Thursday, February 2

Greece vs. Canada: the sequel

Well, ladies and gentlemen, here it is at last, the pros and cons of Greece, according to me. Now, if I wanted to be scientific about it, I’d follow the same procedure as I did with Canada – that is, to list the pros then refute them. However, science is not my aim; rather I wish to challenge the preconceptions people have about both countries. SO since most ex-pats seem to fall into the trap of forgetting all the bad things about their country of origin, in the first installment I tried to remind people why it was they came to Greece in the first place. And since all I hear about Greece (from Greeks and foreigners alike) is endless moaning, I thought I’d start now by listing the most common complaints going round and rebut them, in order to remind people of some of the good things this country has to offer. Πάμε λιπόν, Ελλάδα:

CONS: (according to what most people think)
I’ll keep these short since we’ve all heard the long versions about a million times – feel free to elaborate in your own head.)
1- People are rude.
2- Bureaucracy is a mess of red tape and unhelpful employees.
3- The government and judiciary are all corrupt, and the church has too much money and control over everything, and is corrupt too.
4- Essential services are constantly going on strike.
5- Shops and businesses – especially public bureaus – are never open when they’re supposed to be. And generally the shops close too early too often.
6- The transit system isn’t good, traffic and parking is horrendous, and both drivers and pedestrians alike are taking their lives into their own hands by hitting the streets.
7- The job market is miserable, working conditions are sub-standard, and wages are pathetic.
8- Everything is very expensive. Especially food and going out.
9- The school system is abysmal.
10- So is the public health system, and god forbid you have to go to an IKA hospital for anything.
11- Athens, at least, is a dirty ugly city of concrete apartment buildings and no green space or gardens.
12- Greeks are racist, especially towards Albanians and Poles.
13- No or little effort is being made to improve the state of the environment.
14- The news on some channels is little better than an entertainment program or a soap opera. And they show MOVIES with SEX in them BEFORE KIDS GO TO BED!!!
15- Everything is disorganized, chaotic, and takes three times as long to get done than in other countries.

