Πέμπτη, 20 Μαρτίου 2008

Trash












People,

There is still a lot of catching up to do, so I'll try to condense things.

First of all, I don't think I mentioned what the strikes (still going strong by the way) are about.

From what I could gather through all the general yelling on TV and with people whenever I broach the subject in public, the Greek government is trying to make the pension system more efficient by reducing the number of pension plans through various mergers. Namely, we currently have about a hundred pension plans, and after they have been merged we should have about 14.

To be honest, this sounds like a rather reasonable plan to me, a good way to simplify things and reduce costs. But of course, many people complain that this will make things worse instead of better, and that those who have good pension plans now will have worse ones. Since I usually tend to root for the underdog, I am thinking more of all the people for whom this might be an improvement, but it is true I do not have a pension plan here, so it's easy to be generous with other people's money.

But I digress. I also forgot to mention that during the strikes, the trash does not get picked up. At all. We now have piles of stinking trash rising steadily all over town. Thank god it's not summer. I have included a couple of pictures in this email, so you can see what the city is starting to look like. I especially like the 2nd one. Notice how the Greek flag is slowly being swallowed up by trash? Clearly, the European flag is next. Maybe it's just me, but I thought this was a highly symbolic picture.

I shouldn't complain, though. A few weeks ago, the same thing happened in Italy. In Naples, the piles of trash had apparently reached the second floor windows. So overall, I'd say we're doing pretty good, here in Greek-land!

Now, I don't know if you heard, but back in January/February, it snowed quite a bit in Athens. Not only that, but the snow actually held, reaching about 7 or 8 inches deep for a couple of days - even in my usually warm Southern suburbs! (I'm including a picture of my balcony.) I'm sorry I don't have the picture to prove it, but the beach was actually covered in snow. It looked a little like Greenland, except with palm trees.

Of course, the Greeks used the opportunity to close everything down again: schools, public services, post offices… I don't remember getting one single day off from school during the much harsher winters in Belgium, when there was snow up to our knees. But in their defense, Greeks hate being cold, and the schools are apparently terrified that the pipes might freeze over and the little cherubs might catch their deaths. Knowing what an angry Greek parent can look like, I rather understand them.

As for my nationality, I went back to the town hall, and they did register me [the strike apparently relented for 1 day, so some worker was bored enough to stamp my paperwork]. All that remained for me to do in order to obtain an ID card was go to the police station [by appointment only]. I had to bring the town hall's paper, the government's paper stating that I am Greek, 4 black & white photos and my poor grandma as a witness - to WHAT, I'd like to know. Clearly another case of the Greeks not trusting their own government, yet trusting the word of a total stranger, and a biased one at that.

So to the police station we went with my little grandma, whom I practically had to hoist up a very steep flight of stairs - for who needs an elevator in a police station? Probably an economical way of keeping their police officers fit. I should also mention that police stations in Greece usually have a guard armed to the teeth stationed at the door, asking you what your business is before letting you in.

I'm not kidding. These guards are literally dressed in full combat gear, with a bullet proof vest, combat boots and a giant firearm to match. I know strictly zero about weapons, but to my untrained eye it looks rather like a Kalashnikov. I do not know exactly what vicious attack they are there to prevent in my peaceful suburb, but it certainly makes one feel less safe to see them armed like that, wondering where the threat is coming from. Probably other would-be terrorist photographers such as myself.

Unfortunately, I don't have a picture of this either, for I am not risking imprisonment AGAIN for you, guys - remember my little adventure with the DANGEROUS PHOTOGRAPH??... For those of you who don't, there now is a blog with all my newsletters, complete with photos AND your comments too! [http://atouchofgreece.blogspot.com/]

Anyway, we got into the IDs office and the guy made me fill out a couple of forms. Which is when I realized that Laura Neri was apparently too foreign a name for the town hall people, and I had been rebaptized Lora Nerh.

Short history of Greece and names. About 99% of the population in Greece is Christian Orthodox. Priests/churches supposedly will only baptize your child if his/her name is a recognized name, a.k.a. in the Bible. [Although that is rather flexible, since most ancient Greek and mythological names aren't, yet have been extremely popular lately.] Clearly, whoever registered me at the town hall decided that Laura was too pagan a name and decided to change it to a more acceptable one. The 'h' is just the Greek way of writing 'i' in this case.

