a little lesson from my father

I haven’t seen my father in over two years, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think about him all the time.  He’s a very brilliant and accomplished man, but also the type to overwhelm you with his expectations, which are almost impossible to meet.  So I spent my childhood (and let’s be honest, my adulthood too) kind of in awe of him.

Newspapers, radio news programs, and television news always wanted to interview him about various things:  as the expert in his field, getting an interview with him was valuable to them.  But he always turned them down.

“Never talk to the media,” he told me, when I was about twelve, in his way of giving us advice decades before we could possibly have any reason to use it.

He had been interviewed once, I think in the ’70s, and his words were quoted in such a way that they seemed to say the opposite of what he actually meant to say.  It was something as bizarre as him saying “I do not agree with this” and the paper quoting “I do… agree with this.”  He wrote a letter to the editor and that was the end of his involvement with the media.

I think it’s good advice.  With all the drivel coming out of the media about Greece – drivel I’m in a prime position to identify confidently as drivel, rather than ‘suspected drivel,’ or even ‘possible drivel’ – remembering my father’s advice makes me feel even more strongly that no one writes without bias, and many people are not above altering facts, quotations, even photographs to make the point that they want to make.  Suppressing different opinions is one of the obvious signs of this.

My bias is the following:  I love Greece deeply.  I started wanting to live in Greece when I was still a pre-teen.  I am married to a Greek man who is very accomplished and competent, and has none of the negative qualities assigned to Greeks by the media.  I am not blind to the bad things in Greece.  I have broken down in tears when dealing with the Greek bureaucracy.  The Greek government has reduced my husband’s full time wage yet again, to 588 euros/month, which is not enough to live on, and yet somehow we live on – these are not blindly pro-Greece concepts.  I don’t have an urge to ‘sugarcoat’ things to make Greece look better.  But I have natural optimism and years of experience living here and I feel very strongly that the Greeks I’ve had the pleasure of knowing are not ‘bad seeds.’  I will call b.s. where I see it, and I see it all the time, but I will not contribute to the stereotyping and generalizing trend in the media response to the Greek crisis.  My bias, and as my readers you deserve to know this, is love.

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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.

no salvation

I read a powerful article today; I thought I’d translate it from Greek to English and post it here.  The article was written by Kostas Rodinos and published on AntiNews.     This is my very unofficial translation, but I hope you get the idea.  It may give you a window into the way many people here feel right now.  (Not all, of course.  Greece is no more singleminded than any other democratic country.)

We don’t want any more salvation.

I was reading the headlines in the foreign press this morning. “The Greeks give the shirt off their backs,” wrote a German paper, “Greece is hanging over the abyss,” noted another, “The decisions of the Greeks don’t persuade the Europeans,” wrote a third. And up close, the bitter statements of our “partners,” who create this environment.

Fuck it all!

You have descended into repulsiveness. We are sick of you. We are dead tired. We can’t take any more.

A little respect… If you want to help Greece, do it in a way that doesn’t insult the Greeks. If, on the other hand, you don’t want to help Greece, why go on hassling us? Why don’t you have the nobility to say: “You’ve screwed up so badly, deal with it yourselves! Cut off your own heads for all we care…”

It would be an honorable position.

I would like to know who among you would ever dare to show up in his own Parliament and suggest austerity measures like those you are asking from Greece? Not one.

“Yes, but Greece is a special situation,” you have learned to parrot lately. Certainly it is the case: Greece is a special and unique situation.

Because which other Eurogroup country is facing external threats to her national security?

Against which other country do her neighbors make territorial aggression, and are her borders questioned?

Which other Eurogroup country spends more on national defense, relative to GDP?

Which other Eurogroup country receives the caravans of illegal aliens that Greece does?

Which other Eurogroup country is obligated to run an – even if faulty – administrative mechanism to keep hundreds of islands alive?

Don’t tell me you don’t know about all this?  And to come to more … pedestrian issues:  Which other country, just within these past two years:

– Reduced the quality of life of its citizens by nearly 34%?
– Increased the price of fuel by almost 100%?
– Increased sales tax (VAT) in some cases by almost 100%?
– Increased the price of public transport by 40%?
– Saw an increase in the rate of unemployment by ten percentage points (at least)?
– Decreased wages and pensions by 25%, and up to 40% in some cases?
– Is entering the 5th year of recession?
– Is being threatened with the institution of an external Committee (administration), or is being threatened to “yield national sovereignty”?
– Which other country has been slandered to such an extreme degree?

I very much fear that whatever measures we take, they will never be enough for our creditors.

They will always ask for something more. And that “something more” will lead to something more than that “something more.”

I am certain that even if the Greek Parliament voted a minimum wage of 100 euros per month and a maximum Social Security retirement pension of 200 euros per month, still they would not be satisfied.

