Friday, July 31, 2015

Greek Crisis, Summer 2015, Part 1: An American Immigrant in Greece



The News in a (Large) Nutshell


It is both ironic and unsurprising that I have not found time to post blog entries in the two most anxiety-provoking months of Greece’s recent political and economic crisis. I have enough material for a book (including 357 pages of news clippings this month), but time is another story. I’ve spent many days nearly overwhelmed by the dizzying array of disturbing news. I’ve spent other days caught up in the daily lives of my family, my community, and my new Syrian refugee friends.

For more details about the tumultuous Greek political and economic news (and its effect on the olive oil industry), see my Olive Oil Times articles (more are linked on the right side of the page); or if you already know the Greek news, skip to the next section. Here’s the news in a nutshell: On June 27, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras broke off negotiations with creditors and announced a referendum on whether Greece should accept creditors’ terms for more loans. Then the European Central Bank (ECB) stopped providing emergency liquidity assistance to Greek banks, the banks were closed, capital controls were imposed, and the economy sank deeper into depression. A majority of voters rejected creditors’ terms on July 5, but the prime minister accepted a similar agreement with creditors in order to save Greece from a sudden, chaotic exit from the Eurozone—which most Greeks do not want to leave.

Banks were running out of money because anxious depositors had been withdrawing their savings, fearing losses in a bail-in or a change to a devalued drachma. On June 29, with banks closed, ATMs began dispensing only 60 euros per account per day; after three weeks, an equivalent weekly limit replaced the daily one. Still in effect even with banks open again, capital controls have made life difficult for anyone trying to make major purchases, pay rent or bills, or run a farm or business, deepening Greece’s depression.

After Greece edged very close to a Grexit, the Greek parliament approved one austerity agreement after another, albeit unwillingly, with the support of Euro-friendly centrist opposition parties but without the support of about a quarter of the members of parliament from Prime Minister Tsipras’s leftist party, SYRIZA. Creditors required this approval in order to begin negotiations on another loan package and other financial assistance. After the parliamentary approval, Greece received a bridge loan to allow it to catch up on debt repayments, and the ECB resumed limited emergency liquidity assistance to Greek banks. Work on a third bailout agreement is beginning as the prime minister tries to calm dissenters in his party who are opposed to the additional austerity measures it is expected to require. The future of the SYRIZA-ANEL radical leftist/right-wing nationalist governing coalition is uncertain. Another round of national elections is likely this fall.

Many agree that reforms are desperately needed in Greece, but increasing numbers admit that additional austerity measures and still more tax increases—such as the sales tax increase already passed by Parliament—are unlikely to allow the Greek economy to recover, let alone grow, in the midst of a depression. (See, for example, this excellent article on why pensions should not be be cut more than they already have been, and taxes should not have been raised more than they already were: Pensions in Greece Feel the Pinch of Debt Negotiations.) It seems clear that Greece requires some form of debt relief, since debt at 177% of the GDP is unsustainable. Yet German leaders and their allies want to wait until fall to discuss that.

Insecurity and Frustration: Responses to Uncertainty and Limitations


Even before Tsipras called for a referendum, people were nervous. For example, my mother in law said there was havoc at a bank in Piraeus on Friday morning, June 19, when the bank ran out of money and closed early, and customers shouted that their money was being stolen from them. Even then, some were unsure if banks would open the following Monday, and they naturally wanted access to their own money in these hard times—wouldn’t you?

Recent news has been more nerve wracking than at any other time during the Greek economic crisis. With the dreaded capital controls, bank closings, and default on part of the enormous Greek debt no longer a threat, but a reality, we also approached the brink of a Grexit from the Eurozone, and many claim a Grexit could still occur, although probably not this year. More and more people have been talking about a return to the drachma, but I am relieved that it was avoided, at least for now, because I believe it would lead to shortages of imported items such as fuel and—most importantly—medicines. I do not think we would ever starve in Crete, where agricultural products literally fall off the trees in my neighborhood. (I have been collecting unwanted lemons, grapes, and figs lately, and a neighbor has given me tomatoes from her garden.) But I am concerned about Athens and other areas of less abundance, and about those whose lives depend on imported medications.

