Monday, 15 April 2013

Mrs Thatcher: still dead

So we're one week on from the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and I can honestly say that in those seven days not one person on this island - Greek, British or any other nationality - has mentioned the Iron Lady to me.

I suppose that seeing as we are on a small Greek island where people have more pressing problems than the death of someone who hasn't been in power for the best part of two decades that might not be so surprising. Unless, that is, you look at the furore going on in Britain about her death, her life, her funeral and anything else to do with her.

To avoid confusion among people who are not in Britain I thought it might be helpful at this stage to put up a couple of pictures, a sort of Mrs Thatcher identification guide. And here it is:

Above we see two thatchers. For the avoidance of doubt, Mrs Thatcher is the one on the right (naturally). Yes, I can almost hear your chuckles from here. So why am I, living in a little house in an olive grove on Skopelos, writing about Mrs T? Well, I suppose if for no other reason than it pleases me to, everyone else has and this is my two penn'orth. I think at this point in a piece like this it is customary to nail your colours to the mast so far as your view of Thatcher goes. And so....I've never voted Tory in my life and I cannot foresee any situation bizarre enough for me to do so. Is that clear enough for you?

In some ways politicians remind me of surfers. Surfers don't create the waves they ride, but a skilled surfer will get the very most out of a wave and is adept at spotting a good one. Likewise with politicians, I think Mrs Thatcher caught the wave of public opinion sufficiently well to secure three general election victories on the trot.

Tragically, it seems to have led to the rise of a way of thinking where money became the only means by which something's worth could be assessed. While the haves prospered, the have nots found their outlook became increasingly grim, something the present bunch of multi-millionaire chancers now running the country seems happy to perpetuate. It was a way of thinking that also seems to have diminished Britain's capacity for compassion.

Despite all that, I have to admit to having found the celebratory nature of some people's reactions to Margaret Thatcher's death quite unpleasant and the campaign to download the "Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead" song quite puerile (although someone is making some money out of it, so it's an ill wind etc etc). The very compassion which she is said to have lacked is now being denied her and frankly I'm not sure that's anything to be proud of.

I suppose what I have to say on this doesn't amount to a hill of beans (although I always think a hill of beans would look pretty impressive), but even so it's worth bearing in mind that powerful as she once was Margaret Thatcher was still merely mortal which puts her on a par with the rest of us. If you really want to hit back at her legacy forget about burning an effigy or chanting a slogan, instead why not go out and do something nice for someone else? Remind them that there is such a thing as society after all and we would all do well to remember that there are no pockets in shrouds.

Friday, 12 April 2013

The generation game

It's that time of year when the word fecundity springs to mind. The olive grove where we live is brimming with wild flowers and blossom is bursting out on trees.

Wild flowers among the olive trees

I have pointed out before that most visitors who come to Greece during the height of the summer are probably completely unaware of the wealth of wild flowers that grow here. They miss out on a spectacular display which is brought to a rapid end by summer's brassy heat.

Orchids and, er, other flowers. I don't know the names, but I still enjoy them.

The fruit trees are continuing to show off with glorious displays of blossom. The large blossom below is on a quince tree and below that is cherry blossom.

And to top it all off, Merkel, our landlord's cat, who lives on the land here, has finally had her kittens. Five of them, and here she is about eight hours after giving birth.

Merkel with her kittens. They take after their mother and their numerous fathers.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Words we get from Greek: 1 - economy

Oh dear! Possibly not the best choice with which to start this occasional series designed to show all manner of words the English language has gained from Greek.

Economy in Greek (οικονομία) is used in the same way as we use it in English, to describe the overall financial system and also as a word for frugality. No surprises though that it is the first use that is at the forefront of everyone's mind. Without wishing to sound too harsh the Greek economy is a train wreck.

Last December 26.4 per cent of the workforce was unemployed, up from 10.5 per cent in the same month in 2009, and youth unemployment now stands at 58 per cent. The infamous troika - the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank - has called for stringent austerity measures before it will approve bail-outs running to billions of Euros.

In the last 12 months, the minimum wage of €751 has been cut by 22 per cent (or 32 per cent for under 25s), and the government also cut the basic rate of unemployment benefits from €460 to €360 a month. Most of those receiving such benefits will only do so for a year after which.....?

So all in all not good, but there are said to be the tiniest signs of hope, although to be honest these are usually announced by politicians seeking to justify continued austerity. If people in Britain feel hard done by with a political class which seems to have little understanding of the realities facing "normal" people, then it would be fair to say that many Greeks have a burning sense of grievance at the behaviour of some of their politicians.

Sometimes I suspect that what happens in an economy is despite the activities of politicians, not because of them. I was talking to someone about the Greek economy the other day and he felt the world economy would gradually improve and then, to offer hope for Greece, he said: "And all boats float on a rising tide". The cynic in me wondered what might happen if the hull of the Greek economy still had a massive hole in it. Fingers crossed that it hasn't.

Money: It doesn't grow on trees, you know.
(Picture posed by models)

Thursday, 4 April 2013

The infernal combustion engine

Apparently the first recorded car accident in Greece happened at 11.30am on Sunday, March 4, 1907. And the most recent could well be taking place while you read this posting or soon after or maybe just before. In other words driving in Greece presents certain hazards, to put it politely.

