Teeny Tiny Ants & Big Fat Ticks

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I was going to write about starvation in urban areas, and how people in the big cities were returning to the country so they could at least grow their own food, but hey, it is the weekend. No one wants to think about starvation on a Saturday. Sure people starve on the weekend too but one needs a little breather from the constant depression once in a while.

So I decided to focus on some of the choices one has to make while riding the death spiral of a recession. Not the depressing life or death ones (for a change), just simple little choices that show us something about our value systems. Now even mentioning what I am about to will mark me as possessing decidedly bourgeois values but nonetheless…

The first thing you need to understand is that, unless one is a shipping magnate, politician or millionare (in euros), there is no longer such a thing as a stable income in Hellas. One can no longer count on getting paid on pay day. In fact, one can pretty much count on not getting paid on time. Businesses are doing so badly that employers pay what they can afford to pay and when they can afford to pay it. Employers can no longer be sure of business from regular customers. This situation means that one has to watch every single cent one spends and try to save money in dribs and drabs for mortgages, bills, and the ever increasing taxes. One also has to keep emergency money on hand at all times because Murphy’s Law will have it that at the worst of times a pipe is going to burst, or the stove is going to short a fuse, or the car is going to need some kind of repair. We had all of this happen in a single month during this winter, and it was no joke at the time.

So now it is summer. The period on the islands when we should be making enough money to tide ourselves over the winter. Which hardly happened last year, and is not happening this year at all. Yet we still have exactly the same expenses, and a little extra due to extra taxation, and a strange phenomenon that I have observed every summer since arriving in Mytilene.

Good weather = some kind of island insect plague

I do not know why it happens, or even why the type of insect plague changes from year to year. It appears to be related to what kind of winter we had. This summer there are two separate plagues…teeny tiny ants & big fat ticks.

The teeny tiny ants started pestering everyone in Mytilene a few weeks back already. Their size makes them an evolutionary improvement on the normal size ants from two years ago. They can get into anything. I have to keep my airtight sugar container precariously balanced on the edge of a tin. If anyone leaves it on the counter for longer than 30 minutes the teeny tiny ants gleefully crawl inside to party in sugar ant heaven. Plus it is hard to track where they come from because their size allows them to move stealthily in the spaces between tile glue behind the wall tiles. Any hole or crack in the grouting is all the opportunity they need to invade the kitchen.

So how is this connected to the crisis? Well there is only so much sugar one can throw away when money is tight. And it is not only sugar. It is anything that has sugar or honey inside. The ants are weeny enough to crawl in the thread of a lid for a bottle of honey. Of course one cannot keep honey and sugar in the fridge either. So it comes down to a series of choices. The best choice of which is the most cost effective: (a) track them to their source and destroy it with a few sprays of the very expensive ant spray/poison. This does not work however because they move behind the tiles and in between the stones of the walls. One is then left with more expensive choices (b) fire fight the problem and spray the ants as and when you see them plus spray all tiles and wipe surfaces with chlorine. One bottle of expensive spray and a bottle of chlorine later one discovers that this is only a temporary solution to the problem. So then there are only three choices left: (c) fill a container with sugared water and try to lead the ants outside into an ambush; (d) place all sugar and honey stuff in containers and place the containers in saucers of water or (e) buy more expensive spray and (not expensive) chlorine and repeat choice B. The ambush plan I am not prepared to risk. The ants that don’t know about us yet may take it as an invitation to scout our premises. Plan D is a Mission (with a capital M). Which means that we are left purchasing expensive ant spray with money that could pay bills or feed a family for two days. If we don’t, we have to throw away sugar and honey that, cost wise, could feed a family for three days or more.

Choices, choices…

Then we come to the big fat ticks that travel in the wind and plop on you while you are walking in the street. Fortunately we can brush them off but our cats can’t. In the past month my son and I have removed at least eight ticks from the large male cat. Never before have we had ticks on the cats, but now we do. Murphy’s Law. So I start thinking of thrifty ways I can prevent ticks without purchasing expensive pet products which I find more and more difficult to justify to my long suffering husband who would not even have pets if it was up to him. A month later the cats have developed a psychological aversion to the citronella oil which should (in theory) prevent both ticks and fleas. Only thing is that the male still gets ticks plus both he and the female have fleas now too. Yesterday we were forced to purchase chemical spot removal treatments for both cats and tick/flea collars to keep the pests off (both are required because of the amount of ticks flying around). The cost was a mere six days of feeding a family.

Between what the ants and the ticks have cost us we could have purchased a whole weeks worth of groceries, or paid our mobile phone bills, or donated it to someone who needs to pay cash for medicine, or purchased enough inexpensive grain products to supply a whole soup kitchen for at least a meal.

