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Archive for the ‘Greece Life’ Category

I remember March on the island last year as being full or wildflowers, soft warm breezes, and lots of time spent outdoors.  We even went swimming in the sea around the end of March.  This time… not so much.  Today we’re waiting for snow.  I’ve never seen snow in Southern Greece except way up in the mountains, in the 12 years I’ve been in and out of this country.  When I lived in Northern Greece (near Thessaloniki), we had snow a few times, even snow that would stick.  Traveling through the very highest mountains in the Peloponnese, I have seen snow.  Here on the island, it hasn’t even gone below freezing yet this year (although it sure feels like it when the humidity is very high and the cold north wind blows).  However, it is currently snowing in Athens, and we have been hearing that snow is expected here as well.

Yesterday was Clean Monday – the day when Greek Orthodox Christians traditionally start their Lenten fast, which lasts for forty days until Easter, much like in the Catholic church, except the calendar is different.  Clean Monday is traditionally a day for kite-flying, because it usually falls somewhere in mid to late March, when there is usually a lot of wind but also a lot of sun.  Aside from the kite flying, there is the eating:  despite the fact that it’s the first day of fasting, there is still a long list of foods (not particularly light, for that matter) which are usually consumed.  I did my best to recreate this for my husband, who, while not a Greek Orthodox Christian, grew up with these traditions and wants to keep them alive.

The Clean Monday feast is called Koulouma, affectionately, and is primarily based on a type of bread called lagana.  Lagana looks very much like focaccia, in that it is flat, squooshy-looking, and has lots of little holes.  I thought about making lagana but decided to buy it at the local bakery, since it occurred to me that maybe they make it in some special local fashion that would be nice to try.  It tasted exactly like normal bakery bread, while costing twice as much.  Oh well.

We also had taramosalata, which is a dip made of running soaked bread, codfish eggs, and oil through a food processor.  Pink food coloring is added in most commercial versions to make it more appealing to 1950s housewives.

We had fasolada, a very basic Greek bean soup made of navy beans, carrots, wild celery, potatoes, and tomatoes.  This is one of my husband’s favorite foods, for some reason; it tastes fine but kills my stomach (I fell asleep at 6:00am, to give you an idea) and we eat beans at least 6 times per week.  We even changed the cooking water.  Oy.

We had olives, both Kalamata (his favorite) and Thassos (my favorite), and olive paste.

We had tsikoudia (well, he did – I think it tastes like rubbing alcohol) which is a Cretan drink much like raki.

We had halva, a sesame seed dessert popular during Lent because its extreme calorie content keeps you going when you’re fasting, I suppose.

End result:  NOW I want to fast.  NOW I don’t want to eat for forty days.

Oh……  I get it now!

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And the wait is over!

We have just been notified (finally) that:

1) we are going back to the same island (so, so, so overjoyed about this!)

2) we have to be there tomorrow, which is physically impossible, thanks to ferry schedules, etc.

But at least we know which island we’ll be living on.  Not which house or anything like that, but we know SO much more than we did a few hours ago.

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Just like in the Tom Petty song.

It’s August 31.  My husband is a schoolteacher in Greece, which means that on September 1, he is required to show up, in person, at the school where he will be teaching for the duration of the 2010-2011 school year.

Last school year, 2009-2010, he was teaching on our little island, a 9 hour ferry ride + 6 hour train ride + 4 hour car ride from his parents’ house in the far NE corner of Greece by the Turkish border.

Our little island is so overrun with tourists in the summer (July and August) that the little house where we were living changes from €240/month to €120/night.  We obviously can’t afford that so we had to pack up all of our belongings into our little Euro car and board the ferry, then the train, and then drive out to his parents’ house, where we dumped all our stuff and the car, before flying down to Athens for my summer job.

When my summer job ended two weeks ago, we flew back to the in laws’ and started staying with them, the idea being that we would use that time to pack up our stuff, stock up on stuff we can’t get on the island (a lot of things), and then start the process of moving back in reverse.

