Sunday, January 31, 2016

Reforms, Roadblocks, and Refugees in Greece’s Mid-Winter Spring

Chickens, Flowers, Goats, and Greens

In the middle of a newspaper article about recent Greek political events, this interpolation surprised me: “After the meeting, a 51-year-old woman was arrested outside the Maximos Mansion for throwing a live chicken into the front yard of the building.” This strange sentence about a farm animal in Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s yard in Athens appeared in an otherwise unremarkable discussion about the leftist prime minister and the new conservative centrist party leader, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who were said to “find little common ground in [their] first meeting.” As Tsipras, his SYRIZA colleagues, and their right-wing coalition partner ANEL prepare for their attempt to push wildly unpopular pension reforms through parliament, Greece’s New Democracy party chose 47 year old Mitsotakis as its leader and moved ahead in polls. But in that news article, it was the woman with the chicken that really stood out.

That interjection strikes me as very Greek. In addition to countless stray cats and dogs, sheep and chickens share my semi-rural Cretan neighborhood. Large flocks of sheep sometimes block the main road, and a herd of goats regularly grazes just beyond the neighborhood, tended by a shepherd who keeps it away from flower and vegetable gardens. The local roosters could turn into dinner at any time, although the hens are valued for their eggs. Since middle-aged and older women generally handle them, it’s not surprising that a 51 year old woman was holding a live chicken. Only its appearance in Athens and intrusion in the prime minister’s yard make this newsworthy. What was her point? That the Prime Minister needs to think more about how people will pay for necessities if taxes and social insurance contributions are increased? That chickens don’t usually roam around the nation’s capital to offer sustenance to the hungry? That proposed tax, insurance, and pension reforms could jeopardize the livelihood of rural folks who provide the country’s meat and produce?

One day, I followed a goat path up a rocky, muddy hillside for an unimpeded view of a striking cloudscape. I was surprised by three dogs roaming around among the wild shrubs, where I generally meet no one. Looking up, I saw their owner and said (in Greek) “Hello! How are you?” “Happy New Year,” he responded (with the greeting of the month). Then, after a moment, “Do we know each other?” I didn’t think so, but he thought I was very polite. I considered it best to be friendly and noticeable, since some Cretan men with dogs carry hunting rifles.

On the hillside, I discovered that lavender buds were almost ready to open in the warm sun of our mid-winter spring, and tiny purple thyme flowers were blooming. I plucked a pinch of each and inhaled their scent. Higher up, I encountered inch-wide daisy-shaped flowers with purple spots in the center and miniature crocuses with six pointed white petals and bright yellow centers. As I crouched down to photograph them, attempting to avoid thorny shrubs, I was startled to hear the honks of some invisible geese. The honking was soon replaced by gentler chirps, distant dog barks, and nearby bee buzzes. 

Descending the hill, I heard the bells that herald the animals of a grizzled goatherd I’ve spoken with a number of times. Having seen me gathering wildflowers, he asked where my flowers were. I was taking photos instead of blossoms that day, since it was very wet after the rain, and my sneakers weren’t appropriate for the eight inches of soggy sorrel under the olive groves where purple and pink anemones had called to me last time I went by, offering a lovely bouquet with a few early daisies.

The friendly goatherd suggested I gather wild greens, since many are now in season. I’d thought of that myself after noticing older couples searching for them. He offered to show me which were edible before noticing that my sneakers wouldn’t hold up next to his knee-high rubber boots. I was glad a friend arrived in an old pickup truck to distract him with a missing animal problem, and I got away with an offer of a lesson next time we meet. I should take him up on that, given a BBC News Magazine report on “Why some Greek pensioners may have to forage to survive.” So far, D and I have been lucky, but it is not only pensioners who have to forage for food. Only one woman dropped a chicken in the prime minister’s yard, but others are protesting in their own ways. 


Neckties and Tractors in the Streets

In other parts of Greece, hundreds of farmers have been blocking roads with their tractors, urging the government to reject steep increases in their taxes and social insurance contributions. Pensioners have been marching in Athens protests, fishermen have been blocking harbors, and ferry workers have refused to work for two days at a time, keeping boats in port three times recently. (This makes a big difference in a nation of islands, where gaps begin to appear on stores’ shelves if boats don’t deliver the goods.) In a “necktie revolution,” even lawyers, doctors, notaries, and engineers have been protesting and striking over the government’s plans to follow creditors’ orders to reform the pension system. One engineer claimed that the proposed law would result in “84 percent of our earnings … go[ing] to taxes and other contributions” to the state, pushing him to join the country’s general brain drain and seek work outside of Greece. The Federation of Livestock Associations made a nearly identical claim about farmers losing 83% of their earnings should current proposals be carried out. Farmers fear they’ll be pushed off the land, rather than out of the country.

