a visit to a Greek hospital during the Crisis

This has been a rough winter for S and me, health-wise.  He’s been sick with various colds and flus five times since October.  As his loving, small-apartment-dwelling wife, I’ve managed to avoid only one of those.  Back on New Year’s Day, just as he was getting over an annoying but not particularly serious week-long stuffy nose, I came down with it.  At first, it was just annoying.  But after the first month of it and somewhere around the six-week mark, it started to get really tiring.  It had no other symptoms, so I didn’t go to a doctor.  Then S got the flu.  Then I got the flu, combined with my now two month old stuffy nose.  Suddenly other things started to happen, like me going deaf in my right ear.

So, today, we decided to have me looked at.  I had never been to a doctor in this city and as it turns out, only two doctors in the whole city accept our insurance, and neither of them sees patients on Wednesday afternoons.  So we did what all Greeks do:  we went to the pharmacy instead to ask for advice.  Usually the pharmacist will just give you whatever the doctor would have prescribed.  Greek pharmacists are extremely well trained and are very knowledgeable about a whole range of medical problems.  They are far more involved in patient care than pharmacists in the US, who often never even come into contact with patients at all, preferring to send their assistants to deal with the pesky customers.

However, pharmacies aren’t open on Wedneday afternoons either.  So S got online and found where the ‘duty’ pharmacies were, the two pharmacies that are open during the time when all the others are closed.  So off we went, to ask for their advice.  The pharmacist asks me what’s wrong.  “I woke up deaf on my right side.  I’ve had the flu since Saturday….”  The pharmacist looked at the other pharmacist.  “You need to go to the hospital.  That could get ugly.”

So, off we go to the hospital, to the Emergency Room.  Only the patient – no spouses, no friends, no nobody is allowed to come with you into the ER.  I fibbed and said I needed S for translation purposes, so the gate-keeper let him come with me.  There were about 3 chairs and no desk, no nurse, no nothing.  S found a security guard sitting in a wheelchair and asked her if there was a ENT doctor on staff that day.  She hailed a nurse who happened to be passing by, who said she’d call someone and ask.  S trailed off after her.  Good news: there was one!  So we were able to get out of the ER and go to the External Clinic, which is basically doctors’ offices at the hospital, which are usually only open in the morning.

We wandered the labyrinthine halls of the hospital – narrow, dark, dingy, no signs anywhere, equipment scattered around, overflowing garbage bins.  We pass a shrine with lit candles and a heavy smell of incense.  The only sign of life is a fully-stocked mini-market selling packaged junk food.  We come out into a long, teal-painted hallway.  There are patients trying to sleep in some of the rooms.  The hallway is cold.  At the end of the hall there’s a sign for the ENT Department.  A pleasant resident notices us walking down the hall and invites us in.

As I explain my symptoms, the doctor sends S to the Hospital Bureaucracy Office to get a paper stamped and signed.  The doctor does an exam, gives me a professional ear cleaning with no warning, and then starts asking me if I have pain, headaches, and various other things.  I don’t.  He’s not satisfied.  “You don’t have the symptoms of a sinus infection, but I still want to do a cranial x-ray.”

S is back with the stamps, so he sends us to Radiology.  We get lost at least three times trying to find it, but eventually we do.  When we get there, S explains briefly what we’re there for.  The radiologist sends him to the Hospital Bureaucracy Office to get a paper stamped and signed.  While I wait for him to come back, I read a small piece of paper on an office door, announcing that “the staff of the Hospital has not been paid since the 3rd quarter of 2011.”

S comes back with the stamps, and I’m taken to get my cranial x-ray, which of course takes about a second.  Then S and I wait for two minutes while it’s processed.  The radiologist gives us the x-ray and the bureaucracy paper.  We make our way back to the ENT Department.

