Thursday, March 27, 2014

Another Winter of Our Discontent—With the Floral Glories of a Cretan Spring

The Numbers Game: Most Greeks Are Still Losing
We hear reports of some encouraging numbers related to the Greek economy, such as last year’s primary surplus (not including the debt, of course), this year’s tourism statistics to date, and now a current account surplus. However, the reasons for the latter are not encouraging, since it’s partly that Greeks can’t afford imports any more—they’re down 54 percent compared to 2008!--and partly that prices and wages have been cut so much that Greece has become quite attractive to foreign tourists (Tourism boom drives Greece to first current account surplus on record). With the Greek economy highly dependent on tourism (for more than 16% of the GDP; see Island Hopping), the economy clearly benefits, but meanwhile most Greeks are suffering. The Press Project reports that according to Efimerida ton Sintakton, “[t]he workforce in Greece shed 1/4th of their income in just three years. Salaries went back to 2006 levels.” Even the conservative/centrist Kathemerini admits that while Greece’s credit rating is improving, unemployment increased “[f]rom 7.2 percent before the recession in 2008 … [to] 27 percent in the third quarter of 2013 [and 27.5% in the fourth quarter], giving Greece the worst job rating among the 34 advanced economies in the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.” And not only that: “More than 70 percent of the unemployed have been out of work for more than a year, leaving most to rely on charity after losing monthly benefit payments and health insurance.” The leader of the Athens Medical Association estimates that about one quarter of the people who need health insurance lack it (Greece: Numbers improve, problems worsen in 2014). That means they can’t afford to pay for preventive or basic health care. The law only requires that they be given free emergency care until their life is out of danger, and they may even have charges for emergency care added to tax bills (Metropolitan Community Clinic at Elliniko in Athens provides a lifeline for desperate Greeks). Unemployed Greeks did not lose health insurance so quickly in the past. The financial crisis, and the Troika's and government's decisions about how to handle it, harm the health of people in Greece. For example, researchers have presented evidence of “rising rates of HIV, tuberculosis, depression and even infant deaths” (Greek financial crisis tied to worsening health).

At the same time, half of all “small and medium-sized Greek enterprises [are] facing the threat of closure within 2014, while for very small businesses the risk concerns two out of three,” and this is on top of the 200,000 businesses that have already closed since 2009 (One in two SMEs at risk of closure). Kathemerini has also reported that industrial production has decreased about 30% from its pre-recession high point, 40% of households include someone who is unemployed, most of those receive no unemployment benefits, and almost all households have lost much of their income during the last three years, with the average reduction nearly 40%. So it is hardly surprising that Greeks have not paid over 9 billion euros’ worth of the vastly increased taxes they were asked to pay last year. I do, however, find it surprising that the troika recently “asked Greece to lower wages for new civil servants and to remove automatic pay rises for Greeks earning the minimum wage in the private sector” (Troika pushing for lower salaries). Greece already has far lower minimum and average salaries than Spain, France, or the UK to go with notably higher taxes on food “and other basic goods” (Prices lower, but households still struggling). More people are starting to acknowledge that the troika’s ideas weren’t so good for Greece. For example, “[m]embers of a European Parliament committee investigating the role of the troika and the impact of its policies in Greece … said the troika had been ‘necessary and right’ for Greece at the outset but that ‘irresponsible decisions’ were taken in the process with painful social repercussions” (MEPs herald end to troika, look to debt restructuring). And yet it’s not clear that such decisions will be reversed, rather than having more problematic changes heaped on top of them.

For a neighbor who is a social worker at the state unemployment office, those “painful social repercussions” are as evident as they are to the unemployed people to whom she must apologize day after day because she has no jobs for them. There are still many empty storefronts and unbought houses around Chania. Real estate prices are down 32% to 50% in Greece, but the houses that are large enough for my family, by middle-class American standards, are still too expensive for people living on a Greek salary, since (especially on the islands) their owners tend to rent or sell them to wealthier foreigners who bring money from outside the country. Greece is a great place for foreigners to invest in real estate right now, and the government is encouraging that with offers of residence permits to those who buy properties worth 250,000 euros or more, but this makes it even more difficult for Greeks to buy homes, given lower salaries and higher taxes. Yes, this can bring much-needed money into the country’s economy, but many Greeks regret that so much of their country—including public properties and state-run businesses--is being sold off to the highest bidder. I keep asking how the troika and the Greek government expect people to pay higher taxes while buying more expensive gas and heating oil with fewer jobs, lower wages, and fewer benefits (hence, higher medical costs), but the answer seems to be that they just don’t think about it enough to realize that it may work for the rich, but not for average people. Everyone here is sick and tired (often quite literally) of all the unreasonable demands for “sacrifices” from wealthy politicians perceived as unlikely to make any themselves.  

