Saturday, October 12, 2013

Life Disrupted: American Excursions, Greek Diversions, and the Challenges of Education in Greece

A Long Intermission, With an Interval of Grief

My world changed this past winter: my mother died suddenly. For nearly a year, this blog has been deferring to life and death: to course revision and preparation, family, home, holidays, teaching, travel--and most notably, my mother's completely unexpected death. Even after I overcame the months of disabling depression that followed my sudden trip to the U. S. last winter to share the love and sadness of family and friends, so much has reminded me of my mother and my loss: hairspray, my kids' clothes, tall trees, cooking, scenic views, makeup, flowers, fudge cake…. Our summer trip to the U. S. came too late for my children and me to play miniature golf with their grandma; relax and play with her at the playground, amusement park, and beach; relive my childhood walks on the boardwalk together; or show her their drawings and discoveries. It came too late for me to spend time close to my mother during the relaxed vacation days that bear little resemblance to her annual fall visit to us in Greece, when school hours, homework, and (this time) preparations for the last birthday party she'd share with us distracted me, yet again, from the importance of our relationship. I thought we had at least ten more years to share.

An American Interlude

Our summer in the U. S.--my longest stay there since 2000--did include a number of enjoyable reunions, as well as enabling more accurate comparisons between the two countries I know best. I was most struck by differences in size, space, and convenience: even in the smallest state of Rhode Island, everything from paper towel packs and milk cartons to appliances, parking lots, and highways tends to be big. Not only the excessively extravagant Gilded Age mansions of Newport, but even the smallest middle-class houses on our street in a Providence suburb, were roomier than typical middle-class homes in Greece. And so much is ultra-convenient: "drive-thru" pharmacies, pre-cut and peeled carrots, cash back with debit cards at supermarkets, smart phones, little electronic boxes to entertain kids. Of course, it all comes with a high price in both dollars and health; I was surprised by how much healthy, real, and especially organic food costs in comparison to the omnipresent junk food, how often I saw kids interacting with electronic devices instead of with each other, and how much health care and medicine can cost for the uninsured. Expenses did vary; gas was cheaper than in Greece even in the Northeast, as were many of the clothes and shoes at Delaware outlets, but groceries, rent, and services were more expensive. My friends and I talked about corruption in the government and the legal system, injustice and poverty, crime and danger--in general, about the imperfections of the American system as well as the Greek one. But mostly, this past summer, I savored time with my family and friends and appreciated the good side of American life: helpful new neighbors; polite strangers; clean yards, sidewalks, roads, and parks; vast extents of green grass and trees; plentiful space inside and out; mint chocolate chip ice cream; sweet corn; blueberries; and being surrounded by completely comprehensible English.

As fortunate Americans who could afford to explore, we were impressed by the monumental bridges we crossed on our way up and down the Eastern U. S., and even  landscapes that bored me in childhood inspired a lazy, peaceful fascination, an attraction of the old and familiar: smooth, wide, endless highways between lush green cornfields and roadside forests, marshes, rivers, and ponds contrasted with the rugged dryness of much of Greece; neatly paved roads through neighborhoods of carefully manicured lawns with flowerbeds and well-kept single-family homes contrasted with the large, boxy concrete structures and compact, largely utilitarian fruit, vegetable, and flower gardens of our neighborhood in Crete. We also passed through areas of the industrial ugliness, monotonous strip malls, crowded and unkempt lower-income housing, and littered yards of smaller rural homes that are additional hallmarks of America, but most of our trips took us through the more prosperous areas that fit the positive stereotypes of the USA. Driving through New England with Prairie Home Companion and Garrison Keillor's caricature of Minnesotans as "God's chosen winter people," the highway a ribbon snaking along between tall deciduous trees toward New York City and its Spanish and Greek radio stations, I was often amused. But a nostalgic sadness and fondness hit me as the Pennsylvania Turnpike's smooth roads wandered across rolling hills of farmland and forest in the green and gray of light summer rain. The grazing horses and cows between the cornfields, tall silos, capacious barns, and rambling old farmhouses and outbuildings were as welcome to me as if I'd never seen a farm, as if I were a tourist on a first visit to Amish country, and as if I'd grown up there--as I had. 

