Zambolis apartments

Zambolis apartments
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Friday 29 January 2016

All in an evening's work

January as slow as molasses? You read about my busy January in my previous post; here's an account of yesterday evening, in my cabbie husband's words.

"Just as I was relaxing for the evening, the tablet rings out a fare. I was the nearest free cab within a 15km radius. When someone needs a taxi in winter this far away from the centre of town, it's usually because they need to go to the hospital. But the pick-up point for this fare was outside a supermarket. That's a bit suspect: if you do your shopping at a village supermarket, you must be within walking distance of the supermarket. 

When I arrived, I saw a man standing outside the supermarket (the only one in A_________) with a heap of bags sitting next to him on the ground. He was also carrying a bottle... of ouzo... which was open... and half-full. All I could think of that moment was FUCK. I put all his bags into the boot of the car. He sat in the front next to me. He didn't stop talking, not one moment. He was barely intelligible; I couldn't understand what he was talking about. All he had on his hands was the half-filled bottle. I suspected that he had paid for the goods he bought at the supermarket. But no one can really know what is in a drunk's pocket. 

"So, we're going home, are we?" I asked him, hoping that the ride would be as short as possible. Somewhere amidst the gibberish he was spieling off, I heard the name of another village: M_______. That's just seven kilometres away from the south coast of Crete, an hour away from where we were at that moment. This was going to be a very long night. I put on the metre, not justfor the reason that I should be on the right side of the law, but because I wanted to see how much the metre would clock up so I can at least talk about the fare the next day at the rank. Being able to tell a story out of it may be my only trophy for the evening. 

I suddenly remembered who this man was. He was a pensioner, having held some high-level public service job. I had picked him up once before, in a similar drunken state, again in the same village of A_______ and he had asked me to take him to the other side of the island. I took him to the town centre and dropped him off at the taxi rank, with the excuse that I had run out of petrol. He's well known among the cabbies. Some will take him round in circles (as long as they know his pockets are full). This is not my idea of work. At that moment, all I could think of was my warm house, the armchair and the TV. 

"M______? Are you sure that's where you want to go? It's a bit far, isn't it?" He said that he was going to see his friend V_______ who ran the cafe there.

"Don't you want to go home first and drop off your shopping?" I suggested, but he was adamant that he didn't want to go home. Had I known where he lived, I would have taken him there immediately. I was in two minds to turn for the town centre or to take the road to the south coast. I set off for the town centre. "No, not that way!" he shouted. In his drunken state of mind, he was still able to see the road. I was stuck with him. I had just cleaned the cab that morning, so I opened the window on his side so he could vomit if he needed to; from the north of the island, the journey to the south involves climbing up and down mountains. 

I've driven to the south coast many times over the course of my life as a cabbie. A faraway fare is a cabbie's joy.  But in the middle of winter, it is one of the most desolate experiences you will ever have. The villages in the province of Hania are small, so small that they now have very few inhabitants, nearly all of whom are old and go to bed early. We were leaving the last inhabited village on the way to the south coast. There were hardly any lights on in the houses we passed. They were either uninhabited, holiday homes at best, or the residents had gone to bed. Street lighting is poor. During the whole journey, the man didn't stop talking, occasionally taking a swig of ouzo form the bottle he was carrying. The smell of his alcoholism shielded me from the smell of his body odour. This man was in his own world at that moment. 

When we finally reached M______, I asked him where his friend lived. He said he didn't know. I headed for the village square. There was a kafeneio in the village, near the church. Thankfully, it had a light on, and I could see someone inside. I helped my fare out of the car, locked it and headed towards the kafeneio with him. As soon as we entered, I noticed the look of horror on the young owner's face. While my fare continued speaking in his unintelligible gibberish, I asked the cafe owner where we might find V_______. 

"V________'s my father," the man said, speaking in whispers. "He's been dead for three years." FUCK. My fare continued to call out to V_________. The cafe owner asked me to take him away. A baby was heard crying in a cot, and a toddler was playing on a mat, overlooked by a young woman who spoke Greek with an accent. If a young man wants to stay in his village, he needs to marry a teenager and bog her down with childcare responsibilities right from the word go, or he needs to import a foreign wife. The woman was fair, short and slim - she was probably Albanian. 

"OK, G______ (he had told me his name), let's go home and drop off that shopping, shall we?" I tried to coax my fare back into the cab. At this point, the metre had already written up 75 euro. 

"Home?" he looked at me with a wry smile. "I'm not ready to go home now! Take me to the town. I'm a great dancer! Did you know that? I am the best χορευτή in all of Crete! Let's go and listen to a λυρατζή, and I'll show you how good a dancer I am!"

I've been driving a cab for nearly 40 years. It's given me enough time to develop various people skills, one of which is the role of psycho-analyst. As we headed back to the village of A________, I worked out roughly where he lived. I was able to take him to his house. "No," he said, "I'm going to the town, remember?" 

"OK, G______, let's drop off the shopping first, so I can take a driving break, is that OK?" Luckily he agreed. I helped him out of the car once again (because I was really worried he might damage it, or throw up in it), and got him to the door of his house, a large 60s style village home built next to an olive grove, which he probably owned. He fumbled around for his keys, but he managed to open the door by himself. I would have done that for him too, but you never know when a drunk might wake up from his slumber. They are used to being robbed or attacked, and may recognise the signs of an imminent one, like he did when he realised I was taking him in another direction. 

I brought in his shopping - he had done a lot of it, 10 carrier bags full. The outside of the house did not give any sign of what you would find inside it. It was nothing less than a τρώγλη. Εverything was in disarray, the house was filthy. It was obvious that he lived alone, without any family. I wondered how long ago someone other than himself had entered his house. I may have been his first visitor for the year. 

When we had finished carrying the shopping, he asked me how much the fare cost, to my surprise, and partial relief. I showed him the meter: it had written up €140 at that point. "Oh, I've only got €100 on me at the moment," he said. I told him that would be OK. "No!" he insisted. "I have to pay you in full. Take me to an ATM." There was one in the village, so I took him there. He handed me the fare immediately. "Now let's hit the town!" he said. I'll show you what a good dancer I am!" 