My middle class values bring me shame at a time like this.

Free Speech (& a good reason to swim to Turkey)

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I dislike the endless political debates on Greek TV in pre-election run-ups. They give me a headache. Everyone screams at the top of their voices at the same time, and they speak too fast for me to understand much. I only start paying attention to what is said from the time the exit poll is released on election day. Usually nothing exciting happens, other than screaming and vehement disagreement.

The entry of Xrysi Avgi into parliament has changed all of that.

Known as the Golden Dawn in English and often touted as neo-nazi, The ultra-nationalist Xrysi Avgi test the limits of democracy and free speech at a time when such conflict is needed least. Or perhaps it is the right time. Maybe Europe and the world needs to be reminded about what can happen during a bad recession.
Since receiving more 3% of the vote in the last elections, Xrysi Avgi has filled the world with horror at images of their black t-shirted young men roaring in celebration.

In the past few weeks we have been shocked (and amused) by the Golden Dawn’s first press conference and their insistence that the press, foreign and local, stand up as a sign of respect for the Xrysi Avgi leader Michaloliakos as he entered the room. We have read the growing reports of attacks on foreigners both legally and illegally living in Hellas. We raised our eyebrows as Michaloliakos’ daughter and two Golden Dawn MP’s  were arrested and released after the stabbing of an Albanian and two Algerian men. We watched as a few hundred Golden Dawn fought against the police in the streets of Patras on the 23rd of last month. We rolled our eyes as Michaloliakos denied the holocaust. And now we get this:

watch?feature=player_embedded&v=2Hk2FqoZoOQ

This footage shows how the male Xrysi Avgi candidate, Kasidiaris, swears, throws a glass of water at the Syriza Deputy Rena Dourou and then proceeds to slap or punch the female KKE candidate’s face three times. The Xrysi Avgi leader Michaloliakos has since argued that Kasidiaris was provoked because (if you look very carefully) one can see that Kanelli  threw her papers at him AFTER he threw the water in Dourou’s face.

Now undoubtedly my opinion is biased, but I am going to say it anyway. Xrysi Avgi are thugs and they should take away their legal status as a political party.

And why am I biased? Well, as a foreigner legally living in Greece, I am a potential target of Xrysi Avgi. They want people like me gone, regardless of whether I am married to a Greek, pay taxes and own property. This, of course, makes me hostile to them, and I am not alone in my sentiments. The leaders of the other political parties refused to negotiate a coalition government with Xrysi Avgi. They would not even sit at the presidents table with Michaloliakos present. As a resistance fighter in Greece during German occupation of the country in WWII, the president himself had a problem meeting Michaloliakos (although he did eventually). WordPress even suspended the Xrysi Avgi blog and they have also not been invited to participate in any of the planned official debates scheduled for next week (if they even happen).

Free Speech…as a part of the Greek network on FB I get a lot of friend requests from people I don’t know. Mostly I accept them until they prove not to be friendly. The morning after the elections was an eye opener for me as I saw piles of posts from celebrating Xrysi Avgi supporters on my newsfeed. I changed my settings so I could not see them but I actually hesitated to delete or block them. Why? Because as much as I disagree with them, I felt that they were entitled to free speech. Or are they? The right to free speech does not include hate speech, but they had not ever said anything hateful to me. Only indirectly by supporting a political party who would throw me out of the country.

Anyway my first attempts to change my settings on FB only got rid of the offending posts from those who celebrated the election results. Over the next two weeks I kept finding the odd post on my newsfeed that expressed outrage at how Xrysi Avgi had been demonised in the local and foreign press; how their freedom of speech had been stripped from them by the suspension of their blog, and how they had been marginalised by the other political parties.

And this was before the attacks on foreigners started increasing. It was before they fought in the streets of Patras and one of their candidates attacked two women on national tv.

In other words, Xrysi Avgi has become more of a danger because they feel oppressed and marginalised. Everything that has happened only appears to make them more extreme. Somehow the justifiably averse reaction to their emergence onto the stage of parliamentary politics has put them on the defensive in a very worrisome way.

The increasing crimes by illegal immigrants do nothing to help the situation either. They only serve to justify the actions of Xrysi Avgi in their own eyes.

I have heard reports of Xrysi Avgi youth going around neighbourhoods as a part of some or other resident association and demanding to see people’s ID cards to determine if they are foreign, and/or illegal. And I imagine what I would do if one of them knocked on my door. My ID lists me as foreign. A part of me wants to prepare for such a visit…just in case. I feel like I should be prepared. Like I should have a baseball bat next to the door, or get a gun. I imagine what they will do to me if I fight back or get aggressive (which is inevitable). My husband tells me that no one has a right to ask to see my ID and I should slam the door in the face of anyone who asks. But I am not convinced it will be that simple.