1- OK. So. The great majority of people are rude. Especially in Athens, where the stress of city life drives most people to the edge of insanity, but also, increasingly, on the islands (though whose fault is that? Before the onset of mass tourism and idiotic tourists, Greeks were known as some of the most hospitable, kind and generous people in the world – jaded perhaps?). Nonetheless, among the rude masses you also discover people so fantastically helpful, so kind and considerate and willing to go a mile out of their way for you, that I think a kind of balance is achieved. Furthermore, a lot of Greek rudeness is a method of stress relief – and it works. It does suck when it’s directed at you, but it explains the phenomenon of Greeks being able to switch from full-throttle screaming to joking around and friendly claps on the back in under a second. And, just as we expect immigrants who come to our countries to adapt to our way of life, so too should we be expected to adapt to the Greek way of doing things, through a process my friends and I call DISCOVERING YOUR INNER GREEK. What this process involves is letting go of your inhibitions and having right back at them: throw a tantrum at the supermarket when someone butts in front of you; start yelling at the lady who shoves you on the bus; swear at the person who steals your parking spot from under your nose; throw insults out loud in the middle of the street, whilst shaking your fist, at the driver who almost runs you over. It acts as a form of catharsis - you will be amazed at the feeling of calm that follows once you get whatever it is off your chest, and, rather than hating you, you’ll make a lot of new friends – with sympathetic onlookers, for example – who will recognize you as one of their own. Just remember, once you’ve thrown your fit, LET IT GO. Be magnamonious, and don’t keep fuming about it.
2- Bureaucracy is a mess. No doubt about it. We’ve all had to run around to a million offices, getting a mass of papers stamped about a zillion times by taciturn employees. But again, I feel the exceptions are SO exceptional that they balance things out. For example, a friend of mine was filing her sister’s tax returns for her, while her sister was out of the country, by assuming her identity. Note that the two sisters look nothing alike in their taftotita pictures, but no one commented in the tax office. Not the first time – or the second time – or the fourth fifth and sixth times when the forms were lost and no one could locate them. It seemed as though an impasse had been reached: yes, they could see they owed this much money – it was on the computer – but without the original, stamped, and sadly misplaced paper, they could do nothing. At which point my friend pulled a stunt called PLAYING ON THEIR SYMPATHIES: the tax office employee looked at her melancholically and asked her, “Kyria mou, are you really fed up?” “Yes,” she said. “I mean really, really at the end of your tether?” he insisted. “Yes, I am,” she replied. “I’m about to snap. Δεν αντέχω άλλο. Please, please, help me.” “OK kyria mou,” he said, “I just have to check something with your accountant. Let’s call her”. Of course, the accountant said, “Are you sure you have miss so-and-so there? Cause I’m pretty sure she’s out of the country at the moment.” The clerk looked at my friend. He looked at the ridiculous taftotita. He asked her: “Are you sure you’re miss so-and-so?” “Yes, of course I am.” she replied brazenly. “Hmmm. Of course. I see,” he said, and magically produced a piece of paper, stamped it a few times, and sent my friend off to get a few more stamps and her money. But the amazing thing is that, at one of the stamping points, some clerk actually said, “Oh – I see here you never got your money from last year. Let me see if I can locate the form for you.” A search through drifts and stacks of paper ensued and, just when they were about to give up hope, the paper turned up at the bottom of the last stack, and my friend ended up walking out of the place clutching no less than 8000 evro – cash, to boot! Okay, perhaps that’s more a tale in support of the cons than the pros, but I was looking for an excuse to tell that anecdote. But there is one thing to be learnt from it. Unlike in other countries, where bureaucrats are polite but unfeeling and immoveable in the face of your suffering, Greek bureaucrats are, beneath the tough exterior, quite HUMANE, and can be GUILTED into doing things for you, if you know how. I’ve done it myself – for example, I went to the wrong IKA office, waited a few hours to be greeted by a very dour looking middle-aged lady behind the wicket, who told me, sorry, I’d just have to go to the correct branch. Tough luck. So I pulled the PLAYING ON THEIR SYMPATHIES trick, with success – the lady did the stamping for me there. It’s very useful to know, and it goes something like this (I’ll write it in Greenglish for the non-Greek speakers to practice): “AH! kyria mou, Ti tha kano tora? Eimai xeni. Den milao kala Ellenika. Den boro na pao sto allo meros! Den xero pou einai!! Kai doulevo!!! Prepei na eimai sto douleia TORA!!!! Pira adeia na ertho edo!!!!! Kai perimena yia deka ores, kai eho pedia!!!!! AH ah… the mou! Ti tha kano?” etc. etc. (What am I to do now? I’m a foreigner. I don’t speak Greek well. I can’t go to that other place! I don’t know where it is!! And I work!!! I should be at work now!!!! I took time off to come here!!!!! And I waited for ten hours in line, and have children!!!!!! Oh, god! What will I do?.) This has to be said with much mournful eye rolling, and your voice must slowly rise in pitch throughout, until by the end you’re verging on hysteria and casting yourself about wildly, eyes raised in supplication to god. (No matter how over the top you think you’re going, don’t worry, it’s not too much – embrace your inner drama queen, this time.) Also, said with a terrible Greek accent, it is even more convincing – the hardest-hearted, laziest employee, male or female, won’t be able to deny you!
3- The government and judiciary are all corrupt/The church has too much money and control over everything, and is corrupt: I won’t even try to argue. But really, does this affect you in your daily life, or have you been watching too much Alter?
4- Essential services are constantly going on strike: You mean they aren’t in your country?
5- Shops and businesses – especially public bureaus – are never open when they’re supposed to be. And generally the shops close too early too often. OK this is a pain in the behind, but if I was one of the people working in a shop – something I did do in Canada, till 9 every night, and on Sundays too – I’d be pretty happy about it.
6- The transit system isn’t good: Really? Seems fine to me – at least since the Olympics – if you aren’t living in a far-off suburb. But hey, it was your choice to live in a suburb. Those of us brave enough to live in Athens proper need to have SOME reason for staying here. So, there are masses of buses and trolleys which come all the time, and the metro is fast and handy. Plus, it’s all ridiculously CHEAP!! Come on, people, if you're going to complain, at least pick something that really is a problem! 6.5- Traffic/parking is horrendous, and both drivers and pedestrians alike are taking their lives into their own hands by hitting the streets: Umm… yes. Let’s just skip that one, OK? Besides, New York is just as bad. So there.
7- The job market is miserable, working conditions are sub-standard, and wages are pathetic: Can we skip this one too? Oh OK. Yes, the job market is miserable, but at least Greeks know how to enjoy themselves when they’re not working – and even sometimes (a lot of the time) when they are. Why do you think all those officials are so hard to reach? Just check to see if it’s a sunny day and don’t be surprised when no one picks up the phones. Also, how nice is it to be able to smoke AT YOUR DESK? (Non-smokers, sorry, you really picked the wrong country.) And where else could you take a ONE MONTH VACATION, or call in sick every time there’s nice weather, or, on the other hand, if there’s rain, or snow, or a football game or…
