Wednesday, March 9, 2016

From ‘Blue Skies and Black Olives. A survivor's tale of housebuilding and peacock chasing in Greece’ by John Humphrys and Christopher Humphrys

“I’ll be there at seven tomorrow evening” really meant: ‘I might be there at seven tomorrow. Or eight. Or the day after tomorrow. Then again, I might simply not come at all.’ ….Greeks do not believe in punctuality ….Dinner parties are ridiculous. One reason Greeks don’t mind eating cold food is down to lateness.

….the Acropolis in a setting sun will melt the hardest heart….

….the problem is that every other Greek wants to live in the city and regards it as his inalienable right to ignore whatever planning regulations may or may not exist. So, since the 1950s, the city has spread like a fat man’s bottom on a small chair: ugly neighbourhoods of concrete apartment blocks crammed together with barely a patch of green between them. ….the result of this over-population was some of the most congested roads in Europe and the filthiest air. They call it nefos and on a bad day the air would be so thick with pollution it seemed as though you could take a knife and carve it into slices. Eventually they built a metro to persuade Greeks to leave their cars at home and it worked. The air got gradually cleaner.

…the curious thing about Greece. The country is broke. Its economic wellbeing depends to a very large extent on tourism. Without the cash foreign motorists bring, the government’s accounts would not balance.

….as Clausewitz once put it, no plan survives its first contact with the enemy.

….beware of what you wish for lest it come true….

….this is a country where the simplest bureaucratic task requires the patience of Job and a battalion of lawyers. The alternative is to approach the task with the bank balance of a ship owner and the morals of a Mafia don, in which case things can happen very quickly….

….Greek drivers are patient types who don’t like to drive fast or use their horns or anything….

After the Second World War half the population of Greece decided to move to Athens, and mostly they came from the villages.

It is not unusual for Greek men to show extremes of emotion, even to shed the occasional tear in public.

It seems that when the Greeks tell a man he has horns, it means he has been a fool in matters of the heart. The horns are thought to be deer antlers and the expression comes from the fact that your antlers (or foolishness) can be seen by everyone but yourself.

Botanists say there are no fewer than six thousand species of aromatic plants and wild flowers in Greece. That’s more than anywhere in Europe.

…..every country has its army of bureaucrats, but Greece is in a league off its own. That may be because working for the public sector is just about the only way to guarantee a secure income and a pension or it may be because the only way to defend yourself against the bureaucrats is to become one.

When Greece finally won independence in 1832 the Ottomans began to depart, leaving behind them an awful lot of land which they had seized ….over 400 years of their occupation. The new Greek state ….divided this land up among the Greek people. By 1870 most Greek peasants found themselves the owners of about twenty acres. ….not that the deeds contained precise boundary details ….apart from no detailed maps, there wasn’t even an official land register in the fledgling state of ‘modern’ Greece …..It wasn’t until 1923 that town planning was introduced, at about the time Greeks started moving to Athens from Asia Minor or Smyrna following the disastrous war against the Turks that lasted from 1919 to 1922 and the reprisals that followed it. Overnight the population of Athens nearly doubled to more than 700,000. ….There was another big influx after the Second World War when Greeks started to move to the capital from the islands and the countryside in search of what they thought would be a better life. Many of them had suffered horribly during the war – particularly those who lived in the mountains and continued the resistance. If the Germans didn’t get them, starvation often did. And then, as if they hadn’t suffered enough, the Greeks began fighting each other. The civil war was followed by the military dictatorship, which lasted until 1974.
….modern planning laws on a regional and national level did not really come into effect until the Greek Constitution of 1975 …. Greece still doesn’t have a comprehensive land registry. It also manages to be the only country in Europe apart from Albania that doesn’t even have a registry for its forests.
The European Union gave Greece a lot of money to help it finish the land registry and after patiently waiting the agreed amount of time, asked for it back when the land registry still hadn’t been finished. By which time the money had, of course, conveniently disappeared.

Athens is surrounded by thousands of illegal houses. They are all connected to the national grid. The police drop by once a month for a fakilaki, a little envelope, and everyone is happy ….In Nigeria, he [a seasoned old expat] said, things had been simple. You just bribed everybody, Everything had a set price. In Greece things are more tricky. In some situations a bribe is acceptable but in others it could land you in jail. Knowing the difference is the key.

To survive in Greece, you need your children to become a doctor, a lawyer and ideally someone in the civil service, or at least with plenty of contacts.

Greeks….have no fear of seeming nosy. There is none of the reserve you might find further north in Europe – especially when it comes to personal matters. Once they have established where you work and what you do, the next question may very well be about how much you earn and if its your house you’re talking about, they will want to know how much it cost. I have yet to be asked how often I make love to my partner, but no doubt its only a matter of time.

Peacocks ….can make the most appalling racket ….The writer William Sitwell says a screeching peacock can ‘chill the bones of the devil himself ….and course through the veins like a vicious poison.’ He likened it to ‘a eunuch being strangled on the main stage at Glastonbury, accompanied by a choir of a thousand shrieking car alarms.’

….most old Greeks tend to be a bit suspicious of foreigners like me …..

….the history of olives in Greece is measured in millennia, not centuries. They have been prized and guarded by Greeks since long before the Roman occupation a couple of thousand years ago, Greek history, both ancient and modern, IS the olive tree....It was the olive that gave the Greeks an essential part of their diet as well as lighting, heating, medicine, perfume and ultimately wealth. Sophocles called it ‘The tree that feeds the children.’ ….People often own trees on someone else’s property. You can even go to court to sue for your trees. ….there is an official table relating to the value of every tree according to its age, size and condition. …..a good tree will yield a hundred euros a year or more. Multiply that by a hundred trees (the size of a decent olive grove) and it’s a lot of money to people in rural Greece.

