Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Syrians, September, and School in Crete, and the Contradictions of Athens in the Summer

Update on the Syrians in Chania

As I wrote in August, 153 Syrians who were fleeing the war were brought to Crete last spring when their boat began to sink on the way to Italy. About two thirds of these Syrians have left Crete. A number of them have gone to other European countries, such as Germany and Sweden, in some cases joining family members there, in other cases leaving family behind in Chania. One father has one daughter here with him, while his wife and two children are in Egypt, and three grown children and two grandchildren are in Duma, Syria—although he now believes that those in Syria were killed by the bombing there. Forty-five Syrians are still staying at the Elena Beach Hotel in Nea Chora, Chania--twelve families that include twenty children. The children are attending Greek public schools, thanks to some teachers affiliated with the teachers’ union and the social center and migrants’ hangout called Steki, although the children do not yet know much Greek. The Community Kitchen and churches provide some food, but the six Syrian fathers I spoke with on September 26 said they do not have enough. They ask for help to leave Greece and travel to a country with a well-developed, effective program to help refugees. They do not understand why the Greek government will not provide them with travel documents that allow them to leave Greece, since it appears to be unable to support the refugees that are already here. The Syrians seek a good, safe, healthy future for their children, including four year old Joad (pictured).

Perspectives and Privilege: Who Can Enjoy the View?

After my intense, moving discussion with the six  fathers from Syria, I admired a dazzling, cloudy evening sky and wondered whether the Syrians in Chania could appreciate it. In spite of their beachfront view, I’m not sure they could, given their worries about their children’s futures and their ten days in a small boat where all they could see was a rough sea and the sky. Since my children have plenty to eat and wear, safety, health, shelter, and the prospect of a good, solid (if not flawless) education, I have the peace and leisure to enjoy the view. I am disturbed by the situation the Syrians face, concerned about the unemployed, uninsured, hungry, and homeless people in Greece and elsewhere, and bewildered and horrified by the wars, epidemics, and famine that send refugees in search of a safe haven. But for now, at least, my own children are safe and well. I am not preoccupied with their welfare during every waking moment. Personally, I have only less essential things to complain about, so I can enjoy the natural beauty around me. Not everyone is so fortunate.

Earlier in September, the scent of jasmine and oleander occasionally displaced the smell of figs ripening in the morning sun. More recently, I smelled the sweetness of prickly pear fruits that had fallen onto the road. ‘Tis the season of figs, grapes, and pomegranates here, as well as apples and pears. On my neighborhood walks, I occasionally pluck a few of the black grapes that still hang tantalizingly on vines outside vacant houses, remove a fig or two from an overburdened tree, or pick a pomegranate in an undeveloped lot or an untenanted vacation home’s yard. I only take what I think might be left to rot, but I see evidence of poachers cooking goats over an open fire just outside our neighborhood. While I wonder what the shepherd thinks about his missing livestock, I also reflect on how much better it is to live in a semi-rural part of an island that overflows with natural abundance than in Athens or even parts of downtown Chania, where fewer people have the space for the orchards, olive groves, or gardens that so readily provide sustenance here.

Puppetry to Help the Hungry

Sustenance for some, that is; with Greece ranked last in the European Union in terms of social justice, according to a German foundation, it is hardly surprising that there are still many hungry people in Chania and throughout the country. The Community Kitchen feeds one or two hundred of them nightly, including some of the Syrians brought here last spring. (See my August blog entry for more on the Community Kitchen.) Their volunteers organized a benefit concert/puppet show one Sunday night in a Chania park, requesting donations of food and selling donated refreshments to support their good work. D and I took our children to see that Karagiozis show (traditional Greek puppet theater). As we arrived, volunteers were grilling souvlaki, collecting food for the soup kitchen, and organizing the refreshment tables. Rows of white plastic chairs had been set up facing a small live band and a large semi-transparent white screen in a larger frame, behind which puppeteers would work. Since the park was on a corner, fenceless and adjoining two fairly quiet streets, the public felt welcome to stroll over and take a look at the free performance. At one point I estimated that there were about 150 people present, including one or two dozen kids in the front and far more adults than the chairs could hold. And that was at 9:00 on a Sunday night in mid September, still early for Greece, with more people arriving as it got later and cooler. The Greek band warmed up and played, and the puppet theater started around 9. I took my kids some cake and kaltsounia (pies with greens and herbs) that I bought for one euro each. The volunteer selling the little pies was impressed that I kept returning for more of them for my children, who appreciate more than sweets and junk.   

