Friday, March 31, 2006 

Learning to Get a Long-Term Resident Permit

For once, I think the Greek government has gotten it right.

Almost a year ago to the day, I blogged about the need for culture immersion courses for all new immigrants in their new country. I felt (and still feel) that courses teaching immigrants the law, language and culture of their host country will benefit not only them but their new country as well. In order to get the coveted long-term resident status, the interior ministry has issued a presidential decree requiring immigrants to complete 125 hours of formal instruction in the Greek language and culture.

The decree was drafted in response to an EU directive compelling member states to outline the procedure necessary to obtain long term resident status to immigrants. Even though the deadline for implementation was three months ago, it is nonetheless welcome news to know that it has finally been completed.

The lessons will cost 900€ and will probably take about 3 months to pass and obtain the certificate needed to apply for the resident permit. The money is non-refundable. I'm sure many people will complain about the price and the time needed to complete the courses but I think their complaints are unfounded for several reasons. The benefits outweigh the cost and time factor.

Knowing the language will do a lot to ensure their integration into the new society. It will become easier for them to get employment, navigate through the endless channels of Greek bureacracy and most of all...allow them to communicate with everyone around them--not just immediate family members. Social isolation will be reduced and they will be better equipped to help their children once they enroll in school. At my son's school, foreign children often lag behind their classmates to the point where not only do they receive failing grades but they become socially excluded.

Knowing the culture will further advance their integration because it enables them to find common ground with the rest of the population and understand and possibly appreciate Greek customs which seem so foreign to them.

I wish this law was in effect when I received my long-term resident status in Greece. I wouldn't have felt like a fish out of water at the supermarket, social events and at my son's school. Knowing English further hampered my efforts in Greek because I could still watch movies, listen to songs and read my newspapers in my native language. I became lazy when it came to integration much to my own detriment. I did learn to write the language on my own but if you can't speak the language, it's pointless. I ended up paying 900€ for a 3 month introductory course to Greek over 7 years ago and immediately, I didn't feel like an outsider anymore. I didn't avoid answering the phone. I could go to the doctor by myself and accomplish dozens of routine tasks outside the house without a Greek babysitter. I could hold my ground with civil servants at government offices.

Learning the language was independence to me. Learning the culture meant I no longer sent my son to school on national holidays because I didn't know any better. It meant remembering friends' Name Days, buying red eggs and lambadas (candles) for easter and saying phone numbers the Greek way (55-55-123 and not 555-5123) and to stop waiting for cabs on the wrong side of the road. I'm sure these all sound like trivial things but if only I could tell you how much time was wasted and the embarrassment and frustration I felt for not knowing them...that would be a book unto itself.

This law is a necessity and I can only hope that immigrants will not try to circumvent it by bribing corrupt officials as has been the case with past resident/work permits and driving licences. They will do a great disservice to themselves and their new country. Considering the benefits and increased opportunities for immigrants, 900€ and 125 hours is a small price to pay for them.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006 

And What Colour is the Sky in Your World, Dimitri?

As if we didn't need further proof that lunatics are running the asylum, Greek health minister, Dimitris Avramopoulos, comments on the HIV tainted blood which was given to a 17 year-old girl and 76 year-old man last year.

“Greek citizens must feel safe, particularly ones who need fresh, clean blood,” he said.

I'd really like to meet the people who would need stale, dirty blood. And I thought only George W. was capable of such inanities. The statement would have made much more sense had he omitted the words 'fresh' and 'clean'. It goes without saying that if someone needs blood, it most definitely ought to be the fresh and clean variety.

Opening his mouth wider to accommodate both feet, Avramopoulos then insisted this should not be allowed to happen in a country as organized as Greece. Now I'm wondering if he's even living in the same country as the rest of us. Greece organized? Did pigs start flying and no one told me?

Monday, March 27, 2006 

The Euro Has Eaten Us

What many Greeks would like to do to the Euro

If you ask most Greeks what they feel about the economy, they usually respond with Το Ευρό μας έχει φαει. Literally translated it means "The Euro has eaten us". Idiomatically speaking, they're saying that the Euro destroyed us.

They see their disposable income slipping away and blame it on the replacement of the drachma with the Euro currency in Greece in January, 2002.

When Greece changed from the drachma to the Euro, it seemed that literally, overnight, prices went through the roof.

