Friday, April 3, 2015

Hope Falls in the Greek Spring: Austerity, Generosity, Brutality, and Wildflower Escapes

The Fall of Greece? Any Spring Ahead?

During the past month or so, the worldwide popularity of SYRIZA seems to have dropped, although the government remains popular here, and many Greeks are still hopeful. If last month was a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs, this month felt to me like a long ride down—into what, remains to be seen. More and more Greeks nervously withdrew any savings they had left in banks, the Greek credit rating fell even further, rumors proliferated about when the Greek government would run out of money, whether capital controls would be imposed, and if and how Greece might leave the Eurozone, default, and/or start using a different currency. Like much of Europe, I was puzzled by the SYRIZA government’s relative inaction, especially in relation to the agreement with the institutions on February 20; why were we waiting so long for the clear proposals discussed way back in February? A friend who’s sympathetic with SYRIZA plausibly suggests it’s a matter of the SYRIZA government’s inexperience. On the other hand, many of us are also puzzled by highly experienced European officials’ refusal to provide the type of financial help they gave the previous Greek government, even after SYRIZA agreed to reforms and budgetary restraints. And many of us are frustrated by foreign leaders’ continuing efforts to control Greece in return for bailouts that benefited European banks rather than Greek people.

Depending on where you look or whom you ask, Greece could run out of money April 9 or April 20 if the institutions (the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund) don’t approve dispersal of more aid. Depending on where you look or whom you ask, Greece could be having constructive discussions with the institutions, determined to remain on good terms with Europe as part of the Eurozone, promising to repay all debts; or Greece could be wasting time, on the verge of a major default and an exit from the Eurozone. Around the middle of the month, I first noticed the term “Grexident” used in the news instead of “Grexit.” Whether or not I just missed it before, the new word seems to emphasize that many were beginning to view the possibility of an accidental Greek exit from the Eurozone as increasingly likely. At the same time, the Greek and German governments were engaged in a war of words and economics, with the Greeks asking for war reparations the Germans claim to have settled long ago, the Germans claiming the Greeks are not serious about making reforms or working with the institutions, and both Greeks and Germans claiming the others have insulted them.

Formerly known as the troika, the institutions seem intent on putting as much pressure on Greece as possible now that the country is desperate for money. The Greek Parliament defiantly passed one bill to help the needy, even though they were told they shouldn’t do that. Mark Weisbrot argues that “blackmail is actually an understatement of what the troika is doing to Greece. It has become increasingly clear that it is trying to harm the Greek economy in order to increase pressure on the new Greek government to agree to its demands” after the so-called “bailout,” in which “most Greeks have been not bailed out but thrown overboard, having lost more than 25 percent of their national income since 2008.” Weisbrot claims that European officials are doing this “to show who is boss” and states that “by destabilizing the economy and discouraging investment and consumption” their actions will “almost certainly slow Greece’s recovery and [probably] undermine support for the government,” which he says they aim to do. However, “European officials’ actions could inadvertently force Greece out of the euro — a dangerous strategy for all concerned. They should stop undermining the economic recovery that Greece will need if it is to achieve fiscal sustainability” (Destroying the Greek economy in order to save it). I agree.

Greece needs an economic recovery even more than many realize. Princeton and Harvard trained economist Stelios Markianos points out that “per capita consumption [in Greece] dropped between 2009 and 2013 … by 31.5% adjusted for inflation”—not just 25%, which refers to the GDP--on the basis of Eurostat approved published data. And for Markianos, the solution is not tax collection, since he does not consider tax evasion the country’s major problem (although many would like to see the wealthiest tax evaders, especially, make a fair contribution to the Greek state budget). In a work in progress, Markianos compares state revenues in Greece and Germany, which were about equal at around 47% of GDP in 2013; in Greece before 2009, they were approximately 38% of GDP, and thus comparable with Spain’s and Portugal’s. So, Markianos argues, if Greece wasn’t collecting enough taxes before 2009, neither were Spain and Portugal; if Greece wasn’t collecting enough in 2013, neither was Germany. Greeks pay more taxes than Spaniards and Portuguese and as much as Germans, compared to their economies.

Markianos also compares the size of the informal economy (the untaxed part of the economy) relative to GDP in several European countries up to 2009; Greece does come out ahead in this, with Spain’s informal economy at 22.2% of GDP and Greece’s at 26.5%. However, looking at the size of the GDP and the population, “the actual per capita annual amount of tax evasion was in 2012 higher in Germany and France than in Greece at 4,621 euros, 4,057 euros, and 4,001 euros respectively!” On the other hand, Spain, Portugal, and Germany provide more state services than Greece, so Greece’s problem is not undercollection of taxes, but inefficient overspending. Markianos argues, then, that the Greek state needs to cut costs and corruption and introduce reforms that make it more efficient, rather than focusing on collecting more taxes. And the proof for that, he argues, is that “the focus on additional revenues implemented rigorously over the last five years has proved to result in one of the most profound depressions in history, excluding times of war.”