Karagiozis theater is called shadow theater because that’s what it used to be, but now it doesn’t use shadows much; we see the colorful detail of the flat, jointed puppets as they’re manipulated behind a backlit semi-transparent screen. A well-known type of Greek folk art, Karagiozis shows feature characters from different regions of Greece, with puppeteers highlighting their accents and peculiarities and making fun of all of them, but doing so in an inclusive way, my friend Irini told me, which people tend to appreciate rather than resent. D said there were some jokes related to current political events, and such shows may include risqué comments that many Americans wouldn’t make in front of children, but there must have been child-friendly humor as well, because our kids were definitely amused. (The Greek was well beyond my vocabulary level; in any case, I was talking with people about the Syrians in Chania.) The kids protested my insistence that we leave when the band returned after the first Karagiozis act, but it was already 9:45 on a school night, and D wanted to get home for the soccer news.

Summer Weeks in Athens: Crisis and Contradiction

We went to a professional soccer game featuring D’s favorite Olympiacos team during our August trip to see friends and family in Pireaus and Athens. It was only a “friendly” game, so the kids were in no danger from the hooligans. However, I was repeatedly reminded that Athens is not all fun and games. Back at a tourist shop in Chania’s Old Port, I’d noticed a black T shirt imprinted with the heading “Greek crisis.” Below that, boxes were checked off next to each of these phrases: no job, no money, no problem. I’m not surprised that shopkeepers catering to tourists want to encourage them to make light of the situation, as if to suggest that the “what, me worry?” mentality is typically Greek. But it’s not that simple for those who have really been hit hardest by the economic crisis—the majority who have lost an average of almost 24% of their wages since 2010, the 27% who are unemployed, the six in ten Greeks who are “living in or at risk of poverty.” 

For example, I talked with a 60-year-old Greek man I’ll call Yorgos who had expected to retire from his physically demanding work on commercial ships by now. However, due to the government’s new policies, he must try to find work for another two years before retiring. At his age, with the economy leaving the Greek shipping industry in turmoil as workers struggle to collect their salaries, Yorgos cannot find much work. Since very few of the long-term unemployed in Greece receive unemployment benefits or health insurance, this leaves him and his family uninsured as well as struggling to pay bills. Yorgos says he has never seen Greece like this, with homeless people sleeping outside and citizens stopped by security personnel for being unable to afford bus and metro tickets to get around. He sees none of the economic improvement the Greek government boasts about and seems to expect major social and political upheaval this fall. He has great respect for Barack Obama, who he believes is far more concerned about, and helpful to, ordinary people than current Greek leaders. He says if he were American, he’d have voted for Obama, but here he has no one to vote for.

In Piraeus, a well-known small family business was another victim of the Greek economic crisis. It was the end of an era for Pantos Zacharoplasteio (Confectionery), which closed down after sixty-four years. The family patriarch had started out as a poor, hungry Greek-Albanian boy who was found on a street corner and taken in by a sympathetic confectionery owner who employed him as a dishwasher and gradually taught him all about the business. Grown up, that boy started his own confectionery with a single room and some tables on a sidewalk, eventually upgrading to a larger store. His son later remodeled it into the nicest, busiest sweet shop in the neighborhood, where the second generation would greet us as we walked by during our semi-annual visits, commenting on how much our children had grown. Some time ago, the grandson took over the shop, but then competition moved into the neighborhood, and the economic crisis moved into the country, so people could afford fewer luxuries, and business decreased. Finally, the grandson got a job with an insurance company and closed down the confectionery. His father, devastated by that sad end to the family saga, has seldom been seen in the neighborhood since then. He said the shop never would have been closed if his father had been alive. And my kids lament the loss of that source of ice cream, chocolate creations, Greek sweets, and cakes every time we walk by it. Rumor has it someone else will open a confectionery there, but it won’t change the conclusion of the story: rags to (almost) riches to crisis-driven closure.

One evening we met D's sister and her family in the partly lovely but largely run-down park of Pedion Areos in downtown Athens, another place that has seen better days. Its costly 2008-2010 renovation showed in the state of the large, gorgeous trees and oleander bushes, some of them forming arches above the walkways. But some play equipment off to one side had been mostly destroyed, garbage was generously strewn about, and a potentially wonderful playground was supposedly closed, no doubt due to the piles of cut-up tree branches and the dangerous holes in some of the play equipment. Supposedly closed, I say, because parents like us weren’t about to let locked gates disappoint their children once they’d come that far for fun, and someone had discovered a point where it wasn’t too hard to climb in. A mixed group of immigrants and Greeks had already managed to enter. Outside the playground, along a main promenade near one of the park entrances, extremely thin men and women with multiple tattoos and piercings viewed our stroll with apathy or antipathy as they shared cigarettes or something stronger. Some of them drank and washed at a cut-off hose that drained water into a muddy puddle. On the far side of the park, a café served expensive desserts, drinks, and snacks, and kids played soccer in an open area in front of a courthouse.   