Coffees which used to cost 800 drachmas (2.35€) now cost me 4€ at the same café.
Greek salads at the local taverna used to cost 1500 dr. (4.40€) are now 6€.
I pulled out an old souvlaki menu to make a take-out order where all the prices were in drachmas. It was immediately obvious that most of the prices increased by 25% or more on each item listed on the new menu. Just since September, I saw the price of my usual brand of olive oil increase from 4.25€ to 5.98€.

Some of the fluctuation in prices can be attributed to the droughts or floods across Europe. The war in Iraq is also to blame for increased costs on other items…especially petrol. I’m not an economist but I certainly don’t believe that inclement weather, the bird flu, normal currency fluctuations and the invasion of Iraq is directly responsible for the rapid and phenomenally high price increases on every single thing we purchase. I believe much of it was due to profiteering and people just not understanding the value of the new currency.

It was common to give 100 drachmas (0.29€) for a tip to a delivery person. Just try getting away with giving them a 30 cent tip these days! Even the beggars will frown if you give them anything less than a euro. The days of “ενα εικοσάρικο σε παρακαλώ” (100 drachmas, please) are long gone. Now, it’s ‘ένα ευρό σε παρακαλώ” (a euro please).

The Greek Consumer Centre reports that Greek opinion is justified. The prices of many things have increased from 20% to a whopping 147% since the country changed to the Euro in 2002. Unfortunately, the salaries have only increased, on average, by 12%. And even that’s debatable. I don't know many people who have received a 12% pay increase. Either way, any increase given is hardly enough to compensate for the exorbitant costs of everything else we purchase.

Back in 2002, the Ministry of Development assured us that the "worst is over." Four years and 147% price hikes later, I think it's safe to assume that Ministry of Development is just as clueless now as it was then.

Friday, March 24, 2006 

Protecting and Serving Whom?

After a string of robberies in the vacation towns of Oropos and Kalamos, the townspeople were furious because the police weren’t doing anything about it. The local police chief dusted off the usual response and claimed that his department was understaffed and therefore, couldn’t handle the 200 or so robberies in the towns. Once the media got hold of the story, the government initiated a police sweep involving 2,000 officers to root out the culprits resulting in the arrests of 6 members of an organized gang responsible for the break-ins along with several hundred other offenders during the questioning of over 14,000 people.

While the arrests were a welcome event to the citizens in the affected areas, a greater issue is evident. The police simply aren’t doing their jobs until the media gets involved and the government becomes embarrassed. The operation and subsequent firing of the two police chiefs was largely seen as a public relations ploy designed to quell the hornet’s nest stirred up by both the media and disgruntled townspeople.

Considering that there are approximately 3,000 police officers serving as bodyguard to VIPs, the Hellenic Police are in no position to complain about being understaffed. These police officers are paid by the taxpayers, not by the celebrities and therefore they should not be allocated to celebrities as a perk just because they recorded a few pop songs. It is nothing short of scandalous that taxpayers are paying for a service from which they do not benefit. Celebrities and rich businessmen are neither employees of the state and therefore, should not be entitled to personal police protection. The practice needs to stop. Police need to be patrolling the neighbourhoods making their presence felt not escorting the rich and almost famous to awards and parties.

Reassigning the police bodyguards back to active police duty is the first step to making the police force more efficient and effective. The police departments need to be computerized and staffed with competent personnel. My husband went to the local police station to apply for a new passport this week and they told him he had to come back on April 11--3 weeks away. He managed to get the date changed due to the intervention of a police acquaintance of ours. As soon as the woman took his passport, the office experienced a blackout and their one and only computer shut down and could not be rebooted. The two women processing the applications used the down time to have a conversation with each other and after a half hour realized that their computer would not magically start working since they didn't even have a surge protector and they didn't even know who to call for service. Dozens of people ended up waiting for over 2 hours while their information was written by hand. Experiences like this one are the rule, not the exception.

The Greek taxpayers deserve better service and protection from their police departments not just one-day dog and pony shows to appease the media. Consistent, diligent police work is required on a daily basis to stem the surge in crime rates and time-wasting bureaucracy.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006 

Scandal at School

Yesterday, my son came home from school and told us about the big scandal at his school. A scandal no parent ever wants to hear.

The 59 year-old caretaker of his school was arrested on child molestation charges. My husband and I were shocked. It's not like we live in an alternate reality. We know just how widespread paedophilia is and that paedophiles aren't always the creepy looking strangers lurking on street corners and by playgrounds. They are most likely people the family knows--either friends, teachers, neighbours and even family members. Armed with all that information and the fact that I've blogged about it before, I was still completely horrified when I heard about it.

