Zambolis apartments

Zambolis apartments
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Friday 31 May 2013

Styrofoam coffee (Καραβίσιος καφές)

Although my whole blog is written especially for my kids, this post is written specifically for them, as they slowly come of age. 

During my trip to Iraklio last weekend, I met a young Greek woman who has been a teacher of English for the last decade, without any qualifications apart from a certificate of proficiency in English. This is a typical way to teach languages in Greece - a certificate stating your level of proficiency is usually regarded as adequate; no teaching methodology skills are needed when you do private lessons (on a one-to-one basis in people's homes), or teach at a private institute (the classic Greek frontistirio set-up). It took Thalia a while to build up her clientele, and initially she didn't want to work in a frontistirio, because it paid less per hour than the private lessons, but when she broke her arm a few years ago, she eventually realised that the state health insurance contribution her employer paid on her behalf had some value; thanks to this contribution, she has also been able to pick up unemployment benefit during the three summer months (although this is about to change, according to the new measures created by the financial crisis).

Thalia was quite excited to hear that I came from New Zealand, and showed great interest in my previous homeland. She wanted to ask me a lot of things about it, things that struck me as rather odd (eg "Can you go swimming at the beaches there?") possibly because I took them for granted, but also because I realised I was not in a position to answer factually (eg "What is the average salary?"), as I had been away from the country for so long. She has an uncle there, her mother's brother, who she tells me is constantly badgering her to emigrate. She likes the sound of this idea, but can't make up her mind about going. This has nothing to do with the fact that she is obviously ignorant of any of the NZ immigration pre-requisites; it has something to do with the fear of the unknown. Life has never really been perfect in Greece, but most of the problems in the country are of a predictable nature - we know what to expect. And I suspect that Thalia feels very cosy here too; we like to complain, but we know how good it feels to live in a warm climate near the sea in a comfortable clean house, and more importantly, in relative safety. So we don't feel the need to change it too quickly, until someone puts it into our mind (as has been done relatively recently) that we need to re-think our way of life and make changes. The choices appear complicated to people like Thalia because they generally don't know what it means to 'live better' than they do now. In all honesty, Thalia could have made the move away many years ago, but it sounded like her uncle only recently started making everything sound so much better over there. She is curious, but remains sceptical.

Living at home with her parents, Thalia does not pay board or food expenses. With her hourly wages, she is able to afford to go out for a meal and(/or??) drink on a weekly basis, drink styrofoam coffee twice a day, treat herself to a souvlaki every now and then, pay for the petrol she needs to get to her lessons with her car (which her parents had bought her - they still pay the road tax and insurance fees), and buy extra call units for her mobile phone. She also spends quite a bit on cigarettes per day; I counted 7 cigarettes on each day we worked together, during the breaks. With whatever remains, she can pick up a new fashion item, upgrade her cellphone, or go on a mini-break. During the Easter break, she went to Prague for four days with a friend. "It was very cold," she told me. "And the food was rather boring."

Thalia's spending habits remind me of my single days. Instead of mobile phone and mini-break costs, I'd spend money on rent, utilities and bus fares instead, until my dad helped me buy my first car - I was just a couple of years older than Thalia when I bought a very old and over-used Zastava which lasted me two years. I paid something like 150,000 drachma for it, ~ 440 euro in modern terms. Naturally, I was responsible for its maintenance, which turned out to be quite high, but at least I got to learn how to drive with that bomb. Its final resting place was a chicken coop in a nearby village; it is still providing shelter to some hens. (Which reminds me - I must take the kids to see it there one day.) I gave it up when I realised that it was burning fuel at twice the normal rate - it was unsustainable to drive, and a waste of money to fix. The deposit on my second car was my dad's wedding present. I bought it two months before I got married, paying off the installments over three years, by which time I had given birth to both my children. I still take them to school in that car; my son is starting high school next year.

Even while I was living and working on my own, I still prepared and cooked most of my meals. I loved the idea of going out, but I was very careful with my spending habits. Most of my colleagues were members of the 'you only live once' league - they went out for a meal at least three nights a week. That doesn't count going out for a drink, which took place at least twice a week. I just couldn't bring myself to be that nonchalant. It's a personality thing, I think. It's the reason why I was more than happy to take on as much declared work as I could during my single days. Although I hated working at frontistirio (because it involved working daily in the evenings), and I knew it paid less than private lessons, I always thought it made sense to work in an organised school, before setting my self up on my own. Private lessons make you a freelancer, not a business owner, and they offer no security. I was working towards getting away from Athens one day and living differently in the future, whereas they were living life as if it would never change from what it was like at the time.

My first freddo-cappuccino, while working at the English examinations in Iraklio. We were given coupons to exchange for a drink or snack at the tuck shop of the school where the examinations were held. The organisers made it clear that the coupons had to last us for the two days we worked. All meals (plus overnight hotel accommodation) were provided, apart from the Saturday evening meal. But Saturday lunch was so filling (and stodgy) that I didn't finish it. Instead of throwing it away, I packed the remainder and ate it for dinner at the hotel, after finishing work in the late afternoon (7.30pm). Besides, I knew that next day's breakfast would be a huge one with many second helpings. Because we were literally sitting down all day, I took a long walk around the city of Iraklio to help my swollen feet relax, before getting to the hotel. My colleagues all took cabs for that short ten-minute walk from the examination centre to the hotel and then they went out for a meal (we had to be back at the examination centre the next morning at 8am). I was being well-paid for this weekend work; I couldn't stand the thought of spending this money flippantly. Perhaps if I did not have a home to maintain and children to raise, I'd have done the same thing as my colleagues - but maybe not: it's a personality thing.
Lunch on the job - breakfast was much better.