Since I cannot understand how any logical European leader could contemplate the imposition of such extreme levels of taxation and insurance contributions, and I think there must be some logical leaders involved in this, I hope there has been a misunderstanding somewhere. But maybe not; even by Greek standards, the extent and breadth of recent protests have been noteworthy. And the third general strike in three months has been called for February 4. Yes, reforms and cuts are desperately needed here, but not reforms and cuts that push people into abject poverty or out of the country. “Poverty anywhere is a threat everywhere,” according to Nigerian billionaire Tony Elumelu, who is giving “10,000 young entrepreneurs $10,000 each of his own money” in an effort to reduce the threat of terrorism in Africa. Who will reduce the threat of extremism in Greece? The neo-fascist Golden Dawn party has been gaining adherents as taxes and unemployment increase here.

Refugees Resisted

Educated Greeks are leaving their country in search of jobs and opportunity, but over 50,000 refugees and migrants have arrived here just this month. Greece doesn’t know what to do with them, since there are no jobs to offer, the rest of Europe is resisting their entry, and European leaders cannot agree on a course of action. The proposal to redistribute 160,000 refugees in Greece and Italy throughout Europe has not been carried out (except for 414 people). The plan to pay Turkey to provide better conditions and support for the 2.2 million refugees there seems to have led to little reduction in migration to Greece so far. And now a Dutch politician has a new proposal: take several hundred thousand refugees from Turkey into Europe annually, but immediately return to Turkey those reaching Greece on smugglers’ boats. Aside from the fact that this would unjustly deny refugees’ right to have their asylum claims examined, I don’t see why that would work when the previous two proposals didn’t. 

I do see that babies, children, women, and men continue to drown in the cold sea between Turkey and Greece even now. So does the Greek soccer team that staged a two-minute sit-down protest against the inadequacy of EU and Turkish actions before a recent game. Turning Greece into a massive refugee camp by closing its northern border while its unemployment rate remains near 25% and its people struggle with major reforms and tax increases would not solve the problems facing Europe, but it would probably help smugglers increase their business. As the mayor of the small island of Lesvos said, “More than 550,000 people passed through the island of Lesvos alone - which is but a dot on the global map - and we didn't close borders. Greece is doing whatever it can. It's doing a lot more than it can” given its own problems and small population. This is especially true of private citizens, grassroots groups, established NGOs, and visitors from around the world. With a few noteworthy exceptions, it is not true of most other countries, including many that are far more prosperous than Greece.

After almost two years here in Crete, three children, two women, and one man from three different refugee families continue to wait in a Chania hotel for reunification with their families in Germany and Sweden. These are some of the lucky ones who are not stuck in the violence and destruction of Syria or the overcrowding and poverty of a refugee camp—situations almost too horrible to dwell on, let alone dwell in. But think of this, which is easier to grasp: children and parents, wives and husbands have been separated from their formerly peaceful lives, their homes, and each other. Refugee families should be reunified promptly. They have lost everything else; at least let them have their families.

If Kenan Malik is right that “the key problem lies not at the level of policy at all, but at the level of attitude and perception,” your perception of the problems facing refugees, and your attitude toward these human beings, could make a difference. Think about how you would feel in their shoes. Imagine that.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

A Happy or Unhappy New Year in Greece? Celebration, Decoration, and Deprivation

Springtime in a Cretan December

Around our neighborhood in early December, days would go by when I observed the same fuchsia bougainvillea hanging on at the end of the season, the same palms, eucalyptus, and bright lemons or bitter oranges. (Another ho-hum day in a botanist’s paradise.) Then suddenly I’d notice something different—flowering thyme, the earliest anemones, new lavender like tiny, pale green pine trees. One day I followed goat tracks up a hill full of hardy wild shrubs to discover dozens of brilliant little purple and white saffron crocuses with their golden stamens and crimson stigmata. The delicate blooms darkened in the shadow of massive clouds that filled the sky almost up to where it met the sea, but the blossoms lit up when the sun emerged.

In the warmest year on earth, as our planet heats up and El Niño returns, this Cretan December felt even more like spring than fall usually does here. Warm temperatures complemented the crocuses, daisies, early anemones, and undulating green and yellow carpets of sorrel beneath the olive trees. Tufts of new grass sprang up after the rain in muddy farmers’ lanes. The White Mountain peaks first saw snow in the middle of last month, missing their typical November appointment.