The doctor herds us back into his office.  He puts the x-ray up on the light.  “You have a sinus infection.  See that white area?  That should be charcoal black, like your mouth.  You have it on both sides, but mainly on your right side.”  He goes on to explain in great depth what this is and what we can do about it.  He writes me a prescription for an antibiotic that’s not on the list of things I’m allergic to, steroid ear drops to help with the deafness, steroid nasal spray to help with the stuffiness, and tells me to flush my sinuses with sterile saline four times every day.  He also says that when I shower, I should soak cotton balls in olive oil and put them in my ears.  The olive oil will prevent water from entering my ears.  He reminds me to bundle up and not go out with wet hair.  He spends about ten minutes entering all the numbers and codes necessary for the new government mandated prescription drug program, which requires all drugs prescribed to be entered into a national database.  This is supposed to reduce prescriptions and waste, but it is clearly time consuming for a hospital doctor.

The doctor says to come back in 3-4 days if my hearing doesn’t improve, but in any case, to come back in 8 days so he can evaluate my progress.  He’s spent about forty-five minutes with me, providing me with a full exam, an ear cleaning (kind of neat – never had that done before), a cranial x-ray and reading, and a very in-depth explanation of the problem.  We paid 5 euros for his services.   There was no waiting at any point, unless you count the one minute for S to get my x-ray paper stamped, and two minutes for the x-ray to be developed.

As we walk out of the hospital into the snow, a young man walks in carrying four heavy blankets, apparently for a family member who is in the hospital, and who isn’t able to stay warm with the hospital blanket alone.

We go back to the duty pharmacy, and I hand the pharmacist my prescriptions.  “Well, what did they say?”  “Sinus infection.”  “It’s good you went – he’s prescribed an antibiotic.  Definitely the right thing to go to the hospital.”  She fills my four prescriptions plus the syringe.  “12 euros and 84 cents.”  As I leave, she and the other pharmacists tell me they hope I get over my sinus infection quickly.  “Stay warm!  It’s cold out” they say, as I go back into the snow.

My conclusion:  things are not always as they seem.  The hospital is ugly, drafty, dreary, and in some ways downright unpleasant.  But there was no waiting, the ENT spent as much time as one could possibly ask, the x-ray was performed and read immediately – and I didn’t have to “insist” on having one done (I had an illness go undiagnosed for 3 years, leading to ultimate organ removal, because no American doctor out of the dozen I went to was willing to do an ultrasound or x-ray).  I was given a well-rounded treatment, involving not just pills but a whole series of topical treatments as well.  And I was invited back for hearing tests and tympanography in three days if necessary.  There were no appointments, the doctor did all the paperwork himself, there were no nurses involved – the doctor took my history and covered my allergies, etc.

It is easy to jump to conclusions when you see a Greek public hospital.  It is easy to say “this place looks like a dump!”  It does look like a dump – but it isn’t one.  It’s a hospital, with well-trained (if unpaid) doctors, with no wait, with no struggles to get services.

You could look at the papers, and the running around for stamps and signatures, and say “what a lot of useless bureaucracy!”  But you would be forgetting that there’s no need to make an appointment, no need to ‘fight’ to get your instant ear cleaning and x-ray.  If you have your paperwork in order – and there is no reason why you wouldn’t – it’s not particularly difficult:  if it were difficult, I’m sure it would have taken S more than a minute each time.

You could look at the full trash cans, the dark hallways, and say “this place is unsanitary.”  But it isn’t.  The trash that’s overflowing is the mini-market trash, not biological waste.  The bathrooms are old and very, very ugly, but they are clean.  The hospital had no smell at all – not the ‘hospital antiseptic’ smell, nor any other.  It just smelled like nothing at all.

You could look at the man bringing blankets, and say “the care here is lacking.”  But you wouldn’t know the whole story.  I didn’t ask him why he was bringing those blankets.  Maybe he was donating them.  Maybe his relative wanted his or her comforting blankets from home.  I didn’t find the care lacking at all.  And I can only speak about the care I received.

You could look at the international media, which talks about how if you visit a public hospital in Greece and want a doctor to treat you, you have to give him money under the table, the so-called “little envelope.”  The five euros we paid?  That’s what it costs on our insurance plan to see an ENT.   The little envelope?  I’ve never seen that in real life.  Neither has my husband, who has lived here for 33 years.  I don’t presume to speak for anyone else, but I can speak for us.