Styrofoam freddo cappucino coffee wasn't quite as hip back in those days. Even though it's like the only coffee most people seem to drink these days, I still have little idea what it tastes like. I can't even express it correctly which is evidence that I do not know how to ask for it! I always make my own coffee in the morning, and so does my husband. I drink mine at home and have another one at work (made in the cafetiere). My husband takes his in a portable cup; he prefers to sip it slowly in the taxi as he waits for the first fare of the day. I also admit to knowing full well the cost difference between home-made coffee and styrofoam. It's huge. If I bought styrofoam coffee on a daily basis, then I wouldn't be able to tell my kids that they should make their own chocolate milk instead of buying it ready shaken.

I was tempted to try styrofoam coffee while in London. I wanted to do the normal city thing, which I later realised would be impossible in my position. For a start, I did not need to run to catch a train, like everyone else was doing. I was on holiday, not going to work. Just before we caught an early morning train, I bought a styrofoam coffee from the tuck shop at Brockley station. I wish I knew how full the train would be at that moment as we made our way to Canada Water. I would never have bought one had I realised what I was in for. 'Packed like sardines' is an understatement: 'human marmalade' is more like it. I don't know if this is the reason why the coffee tasted so bad, or if it was just bad coffee 'de facto'. I learnt my lesson.
People marmalade at Canada Water - not only was it the wrong time to be drinking styrofoam coffee, it was also the wrong place to be touring with kids! This is mainly the domain of the new social classes in the UK: "Technical middle class", "Emergent service workers" and "New affluent workers".
I've heard that suspended coffee is all the rage in places with growing poverty. Not that I can't afford to drink styrofoam; I just know I can't have everything in life. Since I'm not poor, I would probably not feel comfortable going into a store and asking to be the recipient of a suspended coffee. I guess I wouldn't find myself in the stores that offer it, either, since I don't buy styrofoam coffee myself. Now that I have a home to maintain and children to raise, my needs have changed; as my needs change, my spending habits change too. Most of us have seen better days, but that should not be a reason for being unable to cope with the bad ones:
"... coping with poverty is to be flexible about what you really need. If you can't change what you need, if you have to have cigarettes or alcohol, that's when you really will be fighting poverty.
I wondered what exactly Thalia wants to change in her life that is bringing up the dilemma of emigration in her mind. She's definitely not poor. What's more, her life sounds like a happy one. She has a loving family, she lives in a freehold property, and what's more, she lives in one of the nicest parts of Greece (and Europe, and the world, for that matter), but her life - and more significantly but less consciously, her thoughts - have been affected by the crisis, like everyone else's. Her hourly wage at the frontistirio was lowered, and she had to 'put some water in her own wine' (she lowered her hourly rates for private teaching). And of course, fewer students are enrolling in language courses these days. It's an honest living, but it is very piecemeal and this worries Thalia about her future here. She is right to worry - it isn't just that the locals have less money to spend on language lessons, but she also faces stiff competition from both qualified teachers (unlike herself) and the internet. The classic way to learn something (in the classroom) is no longer the case. The world is changing, at a very fast pace, and forever.
The Iraklio skyline on a late summery afternoon. Iraklio is not the prettiest of cities, but this is due mainly to the fact that it works like a urban centre rather than a quaint town, such as what Hania is. Cities have more facilities than small towns, and people cooperate better than they do in towns. They come from all sorts of places and fall into various social categories. Towns are much more localised.
Thalia's uncle has been living in a small NZ town - she can't remember the name of the place, but she thinks it's in the North Island (I am beginning to doubt that she even knows the difference between the North and South Island) - for over two decades now, where he married a Kiwi lady who he met while she was holidaying in Crete. He eventually moved to her homeland because she couldn't take the isolation she was faced with in the Greek village where they first set up home. Despite getting divorced, her uncle decided to remain in NZ, where he ran his own glazier's business; he was too well settled in his NZ life to return to Greece. Όπου γης και πατρίς, he would often say on the few times he called his family in Greece. That was before the crisis; now he's telling his nephews and nieces to leave Greece and come over to NZ, with promises of good jobs.

I am not surprised to hear that Thalia is tempted to take up the offer. But Thalia has never visited NZ and had never thought of going there until now; she is being lured with what I would call false promises. Her uncle insists that because she speaks English, she will find a job easily. I am not going to doubt this as I really don't know the job situation in NZ at the present time; but I do know how easily people with accented English are passed over almost everywhere in the English-speaking world. It's a bit like anywhere, really; foreigners, no matter how readily accepted they are into society, remain foreigners for much longer than they would like to believe, even when they themselves feel that they have adapted well into their new environment.