Needless to say, I still have not worked out the details of my plan… All I know is that they have no need to worry about me trying to stay in country if Xrysi Avgi should ever come to power, I would rather swim across to Turkey and risk a Turkish prison than spend one night under their governance.

Aside

Zombie Tax

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There was a time when I could not help but be affected by the sight of another human being sleeping in the street. I could not enjoy simple things like rain or snuggling into a warm bed on a cold night when I knew that others had inadequate shelter. These are some of things I remember most about living in South Africa. Things that I thought I had left behind me when I moved to Greece.

Homelessness is now a growing problem in Greece too, and all the old feelings are starting to awaken in me. But this time it is different. The problem is not caused by the mass migration of people from rural to urban areas as is the case in southern Africa but rather because the Greek crisis has collapsed the middle class and affected the poorest of the poor worst of all. No one really knows how many people are living on the streets now. The unemployment figures are also not completely accurate because they do not take into account the people who were forced to work ‘off the books’ by employers to reduce the benefits payable for each legal employee to the state pension and medical insurance.

In 2010 almost 3 million of Greece’s 11 million population were living in poverty or on the brink of poverty, which is almost a third of the population. The situation has gotten considerably worse since then. Last year alone 20 000 people were estimated to have become homeless, and with approximately 1 000 people losing their jobs every day, things can only get worse. 250 000 people already need to be fed from the soup kitchens that have sprung up in every city and town.

The situation threatens to become a humanitarian disaster. ELSTAT, the European statistical institute who issues the official poverty statistics does not even offer the facilities to measure an epidemic of homelessness. They base their figures on normal households with a roof over their head. True poverty is inconceivable to them. No one is ready to officially acknowledge the homeless of Europe, or deal with the problem.

This denial of reality can be seen nowhere as clearly as in the new income taxes that have been imposed on Greece as one of the conditions for the bailout.

Today the tv news was filled with incredulous reports of the implications of the new taxes. Implications I had not thought of before. I was too busy obsessing about the property tax to pay much attention to the fact that there is no longer a tax-free bracket for those who earn less than a certain amount.

This effectively means that the unemployed and homeless must now pay 113 euros income tax per year, or be considered tax evaders.

For the unemployed this means a further obstacle to becoming employed. Without an official stamped piece of paper from the tax office stating that your taxes are up to date one cannot even get another job should one miraculously become available. Unless one works in the ‘shadow economy’, of course…

And as for the homeless…my mind boggles. Taxing the homeless? Really?

I thought we were meant to help the homeless, not make it worse for them. Tax the homeless? Really, really?? In a few months the papers will be full of EU reports about how many Greeks have not paid their taxes and when you read that think of this man…

Unemployed Tax Evader

And this person…

Homeless Tax Evader

I think that the zombie apocalypse happened while we were asleep. Some kind of zombie virus has taken over the world and there are very few humans left. The zombie lords want to tax the homeless and unemployed…

Bad Weather, Boycotts & Sweatshops

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Clouds are gathering overhead, a sign of yet more unseasonal rain. Everyone says that it should not be raining at this time of year. But it is, and it is affecting already poor turnovers in retail and tourism. Ironically it is the very thing that attracts most people to Greece, i.e. beaches, quaint cobblestone streets lined with small shops & open air coffee houses/restaurants, that hinders its businesses during bad weather. Everything good takes place outside! And the rain makes it not so good…

The news shows beaches with neat rows of loungers and umbrellas with clear deep turquoise water softly lapping at the shore. It is as beautiful as it always was except for one thing…it is completely empty, even on the rare sunny days we have had in the past weeks. Locals mostly cannot afford the 2 to 5 euros required to hire a lounger so we swim at the pebble beaches and sit on big rocks although only the kids are swimming in the odd weather we have been having.

And while we are on the subject of the costs of going to the beach, the entry fees for the EU approved ‘blue flag’ beach here in Mytilene has doubled in price this year. A costly price hike at an inopportune time indeed, and one that has inspired a boycott of the beach (even if the weather is the good). There are a multitude of more humble beaches we can go to. We don’t really need shower facilities, fancy loungers and over-priced frappe.

Sigh… bad weather and boycotts… it is the stuff that inspires newspaper headlines such as ‘Tourists stay away…’ or ‘Fearful Tourists…” The locals look at one another quizzically. “Afraid of what?” they ask. Answering with the standard of “strikes and riots” only yields more quizzical looks.