It rained the last Saturday morning in June (very unusual for that time, in Crete), shortly after the prime minister announced the referendum. A Greek neighbor said a supermarket employee commented, “so the Germans have taken our sun from us, too.” Many consider the Germans’ and their allies’ hard line on austerity at least partly responsible for Greece’s continuing depression. Others blame the Greek government. I don’t understand the logic of any of them.

I was bewildered by Tsipras’s decision to hold a referendum, since that decision led the ECB to cut off liquidity assistance and hence resulted in capital controls that have cost the country a great deal in lost business. But I was even more astonished when the prime minister urged parliament to support an agreement most consider worse than the one voters rejected. Many Greeks were furious as well as disappointed that all the hardship created by the bank closures and capital controls accompanying the referendum decision was not followed by a better deal for Greece, but (according to many) a worse one—in spite of the still-delayed possibility of debt relief, which could have been discussed in any case. The political developments of recent months have been unbelievable, but the social and economic effects have been far too real.

Many people are struggling to keep going. With salaries and pensions already cut, taxes already increased, and many just getting by before all that, how are they to manage now? Between July 1 and July 24, Doctors of the World had 275 visitors to their free medical and social services clinic in Chania, mostly unemployed Greeks. The doctors and social workers there do crucial work, helping far more people than they did before the crisis, but they cannot perform surgery there or provide endless supplies of medicine, let alone jobs. Soup kitchens are super busy, charities are underfunded, and refugees have set up camp in an Athens park; too many people need help.

The cicadas are prospering; there are so many this year that they often fly into me when I walk under the trees here in semi-rural Crete. Greek people, however, have had trouble sleeping after middle-of-the-night announcements and parliamentary debates. I’ve seen dozens of people waiting in line at ATMs in Chania since the Saturday of the referendum announcement. The roads were full of traffic that Saturday, as everyone scrambled to supermarkets to stock up on necessities and formed lines at gas stations that still had gas. Clothing and cosmetic stores were largely deserted as people focused on the necessities. However, aside from a few days of limited amounts of gasoline until payments to gas suppliers could be arranged, I have seen no shortages in supermarkets or pharmacies here at all, nor have I spoken to anyone in Greece who has seen them.

On the other hand, businesspeople lacking funds to restock their stores are struggling. NPR reported recently that the Athens Chamber of Tradesmen claims 15% of businesses could close by September if capital controls continue, on top of the 250,000 already closed during the last five years, since Greece imports 70% of the non-food items sold here, and imports are at a standstill with money transfers abroad still restricted (Struggling Greek Businesses Choked By Money Controls.) Other ordinary people are also running into problems: people like the retired priest without a bank card who lives in a village where there was no bank open for three weeks to provide the pension always claimed in cash; the educated dietician who is working three jobs, including one as a store clerk, to earn 800 euros a month, believing things can’t get any worse; the dentist unsure how she’d pay for attendance, food, and lodging at a professional conference in Europe since her credit and debit cards wouldn’t work outside Greece. And these are the lucky ones who still have jobs (probably with reduced wages and benefits), not the more than 25% of Greeks (or over half of young people) who are unemployed. I’ve heard of some who get around a lack of cash by exchanging eggs from their hens or tomatoes or greens from their gardens for a cooked meal.

Many Greeks feel insecure about their future in this time of crisis. Many are tired of discussing all the problems, and the way the “solutions” offered are not working, since more and more austerity (including too many tax increases) with too little reform just doesn’t stimulate a depressed economy—or a depressed population. Yet life goes on here—especially for the children, who do not yet realize they will inherit whatever debt their parents’ generation of Europeans does not forgive.


Remember the Children of Greece

Children finishing sixth grade face a different sort of insecurity and a different kind of change, reminding their parents that insecurity and change can be a normal part of life, not only an aspect of crisis management. With my daughter saying goodbye to her elementary school this year, the end of the academic year featured even more gatherings than usual. Aside from the annual kung fu demonstration and the yearly song and dance show featuring all the elementary school classes, families participated in an evening of games in the schoolyard, watched a Greek sixth graders’ version of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, and gathered for a night-time beach party.   

