Friday, March 12, 2010

Social Change in Greece 2.0

Here is YouTube providing you with a clip of Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou giving a speech, standing next to President Obama. Notice the majesty of his English! His words articulate very heartfelt and rousing words about democracy.

(The man with the beard is NOT the Premier. You must press "play" in order to see Papandreou himself)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Social Change in Greece

And now for a sociological discussion! Being here in Greece is certainly a perfect time to discuss the nature of social change, contentious politics, and the responses of a culture to both domestic and international policy. Below are links to online news articles that demonstrate everything from today's strike (the country will be crippled today) to opinions from the Premier himself. It's interesting indeed; check it out!

BBC: "Greece set for second general strike in a month"

This strike will most likely play host to a preponderance of violence. All the journalists will be demonstrating, so the only way to get coverage of the actual events are from external sources. Trust the BBC to be your provider.

Kathimerini: "Strike to paralyze services again"

Athens-based newspaper, with article in English. States the details of the strike, including what sectors of the economy, locations in the city, times, civic ministries closed. Because the journalists are demonstrating today, you will notice that the Kathimerini website still says "Wednesday, 10 March 2010" even though it's Thursday today.

New York Times: Op-Ed Contributor, "Greece Is Not an Island"

As Prime Minister George Papandreou visited the United States earlier this week, he also gave some input about his country's reform measures to the New York Times. His writing is succinct, eloquent, and reflects truthfully the attempts of his government to reduce the state's debt. By reading even a few lines of his prose, you will get a sense of the dire situation this country is in, but also of the hope that many people have for change. I could read his writing all day!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

It's Raining Mud, Hallelujah!

Yesterday I awoke only to peer outside my window and view what lay before me: a yellow landscape. The sky was overcast, and the clouds were literally orange-yellow so that the incoming sunlight cast a yellow glow on everything. We talked about it in class, and some students commented that it looked "scary," "terrifying," and "like the apocalypse" was about to begin. It felt as if I was looking at the world through the lens of a sepia photograph, or through yellow swimming goggles.

Despite the ominous glow surrounding us, the whole occurrence was actually a natural event. Once in awhile winds from the Sahara blow sand across the Mediterranean over Greece. Such clouds of dust descend on the land like this (it looks violent, but it's nothing; once inside the cloud, everything just looks gross):

(Photo credit here)

Yesterday, though, there was mud everywhere and on everything. Because the sand mixed from the previous night's rain, the weather precipitated mud! Mud fell from the sky. Look at the following pictures. The "rain-mud" appears as droplet-sized brown specks.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Greece's Economic "Excitement"

Greece is in a considerable economic bind (ah, the plight of Detroit follows me everywhere!). The actual country's debt is four times greater than originally thought, and the European Union is not happy.

Since the Greek government's announcement of new [and rather strict] austerity measures last week, there has been a colorful variety of strikes emerging from both the private and public sectors. The latest one in Athens was last Friday, 5 March. I do not have pictures of the occasion because I was not present, but from seeing others' digital cameras and hearing first hand accounts from other students, I can tell you that there existed the following sorts of [literally] deconstructive activities:

  • Loud music
  • Thousands of irate people
  • Burnings on the street of various objects
  • Bashings of numerous objects, i.e. payphones, marble walls, glass-covered signs
  • Bashings of actual people (not a surprise, because they themselves were violent too)
  • Throwing of yogurt onto prominent figures of authority
  • A new layer of graffiti
  • Lots and lots of tear gas

To give you a sense of this type of animosity that is occurring in a more inter-state fashion, read the following quote from the New York Times:

"A pair of German politicians...suggested Thursday that the Greeks consider plugging the large hole in their budget by selling off some of their lovely islands. Several Greek politicians and commentators have argued that the Germans should pony up reparations for the death and destruction wrought by the Nazis during World War II." (Read the rest here: Kulish. NY Times. 5 March 2010)

After the demonstrators had vacated Syntagma Square, I walked through the area to get to Starbucks, my objective for the day. Little did I know that tear gas was still in the air. My eyes and lungs started burning. After emerging from the gas-filled area and thinking that I had done so permanently, I sat down at the outdoor cafe seating of Starbucks with Chelsea and her mom only to be met with yet another round of tear gas. We escaped to Plaka safely. Yikes indeed!

Taste of the Peloponnese

The program coordinates two study-travel trips, one through the Peloponnese and another through Macedonia and other areas of Northern Greece. We returned from the Peloponnese last Saturday, and I thought I'd share some of the stunning landscapes with you.