Did I mention that the Greek way of pronouncing that is LOR-a, pronounced like the last 'OR' from 'horror'? I hate that name. I really do. For those of you who don't know it, my name is Italian and should be pronounced something like 'Lah-oo-rrah' - but only by Italian/Spanish speakers. The rest can stick to Laura.

The police officer very seriously suggested I return to the town hall to have this corrected, but picturing another 3 months delay because of the undoubtedly inextricable complexity of altering something that had now been officially recorded in the Greek registers, not to mention more strikes and a new appointment at the police station + hoisting of grandma up the stairs, I declined.

I would be LORA in Greece forever, he warned. Gritting my teeth, I said that I would live with it.

One more thing before I run off to play badminton: the city apparently intends to repave the streets in my area. I say "apparently", for about 6 weeks ago, they stripped our street of tar, along with a couple of other random streets in the area [don't ask me why they don't do an entire block together - I'm sure there is a Greek reason for this] - but the workers have since then disappeared, never be seen again. My street looks all forlorn, naked like that.

Hopefully they'll repave it before I leave the country.

L.
PS: I should have sent this yesterday, for now this last point is moot: as though they'd somehow read my complaint, the workers magically reappeared yesterday and covered my street in tar once more. I was so grateful I didn't dare ask what took them so long.
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SOME FEEDBACK ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER:
Christophe N:
Bon, ben au moins, t'as ta nationalité grecque ma chère lora. non?
Gavin K:
I'm so glad to see that the bitingly humorous observations/commentary of the Laura Greek Chronicle emails are back again!!! Love those trash pics - wow. Can only imagine the pleasant smell that goes with them...!

Δευτέρα, 17 Μαρτίου 2008

Death and Taxes

Hello people!

I know, I know, I've been bad and lazy this last couple of months… So here's an update of what has happened since my last letter.

After receiving the long-awaited letter stating that I am indeed Greek, I started the whole procedure of getting registered at the local town hall and getting a Greek ID/passport. Of course, you know Greece by now - none of it was as simple as it sounds.

First, I was told I had to go to Athens, to the office that had erroneously given me the famously disputed birth certificate. (Remember that piece of paper I almost wrestled someone for?) Anyway, I apparently had to have it annulled before being able to claim my nationality as the daughter of a Greek woman. Because that paper implied I was Greek by birth, not by blood. But, I said, since I'm Greek anyway, does it really matter… YES! Of COURSE it did!!

Knowing by now discussions are useless, I made the long trek to that office. After waiting in line forever as usual, I finally got a woman to take care of the problem. I'll give you the short version of that discussion: "Wait, so you're Greek?" "Well, not yet." "But this says you're Greek. Why do you want to cancel it?" "So I can be Greek." "But you are Greek." "Look, will you just cancel the damn thing?!"

Having learned by now the circumvoluted way in which the Greek mind works, I insisted she give me a paper proving that this had been cancelled. Proudly brandishing that, I returned to the town hall.

Unfortunately, a series of strikes had just started paralyzing the city, and the town hall was officially closed until further notice - even though half the employees were in their offices. [I don't really get it, but anyway.] They might reopen in a couple of days, or maybe next week.

Greeks being a people that jumps at such opportunities, the strike of course was extended to roughly 10 days, during which most public services didn't function, including public transportation, some schools were closed - and the electricity was cut off for several hours every day, generally at lunch time [possibly they hoped that the irritation at having to eat a cold lunch for an entire week would prompt people to support their cause in the hopes of ending the strike] - or in the evening, so that we were all reduced to 18th century devices: candlelight and quiet conversation, since most bars don't have a generator.

And let us not forget the best part: no electricity = no lights. No lights on the streets, a.k.a. no red lights, no green lights, no policemen anywhere of course, and tons of enraged Greeks trying to pass crossroads at the same time, at the speed of… light.


Ah, lots of excitement in Greece. Living dangerously. I tell you, James Bond has nothing on us. Iraq? Afghanistan? Naaaaah. Statistics say our death rate each year is that of a country at war. Except our war is waged in cars, by people furiously manipulating stick shifts and stomping on gas pedals.

What else happened? Taxes of course!

Obviously, I never had to pay taxes in Greece up to now. Since I made exactly 200 euros since I got here, I didn't think taxes would be a necessity. But of course, a law had just been changed, and since my mother has put her apartment in my name [Greeks do that a lot to avoid the huge inheritance taxes on property], I now had to file taxes.