Again, I had no choice, but to take him into town. I dropped him off at a kafeneio where I could hear Cretan music playing. "how much do I owe you up to here?" he asked me. "Nothing," I said, you paid me earlier, remember?" I just wanted to get rid of him at that point. "No, I didn't! You're still working!" So I asked him for €10. I didn't want anything other than to get away from him at that stage. "You're coming in to see me dance, aren't you?" he asked me, imploringly. "Of course I am," I lied. "Just let me park the car." 

What a night. But it wasn't over. As I was driving back home, I picked up another fare about three minutes away from my home. What's there to lose, I thought, I may as well go for the bonus prize. I arrive outside the house and a young woman enters the car. There was something unusual about her face. But it was dark, and I couldn't see her very well. I asked her where we were heading, thinking I'd picked up a typical winter's evening fare (town centre or hospital).  

"S__________", she said. 
"S________? That's a bit far for this time of night, don't you think?" S______ was just two or so kilometres from A________ where I'd picked up the drunk. 
"It's my husband's village," she said. 
"Oh, going home then?" I inquired, building up a picture of my fare. "No, we're separated. I'm from D______, in the H______ region. I live here now, and I'm going to pick up my son from his father's." I had picked her up from the middle of the road between her ex-husband's and her own village origins. She was in a bad state: I could now see that half her face was swollen. She told me that her husband had insisted on taking the child with him to show her what a good father he is because he wanted to help raise it, even though they were no longer together. She had advised him not to because the child was ill and he could wait until the child was better, but he didn't heed her advice. He had just called her to tell her that the child was unwell and he couldn't look after it. She said he'd left him because he beat her up. I wanted to ask her what a nice girl like herself was doing with a jerk like him, but I could tell what the answer would be: something like 'he was never violent when we were getting to know each other'. He was probably a good dancer too. Girls from small villages fall for that kind easily; it's a way of leaving your village - and ending up at another one. 

When I arrived at the house, I realised who her ex was: his drunk brother had blown out his brains at a wedding when he insisted that his gun wasn't loaded. "See, look, it's empty," he said, pointing it to his head. The dead man's brother came out of the house as soon as he heard the taxi drive by. He looked as though he had not shaved or changed his clothes for a year. The woman paid me. I thanked her and was just about to leave when I decided to ask her one more thing: "How will you get home tonight?" She said that her ex will probably give her a lift. I wondered if she would actually return home that night, or end up staying overnight at her ex's. I left, turning off the tablet, as I did not want another fare that night."

We all listened incredulously, as my husband related his evening's exploits. I'd phoned him once to ask him if he could pick up one of the children from the after-school activities, so I knew what was going on. I also called him twice to make sure he was OK. He called me after he picked up the second fare. I keep reminding myself that it's winter, and Greeks hate living through the darkness alone. Everything will be better in the summer, won't it? But not for everyone. Some of us live in perpetual crisis, while others live off other people's crises. (When he got home, he got a call from another cab driver who wanted to know if the drunk guy had any money to pay him for a ride out to the other side of the island. My husband said he had no idea.) 

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Wednesday 27 January 2016

January in proverbs (Ιανουάριος)

January is supposed to be as slow as molasses. In Greece, 2016's January has been full on. 
January has many proverbs associated with it in Greek culture. Click here for a list of them.

In January, I put the fear of God into the last lot of students who did not obtain a suitable grade in the TOEFL test. I give them the all advice and support they need, and I know that if they don't take my advice, they will probably fail. A couple seem not to be heeding it. Let's see what the results will show. And with this last testing session over, I finally took a week off work, at the beginning of the sales shopping period. Very convenient that my private writing jobs came in at the right time:  Γενάρης στεγνός, νοικοκύρης πλούσιοςΙ got myself new boots (€25), new shirts (€55 for 4), and new jeans (€30), with a little left over - maybe a new hair look? Even children ask me why I don't dye my hair. Maybe it's time I did. (Hm. The salon was closed when I decided to make an appointment. Is that a sign?)

January started off freezing - Αρχιμηνιά, καλή χρονιά, με σύγκρυα και παγωνιά; then it got warm - Δέκα μέρες του Γεναράκη, ίσον μικρό καλοκαιράκι; and now it's back to freezing. It is winter after all. The kids are walking around in short sleeves, making their parents feel very old as we bundle up against the cold. I can't believe they don't feel it. I don't remember under-dressing at their age. Perhaps we should turn off the heating and see how they feel then. But that's impossible - it's their bundled-up parents that can't cope without the wood fire.

Son's birthday party went very well - 9 kids turned up. They were really quite kids too - one was Albanian, another Bulgarian and one more called himself Skopian (I suppose he's been told not to say Macedonian).  "It wasn't like that in my days," my husband said. "We were all Greek." He completely forgets that half his classmates were actually the children of refugee Greeks from Asia Minor, whose parents and/or grandparents had come to Crete in the early 1920s. (He went to school with kids who had surnames like 'Agop'). The difference between my childhood and my husband's and my children's is that the migrants were different colours at my school, whereas they were/are roughly the same colour in my husband's and children's classrooms. Τ' Αλωναριού τα μεσημέρια , και του Γεναριού οι νύχτες. We've all gone through some kind of migrant experience, but they've seen the migrants through cat's eyes, different shades of the same colour.

The kids watched a thriller movie with some donuts and cheese pies, then we served BBQ, baked potatoes and salad for lunch while they listened to youtube videos. The they played a  game which involved banging the door open and shut (I think they've damaged it a bit - Γενάρη διαβολόμηνα ποτέ σου μην ξανάρθεις) while each one took turns entering the room wearing a long white scarf. (I have no idea what they were doing, and I never asked them.) Then we cut the birthday cake and they watched another video till it was home time. Very innocent. My English friends remarked that their kids would be out on the lash at this age - I waited a long time that day to have a drink, and I had to make sure I wouldn't be ferrying kids around.

After the weekend, the skies finally cleared. We can now see how low the snowfall has been. Only the lowest lying hills are bare. That's why it's so cold. But it's a good sign: Γενάρης χωρίς χιόνι, κακό μαντάτο. And now, I also hear both kids sniffling, blowing their noses and coughing. Serves them right.