That’s not to say people shouldn’t pay the taxes they owe—at least when they can afford them, after paying for food, clothing, electricity, water, and rent. I’ve understood for some time that new taxation and austerity measures had not been applied fairly in Greece, but I was still shocked by the details of a “Study [that] finds Greek crisis policies created huge inequalities.” It shows that “the tax burden on lower-income Greek households skyrocketed by 337.7 percent compared to just 9 percent for high-income groups” between 2008 and 2012! How could that make sense? Lower income people who were just getting by were expected to come up with more than three times as much money to pay increased taxes, while those who had more than enough just made a slightly larger payment?! Astonishing stupidity and injustice! As Markianos argues, “this regressive fiscal policy has further deepened the depression, as low income persons tend to consume more domestically.”

On top of that, average public sector pay cuts were just 8%, while private sector pay cuts were 19% from 2009-2013 (not adjusting further for the 0 wage unemployed), the former part of a mere 7.5% reduction in government spending. (And even that 7.5% was keenly felt, as public health care coverage dropped drastically, so it was not the wisest sort of reduction—and SYRIZA is now trying to restore universal health care, since Greece spends less on health care than the rest of the EU [Greece scraps hospital visit fee, to hire health workers].) More than 72% of the “fiscal adjustments” came from increased taxation—mostly of the poor. How could that make sense, with the Greek bureaucracy world-famous for being bloated? Part of the problem seems to be that if more public servants were laid off, poverty would seem likely to increase in this land of more than 25% unemployment. But at the root of it all is the excessive patronage politics that led to a great deal of unnecessary hiring in the first place.

And now the Greek state clearly can’t afford to pay so many people. But this is no longer just the fault of patronage politics; it’s also because “Germany and other euro-zone states are effectively bailing out their own banks, thereby rewarding poor lending decisions and speculation,” as a very good overview of the recent history of the Greek crisis in the New Yorker puts it, and as many others have said before. “Close to ninety per cent of the [bailout] money returns directly to the original creditors, or goes to recapitalize Greek banks; most of the funds don’t even touch the Greek government’s hands,” let alone help the Greek people (What Austerity Looks Like Inside Greece).

Last Thursday, there was a severe dust storm here in northwestern Crete, with strong winds bringing dirt from Africa that blocked our view of the mountains we generally see clearly, and the horizon line between the sea and the sky replaced with something like a fuzzy fog bank. The skies are now clear, but the future of Greece is not.

Four Gestures of Varying Significance

Meanwhile, a two-year-old video of Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis giving the finger to Germany before he entered politics surfaced to great fanfare last month, along with a photo spread for a Paris publication that seems to portray Varoufakis and his wife living in luxury. The question of whether or not Varoufakis gave Germany the finger years ago—and what it means if he did or didn’t--has attracted an astonishing amount of attention. However, the real questions here are whether everyone can afford enough nutritious food, adequate medical care, and housing, whether they can earn enough money to pay their bills, and whether the government will manage to pay civil servants’ salaries and pensions this month. Eating fresh spinach and fresh turkey eggs from friends—that’s real. Fingergate? Varoufake? That’s part of a ridiculous media circus.

A more significant gesture was notable at the Greek Independence Day parade in Chania on March 25, where I was struck by the large number of traditional Greek dancing groups passing by in ornate, colorful costumes that contrasted with the dark blue and white of the parading schoolchildren and with the well-matched, serious precision of the military marchers. I was pleased to note that the general public was no longer forced to make a many-block-long detour in order to avoid approaching government officials who had watched the parade from a place of guarded honor during last October’s Ohi Day parade. Although finance minister Yanis Varoufakis was among the dignitaries this time—a newsworthy event, since he doesn’t live in or come from Crete--the SYRIZA government had decreed that there would be no separation between the people and the officials, and we were allowed to pass by in a more civilized manner, aside from some mild pushing on crowded sidewalks.

Some Germans have joined many Greeks in asking Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government to make an even more important gesture. Discussions about German war reparations for Nazi atrocities during WWII have gained particular prominence now, inspiring renewed debate about whether Greece deserves them, or whether past treaties have already settled the issue. Some argue that Greece was not a party to the agreements that declared the reparations issue settled and claim that was not something that could be decided for this country; others assert that Germany won’t re-open the can of worms of general reparations but might at least consider repaying the forced loan from Greece to the Nazis—or at the very least make a symbolic payment as a gesture of goodwill (see, e.g., Pressure mounts on Merkel over Greek war reparations calls).

