Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thanksgiving in Greece: Gratitude, Frustrations, and the Rebirth of a Cretan Autumn

Thanksgiving is not, of course, a holiday in Greece. The Greeks who have heard of it refer to it with the Greek for "Day of Thanks" when I remind them. It's hard to find turkey, which Greeks tend to eat only at Christmas or New Year's, and I've never seen fresh cranberries here at all. Last year, I found a frozen turkey at one supermarket. Another year, we just had chicken. This year, we tracked down turkey breast fillets and large drumsticks still attached to the thighs--which worked out fine once I figured out how long to bake them. I also made an apple pie with olive oil crust. In any case, Thanksgiving in Greece feels nothing like the big holiday of my American childhood, with family and almost-family gathered for our traditional meal, complete with stuffing, mashed potatoes, fresh cranberry sauce, fruit pies, and either Frisbee football games or ice skating, depending on how the weather was in southeastern Pennsylvania at the time. (Or maybe the skating was at Christmas.) My nostalgia is stronger than ever this year, perhaps because I can't even talk with my mother. And the run-up to the Greek holiday season, with its profusion of common (Orthodox saints') name days (Maria, Katerina, Stelios, Nikos, Anna, etc.) all the way up to Christmas and beyond leaves me dissatisfied, on the fringes of this culture's celebrations rather than embraced by the comforts of my own quirky family traditions. My attempts to introduce those in my home here are hampered by time constraints, kids' demands, travel plans, and sometimes a lack of energy born of homesickness and grief.

I am thankful, though, that we don't live in Athens, but in the tourist country of Crete, where the recession has led to only a 14% reduction in business income, as opposed to the average 29% reduction in Greece as a whole, according to local economists, and the effects of the economic crisis are also milder than in many parts of Greece. The increase in crimes of hate and desperation, in impoverishment and despair, in hunger and suicide, are not as obvious here, although they certainly exist. (So the Roma family who set up a supper camp in a city parking lot, cooking a pot of food on a makeshift stove while the mother combed the daughter's hair, was not asked to give up their parking spaces, at least while I was nearby.) I am thankful that we don't live in any of the five towns in northern Greece where schools were closed last week due to the cold, since there was no money to pay for heating oil for them until the Interior Ministry decreed that emergency funding be provided. (We have not yet turned on our heat this year; I am thankful that we can wait even longer than many Cretans, since the apartment above us insulates our home.) I am thankful that our teachers, professors, and administrative staff have left most of the schools open most of the time this fall, unlike those in many parts of Greece (including some major universities, where the fall semester still has not started--and may or may not be starting next week). I am thankful that I'm not stuck in the middle of, or struggling to escape, the Syrian civil war or the post-typhoon destruction in the Philippines, that I'm not floundering in Mediterranean waters after smugglers took all I had in exchange for a sardine's spot on a small, overloaded boat of refugees who may or not make it to the promised land of Europe. I am thankful that my husband, children, and I are healthy enough that we don't generally need to spend hundreds of euros on doctor visits and medications no longer covered by our insurance, and that we don't have to struggle with public transport, pharmacy, and (right now) doctors' strikes as often as my mother in law in Athens. I am thankful that cloudy days often produce truly awe-inspiring skies, and that I have friends and family who care about me in many parts of the world--even if so many of them are way over on the other side of the ocean.

I am thankful that we haven't suffered the months of administrative staff strikes in Chania that have prevented thousands of university students elsewhere from starting their school year (and delayed doctoral candidates' defenses by two months) due to protests against the Troika's insistence on transferring and firing thousands of civil servants. Chania has not even seen as many grade school strikes as Athens. But I wish my kids had more school. School closes for teachers' meetings and minor holidays, and it often lasts only two hours on the day before the minor holidays! Why can't I remember that most holidays are preceded by holidays like that? It always takes me by surprise, how little school these kids have…. For a month or two each fall, there is an average of only four school days each week.

My son's teacher was absent the other day, so as usual he and his classmates were farmed out to other teachers, randomly divided among the grades at his school to draw or whisper during other students' lessons for five hours. It's far too much to ask for a substitute teacher if the regular teacher will be absent for only a day or two or three. One woman whose grandson was crying about the situation thought she'd better take him back home with her, but the principal said no. I asked the principal if the kids couldn't at least have English, computer, and art classes with the teachers who were there to teach them, but that turned out to be too much to ask, as well--something to do with the fact that our school doesn't have enough teachers, and the ones we have are doing unpaid overtime work from which they need to be relieved (by English, computer, and art teachers who'd normally be teaching my son, apparently). We haven't had a regular substitute teacher since kindergarten, so that's normal for us, but I thought we might manage a few lessons now that there are teachers for them.

I'm not surprised that we still (at the end of November) don't have all the teachers required to stretch the school day all the way to 2:00 on Thursdays and Fridays (though  we have enough for Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday). The principal thinks we may get them within a few weeks, though--maybe before Christmas! Yesterday, an English teacher from way up at the farthest edge of Greece, on the NE border with Turkey, called the principal to say she'd just been assigned to our school but had no place to stay all the way down here! Our principal begged her to come immediately. Another gym teacher is probably on the way as well; I hope this one will teach the girls instead of just letting them do what they want while the boys, my daughter, and one other girl play soccer. Although we didn't have an English teacher at our school last year until November (and the principal refused my offer to help, since I'm not officially certified to teach Greek elementary children), the mess is even worse than usual this year, probably thanks to the Troika's pressure. The principal says part of the problem is that the Ministry of the Economy only sends funding to the Education Ministry every two months. Some teachers from northern Greece were assigned to teach way down in Crete back in September, but they refused, since a beginning teacher's salary of about 600 euros a month does not cover the cost of the move, the uprooting, and the rental of a home away from home if the teacher is a parent with children. With that refusal, those teachers risked the loss of work for at least a year, and maybe more. Yet no one else was assigned to our school, since there wouldn't be money to pay them for two months! Now, we finally hear of new assignments. And teachers who are not parents are now accepting them, however far they must go, however fast they must decide (in one day!), because they fear that they'll be fired outright if they refuse (in spite of a need for teachers!), thanks to the Troika's pressure. They feel that they must accept this highly inconvenient teaching assignment, which may well require them to drive between several schools. We will have four English teachers who drive around, rather than two who stay put and don't waste time, energy, and gas, some of them from the far ends of Greece! There is no logic here.

