The way of the world

People are people the world over, right?

Well, yes, but the capacity to surprise/shock/upset never ceases to amaze me.

For instance – why is it that some people who, ostensibly, are committed to volunteering/helping a charitable organisation can be so foul to one another? Why does charitable work attract people who want to say “look at me – am I not wonderful helping the poor/disadvantaged/animals/whatever”. Why are they so competitive about it? The notion that one might just get on with volunteering without trying to get noticed or upset others is so strange to some that I really wonder why I bother. Charity work, to me, means just doing whatever is needed by that particular charity to the best of one’s ability and using whatever skills and talents are available. Is this so hard, really? I used to be employed (gainfully) by a small charity, and felt it really important to treat volunteers well; teamwork is a really important ethos in a world where no-one gets paid, so one member of a team upsetting several others can cause major difficulties. In the employment world, these matters are dealt with in a formal way (hopefully), but when everyone is a volunteer there is no mechanism to sort things out and it is, all too often, the case that those who have worked for many years in a particular role get walked over by those who think they can just take over, because they want to be “seen” to be involved – or, indeed, just because they want to do it, and to hell with everyone else.

Rant over – sore subject.

The sun has been shining on Greece the last few days; spring is here, though there is still a chill wind blowing, literally and metaphorically. There are more pension cuts on the way, apparently, and the annual tax free band is to be reduced, so people pay more tax – what with? The insanity of the Greek financial situation just deepens and makes less and less sense. How are people who earn less to be expected to pay more tax. I’ve read, today, that Greek household spending in supermarkets dropped by 13% in March, while inflation in the month reached 1.7%. This Easter’s feast looks as if it will be drastically reduced for many; the supermarkets have plenty of Easter “goodies” on sale, but I’m unsure how much is being bought. I suspect that there will be a big rush on Saturday to catch items marked down, because the shops will be shut on Sunday and Monday – I will be among the bargain hunters!

 

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Power to the people

Many of us in the “western” world take electricity for granted – it is just there, at the flick of a switch. However, in this country, we are rapidly beginning to understand the relationship which the less developed parts of the world have with it.

For starters – it is “normal” for us to have power cuts if the weather is bad. In many places in Greece, the power is transported on overhead lines; this is a mountainous country and it is totally impractical to install underground cables. We understand, therefore, that the weather can cause problems. In our local area, the engineers from the electricity company work wonders to restore power as fast as possible after there has been a cut. Even last winter, when storms went on for days, they were out there sorting out the lines.

What is “new” is the fact that, for many people now, cuts are nothing to do with the weather. The cost of electricity has risen hugely, as this article shows, and more and more are being cut off because they can’t pay their bills.

Every winter, more and more people are finding that their electricity bills are completely unaffordable. Central heating oil costs have risen sharply as well, so many have cut back on that as well. The “old” way of heating homes (wood burning stoves) is making a comeback, causing smog in the cities, as people burn anything they can find – not just seasoned olive logs, which is what we are fortunate enough to have for nothing.

Electricity charges here are on a sliding scale – the more you use the higher the charge per unit, and all the sundry charges are linked to consumption by a series of complicated multipliers. Summer isn’t any better than winter, as aircon use eats electricity. This has been a cold winter, especially in northern Greece, so there have been some frightening bills. Our own latest one was fairly scary, as I’ve been using the tumble dryer more, due to a cold, wet spell, and we use the aircon fan to distribute the heat from our wood burner better. I’m now reading the meter every week, to see just how much we are using and to try to find further ways to cut back, and keep below the threshold at which the price per unit goes up!

I’m now off to defrost the freezer to make sure that works efficiently.

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The sound of silence

Am I alone in wishing there was less noise in the world? Even living in this remote rural area I’m aware of man made noise, but it is (generally) tied to the rhythm of the seasons and is, thus, an “essential” part of life. In the winter, everywhere around there is the sound of olive picking – generators, and the electrically powered “sticks” which knock the olives from the trees. Now it is chainsaws, as all the farmers are pruning their trees and burning what is removed; on a still day I can hear the crackle of fires, as well as see the smoke.