Strikes and protests are a way of life here in Hellas. No one raises an eyebrow about them unless someone dies or is seriously injured. Plus there is usually ample warning about them so one can plan one’s life around them. One strike in particular has caught my attention.

The tour bus drivers union is on the second day of a four day strike at present. An action that may be inconvenient for tourists but is integral to the well being of the tour bus drivers and their families. Tour bus owners are demanding that the drivers take a 70% reduction in salary and benefits, or a 50% reduction for those whose packages were reduced by 20% already. Not only have employers been able to make (and get away with) such demands because of the ‘liberalisation of industries’ demanded as a condition of the EU Bailout, but there is no viable alternative for the drivers. With unemployment at 22%, they cannot just get another job. Tourism has been declining steadily for years, and the only tourists that really came (or are coming) this year took advantage of cut-rate prices. And the drivers’ salaries is where some of that discount is coming from. Unfair though it may be there is very little the drivers can do. The strikes are pure frustration and a last ditch attempt to save themselves from working for 70% less for doing the same job. I doubt that the strike will help them though. They rarely do…

This strike has been a real eye-opener for me. I never thought of discount tour packages in terms of human expense before. Coincidentally the newspapers are full of EU insistence that Greece must become more competitive. I now know what this means. The Greek tour buses will become sweatshops, and all other industries will follow suit.

Tour bus driver sweatshop???

Twilight Reflections on Tax Tuesday

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Foreign press are increasingly saying less and less about what is happening in Greece. Perhaps they do not want to panic the markets this week or maybe everyone is just sick of reading about the unfolding crisis. Either way the day was filled with its usual moments of crisis panic.

This morning we were treated to local media reactions to Merkel threatening Greece with the European Court of Justice if it does not comply with the bailouts conditions. Mid-morning German Finance Minister Schaeuble announced that it may not be fair to the Greek people but unfortunately the crisis was caused by the mistakes of the Greek elite. Within the hour, the Radical Left Syriza, proved not to be so radical and began to soften its stance on unilaterally rejecting the bailout conditions, something that leftist factions across Europe have been expecting to happen (although they predicted it would happen a week and a half after the elections). Then the KKE (Greek Communist Party) issued a statement that Syriza would do nothing about renegotiating the bailout conditions if elected and, surprise, surprise…reiterated for the umpteenth time that they would not form a coalition government with Syriza if it is given the mandate in the coming elections. This was of course followed by lots of ‘will they? or won’t they?’ discussion about the two possible upcoming televised debates between firstly the two main parties in the elections (Nea Demokratia and Syriza) and secondly between all parties except for Xrysi Avgi (no one wants to debate the neo-nazi Golden Dawn). Accompanied by the endless press releases from each party accusing other parties of not wanting to participate and undermining the process. Tiresome…especially considering that most channels have damn election programmes during prime time this evening so there won’t even be any mind-numbing escape from the rhetoric and posturing.

Later in the day the G7 pledged to ‘tackle’ Greece and Spain in an attempt to calm investor concerns and stop hampering growth in the run-up to the US Presidential elections. Now I do not know what ‘tackle’ entails but it reminded me for a moment about the speculation on the streets and in leftist circles about a military take-over if an acceptable government is not formed. Although this may well be just paranoia and tackling Greece may not refer to any external intelligence interference. ‘Tackling Greece’ could just be more empty words and futile attempts such as the G7 made (back when IMF’s Lagarde was the French finance minister) in October 2008 after the collapse of Lehman Brothers. Actions which led directly to where we stand today…Regardless of what it means there is a certain ominous quality about today’s pledge that inspires no optimism in me.

Late afternoon news showed empty tourist shops and the empty chairs at coffee houses and restaurants in the Plaka in Athens. They spoke to depressed shop owners whose sales have decreased dramatically over the past few years as we sank into the middle class death spiral into the maws of austerity. The city of Thessaloniki has decided to have 50% off sales to boost their dying retail businesses so we got to see a few people browsing in fully stocked shops. Again not a very hopeful or optimistic sight.

At home, here in Mytilene, business was a little better today (for some) although still down by about half of what it was a month ago. No one likes answering their phones because it is just creditors. I hear all this and I worry, but most of all I am grateful. Today was a day that I dreaded. The day when my husband got to find out how much personal tax we owed for the last year. This years tax includes the one of the two new property taxes. We paid the first property tax that was attached to our electricity bill earlier in the year. It taxed us per square metre of whatever formal structures we own and doubled our family’s tax. This tax year we are told that it will be due in July and increased although it will not be attached to our electricity bills any longer because the inability of people to pay caused the near collapse of the electricity company (which needed millions to keep it solvent a month or so ago). We still have no idea how much this tax will be but the second tax is what I was dreading today. It taxes the land one owns and we were afraid that it would tax us on undeveloped seaside property that we have been unable to sell due to the decrease in the property prices over the past few years. Its value according to the tax office is about 10 times more than we could actually sell it for and I was worried that we could end up in arrears with our taxes. So today my husband found out what we owed after a long run around from office to office. And thankfully…it is manageable. It is more than double what we usually pay and combined with the other new property tax has increased our tax by 200% but still it is a manageable amount.

