Sunday, November 30, 2014

Autumn Events in My Cretan Neighborhood, Chania, and Greece

Life, Rescue, and Death in Our Neighborhood

Autumn Showers Bring Autumn Flowers, Lavender, Yellow, and Green

Our wet season has transformed the dry summer landscape of Crete, bringing out some of the greenery I used to see during Pennsylvania summers (carpets of grass, undulations of sorrel, bits of moss), although it often appears in olive groves here. The summer’s gray brown branches on wild hillsides are being replaced by new leaves of thyme, oregano, and other shrubs, mastic bushes full of red and black berries, autumn heather’s clusters of miniscule bell-shaped lavender blossoms, yellow wildflowers that resemble dandelions and buttercups, a few delicate little white flowers with six slender, pointy petals, and early miniature daisies. It all gets covered with so much morning dew that it’s sometimes hard to tell which nights it has rained, and which it hasn’t, although that’s not a problem when serious downpours turn our hilly, gutterless rural and village roads into rivers. With temperatures fluctuating between occasional dips into the 40s Fahrenheit at night (which feel very cold) and highs in the 70s on our warmer days, we got out winter rugs and coats but still keep some short sleeves handy.


Rescuing Kittens from a Dumpster

One day, after I threw some trash into one of the large public dumpsters used to collect all the garbage in Greece, I heard something scuffling around inside it. I stopped. Pitiful mewing. I looked. Two kittens on the bottom of an almost empty dumpster must have gone looking for food and gotten stuck. I leaned in, staining my jacket, but since the dumpster came up to my chest I could not stretch far enough to reach the kittens at the bottom. I didn’t know what to do. However much I’ve become accustomed to seeing and hearing the countless stray cats in our neighborhood and in Greece, however little I consider adopting any of them (because of our allergies), I couldn’t just leave little kittens where they could be crushed by heavy bags of household waste.

Two middle-aged men came along. I said in Greek, “There are kittens in the dumpster!” They looked at me and spoke another language, probably French. I couldn’t remember a word of the French I’d started learning in the Montreal area fourteen years ago, so I tried English and pointing: “Cats!!” I reenacted my failed attempt to reach them. The men looked in, consulted each other, and pulled the dumpster over, almost sideways, so I could reach in to the kittens. One scared kitten jumped past me; the other hissed and drew back, but I took hold of the fur on the back of its neck and quickly pulled it out. The Frenchmen (?) righted the dumpster, and we went on our way, mission accomplished. If only the problems of the unemployed and homeless people, the refugees, the sick, and the hungry humans of the world, could be solved so easily, with such immediate, cross-cultural recognition of both the problem and the way to cooperatively solve it.

Of course, even for the kittens, life isn’t really so simple. One of my aunts would have adopted them, fed them, and found good homes for them if they’d been in Kentucky. All I did was save them from immediate burial under garbage. But here, as I’ve said before, there are cats and dogs roaming all over, although I don’t know anyone in our neighborhood who “owns” a cat. Former neighbors, a Greek woman and her American husband, took all the cats in the neighborhood to a vet for neutering, except those that hovered around one house where the older man thought neutering was unnatural and refused to consent to it. In a decade, that single group has overpopulated the entire neighborhood once again.

And people drop off dogs here as if it were an open-air animal shelter. A few good souls attempt to feed, adopt, and/or neuter the strays. I was amazed when one American-born Greek neighbor told me she’d adopted and neutered the last stray dog in our neighborhood, so that all the dogs wandering around loose and dirty are actually owned by other neighbors! You’d never know it. So many Greeks use dogs as security systems and treat them accordingly, aside from food and water. I do see people walking leashed dogs, but I still think that’s a minority of the dog owners around here—and only one British woman cleans up after her pets. It’s impossible to go for a walk without running into a wandering dog or pack of dogs or stepping in the mess they deposit at will (for example, right next to my car door).

Death of a Neighbor

Around the middle of this month, an elderly neighbor died, the fifth on our short street to pass away in the twelve years I’ve lived here, and the second to die since my mother did. Kyrios (Mr.) Damianos had been fighting diabetes and its complications for years. Every day, he would walk the aged German Shepherd who died before him back and forth on the flattest street in our hilly neighborhood, raising his cane in greeting and stopping to chat. Sometimes he would disappear for a trip to the hospital, when his family had caught a crisis in time to save him. Then he would reappear, looking frailer, walking more slowly, but continuing his daily exercise routine, always friendly and kind, until he could no longer leave his home. Kyria (Mrs.) Panayiota, Kyrios Damianos’s wife, devoted herself to his care, refusing to hire a woman to help as most affluent Greeks do, bathing her husband with her son’s assistance, only leaving twice aside from visits to the supermarket or to take out the garbage—the only times I saw her outside. We stopped a few times to compare notes about diabetes in the family, to talk about her husband, my diabetic mother, and my own health prospects as the daughter of parents with diabetes and heart disease.  