It was often a summer of nostalgic memories, visits, and re-creations of childhood pleasures, but it was also a summer of discovery in Rhode Island, where I hadn't spent much time before. I wandered among colonial era houses near Brown University; we joined the street-fair-type excitement of Waterfire's bonfires on the river; and I joyfully breathed in the smell of thousands of real paper books in libraries peopled by real readers, such as Edgar Allan Poe's hangout, the Athenaeum. My children and I delighted in the extensive lawns and forests of Roger Williams Park, with its carousel, swan boats, gardens, ballfields, playgrounds, and zoo, the latter boasting far more shade, space, and water, not to mention air conditioning and misting stations, than the zoo outside Athens. We enjoyed visiting the strangely lumpy camels, seeking out the elusive snow leopard, adoring the furry red panda, and hunting for the monkeys in their large rainforest-like building. But on the hottest, most humid days of a record-setting July, we sought refuge in the cool reading room of our local public library, which offered so much more than the children's library in Chania. In addition to checking out hundreds of English-language books, we appreciated free internet access; free performances by a storyteller and a magician; free or reduced tickets at the Providence Children's Museum and the RISDE Art Museum; and the incentives of the children's reading club, which (after the discovery of Nate the Great) finally interested my son in reading by offering crafts, prizes, fast food meals, and passes to such extravagant mansions as Blithewold in Bristol and The Breakers in Newport. (Talk about conspicuous consumption--as Mark Twain and Edith Wharton did!) That's America, with all its contradictions: more (offerings, solutions, problems), bigger (spaces, places, income gaps), richer (communities, organizations, elites). In spite of Greece's glorious beaches, clear waters, and breathtaking scenery, as well as the generosity, hospitality, openness, and friendship of Greeks, I wasn't ready to leave the USA.

Back to School Blues and the Modern Greek Tragedy

But we did leave. Welcome back to Greece, I thought, as we rode in a taxi amidst the suffocating fumes of uncontrolled vehicle exhaust at the end of the summer. Welcome back to Greece, I thought, as I struggled to re-acclimate to the intensely burning sun, the frequent barking of dogs tied up to act as alarm systems, and the intermittent strikes that  interrupt garbage pickup and close public services such as post offices, hospitals, and schools. Welcome back to the "Utter Confusion" a Greek journalist associated with Greece, and to its illogical public education system.

Now, the kids are more or less back in school. I think most of the high school teachers in our area ended their week or so of strikes a few weeks ago, although one local junior high school started full-time classes only in October (instead of mid September). Some Greek universities remain closed because their presidents (called rectors here) claim they don't have enough administrative staff to function now that the Greek government has allowed the Troika's insistence on transferring and firing civil servants to hit their campuses. By American standards, D's university is and was understaffed (if over-creatively designed, architecturally speaking), but some of the public universities in Greece boasted far more staff members, some of them unproductive and illegally hired by political patrons at taxpayer expense. I can see why such past mistakes need to be remedied, but it's not clear that the remedy, hurriedly applied to please the Troika, avoids disrupting necessary administrative functions performed by diligent staff members.

And I can't figure out why the Troika would insist on firing grade school teachers. This packs many elementary school kids into classes with 34 other children and reduces secondary school students' already dim hope of learning enough at crowded public schools to pass the demanding Panhellenic exams, an extremely stressful ordeal of six two to three hour exams taken over a two-week period that determines whether or not they attend a public university in Greece. I can't see why the Troika would increase the need for public school students to attend private "frontistiria" (costly after-school schools) or hire tutors to properly teach them the foreign languages, science, composition, and math they'll be expected to master. Since the government needs to save money, why don't they fire the civil servants who sit around smoking, drinking coffee, or chatting while lines lengthen in the post office or at City Hall, or those who receive a paycheck for a job they don't do, rather than the people who teach the youths of Greece? And why on earth don't they ask students to refrain from writing in their school books, so next year's students can use the same texts, they way we did in the U. S.? It's not like Greece has extra trees, extra paper, and extra money to spend on new books each year! Yes, Greece certainly needs to cut its budget, combat tax evasion and corruption, and reform its civil service system, but what bewilders many people here is that the government hurries so fast to give in to the Troika's demands that many of its "cost-saving" "reform" measures are illogical and ultimately costly because they disrupt society and destroy health and lives.

