Monday, July 23, 2012

Living in Greece All Summer Long

We Can't Beat the Heat--or at least we couldn't

Summer vacation started in mid June for elementary school students, but it hasn't started yet for many of their parents. At home and at work, summer in Greece is no vacation. As the temperature reached at least 102 F in Chania at the beginning of last  week, and the Acropolis closed early because of the heat in Athens, I decided we'd hit the days of serious summer. For me, this means housework in the heat (since we have no air conditioning, like many Greeks), experimenting with opening the windows, hoping to let in a breath of welcome air, or closing them to keep the sun's oven outside. (When I was childless, I had no clue how much more housework children would create....) Serious summer in Greece means the stink of garbage in neighborhood dumpsters and bathroom trash cans (since Greek plumbing isn't set up to handle toilet paper). It means errands with the kids on the run in the sun. (And yes, alliteration and rhyme help distract me so I feel better.) We do have air conditioning in the car, but the sharp contrast between a cool car and a draft of hot air hits us hard as we emerge into the sun en route to the cool shelter of the supermarket, pharmacy, or produce store. The big supermarkets are the most comfortable places to be these days, aside from a movie theater; since we have no malls in Crete--at least not on our end of the island--I've lingered over grocery lists in a more leisurely fashion than usual lately. I know how lucky I am not to have to sweep streets, empty dumpsters, operate bulldozers, or build houses these days. It's the immigrants from more impoverished parts of the world that suffer most in the heat.

I've given up taking walks during my kids' 10:15 swimming lesson; even on the days when it's only in the upper 80s by then, with the hot sun beating down on me and sending everyone else indoors who possibly can be, the exercise is too excruciating a chore. If I get out between 8:00
and 8:30, it's cool enough in the shade that I actually see neighbors outside, so I don't feel so isolated in a burning world full of rusting buses and scaffold supports, discarded lumber, overgrown lots, and unfinished buildings scattered among middle-class homes, bougainvillea, potted flowers, and pastel-painted apartment buildings. I've noticed one particularly interesting two-story building in Chania that must house a paliatzees--someone who collects and sells old things, or, one might say, a junk man. Parked outside, next to the dumpsters with their typical overflow of rubbish, is the standard ancient pickup truck. Strewn about the yard, old clothes are draped over boards, unidentifiable metal objects continue their rusting process, and boxes overflow with miscellaneous junk. I suspect the second floor of the boxy building looks the same, since its unwalled balcony is also filled with junk, and I sometimes see a youngish man maneuvering between boxes there. We see and hear the paliatzees frequently in our neighborhood--he's a fixture in Greek life, with his loudspeaker monotonously announcing his presence and his false promise to "clean up everything." If only they could, at the household level and the national level!

Last Monday, when the temperature was supposed to start dropping, it actually felt hotter and more humid, with a hot wind and a discouraging cloud that resembled the noxious "nefos" of pollution mixed with hot air that hangs over Athens during much of the summer. But after a sweat-soaked, exhausting week, the temperature dropped on Tuesday, and we were surprised by a few clouds in the sky--enough, in the morning, that I was puzzled by the change in the summer light. We see so few clouds here throughout the summer that we become unaccustomed to them.


Obstacle Courses:  Driving in Greece 

It often appears that Greeks can't tell the different between a lane of traffic and a parking space, so that even two-lane roads in the center of Chania frequently have one lane blocked by someone who just had to run into a shop. Of course, the definition of "two-lane road," like "two-way street," is unclear here. I dread driving on one main street in Chania because, with cars parked on both sides, two more can barely squeeze by each other. And then there are single-lane roads that allow two-way traffic. Those are fun. The problem with parking is often that there is no parking lot nearby, since most apartment buildings, stores, and restaurants are built without such trivial considerations. But sometimes the trouble is that the driver (even if young and able) prefers to block a lane rather than walking more than a few steps--or that the driver sees a friend and decides to stop in the road and chat.

I've long believed that Greek drivers must be highly skilled at the arcade games that involve swerving around suddenly-appearing obstructions, because driving around here generally feels like making my way through an obstacle course: car parked on the right, blocking half of the traffic lane; motorcycle veering toward me, over the center line, on the left, helmet hung over the driver's arm; car door opening into traffic on the right; motorcycle passing me in a no passing zone on the left, with cars approaching us in the left lane; dog lying in the middle of the road; cat running onto the road on the right; car stalled at the stoplight on the right, others passing it in the left turn lane that disappears. Walled yards and parked vehicles frequently obstruct drivers' views, making it necessary to pull part way into traffic in order to see what's around the corner. Traffic laws mean little: stop signs often seem to mandate a brief pause; double lines in the center of the road never apply to motorcycles, or to anyone with a slow moving vehicle to pass; speed limits are just suggestions; no parking signs are invalidated by flashers left on, or other cars parked nearby (unless the police decide it's time to crack down). Actually, it seems that no laws apply to motorcyclists--at least, that's how they drive. Last time I repeated my claim that all Greek economic problems would be solved if fines were collected from motorcyclists for every traffic violation, D suggested that most police have too much sympathy for daredevil drivers to care to stop them, however many lives they may endanger daily.