Holiday Bustle, Hope, and Charity

Before the Christmas holidays, middle and upper class Greeks who still had jobs dashed from work to school to pick up children, return home for a late lunch, and shuttle the kids to their activities. Parents stopped at stores decorated with garlands, tiny lights, paper snowflakes, and various sizes, styles, and colors of Christmas trees for gifts and holiday treats. They whirled from one party to another--parties organized by schools’ parents’ associations, sports groups, music teachers, and the many Greeks celebrating their saints’ name days last month.

Even so, Greeks could not help remembering that many here cannot buy their children all the shoes, coats, and clothes some classmates have, let alone pay for parties or gifts, because they have no job or too little income, cannot pay their rent and bills, and may even be homeless. Unemployment continues to hover around 25% after years of economic crisis and political and social upheaval. All the supermarkets in our part of Crete long ago placed dishwasher sized bins for donations of non-perishable items for the needy near the checkout counters. Both of my children’s schools collected food for impoverished people before the holidays. Women, children, and men wished us happy holidays and a long life as they sought donations on city sidewalks and outside suburban grocery stores. In Chania, Doctors of the World organized a Christmas bazaar near the farmers’ market and set up a food drive in front of downtown tourist shops, with a four-foot pile of condensed milk and other canned goods attracting attention in front of tables with brochures and a donation box.

Perhaps Greeks, who are closer to financial disaster than many Americans, need fewer reminders that scientific studies have linked “financial generosity … to lower blood pressure,” so that for those who have extra, “spending money on others may improve physical health.” Even for those who do not have enough, “helping others may act as a buffer against the stresses of daily life,” since “simply writing a supportive note to a friend can protect people from the surge in blood pressure that typically occurs in the face of a stressful event,” as the New York Times recently reported (in Give, if You Know What’s Good for You).

Many have been impressed by the generosity of ordinary Greeks toward desperate refugees, even in the face of Greeks’ own economic struggles. One empathetic, unemployed Greek PhD I know commented that “one thing poverty does to you is to prevent you from helping others, and this is devastating more than when you cannot help yourself.” Yet she and a friend managed to make some winter hats for refugees—only to emphasize that she is one of hundreds involved in grassroots efforts to knit or crochet winter hats for those who need them: “I do not do anything special.”

Other efforts to help also stand out. The Press Project in Greece selected Matina Katsivelis as their Person of the Year for 2015 for her selfless, caring work to provide shelter for refugees landing on the island of Leros, as well as necessities for those who end up on Farmakonisi. She was recognized for her refusal to give up in the face of difficulty and for remaining “in the line of action exactly where it counts most; where the refugees arrive in their hundreds and thousands in rafts from Turkey…. Keeping hope alive, and responding to plain necessity, she kept trying to drain the sea of human suffering.” A moving interview with English subtitles follows the article.

Another noteworthy Greek venture led the Council of Europe to award the 2016 Raoul Wallenberg Prize to Agalia, “a Greek NGO operating on the island of Lesvos, for ‘outstanding achievements in providing frontline assistance to thousands of refugees irrespective of their origin and religion.’” In Greek, “agalia” means “hug”--something many refugees appreciate, as many volunteers’ experience shows. Grassroots endeavors to compensate for the inadequacy of both Greek and international governmental actions inspired a petition to award the Nobel Prize to residents of Greek islands for their contribution to the refugee crisis. I signed it today, adding to more than 110,845 signatures since November 16.

Christmas Time in Athens

Outside the metro station in Monastiraki’s main square, several bunches of Dora, Spongebob, princess, and Santa balloons rise above the crowds. Beyond the carts offering bread rings, coconut, and chestnuts for sale, a young man plays with fire that burns at the points of a four-foot wide star in the center of a wide circle of onlookers. The tourist shops and souvlaki restaurants are all open on the streets branching off from the square, although winter hats and gloves have replaced summerwear, and icicle-type white Christmas lights hang above the pedestrian crowds between the shops. Walking away from the square, we can glimpse the Acropolis between the buildings.

On bustling Ermou Street en route to Syntagma (Constitution) Square, street performers play instruments, sing, and present puppet shows as others sell roasted chestnuts and corn on the cob outside chic stores. The biggest audience is drawn to four young musicians who play acoustic guitar and violin and sing familiar Greek songs as listeners clap, sing along, or—in the case of one white-haired woman--come forward with arms raised for a short, impromptu dance. On another street, Attica department store’s famous window displays mix Santa with black-clad mannikins in puffy white hair.