I'm not making this up. European Commission statistics show that Greece is riding high in the sort of top ten you really don't want to take part in. For deaths caused by road accidents in EU countries, Greece comes in fourth behind Lithuania, Romania and Poland. Road deaths are decreasing in Greece but still there are 92 road deaths per million population. (If you didn't know, Greece's population is just over 11 million.) Somehow it doesn't surprise me that the European countries with the lowest road deaths per million count are Sweden, the Netherlands and Denmark where there are 30 deaths per million caused by road accidents.

That first Greek road accident just over a century ago saw a 25-year-old woman pedestrian knocked down and killed in Athens by one or maybe two cars. There is some confusion because one of the cars was driven by a Government minister and the other by a member of the royal family and it has been suggested that a certain amount of "reputation management" went on. Be that as it may, in the wake of this accident it was reported that the Commander of the Police in Athens summoned all seven, yes seven, of the city's drivers and car owners for a bit of a talking to. Newspapers at the time commented that if seven cars could lead to this sort of tragedy what would happen "if seven became 70?" Such an innocent question.

The lamppost never stood a chance. Not the first car accident
in Greece, but a great picture.
As things stand, Greece is 13th in the world for car ownership per head of population with 624 cars (and car-like vehicles) per 1,000. Top is San Marino which has 1,263 cars per 1,000 people - what are they doing with all those cars? - Monaco is second with 863 cars per 1,000 and the USA is third with 797 per 1,000. The UK comes in 34th with 519 cars per 1,000. The UK figure has no real bearing but I put it because I am English and it's my blog (so there). I know statistics should always be handled carefully and the bright sparks among you may well question the validity of little San Marino's place at the top of the table, but even so what the figures do show is that there are a lot of people in Greece with cars.

All of this brings me to the thorny issue of driving in Greece. If you should never question a man's prowess in bed or behind the wheel then it's probably a safe bet that slagging off another country's driving standards is a bit of a no-no. But taking my lead from my former trade I don't make the news, I just report it. The following observations relate not just to car drivers but also to people on two-wheelers and are, of course, limited to the small island where I live. Also they are not necessarily meant in a critical way.

Coming from the UK where motorists are quite strictly policed, and I'm not getting in to an argument about the accuracy of that statement nor whether it is a good or bad thing, let's just take it as a given, it comes as something of a shock to see some of the activities of my fellow road users here on Skopelos. For a while I genuinely believed that there was no helmet law for riders of motorbikes and mopeds. When I saw someone wearing a crash helmet it did make me stare a bit. Later I was told helmets are compulsory, but the law is rarely, if ever, enforced. I have a theory this is something to do with deeply held Greek beliefs about freedom. Similarly it is against the law to use your mobile phone while driving, but guess what...?

While car drivers have the benefit of their vehicle's bodywork to screen what they do, riders of mopeds are much more on show and so I have been frankly lost in admiration for their ability to ride while at the same time doing so many other things, many of which, I suspect, are frowned upon by the law. Early morning riders naturally need to carry their takeaway cup of coffee with them, and smoke a cigarette, and give their friends a quick call on the mobile. Some also like to ride alongside their friends and carry on an animated conversation. In Greece no opportunity should be passed up to talk to someone.

Mopeds are extraordinary workhorses and probably for many people have replaced the use of donkeys and mules. I have seen what I can only presume was a moped underneath a massive pile of fodder being taken out to an olive grove to feed sheep. The often elderly gents riding along with a pruning saw - a pole about 12ft long with a curved blade at one end - slung over one shoulder somehow always bring to mind "days of old, when knights were bold". It also surprises me how many people you can fit on a moped. I've seen a family of four, but admittedly the children were small and one was standing.

As for speed limits, I asked one local driver what the speed limit was on the road near my house to which he replied "I'm not sure." He's not alone, some people go fast, some go quite sedately, again, I think, we're back to that Greek concept of freedom.

And before you think I'm adopting a superior position when it comes to driving standards on Skopelos, I have to confess to having once reversed in to a car being driven by a policeman. Yes, it does sound ridiculous, and the full explanation is quite complicated and doesn't get away from the fact that it was ALL MY FAULT. There, I've said it. Fortunately, it was at very low speed, nobody was hurt, no vehicle was damaged and it was not a marked police car. This latter fact probably explains my growing feeling of horror immediately after the bump when I saw the man getting out of the car behind me was wearing a uniform and had a gun on his hip. Reader, I grovelled.

I am glad to say that apart from my unfortunate meeting with the local police, I have never seen an accident on Skopelos, but they do happen and evidence of that is plain for all to see. Basically this island has one main road which goes from top to bottom and along that road at all too frequent intervals are little shrines, which mark the site of road accidents. I believe the idea is that if you are killed in the crash your family puts up the shrine and if you survive then putting up the shrine is your responsibility. Either way, there are too many of them. So, in the words of Sergeant Phil Esterhaus: "Let's be careful out there".

Roadside shrine: Some are more ornate, others less so. You
would hope they'd serve as a reminder to drive carefully.