The cat walked into the house after a week's absence. He disappears like this every year at this time. Nα 'μουν γάτος τον Γενάρη κι ας μην είχα άλλη χάρη. But now, he's come back blind. His nose has been scratched, his tail is slightly torn at the tip, and his one good eye is now bloodshot (he lost his other eye very soon after he adopted us, about 8 years ago). He occasionally crashes into the walls of the house and he doesn't feel confident climbing onto and down from his chair. He also jumps when he hears someone coming into the room, out of fear - he can't see us but he can hear us. When we speak to him, he feels reassured, and goes back to sleep. We're letting him stay indoors throughout the evening, but he always wakes up in the middle of the night crying to be let out. He doesn't always want to stay in anyway. He's still eating well despite losing one of his teeth a few years ago, but I think he's on the last of his nine lives. Today, I spotted him at the nieghbour's and called out to him. He heard me and jumped his way towards the fence to get to me. He had no idea how to get through. He just sat there and meowed. I coaxed him to follow me until I found a hole big enough for me to grab him and pull him through. I took him home, and gave him something to eat, and then he stared at the door again, meowing to get out. Even though he can feel so human, I really need to remember that he's a cat. A Greek cat, for that matter. He will live out his ninth life, and we will probably never find out how he lost it.

The four posters on our bed finally lost their last life. They were always a bit wobbly, and we had tried to secure them, but the new laundry basket is a bit bigger than the previous one I broke, and I bumped it onto one of the posts as I was taking out the washing. The whole thing came crashing onto my head. We decided to take down the posts after that. Κόψε ξύλα τον Γενάρη μην κάψεις τα παλούκιαIt had its charm, but in our later years, it served more as a place to hang clothes we couldn't be bothered putting away. (Now we'll have to start putting them away.) Just when I was thinking what I was going to do with the curtains, my daughter says she wants to get rid of the girly ones in her room so I offered to recycle the ones from the 4-poster bed (which now looks like a plain old bed) for her use. She said she'd like that. She's grown up so fast: just the other day, she asked her dad (she is a daddy's girl after all) if he could take away her cellphone for a few hours in the week so she can concentrate on school work. I'm very thankful she found a solution for her problem instead of me having it on her (perhaps she'll remember to wear long sleeves too).

I'm trying to sort out my needs from my wants. I think I want rather than need new hair (despite what kids tell me). I think I should have new hair, but I don't think I need it. At least that's what I think. I need new glasses. I've always worn glasses to see far away, but I'm having problems seeing things close up. If I take my glasses off, I can see things close up quite clearly. I don't have problems driving with my glasses. Perhaps I can let the glasses wait for the time being. I need a new cellphone. I keep worrying that because it's nearing 5 years old (HTC Desire, if anyone's interested), it will soon break down. But it does everything I want it to do, and even more. So I could say I just want a new phone because my present phone is old (and it has a 3" screen and naturally I'd like a bigger screen). So I'm putting that on hold too. The way I think about things, it seems that all my needs are really wants. Ο Γενάρης δε γεννά μήτε αβγά μήτε πουλιά, μόνο κρύο και νερά.

Pump-Driven Espresso/Cappuccino Machine contemporary-espresso-machinesWe weren't sure whether we needed a coffee maker. I've had the same coffee maker for the last 15 years: a tall plastic cup (I gave up on plungers after I broke two in succession), a very fine sieve (it's lost its handle, but I haven't seen anything in Hania that can replace it) and the good old Greek briki (I prefer gas to boil water and I didn't want another kitchen gadget on the worktop). Husband has always made his milky coffee using the briki, but recently he admitted that he didn't like the taste any more. He has a takeaway cappuccino when he's suddenly called away on a fare in the morning, and he has obviously developed a taste for it. I personally never found takeaway cappuccino tasty enough and it's always so hot it burns your tongue if you try to drink it as soon as you buy it. On the other hand, a cappuccino in a sit-down cafe is NEVER hot enough, and it's always too small (even the ones that are supposed to be large). In the end, I decided to buy a cappuccino maker (DeLonghi, €130), probably because I got a €50 voucher from the purchase of a vacuum cleaner. Kotsovolos (UK's Dixons in Greek disguise) was giving €50 vouchers with the purchase of various German products. I think I bought a Siemens (or was it Volkswagen - haha). Money well spent. Γενάρη μήνα κλάδευε και το φεγγάρι χέστοWe LOVE our cappuccino machine.

Εκλεισαν ξανά τους δρόμους οι αγρότες κλιμακώνοντας τις κινητοποιήσεις τους - Κλειστά Τέμπη, ΠρομαχώναςThe country's in tatters at the moment. I always put it down to winter. Μωρή πουτάνα αμυγδαλιά π' ανοίγεις τον Γενάρη δεν καρτερείς την Άνοιξη ν' ανοίξουμ' όλοι αντάμαThe farmers are on the streets up north. Greek winter is at its shortest in Crete, which is why the farmers have delayed their raging here. How can they strike anyway, when the whole of Southern Crete is busy supplying the country's tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers at present? (A good experiment: plant only seasonal produce, and see how long it takes before the peasants' revolt begins.) Cretan farmers are too busy making money in their greenhouses at the moment, as well as keeping their olive trees trimmed. Κλάδεμα του Γενάρη κάθε μάτι και βλαστάριCome summer, they'll be busy harvesting tomatoes in the open. Που να σου να Γεναρη καλε και ξακουστιαρηThe north is now covered in snow. Βαρύ το καλοκαίρι βαρύς και ο Γεναροχειμώνας - Χιονίζει ο Γενάρης, ξεψυχάει ο γαϊδουριάρης. Northern Greek farmers have less to do in winter; no wonder they have the time to think about how to block passage to Makedonia Airport. In any other democratic country, this would be seen as placing the security of the country in danger. But not in Greece: we are just too democratic to stop the undemocratic. Democracy as its most democratic.

