Living in Crete with my FamilyHere I am now, an American mom in Greece today. I never expected to be here. When I was growing up in a semi-rural neighborhood in southeastern Pennsylvania, my family's trips across Canada and the U. S. seemed to strike many of my friends as impressively wide-ranging adventures. These days, I'm living in a typical box-shaped, two-floor, two-family concrete dwelling generously surrounded by balconies, in a more densely populated middle-class residential neighborhood outside the city of Chania on the island of Crete. Living high up on a hill above a small marina and beach, with occasional views of mountains and the Mediterranean sea, I expect that my preoccupations are vastly different from those of my former schoolmates and neighbors. For example, I worry about what this Sunday's Greek national elections will mean for me, my two bicultural, bilingual children, my Greek husband ("D"), our friends and family, and Greece. Even before the recession and political turmoil hit Greece, leaving the country without the political majority or even an adequately unified coalition of political parties necessary to "form a government," as they say here, it was hard enough for this particular American to adjust (more or less) to living in a southern European country. When asked how I like it here, over the last ten years, I have diplomatically--and truthfully--replied that life in Greece has both advantages and disadvantages. Some of the advantages are obvious to most people, since they can envision dream vacations on sunny beaches next to the clear turquoise waters of the Mediterranean, with ancient temples standing guard in the distance. But the glories of ancient Greece have now been overshadowed by the prosaic struggles of modern Greeks, and life in Greece today is no vacation.
Medical Benefits, Past and Present
All of that was true in the good old days (up to a few years ago), when public university professors such as my husband, D, as well as their families, still enjoyed rather impressive health insurance coverage: although we lacked dental coverage, we seldom paid for doctor visits to most physicians in our area (unlike in Athens, where copays were required) and owed only a 25% copay for most of the prescription medications we needed, and even less for many lab tests. Some would argue that such generous benefits were part of Greece's problem, but I considered them one of Greece's (former) attractions. Since January, however, there have been so few physicians in the new public insurance program--the one that insures most Greeks--that sick people must pay to see a doctor while they're still sick (if they don't prefer to wait until the following month for a visit covered by insurance). Admittedly, we don't pay as much as we would in the U. S.--only 20 to 50 euros around here, away from major cities, as far as I've heard. But it gets worse: recently, pharmacists stopped accepting our insurance, demanding full payment for medications, since the federal government is millions of euros behind on payments owed to pharmacists for medicines covered by public insurance. There has already been a shortage of cancer medications, and I hear that there may be additional medicine shortages, since pharmacists hesitate to pay for (and stock) expensive medications that no one can afford. Depending on what happens with this week's elections, there could be shortages of much more than medicines in Greece, and some of us are stocking up on various food and grocery items.
We aren't sure whether my mother in law's public health insurance will actually pay for the knee replacement surgery she just endured, which could certainly be a problem on top of all the (no longer covered) medications she regularly takes for various health problems. She is the person I know who suffers most from all the strikes, as well: when public transit workers strike, she must fight for a taxi to take her to her doctors' appointments in the Athens area; when pharmacists and doctors strike, she struggles to keep her prescriptions up to date. A friend's mother was declared fit to leave her hospital, but there is no ambulance to take her home, and she is not allowed to go in a car. So she is stuck in the hospital, but no longer provided with her medications since she was officially discharged! Meanwhile, gasoline, water, and heating costs rise (with our water rates suddenly doubling, gas something like $7 a gallon). To make things worse, the Greek government--pressured into "austerity measures" by the "Troika" of the IMF, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission--reduces pensions, raises taxes, and imposes new ones. These days, it's innocent people like my mother in law and my friend's mother who are punished far more than the wealthy politicians and major tax evaders who contributed most to Greece's current economic and political crisis.