This was the same man who always opened the locked gates to the school when my son was late. The same who ran the school canteen and made sandwiches for the kids, retrieved their soccer balls when they got kicked over the fence. He warmed and served the food for the children who were part of the after-school program (φύλαξη). To think that he is now accused of molesting a 9 year-old for a month is almost impossible to reconcile.

My husband and I thought that maybe, just maybe, it was a vicious rumour but when my husband went to pick up my son's report card for the second semester and meet with his teacher, the teacher confirmed that the accusation was true and that the man was in custody as a result. Other parents are refusing to believe that it could have happened and my husband was handed a letter protesting the arrest in support of the man. Parents are having a meeting tonight to discuss the charges, but considering that the meeting seems only to serve as a show of support for the man, we decided not to attend. If the accusations against the man prove to be substantiated in court, then I want to be no part of such a meeting supporting him. I wasn't there when the incidents were said to have occurred therefore, I cannot defend his character. That is something to be decided by the judicial system.

My main concern right now is if this is the first incident involving this man because last year, I remember at the parent-teacher association meeting, they discussed another incident of the same nature which had happened the year before but no one came out and stated exactly who the culprit was. All kinds of thoughts are running through my head. What kind of background check did the school do on this man before they hired him? Was he hired as a 'friend of a friend' without any investigation to his past work experience? My son has complained about him on entirely unrelated issues with regards to his ill-temper, hygiene at the canteen and impatience with the children. Were these symptoms of a disturbed man which everyone chose to ignore or did they take on a new meaning in light of the present charges against him?

I'm sickened by the whole matter. I question myself. Have I trained my son to be vigilant enough so that he never becomes a victim of such depraved creatures? How will I know? I can only hope against all odds that I have. It just goes to show that no parent can take their child's safety for granted. We owe it to our children to educate them well on the dangers surrounding them and the tricks that paedophiles use to lure children. Tell them that they will have your full support if they ever do fall prey to the twisted minds of perverts no matter who they might be. As much as I wish I didn't have to teach my son about such a disturbing subject, but tonight, I'm so very glad I did.

Useful Links
Protecting Our Children--An online guide to inform parents about paedophilia and how to safeguard your children. information on every aspect of child safety.

Saturday, March 18, 2006 

Facing Reality

Will this be me in a couple of years?

I am 39 years old. I don't have a problem admitting my age and so far, I haven't ever felt the need to lie about my age as some are inclined to do. I never really gave any thought to getting older since I never felt I was getting older...until recently. Over the past few months, there have been tell-tale signs that I am, indeed getting older. I am not the least bit prepared to face it and yet there's absolutely nothing I can do to prevent it. The only thing that makes me feel better about getting older is that I know it doesn't have to be synonomous with being old.

Because the initial trauma of recognizing the aging signs has faded to such a degree that I can now talk about them without shuddering, I will now share them with you.

Tell-tale Signs You're Getting Older
My son pulls out a vinyl record from the bookcase and asks me what it is.

A customer tells me about a great new band he just discovered on the radio. It's Duran Duran.

I am shopping to buy a new pair of shoes and for the first time, I opt for comfort and put the high-heeled slingbacks back on the shelf.

I play
20th Anniversary Trivial Pursuit and the other players are amazed at how I know all the answers even though they're no more than 10 years younger than me.

I overhear teenagers talking about what a great lyricist Alanis Morrissette is with her 'new' song "Crazy". When I inform them this is a remake of Seal's song from 15 years earlier, they stare at me in disbelief.

I wire money to my younger sister in NYC for Christmas and the bank clerk asks me if the recipient is my daughter.

I don't need to buy
Retro fashion since I already have it in my closet.

I can have a conversation with my father and find myself agreeing with him most of the time.

I am nothing short of astonished to learn that my high school friend is married with a 17 year old daughter.

I complained about going to a party because the guests were all old. The thought never even occurred to me that they were the same age as me until my husband had to remind me.

I can't get away with not wearing makeup anymore...too many people ask me why I look so tired.

I have to fight the urge to brush teenagers hair and tell them to pull up their pants.

Customers ask me which one of our employees is my son. (The youngest employee is 24 years old. Do the math.)

I chose to a cafe bar last night because I liked the decor, overstuffed sofas and background music. Then I regretted my decision when I saw that all the patrons were in the 40+ age bracket. Surprise, surprise when reality set in a second later...they chose the place for the same reasons I did. I am one of them.

