Nothing is Certain Except Death and Taxes
Our dressers and beds have been buried under piles of summer and winter clothes lately. Greek closets are divided vertically, so one must shift all the winter and summer clothes up and down as seasons change, and—for kids’ clothes—check what fits and what doesn’t. Meanwhile, laundry never ends, with much of it hung out to dry since many clothes sold here are not designed to go in dryers, and many families don’t have them. Wall to wall carpeting is a rarity, possibly because of all the blowing dust. So Greeks use large area rugs in the winter and then wash, air dry, roll up, bag, and store them in the summer. Lots of fun, generally for women. Of course, as an Albanian woman correctly pointed out to me, such endless housekeeping projects are proofs of prosperity. Many of her relatives have just two outfits, one to wear and one to wash, with so little electricity in many villages that they have no washing machines, no refrigerators, no irons, and hence less housework. Their challenge is to find enough clothes, shoes, and food for their children.
Since I have been spared that challenge, I feel obligated to read the news. Most of us here in Greece are sick of hearing it, especially since so many articles sound nearly the same. (If you don’t want to hear another word about it, go ahead and skip to the next section; if you don’t live here, you don’t need to know what I do.) Here is a one-paragraph summary of the news about Greece over the past several months: the Greek finance minister and Prime Minister are optimistic that Greece and its creditors will agree on reforms leading to a final disbursement of bailout funding soon; the friendlier elements in the EU say everyone is working hard to reach a good solution; the German finance minister and those who agree with him assert that the Greeks must agree to more reforms and cooperate more and faster; sympathetic commentators in the U. S. and elsewhere point out the mistakes of the IMF, European leaders, and bankers and say Greece needs leeway to reduce its humanitarian crisis and enable its economy to grow; Greeks blame creditors for unreasonable demands, the lenders blame the Greeks for failing to reach an agreement, different members of Greece’s governing coalition make incompatible claims, and the IMF and the EU seek different changes from Greece; Greece is struggling to pay its next debt installment as well as public sector salaries and pensions; without another loan disbursement, the government will run out of money in one or two weeks or months; Greeks who still have savings remove more money from their bank accounts; Greece will or will not default on its debt and will or will not remain in the Eurozone. Nothing is certain except death and taxes, but ordinary people go about their business as well as they can, feeling powerless to determine the course of their country’s future.
As Pantelis Boukalas wrote, Greeks find it irrational “that they are being forced to continue, with little change, a course of treatment that has already been proved to be responsible for sky-high unemployment, frozen growth, the cancer of business closures and a rise in suicides, acknowledged by international organizations” (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). A disturbing New York Times article describes the tragic circumstances facing many Greeks. For example, at the nation’s largest (125,000 student) public university, three quarters of the budget has been slashed since the crisis started. In Athens suburbs, the wealthy are paying the police for protection. And at least one surgeon worked 20-hour days for a month until his exhaustion endangered his patients. His hospital’s director, Theodoros Giannaros, works similarly long hours for 1,200 euros a month rather than the 7,400 he used to receive, with a hospital budget cut from 20 million euros to only 6 million and 200 doctors treating twice as many patients as 250 did in the past. Greek public hospitals got just 43 million euros from the government in the first four months of 2015, as opposed to 650 million during the same period a year ago. The cheap surgical gloves used at one hospital sometimes break during surgery. “Greece has been forced by its creditors to cut spending by €28 billion — quite a sum in a €179 billion economy,” equivalent to $2.6 trillion in the U. S. economy. As Mr. Giannaros says, “Maybe the crisis makes us better people — but these better people will die if the crisis continues”—like his son, who committed suicide recently (With Money Drying Up, Greece Is All but Bankrupt). Enough is enough. This austerity is literally killing people. I do not want to hear any more talk about the “sacrifices” of the Greek people; human sacrifice belongs to ancient times, not the present.
I am often reminded that Greeks are so right to emphasize the importance of good health in their daily lives and their most common greetings: they say “ya,” or “γεια,” which also means “health,” for hello, hi, goodbye, and bless you (after a sneeze). They tend to say “may you be well” instead of “you’re welcome” in response to thanks, they constantly ask if you’re well, and they often end discussions of how things are with “let us have [good] health,” clearly emphasizing that that’s what’s most important. When I talk with a neighbor whose struggle with her aging husband’s emphysema-related infirmity and complete dependence on her ended recently in his death, or with an elderly woman who doesn’t know whether her legs will support her when she needs to stand up and walk to the bathroom, or if she’ll fall down, and when I read of thousands killed in Nepal earthquakes and “Five billion people [who] 'have no access to safe surgery,'” I see how much the Greek emphasis on health makes sense. Of course, since the current economic crisis has reduced many Greeks’ access to adequate healthcare and medicine, the importance of good health becomes even clearer: let us be well, να είμαστε καλά, because if we’re not, we may be in serious trouble here.