Dying Appliances and Crashing Cars

Meanwhile, we can’t buy products that last, so we have to keep spending more to replace them—“we” being the lucky ones who can afford to do so. I cannot remember a new refrigerator, washing machine, dryer, faucet, or dishwasher appearing in our house during the 18 years I was growing up in the U. S., but we had to replace all of these, plus a computer and oh so many plumbing parts, in a decade here in Crete. When we complain, the salespeople and plumbers join us in regretting that appliances and plumbing fixtures just aren’t made to last any more. The 1970s era dinosaur of a TV that we got from D’s parents, on the other hand, lived all the way through last year. We’ll see how long its flimsy little replacement holds out. 

Nor are cars expected to endure. We’ve managed to hang onto ours, but the repair people know us well, since strangers keep running into our car: once while parked outside the village butcher’s, once at a stop sign across the street from that, once on a busy street in Chania, once in the botanical park parking lot. The other week, when I came out of my kung fu class (in Greek, Chinese, and English, with a teacher whose parents came from Russia), I almost stepped on the driver’s side mirror of my car, which a reckless driver had knocked right off, into the wide road. Result: more time and money wasted thanks to hit and run carelessness which our insurance does not cover. The only time I was (perhaps) at fault was when a motorcycle was coming at me right on the center line of a busy city street, and another driver was trying to parallel park on my right; I slightly scraped the parking car as I swerved in a slight panic to avoid the motorcyclist (who naturally continued on his merry way). That’s six minor collisions in eleven years in Greece, vs. one little dent in nearly two decades of driving in North America. 

And it’s so ironic: Greeks are all required to complete driving lessons before getting their license, while Americans aren’t. A lot of good it does. Partly because the roads are too narrow, the parking lots too small and too rare, the drivers too little concerned about inconveniencing anyone else by stopping and parking as they wish, partly because many people drink and drive drunk, and partly, I think, because there’s no visible police presence (at least in our part of Crete) during the course of an ordinary day or night (unless there’s a protest march). Earlier this month, I was struck by the additional irony of a car parked right in front of someone’s garage (in spite of its no parking sign) just outside a private school (frontistirio), and next to graffiti proclaiming “the only school is the street,” followed by an anarchy sign. In the streets, drivers quickly learn that speed limits are merely suggestions, double lines on roads serve as an extra lane for motorcyclists rather than an indication of a no passing zone, stops are optional at a red light or stop sign (especially for motorcycles), and helmets may be worn (if at all) on elbows instead of heads. (Quite a contrast with southern Delaware, where 25 mph means exactly 25 mph, or you’ve got an expensive ticket, and we were pulled over because the light above our license plate had burned out.) We have been extremely lucky: no one was hurt in any of our relatively light collisions, and the damage, while adequately troublesome and expensive, was not truly serious. On the other hand, there have been terrible collisions in our community, with at least two university students--one from our neighborhood--killed in motorcycle accidents in the past year. I’m surprised more people aren’t seriously injured and killed in collisions here. 

Everyday Life and Carnival Parties

For most of us, life goes on. People work, shop, protest, socialize, fish, attend classes, gather for holiday meals, and go on strike (especially if they’re pharmacists). People see doctors if they can afford them, manage to get appointments with those who still accept their insurance, or have time to wait for the very busy free ones; they sign petitions for more free doctors, protest plans to dispose of chemical weapons in the Mediterranean Sea, discuss the politics of the current government in Kiev, or look for bargains at the farmer’s market near the huge hotel that’s being demolished since it was illegally built next to historic Venetian walls in the Old Town of Chania. 

I haven’t heard anyone expressing concern about the waste of a perfectly good building due to the corruption that allowed it to be built in an inappropriate place. And I still seem to be almost the only person complaining that many, many middle-class families spend 1,000 euros every two months for two children’s private evening schools to supplement public schooling in the mornings that no one expects to provide them with an education adequate for entry into a Greek university. But maybe everyone else focuses on the Greek economy’s inability to support thousands and thousands of unemployed private school teachers in the unlikely event of public education being improved enough to make supplementary lessons unnecessary.

There was no parade in our village for the pre-Lenten carnival this year (probably because gas is far too expensive, at about 1.70 euros per liter, which is about ¼ of a gallon), but neighborhood groups organized a party at the town hall, and our very active school parents’ organization planned another one at a restaurant that donated its space. The latter featured the usual crowds of parents sitting at tables, the expected rumba dancing exhibition, and the typical extensive potluck buffet with homemade cheese pies, cakes, pizza, cookies, popcorn, and (this time) even meat. This year, the smallest boys dressed as little animals, with Spider Men at the next level, followed by camouflaged soldiers, Ninjas and pirates, with older boys typically bums or uncostumed (and it wasn’t always clear which was which). Girls’ costumes ranged from tiny princesses in frilly, full pink skirts and lovely little ladies in the red and black of Spanish dancers, to a slightly older cross-dressed Charlie Chaplin and a pirate, with more vampires in black than I’ve noticed before. Mothers painted animal faces while teachers led younger children in indoor games and dances, and older kids stood, walked, or frolicked below the giant eucalyptus trees outside, with a view of Souda Bay and the White Mountains in the background. 