The only problem was that there was no guarantee that we would be going back to the same island.  The Greek system officially considers schoolteachers “soldiers” (peacetime soldiers perhaps, but still soldiers nonetheless) who are expected to carry out orders with no notice and are not considered to have families or personal lives.

So here it is, 9:20pm on August 31, and we are supposed to be on the island by tomorrow.

The only problem is, they still haven’t told us which island to go to.

Because my husband is a teacher, he is paid on the expectation that he shows up at work every day starting September 1.  If we’re not on the island tomorrow, he doesn’t get paid, or more accurately, it gets counted as vacation time (which, obviously, since teachers have the summer off, they don’t get a lot of “extra” during-the-school-year days off).

If we find out tomorrow, and it does turn out to be the same island as last year, which is what we expect, we will not be able to leave tomorrow.  That’s because leaving tomorrow (Wednesday)  means getting to the ferry port on Thursday, but there is no ferry on Thursday.  There is a ferry tomorrow, but the next one is Friday.  So we will not be on the island until Friday.  That’s another day of “vacation” counted against us.

All of course in the context of us being ready to go for the past 12 days at least.

Instead, we’re sleeping on the in laws’ living room couch (not a pull-out couch, just a couch), while their small apartment is full of the two parents, one brother, us, the 86 year old grandmother, and a large dog.  Because we are in the living room in an open-floor-plan apartment, it also is the same room as the kitchen and the dining room and access to the balcony, as well as the place where the exterior door opens into.

This means we are always the last people to be able to go to bed (last night my father in law wanted to watch a basketball game until 2am – and the TV can only be watched by sitting on the couch where we sleep), and we wake up when the first person gets up (which is my brother in law, who comes into the living room/kitchen every morning at 6am to make a cold coffee using a blender.  In between 2am and 6am, the dog is on the balcony barking.  So to say that we get 4 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night would be … generous.  It’s more like 4 hours of interrupted, poor quality, sweat-covered sleeplike substance.

I am so exhausted and I just want to sleep, find out where we’re moving yesterday, get through the two-day journey, find an affordable and decent place to live, unpack our stuff, and start living our lives again.

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I’m 29.  The island got electricity during my lifetime.  It likes to remind us of this periodically.  We went without internet, phone, and fax for three days.  Luckily (in the middle of a fierce heat wave) we got to keep our electricity (i.e., air conditioning).  So I spent the last three days with no connection to the outside world at all.  That means something entirely different when you live on a small island that is already very cut off from the rest of the world.

Yesterday I spent the whole day (9:30am until 5:00pm) teaching my friend Anna how to make bread.  We made bread out of cornmeal, whole wheat flour & seeds, and white flour.  Then our husbands showed up to eat most of it.  It was a very nice way to spend a day.  I love baking bread, and I’m surprisingly good at it, considering that I did it for the very first time about 18 months ago.

The day before that, we watched the World Cup game in which Greece won over Nigeria.  It was a very exciting game, and I really got into it (yesterday, when the USA was robbed of our victory against Algeria, I kept falling asleep, and in fact slept from the point that it was 0-1 Algeria until I was awakened by the screeching commentators complaining about the final score of 2-2 (when it should have been 3-2 USA).   But I really got excited about the Greece game, because Greece actually cares about soccer/football, whereas the USA does not.  (Example:  I have 500 Facebook friends, the vast majority of whom are Americans, and only 2 of them posted anything related to the World Cup game in which the USA very legitimately should have been pissed off.  If the same thing had happened to the Greek team, they’d STILL be screaming about it.)

The day before the Greece game, we went for a night swim in the sea.  We’re in the midst of the first annual heat wave, and the sea is still hot at night.  The water was so warm, in fact, that even I just ran right in and swam, whereas I normally spend half an hour inching my way into the water.

But our big news, aside from being cut off from the world, winning a Big Game, baking lots of bread (and chocolate chip cookies), and swimming in the sea, is that we are on the strictest budget I have ever seen.  Starting on June 16, when we were hit by yet another round of salary cuts (at this point it’s gotten so entirely ridiculous, we are resigned to the fact that my husband’s salary will keep decreasing over time, despite his increasing experience, service, and so on), and facing the reality of moving (expensive) and a number of other upcoming expenses, I sat down with the facts and figures and wrote up a budget.