Next to the Parliament building at Syntagma Square, cars zoom beneath strings of white star lights. This year’s Syntagma display features a giant artificial tree, plus strings of white lights, blue stars, and white balls haphazardly strung all over the real trees, in a possibly halfhearted attempt at festivity. In the center of the square, crowds mill around by a fountain lit, like the Grande Bretagne Hotel, by lights of changing colors. Santas gather with Micky Mouse for photos with children, and tired migrants sell balloon swords and hearts for whatever we wish to pay. A full moon rises above Parliament. Athens does not look as festive this year as it has in recent years, even during the crisis: there are fewer Christmas lights and outdoor children’s events. 

On Christmas day, a migrant drummer and clarinetist on a suburban street play Greek carols as an associate seeks contributions. One of the musicians agrees to a photo, but the other keeps his back to me. Young migrant men sell roses and balloons in downtown Athens, and older women sell evergreen and holly branches all around the capital. A sidewalk sale offers a gorgeous selection of pink and red cyclamen and hearty red poinsettias that grow into trees here if planted in the ground. Bakeries display neat pyramids of kourambiedes covered in snowy powdered sugar beside heaps of spicy brown melomakarona that have been saturated with honey. Rows of New Year’s cakes or vasilopites line shelves next to a variety of breads. A father and daughter go caroling in matching Santa (or Agios Vasilis) costumes. But it’s not the most wonderful time of year for everyone, whatever the TV song may say. Fireworks exploding over the Acropolis for the New Year create a striking picture but last for a very short time.

It’s Not All Merry and Bright

On sidewalks and trains all around Athens, women, children, and men appeal for money to stave off their hunger. The cold snap that reduced temperatures to around freezing just before New Year’s sent them in search of the warmth that makeshift cardboard shelters rigged up on park benches could hardly provide in a sharp northerly wind. If only I could have remembered where the government had opened warm shelters, I would have told the homeless men I saw, but I’d just read about that in the comfort of a warm, dry house and forgotten the details.

I am not sure whether one taxi driver in Athens really has two master’s degrees and don’t know if he speaks six languages, as he claims, but that could be true. It is quite possible that another man has a university degree in finance but can now find work only as a taxi driver, as a friend who used to work in a bank must now drive a city bus. And I do know what three other Greek friends have been reduced to doing, in spite of many years of training and experience. They gave me permission to share their stories, using pseudonyms to protect their privacy.

Vasilis earned a degree as a ship mechanic at a technical college in Piraeus and worked on ships full time for 15 years. Last year he worked just 43 days. He would have worked even less if he hadn’t been a friend of the head engineer who arranges for contract work on ships. People like Vasilis have been able to earn very little in recent years, since Greek shipyards started closing down after the government agreed to reduce ship construction to let Germany and Italy’s industries develop back in the 1990s, and ship owners have sought cheaper labor abroad during the economic downturn. This has left many families lacking even one wage earner, and increasing numbers malnourished and dependent on the free clinics of Doctors of the World for their healthcare. Since 2004, Vasilis has worked when and where he could, with only one job lasting as long as 18 months.

Generally, Vasilis explained, Greeks must work at least 50 days a year in order to be eligible for IKA, the government-sponsored health insurance. Some years, exceptions were made due to the lack of jobs; other years, there was no exception. To get unemployment benefits for one year, Vasilis told me, one must have worked at least 250 days the previous year. After one year of benefits, the unemployed must wait two years and work at least 250 days in a year for another year of benefits. This is difficult since unemployment still stands around 25% nationwide, and there are almost no jobs for shipyard workers. In Perama, which has been largely dependent on shipyards, there was 60% unemployment--95% among shipyard workers--in 2014, since shipbuilding “is now being outsourced to shipyards in China, Korea and Turkey, where labor costs are much lower and minimally regulated,” according to the International Business Times.

Vasilis last received unemployment benefits in 2011. Now only his youngest son is able to work full time in an effort to support their family of four. A college graduate, this son works six days a week for 500 euros a month, or about 2.60 euros an hour. Compare that with the $15 minimum wage discussed in the U.S. Yes, some things cost less here in Greece, but others—including taxes—cost more. And so many families are supported by just one job or pension, however much--or little--that may bring in.

My friend Eleni is struggling with underpaid underemployment that creates serious financial difficulties. Her husband’s pension has been cut like everyone else’s, her own income reduced to just 250 euros a month for teaching two college classes and writing 200 pages of notes for her students every six months (a book’s worth). So they need to say “next year” to their young son, who wants to rent toy cars, go on rides, and buy ice cream during a holiday outing focused on a playground and a stroll by the sea, since those are still free. A professor with a PhD and 25 years of experience, Eleni feels like she has lost her professional identity. She wonders if she can call herself a professor—or what?