The First Major Electrical Outage of the Summer, and Other Bad News

 Last Tuesday, I awoke to the all too familiar sound of F16s roaring through my shuttered bedroom--or so it seemed--and no electricity to turn on a lamp. (Due to budget cuts, Greek F16 pilots practice only once or twice a week now--plenty for me.) I cursed the electric company, which had failed to post the usual announcements of planned electrical outages on utility poles in our neighborhood, just posting a few in the nearby town, without any information about the area to be affected. Although 5 out of 6 Greek neighbors surveyed had no advance knowledge of the 8:00 a.m. to 12:45 p.m outage in our neighborhood, and it wasn't even mentioned on a web site dedicated to such announcements, the electric company rep I talked to insisted that if I could read Greek I'd have seen (nonexistent!) announcements. Believe me, I've had adequate opportunity to learn that "thiakopee revmatos" means electrical outage! (That, along with "eepomonee"--patience--and "tee na kahnoume"--what can we do?--is basic, essential Greek for residents here. Lately, we've also heard a lot about "kourahio"--courage.) This outage--supposedly for maintenance--was announced only in the local paper most people don't read. So there was hot water in the bathrooms, but not in the kitchen, thanks to limited solar heating; I couldn't do laundry or cook as I'd planned.
Plans? No wonder Greeks don't plan ahead much; they never know what they can count on--electricity, water, school, internet, trash pickup, open stores, telephone service? Again, Thursday: "The number you are calling is temporarily out of service"--kindly translated into English for befuddled foreigners who actually expect phones to work when there are no electrical storms and bills are paid. I tried to explain to my friend that her home phone wasn't working, but her cell phone connection was interrupted before I could finish my sentence. Friday, our neighborhood's water supply was cut off, albeit only for an hour or two this time (unlike the days without it when I'd just brought home my first newborn child). This usually occurs courtesy of bulldozer operators who dig up water lines. And "due to serious problems in the power supply" at one of my favorite Greek metereological sites, Poseidon, that system has been down for a week or two. We've never had electrical outages for weeks, so I wonder if it's a matter of government funding disappearing. 

With one third to one half of all Greek income tax returns due to be filed last Monday, the government once again extended the deadline; after all, it only recently sent out statements for a real estate tax from 2009, so how could it be ready for a new onslaught of 1.8 million returns? The government claims that it will decrease bureaucracy and red tape, but so far we see extra paperwork for physicians who struggle with faulty new computer systems for prescription drugs, professors required to file research project reports with enough accounting to require a CPA, and taxpayers who are expected to save, add up, and submit all receipts for groceries, gasoline, restaurant meals, children's activities, and most other purchases all year long! No, no red tape or bureaucracy around here.... The goal is obviously to combat tax evasion and wasteful and illegal spending, but it certainly doesn't involve decreased bureaucracy. Meanwhile, we continue to suffer shortages of common medications. The Human Rights Watch recently published a report about the mistreatment of, and attacks on, many immigrants in Greece. The Council of Europe will send an investigator to check on alleged links between the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party and the police, and it is reported that half of the police voted for that neo-Nazi party. I just hope the Council of Europe will also acknowledge that Greece needs more help dealing with the large number of immigrants flooding into Europe across its borders.

As Nikos Konstandaras argues in Kathemerini newspaper's online English edition, "The government is struggling to find ways of cutting another 11.6 billion euros from the budget without triggering a revolt and our partners [the troika of Greece's lenders] are waiting for the magic number before releasing the next tranche [loan installment]. We forget that which should have been our priority: We need to make not only the state but the whole country more functional.... As long as citizens don’t see better services, their sacrifices are in vain. As long as they don’t see a more efficient state -- that collects taxes from all and punishes those who break laws -- the sense of injustice will grow" ("Make the state work first"). Hear, hear! But does anyone here hear? The news is not encouraging, as many expect additional job, salary, pension, and benefit cuts, even as the government says it will add no new austerity measures until next year--that is, none they didn't already pledge to enact in 2012. With no signs of sensitivity or sense from the troika, there's little hope of economic growth. Most Greeks want to renegotiate the bailout agreement, but the troika does not. 

But Ah! Those Summer Nights!