There were half a dozen papers to obtain in order to have the privilege of paying taxes, and no sooner had I mailed the damn thing than I was summoned to the tax office in Athens. The very next day, might I add. Apparently, there are some things for which Greeks are VERY quick and efficient…

It appeared I hadn't signed my declaration ["I DID TOO!!!"] and had written an address in Greece while declaring I was a foreign resident. Tsk, tsk. Another long trek to Athens. Except I hadn't been told which office to go to - and the tax building comprised 5 floors full of offices. Fun.

When I finally found the right office, I pointed out to the person that I had of course signed my declaration. Her response? "It's barely legible." It was perfectly legible blue ink. What was I supposed to do? Print it in blood???

Anyway, once that problem was solved, there was the question of: did I owe the state any money?? I had been told that the law stated there were no penalties in cases like mine, but - of course - the law had changed that same week. This is Greece, after all. The woman gleefully started sorting through memos, but then she dispiritedly discarded them. The law had changed again the previous day, and I owed nothing once more. Glory be to Greece. Until the next time, of course. Tomorrow I'll probably owe a fortune.

More catching up in the next installment...

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SOME FEEDBACK ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER:

Amy T:
Ha! Very funny! And now you’ll probably have to get a permit to live in your apartment. Wait! That’s only in germany. You have to file paperwork every time you move!

Christophe N:
Hé bé! C'est quand même la folie ton pays !

Linus L:
Oh Laura - you are a good girl - this is hilarious.
When are you coming back?

Pete S:
Ah, Laura-- this one was priceless! Thanks for the ray of sunshine.

John H:
I love your emails. You will triumph!

Σάββατο, 15 Μαρτίου 2008

Starting 2008 with a bang


The famous letter from the Surround. I was so happy to get it that I didn't notice they misspelled my name... This would come back to haunt me later. (See "Trash", March 2008.)


Hello, beautiful people!

I know, I have been silent for a long time, but not for lack of things happening since I came back to Greece after spending Christmas in Belgium.

Let me tell you the epic fight of having to go shopping for groceries on New Year's Eve with my little grandma. ("But grandma, why today of all days??" "We have nothing to eat for New Year's Eve." "How about shopping 1 or 2 days in advance?" "We must have fresh meat on New Year's day." "Grandma, I really don't care. How about we eat bread and cheese, maybe a salad, and go shopping after the craziness is over?" Oh, the shocked look. Heresy. No meat on New Year's day?!?! What did I learn in America? Barbaric people.)

There is no arguing with my grandma once she's decided something. She is deceptively small, for such a strong will. So we found ourselves at the supermarket at 11.00 am on the 31st. I wanted to go at 9.30, knowing that Greeks are notoriously late-risers and hoping we might avoid the brunt of the shopping onslaught, but we had to wait for my grandma's pension to be delivered to her house at 10.30 that same day.

Yes, in this country, one's pension is not wired to a bank, apparently; it is delivered by hand, by a sloppily dressed guy who stays for a cup of coffee and some biscuits (sorry, cookies), always thoughtfully provided by my grandma (and, presumably, by the other 50 old ladies he delivers a pension to every month - I wonder how he's not obese).

Once that immutable ceremony was finally over, ("Grandma, can't we skip the coffee and cookies for once?" "This poor boy has come all this way to bring me my pension!" "But that's what he's paid to do." Yet another disapproving look. Clearly, those Americans also took my sense of hospitality away.) - we finally got to the supermarket.

One look at the throngs of cars lining up 10 deep outside, waiting to get into the overfull parking lot, and despair grabbed me. We would be there until 2.00 pm. I dropped my grandma at the door and went to park 2 blocks down the street. (Only smart move of the day.)

Inside, claustrophobia briefly squeezed me when I saw the hordes of people, packed like rats (or sardines, whichever you prefer) as far as the eye could see. I'm not kidding, wading through that crowd was physically exhausting, not to mention mentally, since Athenian shoppers on or before any given holiday are notoriously NOT filled with any kind of Christmas spirit.

Trying to find my grandma in the crowd, worried that she might already have been pulled under and trampled by thousands of enraged shoppers, I didn't notice right away the woman who was repeatedly pushing me with her cart. After the 3rd time, when she viciously bumped me on the ankle, I finally turned around and asked if she could please stop hitting me with her cart, especially as she could see there was nowhere else for me to go, unless she expected me to step onto the head of the grandpa in front of me.