"Will I be able to teach English in New Zealand?" Thalia asked me. Had it not occurred to her that NZ is an English-speaking, I wondered. Thalia and her uncle are talking at cross-purposes. When a Greek hears about a "good job", they usually think that the job pays a lot of money and the work conditions involve an office environment; it rarely involves getting your hands dirty. But when a Greek-New Zealander talks about a "good job", they probably mean that the job is an honest one with a decent employer - the money part may play some role, but it will be a much smaller role than the work conditions. Landing a job in NZ was never a final destination; it is a dynamic one, changing in nature as a person develops. Not so in Greece, where the destination is reached as soon as you land yourself a 'chair', which you try to hold on to for the rest of your life. Thalia still has a chair in mind when she thinks about employment.

Of course, Thalia has no idea about any of this, and I could see that she was not even at the catching up stage needed to understand this. Δεν ξέρει που πάνε τα τέσσερα, so to speak - the whole question is way way WAY out of her depth. For a start, Thalia doesn't know what it means to look for a job. She never really went through the job search process; she got her present work through contacts. Thus, she has never really been through what is often a gruelling process in the Western world: the job interview. Despite her many years in teaching the English language, she still sounds, thinks - and acts - like a Greek; she has no idea of what it means to be a global citizen, someone who can move about in the world without being ethnically tied, someone who does not have an idiosyncratic nationalistic hangup about how things are done. We like to think that people are the same everywhere, but that isn't true at all. Most people have not grasped the high connectivity that people share in today's world, and Thalia is a typical example of that.

Thalia's ignorance of the ways of the world beyond the borders of her island is weaving a complicated web around her that will contain many snags, but I can't tell her that. She needs to find it out for herself. So I hope Thalia ends up going to New Zealand, even though I firmly believe that she is setting herself up for failure.

I don't think she won't find a job, but I don't really think she will find the kind of job that she was expecting to find. Her new job will probably be something like a frontperson for a small business, say a gym receptionist. She won't find a job working at a supermarket: "I could do that back home," I can imagine her insisting indignantly. At least she will get herself a little holiday in an exotic part of the world; after that, she may return to Greece and recount her tales of New Zealand reality, after spending two (but not more than three) months. Perhaps she can update me.

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Thursday 30 May 2013

Independent living

In my recent work-related reading yesterday, I came across some interesting figures. From the household population of a sample for an organic vs. conventional products survey conducted in 2011 and consisting of 200 interviewees from Athens, Thessaloniki and Heraklion, it was discovered that:
"... the majority [of households] has three people in the same house at 37.9%, followed by 26.3% for a house population of four, 17.4% for a population of two, 11.6% for a population of five, 3.7% for a population of six, and 3.2% for a population of one."
Despite the survey size, we can conclude that Greeks generally don't have large families - and more importantly, they generally don't live alone. This means that you won't see a lot of young single Greek people living and working on their own. This should not come as surprising given the economic crisis. Greece has a high unemployment rate, especially among young people in the 15-24 year old category, making living on one's own unaffordable. So it will come as a surprise to many people that there are in fact a proportionally high number of young people in this age group living alone in Greece. To live on your own means you must be financially independent, able to pay your rent, utilities, phone line, food and transport needs, which also includes your cellphone, internet usage, computer maintenance, meals out, and other things young people do. So how can it be that many young people in the 15-24 year category are living on their own in Greece but aren't working? People who are more likely to live on their own will probably be financially independent, so what is going on?

Children live with their parents until they finish school. If they wish to continue their studies beyond secondary school, they are required to apply for a place at one of the many departments of one of the many tertiary institutes in Greece, which they secure according to their marks in the national university entrance examinations (called the Πανελλαδικές - Panelladikes). Because you specify your interest before getting your grades in these exams (which are completely different from the regular school exams), you rarely attend an institute in your own town, unless you live in a very large urban centre (eg Athens, Thessaloniki, Iraklio) where it is more likely that you will find a faculty that interests you.

While students study for their basic qualification - 3 years at a technical institute (TEI), 4 years for a university degree (AEI) at least 5 years or more for Polytechnio, the Technical University, which is considered the highest level of tertiary education in Greece, and 5-6 years at med school - they live in accommodation paid for by their parents. State-subsidised accommodation is only open for certain socio-economic groups but there is a general lack of such facilities, hence their under-use by Greek students.

For this reason, parents pay for their children's accommodation, and all that goes along with it. So we have a lot of young people in Greece who had a lot of economic freedom in their youth. Student years are a good time to spend away from family, in order to gain some independence in your life and in the choices you make. Greek students cannot complain that they are not given this chance. Once they finish their studies, however, they lose their bachelor pad. How they live after their studies will not necessarily be determined by their studies and qualifications gained - a good deal of the work done in this sphere will have been done during the period that they were studying alone, living off their parents' money. If you are living off someone else's money, you aren't really independent, but this can also be said for people living off state benefits: living allowances are paid out to young people in places like the UK and NZ, so they can live 'independently'. In Greece, there is no such thing. Rent subsidies for example are given in special circumstances. You must have paid into the system before you can get anything out of it.

It was never affordable for Greeks to live on their own, financially speaking; average salaries have always been very low, since I came to Greece. While living on my own in Athens in my early days in Greece, I was making approximately twice the average salary - I had a better boss than most people - and I was also earning another salary on the side, through private English lessons. Believe it or not, I am not making much more than those early days in figure terms! Eighteen years ago, I was getting approximately 500,000 drachma in the hand, which is the equivalent of about 1500 euro in today's figures (and I worked approximately 50 hours a week to make this money). But if we look at the real value of money, this has changed: a bunch of parsley used to cost me less than 100 drachmas (29 cents), whereas it now costs at least 40 cents. It's not my salary that helps me to live independently in a money-oriented world - it's my living choices.