It started as a yearly budget:  this is what we make, this is what we most likely will spend over the course of a year.

Then it turned into a monthly budget:  this is what we know we make this month, these are the expenses we expect to have this month.

Now it’s a weekly budget:  this is what we have in the bank right this minute, this is how many bottles of non-poisonous water and how many cucumbers we think we can scrape by on this week.

To put things into perspective, it’s now Day Four of The Budget, and so far, for all things (everything from food to gas to medicine to whatever else people spend their money on), we have spent €18.18, of which €12 was for bottled water, and the rest was for tomatoes, three packets of yeast, and lemons.  And we’re hoping we don’t have to spend anything else this week.  Fingers crossed that we can make it through an entire week on less than €20 for everything, because we have a bill next week for €200.

As long as “nothing happens,” and we eat lightly cooked beans (the bottled water won’t last long enough to cook them more than lightly) and the bread Anna gave us from our baking spree yesterday, we should be able to finish out the week without buying anything else except 1 L of milk.  Fingers crossed, because the one thing we absolutely refuse to do is to borrow money (credit card, bank, parents, etc.).  We are going to get by on €20/week living in one of the most expensive places in the entire world.  Because that’s what a small island that uses the Euro in a country with serious economic problems and high inflation and no subsidies for small islands is.

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I’m American.  As an American who spent 11 years learning Greek and doing everything else humanly possible to flee the United States permanently, “my fellow Americans” don’t usually think of me as a particularly patriotic specimen, and they’d be right.  But just because I spend my time in the US whining about how much better things are in Greece (even when that’s blatantly not true), it doesn’t make me any less American.  Because you either are, or you aren’t.  I have a US passport, I was born in Washington, DC, and I pay taxes to the IRS.

I much prefer living in Greece.  I didn’t do this for any other reason than that I like it here.  But there are a few things that I genuinely miss.  Some of them can be sent over or brought over in a suitcase, some of them I just have to live without.  I decided to come up with a list of them, for your amusement.  Ask yourself:  could I live without these things?

-Ziploc bags. All sizes and varieties. They are not sold in this country.

-Saccharin sweetener. I can’t use aspartame (which we do have here), because I lack the enzyme to detect its sweetness (or something like that), and saccharin, the oldest and most harmless of sweeteners, is classed as an illegal carcinogen here.

-Cellophane / plastic wrap. Yes, you can buy it here, but it’s crap. It sticks to itself when you don’t want it to. It’s like the plastic wrap we had in the US 20 years ago, that always left you with a weird feeling of angst and struggle.

-Tampons. Again, they are available, although they only represent about 2% of the “feminine care products” in any typical store’s selection (the 98% being made up of the old pantyliner thingies that we American girls have been shunning for at least two decades). The ones they sell here are the really old kind and are yucky.

-Fake maple syrup. You can get real maple syrup (it’s expensive, though) but sometimes I just want the fake low-sugar / low-calorie kind.

-Whole-berry cranberry sauce. I think I might start to cry if I don’t just move on.

-All those over-priced but low calorie and easy to prepare premade foods like VitaMuffins, BocaBurgers, and so on. I can’t even buy a frozen veggie burger here. I may need to get my mom’s 35-step veggie burger recipe.

-Bagels. Especially raisin bagels, but really, any bagels. They started selling chive and onion cream cheese and now I just put that on bread or crackers and pretend I’m eating an everything bagel with chive and onion cream cheese, and it’s okay.

-One-piece swimsuits. I had a severe sunburn on my stomach a few years ago, and that, combined with my surgery scars from this spring, make me happier covering up my midsection on the beach. But one-piece swimsuits, or even two-piece swimsuits with any kind of boob support, are not sold here. However, your triangle bikini needs will be met, and then some.

-Naked ginger. This is now almost impossible to find in the US as well, so I may have to give up on it. It is crystallized ginger without the sugar crystals, and is my favorite thing ever. Sob.