Big mistake. I saw her face light up: I had just provided her with an excuse to release all her pent-up frustration of the last hour she had spent in this hellhole, possibly even for her whole shitty week or her failed marriage.

"There is no way I can avoid pushing you", she screamed in my face, "there's too many people!" I pointed out to her that she probably could if she wanted to, since I had so far managed not to hit or shove anyone. This released a fresh burst of screaming, but I wasn't really listening, as I'd finally spotted my grandma in the crowd, fighting over some yogurt with another grandma.

I started moving in that direction, but the woman had no intention of letting her nice fight blow over that quickly. She screamed something about having the right to put her cart wherever she felt like it. I almost asked if that included my ass, but refrained and instead told her she was very rude, at which point she screamed even louder that no, I was the very rude one, and how dare I?!

Unfortunately, the crowds were such that I couldn't get away as quickly as I wanted to. Ever had those dreams where you feel like you can't move forward, and something or someone ominous is right behind you? That's exactly what it was like, being followed by this screaming harpy and her cart while slowly edging forward, except I couldn't wake up.

I finally reached my grandma (who'd won the fight over the yogurt, as it turns out), and the harpy gave up, since old people still command a minimum of consideration in this country and usually don't get screamed at as much as the rest of us.

After about 40 mn of shopping for various superfluous stuff, my grandma suddenly remembered our New Year's meal. Reaching the meat counter after an agonizing 10 mn spent crossing the supermarket, my grandma took a number, and I almost fainted: the number was 76. The counter above us read 7.

I tried to reason with her. This would obviously take over an hour, she couldn't remain standing for that long. But she wanted to choose the meat herself. I pleaded with her. Please, grandma, let's go home, I don't care if we eat nothing special, there's only 3 of us. But we had to have meat on New Year's Day. I begged her. I even threatened to leave her there, but she's crafty. She told me to go on, which of course I couldn't do.

So we stayed there, the crowd jostling us constantly, while the counter slowly crawled forward. After another 45 mn, we had reached number 41. I tried again to convince her to leave, knowing it was in vain. But she had a secret weapon, she said. She would use her age. Turning to the guy behind the counter, she wheezed: "My dear boy, I am 88 years old. Have mercy on an old lady."

I was expecting some outraged reactions from the crowd, but old age is somewhat sacred here, after all. After finishing with his current client, the "boy" (who looked in his early 50s) dutifully asked my grandma what she wanted. She pointed at a huge chunk of meat. I didn't even try to argue, knowing that my grandma always cooks for 10, then donates whatever we cannot eat to the neighbors and wonders why she is constantly running out of money.

I briefly wondered why she hadn't used her secret weapon right away, but I guess even Greeks have to see an old woman suffer for a while before ceding their place. Seeing her success, another old lady elbowed my grandma: "Say, I'm 81 years old. Could you also ask him for that piece of meat for me?" My grandma of course complied.

I'll spare you the other 40 mn spent waiting in line at the cashier's, and my brief murderous impulse when I was told I should have weighed even the pre-packaged fruit and vegetables I had bought at the special fruit & vegetable counter, where yet ANOTHER giant line awaited me.

Instead, I'll share with you the wonderful news of 2008.

Are you ready?

Drumroll...

I have received a letter from the Greek government, stating that YES, I AM GREEK AFTER ALL!!!!!!
(And apparently have been since August, when I first deposited all my docs with them, but who's counting the months before they told me?)

Of course, I must now begin an entirely new fight to get a passport/ID card form my local city, but who cares? I am seriously thinking of having that letter framed.

Hope 2008 is turning out to be a good year for all of you.

Take care,
Laura
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SOME FEEDBACK ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER:

Kim R:
Absolutely frame it.

Cory M:
That settles it. Greece is a jungle.
But I'm glad you finally wore them down and gained admittance to the tribe.

Bénédicte G:
FÉLICITATIONS, MA LAURA !!!!!!!!!!!
Et vive les Grecs !

Diane Lisa J:
CONGRATULATIONS!!
I always knew you were Greek. They should have just asked me, I could have told them.

I still love the story of you going from room to room getting rejected until you finally found the one helpful lady by lying and saying you were sent to that room. These are tricks you must have learned at USC.

Will M:
Congratulations on the victory!

Amy T:
Woo hoo! Glad to hear you are back and giving us updates.