From the same survey where I obtained the information about household size, I also obtained the following income data (again, valid for 2011):
"... the percentage of the sample who declared monthly income. 92.6% declared it, while only 7.4% preferred not to say. The majority has income between 1501–2000 Euro per month at 28.4%; 26.8% has income between 2001–3000 Euro per month, 16.3% has income between 1001–1500 Euro per month, while 12.1% has income of 3001 Euro or more per month, and only 8.9% has monthly income between 500–1000 Euro." 
That was two years ago, and things will have changed in some way since then for sure. Even so, the income levels seem respectable. They don't sound as low as we have been led to believe, and most people fall within the middle income levels. One's standard of living does not always depend on one's salary.

Given the state of the Greek economy at the moment, it's very difficult for me to have faith in the security of the state-provided accommodation facilities for students: we don't have money for basic health care, let alone secure student accommodation. But I've heard that things are improving, and new student accommodation is being created by refurbishing disused buildings. So I have faith that when the time comes for my own children to be studying, things may have improved so that they can enter student life with just as much help from the state as from their parents. We still have a long way to go on that, but it is just one of the ways that shows that Greece is becoming ever more global in the broadest sense.

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Wednesday 29 May 2013

Fire (Φωτιά - Πυρκαγιά)

I feel lucky to be sitting in my office at work today, after what we went through in the very early hours of this morning. The problems didn't really start at 3am when I noticed the fire - they started at about 5pm on the previous day, when my husband told me to raise the canvas awnings over the  balconies due to the strong winds that had begun to blow. Spring brings with it many high winds, but rarely southerlies (hot strong African winds); climate change has had this effect on Crete - it has made our once hospitable climate very dry and dusty, with unseasonably high temperatures.

It was an early night for me as I was exhausted. The painter had been working in the kitchen for the last two days, which made it difficult to cook. After coming home from work, I began clearing up the plastic sheeting, sweeping away the dust and getting the kitchen organised for cooking once again. To my horror, I discovered that I had forgotten that I was supposed to be defrosting the deep freeze - one pie was ruined (it will be cooked for the dog's food), but I managed to save two pies (we'll be eating lots of spanakopita over the next few days). Just before I was about to start cooking the pies, I smelt a chemical odour coming from the oven - so I had forgotten to clean the oven too! I began cooking φακές (lentil soup) which is a fuss-free slow-cook Greek cuisine staple, and we even managed to goet to the dermatologist (it's free melanoma checkup week in Greece). All's well that ends well, I thought.

We had secured everything that could suffer damage in high winds, and had then closed both the shutters and the windows before we went to bed. Normally, we leave the wooden windows partly open on hot nights, but in high winds, this is not possible as it causes doors to slam and nothing stays in place in the house. Not to mention the dust. I couldn't sleep at all - that wasn't just any kind of wind: it was 10 on the Beaufort scale and 31C and only 3am. The temperature is raised by the hot strong dust-carrying African winds. So I just lay in bed listening to the wind blowing and trying to hear any unusual sounds. Wooden shutters do not seal out sounds - if we had aluminium doors and windows, I would probably have slept through it all, as they are good sound insulators.

At 3am, I heard a car come down the road beeping systematically. We often hear blaring music coming out of road rage drivers' cars, but this sounded more urgent, like a warning, as the car drove slowly along the road. There were people on the road: "Get out now, παιδί μου!" I got up feeling terrified and went to the kitchen - the only room with no shutters. I couldn't see anything untoward. So I opened the back door of the kitchen which was on the other side of the room. The sky was bright orange behind the two-story house located across from our house while the air was thick with dust and smoke. Lighted sparks and ash were flying onto our staircase. I went back into the house to wake up the family, who I now know love to fall into deep slumber. (Another neighbour told us that he was woken up by the police banging on his door to tell him to get out.) My son's bedroom was already smelling of smoke, and the windows had not even been opened.

The video shows the fire that was burning right below our house. 

The fire was burning behind the houses on the opposite side of the street. The fire brigade had been informed, but they had not arrived yet: this fire had spread very rapidly, and we were to find out later that it had a number of fronts, all burning in different spots in the same general area. Explosions could be heard in the distance. Greek houses are made of concrete, so they don't burn down completely in a fire - they blacken, and anything that can catch fire and burn does (eg plastic paint, wooden furniture, foam insulation,), but the basic structure remains. Concrete also acts as a wind and fire break - we had that going for us, as well as the fact that the houses which were adjacent to the burning fields were separated from us by a tarmacked road. The wind direction was also in our favour - it was blowing the wind southeast, whereas our house faces northwest. Our house does not border fields. Our firewood hoardings were the only real problem - my husband began hosing everything down, from the road to the soil in our garden to the walls of the house.

I never miss a moment to photograph whatever I can, but I met my match yesterday. There were other more important things on my mind. This photo was taken outside our house, on high zoom, as the fire spread eastwards, to the neighbouring village. It felt the safest time to snap a shot, when the danger was all over - for us, at least.
The fire brigade came, but they could only do so much for the area. As the fire was spreading, aided by the high winds, through the sparks flying onto the parched crops, the firemen constantly moved about among the different locations. Their priority was areas where occupied houses were burning - people are more important than things. A policeman came by and told us to get ready for evacuation if necessary, so we told the children who were by now crying to get dressed. At first they were worried about their grandmother. Then my daughter asked: "What about the house?" And her father replied: "Who cares?"