8- Everything is very expensive. Especially food and going out: Yes, but such food!!! Amazing, flavourful, real, fresh, ahhhhh… It’s worth it. And sorry, it’s really not so bad, so long as you’re not eating steaks every day. I think a lot of this talk about how Greeks have no money is that they like to LIVE WELL: good food, lots of partying and drinking, nice clothes, flash cars. Just about the only things Greeks don’t spend money on are their homes. So it's not surprising that most people are broke. (I don’t include of course those with kids who really can’t find a job and are in dire straights. Those do exist aplenty, and my sympathies to them, but most of the people you hear whingeing are doing just that!) (For the record, here are just some things that are much MUCH cheaper here than in Canada: public transit, theatre, taxis, hairdressers, painkillers and antibiotics, wine, bathroom appliances, cigarettes, big concerts, mixed drinks (when you consider that you’re getting at least three times as much alcohol when you order a drink here, rather than the Canadian thimble full), shoemakers and seamstresses, university, rent, purchasing a house... ummm OK so I can't think of many. But it's a good indication of what the Greeks really consider important, isn't it? Ha ha.)
9- The school system is abysmal: Yes it is. This is one thing that really gets me too.
10- So is the public health system, and god forbid you have to go to an IKA hospital for anything: But at least, if you do have to go, you’ll come out with a whole repertoire of stories to regale your friends with!
11- Athens, at least, is a dirty ugly city of concrete apartment buildings and no green space or gardens: Actually, it has quite a lot of parks and plateias, they are just rather subsumed by all the concrete lowering over them.
12- Greeks are racist, especially towards Albanians and Poles: Well first, please note this is misuse of the term RACIST – Albanians and Poles are not a different race from the Greeks. Greeks are not, however and as far as I can tell, racist towards blacks, who are truly another race, and not terribly racist towards Pakistanis. But OK so they are PREJUDICED. I’ve even experienced it: when I speak Greek my accent is not at all English, but it’s not really Greek either, so when I shop for expensive things, I often get the cold shoulder and am told things are VERY EXPENSIVE – until I throw in an English word, and suddenly they’re all over me. However, this prejudice is based, I think, on the fact that the refugee situation here is completely out of control – and the government is doing little to nothing to ease tensions or help immigrants adapt and fit into Greek society. So it’s not surprising that Greeks are reacting somewhat badly to this sudden influx of foreigners into what was previously a pretty homogenous society. But Greeks are in general quite humane and empathetic people. They may talk badly about immigrants – or homosexuals for that matter – but they rarely put that talk into action. After all, how many gay bashings have you heard of happening here in Greece? Here’s another example: I was walking in Monastiraki a while ago when we came across two Pakistanis who had been caught by the police selling their wares on a blanket on the street. One of the men knelt down and threw his arms around the police officer’s legs in a traditional gesture of supplication, and the officer – more out of surprise than anything, I think – kicked him away. So we stopped and started asking – well, OK, yelling – what they thought they were doing beating the guy up. Within SECONDS a HUGE crowd of Greeks had gathered, all of them shouting abuse at the bewildered officers, defending the Pakistanis, and insisting that they be released. One woman thrust her child forward and kept demanding, “Is this the example you give to our children? To beat an innocent man?” So finally the police let the men go, and the mob dispersed, feeling very pleased with itself. But I ask you, would something like this ever happen in more Western countries? Would anyone interfere with two burly policeman, or even glance to see what exactly was going on? And to defend a racial minority that is not exactly smiled upon? That’s what I mean by humane.
13- No or little effort is being made to improve the state of the environment: SHAME!!! KRIMA!!! I was very disappointed to see that the renewable energies bill did not pass last week. And what is going to happen with the rubbish? Will they just keep burning/burying it improperly on the islands, and paying out fines to the EU??? Grrr… OK people, whinge all you like on this one. Maybe if we start causing a big enough fuss something will be done. Unfortunately it seems the new generation of Greeks, unlike their ancestors who recycled and composted even before those terms were invented, are generally apathetic about environmental issues. But to tell the truth, I don't hear many foreigners whingeing about it either.
14- The news on some channels is little better than an entertainment program, or a soap opera: and it’s different where you come from? Face it, the news, especially in the US but in Canada and the UK too, is FULL OF LIES AND PROPAGANDA. It’s just done with more sophistication than here, so you’re more likely to believe it – at least here it is so clearly a joke. And despite it Greeks have a very healthy dialogue about politics and the state of their country. They may not be very well informed, but they re aware and critical of everything and motivated. I was so impressed when I went on the anti-war protest here by the fact that it was not just activist university kids taking part, like in Canada, but mothers, fathers, kids, and grandparents. Right on. 14.5- And they show MOVIES with SEX in them BEFORE KIDS GO TO BED!!! Puh-lease!!!! I can’t believe the number of times I have heard this coming from the mouths of foreigners. Hello! Have you watched TV back home recently?? Feel OK with your kids watching people get dismembered? It’s just the facts of life, people, not pornography, and anyway, if you care so much, shouldn’t you be monitoring what your kids are watching???
15- Everything is disorganized, chaotic, and takes three times as long to get done than in other countries: MMMmmmm and I love it. Just relax, breathe, take advantage of the time you are wasting to think about life, stop for coffee, watch all the amazing dramas that unfold around you on the street – it’s like live theatre! Not a day goes by that I don’t witness some fascinating exchange, some REAL and basic human interplay. So, you’ll be late. So you won’t get the thing done by the deadline. So what? No one else will either. Live a little. Maybe it’s easier said than done, when you absolutely HAVE to get something done and are constantly frustrated, but generally life here is 'organised' to make room for delays, whether due to procrastination or the system – or lack thereof – and you shouldn’t end up in too much trouble. Greeks have their priorities straight – enjoy the things that make living worthwhile, and try to weasel out of the rest as much as possible. That’s why everything is such a mess – the two are mutually exclusive. The things that make Greece such a wonderful place are the very same things that make living here so frustrating – depending on which side of the fence you are sitting on. Try to remember that if you are one of those people who are always carrying on about how much life sucks here. Not that we should never complain – it’s natural to criticize the place you live in - but remember that your country of origin was no utopia either – you came here for a reason after all – and that there is a difference between valid, justified complaining, about things that actually do you harm, and the pointless everyday TRASHING of Greek culture and society that I so often hear going on.