A German couple recently went to the mayor of Nafplio, chosen because it was “the first capitol of Greece in the 19th century,” and paid him what they had calculated to be one German’s share of what Germany owes Greece in WWII reparations. (With one retired and the other not working full-time, they couldn’t afford to pay for two.) They were trying to “make up for their government’s attitude” (German couple pay Greece £630 'war reparations'). While two people can hardly make up for a government’s attitude, action, or inaction, I find that a moving individual gesture. If more would make that kind of cross-cultural effort to atone for great wrongs, and fewer would focus on the media circus around a single obscene, but essentially harmless, gesture, perhaps compassionate intercultural relations between individuals would have a greater chance of improving international relations, lessening the harmful effects of the political posturing that creates so much trouble.

Unrealistic idealism? Maybe, maybe not. Too little too late? Perhaps. Politicians  need to get their acts together? Absolutely. But I think such ordinary people’s efforts  are worthwhile. I was also inspired by an article about Erwin Schrumpf, an Austrian who survived the Norman Atlantic ferry fire in December. Both before and after that tragedy, he has been collecting medicines and medical supplies to donate to underfunded Greek hospitals and medical centers, making a noteworthy difference in many people’s lives (Narrow escape from Norman Atlantic fails to dampen one Austrian's support for Greece; see also their web site, although it's not in English). If only I could do something like that! But I’ve already exhausted my family, friends, and friends’ friends with requests to support one fundraiser to help an uninsured, unemployed father of five who has been ill (Help pay Nikolaos’s hospital bills and support his children). My Greek neighbors and friends can and do donate food and clothing for the neediest people here, so that seems to be the most realistic kind of charitable activity for ordinary people within this country. Elsewhere, I’d encourage more people to be as generous as possible to those in need. Of course, private charity is not a solution to the problems facing Greece or any other part of the world, but it can temporarily alleviate a small fraction of the worst suffering.

A Brutal Attack on an Anti-Racist Doctor

At a pizza party to celebrate the strong performance of the children from our school who participated in the Panhellenic Kung Fu Championship, I walked in on a shocked discussion of the brutal beating of a doctor who is well known and loved in Chania for his efforts to help alleviate suffering. In the evening on Greek Independence Day, there was a performance by Yar Aman, a music group of Greeks and migrants, who sang Turkish and Greek songs together in the Old Port of Chania. Afterwards, one of the musicians, a migrant, was verbally attacked by a group of young men. Later, a calm, kind doctor, Dimitris Makreas, who is respected for supporting migrants and caring for those in need, was standing next to the man who had been insulted when some other people shouted at the young men to stop bothering the migrant and go away.

A short time later, according to quotations from Dimitris in a newspaper article, he and his wife were walking down Daskalogianni Street, not far from the Old Port, when he saw one of the young men from the earlier group talking on the phone, looking at Dimitris, and saying “Yes, yes, he is.” Three men were approaching Dimitris and his wife when the one who had been talking on the phone came up behind Dimitris and, without warning—as a video clip from a store’s security camera shows--began to hit him on the back of the head with a heavy wooden handle. A moment later, Dimitris said, three others began kicking and punching him, continuing after he fell down, until an elderly couple began shouting. Even then, when Dimitris managed to get up, a man punched him in the face, throwing him back down and hitting his head on the asphalt, leaving him numb and in pain throughout his body. He was taken to the hospital and treated for a fracture in the front of his skull, a brain hematoma, and bruises on his head. He has been released from the hospital and is recovering from his injuries.

I have heard that at least one witness identified one of the attackers as a member of the fascist group Golden Dawn, and many believe that Dimitris was the victim of an organized assault by a gang of about ten men. Dimitris is especially shocked because some of the young men he identified as his attackers in police photos are residents of Akrotiri, Chania, where he has worked in a community clinic for years, possibly treating some of his attackers’ family members. So far, three men have been arrested for this attack.

Many were surprised that several of the early news reports focused more on damage done to Golden Dawn offices and a store after a spontaneous march to protest this attack, rather than on the serious injury to a human being, while he remained hospitalized. Fortunately, additional coverage provided more attention to the doctor and the brutal attack he suffered. Since the attack, many people have gathered in front of the court house, in a central square in Chania, in the streets of Chania, at various organizations’ meeting places, and in Kounoupidiana, Akrotiri, in support of Dimitris and his migrant friend and in protests against racist violence.