Closed Businesses, Poverty, Unemployment, and Migration Out of Greece: That's AusteritySo we see the empty shells of businesses that were forced to close and wonder about the missing beggars who may have left for more promising lands. An immigrant mother desperate for work leaves her 3 1/2 year old in the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki with her unemployed husband and moves all the way south to Crete for a job, but is forced to return home, jobless, when her young daughter's tantrums become too excruciating. Unemployment has reached nearly 22% for the general population, and more than double that for young people. This is just part of what "austerity" means, as salary cuts and layoffs in the huge public sector have a domino effect in all other sectors of the economy. Those who can are leaving Greece: many immigrants who frequented a local soup kitchen have disappeared, apparently fleeing to Italy; our hairdresser is taking her sons to join her husband, a mechanic, in France; our dentist is updating his CV and considering England. One of D's colleagues suggests moving our families to a remote Pacific island to live on fish. Some may ask, isn't Crete an equally Edenic spot for fishing?
Natural Beauty, Fresh Produce, Generosity, and Hospitality: That's Greece
To some extent, yes: this is a lovely place to vacation. I encourage all my friends and family members to come visit--if the upcoming elections don't lead from us from mess to chaos. Those who paint a completely bleak picture of Greece and Greeks don't do them justice. The spectacular mountains, gorges, caves, sea, beaches, forests, and flowers combine for an amazing beauty that struck me every day for the first year or so of living here (after which I partly failed my conscious fight against taking it for granted). Before my first trip to Greece, I had no idea how mountainous it is; now, in June, I still marvel at traces of snow atop the White Mountains of Crete. Many Greeks demonstrate a strong appreciation for nature, with even senior citizens walking considerable distances, whether for exercise or pleasure, or out of necessity (since most of the older Greek women I know do not drive). Perhaps this contributes to the good health so often linked to the Mediterranean diet.
Certainly, the Cretans I know seem to value both flowers and fresh fruit and vegetables, which many grow in their yards, where Americans would have the grass plots that are too difficult and expensive to maintain in the hot, dry summers of Greece. These garden plots and fruit trees are becoming increasingly important as economic uncertainty worsens. And given the extent of Greek hospitality and generosity, this benefits people who can't grow their own produce, as well the growers: several neighbors recently gave us bags of apricots from their trees; we've received hundreds of lemons over the years; our favorite family restaurant owner gave us a large bag of freshly-dug potatoes; and after I gave away an old, chipped coffee table, I received spinach, lemons, and oranges, with the promise of summer produce from "the village" when it's ready. While Greeks can sometimes be quite rude to strangers, for example while competing, er, I mean waiting, in line, the opposite is also true. Once, walking in another neighborhood where I knew no one, an old woman--a perfect stranger--invited me to pick the best oranges from her crates, and to come back for more another time! Somewhere in the mountains, years ago, D and I came across a man with a donkey loaded down with avocadoes, and he presented us with several. After photographing an elderly woman in central Greece, we were invited into her house to eat some sweets and visit her disabled son, who was seated among colorful woven blankets and pillows on a mattress on the floor. So I wasn't completely surprised last week when a doctor I've consulted dozens of times didn't charge me for my visit.
While life in Greece today is no vacation, I try to pretend it is whenever the opportunity arises, and the famous natural beauty, generosity, and laid-back attitude do provide some chances. During a recent meal at our favorite family restaurant, Kyria (Mrs.) Maria's Sunset Restaurant in Horafakia, our space was invaded by twenty senior citizens, some of them polluting our air with the ever-present cigarette smoke. However, invasion soon transformed into wonderful free entertainment as the smokers, politely asked, moved farther away from us, and the group began singing melodic Greek songs from the 1950s, '60s, and '70s to the accompaniment of a spirited guitarist. Some of them were talented singers, and their sweet songs brought back memories of good times for D, in a brief escape from the worries and pressures of life in Greece today. Our children roamed around outside the restaurant and hotel, safe to play and wander without rebuke, as children generally are in rural Greece. On the way home, my gaze was transfixed by the shining sea views. And last week we enjoyed a relaxing afternoon with some visitors from the UK, savoring the clear, cool waters at Stavros beach for our first swim of the year.