Archive for category Economy

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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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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How much do we change?

One of the things I like best about living here in Greece is the connection we have developed to the land. We were “townies” in the UK, though we’d both been brought up in the country and wanted, more than anything, to get away from suburbia. Our main criterion, therefore, when we were looking for a place to live, was that we should be able to have sufficient land around us to grow a few vegetables and have space to “breathe”. Little did we know that having land would become so important to our wellbeing – both in terms of being able to produce some of our own food, but also economically. Our olive crop has taken on far greater significance than we could possibly have imagined, and we are very aware, at the moment, of keeping an eye on the development of the olives and looking out for signs of disease. We water them regularly, and once it is a little cooler we will be starting work to prepare the land for harvest. In the meantime all the summer vegetables are over, so the garden needs sorting out as well. The heat means that most of these jobs need doing at the beginning and end of the day, which has altered our “normal” timetable. It is surprising how long it has taken to adjust to living with the rhythm of the seasons, but it now makes sense. I still can’t do the late night Greek hours, though!

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Waiting for news

….we are living on a knife edge here. Is it possible that a government can be formed now, or will there be new elections? Will Greece be forced out of the Euro? What will happen? There is so much uncertainty that it is quite difficult to concentrate on daily life.

Looking at the situation dispassionately I have come to the conclusion that much of the crisis is due to a total lack of understanding between “northern” and “southern” European countries about the way each operates. It seems that many in the north of Europe feel that they have the right to run the European Union (and the Euro) “their” way, without taking regional differences into consideration. From an economic point of view this seems catastrophically short sighted. Of course Greece needs to repay the bailout money – I think anyone with any sense understands that – but just how it is to be done is something completely different, and the reality of the austerity measures seems to have bypassed many people completely.

We have learned in the last day or so that the emergency Property Tax levied with electricity bills will now not appear on the bills, as 1 billion euros remains unpaid from last year’s dues. All along, the power company has been unhappy about being the collector of this tax, and many, many people have refused to pay on the grounds that the tax is a) unjust, and b) too much. What will happen now to this tax? So many of the new taxes have been ill thought through because of the demands for quick action, with the result that they are unenforceable. It appears, at times, as if Greece has been set up to fail, and to become the scapegoat for the Euro project falling apart.

I’m intrigued by the finding that so many people wish to stay in the Euro – that isn’t my experience here in Crete, where there is a definite feeling that Greece would be better off going back to the Drachma and taking the consequences of Euro exit. Maybe there is a sense of island mentality here – Cretans are, after all, Cretan first and Greek second, which might account for the difference of opinion from that prevailing on the mainland.

All we can do is wait.



We get dual Easter this year – last weekend the “Western” variety, and this weekend the Orthodox. I find it fascinating to learn more about the various different traditions of the Orthodox Easter celebrations – even though I’m not a church goer I can see how much this still matters to many people here. Special types of food are very important and everyone has their own family recipe for all the different elements of the Easter feast.

One of the things we enjoy is the special bread, Tsoureki. The version we make isn’t spicy like the type you buy in the shops, but is flavoured with orange, and makes wonderful thick, chunky toast! We first came across Tsoureki in Corfu – we’d gone there for an Easter holiday, but had got the date wrong, and arrived on Easter Monday! Went shopping for essentials as we were self catering, and bought bread in a bakery. This was wrapped & tied with gift ribbon and cost us about £5 – very fancy tsoureki! We learned to be a bit more careful what we bought after that.

I find the different varieties of Halva which are on sale in the shops now really interesting. To people who take the Lenten fast seriously, Halva is one of the few sweet things which are allowed. One of our favourite tavernas always brings out a plate of halva & fresh fruit after meals – it is good, but terribly sweet and somewhat indigestible on top of a meal! I think it is an acquired taste, frankly. I love Greek cakes of the baklava type, but some things are just too sweet for me.

Back to Easter – all the hardware shops are stacked high with barbecue paraphenalia at the moment, ready for people to cook their Easter feast, whether it is a whole lamb or something smaller. I’m hoping the weather is fine – it is always a great shame when people put in a huge effort to create a feast which is spoiled by rain. At the moment it is extremely windy here again, but with any luck it will have abated by Sunday.

I will barbecue something if the weather is ok – I’m trying to get more use out of it this year, as it is good to cook outside in the summer, and more economical than the oven/electric stove. We have an unused two ring gas burner as well, so need to get that connected then I’ll be able to cook whole meals outside, rather than just parts. There is something wonderful about cooking outside provided you get organised properly, but if you don’t it can be a pain, in my experience. As there are only two of us it sometimes doesn’t seem worth the effort, but I’m determined to persevere this year. Just a matter of a change of focus, probably, along with all the other “crisis” driven changes in all our lives here in Greece. Lateral thinking is the order of the day for everyone at the moment – finding creative solutions to problems caused by lack of money.

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