Tempus fugit!

A long time has passed…..and a lot has happened. Looking through my earlier posts it seems as though we’ve come full circle in the Greek crisis. One set of negotiations after another to try to keep the country afloat – but this time with a fresh twist. A new, “clean” government with new and constructive ideas regarding introducing the strange concept of “growth” back into the economy. All the years of austerity have reduced the Greek people to a point where some are barely existing, many have died, and those who have work are keeping afloat, just!

When I read reports in the western media about the Greek situation I am ashamed to come from a country where people can be so callous. Some of the comments following newspaper articles are sickening, to say the least, and show no understanding or compassion whatever. Of course there has been a long period where corruption and cronyism have been allowed to flourish here – the non payment of taxes being only a small part of it. This must be dealt with in order for the state to flourish, and those who have avoided paying their due should be brought to account; this means not only the people at the bottom being chased for relatively small amounts which they are struggling to pay, but those at the top with millions of euros stashed in foreign banks. Change must start at the top, and it seems to me that the new government has the will to do this. It is refreshing to have a finance minister with a proper grasp of his subject and a willingness to talk clearly about it. We are all so accustomed to having politicians who talk b/s it is quite a change to see someone who is prepared to speak clearly about a difficult issue and try to enable a compromise to be reached, so that the Greek people can find a way out of this mess.


Where will it all end?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about responses to crisis. I’m ashamed to say that our own circumstances often overwhelm me, and I’ve been unable to respond appropriately, sometimes, to the pain which is so evident in the people here. There is so much suffering in the world, and every news bulletin brings more of the bad variety. Here in Crete we are in winter – the last couple of weeks have been really cold, with a biting (and very strong) northerly wind. The priority has been to try to keep warm – without central heating in our home. We have a wood burning stove, which works well, especially when the warm air is circulated by the airconditioning fan. We wear 2 or 3 jumpers, and try not to sit around too much. It is too expensive to run electric heaters for any length of time, so going to bed early, with double duvets & coats on top is the only sensible option – warm dogs cuddled up help too!

Looking at news bulletins, however, it is noticeable how many stories show the plight of refugees – in Syria, north Africans heading to Europe in rickety boats, and many others. Far too many of these people end up in ill equipped camps, in freezing temperatures. How should one respond to this sort of humanitarian, and worldwide crisis?

One of the simplest things, of course, is to throw money at it; we are all enjoined to be charitable, particularly at this time of year. However, I feel that charity is something bigger than tin rattling – it should come from a person’s heart. Perhaps we should all  look closer to home. In all our communities there is need – the smallest gift of food should mean as much as a large cash donation. There is no need, really, to feel overwhelmed or that we, as individuals, can’t help. It is easy to feel cynical (and I do) about the charity “business”, with plush offices, well paid executives, and “celebrities” keen to be seen doing their own little bit in front of the cameras.

I’ve recently come across several people who deny the need to help animal charities when people are in trouble. As someone who works to raise funds for an animal group I have trouble with this notion. Do we not all inhabit the same planet? Compassion is compassion, surely. It is up to all of us to decide how to give of our money and our time to help others, whether human or animal. Many people do both, and don’t shout about it.  Many others do nothing, and are only concerned with their own comforts. In discussions on various expat fora, many people complain about the level of taxation to which we are subjected here in Greece: if you are permanently resident here you pay tax at the same rate as Greek people but you wouldn’t think this reasonable, judging from some of the comments. No-one (me included) likes paying tax, and some of it seems crazy, as I’ve written before, but if you live in a country you should contribute on the same scale as the “natives”. We (expats) are, in general, more fortunate, in that our income arises in the UK or other parts of Europe. The value may have diminished because of the collapse in exchange rates, but at least our pension payments continue. For many people here salaries are frozen, if paid at all, and the jobless are receiving no social security; pensions are just a joke. How should we react? By giving what we can in our own community, I think – however little, even just a packet of rice to the supermarket food bank collection points will make someone’s day brighter. A few dog biscuits in the pocket can help a stray, too.

