Saturday, December 31, 2005 

Happy New Year!


In an hour and a half, I'll be cutting the Vassilopita with my family to ring in the New Year and then it's off to play Eikosi Ena (a variant of Blackjack) at friends. What I wouldn't give to hear Auld Lang Syne being sung by my family and friends at the same time. Oh well, there's always next year! Have a very happy New Year everyone and make every day of it count.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days o’ lang syne!

For auld lang syne, my dear
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet
For auld lang syne!

We twa hae run about the braes,
And pu’d the gowans fine,
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary foot
Sin’ auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl’t in the burn
Frae morning sun till dine,
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
Sin’ auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere,
And gie’s a hand o’ thine,
And we’ll tak a right guid willie-waught
For auld lang syne!

And surely ye’ll be your pint’ stoup,
And surely I’ll be mine!
And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet
For auld lang syne!

Thursday, December 29, 2005 

Only in Canada

Bob and Doug Mackenzie--Canadian stereotypes brought to life.

"You're Canadian? That's weird. I always thought Canadians were nice people."

"If I went to Canada, would people understand me if I spoke only English?"

"You Canadians think you're so much better than us. But you guys club baby seals to death."

"Why are you wearing your winter coat? It's 5 degrees celsius outside. You're should be used to the cold."

"You have no concept of politics because you're Canadian and your government does all your thinking."

These are just some of the many misconceptions people have about me when they find out I'm Canadian. The only one I haven't heard is that we're chronic complainers. Maybe that's because it's not a misconception. It's actually true.

We do complain a lot and we don't even realize it. I never realized it till I moved here. Canadians back home and expats I meet here complain about the obscene wait times in banks...spending 10 minutes in a lineup was unacceptable and evidence of a country rife with bureaucracy. Canadian women have complained about the audacity of public servants calling them "Mrs" instead of the customary "Ms" when their marital status hasn't been divulged. We're even encouraged to complain. A morning radio show rewarded listeners with cash for reporting the largest pothole in the road they'd seen that day so that it could be reported to the Department of Transportation for repairs.

So it comes as no surprise to me today when I read that the Premier of Canada's oil-rich province, (Saudi) Alberta, was giving every Albertan a $400 refund, they complained. Premier Ralph Klein decided to share the wealth amongst his province's residents and will be disbursing $1.4 billion within a couple of weeks. Most other nationalities would be thrilled to get money FROM the government instead of paying them. Not Albertans. Nope. Parents are complaining that their kids will only blow the cash on iPods or clothes they don't need. Even though I'm a complaining Canadian myself, I find this all a bit much.

I think a couple of months living in Moldova or Bangladesh might be the cure for our innate desire to complain.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005 

Mama's Boys

Stuart Smalley from SNL:

Back in the day, when I was single and an active player in the dating game, there was always one kind of guy I would never date. In fact, this was the kind of guy 99.9% of single women would never date. Who was he?

The guy who lived at home with his mama.

Even an unemployed, high-school dropout who lived in a rooming house and rode the bus to nightclubs had a better chance at securing a date than the Mama's Boy would. If a man who was over the age of 25 and still lived with his parents, you basically assumed he was socially retarded or a serial murderer (or both) and therefore, had to be avoided like the Plague. It didn't matter if he was good-looking, drove a nice car, had a good job and had the best manners...if he lived with his parents, he was dating poison.

The rationale amongst us single girls was that living with your parents made you dependent, lazy and weak. The last thing you need in a potential boyfriend was someone who needed to ask his Mom if he could stay out past midnight or clear it with his Dad so he could bring a girl home. You just couldn't help but get a visual image of either:

*Owen in Throw Momma From the Train
*Norman from Psycho
*Stuart Smalley from his Saturday Night Live skit

In Greece, however, it's quite the norm if a man as old as 30 still lives with his parents. He's not even ashamed to admit it. Single Greek women don't seem the least bit bothered by his living arrangements. Most Greek men have never lived on their own until the day they get married. They've never even paid a phone/electricity/water bill on their own let alone know where to pay them.

In their defence, the cost of living is quite high in cities like Athens and Thessaloniki where it's not uncommon for a rented studio apartment and related expenses to absorb an entire paycheque. But surely, couldn't they find a roommate to share the costs like many single men have done in order to have some semblance of independence?

There are 30 year-olds and even 40 year-olds who don't even have one bill in their name in order to get a membership card in our stores. They're all in their parents' names. In fact, if they have overdue movies, their mothers will come into pay for them pleading with me for lenience because their 35 year-old "Giannaki" (Little John) didn't have the time to come in himself. Have they no shame whatsoever?