Many feel the attack should have been defined as severe bodily injury or even attempted murder, since several perpetrators repeatedly struck one unarmed person, sometimes with a weapon, and, according to a video, without any provocation. Reporter George Konstas wrote (as translated by Google), “the neurosurgeon Anthony Krasoudakis stressed that apart from the external wounds (on the face, around the head) the most important [problems] ‘are internal bleeding, lesions in the brain and a fractured skull. These blows could cause death. We have seen people killed even with much less severe blows.’”

The timing of the attack shortly after the racist insults, the apparent organization of a gang of ten attackers and accomplices by phone, and the availability of a getaway car—or three cars and one motorbike--have been discussed at length by those who feel that there was a racist motivation for this attack, but the doctor’s lawyers claim this has not been adequately investigated by the police or the judiciary. The lawyers, according to news reports, say witnesses were not pursued, and videos from nearby shops were not entered as evidence. Many local organizations, politicians, and individuals have condemned the attack and called for a complete investigation and full prosecution of everyone involved (Κατακραυγήαπό φορείς και συγκέντρωση διαμαρτυρίας για την απρόκλητη επίθεση σε γιατρό). Now that a good, kind, generous Greek doctor has been attacked, we really don’t know who will be next.

Yesterday, a verdict was announced in the trial of three men: one innocent, two guilty of grievous bodily harm, one of the guilty men also guilty of possession and use of a weapon, with sentences of four years, in one case, and four years ten months, in the other. Both sentences have been suspended until trial in the Court of Appeals, with bail set at 5,000 euros each. All of the attackers are free now, and many of those alleged to have been involved in organizing the attack were not even tried in court, although the prosecutor said the participation of others would be investigated (Χανιά: Ένοχοι οι 2 από τους 3 για τη φασιστική επίθεσηστον Δ. Μακρέα (ενημέρωση) and Ένοχοι δίχως αναστολή για την επίθεση στο γιατρό Δημήτρη Μακρέα).

My Brief Escape into a Wildflower Wonderland

Many do not feel that either the investigation and prosecution of Dimitris Makreas’s attackers, or the case of Greece as a whole, has been handled justly. Many worry about the resumption of racist attacks in Chania after Golden Dawn leaders were released from their pre-trial custody, and many worry about the persistence of unemployment and economic problems throughout Greece. My personal consolation is outdoors, where the 45 species of wildflowers I counted on just one walk in and beyond my neighborhood led me to lose track of time and exercise as well as politics, economics, and racist brutality. Of course, that’s only possible because I am privileged enough to feel fairly confident that my family and I will have enough food, clothing, safety, health care, and housing, whatever happens—although I am adequately aware that I could be wrong about this to worry about our future as well as that of others.

Getting back into walking in the mild, sunny days of the first week of March after a series of viruses struck me in February, I was astonished to see how many wildflowers had sprung up while I wasn’t looking. I’ve seen some since December, but March was the height of their season, and many different flowers came into bloom over the course of the month. (The 45 species I counted one day were not all the same as the 42 I counted another day, and I saw even more different kinds other days.) I am addicted to wildflowers: taking photos and gathering some of the most plentiful blossoms, I lose track of the time and fail to attain the aerobic benefits of a brisk walk. I promise myself not to pick or photograph them some days, since I have enough photos and bouquets, but then I break down and decide we could use a few fresh flowers, or another one of the neighbors might like a bouquet….

There is a profusion of yellow, including Bermuda buttercups, dandelion-like blooms, trees with ball-like yellow blossoms hanging like miniature ornaments, Jerusalem sage, and sharp bushes of spiny broom. White and yellow crown daisies are thriving by the roadside, mingled with upside-down blue violet blossoms with fuzzy stems. A few brilliant red poppies shiver in the breezes, even when it’s warm; various lavender and purple flowers are also abundant. Bee orchids or their relatives are still blooming as various other tiny pink and white orchids appear between pink crepe-paper like Cretan rock roses, white cistus, wild mignonette, and lacy white tordylium. My wildflower habit is hardest to kick this time of year, so I just keep pausing in admiration and hope to get more exercise when the flowers have faded in the heat of the Greek sun.

My rose-colored glasses were shattered when I discovered that the prime  wildflower habitat among olive groves nearby was partly destroyed by a bulldozer’s attack on large patches of ground, probably to gather pruned olive branches, and then by aggressive mowing. The site is ideal for wildflowers since it is kept free of the hardier herbs and shrubs, but hazardous for them since the olive farmer thinks they need to be removed for the sake of his trees—probably, according to the horticulturalist and agronomist I asked, an erroneous belief. A friend and I tried to rescue some of the flowers in danger of immediate destruction—or at least photograph some and save others for temporary enjoyment since they were about to be pulverized. We hope that since none of us except the bulldozer pulls up the roots, the flowers’ offspring will return next year—as they did this year and last—although this is the first year I’ve seen the ground bulldozed down to bare mud (a bad idea in this region of occasionally very heavy rain).