One Troika official claimed that they are "not blind," that they know that about 60% of Greek youths are unemployed. What are they, then, deaf to pleas to allow proper education of these young people? I realize they want to reduce public spending and strengthen banks and the economy, but the public education system was faulty enough without firing teachers and increasing class size. And what is the basis of a nation's economy, if not its people, who need a good, affordable education? I repeatedly demand of hapless middle-class parents why they continue to pay the thousands of euros required each year--even during this economic crisis--so they can drive their children to extra lessons to do extra work at extra schools, staying up late studying instead of enjoying the sports, dance, or music lessons most have to give up by high school, if not earlier. Families may give up expensive food and drink, new clothes and shoes, but many continue to pay frontistirio fees even now! I've asked so many times why Greek parents do not demand that the public schools do their job of educating the country's sons and daughters, rather than simply accepting the fact that they don't expect their children to learn enough in them. Greeks strike, occupy, and protest hundreds of times more often than Americans (or so it seems to me!), and teachers, students, and parents do call for better funding of better free education, but their protests, organized by political parties such as SYRIZA to shame the government, seem to me to most often highlight anger at particular changes in the laws, rather than emphasizing a serious demand to overhaul an unnecessarily ineffective, costly, wasteful public/private education system. Of course, under the reign of the Troika, they face an uphill battle against even one new law, so I suppose it's unreasonable to expect them to fight for more, but I’m bewildered by the acceptance implied by the ever so common phrase "ti na kanoume," what can we do? The answer is most often merely "ipomoni," patience.

I'm discussing the middle class here, whose parents expect their children to attend university and pay dearly to ensure that they do, but I wonder just how many intelligent lower-income students are shut out of Greece's public university system because their parents cannot afford frontistiria or tutoring for them. (Yes, there's universal free public primary and secondary education in Greece, but not enough to ensure the ability to continue into the free public universities, for which there is stiff competition!) Wealthier families often send their children to expensive private schools which offer better preparation for university entrance exams--or for studying abroad--and then supplement that schooling with private tutoring. But for the middle class, according to one Greek mother, frontistiria are in style, enabling families to keep up with the Joneses (or Yannis  and Maria's children), since one child must know as much English (math, science, composition) as the next child rather than being embarrassed or disadvantaged by falling behind. This Greek mother also believes nearly everyone in Greece, or her brother (sister, aunt, father), works for a frontistirio or tutors children, so that dismantling the current system would damage the national economy too seriously to be acceptable. It's true that Greece could hardly absorb another large group of unemployed individuals right now; nor is there money to employ these teachers in the public school system. An annoyed British mother here recommends closing the public schools, since kids don't learn there anyhow. Since no one expects students to learn much, many teachers apparently don't try too hard to teach. Other teachers--even very good, dedicated instructors--work with the justifiable expectation that most students are also learning part of each lesson at their frontistirio, so that the entire subject need not be covered in public school. In fact, in the last month before the Panhellenic exams, masses of students suddenly become too "sick" to attend their public schools, spending all their time studying for the more useful frontistirio lessons. There are too few vocational or technical schools below university level, so even many middle-class students who don't do especially well in school are pushed to struggle their way into universities.

I think many of the youths who spend at least their last year of high school studying intensely for long hours become too sick of this educational struggle to care to attend their university classes. Urged to excel in music, dance, or sports on ultra-competitive teams or with high-level exams or recitals in elementary and junior high school, and then to focus on intense study to learn an impressive amount at a very advanced level by the end of high school, middle- and upper-class Greek children are pushed to be highly educated, but they don't have much chance to be children who enjoy childhood. By the time they reach their university years, many tend to merely take the exams that are the sole requirement in most courses--and they may take them as many times as necessary to pass, as long as they finish in seven years (for a degree that should take five). Finally released from parental and social pressure to perform, university students begin to relax and enjoy themselves, partying, lounging at cafes, and driving drunk just as they should become serious about preparing for life and a career. I realize that this happens elsewhere, too, but it strikes me as a more widespread problem here, with a more obvious, ironic, and perhaps avoidable cause.