-More stuff: barbecue sauce, horseradish, sugar free stuff of all kinds, flavor extracts aside from vanilla.

Wow, I miss a lot of food items.

Things I miss that can’t be packed in a suitcase:

-Being able to flush toilet paper down the toilet. This is an annoying problem in Greece. You can’t actually flush the paper. You’re supposed to throw it in the trash. That means you have to take out the bathroom trash on a pretty much constant basis, and it’s also kind of gross. I’m totally used to it, but I wouldn’t say no if they said I could start flushing the stuff.

-Customer service. The whole idea of “the customer is always or at least sometimes right”. The concept of returning something you bought and decided you don’t want (even if you don’t have an extremely good reason).

-Buying things online. This has failed to take off in Greece, for unknown reasons, and I miss it. I miss Amazon so much. And it would be nice to be able to reserve a train ticket on the internet, instead of having to go to the train station.

-Lack of bureaucracy. Not until you’ve lived through the Greek bureaucracy (or died trying) do you have a concept of what it means to say “Greek red tape.” The US doesn’t have a bureaucracy at all (at least, not that we come into contact with as citizens), and a life lived without red tape is such blissful ignorance. I miss those days of changing my address with little more fanfare than a 20-second visit to the USPS website, or getting health insurance in under 3 weeks and visits with 17 different government officials.

-Items on sale. Things are always on sale in the US. Don’t believe me? Go to a place like Kohl’s or Best Buy. Look around. Chances are, almost everything in the store is marked down. In Greece, nothing is ever on sale, with the exception of an end-of-season sell-off in January and August for a limited time when they get rid of old stuff no one wants. At grocery stores, instead of finding your shampoo on sale, it will likely be bundled with a free conditioner bottle. What if you don’t want that conditioner? Too bad.

-Caffeine-free Diet Coke, Ginger Ale, and any other caffeine-free beverage. I’m allergic to caffeine, sort of. It makes me sick, but it doesn’t make me die. So when I go out and want something other than bottled water or tap water, I have to order … soda water. Because that’s all there is. I could get fresh squeezed orange juice but that shit is expensive here. I miss diet ginger ale and caffeine free diet coke and crystal light lemonade. It’s not realistic to pack things like this so I can’t consider this importable.

-Gyms for people who like to work out. Before I got really sick in 2008, I used to be involved in the sport of powerlifting, which meant I spent hours every day lifting weights. Now all my muscles have turned into flab from not being able to work out, but that’s for a different post. I have belonged to three gyms in Greece, and they all more or less sucked. The equipment is mediocre, the staff is trained up to the standard of about 1995, and the regulars are no better. I’ve never seen a power cage in Greece (that’s a weightlifting thing that weightlifting people like).

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The coldest spot on the island in winter, with a constant howling wind.

This little rock that we live on has an official population of 600, but there are only 31 students in the schools (one elementary school with doubled grades:  1st & 2nd, 3rd & 4th) and a combined middle/high school), and there are usually only about 300-350 people actually living here year round.  In January, that number goes down to about 100.  In August, the number is probably closer to 600 or more, but if you add the tourists, it reaches the inconceivably greater number of 15,000 people.

What is it like to live on an island with 100 people, in the coldest, windiest, rainiest month of the year?   The island doesn’t get snow or ice, and the temperature never drops below 45 F, but it gets battered by unrelenting winds and a suffocating humidity that makes mold grow on your shoes and destroys half of what’s in your pantry.  There’s not much sunlight, since the days are short in winter.  But the weather is only a sort of backdrop to everyday life.

With only 100 people, 31 of whom are schoolkids and 18 of whom are teachers (the balance is made up of the kids parents and grandparents, plus a few necessary services, like the island doctor, the island police officer, the island pharmacist, the island electricity company rep, and the island port authority man), the community pulls tightly around itself and everywhere you go, you’re greeted warmly.  Restaurants are mostly closed, but if you want to eat out, you can call them up and request what you’d like them to cook for you and your friends.

