Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Greek Oscars

On Monday night I put on my best outfit and headed over to the award ceremony of the Greek Cinema Academy. On the way over I prepared my speech. Nervous about conjugating verbs correctly and using proper articles, I settled on ευχαριστώ ("thank you"). Unfortunately, I didn't win any awards and never had to address the audience.

When my friend Sophia invited me to the event, I imagined something out of People magazine - red carpet and all. I've got to say that my pre-conceived notions of the Greek Oscars weren't too far off (apart from the red carpet, I think it was a tiled floor).

The award ceremony was, of course, all in Greek. Fortunately, my friend Manolis translated for me and I could put my 2nd grade context clues skills and 2-year-old knowledge of Greek to good use for everything else. For almost every category a film titled "ψυχή βαθιά" (that's Greek for "Deep Soul") was nominated, but never seemed to win. A movie about a transsexual won several awards, including best make-up and the film nominated to be submitted to the Oscars was titled "Dog Tooth" (I'm just as perplexed as you).

After the awards, actors, actresses, directors and no-namers such as myself were mixing and mingling. I was shifting weight from one foot to another and scoping out the hors d'oeuvres table while my Greek friends tried to act natural about standing so close to famous Greek people. My guess-work about potential celebrities turned out to be spot-on: big Greek men with frumpy clothes and untidy facial hair were directors, scantily-clad women with sleek hair were actresses, guys wearing all black with Chuck Taylors were cameramen and under-dressed people making a dinner out of hors d'oeuvres were Americans...or just me and my friend Chris. Why must stereotypes be so true?

The picture below is of me winning an award for Best American Spectator ;)

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Three Strikes and You're in Greece

No school today. No buses either for that matter. Nor taxis nor postal service. Yes, the Greek economy is going down, but that doesn't stop Greeks...well, actually, it does.
A friend of mine who is studying for her Masters in Business Administration asked me how everything is over here. "Just fine", I said, not realizing she was referring to the economy, the topic of many of her economics classes. Apparently the media abroad has made it out to seem as though a lot of radical stuff is happening here in Greece. For me it has just been the same old, same ancient. This is the third strike in three weeks. I've already gotten used to things not functioning as planned; showing up for class -lesson plan in hand- and finding out a last minute change for the kids to go watch a play in the theater or race each other in Athens College Olympics (come on, we're in Greece!) has caused classes to be canceled for the umpteenth time. So when the buses don't work I now take it as another inconvenience, but not a surprise.
My business-minded friend asked what Greek people think about the economic crisis. I asked a Greek friend and got a description similar to sky-diving without a parachute. They know their country and quality of life is dropping rapidly, but nobody is doing anything about it, feels they can nor wants to...which is precisely why they are going on strike. What can they do? There is no point. Too late to go back and get the parachute and it's not their fault that there never was one to begin with.

About one out in three Greeks are employed in the civil service, a trend that began some fifty years ago to pull Greece out of a previous depression. Public sector employees have tenure; they cannot be fired and they are over-hired. What possibly could some 3 million people be doing in the inefficient Greek economy? I asked myself that question after reading these statistics. I got my answer at the National Library, but not from a book.
I pass the National Library every week and one day I decided to go in and check it out. This concept was quite foreign, or perhaps I was just foreign to the Greek library system because, while I was walking around perusing the books, I noticed that I was the only one doing so. Then I noticed a librarian stalking me. When I reached for a book she asked if she could help me and I told her I was just looking. She proceeded to tell me the biblio-protocol: if I wanted a book I could ask at the desk and a book retriever would get it for me. In that moment I realized how the Greek government is capable of employing so many people; Job title - Book Retriever.

I used to try to leave receipts at stores, that was until I found out that both the store and the customer can be fined for not having one. Now I get a receipt everywhere I go as businesses are being held accountable for paying taxes. But there still is the "receipt-less" discount. At a car rental place I got two different quotes - the one with the receipt was 50 euros more. With that sort of economic incentive, it's hard to say yes to accountability because it also means saying "Yeah, sure... I'll pay more for a little slip of paper".