I think that made a big impression on them. We don't care about the things we care about the people. We can rebuild everything, but we can't bring back everyone.
Some victims of the hot winds included my balcony herb garden - the coriander and rocket didn't make it, and the parsley plant has also been affected. So far, the garden crops are doing OK.
Despite losing out on a lot of evening sleep, we still got up this morning to get to our jobs. While driving the children to school, I saw the aftermath of the fire. Trees suffered the most damage, as did a number of businesses on the main road; no casualties were reported, but some people have lost their home, or at least a part of it. Our house is no this morning w filled with a smoky smell and the ashes that came in and out of the house as we opened the door to check on what was happening. It's a small price to pay for getting away with out lives. We're all still wondering what caused the fire to break out - we only know why it spread so quickly.

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Tuesday 28 May 2013

Dream jobs (Εργασία όνειρο)

It's exam time for school students, and I was back in the examination centre, assessing Greek teenagers' spoken English skills. The topics were relatively interesting, although it did admittedly get boring repeating the same questions over and over again to the students, most of whom knew them off by heart anyway; as soon as one student left the examination room, s/he would tell the other student what was being asked. And since we work according to a script provided by Edexcel, who don't provide alternatives (not even on different days, despite complaints), we can't change the topics.

After the first few interviews, you could say I began to work on autopilot:
"Hi, Xxxxx, nice to meet you. Let's start with the first question: What is your 'dream job' and why?"
I alternated between the 'dream job' and 'perfect day' questions: most teenagers' "dreem tzob" was "to be a titsa, be-cows ai laav tsill-dren".
I never lose hope that there will be some children in the 150 or so that I assessed over the weekend, who would have some original ideas: we spoke to the third best male teenage swimmer in Greece, a 13-year-old girl who has been playing piano since she was 3 and would like to become a concert pianist, and a boy who hopes one day to become a professional boxer.

Most kids weren't that creative: they stated that they wanted "to be a titsa, be-cows ai laav tsill-dren". My transliteration is not intended to make fun of Greek children's English pronunciation. It is intended to show what the Greek education system has led us to - few kids are being guided to think outside the box, let alone break out of the mould. Their parents are not the right people to do this: they may have seen their dream of turning their kids into public servants crumble right in front of their eyes, but they still haven't got to grips with life post-δημόσιο. The teachers are in the same position - no one knows what to turn to now instead, as we have not been given many other options. Except emigration - run away, leave the problems, and go somewhere else. 

Do Greek kids lack dreams, perhaps? I doubt this. I think they do have dreams, but unfortunately, their dreams are not realistic. In the present case of my English students, one can argue that they are too yong to have decided on what they will be doing in the future. But they are still being influenced by the mistaken beliefs of their parents, who still think that you choose one job for life, and you do it forever. I would argue that most readers of this blog know how unsound and highly unsustainable that is. 

I mustn't be too harsh on my students - a good few were able to argue successfully for the rather alternative idea that the Olympic Games should be changed so that athletes can compete individually rather than for their countries (this was a C2-CEFR question).
Greek kids still have the idea that having the secure lifestyle their parents once had is the end of the dream. That is what they remember - few of them realise that this past security was actually an unsustainable one that will never come back; and even fewer realise that the crisis will stay with them forever - unless they become more progressive thinkers. And they won't become progressive thinkers if they aren't taught to be - but education starts in the home and continues at school, and if parents and teachers aren't able to offer better choices, then children will continue to be misguided. 

"What if the weather's bad?" I asked them (it doesn't sound quite grammatical to me to say "What if it's bad weather?" as the Edexcel script suggested). "Oh, it's a summer festival," they answered systematically,"the weather is always good here." (The tests are written in the UK - they always feature at least one typical London scene, eg this year, a drawn picture showed a double-decker bus, with students queuing in the rain waiting to board it, and a man running to catch it, waving a ticket in his hand, presumably an Oyster card).

Since I have children myself, the vicious circle of education - studying to get a degree in a jobless world - is a question I often think about. I want my kids to dream beyond the tried and tested, which isn't really working for anyone these days, as Arianna Huffington pointed out to Smith graduates:
"Don’t buy society’s definition of success," she said. "Because it’s not working for anyone. It’s not working for women, it's not working for men, it's not working for polar bears, it's not working for the cicadas that are apparently about to emerge and swarm us. It's only truly working for those who make pharmaceuticals for stress, diabetes, heart disease, sleeplessness and high blood pressure."
She pressed those graduates to look for other ways in "asking the big questions and worrying about the little things, and solving the cosmic riddles":
"I've learned about Smithies writing honors theses on subjects that I not only don't understand but can't even pronounce. Like Lisa Stephanie Cunden's thesis on entropy and enthalpy contributions to the chelate effect -- I wanted to give you the gift of hearing that said in a Greek accent," she said.

I had to look up entropyenthalpy and chelate, even though I knew damn well that all the words were derived from the Greek language. It left me thinking that the Greeks invented everything, and yet they continue to give it away, because we don't know what to do with it ourselves.