In the early mornings, and early evenings there are only birds – wild and domesticated – and the local dogs. Night time has started to echo to the sound of frogs. In the summer there are cicadas – incredibly loud at times – during the day, but they fall silent at night. Someone once described them to me as the sound of summer – which is about right, as they only appear once the temperature goes above 30 degrees (C).

When we first saw this patch of land it was early summer, and the only noise we heard was the gentle hum of the bees, and birdsong. Coming from suburbia, we found it hard to believe how quiet it was – this was one of the things that “sold” it to us. As time has gone on it seems less quiet, but I think a lot of that is us becoming habituated to it rather than noise actually increasing; I’m also less tolerant of noise in general than I used to be.

How do we differentiate between necessary and unnecessary sounds? To me, natural sounds are fine – apart from the occasions when dogs just won’t stop barking; it doesn’t matter whether it is our own dogs or someone else’s! What is objectionable is the fact that wherever you go you are bombarded by background “music” and shopping counts as a trip to one of the outer circles of hell. Even our favourite local café is at it now – supposedly to create atmosphere. I can just about understand the need for it in the early evening, but why at 9 in the morning, when most of the customers just come in for a chat or to sit and watch the world go by. It is a disease that has spread far beyond the dreams of the marketing experts, who see it as a means to make people spend more money – apparently. Even a previous oasis of quiet like Marks and Spencer is at it. I was in a large M&S store last autumn, and couldn’t wait to get out so pervasive was the “music”. As for Christmas time…….even here in Crete the supermarkets succumb to the tacky carols, but at least much later than their British counterparts. Usually only a couple of weeks of it.

Commercial considerations aside, does anyone know why this has happened? Are we all so afraid of silence – that we might have to actually talk to one another, or, if alone, confront our own thoughts? I can fully understand the growth of the attraction of mindfulness and meditation, as an antidote to the stress of the world; I feel very strongly that constant noise is part of that stress and that we would all benefit from an escape from it from time to time, before it sends us all crazy! It is up to the individual to realise what is happening and act upon it, though; we can only control the noise in our own environment, so start there – just switch off occasionally and see how good it feels.

 

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Mutatis mutandis

..or things having been changed that needed changing!
Or, on the other hand, maybe not. I see that it is more than 2 years since I last posted here. This is partly because the situation in Greece seems to have changed very little, and I felt that I was in danger of repeating myself. There have also been personal reasons which left me feeling lacking in energy and unable to be creative. However, given the cataclysmic nature of the last couple of years it seems a good time to resurrect this page and talk some more about life, the universe etc…
One of the deeply worrying aspects of the Brexit debacle is the potential effect on people like us – foreigners in a foreign land. In this we are as one with the European citizens living in Britain, and we are all about to become “bargaining chips” to use the unpleasant phrase being bandied around in certain political circles. From young Greek people studying at British universities, to those of us of more mature years living here the potential impact is huge. We do not wish to go back to the UK – our home is here, but for many it will just become too expensive if the reciprocal health arrangements for pensioners cease. Greek students (and those from other countries) want to be able to continue their studies without worry, and choose to settle in the UK if they so wish. Many British institutions will suffer greatly if European citizens have to leave, not least the NHS.
All of this has been rehearsed ad nauseam in newspaper articles, websites, fora, blogs etc, but I get the feeling that for many of those writing this matter is of academic interest only. For those of us in the firing line it is much more worrying – we are PEOPLE, not statistics, and the sooner these matters are negotiated the better.

So Brexit is a change amid a situation here which hasn’t really changed at all. More talks, more panics, more requests for loans, more taxes, more cuts, just more of the same. Yes, more of the same and the Greek people are still surviving, despite the best efforts of some in the EU to push this nation under. They are surviving because they have no choice, of course, but also because there is something in this nation which just does not give in. Courage, bloodymindedness – call it what you will; there has to be a light at the end of the tunnel which isn’t an oncoming train! People who can share the little they have and laugh and dance even in these dark days have something special. They have survived the horrors of a shooting war, and are now dealing with the horrors of an economic war. One day, they will win. I just hope that those of us who love this country are able still to be here to share the victory with them.

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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.

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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. 

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