Just because mothers cook, clean and wash their clothes for them is not reason enough to forsake their personal independence and opt for the laziness that parental roommates afford them.

Many of them will cite the comfort and high cost of living as reasons they aren't motivated to live independently. But for me, there comes a time when those reasons become nothing more than convenient excuses.

Saturday, December 24, 2005 

Merry Christmas from Athens

Christmas in Athens (Syntagma Square)

One good thing about Christmas in Greece is that I can divide my Christmas shopping into two expeditions. Since Greeks traditionally exchange gifts on January 1, I get an extra week after Christmas to buy my Greek friends their gifts. My foreign friends and I still exchange our gifts on Christmas Day and fortunately, I've finished buying all their presents on time and by tomorrow, I will have more space under the tree to put all the gifts for my Greek friends. This way, my Christmas tree gets more 'use' and doesn't look so empty after Christmas Day. The Christmas season seems to last longer and I love it. Any reason to keep the glitter and lights around for another week suits me just fine.

Although Christmas ranks second to Easter in Greece, it's still quite an event. More and more Greeks every year are decorating their balconies in Athens with Christmas lights which makes driving at night dangerous since I find myself looking at the lights and not the street. It's not yet to the extremes of Chevy Chase's "Christmas Vacation" but I figure in a couple of years, the light displays will become even more elaborate and I'll have to make sure I walk instead of drive so as not to become a danger to myself and others around me.

Some homes and offices will decorate a boat instead of the imported Christmas tree tradition. The boat is a symbol of Greece's long-standing role as a seafaring nation and many Greeks consider the Christmas tree to be a foreign custom although it seems to be quickly replacing the boat in Greek living rooms during Christmas season. Since Christmas is nothing if not a holiday of tradition, I think I will pay tribute to the Greek custom and have a decorated boat in my house next year as well as my Christmas tree. Glitter is my personal tradition so having another object to decorate is a good thing.

Glitter aside, I now need to focus on my Christmas dinner. It's been an hour since the last child sung the kalanda (carols) so it's time to leave the house and get the last minute ingredients to complete my Greek/Canadian Christmas dinner. If all goes according to my plan, there'll be a perfectly roasted turkey and Christopsomo (Christ bread) on the table by 3pm tomorrow.

ΚΑΛΕΣ ΓΙΟΡΤΕΣ! (Happy Holidays!)

Monday, December 19, 2005 

Achtung Baby!

Paul Hewson aka Bono Vox aka Person of the Year

Normally, I couldn't give a rat's posterior about what a celebrity does or thinks. For the most part, they're nothing more than impediments I must endure when trying to read my daily fix of online news articles. Sometimes, if I even see a pseudo-celeb's name mentioned in an article, I immediately click out so I don't have to waste any time reading about some quasi drama in their asinine lives.

But I must admit, when it comes to Bono of U2, I have a soft spot. I always have. To a large extent, I credit him for my own interest in politics and current events. I was 16 when I heard his voice on my radio singing "All is quiet on New Year's Day" in 1983 and 22 years later, I'm still a fan of his music. Because of his involvement in reducing 3rd World debt, the Chernobyl Children's Project and Live Aid, I've become of fan of him as a person.

Other than Bob Geldof, I can't really think of another musician who has campaigned so long and so fervently for global awareness on poverty, disease, and our collective responsibility towards eliminating them. Needless to say, I was only too happy to see him get some recognition for his efforts by being name one of Time's Person of the Year along with Bill and Melinda Gates.

For the many people who have criticised him for grandstanding and being a wannabe politician, I can only say that I'd rather his brand of self-promotion over the likes of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton any day of the week.

Peace on Earth

Heaven on Earth
We need it now
I'm sick of all of this
Hanging around
Sick of sorrow
Sick of pain
Sick of hearing again and again
That there's gonna be
Peace on Earth

from All That You Can't Leave Behind, 2000

Friday, December 16, 2005 

How Can Kids Learn if They're Not In School?

Marietta Giannakou, Minister of Education
I know I must sound like a broken record because I'm writing once again about the quality of Greek education but it's a subject of real importance to me. Marietta Giannakou, the Minister of Education, seems to be a capable politician so I'm hoping that during her tenure as Education Minister, things will actually change in the school system.

Since the beginning of the school year, my son has missed quite a bit of school for many reasons which are beyond his control. He hasn't missed one day of school because he was sick or even faking sickness.