That's Athens for you—a mix of mixes. I like its dirtiness and ugliness, poverty and expense, pollution and garbage, less and less all the time. But I do appreciate its multiculturalism, public transport, shopping bargains, archeological sites, cultural attractions, coastal walks, and sea views. Inside the city, there’s the magnificent Acropolis Museum (which was literally mobbed on the August full moon night when entrance was free); outside the city there’s the peaceful countryside around Marathon Dam. I like Athens for the intriguing places to go, the friends and family to see, but as a place to live it strikes me as too expensive, dirty, dangerous, and difficult. It’s fine for the rich and leisured who can afford to sample its many cultural, culinary, historical, athletic, and material riches; it’s wonderful for visitors who can do the same. But if I lived there for more than the year I did in 1991-92—when I stood out as a blond foreigner as I no longer do--I think I’d feel that it offers more struggles than rewards. Of course, many still like it and speak of it fondly—especially from afar, or from a wealthy neighborhood.

Or from the perspective of a pleasant day. One afternoon in Athens, when I had entered the stations just in time to catch my trains, so I could finish my solitary shopping without delay, I found myself with a rare bit of time on my hands—and only my hands, not my family’s. I decided to wander around the ancient Agora (Marketplace) beneath the Acropolis, since I was in the neighborhood. I do not remember having another leisurely walk around an archaeological site in such a peaceful silence in the last decade; I've grown used to complaints or arguments about where to go, how fast, for how long, that reflect  childish, conflicting preferences. I actually forgot, for a few minutes, that I wasn’t one of the twenty-something women walking around with no thoughts of children waiting for me at their grandmother’s, as I had been decades ago. Some of the young people (from various parts of the world, based on the number of languages I heard) looked hot, tired, and somewhat bored, but I didn’t feel that way myself. I felt no obligation to study sculptures or read signs that didn’t strike my fancy, since I’d been there before and expected to return. Rather, I decided to take a quick look in the museum, focus on the intriguing perspective of the colonnades in the beautifully reconstructed Stoa of Attalos, and take a stroll around the site. I spent most of my time admiring the impressive columns of the largely intact Temple of Hephaestus (or Temple of Theseus). I always strive for a glimpse of that temple when I’m on the train that passes below it, but the perspective through its immense columns is truly awesome up on that hill, with its view of the Agora spread out below it and the Acropolis standing above it.

Back to School: Missing Teachers, Missing Money, Some Solutions

Back in Crete a month later, school started, more or less, on 9/11. Initially, we were still missing three hundred grade school teachers in Chania, so my kids’ school day was four and a quarter hours long. Just like last September. And part of last October. The Greek government doesn’t have enough money (thanks to its arrangements with the Troika) to pay enough teachers and was awaiting funding from a European fund known here as ESPA. Why is it not possible to work that out over the summer? That would be too logical. After all, this is the country where high school graduates don’t learn which tertiary schools they are eligible to enter until the end of August, just before they must scramble to make arrangements to start classes, whether or not they need to move to a different part of the country (which most families struggle to afford now). This is the country where the education ministry asked a university council to provide their 2014-2015 budget within one day in midsummer, including a 15% budget cut plus a 9% surplus during the academic year for a total of a 24% cut. They had not been told earlier that they needed to find that much in savings, but they were supposed to figure it out in one day. Right. That would make the current budget (not including salaries) 70% lower than in 2008, although they expected approximately 40% more students at the university than they'd had six years ago! Do the government and the Troika really believe a budget can be cut that much without compromising the university’s ability to educate its students?

Looking on the bright side: I was in for a pleasant surprise at our elementary school. Things got straightened out with the teachers much faster than last year, and our children’s school days lengthened to almost six hours after just two weeks. Not bad, considering. Now if I can only remember that I need to turn on the hot water heater if I want a hot shower, since the solar panels that heat our bathwater just fine all summer need some help now that the cool, windy weather and clouds of fall have suddenly struck us, right on time for the change to our season of glorious skyscapes.

Acknowledgments and a note:

Many thanks to the Syrians who took the time to speak with me about their experiences last week in Chania, and to the volunteers at Steki who answered my questions. I have a great deal more to say about the Syrians in Chania, but since I am trying to publish some of that where more people can see it, and duplicate publications are often not appreciated, I will not add more to this blog just yet. If you notice discrepancies in the numbers of Syrians discussed here or elsewhere, I have, too. Different sources mention different numbers; even the same person may give a different number on a different day. But they are approximately correct.

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