Στα «κάγκελα» οι δικηγόροι για το ΑσφαλιστικόThe lawyers (and scientists, and engineers, among others) are raging too, in their suits and ties. They no longer have 'their' people in government. They are no better than the farmers if they think they deserve different taxation methods and special pension funds. We are all in this together, mates: we ate it altogether, didn't we? I don't care if they strike forever. We are used to a very S-L-L-L-L-L-L-O-W justice system, because lawyers are used to striking in this country - they did it for different reasons before, but they didn't take to the roads like they do now. The greatest moaners are those that can't live without their comforts. They don't know how to downsize. May Syriza rule for a long time, no matter how badly they are doing it. Κάλλιο να 'δω σκυλί λυσσασμένο παρά ζεστό ήλιο τον Γενάρη. The others won't rule any differently, except to look after 'their' people, just as Syriza is doing now. That's what politicians call sharing.

A police officer stops a car at the French-Italian border
Europe is also raging - again, against Greece. First they wanted Greece out of the eurozone (which they didn't manage to do), now they want her out of Schengen. They can't decide what to do with the Schengen among themselves. They say they want to break it, but if you ask me, those crying out for Schengen to be suspended want to go back to the past, where there was a mini-Schengen zone among a few Northern buddy countries, a Schinken zone in a sense. Northern European countries feel that they are the 'safe' countries, while they view Southern European countries as unable to control what is happening within their territory. They cannot get away from the fact that the north is landlocked against a cold inhospitable sea with hardly any neighbours - Οι γεναριότικες νύχτες, για να περάσουν θέλουν συντροφιά και κουβέντα - while the south borders the warm hospitable Mediterranean, and its nearest neighbours are Arab countries. The north thinks that the south lets in all the 'problematic' people. This is of course utter bullshit. The north has its own serious problems of home-grown terrorism. The problematic people are already living in Europe, as bona fide European citizens. Some countries were slow to catch onto this (France and Belgium in particular), while others (notably the UK) have been through it much earlier than the Paris attacks. In the meantime, Greece has done all it can for the refugee crisis. We put up a fence between Greece and Turkey to stop people walking into the country undocumented - did that stop them? No! They just sailed in instead. Apart from allowing them to drown, we can do nothing else. We cannot turn the boats back towards Turkey - that's a war signal. Marine borders DO NOT EXIST - Tsipras is spot on in this senseNo matter how many patrol boats are out in Greek waters, attempting to force a vessel of asylum-seekers back into Turkish waters is both illegal and dangerous, even in calm seas. So unless a Turkish patrol stops a migrant boat and returns it to Turkey, there is little Greek or Frontex patrols can do once it has entered Greek territorial waters but arrest the smugglers and pick up the passengers or escort the vessel safely to landWhat use is the Greek navy in this case, apart from plucking people out of the water?

Those Northern Europeans think they know everything: Johana Mikl-Leitner, the Austrian interior minister, rejected Greek arguments about the difficulties of patrolling its maritime borders with Turkey and explicitly warned Athens about a Schengen expulsion. “Greece has one of the biggest navies in Europe,” she said. “It’s a myth that the Greek-Turkish border cannot be protected.” Come on over, Johana, and show us how to do it. Our arch-rival Turkey isn't bothering us. But not even Turkey can stop people from sailing away in dinghies. People say that Turkey is not a good place for refugees. Sure it isn't. But neither is Greece. These people do not want to start growing a few potatoes and keeping chickens to survive. If they did, we could probably accommodate them, just like we did during the population exchange: the numbers are the same now as they were back then. the present-day refugee issue involves approximately 1,000,000 people migrating to Europe in 2015 - the 1922 population exchange forced 1,000,000 Turkish-speaking Greeks to leave Turkey for Greece, while 500,000 Greek-speaking Muslim Turks were forced out of Greece and repatriated in Turkey. They were given land to live on and to live off - but this is not what the modern-day refugees want: they want a Western lifestyle. Many Greeks themselves are also biding their time, waiting for better days. Greece isn't a difficult country to live in; it is simply a little challenging at the moment. News sites write about the dreams refugees have for a better life in a Western European country. Is it any different from the dreams that Greeks have at the present? Most of us to a very large extent have a home and a family to turn to. Most of us also have jobs, albeit low-paid. We can't change that at present, and neither can we offer much more to desperate people. But we don't intend to let them drown, even if we can't offer them anything. We offer them a second chance to breathe; if they can wait with us, I'm sure we'd be happy to have them here too. History is just repeating itself, without any lessons learnt from the past.

brussels?? july 1991When I travelled through Europe in 1991, between France and Belgium-Luxembourg (on the latter, what is a city that calls itself a country? Try cutting off its food supply and tell me if it can function), you rarely had your documentation checked. West Germany was also relaxed, but former East Germany wasn't - the wall had only just fallen, and the guards were used to doing things differently from their Western counterparts. Does anyone remember those pre-Schengen days when you could drive through different countries without presenting any documentation? "You cross the bridge from Germany into Luxembourg, turn left, and 300 metres on you’re in France – three countries in about three minutes, and not a police officer in sight. In 1985, ministers from five governments met here to launch a bold experiment in border-free travel. Cars and lorries with green dot stickers on their windshields could roam the five countries – the same three plus Belgium and the Netherlands – without passports." Those five countries trusted each other, they knew each other well. In fact, they were hardly different from each other, and they had nothing to share or divide between them. They just pretend to be different, so they can have a place to call their kingdom (and with a kingdom, you have rulers, and rulers have power. That's all.) They bordered countries they also trusted; they were all far away from Greece, who was cut off from them by the Iron Curtain that the north didn't trust. Greece was simply on the 'wrong' side. Suddenly, it's the other way round: Το Γενάρη το ζευγάρι διάβολος θε να το πάρει. Τhey now trust former communist nations more than Greece, who is now seen as the devil.