In “Suffering Being a Greek Taxpayer,” Thanos Tsiros provides downright shocking statistics about the high taxes and social insurance contributions required of Greeks, starting with the highest contribution among OECD countries for a worker of modest income (earning 1,440 euros gross per month) with two children, who is taxed at a rate of 43.4%, and leading up to the taxes on gasoline (62.66%) and cigarettes (up to 90%). (The article is in Greek; use Google translate if you like.) With businesses facing a sales tax (called VAT here) of 23% on their products, plus an income tax of 26%, they end up losing about half of their “income” to taxes. The OECD calculates that a worker with two children who smokes, drives, and is supposedly earning 40,000 euros per year actually returns 61% of that to the government, once we add in taxes on property, car, gasoline, and cigarettes, on top of the general sales tax. These taxes, some of the highest in the world according to experts’ studies, provide tremendous incentive for both extensive smuggling and the world-famous tax evasion in Greece—which is actually not that high, comparatively speaking, as I wrote last month. Yet Greece’s creditors want the Greek government to raise taxes even more! Are they really looking at the numbers they claim to want to see? For most of us here, both statistics and true stories about human beings continue to confirm that Greeks need more relief and hope rather than more or higher taxes.
“the IMF has made €2.5 billion of profit out of its loans to Greece since 2010. If Greece does repay the IMF in full this will rise to €4.3 billion by 2024” (IMF has made €2.5 billion profit out of Greece loans)! Was that the goal? To impose misery on Greek people in order to build up International Monetary Fund cash reserves? I’d never thought of the IMF as a for-profit organization. The other week, Greece used IMF money to pay the IMF, and the government has been trying for months to get the last installment of the bailout funds so it can pay back a few more installments of a debt worth about 180% of its GDP. This is ridiculous. Greece needs debt forgiveness, since its debt is way beyond sustainable.
So far, life in Crete, a relatively prosperous island far from Athens, has continued almost as usual for those of us who still have adequate income—but not for the new beggars outside the supermarkets, those who have closed their businesses or lost their jobs, or the refugees waiting here in limbo. However, life may change for all of us, since the Greek government seems more likely to run out of money, default on its debts, and leave the Eurozone than it ever has before. We really don’t know, though. Last month, an economist who doesn’t have to live through whatever may happen in Greece came up with another catchy little term: Grimbo. That’s what we seem to be in, since the Grexit forecast in 2012 and the Grexident or Graccident discussed in recent months still haven’t materialized (Grexit is so 2012. Citigroup introduces 'Grimbo' to crisis lexicon). I am not amused.
Most Greeks are not amused, either. A gynecologist says the government is making a mess of the healthcare and education systems, for example by forbidding gynecologists to prescribe breast ultrasounds and mammograms under the national insurance plan, although they are expected to examine the results. She’d like to leave Greece for the sake of her teenage children, but her husband is too attached to his land to go. A gas station attendant suggests that it might have been worth Greece leaving the euro in 2010, but now it would do no good, and no one in Greece wants to do it, so (he says) it won’t happen. He argues that we’re much better off in Crete, where jobs as farm laborers are available for those who really want them, than people are in Athens, where there just aren’t enough jobs. A widowed grandmother believes the current government doesn’t know enough about what needs to be done, so its leaders say one thing but do something else. She is exasperated by the latest public transport strikes. We had a few months’ break from strikes after this coalition government was elected, but now the strikes are back.
They’re back partly because the government’s popularity has finally begun to decrease after months of unsuccessful negotiations with the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the IMF, formerly known as the troika, then the institutions, creditors, or (with the addition of the European Stability Mechanism) the Brussels Group. The government’s falling popularity was apparent in the ferry workers’ and railway workers’ strike on the major travel date of Labor Day (the first of May here) and in mayors’ angry reactions to the federal government’s demands that local cash reserves be transferred to the central bank to pay salaries, pensions, and debts. It was clear in the elementary school teachers’ union’s anger that the government did not consult it about educational reforms, and of course it was evident in polls.