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Return of the native

It has been some time since I last posted – somehow life has got away from me and the impetus to write disappeared for a while. The Greek situation/farce/tragedy doesn’t get any better, and I’ve almost given up trying to make any sense of what is going on – along with many of my friends, I think. We are all just trying to survive. This week is tax return submission week, so we’ll see what horrors that unleashes! I still find it frustrating being unable to fill in the returns myself but my Greek is nowhere good enough, and the rules change so fast that even accountants have trouble keeping up, so I wouldn’t stand a chance and would be in danger of making an expensive mistake. One thing is for sure, though – there seems no end to the convolutions which the government is going through in order to meet the requirements of its creditors. 

On the plus side, my efforts at growing vegetables have been a little more successful this year, so at least the shopping bills are slightly reduced. The soil here is terrible, and only lavish application of (organic) fertilisers & compost make any difference. The greatest successes have been broad beans and patty pan squash, closely followed by beetroot, and some tiny but flavourful carrots. Spinach was good earlier in the year, too. There was one puzzling thing – I’ve known for years that broad beans attract black fly. This was the first year I’ve grown them here – no sign of the flies, but our hibiscus plants were riddled with them. As soon as the beans were over and out of the ground the flies vanished – weird! 

As we farm our olives organically, we have to be careful what pesticides & herbicides we use in the garden. We discovered that a mix of vinegar, salt & washing up liquid was pretty effective on many of the weeds, especially those which grow up through the gravel paths. I’m absolutely terrified of weedkillers of the commercial variety as we have dogs, so it was comforting to discover this far less toxic (and cheaper) alternative. I’ve used vinegar for a while as a cleaning agent in the house, but this was a useful addition to our stock of more natural products. 

I’m feeling more & more like a native of this beautiful and strange country. My Englishness will never disappear completely, and I will never be Greek, but I feel that I belong here more as I learn more about the people and share in the hardship which is life in Greece at the moment. 


Ode to Autumn

No, this is not a Keatsian moment – no season of mists and mellow fruitfulness here in Crete. Autumn here means a welcome reduction in temperature – now in the mid 20s rather than the low to mid 30s, and a chance to catch up with some of the outdoor jobs which have been put on hold through the summer months. It is a beautiful morning here, and one could almost forget what a dire situation we are living through. There is a general strike today, so there are bound to be large demonstrations in the big cities – I just hope that there is no violence; we heard on this morning’s news that there had been trouble in Spain, with police firing rubber bullets. It is all too easy for demonstrations to get out of hand when people are feeling (rightly) very emotional, and the results can be tragic.

One (welcome to us) result of the crisis is that we have fewer people hunting in the area around here. When we first came we were taken aback by the numbers blasting away at tiny birds, in the name of “sport”. We are both people who are opposed to hunting for sport anyway, and certainly didn’t want animals being killed on our land. After a few differences of opinion with those who thought that they could come on our land and kill things the message eventually got through. We don’t have too much of a problem with people exercising their hunting dogs here out of season (though it drives our own dogs crazy), and walkers are ok, too. The hunters, these days, seem to be only those shooting for food, (which is acceptable to us and keeps the rabbit population down) and there are fewer of them, given the price of cartridges. This is a very emotive subject, of course, and has raised an awareness of a difference in “attitude” between us and local people. Initially we were inclined to feel very “British” and want to keep people off “our” land, but we understand that this just isn’t a concept which Greek people understand, so now we go with the flow – most of the time!

