons when I was sitting in the shop all day and not a single person entered. I felt scared." (ToVima)
In other words, they closed down their business because they were afraid of being alone in a depressed area.

Monastiraki, across from the square
(where the buildings are neglected)
As we became richer, our housing choices changed. Instead of living in tiny apartments, we moved out to the greener suburbs, where shopping centres and large supermarkets were built to cater for our needs. Most likely, we kept the little apartment we used to live in as an extra income. So the shops in the area had to change their wares to suit the pockets of the tenants of those formerly owner-occupied houses (where there would have been more disposable income). And now that there is an economic crisis - if people can't pay the rent, they won't be buying from boutiques, either.

It's not all doom and gloom though. A once popular business can survive by relocating, going where their old customers moved to. You can't be selling items favoured by the middle class when the middle class has left the area and the working class moves in. A business may also have to morph into a new form in order to survive, a bit like Nokia: from making boots, they went to making phones.
"The high consumption of clothing and footwear lasted for about twenty years, until about 2000 [ie after we got into the EU]. Since then, there has been an increase in consumption of technology products. If someone spends €900 on a cellphone, they won't be spending much money on clothes." (ToVima)
The empty shops syndrome didn't actually start with the economic crisis:
"Before the crisis, until 2007-2008, the landlords demanded €2,000 a month for a small shop. They reached the point where they were used to seeing them vacant. But they wouldn't drop the prices. In recent years, they have put water in their wine and prices have fallen below €1,000, even maybe less than €500." (ToVima)
Mitropoleos, behind Ermou Street
In other words, what has happened is market correction. There is little remaining of the 'goodwill' factor involved in businesses, because new shops have to start from scratch: a new form of business, based on a new model, with new items, for new customers. It's all changed. Except in one place in Athens: Ermou St, in the city centre:
"... there are now two kinds of shopping streets: first, there are the so-called small but important ones whose business core is based on cafes, clothing and footwear, such as Tsakalof, Ermou, Voukourestiou and Patriarchou Ioakeim Streets, and then there are the commercial streets with large stores such as Heliopolis and Vouliagmeni Streets." (ToVima)
So it wasn't really the economic crisis that led to the empty shops syndrome: there were many other factors at play. The economic crisis came into play in the following way: In the past, private businesses sprung up where there was a good source of money, rather than a demand for a product. After entry to the EU, many people landed jobs in the public sector. They then had more disposable income, which was being spent on thing like shoes and clothes, sweets and fast food, cafes and tavernas, as well as all-night entertainment. When the house of cards began to fall, the public service stopped hiring, and the businesses that the public sector was propping up began to suffer in a domino effect. That was the effect of the economic crisis. But the origins of the closed-down businesses had deeper roots.

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In Hania, we are definitely much luckier than other parts of Greece. We don't see many closed or boarded shops these days. This can be partly explained by our tourism industry, which keeps money rolling into (and out of) the system. The empty shop windows are located in places similar to Manousogiannakidon St: streets that run off the outskirts of the main town centre, which are mainly residential - in other words, the buildings were never really made for shops and the areas were never really shopping precincts (they were mainly residential - the most that they could sustain would be a convenience store and a bakery), When the crisis first struck, the main shops to close down were 'boutiques' located in the narrow streets of the old town (places like Potie St), which sold 'exclusive fashion' at high prices. For a while, these streets remained boarded up, until a new use was found for them: cafes and bars now line these streets. Locals still have money for daily cheap outings in the town. You can mull over a €3-4 cup of coffee for a long time at an al fresco cafe,  chatting with a friend as yo both enjoy the good weather, giving good value for money. The added bonus is that these places are no longer empty and they give life to the city, making people feel safe as they walk through them. These streets also open up other shop opportunities - shops open where the people go. So it's not all bad down here: there's plenty to buy and eat in Hania in terms of day-afternoon-evening activities. But not so late at night... One of the most interesting changes in Hania's entertainment scene is that we don't have a night life here. So, no discos, party-places and all-night bars, not even in the old harbour. Perhaps we are being influenced by our tourists: they come here to see and do a lot of things, and by the end of the day, they are tired and just want to laze around in their rooms, a bit like us... :)

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Monday, 27 March 2017

A non-EU Greece

Image may contain: one or more people, people sitting, people eating, table, food and indoor
My son making dakos in Budapest
On the 60th anniversary of the founding of the EU, my family was reaping the benefits of being a member of the EU. My son was visiting Budapest on an ERASMUS high school exchange trip (all expenses paid); my daughter was briefing a German exchange student who will be staying with us (after my daughter had visited her in Germany - again all expenses paid); we took a drive through a village in the Apokoronas region of Hania which had benefited from UK expat migration in the region; and we visited an English friend who came to Greece and ended up living, working, marrying, building a house and having children here. All the above were of course possible before Greece became a member of the EU, but not without the ease that they can all be done now.