Eleni is afraid she will lose her apartment since she cannot make her mortgage payments. She blames the world’s major powers for bombarding some countries and destroying others—such as Greece--economically. Feeling like “a refugee in my own country,” she acknowledges, “certainly it is worse to bomb your country, but it's also bad not to have a future,” not to have one’s choices respected, not to have dignity, as the increased numbers of suicides in Greece during the crisis seem to emphasize. “It’s like a war,” Eleni says. Like many, she believes the major powers are using austerity measures and the third memorandum of agreement to turn people against the leftist government so it will fall. (Others argue that powerful nations approve of this government now that it follows their directions.) Yet Eleni realizes that “there are worse cases” than hers and adds, “Maybe I should not complain, after all.”

Another friend, Katerina, has a PhD and two other postgraduate degrees, fluency in four languages aside from Greek, plus multiple publications and talents, but after 197 applications for jobs, postdoctoral research positions, and fellowships in various countries, still no luck! She has given up on Greek universities and institutes, which are not hiring for permanent positions or paying part-timers on time, if they hire at all. Katerina points out that “it is one thing to become an expatriate because of better career prospects abroad, and another thing to become a migrant (or refugee) because you cannot live in your own country. This is the situation for many Greek people. I am still lucky because with a good education I have some chances for a good job in a sector I like abroad, if I ever find it. Other people do not have even those chances.” Fully aware of the plight of non-Greek refugees and other unemployed Greeks, she feels grateful to have managed to travel, do interesting research, and continue some of the artistic activities she enjoys in recent years, due to “the class privilege that I had by birth, which still gives returns.” She considers herself “privileged in comparison to other people,” such as women without a university degree who must “try to cope with the situation with even less means and perhaps less hope.” 

Katerina has joined many well-educated offspring of middle-class families in applying for jobs for which she is vastly overqualified, for example at translation agencies and a cruise ship company—and still has found no long-term work. Without a steadily paying job for many years, she feels that she is “currently in such a dire situation that you cannot imagine,” struggling to cover basic expenses and lacking access to the public healthcare system for six years. Katerina feels fortunate that she still has electricity and running water, enough blankets and clothes, and “some food.” But after spells of poverty during the last 15 years, she knows very well that with very low and unsteady income, however wisely one manages money, it may not be possible to avoid a worse situation. As Katerina and Eleni remind me, many of the women and men now standing in line at soup kitchens, sleeping in the streets, and seeking clothing from churches and other groups in Greece are well-educated people who once felt securely rooted in a middle class life like mine. But as Eleni points out, they “lost their house, their job, their dignity.”

It is Epiphany today. The schools and stores in Greece are all closed as hardy swimmers “dive into the sea to retrieve a wooden crucifix” and Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos calls for “the light to smash the darkness of poverty” (Epiphany celebrations in Athens). Hear, hear. May the New Year bring new hope and opportunities to all who need them.


Many thanks to the friends who agreed to share their stories with me in order to help others better understand the situation in Greece. Thanks also to Doctors of the World and all the other volunteers who have done so much to help impoverished Greeks and needy refugees.

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Greek Olive Harvest as Escape from Austerity and Unrest, Violence and Suspicion



Ferry boat in Piraeus harbor

It’s been happening again, as we knew it would: the creditors formerly known as the Troika are pushing the Greek government to pass more austerity measures, and many demoralized, struggling Greek men, women, and even children are responding with more strikes, protests, and occupations. In early November, pharmacists went on strike over new regulations about who can open pharmacies, ferry boats stopped running for four days, pensioners in Athens protested additional pension and benefit cuts, farmers demonstrated against expected tax and pension contribution increases, and secondary school students occupied their schools—to name a few off the top of my head. Another general strike is coming later this week. 

Occupied junior high school
I think I understand how people feel if they've worked hard all their lives, perhaps investing time and effort far beyond the call of duty, only to lose their jobs or have their wages or pensions reduced to below what they need to pay their bills and buy necessities, as if they were totally expendable and deserved no respect or consideration. I can imagine how helpless these people must feel if they have no way of making enough money to meet their obligations. I do not believe Greeks are generally lazy; I’ve met too many who are hard-working and dedicated to their jobs.