A lot depends on trust. A colleague who left Hania for Paris just after the attacks told us that immediately upon exiting the plane (from Athens), she had to show her passport. The French authorities had no proper space for this kind of check for flights within the Schengen zone. So they just 'caught' the passengers as they exited from the plane and checked their passports. They didn't trust the Schengen agreement after Paris was attacked - even though some of the attackers were bona fide European citizens, with French or Belgian citizenship. But checking your borders at all times is sensible, isn't it? Σ' όσους μήνες έχουν «ρο», μπάνιο με ζεστό νερό. Schengen just felt too utopian. Just because a law says you can pass through without checks doesn't mean you are maintaining safety. You are just putting your faith in the law, without really being certain that the law is protecting you.

Ισχύει το δίπλωμα οδήγησής μας, σε άλλες χώρες της Ε.Ε.;So will I need a passport after all? Let's see. I've booked the tickets, I've hired the car, I've got my International Driver's Licence issued, I'm trying to get my credit cards sorted out (I really have no idea if they will work abroad, with all this capital controls σκατά). Will we be turned away at Border Control because we have Greek ID cards and not passports? I am wondering when my luck and my confidence in knowing what the future holds will run out. Χαρά στα Φώτα τα στεγνά και τη Λαμπρή βρεμένη.

There are often times when I am very thankful to be a Greek citizen. We are much more democratic and so very much less fascist than most other European countries. I HATE what Europe stands for these days: it is generally a money-focussed organisation that everyone wants to be part of, but they don't want to be led by a united Europe because each country thinks their way of seeing/doing things is superior to other countries' ways. They are afraid of losing their power. They want the money without the responsibility. They are no different from Greece, even though think they are. Do they really believe that they can have their Schinken and eat it too? With the North's predominantly sedentary lives and the ease with which Schinken is produced these days, having too much Schinken is a sure killer.

PS: All except one of my students passed the TOEFL. I've become a star. Everyone is in general agreement that he probably didn't follow my instructions. We're talking about a never-before-sighted test, sat by the weakest students, and they all scored more than 500 points (except that one person). When I initially suggested to my superiors that students need no more than one week of intensive courses for TOEFL, and they should sit the exam no more than a week after the course, they thought I was nuts. Instead, they listened to those fools (English teachers that no longer work here) who were bleeding them dry by demanding intensive courses for a month (so they could make more money) and staging the exam two months after the end of the course (when the students had forgotten everything they had learnt). Serves them all right - both the teachers that left (they were anything but teachers) and the superiors that didn't listen (and now have to admit to the role they played in the past recurring systemic failures in the English courses).

PPS: Get this: the same hair salon that I checked in at during my spending spree phoned me randomly with a €40 giveaway for whatever I want done! I can now have new hair. (Wednesday's the day.) Talk about good luck, which often comes to me. I think it's got to do with the level of patience I am willing to show. I have a lot of patience, and it really pays off. But I admit that this may not play a role in whether Schengen becomes Schinken. Let's see what develops.

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Monday 25 January 2016

A year of the Greek left (Ένας χρόνος αριστερά)

A year ago to this day, SYRIZA was voted in as the government of Greece. Before Syriza, Greek politics was like a see-saw ride: green-blue, then green, and then blue again, and so on. Suddenly, Greece was flooded with the SYRIZA rainbow, whose 12-month 2-term office can be likened to a ride on a roller coaster. For most Greeks, 2015 will be remembered as a year of living a fairy tale in reverse: from happily ever after, Syriza now finds itself in the clutches of a wicked stepmother, unable to find any escape route.

«Η ελπίδα έρχεται»: Το πρώτο τηλεοπτικό σποτ του ΣΥΡΙΖΑSYRIZA's original campaign was based on Η ελπίδα έρχεται (Hope is coming), which gave it its first win in January 2015. During their first five months in power, SYRIZA failed in every respect to change the direction of politics in the country, breaking every single promise made during its election campaign. In trying and failing to negotiate a non-austerity deal for the Greek economy, SYRIZA led the nation to vote on an incomprehensible referendum question, where a NO (OXI) outcome won, but which was later reinterpreted by SYRIZA as a YES (to keep loans coming in). Despite the obvious incompetence of the government, it was voted in for a second term in a second general election in the same year. Global interest in Greek politics then waned, but the refugee crisis still keeps Greece in the front pages of the global press. 

Embedded image permalinkAlexis Tsipras' initial impact on Greek society led it to believe that things can change, and they can change easily. Very little did in fact change, and change continues to come with difficulty, much greater than before. The two-party system that SYRIZA supossedly broke down didn't actually die; the former party of promises (PASOK(, was simply replaced by its newer version (SYRIZA), while the popularity of the main conservative party (ND) diminished in the face of the challenges. The unchanged status quo of Greek politics hasn't gone by unnoticed by the EU: the Greek newspaper ToVima recently published an uncomfortably long list of family-related appointments made during Syriza's time to various state bodies. The EU says this has to stop, which the present Minister of Finance (Euclid Tsakalotos) agrees with - all the while that his Scottish wife has been an adviser to the Bank of Greece since 2011, in other words since SYRIZA's rise. 
The left means many different things, depending on how we choose to interpret it. For me, the Greek left has always been defined by the people who shout the loudest and stomp their feet the hardest, always in support of negating any proposal made by the governing side. They haven't changed their tune while in power either - they still shout and stomp louder than their opponents, to negate what the so-called left government is 'proposing': in essence, the present left government is simply obeying to the demands made by Greece's creditors. Not that former right-wing governments were really any better: their campaigns were also based on making promises that could not be fulfilled, but they were more willing to compromise. Greek society has learnt the hard way now: no money, no honey. Which direction you lean to makes no difference to that particular rule.

The Greek left had never governed in a legal sense (ie by being chosen democratically) before 2015, so the left's first year in power was experimental. The experiment was not a success story, but it wasn't a failure either. Everything that was supposed to go wrong with a left government didn't actually go wrong in Greece: Greece wasn't thrown out of the eurozone or the European Union and I personally highly doubt Greece would ever have been thrown out of either, no matter how close 'expert' analysts insist it was to this point. Very few analysts looked behind the numbers: the mentality of Greek people would never push them to leave by themselves, while the creditors silently admit to themselves that their European project will also explode if they do the throwing out. What happened instead was that the Greek left veered off course: it went 'right' in a feeble attempt to get to the centre. Tsipras attended the 2016 Davos leaders' meeting where he wsa "brushing shoulders with bankers and billionaires", a far cry from his leftist origins.