We were transient for five days and stayed at a different hotel every night. Although by the end of the trip we were exhausted (I never thought before this trip I'd anticipate being in my bed in Athens), we got the opportunity to visit
many archaeological and historical sites. Among other places, we saw Sparta, Mistra, Nafplion, Olympia (the original Olympic games), Pylos, and Mycenae.

I also learned that I like
Mycenaen art a lot.

The ruins and churches of Mistra, all surrounding the citadel on top of a mountain

Bob and me posing on a wall of the citadel at Mistra

An old Venetian fortress

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Power of the Giagia (i.e., Grandma)

I will now say a few words about the "giagia" (pronounced yeh-YAH), the all important figure of the Greek household. Know that the family is all important in Greece. Extended family may live with you in the same household, but even if they don't their involvement in your life is just the same. Family members lend rides to each other to go to church, children are just as close with their grandparents and aunts and uncles as they are with their biological parents, and the role of the godparent is accentuated greatly.

Giagia is "grandmother" in Greek. Stereotypically she is short, plump, and wrinkly. Nine times out of ten she wears plain black shoes, flesh-colored or dark tights, a knee-length skirt, several layers of dark, plain shirts or cardigans, and the always-present babushka. Sh
e comes in two categories:
  • Smiling
  • Cranky
The former type is obvious because she responds to you in the most melancholy of tones when you say hi. The latter is obvious because she does not simply respond. She reacts. Her face shrivels up to add to the already terrifying effect of her scowl. She's ready to beat you up with the little purse she carries on her shoulder.

In all fairness I feel that it is only appropriate to give you a quick background of Athenians. The vast majority of contemporary Athenians are not actually from Athens, or even Attica. It is not uncommon here to ask where someone is from, and to get a reply saying that they are from an island, or the Peloponnese, or the north. It was only until the last three decades that at least 50% of Greece's population came to live in an urban environment, which means that most people, especially those who are middle-aged and older, abandoned their villages in the mountains, on the plains, or by the seas, to take up residence in this complex web of concrete metropolis. Urban living is fairly new for most Greeks, most of whom also had a hard life. If living rurally, with its well-known discipline of physical labor and rugged independence, and the culture-shock of relocating to the city are not enough, then also add to this cluster several military-coups, a dictatorship, two Balkan Wars, a Nazi occupation, a civil war, a junta, and a politically and emotionally charged relationship with Turkey all within 100 years. So while the younger generation of Athenians knows a relatively stable democracy, all who are older are anything but naive. Particularly for the grandparents, including the yiayias of the world, they know the word "hardship."

Given this background information and my personal experience with yiayias, I would like to share with you a couple of amusing moments I've encountered:

1) I stepped off the metro onto a long escalator going up. A few steps in front of me was a young couple, a guy and a girl both in their late teens or early twenties. They were hugging, romantically nudging, to the point where their affection for each other was displayed as everything except for making out in public. Rather distasteful if you ask me. Meanwhile, the parallel escalator was mov
ing downward in the other direction. In the distance on this parallel escalator, high above where I was standing and moving slowly upward, was a little yiayia, dressed in her usual outfit, though all in black, with the little babushka tied tightly around her face. On her step, she was descending closer to my position where we would meet in a few moments. She was glancing around when her eyes finally locked onto the couple in front of me. Her expression transformed in an instant: her face curled into many wrinkles similar to the appearance of a raisin, and her mouth snapped tight into a frown of disapproval. Her fiery eyes did not move from the couple, so that on her way down, when she met this sappy couple on its way up, she barked at them. She growled something angrily in a Greek I didn't know, coupled with several mean animal-like gestures of disappointment. The couple stopped awkwardly, slapped their hands straight at their sides, turned away ashamed, and suffered their slow ascent into embarrassment. People stopped and stared. It seemed that at this moment, the escalators in their constant speed could not move any more slowly. I struggled to disguise my laughter. What I witnessed demonstrated most provocatively the clash between traditional values and those of the contemporary, younger generation.