Pot-luck became a way of life for us.  It seemed like every night we were cooking for each other and eating together, enjoying the warm intellectual community that comes from having fully 1/5 of the population made up of educators.

There’s only one ATM (and no bank) on the island, and when it ran out of money or malfunctioned, we bought our groceries on credit.  We watched weather reports with real interest, because if the winds were high, the twice-weekly ferries could easily be cancelled, with no replacement, meaning that we were even more cut off than usual.  This happened frequently.

We went for long, long walks on beautiful hiking (donkey) trails to remote beaches, although it was too cold to swim.
The island is at its greenest in the winter, because in the summer the lack of rain and the unrelenting sunlight turns all this beautiful green to straw-yellow and brown.  All those thousands and thousands of tourists who come here in the summer see the island at its least beautiful, which makes it feel like a secret paradise for those of us who know it year-round.

I will admit, there is a fair amount of TV watching and internet surfing here as well.  Sometimes it’s just too windy and wet to do much of anything outdoors.  Doing laundry is a nightmare:  we have a washing machine but, like most Greek families, no clothes dryer.  We rely on good weather to dry our clothes.  In the summer, clothes drying on a line in Greece will be done in 10 minutes, but in the winter on the island, it can take days and days.

With almost nothing open, there is nowhere to spend money.  The only non-food/toiletry/pharmacy purchases we made on the island over the entire period from November to April were a set of three nesting bowls, two mugs, and … no, that’s it.

Although we started swimming in March (well, my husband did – I started in May), and now in June everything is open, my favorite time on the island is December, January, and February, because of the natural beauty, the quiet and solitude, and the sense of community.  I don’t even want to see the island in July and August, when the tourists come.

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Explanation of the title:  “Do new too” is a rough phonetic equivalent of how Greeks refer to the International Monetary Fund, the thing that is threatening our financial security.  Long post, but heart-felt.

When my husband and I got engaged, he was a moderately well-paid tenured teacher and I was a graduate student on a fellowship that, while not providing much money, included free room, board, internet, utilities, and was located adjacent to my research library, so my expenses were nil.  My then-fiance lived in a tiny one-room efficiency costing €240/month plus electricity (free internet) with his only recurring bills being his cell phone, his car payment, and his car insurance.  I had managed to save about half of my fellowship money (the rest was spent on airfare to get to Greece, ferry tickets to go back and forth between his island and Athens, cell phone expenses, and the occasional medical expense).

He was able to buy me an extremely amazing engagement ring and take me on a lovely vacation to celebrate our engagement at the same time.  We traveled around the country and I even jetted off to the US for a week to be in my best friend’s wedding, a commitment I had made more than a year in advance and would have been broken-hearted to skip out on.

Then several things changed.

1)  Getting back to Greece after my friend’s wedding, thanks to astonishing and horrendous treatment from British Airways (refusal to fly me, refund me, or rebook me), and therefore having to spend massive amounts of money on a last-minute ticket, total expenses coming to just over $1600), set us back financially only a week into the new year.

2)  I was suddenly diagnosed with severe gall bladder disease necessitating an emergency cholecystectomy, but my expensive American travel insurance flaked out on me and I was stuck with a bill for $12,000 from the hospital in Athens, along with the associated hotel stay, travel expenses for my then-fiance, food, and drugs, came to around $13,500, in March.

3)  We got married.  At this point, it was obvious that we had a serious financial imbalance (thanks to #1 and #2), so we pulled the whole thing off for under €200, of which about €130 was the required bureaucratic paperwork that nobody can get out of.  My dress cost €35, my shoes were €25, my bouquet was about €15, and my husband wore clothes he already had.  Our friends took photos and made us dinner/cake, we had no invitations, and there were only 6 people (including us) in attendance.  So this doesn’t really count but it shows how quickly our mindset changed from December (when I flitted off to the US for nothing more pressing than someone else’s wedding), and April, when I spent about 1/10 as much money on my own wedding as I did on theirs.