We tried to convince the elderly Cretan farmer mowing around the olive trees to spare some of the possibly rare orchids just starting to bloom toward the end of last month, pointing out a lovely cluster that wasn’t too close to the trees and hence, we argued, wouldn’t hurt them. He nodded, smiled, and took a break from cutting while we were there. But after we’d left, we saw a bulldozer heading for that olive grove. Returning another day, I saw that the farmer had not left us any orchids. But at least he didn’t bulldoze their roots: he just mowed them all down. Nor did cruel thugs destroy the roots of the anti-racist movement in Chania; in fact, in beating down one of its strongest supporters, they united much of the community in support of equality for all. And on the first day of April, schoolchildren in Chania watched a play in which a Greek father overcomes his mean ethnocentrism so his family can befriend some immigrants. We may escape from harsh reality temporarily, but it doesn’t go away while we’re looking at pretty flowers. There is hope, though, if we can educate our children to be anti-racist, compassionate, responsible human beings.

Acknowledgements: I am grateful to the two friends who commented on drafts of parts of this blog posting. Thanks also to the individuals, including journalists, who provided me with information and photos related to the attack on Dr. Dimitris Makreas, and especially to George Konstas and Chaniotika Nea for the photos of the doctor and of people demonstrating outside the court house. (The other photos--including one of a gathering in front of the Agora in Chania--are mine, as usual.)

Friday, March 6, 2015

SYRIZA’s Radical Leftist Moderation: With No Grexit So Far, Life Goes On In Crete

Constant Change, But Is Anything Really Different?


Greek political and economic news is too boring to remind most people who don’t live here of an old-fashioned rollercoaster ride’s ups and downs, but from where I sit on the island of Crete in Greece, it’s been a bumpy month. The news was full of twists and turns in the policy and strategy of Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s new leftist government, along with changing stock market reactions and varying forecasts of the likelihood of a Grexit (in which Greece would leave the Eurozone to return to the drachma). No one I talked to here was sure what to think, with Greek and European politicians talking compromise some days and refusal to compromise other days, the leftist SYRIZA government saying they’d fulfill their campaign promises some days and might not on other days. Reluctantly pushing myself through the required routines of daily life while under attack by three of the many viruses circulating here, I’ve been both relieved to sink into my desk chair for sedentary distraction from my symptoms, and struck with anxiety as hopes here rise and fall. And now it feels like Greece is facing a steep uphill climb. Most Greeks can’t escape this, lacking the foreign job, connections, and money to get away. As one working mother said, “We started the dance, now we have to dance it”—whether or not we were in charge of telling the dancers what to do.

February began with a dust storm in Crete, then shifted between warm southerly winds and cold northerly gusts, mild sunny days and rainy, sleety periods with temperatures almost down to freezing even here near sea level, and the Cretan mountains filled with snow. By the end of the month, we were back to the strong warm, dusty southerly winds, the wildly waving olive branches, and sea mists blowing above whitecapped waves so boats stayed in port and delayed their deliveries to Crete. The question is whether we were also back to the same old story of a detested bailout program imposed by the troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund that we’ve been hearing for years now. 

Many of us in Greece (and elsewhere) have been frustrated by the stubbornness of German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and his allies, who refuse to acknowledge what so much of the world does—that austerity has not worked in Greece, that it is unjust to continue punishing ordinary Greeks to save the banks, and that a different solution is needed here. Commentators disagree on whether Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras and finance minister Yanis Varoufakis have really gained anything substantial for Greece. Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman saw “an unholy alliance … between left-leaning writers with unrealistic expectations and the business press, which likes the story of Greek debacle because that’s what is supposed to happen to uppity debtors.” But according to Krugman, who disagrees with both the angry, disappointed leftists and the disgusted conservatives, “there was no debacle. Provisionally, at least, Greece seems to have ended the cycle of ever-more-savage austerity” (What Greece Won). 

Most of us here seem to think that remains to be seen. A gas station attendant I spoke with believes things will continue to be difficult but figures we’ll know what’s going to happen in about five months. He was probably thinking of Prime Minister Tsipras’s “bigger goal … to deliver quickly on reforms to earn credibility so the government can negotiate a new bailout agreement in June, with terms more favorable for Greece” (In Greek Crisis, Rare Moment of Consensus). I was sorry that SYRIZA was asked to give up on so much of what it had promised voters, and upset that Greece had yet again been pushed to prioritize banks and creditors rather than struggling people. Many who voted for SYRIZA expecting substantial change are even more sorry—or angry. But Krugman insists, “If you are angry that the negotiations didn’t make room for a full reversal of austerity, a turn toward Keynesian fiscal stimulus, you weren’t paying attention. The question instead was whether Greece would be forced to impose still more austerity” (What Greece Won). At least, he says, Greece didn’t get that—for the moment.