This is not the first time I’ve been in a Greek hospital – that organ removal I mentioned up above?  That was done in Greece – a week after a doctor insisted on giving me an ultrasound for something I didn’t even tell her was bothering me.  There, again, the care was stellar; but that was in 2010, before the crisis was as intense as it is now.  I want to concentrate on this experience:  in the depths of the crisis, a hospital whose employees haven’t been paid since the 3rd quarter of 2011, working in a hospital with obvious infrastructure problems, in a working-class city.

Last night I was thinking about all the things that have hit us and those around us since The Crisis began.  Poverty, hunger, unemployment, illegitimate government, police violence, the end of “green” programs for the protection of the environment, increase in sales tax, income tax, property tax, increases in electricity costs, doubling in heating costs, 40% increase in the cost of public transit, gas for $10/gallon, constant strikes, every citizen being treated by the government like a criminal, foreign technocrats writing our laws, an unelected banker for a prime minister, a terribly corrupt media, the selling off of public assets for a penny on the dollar, insulting anthellenic propaganda from “allies” in the Eurozone, homelessness, suicides, ‘cultural clinical depression,’ the closure of public television channels, the disappearance of textbooks from schools, the end of fellowships for qualified postgraduates, the drastic reduction in the minimum wage and non-minimum wage scales, the furloughing of public employees, the sharp reductions in retirement pensions, the constant inflation in the price of basic food items like flour and sugar, the cuts to the health system, the constant political scandals and bickering and finger-pointing…

out of everything we’re all experiencing, the thing that is bothering me the most today is the unbelievable surface coverage by the international media of the Greek Crisis.  They are covering the Crisis, but they are covering to a depth of several millimeters.  One reason I translate articles on this blog is that I know that many – if not most – English-language articles about the Greek Crisis include mistranslations.  I saw a video of a major European news network announcing that the Greek Parliament had passed the most recent deal a full 24 hours before they even voted on it.  I saw the BBC show video clips of the riots in December, 2008 for the shooting death of a teenager by a police officer, labeled as “Athens Riots” during 2011 – as if they were current.  I’ve read multiple articles where politicians are given the wrong titles.  I’ve read many mistranslated quotes.  I’ve read about how Greece called for a Parliament vote “at midnight to reduce the effect on the markets,” ignoring the fact that the Greek Constitituion requires votes of that type to be at midnight – and always has.  I’ve read multiple articles freaking out about Giorgos Papandreou’s ‘decision to hold a referendum,’ when Papandreou, as prime minister at that time, didn’t even have the constitutional right to call a referendum.  But what bothers me the most isn’t these examples of ignorance.  Ignorance is forgivable, even in journalists, because they’re human; none of us can be an expert in everything, and there happen to be very, very few journalists writing in English who are experts in Greece.

What bothers me is the lack of depth.  The acceptance that one need not scratch the surface.  One can develop an entire story around a single weak anecdote.  One can mention several things about Greece that are certainly different than in other countries, and draw the conclusion that things must be wretched and wrong here, just because they are different – not for any other reason.  One can ‘shock’ one’s readers with pictures of dilapidated hospitals, with schools with no textbooks, and so on.  One can walk around the center of Athens for a week, and presume to speak for a country of 11 million people, spread out over mountains and plains, coasts and farms, islands and cities, urban metropoleis and microscopic villages, men nearing retirement and newborn baby girls, Greeks and immigrants, and so on.  One can take a picture of a person throwing a rock and draw conclusions about this person’s political beliefs.  One can write entire stories about “life in Greece” and “this is what’s wrong with Greece,” without ever having visited the country.  All of these things are considered acceptable by the English-language media-consuming public.

Well, no.  I don’t accept that.  That is crap.  In a time when newspapers and journalism as a whole are under threat from new media, the only thing professional journalists have to offer is their professionalism, their ability to go deep into a subject and to pull multiple sources of information together, weigh them, and draw reasonable conclusions.  But they aren’t doing that.  They aren’t even coming close.  You, who consume the English-language media, are consuming garbage.  And you have the right to know that.