In September, on his first day back from school, he had a substitute teacher for a week because his regular teacher got married and took the first week off school. (A 3 month summer break and the teacher decides to take an extra week off to get married on the first week of the new school year?? )This is the same teacher who drilled into his students' heads last year that there was no acceptable excuse to miss school unless they were too sick. At least once a month, his class has a substitute teacher and while she is a teacher, he tells me that she can't teach much other than the religion class and language. Yesterday, she gave them a two-hour break to play soccer. The day before, he didn't have school because of the strikes.

He's missed at least 3 days due to class trips. Now, I wouldn't mind these trips if they were visiting museums, archaelogical sites or musical concerts. But all of them, bar none, have been to the cinema and theatre to see movies and plays that were more suitable for 6 year olds, not 12 year olds. Each of these trips cost about 8€.

For Oxi Day in October and the commemoration of the Polytechnic uprising in November, students spent several days each time preparing for them. Lessons are scaled back each time so they can practice marching in the parade for Oxi Day and learning songs and poems for November 17. For the last 10 school days, lessons have been scaled back again to prepare for the Christmas party.

When you factor in teachers in-service days along with strike days, I figure that my son has missed, at the very least, one week of lessons every month...and it's not even the end of December!

Both my husband and I have tried to bring up the subject in the Parents'-School Association meetings but that was just a forum for two parents who were hell-bent on removing cellular phone antennaes within the vicinity of the school. None of the parents who did show up did not seem the least bit concerned with discussing the quality of education their children were receiving. When I talked to two of my son's teachers about the manner of teaching and the educational value of the field trips, they both said I should talk to the Parents' Association and see if any other parents felt the same way.

Public education is not free. Our taxes pay for the schools and books. In order to supplement the the lessons he lacks at school, I pay (like most Greek parents) for computer/music/language and athletic lessons in private learning institutes. If this situation continues when he goes to junior high school next year, I will most likely be paying for additional science/history and language classes as well. Once that happens, I fear his interest in learning will subside and I may not be able to afford it all anyway if the economy continues its downward spiral. Friends of mine send their children to private schools but I'm not sure that's the solution either since they are so expensive and the pressure on these children to bring home good marks is unbelievable.

Since our children are now competing in a global job market, I simply cannot leave his education solely in the hands of the State. How long will it take the State to actually initiate change instead of dialogue in our public schools? Employment options for our children are disappearing with every day they spend discussing the situation.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005 

It's Best to Let People Think You're a Fool

“We see that the forces of darkness are undermining this country and are trying to remove Christianity from Greece and create a new order in our society so that in a few years nobody remembers God or the Church.”--Archbishop Christodoulos (Kathimerini Dec.13, 2005)

I honestly think the Church has a reference book on "Hyperbolic Retorts" and whenever the priesthood find itself on the wrong end of a court summons or caught in a power struggle or scandal, they use a quote from it. Either that or they're playing too many video games and watching too many vampire movies.

Our staff do not have the knowledge to verify whether a sports shoe is counterfeit or not,” he said. “We need help from the companies.” (Athanassios Skordas, the Development Ministry’s secretary for consumer affairs) Kathimerini Dec. 13, 2005

I'm going to hlep Mr. Skordas out here for free because sometimes, I really am just THAT nice.

1. If you see someone selling what looks like Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Dior goods on a cardboard box on the corner of any street, I think it's safe to say they're knock-offs.

2. If name brands are misspelled (ie., SONYE, Guci, Dolce & Gabana) then you can presume they're knock-offs.

3. If music CDs are sold from people carrying backpacks, inserted into plastic envelopes with low res cover art, then you're looking at a pirated CD

4. If a movie hasn't even arrived in Greece in the cinemas and it's on sale at the laiki or from other street vendors, then it's a pirated DVD.

5. Hire new staff who have actually graduated from elementary school to work for you.

Sunday, December 11, 2005 

Καλά Χριστούγεννα...Έπιτελους!

A Merry Christmas...Finally!

Every year, I'm getting better at celebrating Christmas in Greece. My tree goes up the first Sunday in December, I can actually locate all my ornaments and all my Christmas CDs have their own section in the CD jukebox. I've even shopped for a few Christmas presents. All in all, I'd say I've got the whole Christmas thing under control. Not like my first Christmas here.

That was probably my worst Christmas ever. I had no snow, no tree, no Christmas decorations, not to mention the fact that my knowledge of the Greek language was just enough to get me in trouble and my driving licence wasn't valid in Greece. Every simple task seemed gargantuan. I had totally underestimated celebrating Christmas in Greece.