The day Kyrios Damianos died, I stopped by his house briefly at the beginning of an all-night vigil with his body, which was buried under white flowers in an open coffin, only his face showing, white and still, waxy and unreal. The sweet scent of the large white bouquets nearby reminded me of my mother’s memorial service (although the flowers there were more colorful). I expressed my sympathy using the word I’d learned by hearing it so often after Mom died, “silipitiria,” and the addition D mentioned, “zoe se sas,” life to you. I glanced at Kyrios Damianos but did not touch him or make the sign of the cross, as my next-door neighbor Kyria Katina later did; I did not know what I was supposed to do and did not feel comfortable paying as much attention to the dead as to the living who were there to mourn. Other neighbors who had lost parents were also present; as I whispered to two of them, we understood loss and grief. Kyria Panayiota was remarkably composed at first, but she broke down on the phone with a relative, and after she moved closer to the side of the coffin, next to her son, she began an affectionate, tearful lament addressed to her husband. At some point I began to cry, too; I think it was the flowers and the memory of Mom that got me started, but I was also crying for that kind neighbor and his family.

I find the all-night vigil that lasts until the funeral the next day one of the cruelest of the Greek Orthodox customs surrounding death: force the bereaved to stay awake all those hours and endure the funeral in a haze of exhaustion. Perhaps it’s a cathartic way for some to say goodbye, but my own naturally upset sleeplessness provided more than enough exhaustion after my parents died; an entire night out of bed would have pushed me to physical illness that would have deepened my depression. Three and six days later, Greek family members attend more memorial services, and forty days later, there is another public memorial service. A year later, they do it again. The funeral does not provide closure for the exhausted mourners here; the living are not allowed to try to move on as soon as they can manage. Rather, the grief must be publicly reawakened repeatedly before the bereaved are allowed to try to put it behind them. Of course, the grief is reawakened naturally, over and over, for years; my complaint is that there is a prescribed formula here, rather than a natural, personal process of grieving and healing. I readily admit, though, that this probably makes more sense—maybe even provides some sort of comfort--to at least some of those who have grown up with the tradition, if not to the Greek friends with whom I’ve discussed it.

Education and Commemoration in the Community

Science and Technology Day for Children

This year’s Science and Technology Day for elementary school students at the Technical University of Crete on a Saturday in mid October was even better than last year’s. Attendance more than doubled to about 4,000 this year, thanks to the experience and dedication of the wonderful director, Dr. Elia Psilakis, her staff, and hundreds of volunteers, mostly students and faculty members. I helped with safety checks in the impressive university building that housed it (tricky as it was to childproof), as well as offering a few scattered ideas. While almost everyone else involved helped more than I did, it felt good to be doing a bit of community service and university business again for a change, as if I really belong here in Chania.   

D and his team of students and postdocs presented a child-friendly version of some of their work with geostatistics that focused on the use of statistics to predict things like the weather and where lignite might be found underground (complete with photos of mining equipment and a discussion of how lignite is used to produce electricity in Greece). His group had found some amusing cartoons as well as beautiful colorful fractals to show off. Our kids appreciated their father’s efforts. Our American friends, a mother and her ten year old son, didn’t understand even as much of it—or of anything that day—as I did, but they also enjoyed the day, since there was so much to see and do. Every so often, my son would say he was tired and wanted a break and a snack, but then his attention would be distracted by yet another interesting exhibit, and he’d forget about the break—for almost four and a half hours. That’s pretty impressive for him, and good evidence of how impressed he was with the science day.

There were the traditional microscopes to look through, experiments with plant dye, magnets to play with, electric current demonstrations, chemistry experiments with salt and baking soda, and a few schoolkids’ science projects, plus a newfangled combination of computers and plants for computerized determination of watering needs. The kids were especially excited by the “Earth through the Eye of Technology” presentation of a flying drone in an open-air atrium, as well as a motion sensor camera that put them into movie scenes projected on the wall; electric cars that had been built by students and won trophies in races; little robotic cars, grabbers, and helicopters; glow in the dark chemistry experiments; colorful laser lights; computer games designed by university students; and the opportunity to program traditional Greek puppet theater (Karagiozis) shows on computers themselves.

The computer games and some of the virtual reality oddly came under the heading of “Bob the Builder,” and the laser lights were part of cluster of exhibits introduced with cute Greek word play: Physi ke Physiki ke Physika … Physiki (Φύση και Φυσική και Φυσικά...Φυσική), or Nature and Physics and Naturally…Physics. We had to drag the kids away from the drones and computers, but then they went wild over a wonderful area near the exit where some faculty and students from the school of architecture had set up an origami table, a maze of large, linked cardboard boxes, a jungle-type movie area, and a fascinating group of machines that included a virtual reality headset. It was almost 8:00, closing time, and the place was mobbed. I asked a professor if they’d call it a day soon, and he replied that the students were tired after a full day of preparation and presentation, but they didn’t have the heart to tell the deeply engaged children to leave.