However, the young student council members I saw at a local junior high school on November 2 looked like they were seeking excitement and power more than anything else. Why wouldn’t it be thrilling for teenagers to keep the principal and teachers out of school, determine which students could come and go, and oversee a vote on whether or not to “occupy” the school? When I asked why they were preventing classes from taking place, one said “Ma’am, look at the building where your child has class”—pointing to one of the prefabricated temporary classrooms brought to the schoolyard to compensate for overcrowding in a school meant for far fewer kids.

“Temporary” classroom (right)
True, that’s far from ideal, and true, there were not enough teachers at the school, but how would keeping the teachers out and learning less improve that situation? How would that solve the many real problems facing the Greek educational system? I wouldn’t ask these questions if student occupations of secondary and tertiary schools were confined to rare cases of pressing problems the powerful simply refused to acknowledge, but that’s not the case here. Occupations are very common, the rule rather than the exception, almost more expected than noteworthy.

The students argued that changes would be made because the authorities didn’t want the schools to remain closed, but if it were that easy to make the changes, it would have been done long ago. I urged my daughter—who was in the sensible minority of 62 against the occupation, vs. 300 in favor—to talk to her schoolmates about trying to come up with solutions they might discuss with the principal, the mayor, or the minister of education, rather than just shutting things down.

Science Day, Technical University of Crete
If only Greek students could get out of the habit of “occupying” schools and missing class, and in the habit of working hard for dialogue, progress, and positive solutions, maybe something could be done. Maybe not, because the system is so messed up and so starved for money that solutions are elusive. But I’d really like to see more of the constructive, productive efforts from students that I see from other Greek citizens—and from students on some occasions. (See, for example, In Greece, Volunteers Provide Olive Oil for Families in Need, and “Greeks Bearing Gifts” in my October blog entry on the university science fair, in which hundreds of student volunteers participated.)

The school principal, parents’ association representatives, and some parents will be talking with the mayor about the overcrowding problem. Wouldn’t, couldn’t, that have happened in any case? Okay, one day off school isn’t that big a deal, but the senior high schools took a whole week, and that means a lot of classes missed. Students had little enough school already since the “school day” ended at varying and unpredictable times between 12:30 and 2:00 through mid November due to the Greek government’s annual failure to assign enough teachers to each school by the time the school year starts. I’d like to see students work with teachers to draft a logical schedule of summer planning to help government officials prevent that.

Earlier this month, editor and writer Nikos Konstandaras wrote that “[r]epeated protests that disrupt lives without achieving much else are not the greatest problem that the Greeks face but highlight the dead end of our politics, our economy and our society.” He added that “[c]itizens know that whatever plans they make will be disrupted by the plans of others,” but “most Greeks” simply tolerate this. While this tolerant attitude used to be “based on acknowledging the right to protest,” Konstandaras asserts that “today it betrays exhaustion. It leads to resignation and apathy” (Tolerance and resignation).

I do see quite a bit of that here. Coming from a different place, though, I feel anger and disgust at the wasted efforts to make a point by disrupting the lives of those who can’t fix the problems being protested. Yes, the affected citizens can contact their legislators or vote for different lawmakers in the next election, but the combination of an entrenched party system with the rule of the creditors and the disappointing showing of the newest political party to take control of the government (after the old ones were voted out) suggest this will result in little improvement.

Many of us are thoroughly fed up with the political situation here. I am disappointed that none of the attempts at new political beginnings during the years of the crisis seem to have succeeded. The disbursal of the latest 12 billion euros to the Greek government was finally approved after Parliament narrowly passed the latest measures demanded by the creditors, but few seem to believe most of the measures being passed this year are productive rather than destructive to the Greek people and the Greek economy.

Athens store
Jobs in commerce, for example, show drops in salaries and increases in part-time and temporary, rather than full-time and long-term, employment (More jobs in commerce but most new positions are part time). Shipping companies—a major source of Greek wealth—continue a trend of leaving Greece (Dozens of domestic shipping firms have relocated to Cyprus). Debts pile up as people are unable to pay, and national economic data are even worse than expected.


Olives at Terra Creta’s mill, Kolymbari, Crete
Lacking any solution to the major problems of Greece, it’s much easier to turn to everyday concerns, such as when the water company will resume service to our neighborhood (“in a little while”), or the olive harvest—which have occupied many Cretans (as well as other Greeks) this month.