There are some encouraging signs that the situation may be starting to change, however, as more students attend classes during this economic crisis, especially following the recent reform that requires students to finish their studies within seven years. That reform led to great fury and many occupations of universities by a radical minority of students offended by the idea that they couldn't attend university indefinitely at taxpayers' expense. While it may be hard for some students who are earning enough for their room and board to finish on time, most are supported by their families, and many seem to simply feel entitled to fail exams as many times as they wish, without bothering to attend classes. As I understand it, a minority of students, some of them belligerent and violent in the face of disapproval of their disruptive protests, generally manages to control student meetings and votes on whether to occupy the university to protest any proposed changes, closing D's campus (for example) several times per year so professors can't teach and the students who wish to can't learn. In 2012, classes continued an extra month or so into the summer here to make up for time lost during occupations, scrambling summer plans for internships, research, or travel.

My children learn quite a lot at their public elementary school--for now, since their classmates attend frontistiria only for foreign languages so far, and their parents still expect public school teachers to teach the rest of the classes adequately. There are many excellent, hard-working teachers and professors as well as serious, talented, smart students at Greek schools and universities, and many students do manage to learn enough to excel in prestigious foreign graduate programs, so Greek public education works for some. But so much more is possible. Students, unite! Not to further curtail your education with more occupations and strikes--to expand your education with sensible demands and plans for a logically organized, truly free, well staffed, wisely utilized, efficient public education system that could realize the full potential of Greece's intelligent, talented population without the excessive financial and psychological demands on students and parents during secondary school years that reduce the quality of many a university education. Of course, I am well aware that sensible demands tend to lead to little action now, with deep divisions between political parties and few non-ideological efforts at logical compromise--so widely known an American problem these days that my kids' school principal asserts that I'm better off here in Greece, even if she can't tell me when Christmas vacation starts or when we'll have the additional teachers we need, even if there are no substitute teachers after kindergarten, so students simply miss their lessons if teachers are ill (on strike, at a meeting, etc.). It is always hard to agree about what is "sensible" or "logical." A common Greek response is to take to the streets in desperate attempts to attract the government's attention--or change the government--and no solution is in sight.

Here in Crete, we aren't as seriously affected by strikes and demonstrations as Athenians are. We have our share, but this term D's university stayed open except for a two-day occupation, and our children's elementary school teachers kept teaching all along, although some in the area went on strike for a day or two. In fact, once I'd given up on my son's school days lasting more than a meager 4 ¼ hours (that's through 2nd grade), our principal astonished me with an announcement on the first day of school, September 11: school days would be extended to last from 8:10 to 2:00, thanks to the EU program the Greeks call ESPA! I am less surprised that this hasn't happened yet, even in October; but the missing art, music, and theater teachers materialized last week, so school ended at 2:00 three out of five days this week. There's still no sign of the additional English and gym teachers needed to staff the extra classes, and they're still trying to finish the computer room this week, but we have had a computer teacher for a week or so, along with 10 or 12 computers that will eventually be shared during lessons. Every year, there's uncertainty about who will teach each elementary school class until the first day of school. Last year, there were many missing school books, and no English teacher at our school until November, with our usual, wonderful English teacher on maternity leave and some difficulty providing for all the far-flung islands of Greece. (And what an English teacher we ended up with! He could barely understand or respond when I slowly and clearly introduced myself!) But this year the Ministry of Education seems to be shuffling teachers in even more belated, wild confusion than usual as it tries to decide whom to fire. So we've had a gradual lengthening of our school day, which ended first at 12:25, then 1:15, playing havoc with working parents' schedules. We're luckier than some students in Chania, though, where school ended at 11:30 at least through late September because a building was not finished.