Well this turned out to be a real manifesto. Sorry all. If you’d like to leave a comment addressing one of the specific points I wrote above, perhaps it would be good to start off by stating which point exactly you are commenting on! Thanks, and I look forward to hearing all of you telling me just how crazy I am and that I’ll be singing another tune in a few years’ time – I’m ready for it!!!


bluebadlydrawngirl;) said...

RE: 2- Bureaucracy is a mess of red tape and unhelpful employees.

ya, i thougt Quebec was bad, but after the stories i've heard about Greece, we don't have it so bad. it only took me four hours to do my driving test last summer. my appointment was at 12:30 and my number was only called at 2:00!!! and i just got moved into ANOTHER line!

RE: 4- Essential services are constantly going on strike: You mean they aren’t in your country?

ummm... not unless you count the liquor commission... lol...when they went on strike over the christmas holidays, the public went crazier than when the buses were on strike!!! but in general the Essential Services Council makes sure that "essential services" are not disrupted. Does Greece have anything like that?

BallAndDust said...


#14 reminds me of a story. About 25 years ago (so I was about 10), my brother and I were watching a movie with my papou and yiayia. In one seen, it showed the side of a woman's breast as she's getting out of bed.

"Te te te. Ti vlepoune at paidia tora."

My yiayia, being very old fashioned, was quite upset that her grandchildren saw nudity on the public television. This was back when there were only 2 channels, ERT-1 and ERT-2 that were not on all the time.

I kind of laugh about it now, but from what I hear about what is on the Greek tv these days (I never watch when I'm there), it would probably give her a heart attack.