2) Witness the cat-lady. Not only are there numerous stray dogs in Athens, but the cats are just as noticeable. Some are cute, some are mean, and their meow-ing in the black of night energetically grows into roars so vociferous that they wake you up in your bed several stories above street level (true story). It is this little yiayia that helps maintain their robust population (see picture below):

Though this photograph was taken a number of weeks ago, I saw her again today in the same red outfit. I don't know if this yiayia is the smiling or cranky type, but at least she cares for her flock well.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Healthy Eating

I apologize to my readership for not updating this as often as you - or I - would like. Rest assured, the past week has been a busy one, fraught with schoolwork, coffee-drinking, watching political demonstrations, failed attempts at attending the opera, and listening to live Greek music while stuffing myself sick with all-you-can-eat Greek food (yes, the local restaurant had a special "College Student Option" where for 10 Euros per head, the table indulges in a special form of Greek all-you-can-eat gluttony; I think I'm a late bloomer when it comes to the Freshman 15).

This post will be short, as I only have enough time to share with you my meager successes from last night. I'm a little weary of eating fast-food gyros (hurrah! the national food!), pieces of bread with scraps of meat, no-name-brand look-alike Spam, and random pieces of fruit that for some reason continuously appear in my refrigerator. So, after two weeks of being a tightwad when it comes to food, I decided to put forth the effort to download recipes, go grocery shopping, and cook something real - something actually worthy of the savory items in Paula Dean's show.

It turns out God certainly did endow me with cooking abilities that I discovered only now. No more hot pockets, no more Ramen noodles. Hello Real World! Check it out:
  • Chicken breasts stuffed with spinach and feta
  • Greek salad
  • Bread from the local bakery
  • Buttered pasta (not pictured)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Temple of Hephaestus

For all you who are interested in some of the sites of Athens, I'd like to share a special photograph with you (Abi, this counts as your "Picture of the Week").

So far, it's one of my favorites. Leandra Lisa Lambert (a friend who I met here; Wellesley '11) and I were walking around the Agora, the ancient marketplace and the location of many ancient civic buildings. In the picture you can see the Temple of Hephaestus set against the backdrop of modern buildings. The beautiful mountains toward the back are shrouded in dim clouds.

Later this evening I will be attending with my class one of the largest social demonstrations on behalf of immigrants who are urging the government to sign into law the proposed reforms regarding acquisition of citizenship. Thousands will be there, including people from immigrant organizations, political parties from both the right and the left, and the extremists! I'll let you know more about that later, though.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Caffeination Station

The life of a Greek is that of living a coffee culture. A notable expression of the Grecian lifestyle is coffee-drinking, sitting, contemplating, and (much to the dismay of my lungs) smoking. Time here passes slowly, and in a relaxing manner. The siesta is an institution just as much as the rush of the nine-to-five day is back at home.

If the way this culture spends its energies in coffee shops is any reflection of the Golden Age of Athens more than two thousand years ago, then it is no surprise to me that the beginning of the West started here. For it is my belief that the most brilliant of thinking requires time and coffee, both of which are available in abundance everywhere in Greece.

So yesterday I thought I’d try it out. You know, “Be a Greek.” After several days of roaming the city with newfound friends, and spending late nights at coffee-bars, I thought I’d try the most authentic looking place and give it my best shot alone. I entered a genuine, native coffee shop (See picture; note how innocent it appears) and quickly walked over to the food display. Awkwardly, I peered into the glass case packed with baked goods, wearing an expression of intense curiosity so that at least I could appear to know what I’m doing. Of course, though, I didn’t. So when the elderly man dressed in formal clothes greeted me and uttered something I didn’t understand, I responded in my best Greek, “Sorry, I do not speak Greek. Do you understand English or Spanish?” At this he gave me a look of frustration and incredulity; apparently I was a disappointment, so he referred me to a couple of baristas who, after exchanging numerous gestures and speaking broken Greek-English-Spanish-Italian with me, showed me my seat and brought to me a Kaphé Ellinikó” (Greek coffee).

I set my notebooks, textbooks, planner, and pen carefully on the table and took a sweeping glance of the coffee shop before me. Demographics of the room:

Number of Men: 50+

Number of Women: 3 (approx.)

Diversity: None

Average Age: 57

Number of Lighted Cigarettes at any Given Moment: 40+

After just 15 minutes my lungs were on fire and my vision became cloudy. Never before had I been in the presence of so much tobacco in so small a space. This place blew out of the water every other smoking-filled venue I’ve ever seen in the United States, and this was normal for a Greek coffee shop. However, I did enjoy what I was then witnessing. The room was a crowded sea of old Greek men dressed in slacks, sweaters, ties, and dark coats. My light blue collared shirt was conspicuous against their very traditional, rather formal apparel. Every one of the 40 tables was occupied. At some were men who were reading their newspapers and sipping their beverages. At others were pairs, trios, or larger groups bickering, discussing, laughing, and gesticulating wildly in the air above them. The volume in the room was a permanent loud, and the second-hand smoke haze was a permanent fog. But this was what Greeks do: if they’re not at their jobs, if they’re not at school, they sit at the coffee shop passing the time. Though I was in attendance at my table for over three hours, others were there for perhaps twice as long.