Greece is still very much a divided society. Exacerbated by the European mess as things currently stand, Greece is still battling between her two extremes, neither of which presents a feasible solution to any of the country's economic problems. But I still believe that having Tsipras/Syriza in power was a good thing for Greece. Just like the EU insisting that there is no other way to save Greece but by a Memorandum, all Greeks have to admit that the former political facade in Greece had to drop, and it was Syriza that helped to do this. That doesn't make Alexis Tsipras the best politician - as far as negotiation tactics are concerned, he tops the list for having the worst negotiation skills according to an article from Harvard Law School. When he eventually goes (like all politicians do), he will have left behind some kind of legacy, however superficial it may be. Syriza/Tsipras' reign hasn't been characterised by total failure. Without it/him, the same-sex cohabitation law, supported by the present leader of the opposition party, would never have passed into Greek law, which helped to bring Greece one step closer to what is considered equality in the Western world. It should also not be forgotten that Syriza's handling of the undocumented migrants and refugee crisis was more humane than the previous Greek governments, and perhaps any other Western nation in the world. A million or so people have crossed from Turkey to Greece in 2015, and it should not be forgotten that since September, every single day, more than one child, as well as one adult, on average, has been drowning in the Mediterranean sea, and no one is doing anything to stop this.

Dawn rises above the hills - Γλυκοχαράζει στα βουνά
the jasmine smells beautiful - μοσχοβολούν τα γιασεμιά
the air is filled with birdsong - ραγούδι αρχίζουν τα πουλιά
as the sea smiles widely - γελά η θάλασσα πλατιά
while we dream of owning property and tv sets - κι εμείς οικόπεδα και Ι.Χ
fridges, furnishings and automobiles - ψυγεία έπιπλα TV
and as we pay for our sot weed - κουτόχορτο με πληρωμή
right next door to us, life departs - και δίπλα φεύγει η ζωή
Ξυπνήστε! - Wake up! by Panos Tzavellas, 1975

EU-Greece-Acropolis1We constantly look to Western standards for justice and equality because we know deep down inside of us that our own Greek standards of justice and equality are deficient. So even though our feelings for Western style democracy are often ambivalent - at the same time that Western standards often present a sense of justice, fairness and good manners, they also contain elements of forced colonialism, and the superiority complex inherent in imperialism - we still feel the need to adopt the good sides of any foreign culture we come across. Unfortunately, Western culture has also been equated with consumerism, which leads to greed, an element of all societies, regardless of how fair or just they seem on the surface. Greed is partly to blame when we hear people (of any culture) lamenting the changes in society. They recall the 'better' times when there was more money in people's pockets, without remembering that there was less money in the treasury. Greed is to blame for the predicament that Greeks find themselves in. No matter which colour is governing, the result would have been the same. Syriza's naive politics are not to blame for the state of the Greek economy - I am certain that Greece would be in a similar situation now if the conservative coalition was governing, and social unrest would be much much worse than it already is.

Συνεχίζονται οι κινητοποιήσεις αγροτών - κτηνοτρόφων σε όλη την ΕλλάδαI blame it mainly on the weather. I've said before on my blog that winter brings out the greatest pessimism among Greeks. But as soon as the weather brightens up, everything looks more manageable. In summer, we are either too busy or too hot to worry about the government's plans for the country. strike. In the dearth of the present winter, Greek farmers are protesting with their tractors on the streets, threatening to cut Greece into four pieces by road blockages. Come summer, they'll be planting cotton and tobacco, selling it and making good money in one season. Scientists, doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, engineers and notaries also went on strike recently, a novelty for Greece since it's rare to see white collar workers demonstrating. But the higher taxes and lower pensions that they are striking about are the same kinds of reforms that a conservative government would have had to commit to. They are all complaining about the inevitable.

A selection of headlines from Greek websites today on the anniversary of a year of a leftist government in power (all sites are centre-right, except for 'avgi' which is left):
- The grapes of wrath (tovima)
- SYRIZA's celebrations a far cry from last year's grandiose election win (tovima)
- Tsipras: «We are proud of the struggles we have fought, we will continue» (tovima)
- Tsipras against ties, farmers and Kiriakos [the first name of the leader of the opposition] (iefimerida)
- Figaro on Tsipras: A year later, Greece is still out of order (iefimerida)
- Liberation: The candle for a year of Syriza looks more like dynamite (iefimerida)
- Everything is on the table: Political crash, elections and cabinet reshuffle (thetoc)
- Two worlds: The government is partying, while the streets are raging (thetoc)
- "The Syriza that changed (not)" (protagon)
- A year of Syriza: Could it have been different? (protagon)
- Al. Tsipras: "We will not become the hostages of blackmailers or vested interests" (avgi)
and one from the UK:
One year on, Syriza has sold its soul for power - Alexis Tsipras has embraced wholesale the austerity he once decried (TheGuardian)

Ο υπουργός οικονομικών στο μέγαρο Μαξίμου
(27 Μαρτίου 2015 - Nick Paleologos / SOOC)Few people keep in mind that we have to constantly reevaluate our present predicament to see a better future ahead. No matter how much Greece changes, as it is sure to do over the coming years, the changes need to bring about more confidence among the Greek people in terms of understanding the state of their country: they need to be more aware of the fact that the salvation of their country is in their hands alone. Only then can they convince others that they are worth investing in.

We aren't really on the way to reaching this point. The traditional Western view to reaching it would be something like 'a lot of hard work is required'. Not quite the case in Greece: How you turn round a country like Greece has to do with the mindset. You need to get rid of the middle-aged generation (40s-50s age group): they are the ones that now run the show, and try to ensure the rules don't change (no matter what political party is in charge), just so they can carry on as usual. Of course, we can get rid of them easily by promising them early retirement, but the real rulers of this country's economy have ruled that out. So we are stuck with them for the time being. Education might help: we could try teaching children how to think for themselves for a start. But we need new teachers to do that; they won't be retiring too soon, though. So we are well and truly stuck for the time being.