The way in which individuals view land is interesting. In the UK we have a concept of privately owned space which seems at odds with the way in which Greek people treat their surroundings. We have seen this in different ways, not only the habit of ignoring boundaries. It is quite normal, for instance, when moving into a new home for British people to show visitors around. We did it here, and our British friends found this quite normal. Our Greek visitors found it slightly odd; one said “but this is your private area”! So – the concept of what is private is, in a way, much smaller in Greece – just the parts of your home not on normal display to visitors. I wonder if this is a remnant of the way in which “traditional” houses are built, around a courtyard (public space), with bedrooms etc. being tucked out of view. For Brits, the notion of private space is every bit of property you own, unless you choose to share it with others.

We’ve now lived here 6 years, and we are still, frequently, coming across differences in attitude which surprise us and which, on the face of it, make little sense. Giving it a bit of thought usually brings an understanding of why we do or say what we do. We are very much aware that we will always be outsiders, but we try hard not to cause offence by being too “British”!

One of the ways in which we really do feel part of the community, though, is the olive harvest. Round here, virtually every family has at least a few olive trees, and all are busy preparing for the harvest in November. It looks as though the harvest will be early this year, as many olives are already ripening. I hope, for all our sakes, that it will be plentiful!

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A helping hand

Greek bureaucracy – a byword for inefficiency, corruption, lazy staff? According to much of what we see in the press or on the television this is the picture shown to the world. I’m happy to relate that it is not always correct – at least in this small town.

Most of the world will not know how this works, but when, recently, we received a “summons” to our local IKA office our first thought was “what has the builder not paid”. Under Greek law, whoever commissions building work is, ultimately, responsible for the payment of Social Security contributions (IKA) for the workers. Of course, the main contractor is supposed to pay, as part of the contract for the work but sometimes (and for various reasons) this doesn’t happen and the hapless client is landed with the bill. This is what has happened to us – 6 years after the construction of a water tank to contain agricultural water. Obviously, various parts of the Greek bureaucratic machine are being audited at the moment, as part of the austerity programme, and our case has, therefore, come to the surface. We had no idea that this payment had not been made and were horrified when we discovered that the bill was 2,000€!

What to do? First – find out precisely why it hadn’t been paid. Saw the builder. First response was that the work had been subcontracted out and that the subcontractor was, therefore, responsible. Not an acceptable answer. Second response was that the builder couldn’t find a record of our payment to him of a large sum of money to build the tank (the sum to cover all the expenses of so doing – including, obviously, the IKA payments). Our lawyer (who had made the payment on our behalf) was on holiday, so once we’d traced the date of the payment ourselves we waited for her to return, so that we could get a copy of the receipt. Having done so, we had further correspondence from IKA about a payment schedule. A friendly, English speaking, clerk got involved – she couldn’t quite understand why we’d been charged so much for a simple concrete structure which, according to the paperwork, was painted and had tiles on the bottom – ie it was a swimming pool! We took photographs to prove what we were talking about, and, after several phone calls to the main office in Athens it was agreed that the sum be reduced by about 500€. Now all we had to do was chase the builder. Everyone we had spoken to was of the opinion that we stood no chance of getting the money, as his business was shaky, to say the least – the crisis having done its worst.

Once we were able to show the builder the receipt for the money, and the adjusted payment due he decided, obviously, to be sensible and paid up. It may have been something to do with sheer persistence on my husband’s part – he isn’t the sort to give up easily – or the fact that the builder wanted to preserve what little reputation he has left.

So – don’t let anyone say that all Greek bureaucrats are useless. If it hadn’t been for the thoroughness & kindness of our friendly IKA clerk we would now be around 2,000€ worse off; a not insignificant victory in today’s difficult economic times.

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Happy days, and unhappy thoughts.

Well, we passed our organic inspection, so that’s that for another year, and means that we will get the best price for our olive oil. The lady who came to inspect us spoke only Greek, but we managed to muddle through between us; all we need now is a good harvest!