BallAndDust said...

I meant to say "in one scene". Funny how the mind works when its tired, typing phonetically.


D. said...

"A process which I call discovering your inner greek".

So there is a Greek in all of us? :D
I for one have been trying to discover my inner GERMAN for ages :P

"But really, does this affect you in your daily life, or have you been watching too much Alter?"
HAHAHAHAHAH!"Alter Channel" is one of a kind.Jerry Springer quality 24/7! :D

The school system is abysmal: Yes it is. This is one thing that really gets me too.

It's probably one of the least efficient in Europe.But greeks manage to educate themselves by other means ;)
(which unfortunately cost an awful lot of money...).Greece is no country of ignorants and I'm sure you've figured that out!

As to the athenian architectural landscape...oh..that's a sad story...we've ruined what could have been europe's most beautiful capital.Oh well.At least we fulfilled our dream.We all moved to Athens :D.You may want to read this blog entry
of mine if you are interested

Anyway I loved your analysis.It's invaluable for any foreigner whose interest for life in greece extends slightly beyond souvlaki and mousaka :P.

kassandra said...

badlydrawngirl: hmmm I'm not sure... will have to look into that, but if you consider garbage pickup an essential service I presume not!!
ballanddust: hee hee! I love little stories like that which show how we've moved on! Thank you... and might I inquire if you suffered any psychological damage as a result of that glimpse of a woman's breast? :P
d.: well I'm flattered! I certainly never intented to write an "invaluable analysis", just wanted get stuff off my chest, but if the post will be of use to other people, I'm pleased! Incidentally I was very interested in your blog on the architecture in athens - and I agree wholeheartedly - a bit of white paint and "house proudness" would go a long way towards making athens a much more beautiful city. However, my current bone to pick with the athenian authorities is the large number of neoclassical buildings which managed to survive the massive population influx, most of which are, if I've been correctly informed, owned by church and state, and which are being left to slowly rot and disintegrate until no other option remains but to demolish them. I have a real fondness for old architecture (and old things in general) and it really kills me to see these beautiful buildings - many of them works of art, really - left to decay. It's time for the church to use some of their substantial funds towards renovating at least the buildings in their possession!

kassandra said...

Also I forgot to mention - there's an EU funding or grant program I've heard rumours about, which actually gives people money to fix up the exterior of their houses - but either it's so badly advertised no one knows about it, or they can't be bothered. Has anyone else heard something about it?

buruburu said...

Haha kassandra, you've outdone yourself! I particularly enjoy the inner greek in everyone concept. You are on the road to become a real greek.
Another thing you said which I've been thinking about lately is the fact that the things that make greece a great place to live in are the same things that create problems. Great insight there.
You know when I was younger I always wondered why was it that in general sounthern countries were more corrupt and inefficient than northern countries. Something particulary evident in Europe.
I used to think it was the weather slowing everyone's metabolism and therefore making everyone lazy! Yes, neive of me, I know. Lately I have realized that it porbably has to do with close familiy ties and warmer human relations. It's a double edged knife. Most greeks will go out of their way, braking a law or two to accomodate their relatives and friends. But also although the 'safety net' of family is great, it also makes us lazy, knowing that you'll never be homeless, you will never starve.

toomanytribbles said...

kassandra, i've just discovered your blog and am (admittedly slowly) browsing through it. i'm reading this way after it was written.. i'd also like to thank you for this post. i'm always interested in this type of thing -- i've got a negative attitude about greece in general and it won't easily go away.. positive insights like this help.

i'd like to say, though, in response to buruburu's mention of the family 'safety net'.. some of us don't have that net to fall back on -- the support, financial or otherwise of family. that makes living here all that much more difficult and often scary.

Anonymous said...

great post kassandra. you are absolutely correct that many greeks are broke because they want to live the 'good life', but that's the problem i had with it; when i was living there, i noticed that most of the under 35's spending money like water weren't married, lived at home, had no real commitments, and were in debt up to their eyeballs. many of these younger Greeks are going to get a rude shock when they move out of home; their lifestyle isn't sustainable on their wages.

as for Athens, it's a bit of an ugly city, for the most part--even some the 'upper class' areas look weather-beaten IMO--but it has its charms, no doubt. But since i'm into the whole 'organised living' thing, it was difficult for me to stay there.