Later that day I took a run in shorts and a t-shirt, and because of that I received stares. People here bundle up at an easy 50 degrees. After that, the rather late evening was spent at two more coffee shops with friends. The caffeination (a positive note at the very least) never seems to cease.

Other items of note:

My Kitchen

The Bedroom

South Asian Man Feeding the Birds in Syntagma Square

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Welcome to Athens: Warm Weather, Insane Drivers, and Toilet Paper You Can't Flush

A warm greeting from Athens, Greece! After a fairly relaxing flight on Lufthansa over the Atlantic, I arrived here on Monday exhausted, excited, and quite confused. In a moment I will recapitulate the happenings of the previous few days, however I must first explain my flight experience.

Apparently I am five years old. On the flight from Detroit to Frankfurt, before I could entertain myself by opening up a good book, the flight attendants came rumbling to a stop next to my seat with their cart of drinks. Enthusiastically (and quite naively), I requested a chocolate milk. I smiled with anticipation. The rather attractive young hostess giggled because she thought I was joking. A few moments of awkward silence followed, and when it became clear that I in fact was serious, she responded in her most delicate and light-hearted of German accents: "Vell, I cood look in za kiddie box?" Using my problem-solving skills, I managed to cover up my frightfully embarrassed face by asking for water instead. I received my water and she left. But then she returned five minutes later bearing these items:

This was the best she could do: a glass of white milk (a buttery, thick, German 2%), and a chocolate bar on whose wrapper looking at me were whimsically-drawn cartoon characters. Good. Just the image I want to portray: naive Asian-American boy who asks for chocolate milk on a German airline known for its hospitality and precision. Within an hour I decided to move onto adulthood by ordering red wine to accompany my dinner. I can at least feel half respectable.

My arrival in Athens was warm. Literally, the temperature was a mostly-humid 60 degrees at night. I arrived at my room in the Pangrati neighborhood to find my roommates' luggage scattered throughout, but without their owners. Sadly, and a little lonely, I walked the brief five minutes to the CYA Academic Center to check in (I met them further into the night just before we all passed out from each our long travels). I walked along streets for a small while, only to be amazed that Europeans manage to drive their impossibly small cars at impossibly fast speeds, fitting six vehicles side-by-side while darting from point to point on streets which, if placed in any other part of the world, would be marked for only three lanes because it's the only safe thing to do. In downtown Athens, rational driving is only as rational as the street layout. Both reflect no sort of intellect-driven planning. There is good reason that one of our program administrators advised us to be vigilant as pedestrians, for Athens wins some sort of prize for favoring one of the most dangerous pedestrian environments in Europe. The vehicular-pedestrian fatality rate was something like 1,000+ in 2007 alone. I like to think that while some people use cars for driving, others use them for driving recklessly.

Other places I've visited: Syntagma Square (i.e., Constitution Square, the site of the latest
politically-driven bomb demonstration, the unfolding of which preceded my arrival by only days), Parliament, the National Gardens, the Marble Stadium (i.e., Panathinaiko Stadium, site in 1896 of the first modern Olympics), and a number of other smaller neighborhoods that smell of the freshly-baked goods and ripe fruits set on the sidewalk by grocers. This is not to mention that everything looks simply so lush. The trees are a deep, jungle green, and the citrus trees that line every sidewalk are crowned with clusters of attractive oranges. By the looks of it, things appear more or less friendly.

That is, except for the toilets. While I had been using toilets the "American" way for quite some time here, it was not until my orientation during the second day that one of the administrators jokingly mentioned the garbage cans that accompany every toilet in Greece. Piecing together the facts, I discovered that you're not actually supposed to flush your used toilet paper with your excrement, lest you desire a brown, wet mess on your hands. Rather, you throw your used paper away. Let's hope swine flu doesn't prosper among feces in bathroom garbage cans.

Enough of my talking; the following demonstrate a few of the sites for which I had enough patience to take pictures.

Me in front of the Greek Parliament

View of our backyard from one of the apartment balconies

A typical Athenian neighborhood

An art deco apartment juxtaposed with the architecture of the Greek Orthodox Church