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Monday 27 May 2013

Aliens of Hellenic descent (Ομογενείς)

During the weekend, I assessed a number of aliens on their level of spoken English; I only knew they were aliens when I saw their special identity card, which isn't blue, as it is for Greek citizens; it wasn't green either, as we often imagine aliens to be. They weren't green either. Nevertheless, you'd be surprised by how many multi-lingual aliens there are walking around in Greece, speaking perfect Greek, very good English and Albanian or Russian or Turkish (among others). And I must say, they were all very nice Greek people, but for some reason, they have been granted aliens status in Greece - their Hellenic descent is just not up to par, according to the state.

In China, the word 'alien' is also used to denote foreigners, but in Greece, 'real' foreigners (ie they are not of Greek descent) are called αλλοδαποί - 'from another territory'. The word ξένος (as in 'xenophobia' is too general; Greek aliens are also from another territory, but they have Greek descent - so they sound just like me, in fact: Greek-heritage, born outside Greece. But the difference between me and them is that their Greek parents were never connected with a Greek village/territory that is contained with the modern borders of Greece. Their Greekness is defined by a Greek-speaking community in another country, eg Northern Epirus, which is now part of Albania, or a former Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR), or Imbros, an Aegean island now part of Turkey. Their homelands used to form part of the Greek diaspora - but they were never part of Greece as the modern world know her.

This negligible status (a Greek who is not quite Greek) causes them massive headaches when they want to travel outside Greece - they are practically unable to obtain a passport, as the Greek government does not recognise them as Greek citizens, while they rarely travel to their parents' former homelands. An attempt was made to recognise their status as fully Greek, but for some reason, the plan fell through, as the present government found it incompatible with some of their reforms.

Hence, they continue to be labelled as aliens, even in their own country among their own people.

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Saturday 25 May 2013

Myth and legend

The Greek γαλανόλευκο (galaNOlefko - blue and white colours) provide the foundation for the blending of the past with the present.

Radamanthus St, brother of Minoas
Street name sign on a narrow one-way road near a public car park, Iraklio, Crete

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Friday 24 May 2013

The Greek mainland by car

My small but inexpensive-to-maintain Hyundai Accent- which is always covered in a thin film of dust, reflecting the climatic change noticed among Cretans which is windier than it used to be, with more red rain falling these days than it did in the past - has served me well for nearly 14 years, and continues to get me from A to B, as well as providing lifts to my colleagues whose old BMWs and/or Audis are too costly to drive these days.

When we travel in Greece on holiday, we always take the car - Evritania, 1200m above sea level, Central Greece, 2011.
Needless to say, they are unable to afford another German car themselves. German cars are also getting increasingly more difficult to re-sell - nobody wants to buy used cars that are uneconomical, and owners don't want to accept a low price for something that was overpaid.

Free press Cretavoice, Issue 8, May 2013: Fuel consumption reaches nadir levels - many Hania petrol stations in the red. I used to pass 7 petrol stations in the space of 5km when driving my kids to school - it was only to be expected that some would close down (two did). But they all sell petrol too expensively, so I hardly ever use them, preferring instead one close to my office. We can't really claim that the crisis is to blame - another crisis was brewing before the financial one. The silver lining in the expensive petrol prices is that the roads are quieter as there are fewer joy-riders.  
I may have never owned a German car myself, but at least I can still afford to drive the one I have. Admittedly, the car is getting old and will need to be replaced some time soon. I would like to buy another new one, but it's a buyer's market these days in the used car trade, so I know my next car will not be a new one. However, it will probably be a German model: apparently, used Audis sell for less than new Asian models, according to my husband. He once owned a VW Passat taxi, which came to an untimely end after a decade of dedicated service (someone crashed into him and the car was a write-off). He has since bought two Skodas, which haven't treated him badly, but he remembers the German car with greater affection. Whatever our next cars are, they won't be new. Why spend more when you know you can spend less?

If there is one thing that makes me angry about the crisis, it is that it has made it difficult for my family to take an annual summer road vacation in Greece. Mainland Greece is not as well known as the Greek islands. We rarely visit islands because we live on one. A car trip in Greece is now every expensive for the average Greek. I'm not talking about about the taverna meals or overnight accommodation - they are relatively cheap. But ferry tickets (including the cost of transporting a car), petrol costs and toll station fees make travelling by car around Greece rather expensive. The economic crisis has not stopped us travelling abroad to European destinations - cheap flights are easy to find these days. But absolutely nothing can compare to a Greek summer holiday. The Greek landscape offers much more than just coastline and good beaches. We have snowy mountains, rushing rivers, dramatic waterfalls, picturesque villages, war memorials, ancient sites, religious communities, natural landscape, railroad attractions, lake districts, rugged coastline, culinary delights, and above all, the perfect climate to enjoy it all in.

What follows is the highlights of our Greek summer road trip in September 2011, the last time we travelled through mainland Greece. The end of a summer is a good time to travel in Greece as most of the tourists have gone back home. I hope you all enjoy the photos - they show a very different Greece to the one I present from my hometown.