One day, I stopped by an olive grove where the denuded tree trunks with almost no leaves left, and the piles of branches all over the ground, seemed to indicate that the trees were being cut down for firewood. However, I soon saw that there was still green netting under the branches that hadn’t been cut, with a small generator nearby and a man using a hand-held mechanical harvesting instrument--a long rod with some small moving parts at the end--to dislodge olives from the leafy branches of some very tall old trees, so olives flew off onto the nets below. A middle-aged man and an older relative were pruning trees on the other side of the lot, but he assured me that in two years the twenty trees would produce plenty of olives again.

Olive harvest in Crete
A stout, gray-haired older woman in a dark dress and apron sat on a crate at the edge of the grove, observing and advising the harvester. A very friendly middle-aged woman who introduced herself as Irini spoke with me about their harvest and their trees, apparently quite interested in my interest. Irini told me the old woman was the olive harvesting expert, involved with it annually since she was a little girl. We watched as the harvester climbed into a tree to reach the olives on the highest branches. Irini told me they had just one harvesting machine because it cost 200 euros. But since they live in the village of Malaxa, around half an hour away, they were trying to finish all the work in one day. (They didn’t manage.)

Irini showed me a device off to the side that resembled a barbecue grill; there they separate harvested olives from leaves and branches after they’re gathered from the nets. Irini emphasized that olive harvesting is hard work that makes the arms really tired by the end of the day. But she seemed proud to be doing it, since she mentioned the health benefits of olive oil as part of the Mediterranean diet, pointing out that it could help prevent cancer and other diseases.

Olive harvesting equipment
Irini said they expected to press 800 kg of oil from their olives—surely including olives from other groves. 100 or 150 kg they keep for their family; the rest they sell when the price is decent -- 3 or 4 euros/kg -- at the mill in Chania where their oil is pressed. Irini said the oil they sell may be exported to Italy in bulk or bottled in Greece and sold in Germany or London. Irini thinks it could be sold for as much as 50 euros per kg, although that sounds far too high to me. Of course, she knows her family will not earn much compared to the retail price; the merchant makes the real profit, she said. For most Cretans who own olive trees but are not professional farmers, the point does not seem to be profit; rather, they supply themselves and their families, and sometimes some friends, with a basic element of their diet, and if they have more olive oil than they need, it provides a bit of helpful income.

So many Cretans spend weekends or, if they have many trees, two-week fall vacations from work (taken instead of summer holidays) harvesting olives in their family groves. One neighbor and her family (six of them) gathered olives from their 40 trees over two weekend days, collecting 38 large burlap sacks of olives, which yielded 180 kg of olive oil. They gave 20 kg of the oil to the mill as payment for the milling; the rest will provide their family and a brother’s café with about two years’ worth of olive oil. 

Olive groves near Kolymbari, Crete
This year, in order to write well-informed articles for the Olive Oil Times, I have spent a lot of time learning about olive oil, its health benefits, its production, its harvest, and its taste. (I’d already started learning how to use it during my years here in Greece.) I’ve discovered an incredibly scenic part of the prefecture of Chania: the endless olive groves on the hills and valleys of Kolymbari. I’ve observed and (very briefly) assisted in the harvest. I’ve seen different methods of pruning and harvesting: one in which large trees are pruned before the highest branches are harvested, so olives are removed from cut branches that are held against a special machine, with plans to return later to finish the pruning; another in which the olives are harvested first in the usual way, and then the trees are cut back so far that they’re little more than a stumpy trunk with a few branches. I’ve learned that olive wood and some of the olive waste that remains after milling can be burned for heat, while olive leaves can be eaten by sheep and goats. I saw a farmer back his pickup truck up to a leaf holder at Terra Creta’s mill which opened to drop leaves into the truck and onto the farmer. 

Stone mill at Biolea in Astrikas, Crete
I’ve watched olives unloaded from burlap sacks into a vat so they could climb a conveyor for washing and entry into the mill. I’ve seen huge piles of olives collected before processing, watched them being washed and crushed into paste. That was most exciting with the stone mill at Biolea, where huge millstones came around their circle toward me, throwing occasional bits of olive into my face. I’ve seen the paste pressed by Biolea’s traditional presses, so it runs down the side of piles of round mats in streams. I’ve seen the fresh oil run out of a pipe in a golden flow, then tasted its bitter thickness. I’ve talked with a marketing manager, company owners, a taster, an industry organization leader, a scientific advisor, an entomologist, an exporting association leader, and olive farmers and producers. They have opened up a fascinating new world to me that is rooted in the trees, the land, and the fruit that produce Greece’s valuable liquid gold.