The Tree
My mother-in-law decided to help me out by giving me her tree since she was going to Austria to spend her Christmas holidays. When my husband brought the tree home along with the decorations that went with it, my friend and I decorated it. She kept telling me how beautiful Dimitra's tree was on display at her house and how lucky I was that she gave it to me. But when we finished decorating, it looked nothing short of awful. The tree had a total of 8 needle-bare branches and the ornaments themselves were Ugly personified. My friend looked at me and said "What did you do to the tree? It never looked THIS bad before." I was crushed. How is it my mother-in-law, who would put Martha Stewart to shame with her home decor, could make such a sorry-looking tree look good with those ornaments. When my husband saw the tree he told me it was indeed ugly but not to worry about it because his mother would 'fix' it. How embarrassing. I come to a new country and I can't even decorate a tree. How was I going to survive? Luckily, my mother-in-law phoned later on that day and asked my husband how the tree looked. When he told her that she needed to come over help me make it look normal, she paused for a second and then said, "Which tree did you use?" He replied "what do you mean, "which tree"? I took the one you left by the door with the box of ornaments". She was horrified and said "you took the tree I left out for the garbage!" It turned out that the tree was a relic from the time the
Reign of the Colonels in Greece. Now that the mystery was solved and my Christmas decorating skills were still intact, I immediately went out and bought a new tree with new ornaments that very evening rather than risk my husband finding another tree in a dumpster somewhere.

The Gifts
My husband told me not to worry about buying gifts for everyone since he would do that and it would take him a day. I thought he was exaggerating. Buying gifts for 20 people in under a day 2 days before Christmas? Impossible. But I gave him the benefit of the doubt. Big mistake. He came home with several ceramic picture frames with teddy bears on them and a bunch of 300 drachma (1 euro) Coca Cola can lighters. I wouldn't have given them to my worst enemy. To this day, he still doesn't see what was so bad about his 'gifts' which is why, to this day, I still won't let him out at Christmas time with money in his pocket. I did the Christmas shopping myself and incredibly, I didn't forget anyone.

Christmas Dinner
In Canada, I always had Christmas Dinner with my family so someone else always went through the trouble of cooking the turkey which was a good thing because I'm a vegetarian. In Greece, I was left to my own devices. I thought "how difficult can it be? I'll just buy a
Butterball and be done with it." Famous last words. When my husband brought home the turkey from the local butcher, it still had FEATHERS on it and the giblets still inside!! There was no way I was going to touch it let alone stuff it...I would have been traumatized for life. Since it was already Christmas Eve, there was no alternative but to cook that poor creature. Our first big fight ensued. After a couple of hours bickering about who was going to prepare the turkey, we came to a compromise. I realized that there was no point getting a divorce over a dead bird. I would cook the stuffing and he would de-feather, de-giblet and stuff the turkey. Despite all the problems, the turkey turned out just fine and our marriage was saved...until New Year's Day.

New Year's Day
On New Year's Eve in Greece, many people play Eikosi Ena (21) a variant of blackjack for money. The game usually starts after midnight on Christmas Eve and finishes around daylight. On our first Christmas in Greece, we hosted the game at our house for all of our friends. My mother-in-law made the
Vassilopita (a cake served on New Year's Eve with a coin (flouri) inside to bring good luck to the recipient.) Once the cake was cut, the game began and we played until 7:30am. I won about 75€ so I went to bed happy. I even woke up happy until my husband asked what I was making for the New Year's Dinner. Since I only had about 4 hours sleep in the last 2 days and the house looked like war zone, I reasoned that it would be better if we just ordered a pizza. (In my own defence, this is usually what we did in Canada on New Year's Eve since we usually partied all night long and the next day, my place would be occupied by the previous evening's party goers who were often too inebriated to drive home. )

The Turkey Fight was nothing compared to the New Year's Day Fight. My husband was not the least bit impressed with my pizza solution and what started out as a lecture on the importance of New Year's Day dinners in Greece culminated into complaints about my total disorganization during the holiday season. Since I figured I already did The Compromise for Christmas, it would be a cold day in Hades before I caved and started cooking a 5 course meal on a minute's notice. So out the door I went. I came back a few hours later and neither of us would talk to each other but we did have to eat so I fried some pork chops and boiled some rice and that was our New Year's Day dinner. Later on the evening and after I had checked out airfares back to Canada on, we ended up talking to each other. He realized he could have informed me about the tradition of a Greek New Year's Day meal and then we came to an agreement which we still keep to this day. I would always cook Christmas dinner using a featherless turkey of my choice and on New Year's Day, we would go to his mother's house so I didn't have to spend my entire holiday season cooking and cleaning. Unbeknownst to him, I also decided I would delete Travelocity on my list of bookmarks if I was going to make a go of it in my new country.