This may seem to confirm the myth that Greeks party too much to have real problems, but I want to emphasize that the events I’m discussing all cost very little, taking place outdoors or in public buildings, with no more money spent on contributions than one would spend on a family meal, very basic costuming assembled at home (plus one ten euro skirt), and virtually no scenery for the performances. These events are not evidence that Greeks are lazy or extravagant, but rather that they try hard to carry on as well as possible in the face of severe economic difficulty—wages down by an average of about 21% in the last five years, family incomes reduced by a third. (For some statistics, see e.g. Greeks Worry About Bailout’s Push for an Economic Overhaul). Rather than giving in to despair, most parents think a lot about   their children, and these events showed them making the most of creativity, volunteerism, imagination, determination, and community spirit for the sake of the kids.


When the elementary school parents’ association organized a big party outside our school, association members and their friends planned and refereed the games, families brought scraps of cloth, old buttons, and leftover art supplies, and money left over from families’ annual 10-euro contribution to a school fund covered souvlaki and drinks. Greeting various parents and grandparents as I hurried from one game to another to photograph both of my kids with their classmates, I felt satisfied to be part of that cheerful, close-knit community. I so often hear Greeks say “let the children be well,” “let the children have fun.” They did.

When I was in sixth grade in Pennsylvania, we managed to stage a musical version of Alice in Wonderland in the school cafeteria/gym, but that was a modest effort compared to my daughter’s class’s Greek version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Shakespeare did strike me as a surprising and over-ambitious choice for eleven year olds, especially given insufficient rehearsal time in their final venue. Even so, the combination of gracefully dancing sprites, a comically cavorting group of boyish players, and poised leads remembering many lines provided outlets for various types of talent and beauty, entertaining a good crowd of family and friends in the theater of a local community college.

This year’s annual end of school performance by all the elementary school children occurred too early in the day for working parents, shade, or comfortable temperatures, unlike the usual evening gatherings. However, “Around the World in 80 Minutes” featured joyful and sometimes impressive performances by the children, with attempts at a variety of ethnic costumes and some striking songs and dances. The show offered not only the expected stereotypical costumes and mannerisms, but also a welcome exposure to songs sung in different languages, including Chinese, Spanish, and Kannada (from India). It invited the children—almost (but not quite) all of them 100% Greek--to imagine themselves belonging to different cultures. 

The sixth graders’ night-time beach party was a modest family affair, except that children who knew nothing about campfires attempted to feed and leap over them until they were extinguished. I admired the silhouettes of children reveling in their first evening at the beach, splashing and playing in front of the setting sun, bathed in a sea of glowing reflections of the joys of childhood play. Those kids did not really doubt that their lives would go on much as they have, even in a different school with different classmates, instead of the ones they cry to think of leaving after six years together.

Gazing up at the dark starry sky during a lull in the party, when the fires had been put out and I considered my kids fairly safe, I couldn’t remember it being such a big deal to finish sixth grade, although I was scared of starting middle school. On the other hand, I have been surprised by brief scents and tastes of my childhood in the rare Greek raspberries that appeared in organic stores twice this summer, and the campfires at the beach party—minus the marshmallows we used to roast. I have a completely different life here than I did in the USA, and I am not sure what will happen to that life in this time of crisis, but I felt a sense of security as a member of a community of interwoven families at the school parties and performances

With Refugees at the Anti-Racist Festival and Tourists Enjoying the Greek Summer


The refugees from Syria who are still in Chania after 15 months do not feel the same way. Separated from parts of their families as well as their homeland, where their homes and belongings have been destroyed, waiting to reunite with husbands, wives, fathers, or mothers in another strange land, they probably feel far more insecurity than sixth graders, settled American immigrants, or even many of the Greeks who are facing an economic crisis. Attending Chania’s Anti-Racist Festival with some of the Syrian women and children I’ve met this year gave me a very different perspective than I had at last year’s festival. Sitting behind a table filled with their handmade strawberry and bergamot preserves, date-filled Syrian cookies, and Arabic calligraphy saying “My country is in my heart” and “No to racism” in what looked more like beautiful paintings than writing to ignorant me, I used my broken Greek to translate their somewhat limited English as they sold what they had made, when our German friend wasn’t there with her more fluent Greek.