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breadbasket thank you gift

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When the temperature dropped to the lowest in 30-odd years, and we were out of town, predictably our water pipes froze. I talked about the joys of living without running water here.

Our next-door neighbors helped us out a great deal, by giving us water whenever we asked.

In appreciation for their kindness in our time of need, as soon as we had water again, I baked them some homemade bread to thank them.

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I think homemade bread makes a great gift. Who doesn’t love bread? Home bread making isn’t that common here in Greece anymore, at least not in the city. Most people have forgotten how good it is, I think! It’s also a very frugal thing to make, so you can make a lot of it and really show your thanks.

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I made them a classic French baguette, a French baguette with sesame seeds, two large poppy seed rolls, and three hand-milled whole wheat olive breads, one with white sesame, one with black sesame, and one with both.

I hope they enjoy their bread! I enjoyed baking them!

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If you missed any of them, you can see all the recipes here:
Classic French Baguette
Poppy Seed Rolls
Olive Bread
Tutorial: how to knead bread dough

sesame chicken

When I was growing up in the middle of nowhere, USA, my family loved “exotic” (ha!) Chinese restaurants.  When we were really little, we used to go to a restaurant called The Hawaiian, which was Chinese food with cheap plastic leis and Easter Island figures everywhere.   All I can remember from those days was ordering Shirley Temples and eating the maraschino cherry.  At some point, when my mother started passing out from the MSG in their food, we switched to another Chinese restaurant.  That’s where I discovered lemon chicken, which I considered to be the best Chinese restaurant dish, and I never felt the need to order anything else.  My brother always ordered General Tso’s chicken.  My mom always got steamed white rice with steamed vegetables (you know, moms).  My dad was more adventurous, and didn’t always order the exact same thing like the rest of us.

Then my mother became close friends with the owner of a different Chinese restaurant.  That place had a buffet.  So you know how that goes.  We would end up drinking at least a gallon of tea each, and I finally had the chance to try something besides lemon chicken.  I branched out to General Tso’s, and that was all I needed to know.  Between lemon chicken and General Tso’s chicken, my dessert-as-entree needs were pretty well covered.  The sugar high was countered by all the Sweet n’ Low in the tea, I suppose.

A few years later, a friend introduced me to sesame chicken.  It’s basically General Tso’s with sesame seeds.  But somehow, that one little bit of extra flavor made all the difference between cloyingly sweet and cloyingly sweet but also interesting.  Although I’ve since tried many kinds of “Chinese” food, sesame chicken is probably the one I miss the most, now that I can’t have any of it.  (Except that I can, of course, as long as I make it myself.  It did take me a few years to realize that, though.)

All of that by way of introduction because there’s not really that much to tell you.  We’re going to do this the… ehem… “healthy” way.  We’re not breading anything here.  That’s just taking things a little too far, don’t you think?  Stirfry some chunks of skinless, boneless chicken breast or chicken thigh (thigh is more authentic, but breast is fine too).  When they’re just about fully cooked, sprinkle on the sesame seeds and keep stirring.  This will gently toast the seeds, releasing their flavor.

Spoon a few tablespoons of our yummy homemade General Tso’s Sauce onto the chicken and stir.

Serve over steamed white rice with steamed broccoli.

(I actually used turkey breast when I made this.  Meat doesn’t fit our budget, so I almost never have it in the house, but I found a great sale on turkey breast, so… ta da !)

Sesame Chicken
Serves 4

1 tsp peanut oil (or sesame or olive oil)
350g chicken (breast or thigh), skinless and boneless, cut into chunks
1 tbsp white sesame seeds
1/4 cup General Tso’s Sauce

1.  Prepare the General Tso’s sauce according to the recipe here.

2.  Stirfry the chicken chunks in the oil.

3.  When the chicken is cooked through, sprinkle the sesame seeds on top and stir gently to distribute and toast the seeds.  Spoon the sauce over the chicken, stir briefly, and serve over steamed white rice with steamed broccoli.

