Put to shame, and other postscripts

It’s amazing what can come up in conversation. When I visited good friends in Athens a month ago, we were talking about what we take with us when we travel. Do we travel light? Or do we take an outfit for every possible contingency? Naturally, I brought up my packing list, the one I’d so lavishly praised in a blog post just before I left for Greece. I praised its virtues exuberantly.

My friend said that he, too, had developed a packing list that the whole family uses when travelling, and brought it out for me to see.

What can I say? It was a long, comprehensive, laminated list that could be used multiple times: things that weren’t relevant could be crossed out; things to be packed could be ticked off. There were even blank lines for miscellaneous things only relevant to each specific trip to be added. Then you can wipe the whole lot clean and start again.

I was floored. “Oh my God” I stammered. “I’m so impressed. That is so impressive…”

I had been put to shame.

Later, over dinner, the conversation turned to food and I mentioned my favourite meal was a traditional Greek casserole of green beans and potatoes (known as φασολάκια με πατάτες – fasolakia me patates). My friends’ teenage daughters can’t stand this dish, I was told.

I turned to one daughter and said, “Aaah, that’s because you haven’t tried my fasolakia me patates!”

“Yeah”, she replied, “That’s what you said about your list, too.”

Gotta admit, she had a point.


When I wrote about the difficulties in conversing with my friends and family in Greece, little did I realise I had a secret weapon in my possession that would help me out.

This is the first time I’ve travelled to Greece with a smartphone, you see – not because I haven’t been to Greece in a long time (I was just there in 2013), but because I was a late adopter as far as smartphones are concerned.

In any case, I very quickly realised that, thanks to my iPhone, I could reach into my pocket and pull out my own instant translation service. Google Translate became my new best friend.

iPhone screen shot from Google Translate

Not only was it useful when I desperately needed help expressing myself, I also used it when reading about the political situation in Greece – in fact, I’m still using it for this purpose. I am able to copy words straight from news websites or from Twitter and paste them into Google Translate. Within seconds out spits a translation.

It has been incredibly helpful. I’m now pretty fluent in the language of the current political landscape in Greece. Unsurprisingly, given the timing of my visit to Greece, the first word I looked up was διαπραγματεύσης – diapragmatevsis. It was in every news report on TV and all the articles I read online.

It means ‘negotiation’.


Another word I learnt when in Greece was δημοψήφισμα – demopsifisma: ‘referendum’. In the last post I wrote, I said I was hoping for Greeks to vote ΟΧΙ – ‘NO’ – in the Greek referendum of 5 July 2015. Author Christos Tsiolkas recently wrote an article about the aftermath of the referendum for The Monthly (Greek Tragedy). In it he writes about experiencing “political hope” and “political optimism” in the immediate wake of the referendum. These were feelings that swept up an entire nation (or at least the 61.3 per cent that voted ‘NO’). Feelings that I experienced, too, when I was in Greece in the week preceding the referendum, as well as immediately after.

The tragedy of what followed and what continues to be played out is that the Greek prime minister’s tactic of using the referendum result as a means of strengthening his negotiation position spectacularly backfired. Greece’s people may have rejected austerity but Greece’s lenders had not.

Meanwhile, the flower of political optimism and hope that had begun to grow in the hearts of the Greek people was not only weeded out; the garden it grew in was completely concreted over.

On my last day in Athens I visited the Acropolis, which I hadn’t been to in over twenty years. It was a glorious day and the marble of the Parthenon and the other buildings glimmered in the sun. The Greek flag fluttered against the backdrop of the city and the blue sky.

Greek flag - fluttering in wind

Over more than two millennia, the Acropolis has withstood countless attacks by Greece’s enemies, including being bombed in World War II. It’s still there though, and, while it is obviously damaged and worn, it’s still breathtaking in its magnificence.

I’ve written before about the lessons of history regarding the strength of the Greek people, and when I look at my photos of the day I reflect on this again.

I think of the Acropolis and its buildings as symbols of the resilience of the Greek people, who may be down now, who may be worn and damaged, but who will never be out.

Parthenon of Athens

When in Greece – part 2: In the midst of a crisis

In January 2013 I visited Greece and was shocked to find how badly things had deteriorated because of the financial crisis.

The first thing that relatives asked me when I arrived in Greece four weeks ago was, “What do you think of our situation now? How do you find us?”

While they all told me that things were much, much worse, to my eyes things seemed to be about the same. I know unemployment has gone up, amenities seemed even more worn out and damaged than before, and there were slightly more shops closed in the heart of Athens. But otherwise life seemed to be going on much as it had before.

The main change I saw in Greece, or in Greeks, rather, was that many people seemed to be suffering from crisis fatigue. Whereas the crisis seemed to be on everyone’s lips in 2013, this time round I found that only about half the people I talked to spent their time obsessing about the financial crisis, while the rest had switched off. They avoided news and current affairs shows, newspapers and online news outlets – because they found the news too depressing and too distressing. For many, it was just too hard to continue with the crisis at the centre of their lives; they had become worn down to the point of emotional and mental exhaustion by it. So they were opting out.

Even as negotiations began in earnest ahead of Greece’s 30 June deadline for its first payment back to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), many people refused to keep abreast of what was going on. The rest, meanwhile, continued to obsessively scan the television for the latest reports.

Talking to people it seemed to me that they had gone through several of the stages of grief in relation to what had been happening to their country, Greece, including shock, anger, resentment, grief and, for many, acceptance.

The media reported that €3billion was withdrawn from banks by Greeks in the week ending Friday 19 June, with €1billion withdrawn on that particular Friday. But I saw no bank queues that week.

In fact, I only saw bank queues from Saturday 27 June onwards, once the Greek prime minister had called a referendum for 5 July on the question of whether the people accepted the bailout terms put in an ultimatum to the Greek government by the so-called Troika – the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the IMF.

Even still, while the media showed photos of the same long queues over and over, I only ever saw relatively short queues of between five and ten people. People who seemed calm and good natured, not panicked or desperate, as portrayed in the traditional media.

While much has been written about the limit of sixty euro a day that can be withdrawn by locals from ATMs, on social media OXI campaigners have pointed out that the capital controls don’t affect the thirty five per cent of the population living in poverty because they don’t even have the luxury of a bank account.

I can’t help think that if money is running out in banks, maybe it’s because the people who withdrew the billions of euros before the referendum was announced are hoarding it.

A lot has been written about the politics implicit in the referendum and the economic consequences of voting no or yes. In Greece, the traditional media is aggressively supporting the NAI or ‘yes’ campaign, while the OXI or ‘no’ campaign is running hot on social media.

People I know have expressed a variety of opinions. Some say that either way they’ll be hungry in the next few years, so they might as well vote ‘no’ and get the Troika off their backs. Others say they know that more pain awaits if they accept the bailout terms offered, but they fear Greece leaving the Eurozone and a return to the drachma. They say it’s better the devil you know, than uncertainty.

As a very wise woman once explained to me, people are only motivated by two emotions: fear and love. All other emotions can be traced back to these two.

I have no doubt that everyone voting in the referendum will think they are doing the right thing for their country and their future. I also have no doubt that for many the motivating emotions will be fear of what will come next mixed with love of their country.

I personally hope that Greeks vote a big fat ‘OXI’ – ‘no’. But it’s easy for me to have an opinion because I’m an outsider. I’m all care and no responsibility.

As I write this, the polling booths have closed and soon we will know the result. Either way, in the tradition of Greeks who pass on “good” wishes, I wish Greece and Greeks, Καλἠ μαχἠ και καλἠ συνἐχια – a good fight and a good continuation.