The most recent strikes and protests are understandable, if no more constructive than usual; the Troika demands more and more firings of public sector employees, and there are no jobs, social services, or insurance plans to help all the people who'll be sacked, or already have been. There is no money to replace their salaries, to pay their rent and bills, to buy their groceries, to pay for their medical care, to pay the higher and higher taxes demanded by the Troika and accepted by the Greek government. But the Troika isn't blind. They're just deaf to reason. Fire the civil servants, they say, fire them, and cut off their health insurance; reduce the salaries and pensions of the rest. They don't seem to hear that this means children go malnourished and undereducated, that the sick go without medicine. For the Troika, it seems that anything goes, as long as Greece can repay its creditors and strengthen its banks. The Troika is not blind, not to the numbers that look slightly better in terms of Greece's ability to repay its debt, even as the numbers of unemployed skyrocket beyond the latest statistic of 27.6 %, which counts part-timers as "employed" and drops the hopeless from the counts as the numbers of suicides climb. This helps to explain the increasing popularity, during the years of the economic crisis, of not only the relatively new opposition (SYRIZA, the Coalition of the Radical Left), but also the neo-fascist Golden Dawn, which entered parliament for the first time last year. Only the recent murder of a Greek man by a Golden Dawn member--not the hundreds of acts of intimidation, the many beatings, or the murders of immigrants allegedly carried out by people affiliated with this group--has finally led to a serious investigation of this political party as a possibly criminal organization, as well as belated arrests of prominent party members. (For more on this, see, for example, this brief overview of Golden's Dawn's role in Greek politics and society by a conservative/centrist Greek editor. Leftists criticize the government's delayed response to violence against immigrants in much stronger terms.) Increasing numbers of Greeks seem to agree with a slogan of KEERFA, the Movement United Against Racism and the Fascist Threat: "Each vote for Golden Dawn is a knife in Nazi hands." The Troika seems to be deaf to pleas to help desperate Greeks in order to stop them from turning to neo-fascists for the answers. We can only hope the government's crackdown on Golden Dawn opens people's eyes to the dangers of fascism, rather than creating a backlash of fascist sympathizers who believe Golden Dawn's hypocritical claims that they are being persecuted, rather than being the persecutors.

Natural Uplift: Awe-Inspiring Agios Pavlos

When we first returned to Greece at the end of August, jetlagged and kidlagged after a summer full of family time, D and I needed a vacation, a brief escape from the utter confusion of Greece's modern tragedy. Unlike many, we were fortunate enough to manage a few days in our favorite part of southern Crete, the Plakias area south of Rethymno. (See my October 25, 2012 blog for some photos from last year's trip there.) We enjoyed visiting favorite beaches and restaurants, plus one that was 1 hour and 20 minutes' drive farther east of where we stayed, taking the "good" roads vs. the treacherous, rutty gravel ones we got lost on last year. We'd made it to the top of the Agios Pavlos cliffs and sand dunes last year, but just at sunset, too late to descend to the beaches. We found closer parking this year, right above the dunes, instead of next to a café above another beach from which we needed to ascend many steps, traverse a wide open area, and climb up before heading down. This time, it was just a matter of carefully slide-walking down dunes several stories high--with a much harder climb up afterwards, obviously. Initially, it wasn't clear to me that last year's vantage point from on high didn't provide as spectacular a sunset view as one could find, with the sea extending out to the west and layers of hills and promontories fading off into the distance in varying tones of purple or orange and gray (as in my last two photos from last October's blog section, Exploring to the East: Toward Agios Pavlos on a Blustery Day). Down on the beach at sea level, the perspective looking inland to that hill of dunes rising close behind us was rather unsettling. But once I began exploring to the north, where boulders and cliffs hide caves accessible by wading or swimming around the rocks, I became enchanted. I love the cool, dark spaces of caves freshened by little waves washing up onto their minibeaches, rustling the tiny pebbles against each other. I love the frames provided by the black outlines of cave openings looking out toward spectacular views of the Libyan Sea at sunset. Cave walls, boulders, distant hills, sea, and sunset--what more could we ask for? Crystal-clear waters for viewing fish and the sea bottom, with or without masks--and we enjoyed that, too. Of course, we didn't manage to tear ourselves away from all that before dark, but fortunately D had come prepared with a strong flashlight and a head lamp for the challenging ascent. Life in Greece is no vacation, but vacation in Greece reminds me that there's hope for Greeks' life. Along with neighborly, sociable, kind, clever people, Greece has its glorious scenery and sea, and so do the people who live here--as I do. By no means will it feed or heal everyone, but it can both offer peace and attract the more tangible economic benefits of tourism, which continues to thrive into a warm October this year.


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