4)  The big one:  Greece got slammed with an IMF / Eurozone “austerity plan” designed to reduce our budget deficit so that we don’t default on bonds coming due.  Since my husband is a state employee (as are all teachers in Greece), this one hit us very hard.  He suddenly went from being moderately well paid (by Greek standards) to being severely underpaid (by anybody’s standards).  All of a sudden he lost a third of his yearly income, at the exact same time that my fellowship ended and I was out of free food and a free place to live and all that.

Other factors making our financial life difficult:

1)  I was paid in dollars, so my money has less buying power than it would have if I were paid in an equivalent amount of euros.  A coffee that costs $4 in a US Starbucks and €4 in a Greek Starbucks is costing me $5 when I use money I took out of an American account to pay for it.

2)  Our little island, being a little island, is expensive to live on because everything (including drinkable water) must be brought by ship.  This means everything from tomatoes to pasta to … well, you can’t buy too much beyond tomatoes and pasta anyway.

3)  The traditional Greek way to save money on food is to shop at the amazing and ubiquitous farmers’ markets, which sell not only fruits and vegetables, but eggs, cheese, meat, fish, clothing, kitchen supplies, herbs and spics, pastas, beans, sewing supplies, baby items, dishes, you get the idea.  But our island doesn’t have one of these, because it’s just too small, so we have to shop at the small supermarkets (they are really minimarkets, but if I called them that, you would think of a 7-11, whereas in fact they sell things like fruits and vegetables, pasta, rice, meat, etc., but they are very small and have inflated prices and no variety).

4)  Because of the expensive goods and the lack of frequent ferries to the island, most of the produce is going bad by the time we buy it.  (The grocers buy marked-down produce to avoid super-inflated prices, and if you don’t buy and eat it the day it arrives, it’s well on its way to going off.)

5)  The tap water on the island is not potable, not even when boiled, because of problems with the pipes and heavy metal contamination.  This means that we must use bottled water for everything except washing.  So when I boil dried beans, I can easily go through 2 or even 3 large bottles of water.  On the island, the cheapest available bottled water is €2.20 for a 6-pack of 1.5 L bottles.  We go through at least one 6-pack per day.

Good things:

1)  We got to live together, because we’re all married now and stuff.  So our combined monthly €240 rent is still €240, even though I don’t have a free room in Athens anymore.

2)  I carry zero debt.  I don’t have a credit card, mortgage, student loans, or any other kind of loan.  I use cash only (which I get from ATMs connected to American accounts – I’ll come to this again in a minute).

3)  My husband carries minimal debt.  He doesn’t use credit cards, doesn’t have a mortgage or student loans either.  He does have a car payment, however, but it’s a modest €200/month on a very fuel efficient 2008 Mazda that he bought brand-new from a relative who owns a Mazda dealership – so he got a great deal and lots of free options.  The car payments are interest free and spread out over a long time, bringing the total cost of the car down when you take into consideration inflation, which we have here.

4)  I stopped using my cell phone.  I have a pay-as-you-go phone, and when the money on it ran out sometime in early May, I never bothered to get another card for it.  I use Skype, and my husband has two, so if I need one he gives me one of his.

5)  The island we live on, despite having gas that costs €1.65 per liter (for you Americans, that’s roughly $7.92 per gallon), has only 6 kilometers or so of actual paved road.  And our car is very fuel efficient.  Result:  we only have to fill the gas tank every few months.

6)  The island also doesn’t have anywhere to spend money, aside from the overpriced markets.  Until a few weeks ago, almost all the restaurants, bars, cafes, and shops were closed.  Now they’re open, but we’re not interested in going to them because our idea of living on the island doesn’t include those things: we got so used to life without them that we don’t miss them at all.

7)  The US dollar has been gaining against the euro.  It’s still FAR from parity but if you consider that in the summer of 2008, when I was in Greece, I was paying $1.69 to withdraw €1 from the ATM, and now I pay $1.19 for the same €1, you can see why I am happy about it.  The price has come down from about $1.35 when I paid $12,000 to the hospital to about $1.19 now, meaning that if I had been able to delay my surgery, I would have saved a lot of money.  Oh well, money under the bridge…

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