Syrian refugee children
The world of Greek olive groves is not the world I come from, nor the world I read about in major news stories. The gentle, hollow, tinkling clanging of goats’ bells emphasizes the quiet calm of my Cretan neighborhood in contrast to the panic of Paris after the terrorist attacks there, in Beirut, and on a Russian airplane. I have been wondering what ISIS leaders were thinking. They are obviously not worried about killing people most of us consider innocent; they do not seem concerned about intensifying the war against them. Nor are they worried about the fate of the millions of Muslim refugees seeking asylum in Europe, where increasing numbers of citizens seek to turn refugees away and leave them homeless and stateless.  

I am so sad for the people who have been injured, those who suffered as they were killed, and the families of those who died. I can imagine the anxiety of the people who were or are afraid to leave their homes, whether in France, Belgium, Syria, Iraq, or elsewhere. And I feel distressed by the thought of all the refugees trying to escape shooting, bombing, or kidnapping in Syria and other countries who now have to face greater suspicion and fear, and much greater likelihood of rejection and hatred, thanks to terrorists and the xenophobes whose arguments terrorists appear to have strengthened.

Encouraged by major European countries, a number of Balkan nations have begun allowing only refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan to enter, leaving other migrants stranded in Greece. The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia is the latest country to build a fence along its border, in this case with Greece, to control the flow of migrants. A summit meeting between Turkey and EU members this past weekend ended with agreements on various concessions for Turkey, plus 3 billion euros to improve conditions for refugees there, in exchange for Turkey’s increasing efforts to stop migrants from entering the EU illegally. I have not heard anything about refugees being allowed to work legally in Turkey, however, which should be a major concern. The major concern was apparently to keep refugees in the region, and out of Europe, except when invited in.

Even so, German chancellor Angela Merkel has continued to call for Europeans to “liv[e] our values with courage” after the terrorist attacks (Attacker’s Possible Link to Migrant Trail Heightens Security Fears). The New York Times reported that Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, was among those reminding people that “[t]hose who organized these attacks, and those who carried them out, are exactly those who the refugees are fleeing.” A Czech volunteer who works with migrants added, “What happened in Paris on Friday night is happening in Syria every day, and it is exactly why those people are running away.” A Latvian man suggested that if we help migrants more, “the risk of a terror attack happening again would be less” (Paris Attacks Shift Europe’s Migrant Focus to Security).

Say No to Racism, Open Borders signs
While it is much more difficult to weed out the one in 100,000 or so terrorists who may sneak into Europe among refugees than it is to keep terrorists from entering the U. S. disguised as refugees, given the one and a half to two years’ vetting of those destined for American soil, that doesn’t mean 99,999 innocent, desperate children, women, and men need to be rejected for each terrorist who hides among them. Lately, American citizens with guns have been killing more Americans than foreign terrorists have, and it’s mostly European citizens who are committing terrorist acts in Europe. Yes, this could change, and of course we should try to stop terrorists, but we also need to continue to make refugees welcome.


Heather among other plants
Musical migratory birdsong has replaced the summer’s cricket and cicada sounds in semi-rural Crete. The smoke from wood fires in fireplaces adds an autumnal scent. On hillsides leading down to the sea, dark rust-colored buds that will open into tiny pink-purple blossoms on low wild shrubs mix with dry grey branches left over from the summer and new green leaves brought out by a few early and recent rains. The high humidity that comes with darkness and stays past dawn produces cool, damp school mornings, but temperatures often get into the 70s before midday in this very mild autumn, so we struggle to convince our kids to wear light jackets.  

Walking on one of our warm, sunny, calm late November days, I met a neighbor who was collecting edible wild greens, or “horta.” He told me that where he came from in northern Greece, no one collected wild greens. His Cretan mother in law taught him what was what after he moved here. He showed me three different kinds of greens, and when I asked him if the sprig I held was thyme, he said no, it was throumbi (pronounced throombee--savory), a “cousin” of thyme. We found a great deal of wild thyme as well, with its new leaves just beginning to cover the dry grey branches of summer, and only a few of its tiny lavender blossoms open. The throumbi got its new leaves and flowers earlier.

Irini discussing the harvest
I commented on a large herd of goats feeding on the wild shrubs on the side of a gorge. I’d been thinking the creatures were rather picturesque, and a rustic sign of Greeks making do (letting the livestock eat where and what it can). But my neighbor replied in disgust that it was a “catastrophe,” because the goats eat so much that the plants don’t grow back. Learn something new every day and every year. I have, thanks to Greeks, including olive oil farmers and businesspeople, and thanks to migrants and refugees I’ve spoken with. This keeps life interesting, exercises the brain, and broadens the mind. 

Olive groves near Kolymbari, Crete