Greeks may sound like loud rabble-rousers, but Greece is a peace-loving country. Greeks do not desire to go to war. They rarely take part in other people's wars. We may have problems in Greece, but we don't meddle with others' problems, so we are well liked in that respect, which has led to Greece being regarded as a safe holiday destination. I've often heard it said that tourism won't save us - such naive words, in my humble opinion. That will keep the economy going just long enough to give people some respite from the misery of a depressing local economic climate, which is highly linked to the even more depressing global economic climate - Greece isn't alone: it's bad all over Europe, and beyond. Unless of course you're rich, and in this world, the rich can still hide behind their money, as I've often seen rich Greeks do.

So what is left of the Greek left? The political left is quite a different concept in Greece compared to the Western concept of what constitutes left. We are now seeing leftist movements rising in the UK and US. But they haven't been tried: the West was never communist. Nor was Greece. Perhaps this is why we are now reconsidering what constitutes fairness and justice in the world. And all this is happening while former European communist nations are leaning gung-ho to the extreme right. The world is in a mess, not just Greece.

An American friend emailed me just yesterday to ask me if there was any coverage of Bernie Sanders in Greece. "Can it possibly be that we, the duped American people, are finally going to stand up and make a real change?" she writes. "It seems a dream. I have asked myself why has Bernie waited for 30 years to run for the nomination? I guess the answer is that finally the winds of change are strong enough and we are mad enough to try to throw out the 1 percent's power and let the middle class people speak."
No, I told my friend, there is no coverage of Bernie here. I've heard about Bernie from another American friend - had she not told me about him, I would have been asking 'who's he?'. Neither so we get any coverage of his UK counterpart Jeremy Corbyn. I only know about Jeremy because I read The Guardian. I think this is because the Greek left has failed abysmally. Its right-turn shenangians have made it look a complete failure. Apart from voting in same-sex civil unions and allowing undocumented people into the country without repercussions (which makes them stranded in a country that can't offer them any meaningful help), it has gone back on every promise it made in the election campaign that helped it to gain power exactly a year ago today. If the left had been successful in any way for the Greek economy, we would be hearing all about the struggles of the leftist parties in other countries of the modern world in our Greek news sites. But the Greek left has failed - abysmally, as I note above. It celebrates its first anniversary in power today by taxing the average Greek citizen very unfairly (for 'growth' purposes), supporting the European bourgeoisie (to keep getting loans), and placing family and friends connected to the coalition government in positions of state power (nepotism). One year on, the average Greek citizen now thinks that the left was a fraud. That's probably why we hear nothing about Bernie Sanders in Greek news. We have lost faith in the left. And because we don't trust the right, either, we have lost faith in all politicians, and we just trust ourselves.

I'm not at all pessimistic about the future of Greece. It's tied with the current global trends. If things are going badly in general, then it won't be easy to start up all over again anywhere. Utopia does not exist. Greece is challenging to live in, that's for sure. But the more I understand my people, the easier I find it to live among them, and just lately, the easier they find it to put up with me. "Will you ever get sick of us?" my family recently asked me. No, I assured them. No one gets sick of Greece. Even if I decide to leave Greece, I'll never be sick of Greece. I'll always be trying to find ways to get back. Greece is stuck with me for the time being.

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Thursday 21 January 2016

Samali (Σάμαλι)

I like desserts that contain as little as possible in the way of dairy products. Samali - a syrupy semolina pudding also known as bambousa in the Middle East - can be made without eggs and just a little bit of butter. Its main flavour comes from masticha, the gum from trees grown on the island of Chios. Samali is very commonly served after dinner in Greek restaurants. The masticha flavour of samali acts as a palate cleanser in a similar way to a mint chocolate. Its flavour is light, even though it has a dense texture.

The best recipe I have ever come across for samali is from a Greek recipe site. The recipe is original, created by the author. It makes no reference to exact measurements using grams or ounces. It is based on the loose idea of 'teacup' measurements, which is very common in Greek cuisine, but which also causes confusion among Western style cooks who prefer more exact measurements. For a person like myself, who is used to such measurements, I know the freedom that this loose form of measurement gives you. A teacup could be a mug, or even a bowl. It's the ratio of ingredients that counts. The difference in the end result will be in the size of the cake.

Keeping this in mind, I used this Greek recipe to bake a perfect cake in an oval 35cm ceramic baking vessel. I've translated the recipe for your convenience.

For the cake, you need:
2 teacups coarse semolina
1 teacup fine semolina
1 1/2 teacups sugar
2 heaped tablespoons baking powder mixed into 1/4-1/2 cup of orange juice (seriously, it makes little difference to the end result!)
1 teacup milk
2 teacups yoghurt (I used a mixture of runny and thick yoghurt)
a teaspoon of finely-crushed masticha gum (masticha is an acquired taste, so be gentle - if you like ouzo, you will probably like it!)
some melted butter (I used 50g, according to the measurements on the packet - but you can use more!)

For the syrup, you need:
4 teacups sugar
3 teacups water
lemon or orange peel (I added the lemon peel as well as the juice)
1 tablespoon lemon juice (see why I added the juice of the lemon?!)
2 sticks of cinnamon

Start by mixing the syrup ingredients: boil them altogether for 10 minutes, then turn off the heat and allow to cool slightly. Mix all the cake ingredients together EXCEPT FOR the butter. Grease a baking vessel and pour the cake batter into it. Brush the top of the batter with melted butter and cook at 200C for 30 minutes, until the top of the cake is golden brown. When the cake is cooked (check by pushing a knife through it to see if it comes out clean), brush the top of the cake with the remaining butter. It will soak it up very quickly. Allow the cake to cool for 5 minutes, then score it into serving pieces. Finally, pour the cooled syrup over it.

An alternative to masticha flavour is grated orange zest, which is a more familiar taste. This cake tastes even better the next day as the flavours of the syrup seep in. Samali pairs perfectly with vanilla ice-cream. Greeks like to have it with 'kaimaki', a mastich-flavoured ice-cream that is also popular in Turkey where it goes under the name of 'dondurma'. But that might just be too much masticha for the uninitiated!