I can breathe easily again. It is twilight outside. The Aegean sea is dark blue without as much as a ripple to mar its mirrored surface. The mountains are black against the darkening azure of the sky. It is so breathtakingly beautiful and peaceful that it is hard to believe that people are struggling here. It does not seem to be the same country that is written of and spoken about with such hostility and contempt all over the world. What could the G7 possibly have to tackle in such a paradise? Who knows? And perhaps I should not care. The sounds of popular Greek music drift in the still air. Children are laughing. People are talking.  Life goes on even though sometimes we doubt it will. And our tax is manageable, what better way could I end my day?

Twilight in Mytilene

Truth, Aletheia and Fear

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Re-elections are coming up on June 17th and the EU’s boot is firmly on the throat of Greece while the world watches. The pressure is on…

It may seem hard to believe how ‘under pressure’ life is for most people in Greece at the moment. After all, there are many countries that have far greater problems with poverty and unemployment. Other countries have defaulted and survived. Christine Lagarde of the IMF would have the world believe that it is ‘payback time’ and the problem is caused by tax evasion. And there are facts to back up all these statements, yet the truth is something more than a few facts. Well, at least in ancient Hellenic it is…

The ancient Hellenic word Aletheia is often translated to ‘truth’ in English but it lacks the definitive and limited perception of reality as confined to facts that is so common to the English conception. Aletheia is the correspondence of reason to reality. And reality is as much a search for being as it is an accumulation of various types of knowledge of the world in which we live. This central difference in conception perhaps explains why different perceptions of the crisis and the solutions to it exist.

I read between 40 to 60 newspaper reports on Greece every day. One could say that I am fascinated by the unfolding events and how the reports measure up to reality as I see it. But it is a gory fascination…like ambulance chasing. The situation is so uncertain and speculation so rife that it is akin to watching a plane crash out of the sky in slow motion. Just about anything could happen. And I am not alone.

The crisis is all everyone in Greece talks about these days. We watch the news to see what disaster will come next. We watch the growing groups of unemployed people gather in parks with grim faces to discuss their mounting problems. We walk through the towns and cities past the empty shops. We talk to the owners of the small to medium size businesses that close with each passing month. We drive past the shop owners and employees who gather in the streets outside their shops to pass the time due to a lack of business.

Some of us are fortunate and still have regular to semi-regular incomes and food on our table. Every week we hear of someone who lost their business, lost their jobs, had to get food from a soup kitchen. We all have unemployed family members (often with small children). And we know that they were just like us last week, or last month, or last year. Their fate could well be our own destiny. We live in fear of losing whatever it is that we do have.

This fear is a palpable part of our reality and our truth. Our reactions collectively exemplify our Aletheia; our reason corresponding to our reality. And the fear dichotomises us into different polar extremities, both political and social.

Pro-EMU/anti-EMU, Pro EU/anti-EU, pro-austerity/anti-austerity, left wing/right wing, rich/poor, employed/unemployed… Greece is a bubbling cauldron of divergent opinions about the reality of the economic crisis. Why? Because the different ways in which the crisis has affected different areas and income groups has resulted in chasms of perception. We all see the reality but we disagree on what it is and what reason should be applied to it. In other words We seem to live different truths determined by our individual circumstances, and we find common ground with those affected similarly.

Then there are those who neither read newspapers nor watch the news. They tune in daily to the soap operas, sitcoms and mindless magazine programmes. They refuse to watch the plane fall. They would rather not know where and who it hits. The only information they receive about the crisis is what affects them directly (the causes of which they are vague and ambivalent about). Their opinions are formed by whatever distorted titbits of news events they hear from their friends and family. These people make up a large percentage of those who did not vote in the last election and do not plan to vote in this one either.

Fear… it makes us cling wide-eyed to the unknown and blindly to the known all at once. It makes no difference whether one watches the plane fall or buries one’s head in the sand. It is all about fear. The results of the last elections [and in all the likelihood the next ones too will] illustrate the chasms of perception that have opened up between a dichomitised country. The results are the quiet secret palpitations of fear made manifest