I once visited Greece before it was a member of the EU, and I lived in Greece after it became a member. My husband was born before the EU was invented and he remembers the times before Greece was a member very well: he had studied in Italy for a year where he felt the stark differences between non-EU Greece and her EU neighbour. My husband also lived through the euphoria when Greece became a member of the EU in 1981 when he started working his father's taxi, and he remembers that first summer, when the town of Hania had never seen so many tourists before, and the tourist market suddenly took off, with the result that many local people's income increased due to the greater opportunities for work that came with the higher numbers of tourists.

At the time of Greece's entry to the EU, the EU looked like this:
File:EC10-1981 European Community map enlargement.svg
Greece had a cut-off disconnected look in her early EU days. Her borders did not connect with the borders of the other members of the EU, save the UK and Ireland, which were islands at any rate, and were 'close to' other members, geographically and politically. Her land borders were clearly connected to (at the time) communist countries, with one bit attached to Turkey. South across the sea was like another planet: North Africa was dominated by Muslim totalitarian regimes. The countries surrounding Greece were all regarded as 'poor', like Greece herself, except for Italy who, along with France and Germany, were considered 'important' countries: we could name major brand names for major products coming from them, like Fiat, Renault, Mercedes. This didn't quite match 'ouzo', the most well known Greek product in my days (a bottle of which was always in the drinks cabinet, although we never drank the stuff ourselves). The story that went round in our NZ home was that Greece was regarded as the birthplace of democracy, so it had to become part of the EU for moral reasons. In other words, Greece became part of the EU because she was pretty, which is in agreement with an informal remark made by Jean-Claude Juncker two years ago just before Greece's July 2015 referendum:
"Greece joined the European Community in 1981 because we didn’t want to see Plato play in the second division”.
The more official reason given was that Greece was strategically located, a factor which is now treated as a joke, given that her sea borders were never controllable, hence the migrant influx of the last two years. Coupled with Greece's uncontrollable money problems, Greece is now regarded as a hopeless liability.

The fact that Greece escaped communism and became a member of the EU as early as she did cannot be underestimated. The EU was officially formed a year after Hungarians protested against communism, a revolution that was crushed by the Soviets. Greece had rid itself of a dictatorship well before Spain, who entered the EU after Greece. On the fall of communism, Greece was flooded with Albanian migrants, many of whom had Greek origins, crossing the border, their emaciated bodies draped in WW2 styles (see LiFO's recent photo essay on their arrival to Greece after overnight walks over mountains: That was nothing compared to the blood that was being spilled over the breakup of Yugoslavia: of the former six Yugoslavian states, only Croatia and Slovenia are part of the EU (and only Slovenia is part of the eurozone).

Throughout all these periods, which are very recent in our minds, Greece has remained at peace (save two weeks of war waged over Cyprus against Turkey in 1974), and its economy has diversified from a mainly agriculturally based one. It was not the EU's fault that Greece's economy broke down: the reasons for this are well documented and still being talked about.

Rather than discuss the ways that Greece has benefited from being an EU member, I'd like to describe what I think Greece would be like right now if Greece were not an EU member. So let's pretend that Greece isn't in the EU, and therefore, not in the eurozone either. We also never experienced communism. What kind of country might we look like? Which other country may we resemble? That's a hard question to answer. It's also steeped in hypothetical thoughts, similar to most major mainstream newspapers, that seem to have absolutely no idea which direction the world is going towards. These days, we get very little 'real' news in the press - we only get opinions. So I would like to hazard a guess about what I think my country may look like as a non-EU Greece, given my knowledge of the countries that Greece is surrounded by (despite the fact that I haven't visited any of those countries myself, except Italy, over 25 years ago). I think we have direct examples of what Greece might be like now, had it not entered the EU. My opinion should be read in the same way that we read those major mainstream newspapers to gain more knowledge about an uncertain world that few are understanding at this moment.

A non-EU Greece would be a poor country. By poor, I mean that Greeks would not have been able to afford to build the modern homes they own, full of modern appliances, with expensive model cars in our garages or parked on the street. So they would not have been helped by modern technology to move away from a self-sustaining lifestyle. While supermarkets would exist, most products would be too expensive for most people. Those who would be able to afford supermarkets would be a certain sector of society that forms the ruling elite class, who would probably not allow the lower orders to gain access to power: we have very real examples of this pre-crisis. The poorer members of society would rely on their land for a good deal of their food needs, while staples like wheat and rice will not be cheap if their futures prices go up. Greeks would also rely on emigres for top-ups, like they did in the past. Poverty does not mean that we would not have enough food to eat or a roof over our head: Greeks have always maintained a sense of pride about being able to feed themselves and keep a home. Apart from WW2 when food was confiscated by the Nazis to serve the needs of its army, Greeks have never gone hungry. Homelessness would not be a common feature of the country, either. The homeless would probably have other issues than purely economic ones that led them to their situation.