August is holiday time in Greece. Our little town is full of Athenians and their shocking driving habits. We have a young friend who works in the town and who normally drives a baby Mercedes, which is her pride and joy. When the Athenians are here she rides a tatty scooter and the car is left at home. The Greek relaxed attitude to life disappears when they get behind the wheel of a car, and city dwellers are worse than most. As the number plate system is based on the town where the car is registered, it is easy to spot the “foreigners” and give them the appropriate amount of latitude. Many people who come for their holidays originate from here and come back to see family members during the big holiday period, which revolves around 15th August, the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin. All women named Maria (or any derivative thereof) have their “name day” that day; there is much partying and all the shops are shut.

It seems as though the world has forgotten Greece and her problems. When I was recently in the UK there was barely a mention of Greece on any of the news bulletins – do they think all the problems have gone away? I was incensed, too, by the way in which the Olympics completely took over even international bulletins. The BBC was particularly irritating in this regard. We watch BBC here in Crete – the World version –  and it is, normally, excellent. Greece, Spain & other countries are falling apart, people in Syria & elsewhere are DYING because they want to live in a country free of oppression, and sport tops the news. This made me very angry, and I upset more than a few people by saying so. I was told that it was nice to have good news for a change! I don’t have a problem with good news; indeed it is so rare that it is good that it is reported, but NOT at the top of every bulletin when people are suffering so horribly in all kinds of ways in all kinds of places.

I feel, sometimes, that I’m in a Victor Meldrew frame of mind; “is it me?” For a long time I’ve felt out of step with most of the world and the constant search for ever more trivial things to care about. Living here has re-adjusted my perspective, thankfully, as most of my Greek friends are serious minded people who care, passionately, about things which are really important – their families, their work, their friends. From time to time pettiness arises, and upsets occur but, by & large, we live in a far more balanced society than that which we left in the UK. People enjoy frivolous things, of course, but they do not dominate as they do in the UK. One of the young women who works for the Animal Welfare group with which we are associated, for instance, is a beautician. I met her recently at the vets’ surgery. She had a street dog with her, which she had brought to be sterilised. The dog was in beautiful condition, a real credit to her care (she fosters him and 3 others). She’d found him on the streets covered in fleas, ticks etc and taken him home, cleaned him up and got him well. It is a messy business caring for street animals, yet this young woman still had beautifully painted finger & toe nails in a multitude of colours; a really good mix of the passion she put into caring for animals and still being a fashionable (and rather beautiful)  young woman. It is a pity that many in the UK are not able to find that balance in their lives!

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Red tape

Had a call the other day to say that we are due for our annual “biological(organic)” inspection. This is normally a simple procedure – we have to adhere to some fairly straightforward rules in order to maintain our status as organic farmers; we have to produce a diary to detail how we deal with the land throughout the year – when we water, what fertiliser we use, when we prune the trees etc. I make up the diary as a spreadsheet in English & Greek, so that it is clear to whomever inspects us! I’m not sure that my Greek is always totally correct, but it seems to be comprehensible. We have, also, to produce all the receipts showing what we’ve bought in terms of fertiliser (of the appropriate kind) and insecticides, ditto. The inspector usually checks that we have tape marking the boundaries (to show that we are “biological”-to avoid our neighbours over-spraying), and asks us about what oil we have sold and to whom. I just hope that whoever comes speaks at least some English – we can muddle through between us if they do. If not, it will be sign language time!

The inspection is fairly stringent, but I think this is important. Organic products attract a premium price and those who pay deserve to know that the rules have been followed.  We have been very fortunate in our dealings with the organisation which oversees the certification – they are incredibly helpful; our first inspector lived locally and spent hours with us at the place where we had to do all the original paperwork, and gave us masses of advice. The second chap we had was also local and runs a shop where we can buy fertiliser etc, so we always know we are getting the right stuff.

Sometimes living here and dealing with Greek bureaucracy drives me crazy – everything seems to take so long! When we are dealing with people like the organic lot, though, it looks different. There are so many kind people here who have been willing to help us through all the red tape, that it has made it possible to get our certificate. Just hope this year will be the same!

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