In spite of all the problems, Chania is one of the more popular tourist destinations in Greece these weeks, as the two cruise ships anchored just outside the Old Port confirmed last week. This is particularly obvious as the city cools off in the evening, and many apparently prosperous locals emerge from hiding to join the tourists who appear to be more tolerant of the heat. Venturing into the Old Port area on a weekend night with our children, we passed mime statues and immigrants selling junk for kids, threaded our way through crowds, and ran into two sets of friends. Seeking a more contained spot for the children on a Sunday night, we met with friends at the equally crowded MegaPlace, with its movie theater, bowling, cafes, and exciting play place (bouncing contraptions, kiddie pay rides, and playground). We received no more invitations to major events, but a hairdresser reported that she was busy preparing others for the weddings and baptisms that continue during Greek summer weekends, and we passed extended lines of cars parked on both sides of the road around 11:00 p.m. near a reception center in the middle of nowhere. Which is where we were, on the way back from a wonderful beach.

Some parents here take their kids to the beach daily. Others dislike sand and dread the effort involved in preparing young children and all their gear, keeping them safe in the sea and sand, and dealing with the aftermath of sandy, salty people, bathing suits, towels, and toys; these avoid the beach as much as possible. Then there are those in between, like us. When we can, D and I sneak off to the beach without the kids, one at a time, for a quick morning swim without all the hassle. But at least once a week we feel obligated to endure the whole exhausting production, which for me includes packing a picnic supper to eat on our beach blanket. Don't get me wrong: I know I am extremely privileged to live closer than I ever expected to some of the most beautiful spots in the world, and to have the ability and means to take the time, now and then, to enjoy them. I love relaxing on the beach as evening falls, and I do enjoy my swim and my view of the sea, the surrounding landscape, and my children's pure happiness as they frolic in and out of the water, dig in the sand, and begin to really swim in the sea. I appreciate the amazing views and the (sometimes) clear aquamarine waters. It's the preparation and especially the aftermath I find exhausting, especially when it ends around 1:30 a.m., as it did for me last weekend after a trip to a beach an hour away, on the western edge of Crete: Falasarna.

Substituting the catchier tunes of a Sesame Street CD for whining and are-we-there-yet complaints, passing gas stations charging as much as 1.84 euros per liter of their cheapest gas (up from a low of 1.68 two weeks ago in Chania), sinking into a deep pothole that extended right across the single-lane road through a village, we arrived at Falasarna. Each time I emerge from the village onto the road high above a valley dotted with greenhouses, I'm struck anew by the view of towering hills, dramatic cliffs, and wide-open sea. From several long, sandy beaches, we choose one with a natural shallow sea pool nearly surrounded by boulders. At times, that western sea is churned up by waves reminiscent of the Atlantic Ocean and the Delaware beaches of my childhood, but last weekend we could clearly see sand, seaweed, and new rocks on the bottom through its calm waters. While our daughter showed off her new endurance swimming abilities with D, my son and I dug a large pool and a wall to defend it against the sea's wavelets, bringing back nostalgic memories of my own childish battles against the Atlantic's greater onslaughts. As the sun lowered into the sea, spreading its sweet evening light on faces, water, and boulders with tidepools full of sea salt useful for our boiled eggs, we enjoyed our picnic on the beach. We didn't finish until after some campers had lit fires and torches near their tents under the trees, and I'd gazed long at the cliffs silhouetted against the afterglow. But my romantic appreciation was disturbed by concern about campfires and torches in such a wind, which so often spreads destructive wildfires across Greece in the summer heat.

On our way home, as the children fell asleep in the backseat, D and I listened to calls from Chicago, Brisbane, and Norway on a radio show for Greeks around the world. The host seemed ready to cut off the callers before they'd finished their nostalgic comments. I'd need to be much more concise than I have been to avoid the same. My own nostalgia is a complex mix: nostalgia for the privileged enclaves of America where I used to live, the types of places where gunmen now shoot crowds of innocent civilians as they used to do only in the urban slums that scared me, and premature nostalgia for the Greece I long to leave but know I'd miss. Greeks are often angry, and they can act crazy, but even the anarchists here warn people to leave buildings if they're going to burn them, and even the fascists beat people up rather than shooting them. In the aftermath of the latest horrifying shooting in Colorado, I wonder why 45% of American homes contain guns (according to a 2011 Gallup poll). I wonder if the U. S. A. is a safe place to take my children, and whether anyone will take meaningful action to make it a safer place for everyone's children. Would my kids be better off here in Greece, even with the economy in shambles, the infrastructure so faulty, the government and its services so inefficient, the repeated possibility of Greece leaving the euro zone, and the prime minister telling Bill Clinton the situation here now is comparable to the American Great Depression of the 1930s?

No comments:

Post a Comment