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Thursday 7 January 2016

Greek cheesecake (Τζιζκέικ)

Cheesecake in the sense that it is understood in modern culinary terms - a crumbed base, topped by a cream-cheese filling and decorated with fruit or jam - is not very Greek, even though one of the first cheesecakes was probably the 'plakounta' (placenta) made by ancient Greeks. Something similar to the plakounta is the simple melopita (honey pie), made on the island of Sifnos, a self-crusting egg-and-fresh-cheese mixture sweetened with honey. Traditional Greek cooking also includes a lot of sweet cheese-based desserts: in Crete, we have mizithropita (also known as Sfakiani pita) and other similar filo-wrapped pies.

Modern New York style cheesecake is now widely available in Greek patisseries, and is quite popular, possibly due to the heavy advertising of Philadelphia cream cheese, with a whole TV cooking show dedicated to its use. It's not an ingredient I keep in the house because of our preference for locally produced fresh cheeses. I decided to make a cheesecake with my leftover Greek Christmas cookies, melomakarona, which we got a bit tired of eating. For the cream cake, an idea would be to use a recipe for melopita which uses fresh cheese (mizithra). But local mizithra varieties have a distinctly savoury taste, which is why it isn't the best cheese to use when making a no-cook cheesecake. For this reason, I decided to use Philadelphia cream cheese, which gives a smooth texture, mixed with some other Greek dairy products.

For the base:
Break some leftover melomakarona (including crushed walnuts - I think I used about 10 melomakarona) for your base and mix them with about 50g butter. Press this mixture into a baking tin (I don't have a springform tin).

For the cream filling:
Place a small pottle of cream cheese (200g) with equal amounts of thick Greek yoghurt (known in Greece as γιαούρτι στραγγιστό - 'milk cream') and cream (known in Greece as κρέμα γάλακτος - 'milk cream'), 50g runny honey and grated orange zest. Once the mixture thickens (but does not set), pour it over the biscuit base and allow to set in the fridge.

For the topping:
Any kind of jam would do here. I decided to cook up a fresh runny jam, by heating about 100g of frozen red berries with 50g sugar for 5 minutes on high heat. I poured this hot mixture over the cold cream to get a slightly marbled effect. (Alternatively, let the jam cool down for a firmer top layer.) 

Another Greek idea for topping would be to pour some honey over the cream, sprinkled with orange zest and ground cinnamon, something I decided against at the last minute, because I was fast running out of honey after all my Christmas baking. honey also has a very sharp taste, whereas sugar is more neutral (it sweetens something without adding flavour to it, like honey does).

It's now St John's feastday, and there are still some more melomakarona (as well as kourambiedes) left over. An idea for a trifle, perhaps?  

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Monday 4 January 2016

A whiff of Paris (Άρωμα Παρισιού)

I'm a bit of a σπιτόγατος, so I appreciated the offer of a friend last night to meet up with her in town. It was a mild winter's evening, quite a change from the very cold temperatures that we experienced over the Christmas and New Year period. The town was not at all enticing on this night as it had just started drizzling, it was rather dark, and there were hardly any people walking with us. Quite surprisingly, many of the cafes and restaurants were closed in the area where we were walking, which seemed strange, as one would think that this is the time when people would be out making merry. But the New Year's holiday was pretty much over, and the next day was a normal working Monday. We walked along one lonely street after another, often in the company of more stray cats than human beings. At one point, we stopped to admire the display at a clothes store. "Very chic!" we both agreed.

We continued to walk towards our destination which was a cafe located on a side street close to the cathedral of Hania. As soon as we entered Eisodion St, the atmosphere changed. The street was lined with cafes and tables, which were all looking quite full, despite the rain. Awnings had been placed on both sides of the street above the businesses, which shielded the patrons of the half dozen businesses that were doing brisk trade in the area. There were no empty seats indoors, so we took an outdoor table at Sketi Glyka where we had a great vantage point with the whole street in view.

The cafe has been open for about three years in Hania, and it has a good following. It's very popular among young people, with a reputation based mainly on the high quality French-style pastries made on the premises, which make it original to Hania. It is also popular as a dessert restaurant, and serves nice warm drinks to go with its sweet offerings.

These days, novel businesses that rely on local rather than tourist custom pay great attention to details like decor, a far cry from the plastic-lined paper tablecloth of the traditional Greek summertime taverna. Businesses in Hania constantly have to juggle between different tastes on extreme ends, something which proves difficult when the two different kinds of clientele are cohabiting the same space. It's easier to do this in the winter when the tourist go, and the town is taken back by the locals.

Our tourists from abroad - both Greek and non-Greek alike - decry the modernism of new-style Greek businesses, slandering them as blasphemously non-traditional in a 'traditional' country like Greece. They forget that the average Greek citizen is just as modern as they are, and seeks the same globalised lifestyle that they themselves are enjoying in tier respective countries.

All the while that I was sipping my chili-mango flavoured tea, I couldn't help feeling a little smug about having found a bit of Paris in my own hometown, without the threat of terrorism. Every country has its own problems, but that particular problem is not at all particular to Greece. No one is immune to terrorism, but our own form of home-grown terrorism is quite different to that of France.

Bonus photo: Christmas lights in Hania - Christmas isn't over for us here until Epiphany, and the post-Christmas sales start in mid-January, not Boxing Day.

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Friday 1 January 2016

Ever the optimist

Last year was bad, I hear them say,
But full of optimisim,
I say they turned it out that way
With their desires and whims.

It's not about the things you want
And those that you can't have,
Remember all that you can have
And learn to live with that.

Content'dness is quite challenging
When you feel impoverished,
But if you're reading my updates,
Most likely you're quite rich.

Should it get better nonetheless?
That may lie in your choices.
It's not your government to blame
For your unrealistic wishes.

So here's to 2016,
A new year full of hope.
Try being more sustainable,
Not bloated, fat with growth.

There are two things I wish for you
As the new year checks in:
May you be poor in pain and loss
And rich in happy things.*

Καλή Χρονιά! - Happy New Year!

*This verse is a translation of the mantinada in the image.

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