Why? Because I begin to suspect that the continuation of the Greek crisis is, for some, a convenient excuse:

– to destabilize the values of the European social state
– to install a type of overseership on the smaller countries
– to play profiteering games
– to come here and snatch up properties for a penny
– to present us as a “special case” and an example to be avoided for any future naughty countries.

I am sorry, but this tactic has no future. I will never forget how, years ago, I visited an acquaintaince of mine in the hospital, who was dying of cancer. While we spoke, a nurse came to administer his chemotherapy. He looked at her calmly and he said: “Tell the doctor that I don’t want any more salvation! I can’t take it anymore.”

“And what do you suggest?” you will ask.

I read an article this morning by El-Erian in the Financial Times with the title “The Greek deal faces the fate of its forebears,” which begins as follows:  [article quotes first paragraph of linked FT article]

Well then, what are we arguing about? In other words, the much advertised deal is considered terminally ill before it’s even voted!

The only solution that remains:

First, we should ask the Troika to leave the country. Their recipe has failed. They are leading us to catastrophe.

Secondly, elections should immediately be called. Today’s Parliament in no way expressses the popular will and has no legal right to make decisions that hold sway over the future of this country for decades.

Thirdly, the new government should take it upon itself to, within the first trimester, present a program for the way out of the abyss. A program that does not humiliate the country and one that can actually be put into play. If the EU wants to support it, that’s great. If not, that’s great too.

“And with your 14.4 billion in bonds maturing in March, what will happen?” Manolis Kapsis would ask. The political parties would announce that with the call for elections, the Greek state is willing to renew that bond, with its original terms, and with maturation date of March, 2042. Take it or leave it.

“But isn’t that a recipe for default?” some will ask.

Is it?

I close, with a few further notes:

First, they have been blackmailing us for two years with the threat of default. I say we call their bluff. Because, if they mean it, they’d do it in any case, so why put up with a catastrophic ‘deal’?

Secondly, if they really wanted to “save” us, they would have done so.

Thirdly, the dignity of the nation is not for sale. They cannot save us and humiliate us.

P.S. Reuters began relaying Mr. Schauble’s statement before I finished writing this, according to which it seems he is saying that with the new program, the Greek debt is not necessarily to be considered ‘manageable.’ Already the undermining of the new program has begun.

By Kostas Rodinos.

memo: read the memo!

Greece regularly makes the news around the world for things like being about to default, being about to slaughter the Euro, and so on. But here in Greece, we have a lot more to talk about. So periodically I’ll be posting on what’s getting a lot of play in the Greek media.

Today, it’s the Greek Minister of Development, Mr. Mihalis Chrysochoidis.

For those who’ve been avoiding the news since May, 2010, the “Memorandum” is the law that the IMF and EU required Greece to pass in order to receive the bailout that Greece needed to avoid a national default.

I’m linking to another blog which posted this story, but the story is in Greek there. I’m translating it for you here.

“I didn’t read the Memorandum.”

“The details of the Memorandum were not a part of my political responsibility at that time,” noted Mr. Chrysochoidis a little after his statement on SKAI 100.3 FM.

“I didn’t read the Memorandum,” said Development Minister Mr. Mihalis Chysochoidis on Tuesday, having stated that he will be running for PASOK party president, speaking on SKAI Channel’s morning program “Front Line.”

“I didn’t read the Memorandum, because I had other responsibilities, I had other duties. I had to deal with crime as Minister of Citizen Protection, it wasn’t my job to study the Memorandum,” he stressed.

Mr. Chrysochoidis stated that he agrees with the speech made by Former Prime Minister Simitis in Berlin, who said that the Memorandum was signed under conditions of panic because a stop-payment was imminent, and was based on having to accept several things that were not realistic, with suffocating timelines and measures that hit commerce.

“The negotiations were done in a very horizontal manner, and made a very optimistic and simplistic prediction that things would work out in one particular way; things don’t work out in the way you want. The measures on top of measures led to a greater recession because they reduced revenue,” he stressed.

“I heard the day before yesterday in the [PASOK party] National Conference that we did everything properly and ‘we embittered the people but we saved the country,’ but I don’t make that claim,” added the Development Minister. “

Another minister admitted to having had only three hours to look over the Memorandum before having to vote on it.

Both of these ministers – the one quoted above and the 3-hour one – voted in favor of the Memorandum – the law that is now considered by many responsible for the tremendous recession, unemployment, and quickly worsening financial situation in Greece.

Tonight, on the very popular comedy talk-show Radio Arvyla, they made a great deal out of this.  In particular, they poked fun at how boring the Memorandum was, and of course he wouldn’t read it:  if they had put some comics or photos of hot naked chicks in there, then maybe. Or maybe if it came with a free CD. And “the main reason he didn’t read it was he was waiting for it to come out on DVD.”

Should we really expect our Parliamentarians (equivalent to US Senators) to read the text of a bill before voting it into law?

Is it an unreasonable expectation? Or is it part of the job for which we taxpayers pay them (a lot)?

That is what is all over the Greek media today.