Being more logical that the Greek sociopolitical system, I generally take my daily walks in and around our neighborhood to avoid wasting time and gas. Swerving between the goat droppings and dog dirt, the deep ruts in dirt roads, and the irregular rocks jutting out of them, I can't always gaze at the sea or the olive trees, even on the paved roads; there are very few places I can walk without encountering stray or unleashed dogs, as well as dozens of stray cats. The cats only bother me if they make too much noise at night or spray our screens and windows; I assume they keep the rodent population down, and the kids and I love to see the kittens. On the other hand, some of the dogs have become a problem, and there are more of them around here all the time. I spotted an unleashed pit bull earlier in the fall, and three neighbors have been bitten in the last year. I assume the growing number of dogs is partly explained by a growing fear of crime, since dogs are used as cheap, neglected security systems tied up to bark outside, or left to roam around at will. (Where I used to see two dogs tied up in an olive grove just outside our neighborhood--to guard the olives? Or maybe a few chickens there?--I recently saw five large, wildly barking dogs. I wonder how often they are given food and water, let alone any attention.) Perhaps since our neighborhood is on the edge of an undeveloped area, with various empty lots between houses, thoughtless (and perhaps impoverished) people drop off puppies and adult dogs here, adding to our growing population of fertile strays. A darling little puppy followed me home the other month, yipping softly when it started to fall behind; trying to return it to its owner (back where I first saw it), I learned that it had been abandoned, along with a sibling and its mother, the day before. A soft-hearted neighbor set up the dog family in the fenced-in playground, right behind the "dogs are forbidden" sign, which seemed all right to the kids who loved to play with the cute, friendly puppies, and to me as well until my son came home all flea-bitten. Fortunately, some neighbors have adopted at least two of the dogs; the third is rumored to have been hit by a car, which is not surprising, since it joined many dogs in habitually lying in the middle of the road.

In mid November we finally brought down the area rugs we'd stored away for the summer and started to wear long-sleeved shirts on cooler days. After just a few earlier showers, our first sustained period of rainy weather since last spring came in the middle of the month. Now the summer drought is firmly behind us, and our humid, rainy season has begun, bringing out inch-long black beetles that scurry across the road as cats search for dry hiding places. One recent radiant morning, the sun was shining on the olive trees that swayed in the wind, and the blue sky was decorated with picturesquely puffy gray and white clouds. Another day, scattered clouds produced the illusion of dimensions in the vastness of a sky that practically surrounds me on a wild Greek hillside as it never could in the forested or heavily inhabited eastern U. S. I am invigorated by such glorious days between the drab and rainy ones. November brings to mind rebirth in Crete even more than springtime does, as migratory birds flit between bushes, startled by the sound of my feet as I walk by, or rise in unified flocks to shift in formation, and the wild hills just beyond our neighborhood begin to lose their summer brown and turn green and lavender. Both the delicate grass of a manicured American spring lawn and a tougher, coarser wild grass are sprouting up after the rains, between strange plants that I've only seen in Crete, some with flower-like, slightly pulpy leaves appearing among dry brown stalks. Skeletons of sharply pointed brown thistle plants poke me as I examine a sprouting perennial on a dirt road; some wild bushes still retain gray-brown, thorny stems, while others sport new green leaves of various shapes and textures or clusters of tiny, round lavender blossoms. 

Walking past separated parts of what might be a dog's jaw bones on a rocky, rutted, dead end dirt path leading to thorny wild shrubs, a tall, rusting fence on one side and a stinky boneyard (from hunters' kills?) on the other, I was reminded of Greece and its present and future, with the government evicting public broadcasting staff who tried to carry on after being fired, neo-fascist Golden Dawn continuing to be the third most popular political party even after some of its members were charged with crimes, including murder. Pushed to excel against illogical odds, Greek scholars and athletes win international honors; Greek antiquities, seascapes, and clear waters attract millions of tourists each year. The talent, drive, beauty, and capability are here, but will Greek politicians and world leaders open a clear road to a logical, bearable future, or keep Greeks fenced in and injured by the dead-end policies that lead to increasing prices, outrageous bureaucracy, and excessive taxation in the face of decreasing benefits, salaries, hope, and opportunity? Near the little boneyard, bare patches of dirt and rock are gradually ceding the way to new grass and delicate white flowers barely larger than my thumbnail. Moss is beginning to coat the hardest packed mud on the road. Can such delicate organisms survive in the face of strong winter rains and winds? The Greek political, social, and economic climate is milder than that of many a war-torn, poverty-ridden nation, and Greeks have proven themselves hardy survivors, so I'll try to let myself feel encouraged by nature's autumn rebirth, even though there's no sign of political improvement, and rumors of economic betterment have not yet touched most ordinary Greeks' lives.


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