October 28, Ohi Day

The rain played havoc with our Ohi (“No”) Day parade in Chania, which honors the 1940 decision of Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas not to let Mussolini’s forces enter and occupy Greece, as well as the fierce resistance by Greek fighters who defeated the Italians when they attempted to enter Greece from Albania, thus diverting the Germans, delaying their invasion of Russia, throwing the Nazis into the Russian winter, and changing the course of World War II. I most admire those who find ways to avoid violence and killing, but even I consider the Greek military’s humiliation of Mussolini and frustration of Hitler impressive, since I acknowledge that that was one of the times when people had good reason for armed resistance.

When it was time to take our daughter to march next to the Greek flag with her elementary school class, rain was pouring down, and thunder was rumbling in the distance. As we drove toward town at 11:15, I received a call saying that the parade had been cancelled. Confirming that, we decided to buy our kids some hot chocolate to save the day, but shortly after our hot drinks arrived, at the original meeting time for my daughter’s class, I received two more phone calls about the reversal of the cancellation. So we requested takeout cups and hurried off again, reaching the meeting point just before noon, when the parade should have started. Apparently the governor had originally cancelled the elementary schoolchildren’s participation in the parade, and then, seeing that the weather had cleared up, revoked the cancellation. There’s no such thing as a rain date in Greece—or advance notice. (“I don’t have school tomorrow” is not an uncommon claim—I heard it last week, for example.)

So half the class was assembled in confusion, and the principal was there without the Greek flag, badges, white gloves, and neckerchiefs the children were supposed to use. She’d sent someone to get them. Meanwhile, mothers photographed kids in their black and white parade outfits, and every so often more desperate children would run through the crowds in search of their classes. We were still tying on neckerchiefs and distributing badges and gloves when the gym teacher who’d led the marching drills insisted that everyone take their places, and we all rushed toward the beginning of the parade, parents and children alike.

D and I took our son on ahead in search of a high-enough vantage point, which turned out to be café steps. Our daughter’s class soon marched along with their flag, preceded and followed by more and more classes of almost identically dressed schoolchildren in identical rows. We couldn’t watch too much, because we had to scramble around to meet our daughter at the end of the parade route, and that turned out to involve an 8-block detour around town to avoid the VIP watchers’ stand, to my astonishment and annoyance. After collecting our daughter, we returned to watch the uniformed military squadrons, including chanting green berets and other special forces, with their weapons, flags, instruments, and even some skis. Our son was bored by everything but the weapons and the WWII vintage military vehicles, some of them full of small children. That struck me as just as incongruous as the police in riot gear near the area where the schoolchildren were gathering before the parade, but later I learned that protestors had thrown stones during past parades.

That was my first experience of a serious Greek parade (as opposed to a Carnival celebration). I knew it wouldn’t include the colorful floats or baton-twirling pageantry of American parades, so I was able to appreciate the cultural experience, complete with the weather-induced drama, rushing around, and detours. I wasn’t left with any time to get bored watching rows and rows of marching children, but thanks to the detour, I missed the colorful costumes of the Cretan dancers. I’m obviously too used to contemporary American pomp and circumstance, flash and color, to fully appreciate a simple parade for a serious holiday. On the other hand, I considered the giant cartoon-character balloons hovering over the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and the spectators wearing silly turkey hats surprisingly tacky and lacking in creativity. I haven’t been in the U. S. at Thanksgiving for a long time and only saw photos of the parade; I didn’t realize it had come to that. At least Greeks are honest about, and aware of, the point and history of their holidays.

Protests, Strikes, Struggles, and Needs in Greece and Beyond

Giving Thanks and Eating, or Striking and Protesting Still More Austerity

Thanksgiving is not a holiday in Greece, but our children still had the day off because of a general strike, the first really big one here since last April. As workers, including teachers, protested the usual problems arising from the excessive austerity measures here, D discussed the relative merits of Batman and Spiderman with our son over the turkey legs and thighs that had to content us since whole turkeys are only sold in Greece around Christmas time. For a truly American touch, I baked an apple pie, although I combined my mother’s recipe for the filling with a newer one for an olive-oil-based crust more appropriate in Crete.

The governing coalition and its supporters understandably like to boast about improvements in Greece’s economy. However, the return to growth, improved credit rating, and primary budget surplus (which excludes the enormous debt and interest payments) fail to impress others, since most of us don’t actually see any tangible signs of real improvement. On the other hand, those who aren’t too sick of the topic and the situation can go on and on about the remaining problems that have arisen from a six-year recession and the troika’s recipe for severe austerity, which the government has followed. We can discuss the way spending cuts have reduced wages and pensions by an average of almost 50%, while unemployment is still hovering around 26% overall and vastly higher for young people, and that is all made worse by major tax increases and an increasingly inadequate social safety net (see, for example, A Sea Change in Greece? and Greeks Go On Strike Over New Austerity Measures).