Since that horrendous Christmas, every holiday since then has gotten better and better each year...more fun and less fights. What a difference time makes.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005 

Live Richly?

Live fearfully would be more accurate.

There used to be a time that you could walk into a bank, present your account booklet to the teller and withdraw some of your paycheque to pay bills. It used to be that easy. Apparently, things have changed. Whether it's because of 9/11, November 17, anarchist's Molotov cocktails or just plain paranoia, one bank in Athens seems to have an unwritten dress code for their clients before they withdraw their own money.

About two weeks ago, the son of a friend of mine, Giorgo (not his real name) had just returned home from a short tour of duty in the Greek navy. Because he's a responsible person, he decided to go straight to his bank to withdraw money to pay the bills that had accumulated while he was away at sea. Although he is not a fashion icon wearing conspicuous name brand labels, he has never had a problem conducting his personal financial affairs wearing jeans and a t-shirt until two weeks ago. He walked into the Citibank branch he had been using for years and stood in line waiting to pay some bills and withdraw some money for household supplies. He was then asked to leave the lineup and accompany a security guard who had decided that he was a prime candidate for an interrogation. He demanded that my friend's son produce his ID card and state his reason for entering the bank. Giorgo provided the security guard with his ID card, bank passbook and stated his reason and was released back into the lineup once the guard scrutinized the documents before him and decided Giorgo was no longer a threat.

Giorgo believed that the only reason he caught the attention of the security guard was due to his casual clothes and the fact that he didn't shave that morning. He did not complain or create a scene but quietly submitted to the pop interrogation even though he was somewhat embarrassed to be questioned in front of so many other clients and bank staff.

If it were me, I would have produced all the evidence the security guard required and then I would have stood in front of the lineup and told all other clients that they better think twice about keeping their money in a bank where it has become necessary to treat people as criminals first and clients second. Then I would have withdrawn every cent I had in the bank and closed my accounts.

I do realize that banks have been the target of bombs, robberies and vandals over the years but if it's that dangerous for them to open their doors to the public, then maybe it would be better for them to reconsider doing business in Greece altogether rather than subject the very people who keep them in business to humiliating interrogations. It has been my experience that bank robbers usually don't wait in lineups wearing jeans and a t-shirt. Their modus operandi is more likely to involve masks, guns and a mad dash to the tellers' booths. If people have to dress to the nines in order to enter a bank and avoid these checks, then maybe it's time to choose a safer bank. We mocked our grandparents who preferred to keep money in a sock under their mattresses. Considering the risks of banking today, maybe they were right all along.

Saturday, December 03, 2005 

'Tis the Season to Be Penniless

Last night, while driving back from Ygeias Hospital in Maroussi to my neighbourhood, we must have passed, literally, a thousand stores. From Kifissias Ave. to Vassilisas Sofias through Syntagma I made a very disturbing observation. All the stores were well lit, fully stocked but shopping customers were nowhere to be found inside them. In fact, the only people on the streets were those waiting for the bus. I could understand if it was a Wednesday night in the middle of November but this was a Friday night at 7pm--less than a month away from Christmas and only a day or two after most Greeks receive their monthly paycheques. I thought that maybe it was the weather and everyone was having coffee enjoying the unseasonally warm temperatures. But no, this didn't seem to be the case either since even the coffee shops were empty. That was even more strange since coffee and Greeks are synonomous.

I first noticed this phenomenon back in July when my husband and I were out for a coffee at one of the main squares in our neighbourhood. Normally, it's jam-packed with people and we are so accustomed to morphing into table vultures (the act of spotting patrons leaving a table and moving in fast enough before anyone else gets there) that when we saw the empty square we thought it must have been a long weekend and no one told us.

Our stores have had a noticeable drop in revenues from last year and we had assumed it was because a lot of the migrant population had left the city after the Olympic Games and that it would pick up again like it usually does by the end of November. However, that increase hasn't happened and from what I saw last night, I doubt it will.

Greeks just don't have money anymore. Both friends and customers are complaining about it. It's no wonder since Greeks have been borrowing money for unreasonably high mortgages; using credit cards like they were free money and the Athens 2004 employment bubble burst. When every second store has a "for rent" sign on it and every third car has a "for sale" sign on it, you just know things aren't going well. I don't need a status report from the Economy Ministry to tell me otherwise. The proof is on the streets and in our dwindling store profits.

2006 doesn't look very promising from where I sit.