I woke up one morning and out of the millions of hairs on my head, it was the new strand of grey hair which paralysed me for several minutes.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006 

When Perversion Becomes Mainstream

Just when I thought I'd seen everything on the covers of mainstream porno DVDs from titles like "Fun on the Farm" and "My Granny is a Tranny". You can just imagine what the viewing content is without even seeing the cover itself. The majority of them are explicit--leaving nothing to the viewer's imagination. Of course, that doesn't keep customers from renting them and then complaining that the subject matter was vile or perverse when they return them. Most likely they feel compelled to complain from some sense of false guilt when they have to return the DVDs to a woman since my husband has said that the only complaint he's ever had from men about porn DVDs is that some of them aren't subtitled in Greek. I just think they know better than to complain to me because I will make fun of them. "Ooooh" and "aaah" are self-explanatory in any language. No translation should be required.

However, I can honestly say that even the 'mainstream' porn DVD industry has hit a new low when I saw today's offering of titles for sale to the rental stores. Two of the many DVD titles offered for sale featured women with bruised faces on the covers. In a world where forced prostitution and violence against women is on the increase, I guess it makes good business sense to them to produce movies which reflect the growing demand for such garbage.

In the past, I've destroyed the DVDs and videos which implied underage sex and incest in the titles or those which glorify rape. I've been accused of censorship by disgruntled customers but I can live with it. The men who find those movies acceptable, I don't want anywhere near me anyway. They should be more worried about their predilection for violent pornography than my attempts at censorship.

The world becomes collectively enraged when a cartoon offends Muslims. We are infuriated if a flag gets burned Iran, cars get torched in France and our leaders are objects of scorn and ridicule. Where's the outrage when it comes to violence against women?

Showing women with bruised faces on movie covers used to be a taboo--relegated to underground sex shops. The fact that these images are now poised to enter mainstream acceptance causes me to examine the reasons behind it and our toleration of it.

Ask yourselves these questions:
  • Do men feel threatened by the social and political advancement of women and resort to viewing violent portrayals of control over women to regain some of their power?
  • Have women even achieved any sort of control over their destiny if violence against women in pornography is increasing rather than decreasing?
  • What will happen to us as a society as these depictions become the norm rather than the aberration they should be?
  • If violent pornography IS offensive to the majority of the population, why are we listening to the arguments of the minority who want it?
  • Is protecting anti-censorship more important than protecting the rights of women?
  • If any other segment of the population were to be constantly depicted as subjects of violence, humiliation and degradation, would we be so blase about it?

Saturday, March 11, 2006 

In Praise of Photo Blogs

The blogosphere is a great place to travel the world. When I was little, I used to read all my father's National Geographic magazines and from them, I caught the travel bug. They probably are a large part of the reason that I had no problem to hop a plane and try living in Greece. With encyclopedias, you learn the history. With photos, places come alive.

I still roam the world through photos...most often, the photoblogs I stumble across on the Internet. It's made me into somewhat of a voyeur...peeking inside people's lives around the world. Legends of unboilable fish in a pond of Nigeria or seaside chapels in a blogger's 'outpost' are just some of examples of what you can find in the blogosphere.

One of the best photoblogs I've seen is from Eagersnap, a Dane who had the good fortune of living and working in India for the past 6 months. The photos are amazing and you can follow his journey throughout India as he gets blessed by an elephant and visits a Portuguese village inside India. It's definitely worth a click.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006 

Where (Female) Angels Fear to Tread

According to the Sofia News Agency, women in Greece have started to demand access to the Athos Monasteries. This is the first I've heard of it. Greeks are always demanding something or other but it's usually related to better wages, pensions or American foreign policy--not access to a 1,000 year old monastic community. Other than MEP (Member of European Parliament), Anna Karamanou, I don't know of any Greek woman, let alone a Greek women's movement which collectively demands access on legal grounds. I'm sure many women would love to visit the site out of historical curiosity but would they take the necessary steps to file a lawsuit against the Holy Mount? If they do, it certainly won't be a simple and clear-cut matter.

Karamanou believes that the ban should be lifted on the grounds of gender discrimination and freedom of movement which are fundamental rights guaranteed by the EU. However, Mount Athos (Άγιο Όρος-Agio Oros) is an autonomous state protected by the Greek Constitution. Also, Mount Athos is also protected by another of the EU's fundamental rights--the right to manifest religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

So which rights take precedence? Do the rights of women supercede the rights of Athos to practice their religion in their Constituonally protected territories?