So on strike days nothing works - and by nothing I mean not just buses and taxis, but people, too. This time off isn't too bad for me, especially with gorgeous islands just a ferry ride away (if and when the ferries aren't also striking). All things considered, I wouldn't mind working in Greece again next year.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Living in the present be a toddler again, or at least speak like one. Okay, toddler might be an overstatement as some Greek toddlers probably make more complex sentences than I do. But I'll give myself some credit. For having arrived only knowing one Greek word, spanakopita (spinach pie), my Greek has multiplied 300-fold. My first few words included katsuvidi (screw driver), figari (moon) and periptero (kiosk). All of these words came from having to meet basic needs (don't ask about "moon"). Not too long after these primitive utterances I was saying "hello", "thank you" and "please". Then came such elaborate sentences as "How are you?" and "I'm fine" (come on now, 3-year-olds don't say that!). By month three I felt ecstatic that I could read signs (although I didn't understand what they meant). Finally the esoteric world of sororieties and franternities seemed intelligible to me. KKK - kappa kappa kappa!

And now I'm living in the present. I study Greek. I eat spanakopita. I teach English. I go to the store. I waste my time.

For all the future and past talk I do in English (What am I going to do with my life? I should have gone to a Spanish-speaking country) I have found that this simplified language has made life simpler and less anxiety-ridden without the regrets about the past and preoccupations with the future that more elaborate grammatical structures entail.

I have truly embraced the concept of living in the moment through my limited Greek grammar and lexicon.

A complex day involves asking such advanced questions as "Can I have three apples? "Do you like spanakopita?" and "What time is it?"

Declarations such as "You are hilarious", "It doesn't matter!" and "I don't understand" are making me into a more dynamic person.

Everyday I am humbled - if not humiliated - when I hear little kids running their mouths in Greek, but I can proudly say that I speak more Greek than any 6-month old Greek baby.

I give myself a pat on the back.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Mom...Dad...I joined a gang

My Greek life and and physical endurance have improved dramatically over the past month all thanks to the gang that I recently joined. I didn't come to Greece with the expectation of becoming a gang member, but I can now relate to the sense of solidarity that gangs provide.

No, I didn't join the Greek mafia and I don't have any tatoos (yet), but I do have one piece of gang regalia to identify myself with the rest...a bicycle!

Every Friday night, after an exhausting week of teaching, I go downtown, get on my bike and follow a group of some 60 - 100 other cyclists pedaling around Athens. During Carnival we all dressed up, biked around (led by a cyclist hauling a loud-speaker blasting the Gypsy Kings) and stopped to dance and do a 30-person conga line at a metro stop. Another week we took our bikes into the metro (where they are banned) to protest and demand that bicycles be allowed inside. Last week we traversed the entire city for 5 hours; we rode alongside transsexual prostitutes in cars on a trashy commercial strip, stopped for delicious crepes and biked out to the seashore - at which point my legs gave up and I had take the tram back home.

Aside from the social and physical advantages of joining this bike gang, there have also been economic - I don't have to spend a dime (or a euro) to see the whole city! Athens is an entirely new place on a bicycle.

To top it all off, the police are in cahoots with our gang. Every Friday they act as escorts, blocking traffic and making sure we are safe from motor-terrorists. Now all I need is a tatoo...

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Best Dance Party in Greece...

Is to be had at a middle school of all places. Shocked? Appalled? I was both on Friday night when I went as an unofficial chaperone / fly-on-the-wall to "Dancing Night" (as the posters referred to it) at my middle school (that is, the one I teach at).
Upon entering the dance scene, I saw clusters of teenagers looking skiddish. Surely, I thought, they were avoiding boys with acne who might ask them to dance and gossiping about who was wearing what and dancing with whom. But as I walked up the stairs and saw the gym filled with dancing and scantily-clad students I realized "Dancing Night" was far from awkward. It was impressive.

Now I've been in Greece since September. I've made many efforts to "go out" and many times I've been "disappointed". I firmly believe that expectations lead to disappointment and in this case it was true: I wrongly extrapolated from the wild and crazy nightlife in Spain and superimposed that on Mediterranean country number two, Greece. Nightlife in Athens, however, is pretty tame. Yes, people go out late and stay out late (a 12 am to 5 am schedule), and yes, there is loud dance music and libations, but at mainstream clubs in Athens NOBODY DANCES. I have even gone so far as to interview Greek people at these "dance" clubs as to why they don't dance. The response I got was "We are a shy people".

Well, Greek youth is not shy. Not at all. These middle schoolers were pulling moves that have never before been seen on MTV and some that were directly appropriated from it. Girls were dancing on chairs and one even went so far as to pull a chair out in the crowd and stand up on it pedestal-style. A boy in the crowd got up on someone's shoulders, took off his shirt and started waving his hands in the air. Even the teachers could not resist dancing to the Greek pop music, myself included.