Milies, Pilio

A non-descript rocky beach, Pilio

Dinner by the seaside at a coastal village in Pilio

Pilio architecture, with Volos and the Pagasitiko Gulf in the horizon

Pilio architecture

Meteora monastery

Meteora monastery

Islamic architecture, Ioannina

Near the home of Ali Pasa, on the Island in the Lake of Ioannina

Souvlaki at Ioannina

Ioannina Lake and the surrounding fields, viewed from the Perama cave exit

The artificial lake of Kremaston

The old bridge in Arta

River in Epirus

Dinner at Karpenisi

Karpenisi forest

Refreshments at Mikro Horio, Evritania

Velouchi mountain, Evritania

Small waterfall in Evritania

Abandoned carts, Evritania

Lunch in a small village in Evritania

Bakery at Karpenisi

Abandoned German machinery, Evritania


A local in the area of Evritania


Lake Plastira

The dam at Lake Plastira

Pistachio trees, Makrakomi

Abandoned taverna on the old national road between Thebes and Athens

Toasted bakery bread

Hope I've whetted your apetite.

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Thursday 23 May 2013

Giritli - Cretan Turks (Τουρκοκρητικοί)

One of the greatest upheavals in the history of contemporary Greek times is the moment when the Greek citizens of Mikrasia (Asia Minor, as Ottoman Turkey was known before 1923) were forced to leave their homeland and adopt another one, a period in history known as the population exchange. People were literally thrown out of their homes when the Smyrna crisis broke out in 1922. Mikrasiates and Moslems were forced to flee their homes and adopt a new homeland. Much has been written about the stories of the people involved in the population exchange.

Not quite a century has passed since then, so the wounds of this upheaval have had time to heal, but there are still people who will never forget their ancestors' former homelands, people like Mufide Pekin whose grandmother was in her mid-30s when she arrived in Turkey after her family left Crete, and Hakki Bilgehan whose parents lived in Crete up until 1924 when they were forcibly removed from the island in 1924 through the population exchange. Their parents spoke constantly about their life in Crete, about their former neighbours, and the happy days they lived there. These feelings are shared by many other Tourkokritiki (Giritli in Turkish), Turks with Cretan origins. With the help of the Foundation of the Lausanne Treaty Emigrants, many Turks and Cretans have found the sites of their ancestors' former homes in Greece and Turkey.

Monument dedicated to the memory of the Asia Minor catastrophe in Hania, showing a mother and her children sighting for the first time the place where they were brought to after being forcibly removed from their homeland. 
"Who am I?", "Where did I come from?", "How did my grandfather live?" To be able to answer all these questions means that you are closely linked to your past; it also shows that you are a wealthy person: you know your past which helps you in the present to see your way to the future.

Over 2 million people - 1.5 million Greek Christians from the East and half a million Moslems from Greece were uprooted forever from their homelands, and transported to a new country which was practically foreign to them as they had never lived there before. Only the Greeks of Constantinople and the Moslems of Western Thrace were exempted, according to the Treaty of Lausanne, which solved the  refugee issue once it was signed in 1923, a decade after the problem began to arise after the end of the Balkan Wars in 1912.

Moslem children with their
teacher in Crete
The descendants of Cretan Turks have never lived in Crete, but still keep close connections with the island, visiting it many times and searching for their ancestors' former homes. Many take back some soil in a jar to spread over their parents' and grandparents' graves. Some Cretan Turks left Crete before the Balkan Wars, and settled in North African countries; these people shed more insight about the origins of the Moslem Cretans, as they often consider themselves Cretan/Greek and have maintained the Cretan dialect, while also speaking Arabic. While Cretan Turks are not considered a minority group, they have their own identity, which was challenged by the local population when they first arrived in the newly formed Republic of Turkey, which was naturally building up its own modern identity once Ottoman rule was dissolved. Despite being Moslem, Cretan Turks were often labelled as 'infidels':
"The Cretan immigrants who landed on the Aegean coast towns and cities after the  “Population Exchange” did not speak a word of Turkish when they first arrived. This is especially true for women who were less exposed to the world outside the home. Not being able to communicate with the locals naturally resulted in the Cretan’s isolating themselves  and closing up in their own communities. Greek was spoken in the house and Turkish was a second language to be learned at school or in the neighborhood. During our oral-history interviews, almost all Cretan informants of the first generation immigrants reported that  they learned Turkish at school. Needless to say, the Cretan Muslims were not received very well by the locals or other immigrants whose mother tongue was Turkish . Just because they spoke Cretan Greek or spoke a very broken Turkish led to their being labelled as “yari gavur” or “half-infidel” in their social environments. They had to face humiliation and “othering” by the locals just because they sounded different.  As we can easily see, their “Muslim identity” was challenged or at least questioned because they did not fit well  into the picture of a Turkish speaking society. The language problem of the Cretans was articulated by all our informants and it seems to be the main factor that held together the Cretans in solidarity and coherence more than anything else. Today, the Cretan Greek is still spoken inside the Cretan house but naturally to a lesser degree as the third and fourth generations are getting more and more assimilated   and are forgetting  their mother tongue." (Source:
Greek cuisine has been heavily influenced by the Asia Minor immigrants, leading many to say that the Greek and Turkish cuisines are very similar. But few people realise just how much Cretan cuisine influenced Turkish cuisine, through the traditions brought by the Cretan Turks, namely through the use of wild greens; it is believed that the use of horta was not common in Turkey until the Cretan Turks introduced the local population to their uses. This new culinary tradition for the Turks gave rise to anecdotes about the newly-arrived refugees:
"A Cretan goes into a field with a cow. The son of the field’s owner runs to his father, and says “Papa! A cow and a Cretan are in the field! What should I do?”  His father answers: “don’t bother the cow, she’ll eat until she’s full and leave. But the Cretan will gather everything before he leaves. So chase the Cretan out!
It is this connection, the relation between Greek food and Greek identity as expressed in Crete, that I have the honour to meet the descendants of a Cretan Turkish family, who came from Istanbul to Crete on a recent visit, and asked to meet me in Hania...