You might also like:
Greek lentil soup
Raisin walnut whole wheat bread

Greek frugal cooking, circa 1941

Frugal cooking is nothing new, especially here in Greece.  Rather than reinvent the wheel, I thought I’d post an article that I’ve translated from Greek to English for you.  The article is written by a middle school history teacher here in Greece, who is the author of a successful book that came out here recently, called “The Recipes of Hunger.”  Eleni Nikolaidou used newspapers from the period of the German Occupation of Greece to see into the kitchens and dining rooms of Greek families at that time.  This article is a sort of summary of the book itself.

The Germans Are Back: The recipes of hunger

By Eleni Nikolaidou

Thousands of homeless on the streets of Athens try to find a warm place to sleep during the winter. Thousands stand in line for a plate of food from the soup kitchens set up in every quarter of the city. Layoffs and unemployment haunt every household. Children go hungry to school. In every neighborhood, the number of people searching through the garbage for something to eat is increasing. There are many suicides, and infant exposures by parents unable to feed their children. The youth of Athens are forced to emigrate.

Then and now… You can no longer determine to which time these images apply. And all of this brings to mind the German Occupation Diet. Then, about seventy years ago, regular columns ran in the newspapers with recipes, with instructions like “Crumbs and How to Gather them” and recipes like “roasted weeds” or “grapemust biscuits without grapemust.”

The Great Famine of the winter of 1941-1942 made Athenians find different ways to get nutrition – ways they would never have considered otherwise. They were called ‘war dishes.’

The only edible thing in abundance was weeds. In addition to weeds, restaurants served fava beans, artichokes, and plain barley. For sweets, raisin paste, made from black raisins and resembling cake, was popular.

Hunger can be cut with appetizers that …kill the appetite. A plate of appetizers can include olives, with pits removed and replaced with bread or tomato with parsley, capers, radishes, cucumber.

Stuffed tomatoes can be eaten raw, when they can be found for sale, and for whomever can afford to buy one. For stuffing, don’t consider ground meat or rice, almost impossible to find during the Occupation. Here, in the Occupation Stuffed Tomatoes, put capers, olives, chopped peppers, a little cucumber, parsley and whatever else you can find in the kitchen. These ingredients will “tie in” with the tomato flesh because there are no eggs to make mayonnaise.

The vlita weeds, aside from being a delicious summer Occupation salad, can be cooked au gratin. One newspaper column recommend: “Boil them, put them in a pan with a little mint and put some “cream” (made of flour) over that. And if you don’t want vlita in the oven, fry them. Make vlitaballs!”

During the Occupation, weeds were cooked in all recipes. Every type of weed can be made into a jelly with its juice. They can be boiled for a main dish if some flour is added to the water; or rice flour or potato flour.

If there are potatoes available, then you can make the famous Viennese nockerel. The recipe: “Without oil, without butter, all you need are potatoes, an egg and water to boil them. If milk is available, boil the potatoes in the milk with a little salt.”

Most importantly for the homemakers during the Occupation is “watch the crumbs!” The “dietician” of the time tells us: “Carefully gather crumbs from the table, from the kitchen when you cut bread, from the breadbox. Within a week, you’ll probably be able to save a whole cup of breadcrumbs!”

Housewives are recommended to make a soup with a quick and easy recipe: “Take tomatoes, if you can find any, grate them and boil them and then add olives. 5-6 olives for each member of the family. A delicious soup you hadn’t thought of before.”

If a plate of green beans or zucchini or something else cooked in tomato sauce is left over from lunch, Mr. N. Tselementes in his newspaper column at the time recommends: “Cut up the leftovers into very small pieces, throw them in a pot, add water, add a few olives, and you have soup for dinner.” Likewise he prints recipes for corn soup, eggplants stuffed with mashed potatoes instead of rice or ground meat, which was unavailable, potato pancakes, and zucchini stuffed with flour paste.

The book cover can be seen here.  The article appeared in the Avgi online newspaper today.