The best part and worst part was seeing my students. It was so endearing to have students run up and say hello, and so terrifying to see some students wearing next to nothing at all.

Needless to say the salsa dance club I went to afterward just couldn't compare.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Cabin Fever

It's December 6th and I've got cabin fever. I've been inside all day. No, not because it is cold out (al contraire, it is a balmy 60 degrees), but because anything I might possibly want to do today would be done downtown, which is where Greek anarchists are rioting. Rioting, you ask? Here's a little background info. Last year on December 6, a 15-year old boy was shot at by police after throwing rocks at a cop car. Supposedly the shots weren't aimed at the boy, but they ricocheted off of a wall and killed him. This incident gave anarchists just enough reason to start a riot which included looting stores, burning down an H&M, breaking the windows of a Starbucks, releasing tear gas in the streets and throwing rocks at riot police. Tonight on the news it looked like last year's events all over - except even messier due to the fact that the trash collectors are on strike this week and every street corner is overflowing with heaps of rotten garbage (perfect fodder for anarchist fires).

Monday, October 12, 2009

Most Wanted

Classes were canceled because of the flu. The swine flu. Not because anyone at school had it, but because no one wanted to get it.

In order to escape this hypothetical virus, my friends and I boarded a boat to Santorini - that quaint little island you’ve already seen and fantasized about every time you think of Greece. It exists in reality as it does in every picture and in your imagination; elegantly sculptured whitewashed villages, blue domed churches and the sparkling Mediterranean all against a bright blue sky backdrop. Curiously, this enchanting place is the same island where historically (up until WWII) political prisoners and war criminals went into exile.

Upon disembarking an 8-hour ferry, my friends and I were bombarded by middle-aged Greek men pulling out laminated brochures of their respective hotels and rooms for rent. In order to escape the madness we sought refuge in a storefront labeled “Tourist Information” with a hand-painted tourist bureau emblem. (Congratulations to you if you already have thought that the description of this “tourist office” sounds questionable...)

I guess that I take non-partisanship for granted, coming from a country where there is a definitive separation between church and state and public and private sectors. Greece, however, does not have such clearly defined - or better yet defined- distinctions between public and private sectors. I saw what looked like something official and treated it as such.

“We would each like to pay 12 euro or less” I said to the (now in retrospect) sleazy man who came out of the storefront.

He told us (the group of teaching fellows) to hold on and he would look into options. Not more than a minute later he returned with the perfect answer: his hotel, Fira Blue Horizons.

At this juncture it should have been obvious that this was not a non-partisan tourist office. This was a storefront run by a sleazy (perhaps even a pimp) hotel-owner whose hotel he wanted to promote in a deceptively non-partisan manner. I have no excuse for my oblivion except to say that, well, I was overwhelmed and this guy seemed to simplify everything quite nicely.

Two rooms with three beds each for 70 euro total. Sold.

And we must pay now to get a free ride up to the hotel?


Wait. You’re not taking us up to your hotel yourself?

Questionable. (This is the point at which my intuition started to overpower my poor negotiating skills).

But before we knew it the five of us were packing into a taxi and being shipped off to the main island town, Fira, where our pre-paid hotel rooms where waiting for us - bed bugs and all.

Keep in mind that this was not a hotel. This was a building with individual rooms. No hotel clerk, no one on staff. Our rooms were left unlocked with the keys hanging inside. We were told to put the keys in the mini-refrigerator the next day upon leaving. You get the picture.

Looks can be deceiving because upon closer examination these seemingly decent hotel rooms had beds covered in short curly hairs and very small bugs.

Fortunately, Romello (the "hotel" owner) had given me a business card with his number. I called him up to break the news; we didn’t want the free bedbugs. He told us to move to another room and I told him to just come in person to work this out...we wanted our money back.

Sara (a fellow teaching fellow) babysat the bedbugs to keep as proof. The other teaching fellows and I proceeded to call and insist that Romello come to his dirty hotel with our sanctimonious money. We waited for awhile.

When we called again we were dealing with an unidentifiable someone who did not speak much English. What a farce. This anonymous someone did not know what is a bug.

Another girl, Allyson, explained.


They refused to come refund our money to us. The phone conversation ended with a threat of keeping the keys if we didn’t get our money back. Click. Dial tone.