No one thinks Greece’s problems have been solved. It’s clear that the government has a tough road of reforms and negotiations ahead of it and that Greeks will see very limited improvement in their situation, if any, in the near future, since the government cannot afford to offer much help to struggling people. So an unemployed Greek mother outside a local supermarket expects no help from the state, and instead begs her fellow citizens for food for her children since she has lost her job in a shoe store. Greece may be allowed to run a lower primary surplus (before debt payments), which could provide some money for relief for the needy. The government might gain some leeway by collecting unpaid taxes, especially from wealthy tax evaders, and fighting corruption and tobacco and oil smuggling, all of which could bring in desperately needed income.

SYRIZA calls the troika “the institutions” now and writes of an “agreement” rather than the hated old “program” or “memorandum” signed by earlier governments—changing the terms--and it did manage to make some of its own decisions about which reforms to focus on. So some agree with Prime Minister Tsipras that SYRIZA won the battle, if not the war. But others say SYRIZA did a U-turn and completely gave in to the other Europeans, led by Germany and other austerity-loving governments such as Portugal and Spain who fear for their own political futures, which could be jeopardized if Europe really made changes to prioritize regular children, women, and men instead of banks and creditors. (For different views, see for example Greek reform list to comprise mainly structural actions, says gov't and A Deal That Preserves Greece’s Place in Eurozone, and Fiscal Restraints, as well as The unlikely winners of Greece's surrender on euro.)

Support for SYRIZA: Still (More or Less) Strong in Greece


I am concerned that some of SYRIZA’s proposals, for example regarding universities, may be counterproductive, others may be impossible to implement in the foreseeable future, and others may be inadequate. (No one talks of abolishing the wastefully expensive system of after-school private schools, or frontistiria, that compensate for known deficiencies in public education—it seems impossible to dismantle such a well-established institution that employs so many.) Nevertheless, SYRIZA is growing on me, which seems to be the case with many here. Even the conservative-centrist Greek daily Kathemerini praised the new government’s flexibility and criticized the Germans’ refusal to acknowledge that the European situation has changed (Stubborn but not almighty). 

During February, SYRIZA supporters were demonstrating in support of the government, for a change. After the agreement with the Eurogroup to extend the bailout program with some changes, several hundred far(ther) leftists did protest the government’s actions, and there was some violence after the march, but that was a small demonstration compared to what Greece has seen in recent years. Some disappointed, angry leftists have criticized Prime Minister Tsipras so harshly that there’s been talk of the most radical elements of SYRIZA withdrawing their support for him. But recent polls show SYRIZA with 41-42% approval ratings overall, with the previous governing party, conservative New Democracy, in second place with only 18-19% ready to vote for them in an imaginary election. An astonishingly positive poll just after Greece signed the Eurogroup agreement showed 68% of respondents “satisfied with Greece’s negotiations with Europe” and 76% viewing “the government’s course as positive so far.” 55% considered Alexis Tsipras “more suitable for Prime Minister” than Greece’s previous leader, Antonis Samaras, who received just 13% of the votes (New Poll: SYRIZA has Comfortable Lead Over New Democracy). 

However, a slightly later poll hints at less enthusiasm: “after the final negotiations [with the Eurogroup] and a four-month extension deal, 43.3% of those polled view the situation as getting worse, with only 15.9% of respondents saying they were optimistic about the country’s future,” and “39.1% of respondents said things are ‘neither good nor bad’” (New Greek Poll: SYRIZA 41.3%, New Democracy 19.2%). On February 25, “it was stock and bond markets that reacted more positively, while Greeks appeared more subdued about the outcome” (Greece gets warnings from creditors, now comes hard part). That is not surprising; nor are the most recent, mixed poll results. Things look better, for the moment, for investors and banks, but to regular citizens and immigrants it’s not so clear. A young psychologist doesn’t know what will happen but keeps hoping: “I trust them; they’re not thieves like the other politicians.” On the other hand, a social worker and mother is “worried. I voted for them. I’m not SYRIZA, but I wanted a change. But now I don’t know. If it doesn’t get better, those of us who want a better life for our children will have to find somewhere else to live.”