As much as I am a firm believer in gender equality, I don't think that Mount Athos should be forced admit women to its monasteries any more than a Jewish synagogue should be forced to seat women with men or the Catholic Church to ordain women priests. Religion is a personal choice and if women don't like that their religion treats them as second-class citizens, then they can exercise their right to practice and worship in another religion of their choice. I am disappointed that I won't be able to see the all the centuries-old icons and relics they have but does that mean I have the right to see them? If that's the case, then maybe I should start my own movement to demand access to the Pope's personal Papal Chambers in the Vatican.

Unless a religion advocates and encourages practices which endanger lives, then I, personally, am not bothered if they won't let me take a gander at their religious trinkets.

Friday, March 03, 2006 

Good News and Bad News

If I can get my act together, I'm going to do a bi-weekly blog on current events which have caught my eye in the Greek news over the two week period. These items are noteworthy but not necessarily blogworthy (worthy of devoting a whole blog to the subject) and will keep my readers abreast of what's going on in Greece without having to wallow through dozens of websites. I'll add my own commentary to the news items I find and hope that you will do the same in the comments section. So....towards that end....

The Good News
Cremation Law Passed
On Wednesday, Greece passed a new law which will finally allow cremation as an alternative to burial for those who aren't of the Greek Orthodox religion. This is a welcome law especially since the graveyards are full to capacity and since many people who aren't Orthodox have had to ship the bodies outside of Greece for cremation. The Church's official stance is still against cremation and will refuse burial ceremonies for their brethren who do choose cremation. The up side is that Archbishop Christodoulos may consider reviewing the policy in the future.

Recycling Comes to Athens
For the past week, I've been noticing a strange site in Athens. The appearance of plastic blue garbage bins on street corners all over Athens. Finally, it seems Athens is joining the Recycling ranks. Now, Athenians can separate their garbage into recyclable items like cans, cartons and plastic bottles and put them in the special blue bins for that purpose. It remains to be seen if they will or not. The Municipality has been handing out blue nylon bags to help us in the effort. I got mine last week but I'm still waiting for the blue bin to appear on my street so I can empty the bag contents into the bin. Hopefully, they've fixed the Recycling plant since a mountain of rubbish collapsed on it.

$210 Million in Funding for SMEs
If you own a business in the tourism or manufacturing sector, you could be eligible for funding. Economy Minister, Giorgos Alogoskoufis, announced that $210 million would be made available to Small and Medium Enterprises who qualify and submit their applications between March 15- July 15. Banks will hold complete responsibility for the approval and disbursement of the funds under the supervision of the Public Sector. Considering Greece's track record as a bureacratic and favouritism gold medallist, I pity the poor applicants who will no doubt, be sent on a never-ending paper chase.

The Bad News
Growth Rate
For quite some time, the world has been hearing about Greece's high growth rate which has exceeded the EU average for several years. Living in Greece, you might wonder how this phenomenon has occurred when many citizens are complaining of unemployment, high cost of living and rising inflation. The growth rate is real but as Kathimerini reports, "it was based on increased state spending, inflows from the European Union and credit expansion". So the growth rate in Greece isn't based on increased production but on continued cash injections. This can't be good.

PASOK Takes the Lead
For the first time since the March 2004 elections which saw New Democracy put an end to almost 20 years of PASOK rule, PASOK has again taken the lead in the latest polls. 34.4% of Greeks would vote for PASOK in the next general elections as opposed to 34% for ND. Greeks are disillusioned. After 2 years with ND in power, Greeks don't know which way to turn. Although ND has implemented (albeit rather clumsily) new reforms, they just aren't enough to convince Greeks that the country is doing any better. The government's handling of the Vodafone scandal probably had a lot to do with the results of this poll. Once the clamour of that botched PR fiasco dies down, maybe Karamanlis will manage to get some of his voters' confidence back.

Greek Poultry Farms in Danger
Since the outbreak of the avian flu was confirmed in Greece several weeks ago, poultry farms have seen their sales plummet by as much as 80%. In an industry which employs over 15,000 people, the economic effects of the outbreak will most certainly jeopardize those jobs. The Association of Greek Poultry Industries has stated “Losses are incalculable and we are already in a position where keeping all jobs intact is impossible.” As usual, the fear-mongering media exacerbates the situation by failing to mention that eating poultry doesn't put you at risk to contract the disease.