Winter Into Spring: Water, Verdure, and Wildflowers

Winter came to Crete in the second week of March, which was much colder than February and even most of January. In February, my kids had rejected winter coats in favor of light jackets, but I insisted that they bundle up again for a week of cold northerly March winds that brought rain squalls and re-coated the barely white-topped White Mountains with more snow (which I hoped we could reach by car--but it wasn’t that far down). This year, we almost skipped winter (and the northeastern and midwestern U. S. seem to have received our share of frigidity on top of an extra dose of theirs). 

Ever since the rainy, humid season began around November, it’s been more like spring, with green grass and wood sorrel carpeting the olive groves and fields, and flowers blooming even earlier than usual. There was sometimes so much early morning humidity that the cars were as wet as if rain had just stopped, so I enjoyed some magical, misty mornings full of flowers and grasses lined with dewdrops. Now our spring has definitely returned, with a strong sun making the mid-60s feel much warmer. The lemon trees are loaded with so many ripe fruits that the neighbors can’t give them all away, and the Cretan oranges may have passed the peak of their sweetness since a colleague gave D a juicy bunch from his orchard a few weeks ago.
I was astonished to see wild carrot, which we called Queen Anne’s Lace in the Pennsylvania summers of my childhood, as early as January this year. The (mostly) purple and (occasionally) pink poppy anemones also began to appear in January, along with millions of bright yellow Bermuda buttercups (or wood sorrel). I could not believe how many anemones I encountered in a nearby meadow and adjoining olive grove this year—more than ever. They were first replaced by the most beautiful, plentiful crop of wild fuschia-colored butterfly orchids that I’d ever seen, and then by surprising numbers of the little ophrys plants (strange orchids) that always astonish me with their bizarre shape and insect-mimicking patterns. Butterflies land on the flowers, buzzing bees compete to touch them, and I hear the songbirds more often than I can see them pausing on branches. I noticed the first field of daisies in bloom last week, and we occasionally glimpse the brilliant red of poppies. Roadsides are also lined with the purple of mallow, the white of asphodel, the yellow of wood sorrel, mustard, and a Cretan version of the dandelion, as well as the imposing green and yellow of the bizarre giant fennel plants which tower above the shrubs like little trees, now decorated with lacy yellow balls and feathery green skirts, and even weirder before they bloomed. 

We have such different flowers and plants here than in the northeastern U. S.—or anywhere I’ve
been in North America, as far as I’ve noticed. Just a few examples whose names are also intriguing: phlomis or Jerusalem sage, French lavender, goat’s beard, spiny broom and Spanish broom, white mignonette, and white and pink cistus (the latter, with its crepe-paper-like blooms resembling wild roses, is also called a “rock rose”). I counted 42 different species blooming recently, just in and beyond my neighborhood here outside Chania—and I’m sure I’ve seen more species than that blooming in our area in recent weeks, since I collected 21 different species in one bouquet (picking only the most common flowers!) and keep noticing new flowers in bloom, including different types of orchids which I’d never seen before. I get so distracted by counting, picking, and photographing wildflowers that I forget I’m supposed to be walking briskly to exercise. I’m so addicted to wildflowers that there are generally two or three bouquets in our kitchen—sometimes four. Fortunately, given the state of the Greek economy and healthcare system, this is an inexpensive and relatively harmless addiction.  

Ancient Aptera
Impressed by all the roadside wildflowers he saw on his way back to Chania from Iraklio, D suggested we venture out of town in search of fields of wildflowers one weekend. (I told him we could find some just outside our neighborhood, but he was looking for more of an escape.) We chose the closest interesting candidate, the ancient city of Aptera, which is just 10 or 15 minutes’ drive beyond the port of Souda. In spite of its proximity, we hadn’t been there for years, and all I remembered were the striking Roman cisterns in a vast arched building; I’d totally forgotten about the 12th century monastery, the Roman bath, the remnants of a 5th century B. C. temple, or the 19th century Turkish fortress nearby (which was locked this time). Excavation of an ancient amphitheater seems to be continuing, with the site unfortunately fenced off, but photos in a little monastery museum room suggest that it will be well worth a visit when it’s opened to the public. D was concerned that the expanse of tall grasses and wildflowers might house snakes, so we decided not to lead the kids back to all the remnants of ancient buildings. But we felt amply rewarded for our little journey by the immense arched cistern with reflections of its stone walls in the still, muddy water, and outside it, the unfamiliar wildflowers and grassy meadows on gentle slopes punctuated by ancient rock walls, with olive groves and tough shrubs farther down, and beyond those Souda Bay, with the White Mountains behind us. I discovered four or five species of wildflowers on that high plateau which I had never seen, including yellow pheasant’s eye and wild clary. Spring comes early to Crete, and now it should be here to stay!


Although I took the photos that appear on this blog, I am grateful to Vangelis Papiomitoglou (author, photographer) and Jill Pittinger (translator) for their work on the lovely book Wild flowers of Crete (Mediterraneo, 2006), which I purchased at the wonderful Botanical Park of Crete last year and used to identify wildflowers this year.

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