No Tie, Untucked Shirt: The Significance of Style


Greeks’ tension was sometimes alleviated by press attention to SYRIZA leaders’ refusal to wear ties and finance minister Yanis Varoufakis’s habit of leaving his shirt untucked. Some Greeks seem to be proud of the bold independence of these rather daring gestures on the European political stage, although one of my elderly neighbors seemed horrified by it, asking me whether anyone had ever seen such a thing before. In any case, even those who pay little attention to political or economic developments noticed Greek leaders’ clothes as the leftists rebelled against a more conservative world order stylistically and hence symbolically as well as politically. “Varoufakis becomes unlikely heartthrob in Germany,” announced a headline last month. Unlikely heartthrob, indeed—and does it do any good if some ordinary Germans are attracted to the Greek finance minister, if the German Prime Minister and finance minister are dead set against him? 

A German satire video from NEO MAGAZIN ROYALE that had been viewed over 1.3 million times by March 4 complicates the question by suggesting that Varoufakis puts the “hell” in Hellenic with his James Bond-like sex appeal, domineering awesome-ness, and Facebook friendship with Voldemort—strange claims (even in a satire) for someone who strikes many as pretty friendly and straightforward for a finance minister. This satire self-consciously examines the way Varoufakis poses a threat to some Germans’ understanding of not only politics, economics, and priorities, but also style, manners, and the culture they belong to. (Watch at your own risk, and only if you’re over 17; this should probably be rated R.)

In portraying someone whom many consider a casual, ordinary smart guy as a dangerous evil villain who’d befriend good ol’ Harry Potter’s nemesis, the satirical video emphasizes the cultural differences between northern and southern Europe which have previously been masked by conservative manners and clothing. Letting it all out in the open makes many people nervous, rather like a discussion of racist attitudes toward African Americans or their right to dress and speak as they wish. Georgetown law professor Paul Butler seemed to imply a similar connection when he said that “Greece is the young black man of Europe. Both get all these finger-wagging, cultural critiques – they’re undisciplined, impulsive, lazy, hedonistic. The subtext is ‘just stop wearing your pants below your butt, Greece, and it will be all good!’ But both sets of issues are deeply rooted in historical deprivations and structural inequality” (Reading The Times With Paul Butler). Act more like the American white middle class, act more like the conservative/centrist elite European political class—that seemed to be what Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi wanted Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras to do when he gave Tsipras an Italian tie. But we haven’t seen Tsipras wear it yet, since he has vowed not to wear a tie before he gets the Greek debt situation under control. Many of us still think, “Good for him!” as the underdog stands up to the mighty ones, attempting to fight inequality and deprivation. But will he be allowed? Can he manage it?

Grexit, Anyone?


In the last month or so, the likelihood of Greece leaving the Eurozone has moved up and down along with hopes, varying between one in four and one in two, as far as I’ve heard. This was part of the stomach-churning ride through the month, since if Greece exited the Eurozone, life here would be even more difficult for some (undetermined) time. One Greek father I talked with at our school’s pre-Lenten carnival party seemed to believe leaving the euro would just mean some confusion at the supermarket as Greece changed currencies again—how many drachmas for this milk?--as if there would be no greater consequences in everyday life. However—leaving aside what would happen to the rest of the European and world economies, which are most people’s main concern, but not mine or ordinary Greeks’—it looks like a Grexit would mean much more than that for Greece.

Various commentators suggest that newly printed drachmas would make Greeks’ money worth much less than it was before, so that the price of imported goods, including certain foods, petroleum, and medicines, would rise incredibly and even be rationed and/or available only on the black market (The Grexit Dilemma: What Would Happen if Greece Leaves the Euro Zone? and Ending austerity in Greece: time for plan B?). It seems quite likely that there would be high inflation and lower living standards, and Spiegel also predicts many bankruptcies. Many expect “social unrest,” possibly riots (e.g. Here's what happens if Greece is forced out of the euro). An increase in the already serious brain drain would likely be accompanied by a worsening recession, although most seem to think Greek tourism and exports would become more attractive due to their cheaper costs, offering possible hope for the country’s economy—although how much hope, how soon is unclear (see e.g. Grexit: How likely is a Greek exit from the Euro and what would happen to the economy?). Given such threats on top of years of recession and 26% unemployment, it is unsurprising that a recent poll found 81% “in favor of Greece staying in the euro, while only 15% prefer returning to the drachma” (New Poll: SYRIZA has Comfortable Lead Over New Democracy).

For Now, Life Goes On


Since we haven’t left the Eurozone so far, business and life carry on pretty much as usual here—with the usual high unemployment, reduced salaries, pensions, and benefits, and closed businesses, that is--even if we do wonder whether we’re heading for a rollercoaster wreck. One hairdresser and mother of three hasn’t even been following the news, but her customers, like many others, seem to think things will stay about the same here. Some hope for at least a bit of improvement; others don’t know what to think. Everyone is just waiting to see what happens. Meanwhile, snow falls on the mountains, rain falls near the coast, the sun comes out, the winds blow, and the anemones, buttercups, almond blossoms, orchids, and daisies bloom. Students head to school and after-school activities; those who still have jobs head to work; adults find ways to take care of families, houses, laundry, cooking, shopping, and errands.