In February, 72% of those surveyed approved of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’s negotiating strategy; in late April, only 45.5% approved, and that had decreased to 35% by mid May, according to one source (Labor minister sees deal within coming days). However, a different “poll conducted in May by Public Issue for the pro-government newspaper Avgi, shows 54 percent backing the SYRIZA-led government's handling of the negotiations” (Greeks back government's red lines, but want to keep euro), and far more would vote for SYRIZA than for the conservative centrist New Democracy, the second most popular political party. Since a majority of Greeks still wants to remain in the Eurozone, even if that means compromising with lenders and continuing or even adding to the austerity measures and high taxation SYRIZA had vowed to end, what will happen here is uncertain—aside from death and taxes, both of which are constantly on the minds of my generation as we lose our income, our parents, and the grandparents in our neighborhoods.
Holidays and Hopes, Flowers and Fruits, a Local Shepherd, and Everyday Heroes
Most Greeks do still celebrate holidays, however. So we enjoyed a traditional Easter feast with friends on a lovely sunny day after a very cold, windy Holy Week kept some away from church services they would generally attend. Once again this Easter, I was struck by the way this holiday is like an American Christmas in several ways: in terms of its importance, the two-week vacation, the ever-present holiday wishes, and—even now--the commercialism. Here, there is more fasting (although it varies from nothing to everything) and more emphasis on the religious reason for the holiday. For example, after Easter, outside a café in Chania I saw a chalk board with a beer company’s logo displaying the typical Easter and post-Easter greeting among friends and family: ΧΡΙΣΤΌΣ ΑΝΈΣΤΗ, or CHRIST IS RISEN! (That was followed by ΧΡΟΝΙΑ ΠΟΛΛΑ ΜΕ ΥΓΕΙΑ, or MANY YEARS WITH HEALTH—also very typical wishes at any Greek holiday.)
However, there is also so much shopping for so many gifts, just like an American Christmas: Easter cookies and breads, wine, chocolate eggs or bunnies, clothes and shoes for children. Godparents always give kids outrageously expensive Easter candles called lambadas, which they light at church. These lambadas are either lavishly decorated with ribbons or attached to additional gifts, such as watches, bracelets, little dolls, small musical instruments, or even—in an elaborate set of boxes—Hotwheels cars and toys! I liked our local soup kitchen’s idea of selling some beribboned candles for 8 euros to raise money for food for the hungry, but the elaborate attachments and far more excessive prices of the candles sold in stores do not appeal to me. Since they are not part of a tradition I grew up with, they just appear wasteful in my eyes--unlike household Christmas decorations. I know such an unfair judgment involves acculturation vs. prejudice against what I’m not used to. Better to condemn the wastefulness of Christmas decorations, too—as I did when I heard about the millions of dollars spent on them by New York companies—but I’m too attached to my own old, modest ones, which represent a strong link to the childhood, family, and first home about which I’m very nostalgic. As Tevye sang in Fiddler on the Roof, “Tradition, tradition! Tradition!”
Looking over photos of our Greek Easter gathering, including some of gorgeous eggs dyed with onion skins alongside the traditional red eggs, I found dozens of pictures of my son playing with the snails we found in the three heads of lettuce a neighbor gave us from her garden after I took her a few outgrown clothes for her sons (in yet another instance of the exchange economy we live in today and/or the generosity of Greeks). We had almost enough for a snail meal to go with our salad, but my son was more interested in playing with and feeding the snails than in eating them. He built them a wall of lettuce, but that was too easy for them to scale, so he had to take them outside--especially after I discovered that one had escaped to the top of the pepper shaker above the microwave.
Redbuds and daisies were flourishing at Easter. By the end of April, the former had lost their blossoms, and the latter were starting to fade in the increasingly hot sun that better suits the tall grasses and lavender thistles that now predominate outside the sweet-smelling gardens of roses, honeysuckle, geraniums, and jasmine. Several weeks ago, the olive trees were blooming, their little clusters of tiny yellow-white flowers dropping pollen on me. Crepe-paper like pink Cretan rock rose (or cistus) blossoms too delicate to pick thrived on their hardy bushes all over the wild hills. When I walked to my mailbox to pick up mail, I smelled the chamomile I crushed underfoot. Clumps of daisies created wild gardens like carefully planted hedges in empty lots and by the roadsides. Twice, a neighbor invited me to climb her ladder and pick her loquats, and the first time I took almost as many photos as loquats. Interesting view up there, closer to the sky, next to a bee on a citrus flower, with loquat and citrus tree branches intermingling.