Candia, Crete, 1923. Mostafa's father and grandfather Ibrahim leave their Greek homeland, never to return. Mostafa is born 10 years later in Turkey. At the age of 80, he has come to visit his ancestors' homeland with his son Ibrahim. Mostafa speaks the Cretan dialect that he grew up with in Turkey. Together with the Greek language, he also grew up with the Cretan food customs that his parents took back with them when they were forcibly removed from Crete after the population exchange following the Smyrna catastrophe.

Four generations of Cretan Turks: the men in the photographs were all born in Crete while Mostafa and Ibrahim were born in Turkey. The photo on the left is the maternal grandfather of Mostafa Jnr (pictured here with his son Ibrahim Jnr). The top photo on the right is Mostafa Snr; the bottom photo Mostafa's father, Ibrahim Snr who left Crete in 1923. Ibrahim Snr went by the name Arnaoutakis, which shares the same stem base as the the well-known name (in Greek) of Arnaoutoglou: -akis signifies a Cretan name while -oglou shows Turkish origins. 
It is difficult to describe the emotions felt on meeting Ibrahim and his father Mostafa, who trace their Cretan roots back to Ibrahim's grandfather and great-grandfather (also called Mostafa Ibrahim) as they came to my homeland searching for their roots. We had arranged a cafe as a meeting place by the Venetian harbour, and it was there that I realised I was their only human contact in Crete. Mostafa began to speak to me in the Cretan dialect from the moment I met him.

Less than a hundred years ago, there was a place in Crete called Candia, where the Latin script was regularly seen in tandem with the official Greek language, where it was used to represent the Turkish language.
"I speak Romeika," he tells me in Greek with a Cretan accent, "like my afendi did." He does not say 'Ellinika' (Greek), using the word that the Greek language was called when his parents left the island before he was born (Romeika = Roman = language spoken in a Roman-occupied country). Nor does he call his parents 'goneis', as Greeks would now say; he talks of his afendi. "Αλλά δε κατέω καλά", he says apologetically. ("I don't speak it well.") This was hardly the case - I understood what he was saying most of the time. His knowledge of the language has declined now that he doesn't have anyone to speak it with - but it hasn't been purged. He remembers the life of Crete - and the language of Crete - as it was a hundred years ago.

Mostafa speaking with the cafe owner, who wanted to see the photos of his kafetzi grandfather - Mostafa Snr ran a coffee house in Candia (modern-day Iraklio). 

Mostafa's mother's family lived in Hania, but his father's family lived in a place he calls Candia, which now goes by the name of Iraklio, known as the capital city of Crete. "Half of us were Haniotes, the other half Kastrini," he said, pointing eastwards in the direction of Iraklio, whose people were also known as 'castle people' (kastro - castle) after the large fortress found in Iraklio. Haniotes also referred to Irakliotes as Kastrini in my parents' times; this is now largely old usage, still heard among old people - just like Mostafa. Mostafa's wife's family also came from Crete, as does his son's wife's mother. The family can trace back their roots to at least three generations before they were born. Like modern people of the second millenia, Mostafa's grandfathers did not stay put in one place - migration is a constant theme since Oddyseus' time, and his grandfathers traveled to and from Crete mainly as soldiers.

Washing down the afternoon with raki (tsikoudia, Cretan firewater). 

"Κουβεντιάζω πολύ," Mostafa says to me, "stop me if I am talking too much." But how can you stop someone from talking too much when you want to know more about them? By the end of the afternoon, Mostafa had made friends with all the cafe staff, re-telling his story to them too. He had never forgotten his parents' Cretan language, the one they raised him on in Turkey, and this was his first time in Crete; he was making up for the time he lost after his parents died. By the time we all left the cafe, we were all drinking raki, and the Cretan Turks had made many friends. (That was the biggest honour for me, bringing these people together, helping to forge new friendships.)

My presents from Istanbul - the kalitsounia are home-made in the traditional shape of lichnarakia (as in Crete) and peinirli (Turkish filled pizza). On my part, I bought them some traditional xerotigana from Hania, fried rolled pastry dipped in honey syrup, which were individually wrapped and can be stored for a few days. When I showed them to my guests, they told me they remembered their mothers making long curly-shaped xerotigana, which we call avgokalamara - they are made in similar ways, but the avgokalamara are reminiscent of Southern and Eastern Crete, whereas the round xerotigano that I bought (an ever-present feature of Hania weddings and baptisms) is common in Hania. A century later, The Cretan Turks still remember the food of their ancestors.   

Despite being an immigrant of sorts myself, I have always been able to connect with both my homeland and birth country, which has not been possible in Ibrahim's case. It is both a source of pride and humility to know that you have a full grasp of your past: "Obviously without the past, you cannot go into the future with wisdom”.

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