It only occurred to me the next day that sitting behind a table next to Syrian Muslim women who were covered in long coats and headscarves and walking around the park with them and their children might have had more significance than simply spending time outside with new friends, looking around, and stretching our legs. After the attacks in Tunisia, France, and Kuwait at the end of last month, I realized that literally standing by Muslim women and children, joking with them, sharing food after sunset during Ramadan, tickling a little one’s feet to cheer her up after an allergic reaction to insect bites, meant more than I’d thought at the time. I just felt like I was relaxing with my new friends, helping them get out of the small hotel rooms where they spend most of their time, into a large park with anti-racist folks milling around, chatting, sharing their ideas and literature, giving lectures, playing music, selling food and drink, helping children with art projects, or reading fairytales with an egalitarian twist. And of course I was doing all of that, too.

Shortly after the Anti-Racist Festival, some American friends visited us in Greece on their way to Ukraine, where one of them has family and business partners. I wondered if they’d been asked if they would visit Syria this summer, too. Of course, their trip was planned long before anyone knew that Greek banks would be closed and cash would become scarce, and they were heading for western Ukraine rather than the trouble spots. Especially since my friends were coming with plenty of cash, I encouraged them to continue their trip here as planned. And like all the tourists I’ve heard of, they had a wonderful time here, with no problems aside from luggage delayed by a non-Greek airline. The sea is still a lovely clear aquamarine, the sky a brilliant blue. The mountains, gorges, caves, monuments, museums, and beaches are still here. The Greeks my friends met at their hotel, in Chania’s Old Port, at the Botanical Park of Crete, and at various restaurants were friendly and helpful. My American friends were able to do what they wished, and they would recommend Greece to anyone who can manage to come. They hope to come back to see more of the island, since one week is certainly not enough for a visit to Crete. Tourists, take note: Greece is a challenging place to live, but still a truly wonderful place to visit.

Summer came upon us suddenly about a week early this June, with temperatures up in the 90s, the fuschia brilliance of bougainvillea climbing out of gardens, pink and white oleander blowing in the wind by the roadsides, apricots, cherries, and honeydew ripening, cicadas’ buzzing drone occasionally replacing birdsong, multiple end of school performances and parties, and our closest brush yet with a Grexit. At the farmers’ market, I heard one vendor calling out, “peponia san baklavadakia,” or honeydew as sweet as baklava, and Crete does offer incredible fresh produce. The weather moderated into comfortable temperatures here until the end of this month, when the heat hit us again, but it is often relieved by sea breezes. Now I smell the oleander and ripening figs baking sweetly in the hot sun, reminding me repeatedly of the abundance around me on this fruitful island, where every walk gives me a view of the endless blue of the sea.

May the creditors allow Greece to take advantage of its talented people, its beautiful islands, its historical heritage, its lovely beaches, its abundant olives and other produce. May the Greeks find a way to use the great potential of the people and the land for an economic comeback. Tourists, consumers, writers, you can help too. Come to Greece, buy Greek olive oil, wine, olives, feta, and other Greek products. Write to politicians and editors in support of the Greek people. So many prominent economists blame non-Greek bankers and politicians at least as much as Greeks for the situation here that I have lost track of them. But whatever you think about the adults, Greek children are certainly not to blame for the mess the country is in. They deserve your support.



Sunday, May 31, 2015

Negotiation, Taxation, Crisis, and Grimbo; Holidays, Flowers, and Hope



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. 

On April 9, also known as Holy Thursday, I was astonished by two things: a brief, very rare hailstorm here in Crete, and a report that “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.