I fight with my dryer and dehumidifier daily, trying to convince it to work. A plumbing problem leaves us with too little water to shower, run the washing machine, or even wash hands and feet properly for a couple of days. Then the electricity blinks on and off, so I scramble to unplug appliances lest more of them get fried to death as so many already have here. I expected all the outages we had during the week of our fiercest storms, particularly on one especially cold, windy, rainy/sleety day, but not the blackouts of the calm, sunny day. I should know by now, though, not to take electricity, water, or phone service for granted here. Even within the Eurozone, life in Greece is no vacation. 

Carnival Time: Let Them Eat Cake and Cheese Pies


In the middle of last month, our school’s parents’ association organized its annual pre-Lenten carnival party at a restaurant we took over for a few hours at midday for a break from our rollercoaster of stress. There may have been a slightly smaller crowd than in previous years, but parents provided all the usual cheese pies, cakes, cookies, popcorn, sandwiches, and donuts. This year, Zumba dancing was replaced by kung fu exhibitions, and the punches, kicks, blocks, and turns of the more advanced kung fu students--especially the one with the sword--impressed the watching parents and costumed children. Our instructor inadvertently added extra drama to his routine with a long staff when he shattered a large, globular glass light fixture above him; he joked that that was a special effect until he learned that one little girl was cut by a stray glass shard. After the glass was swept up, games began, with dozens of the younger children holding a large colorful cloth they could lift into a balloon or playing a “land/sea” game where they jumped to one side of a line or the other as instructed, while older kids played their own games outside. Greek dancing by everyone from kindergartners to grandmas followed, with many of the children’s costumes beautifully complemented by the artistic face painting of a white-faced mother in a Japanese kimono.

I didn’t see as many vampire girls this year as last, but there was the usual contingent of small princesses and Spider Men, my kids reported sighting a number of Darth Vaders, and there was a variety of clowns, belles, Ninjas, and pirates male and female, plus a female police officer with her face attractively (if incongruously) painted half full of flowers and a lovely female Joseph (of the Technicolor Dream Coat, but in pharaoh assistant garb) courtesy of last month’s musical. Unfortunately, the party, like most events of its kind here, was a prime site for virus transmission—at least, school absences and parents’ illnesses suggested as much the following week. 

Viruses, Sleet, Snow, Flowers and Compassion


The flu hit Greece hard this year, along with a generous selection of additional viruses; “olos o kosmos,” the whole world, was said to be sick here, and two neighbor children were even hospitalized. A pharmacist’s assistant commented, “I don’t want to attract the evil eye, but I haven’t gotten sick all winter,” and I promptly knocked on wood, while the customer waiting behind me pretended to spit to discourage the “evil eye” from destroying what it might view as too much good luck: Ftuy Ftuy. 

Right after I told my cold, snowed-in American Facebook friends that we don't have snow days in our part of Crete, I looked out the window and was astonished to see a sleet storm. Just at the moment when school was letting out, no less! My kids insisted that it was really snow—at least higher up the hill at school—since they managed to collect enough from a corner to throw at each other. Snow and sleet are always a surprise here near sea level, although the Cretan mountains were hit by loads of snow last month, and a fair amount in January. We managed to find a foot of mountain snow in mid-January, to the kids’ and my delight, since we weren’t driving the car that slipped around on the slushy, winding single-lane road. As the kids threw snow at each other and D, I photographed a snowy mountainside punctuated by pointed rocks above us and evergreens below, fading into the hills and the distant sea.  

However—unlike us--many Americans got their fill of snow this winter. I discovered that posting photos of Cretan winter flowers is a better way to attract attention on Facebook than discussing the Greek economy, Greek politics, or my Albanian friend Spressa’s brother Nikolaos, who had emergency surgery for a duodenal perforation, a life-threatening complication of an ulcer in the small intestine, here in Chania in January, and then needed treatment in an Albanian hospital for an infection after he returned home. Thanks to the help of some wonderful, compassionate family members, friends, and friends of friends, we managed to raise enough money to cover Nikolaos’s Greek hospital bills, which is important since Nikolaos is unemployed and uninsured, with no savings or safety net. There are still Albanian hospital bills to pay, the possibility of more tests and treatment in Greece, and food to buy for Nikolaos’s five children. Could you contribute even a few dollars or euros to help this unfortunate family? However much you may be struggling, I know they are much worse off, financially, than most of the people who read this. Please go to this site to learn more and help them, if you possibly can!