A non-EU Greece would be less cosmopolitan. Although tourists would come here, we would not travel so much to their countries, and therefore we would not know our tourists well enough. We would not be able to afford to travel much, and we would also be looked down on, and/or stopped from entering other EU countries. We would continue to strive for higher educational excellence, but it would be very introverted. We still have a very introvert education system, so it's not hard to imagine it in a worse condition. We'd be using the internet at a much slower pace than we supposedly already are. Greece was always more cosmopolitan throughout history than her landlocked neighbours, and Greeks have always travelled, but this was a privilege mainly reserved for the rich urban classes. Poorer rural Greeks emigrated - that's quite a different story to being a businessman and travelling for trade, while returning to your roots on a regular basis. A country that borders an important sea such as the Mediterranean has the advantage of being less introvert and our marine trade would certainly continue - but this is alas a privilege that few would be enjoying; the masses would see mainly the coast and not much beyond that. Take Turkey as an example: what social mobility do the majority of Turks enjoy in modern times?

A non-EU Greece would use the drachma as its currency. The drachma would have a very low value outside the country. Many Greeks are wondering whether Greece should go back to the drachma, but they claim they can't make up their minds because they don't know what life under the drachma in this day and age may be like. My son provided the answer for that after he recent trip to Hungary, where he was able to exchange euros for florints. He saw the problems of not having a credible currency from a different perspective. The Poles in his ERASMUS group could exchange zloty for florint, but the Romanians were not able to exchange their leu. The problems that this caused were not just finance-related: it also caused status problems in the group. Some students felt the superiority-inferiority complex of (not) belonging. While the drachma would not work abroad,  it would however probably work well for Greece, because it would make life cheaper. But we would not be able to afford luxuries, like brand names. Having your own currency means you can bend rules when it suits you: Greece would be a more corrupt nepotistic country. But that would probably force young people to learn to live on less money, which would stand them in good stead as they learn to live with a less predictable future in the global world.

In a non-EU Greece, young Greeks would be looking to get out of the country, like they are now, but for different reasons, and with a different status. Even as late as March 2017, just before the UK pulls the trigger to brexit the EU, Greeks are still signing up for employment in the UK. It's because they can, unlike Albanians and Macedonians, who do not have legal access to the UK job market. So if we weren't in the EU, then Greeks would be similar to Albanians and Macedonians: some Albanians are born in Greece, so they are able to gain access to the EU market. Contrast this to Macedonians from the former Yugoslavia who change nationality by claiming that one of their grandparents was Bulgarian, for obvious reasons: Bulgarians are EU nationals, while Macedonians aren't. Uemployment would still be a problem in Greece like it is now, but probably not of the same magnitude. Some of our older factories would still be working, because we would still have the drachma, and our labour costs would have remained cheaper. Entry to the EU threw that one out of the window. Family businesses would survive better than they do now, and their competitive value would be better than it is now because the drachma would still exist.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a non-EU Greece would be very vulnerable to war with Turkey. It happened in Cyprus in 1974, i.e., before Greece entered the EU, and Greece very nearly went to war with Turkey in 1987 (see - i.e., when Greece was already a member of the EU. We continue to experience near misses ever since then, and unfortunately, this is continuing to this very day (see An isolated Greece would forever be a lonely Greece, scared of its shadow as it tries to hide amidst its strategic location. The EU's foundations were built on this very factor: that Europe never again experiences war.

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The present EU (pre-Brexit) looks like this (with Croatia in orange, signifying the last country to join the EU in 2013):

European Union Croatia Locator.svg

So the land borders of Europe are slowly joining up, and the EU territory looks more 'natural' but there are still elements of the map that look artificial: Switzerland claims to be a neutral country with its own currency - yet it is surrounded by eurozone countries. Some former communist nations are regarded as not ready to join the EU just yet - but they form integral parts of central Europe. Norway decided not to join the EU by referendum (twice!) - but its main trading partner is in fact the EU. The Ukraine borders Russia, but it wants to be a member of the EU, which looks like a natural extension of the map - but just how much can the EU be logically extended by? Could it ever include Turkey?

And which country would Greece have resembled had it been subjected to communism? I think Greece needed her dose of that too, but the right won the Greek civil war, and we missed our chance to be led by a leftist government, until 2015 (and we all know how that ended). Had we been a communist country, we probably would have joined the EU when Bulgaria and Romania did. I believe we would then have developed into a nice mix of those two countries: the poor Bulgaria with the proud Romania. And we still would have had our funny money, like they still do. There's still a lot of work to be done in the EU before we all truly become united.

Europe orthographic Caucasus Urals boundary (with borders).svgDespite the mess that the EU finds itself in today, I'm still glad to be a part of it. Europe is a culturally rich continent, and it is still very wealthy. EU funds have paid for many Greek modernisation projects. Even as an indebted country, Greece is still riding high because of those modernisations. What would Athens be without the metro and Eleftherios Venizelos airport? What would Hania be like if Ryanair wasn't flying in 1 out of every 4 tourists that we get in the summer? The concept of modern Greece is just 200 years old - as old as New Zealand, believe it or not - and it still needs fine tuning. But the EU is only 60: it's just getting over its teething problems. If Greece had not become a member of the EU, that wouldn't mean it would not be a great country. But by being in the EU, it is even greater. Thus:

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Image may contain: textPost Script: The UK was always an exception in the EU. Article 50 was created for the UK's whinging and whining, and it ended up doing the unthinkable, by using it. The UK was always good at divorce and no wonder: it invented it. So deluded were the Brits that it would (and should) be Grexit that they did not see it coming. Ha!

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