According to Unicef, “[i]n Greece in 2012 median household incomes for families with children sank to 1998 levels – the equivalent of a loss of 14 years of income progress”; between 2008 and 2012, child poverty here increased from 23% to 40.5% (2.6 million more children plunged into poverty in rich countries during Great Recession and Unicef Innocenti Report Card 12). And, as the headline puts it, a recent International Labor Organization “report warns of prolonged social crisis unless steps are taken in employment” stimulation in Greece. Yet the troika still wants more austerity, even more tax increases! I cannot believe that educated, thinking people could propose such a thing—isn’t the troika composed of educated, thinking people? Many prominent economists—for example, Nobel Laureate  Paul Krugman--agree that all this “austerity” is not only unfair, but downright harmful to Greece and Greeks, and probably Europe and the world as well.

Syrian Refugees in Crete and Athens: Illness, a New Boatload, Protest and Hunger Strike

I received several phone calls last week about a Syrian refugee who had a heart attack and urgently needs medical treatment if his nine-year-old daughter is not to be left here without a living father, her only relative in Greece. Jode’s father Adeeb, whom I’ve met, was in the public hospital in Chania for a week after his heart attack, and now he needs an angiogram and additional care and medication which he has no insurance or money to cover. A Syrian who has been living in Chania for thirty years has been trying to help him, translating and attempting to make arrangements, but he called me to ask if I could help raise money for this. As I told another one of the refugees a month or two ago, it’s much easier to convince people here to donate food and clothing than money these days; in crisis-ridden Greece, most are barely getting by, if that. So I don’t know whom to ask. My Greek friend K has been in touch with the local branch of Doctors of the World, which does not have the facilities for the procedure Jode’s father needs, but we hope they will be able to help arrange for his care. Still, the question remains: who can pay for it? Can anyone out there help out? If so, let me know!

The people involved with local migrant support groups that K and I have appealed to on Adeeb’s behalf have not responded, but I don’t blame them; they’ve already done a great deal for so many migrants and refugees. Now, I think they may be down in the southeastern Cretan town of Ierapetra, overwhelmed with the effort to help a new boatload of 585 migrants, mostly Syrian refugees, whose boat’s engines stopped working in the rough sea 70 nautical miles from Crete so they had to be towed to our island on Thanksgiving day (Harrowing sail ends in Greece for Syrian refugees). They were taken to an indoor basketball arena that is being used as temporary housing. What will happen next, I don’t know, since almost a third of the refugees who arrived in Crete last spring are still in unsupported limbo here (as I said in last month's blog post), and the Greek government has so far provided very little support for all the Syrian refugees already in Athens and elsewhere.

With all of this in mind, I was astonished by a New York Times article about a company’s spending over one million dollars on Christmas decorations (Splurging on Opulent Holiday Displays at the Office), while about two hundred Syrian refugees, including a number of children, have been camping out in the cold in front of the Parliament building in Syntagma Square in Athens since November 19, asking the Greek government for the housing, health care, and education international law decrees are due to war refugees, as well as for travel documents that would allow them to travel to other European countries to apply for asylum. (See, e.g., Syrian refugees seek fresh start from Greek destitution and the Syrian refugees’ and supporters’ Tweets.) Even after several of the protesting refugees began a hunger strike on November 24 in an attempt to get the attention of the Greek government and the slow-to-respond media, the government said the refugees’ only option was to apply for asylum in Greece. The Greek government says it is neither able to issue a travel document allowing the refugees to travel in Europe, nor to provide accommodation for all the Syrian refugees, many of whom had been sleeping in an Athens park before moving to Syntagma Square.

Several of the protesting refugees have fainted from hunger and cold and required hospitalization. True, Greece is still struggling to extricate itself from a recession and 26% unemployment, but why can’t it at least let the refugees leave? (The answer: a flawed European law.) And how can a company spend a million dollars on decorations? How much food, shelter, and medical care could that money provide? (A lot; I’ve emailed them to ask for a tiny fraction of that for Adeeb.) While those decorations may bring joy to many New Yorkers and tourists, the cost seems excessive to someone who's become accustomed to the modest, reusable decorations typical of cash-strapped Greece. Even in glamorous New York City, where everything's done on a different scale, surely one or two Christmas tree cutouts or giant wreaths could be sacrificed; it’s likely that viewers will survive with only $997,000, or maybe even a mere $500,000, worth of decorations from one company. But I don’t know if the refugees will all make it.

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