May Day is a real holiday here: no school, stores closed, workers’ marches. I celebrated in a traditional Greek way by gathering heaps of flowers and making May wreaths and bouquets. If we determined its date botanically, May Day would have to come to Crete in March or April, because by May 1 many of the wild orchids and all the anemones had long since disappeared, the crown daisies were beginning to dry up, and the field gladiolas were becoming rarer in the hot sun. The shrub verbena that grows wild in empty lots here was beginning to flourish, but its tiny clusters of multi-colored blossoms drop off the stems very easily. So I had to turn to the huge geranium bushes outside untenanted yards, take a few roses from homes used only in August, and beg a few fragrant blossoms from trees and gardens (including some lilacs, which I rarely see here). That provided plenty for a wreath for our family, plus one for our disabled, housebound elderly neighbor and his devoted wife, who spent nearly every minute caring for him. I am so glad I took the spring flowers into their house twice a week this year, since it turned out to be the last spring he would live through, and a smile lit up his face when he saw the flowers.
I had no clue how to make a May wreath when I first tried years ago, but now I take pride in managing with all-natural ingredients, including long-stemmed wild carrots and other flowers with flexible stems, plus a few honeysuckle vines, wrapped around and around and tucked in for the base of the wreath. I know I need enough of the bright flowers that last a while if I want a wreath worth looking at for more than an hour. (Since my amateur floristry won’t last much longer than that, I take a lot of photos as soon as I’m done.) I spent many hours with flowers on May Day, with my kids and my mother in law helping part of the time. I was quite tired afterwards, especially once I’d also climbed a ladder and wall to remove the last loquats from my neighbor’s tree, but I was also proud of the floral creation I now feel compelled to produce yearly. That is one labor-intensive Greek custom I don’t mind adopting.
Walking along a dirt road between olive groves and uncultivated areas, a friend and I spoke with an older shepherd who seems to know the name and use of all the wild plants. He told us about one that can cause severe diarrhea when brewed as a tea (useful for pranks among young men when mixed with wine, he said), others that can be dried and used as seasonings (both thyme and a related herb called throombi here), more with different medicinal qualities he couldn’t quite remember, several plants whose roots or stems are edible, the spiny acanthus that lasts nicely in a dried bouquet but poked us when we tried to cut and carry it, and a scary looking thorny plant he broke off to show how its sap looked like blood on the skin. (According to local tradition, that one was used for Jesus Christ’s crown of thorns.) The shepherd also told us that the area where we were walking used to be the village of Tholaria, before pirates came and killed all the villagers. The shepherd told us about caves where the villagers kept their goats, and we realized that we’ve seen remnants of the village reservoirs in olive groves where we search for wildflowers. He said there are also grinding stones where the villagers crushed olives to make a cup or two of oil. My friend and I think the shepherd could survive on the land with his sheep and goats, if necessary, given the extent of his knowledge. With or without the euro, he’ll make it.
There is still hope for Greece. It comes from both supposedly ordinary people like the shepherd and from some better-known, extraordinarily talented people. Greeks can be proud of the talented athletes who almost won the European basketball championship, as well as artists such as director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose movie The Lobster won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival this month, and the famous filmmaker Costa-Gavras, who was also honored in Cannes after winning major prizes there in the past. The world should be equally impressed by the “regular” people who are behaving like heroes in the face of potential disaster, such as the neighbor who cared so well for her husband through a long and difficult illness, the Greeks who rescued migrants after their boat fell apart on the rocky coast of Rhodes on April 20 (Migrant boat crisis: the story of the Greek hero on the beach), and the doctors who work unpaid overtime, trying to restore health and save lives.
On April 21, Dr. Dimitris Makreas spoke with 150 or 200 members of the small community where he works in the government-sponsored free clinic. What began as a talk about healthcare soon turned into an outpouring of gratitude and respect for this doctor, who was brutally beaten by people believed to be racist thugs in March, after he was seen standing next to a migrant who had been harassed. Audience members spoke of Dr. Makreas frequently working hours of unpaid overtime in order to accommodate all the patients who needed care. One older woman said his mother should be proud; another called him the best of men. It is nearly incomprehensible that anyone would want to attack this good doctor, unless the attack was prompted by professional jealousy or feelings of inadequacy in the face of so much goodness. During Greece’s current political and economic crisis, after that cruel attack, the community formed an oasis of love as audience members expressed their support, reminding one woman of old times in Greece when ties of gratitude and respect were more important than monetary payment for professional services. Ready to put the attack behind him, Dr. Makreas enjoys a wealth of devotion. I see more hope for Greece in the “ordinary,” caring human beings who reach out to people in their community, wherever they may come from, than in the national and international political and economic negotiations that appear to lack adequately skilled humanitarian diplomacy.