We all left that place up in arms. We had been duped. But all is not fair in matters of accommodation and payment; we took the keys and tossed them outside the hotel - we had to feel like we’d paid for something. Then we called another hotel owner who agreed to pick us up at the bus station (transportation is so vital to this story because we are on a craggy cliff, unnavigable-without-a-car island). We stormed off to the bus stop to wait and while hovering like a school of fish we were accosted by yours truly, one Romello Fira Blue Horizons "hotel"owner. He was furious. That was an understatement.


This man was rabid and directing all accusations at Allyson who effectively deflected his rabidity.

“GIVE ME THE KEYS! WHERE ARE THE KEYS!?!?!” he screamed in this public bus station venue.

“We don’t have the keys. They’re at the hotel” Allyson responded with the selective truth of a sassy teenager.

“COME WITH ME! COME WITH ME AND GET THE KEYS!” roared Romello who will, from this point on be referred to as Crazy Face Killer (C.F.K).

“No. I’m not going with you. You’re scaring me. I'm not going anywhere with you!” Allyson proclaimed as she stood her ground.

At this point the foam was pouring out of this Greek man’s mouth as he straddled his scooter and shook his fist.

"YOU GET YOUR MONEY WHEN YOU GIVE ME THE KEYS!" he yelled while pointing at a dirty little fanny pack containing god-knows-what.

While I found this all very engaging, it was also quite scary. We had only been on this island for an hour and had already created a vendetta greater than the Montagues vs. the Capulets. Plus, there was no escape from this angry man on a scooter on an island in the middle of a very large sea.

Realizing our limitations and predicament, I tried to set the situation straight and volunteered to go get the keys with another teaching fellow, Claire, while the rabid man stayed behind to wait.

Allyson ran off (rightfully so) and we called her to find out where she had tossed the keys. I had tossed my set over a gate which (thanks to goodness) happened to be unlocked. The keys that Allyson had tossed were a mere 3 feet from a Rotweiller's fenced-in home.

Claire and I retrieved the keys with a huge sigh of relief and excitedly walked back to the bus station where we were to receive our refund. Crazy Face Killer, however, met us halfway on his scooter. This big man on the little scooter was a throwback to the UW-Madison fraternity football players, except C.F.K even lacked that elegance.

“YOU HAVE THE KEYS?” he asked impatiently.

“Yes,” we replied as we held up the keys

He pulled out a 50 euro bill from his disgusting little fanny pack. Claire handed him one key. I kept the other.

“You said that you would give us a full refund if you got the keys back. We paid 70 euro, you’re 20 short,” I said, holding the other key hostage.

“LOOK, MADAME,” Romello said in the most aggressively polite way ever, “I pay for your taxi to my hotel. You trash my hotel and hide the keys. You get 50.”

“What constitutes "trashing" your hotel?" I asked using the Socratic method (I am in Greece after all). "Your hotel was already filthy upon entering. You've wasted our time and we want our money back. You can have the other key when you are ready to give us a full refund” I said in a less elegant manner. This is where my preschool teacher conflict resolution experience came in handy. But Crazy Face Killer did not appreciate being talked to so calmly in his rabid state.

“COME WITH ME!” he screamed, looking like the little teapot ready to blow. “WE ARE GOING TO THE TOURIST POLICE!” he yelled, seriously believing that we would follow and, even if we had, that he would have been right in this totally maniacal situation.

We refused to follow a crazy man on a moped. At this point I just wanted the whole fiasco to end so I could go back to, or rather, begin to enjoy the Meditteranean paradise surrounding me.

“Look. Why don’t we just cut the loss and you keep 10 and give us 10 and you’ll get your other key back,” I said in a reconciling manner.

With bulging eyes and clenched teeth, he gruffly took out another 10 euro from his fanny pack and begrudgingly handed it to me. I gave him the key. It was a quick and nervous exchange. Then he insisted that we give him our names (which we made up of course) and he asked if we were staying at the other hotel (where he knew the owner). We lied and said yes. What kind of question is that anyway? Did he really expect us to tell him the truth so that he could come strangle us in the night?

As quickly as he came to us on his scooter, so he left. It was over. We had lost 10 euro between 6 people; a mere 1.67 euro for an hellacious adventure that made us all the wiser for it.

High adrenaline and low-blood sugar put me into a state of post-traumatic shock upon seeing any other Greek men on scooters that day and for that matter, the rest of my vacation. I did, however, enjoy the rest of my time keeping a low-profile (sunglasses and all) and skipping town the next day to spend the remainder of my island time in exile in a magical, scooter-free town called Oia. Life in exile on Santorini wasn’t so bad after all.