A marble floor in Britain is considered pretty fancy. In Greece it is often the cheapest option ….There’s so much marble in Greece that you can even find kerbstones cut from it. What is really sought after here is wood.

Its very rare to find a Greek driver who will ever admit to an accident being his fault.

….about the Greek language: when Greek men are talking together they almost always seem to be having a fierce argument. I wondered whether it stems from their desire to burnish the macho image they have of themselves – an image that is not borne out by the reality.  ….I discovered fairly quickly that Greek men are actually pretty soppy and liable to burst into tears for no apparent reason. They are far more liable than northern Europeans (especially the British) to pour their hearts out to you even when they are entirely sober and sometimes weep on your shoulder over some sad episode in their lives. It can sometimes be endearing for a buttoned-up Brit to be exposed to this sort of behavior, but mostly it is mildly embarrassing…..when there are a group of Greeks together. It’s a bit like listening to children in a school playground. …Its not just men either   . Christopher complains that when his wife and friends are together, at least three will be speaking at the same time and all of them at full blast.

Greek is a hard language …way harder than any average European language, and not far off the real monsters such as Mandarin and Finnish……a very demanding grammar that is on par with Latin, it lacks any useful roots you can latch on to. Learn a bit of Spanish, Italian and French and you can soon be making educated guesses as to what a word may be. Try that in Greek and unless the word is ‘computer’ you will always be wrong.

….in the years between 800 BC and 300 BC the average size of the Greek household increased five times. …is quite remarkable and historians are not absolutely sure why it happened. Most make the assumption that it was because the region had become so much wealthier…

…Greek boys simply didn’t want to leave home. They still don’t. Why should they? They’re spoiled rotten by their indulgent parents.

Greeks squeeze lemon juice onto everything.

The dowry tradition has died out long since in most of Europe, but its still going strong in Greece – along with God knows how many other traditions you might have expected to have vanished a century or two ago.

If you aren’t lucky enough to have a family property then life is very hard. Yes, rents are low when compared to Britain but the cost of living is as expensive as anywhere else in Europe. This is one reason why Greeks have had a negative birth rate for so long. People cant afford large families.
Greek society is deceptive. On the surface it may look as if it’s the man who is the boss and who heads the family. In reality the mother is all-important and ultimately holds the most power. The men are given long leads and allowed to think that they are in control

The children obey the mother, full stop. Even the most arrogant, obnoxious young Greek man becomes a little lamb when his mother snaps her fingers. The father knows that and will yield to her in much the same way if he wants to keep his family together ….

Why was Jesus Greek?
1. He lived at home till he was thirty
2. He did the same job as his father
3. He thought his mother was a virgin
4. His mother thought he was God.

….the relatively intact extended families with their respect for tradition make for a very pleasant society. ….I live in a central area of Athens that has seen better days, as the strip club at the end of the road and the brothels hidden down a side street will attest, and yet I have never experienced the kind of unpleasant moment while walking down a street lane at night that anybody living in a British city will be familiar with,

Greek superstition is alive and well.

The Evil eye gives a good insight into Greek society. First, it is as old as history. All the ancient Greek writers spoke of it. The blue eye that wards it off was painted on the sides of boats as old as the ancient triremes and can still be seen on the sides of fishing boats today. Many intelligent, educated, well-travelled Greeks have no problem with accommodating such an archaic belief in their modern lives. …Some people inherit the gift of ‘de-eying’ or removing the curse. This is normally passed down through the family from one sex to the other. …..The curse is mainly believed to be a result of envy or jealousy, which is why newborn babies are the most susceptible. So the babies are given a blue protecting eye to be pinned on their clothes or their pram. When admirers – stranger or friend – stop to pay compliments to the mother on her beautiful child they must spit three times. In the past few years (maybe as a concession to modern hygiene) it is deemed sufficient just to make the spitting sound three times ….

Greeks are naturally more tactile than us stiff Northern Europeans…

The British make small talk about the weather; the Greeks make small talk about food. And big talk too. …food is the default conversation in almost any situation …. After asking after my health and that of my children, the most common question from the in-laws is about food. Have I had lunch? What did I have? What am I planning on eating for supper? …… Hours can be spent discussing where to find the best ingredients…….a great mistake to take Greek food lightly. ….if you’re lucky enough to eat in a Greek home you will almost certainly eat very well indeed.

….the local priest. If you spot him sitting in a tavern, then it is a fairly safe bet that you have found the best tavern in town. Unless of course, it is the worst but happens to be owned by the priest’s brother, nephew or uncle.
In my own, rather more limited, experience it is wise to avoid tavernas with menus – especially if they have pictures on them and offer set meals. Any decent, traditional tavern will offer you food that is in season and fresh…..

Detailed maps of Greece simply do not exist. The army have them (or so they say) but it seems it just wouldn’t do to let them fall into the hands of civilians. What if a stray map of the Peloponnese were to be found by a Turk! ….Most archaeological sites in Greece get scarcely any visitors at all, which is unsurprising given how many of them there are and given that you probably wont even know they exist until you stumble on them …I remember going for a stroll …up a dirt road….a rusty old gate ….On the other side of the gate were ancient ruins which, in any other country in Europe, would be regarded as a national treasure ….

…I know every big city claims to have the worst drivers in the world …..but Athens really is nightmarish if you haven’t spent half your life getting used to Greek drivers. The accident figures are bad enough – three times as many deaths proportionately as there are in Britain ….complete lawlessness. Drive as fast as you like. Park anywhere. Use your horn constantly ….

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