An Accidental Emergency

This post is about my first trip to A&E in Athens. Before I recount the tale, however, I should say that my experience of British A&E is (fortunately) limited to one occasion when I lived in Wales. On said occasion, my boyfriend decided at 5 o’clock in the morning that he was dying, so we rushed up to the hospital. We waited quite a long time in a roomful of drunk people, who had managed to injure themselves in various ways, before being seen by a doctor. This doctor couldn’t speak very good English and insisted, all evidence to the contrary, that my boyfriend had a STD (probably because he was a student, so he was obviously having lots of unprotected sex with promiscuous strangers). In the end, it turned out to be a kidney stone so, all in all, Greek A&E (for me) didn’t have much to live up to.

Now, the Greek Experience …. I had gone for a walk with my parents-in-law and my daughter on a Sunday evening. We had just been to the 50 cent rides outside the kiosk and were happily swinging the child about, because kids like that, on the way to the cafeteria. Suddenly my daughter started screaming her head off. Now, for those of you who don’t know her, my little girl is pretty tough. Nine times out of ten, when she falls over, she thinks it’s funny. And if she does hurt herself, she rarely cries for more than twenty seconds. Heck, I’ve seen this child fall out of patio doors onto her face and she was laughing two minutes later (not to suggest I’m a bad mother or anything, but these things happen ….)

So, there we are in the central square of Ilion with an inconsolable child, clutching her arm and wailing. It transpired she could move her fingers, so therefore nothing was broken (the sum of my medical knowledge, I’m afraid), but she couldn’t move her arm and, if someone else moved it for her, the screaming redoubled. We put ice on the arm, which she held there for a while and then ate, and we decided we had better take her to a doctor.

While we were waiting for my husband to bring the car, various friends and acquaintances appeared. They all did their own brief medical examination and then bought my daughter a bar of chocolate or a lollipop, so she did quite well out of it, although she was too upset to notice at the time. Once we had the car, we then had a further discussion about which A&E to go to (it now being 8.30 on a Sunday evening), in terms of distance and likely waiting times. Eventually, we decided on Penteli, which is on the eastern edge of Athens, in the foothills of the mountains. It takes about half an hour to get there, along the Attiki Odos, although my father-in-law (who had been holding The Arm in question at the time The Incident occurred) managed it in about 20 minutes.

Penteli Hospital is specifically for children and, when we got there, we saw a family coming out with a girl – probably about 12 years old – who had her leg in plaster. Apart from that, we saw no other patients. We literally walked straight in and the receptionist pointed us to orthopaedics. A nurse then pointed us to the correct room and a man in green scrubs called us inside. We told him what had happened, he stood up, did a sort of Chinese-burn-type movement on my daughter’s left forearm, which made her scream blue murder, and sat down again.

“Lift your arm up,” he said to her. “Can you lift your arm up?”

She was a bit reluctant to try this, but we tempted her with a bunch of keys, and up came the arm. No pain. Needless to say, she was delighted (as were we) and spent the next hour waving expressively to everyone and shouting “geia sou!” and pretending to play the drums.

The doctor explained that a tendon had moved from its rightful place in the wrist as a result of the swinging. This is apparently quite common in children, probably because no one tells us parents that they shouldn’t swing their kids around, or let them wear tight things (like hairbands) around their wrists, until they’re 13 and the tendons have stopped growing. So now you know.

The upshot of all this was that I was very impressed with the Greek A&E experience (which, by the way, is free for kids – I didn’t even need to give my name or IKA number). Although my father-in-law did say that, if we had gone to central Athens, it would have been a different story. We also got some fantastic cake on the way home because my father-in-law was so relieved, and because we just so happened to be driving past THE BEST bakery in Athens; Despina. (Which was open, of course, past 9 on a Sunday night). My daughter got a cup-cake (decorated in front of us and filled with chocolate fondant) and we bought milfeȉk, which was just amazing (and, the best part, had a label on the lid saying it should be consumed within 3 hours of purchase to be eaten at its best). Here is a picture of the box because, at the time of writing, no cake remains:

Anyway, this story doesn’t really prove anything, it’s just an experience. I can’t compare Greek and British A&E on the basis of one visit in each country. However, this story does have a moral, applicable worldwide; don’t swing your children and, if you do, do it in Greece because there’s cake at the end.

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Waiting in the Wrong Queue …

I went to OAED (the Greek Job Centre) with my husband the other day to renew his unemployment card. I have to say, having been previously unimpressed by Greek public services, OAED Ilion was a breath of fresh air.

  1. You knew immediately which counter to go to and, once you got there, it turned out to really be the right counter. (Countless are the times I have gone to the correct desk in the tax office or IKA, only to be sent elsewhere after waiting to be served for half an hour).
  2. The numbers on the tickets were the same as the numbers on the screens of the tellers. (KEP, you may want to sort this out).
  3. The staff all seemed to know what they were doing and were doing it. (Half the staff at the Eforeia are just milling about in the background and, when you ask them a question, they panic and run to find somebody else, or disappear completely).
  4. Everything appeared tidy and organised. (Whenever I’ve snuck a peek out the back of the tax office, there are files and papers all over the place).
  5. Nobody was smoking a cigarette. (Yes, this has been the case several times, including when I went to issue my health record booklet from the medical centre).

We waited to be served, we were served, we left. It was, in fact, completely stress-free. Why is this? Why is OAED the only public service that functions? My husband explained ….

Going postal

When the crisis hit and people started losing their jobs, they relocated all the OAED staff and replaced them with competent people. Presumably, the thinking is that people who have lost their jobs are already miserable and depressed, and one trip to the Greek public services could send them over the edge. (N.B. I am neither miserable nor depressed, but a trip to the Greek public services has often nearly sent me over the edge).

That old chestnut

Secondly, every single one of those people in OAED that day were from the private sector. How do I know this? Because no public servants have been made redundant. Still. And no unemployed (or employed, for that matter) private sector worker wants to see somebody who clearly does nothing all day being paid for it, while they are struggling to find the money to buy their kids new clothes.

Let me just say that I have nothing against civil servants. I’m not one of those people who say, “oh, public servants … lazy buggers with cushy jobs and big pay cheques.” I was a civil servant for nearly 5 years. I had an interview to get my job, I worked hard, I was good at my job, and I got paid, well, not very much money in the grand scheme of things. But, as I have mentioned before, the public sector “situation” in Greece is a little bit different. It’s completely out of hand.

I’m sorry, dear reader, to keep harping on about this. But something has to be done. I understand that it’s a sticky problem. If you make 150,000 or so public servants unemployed overnight, that’s 150,000 more unemployed people out there. But the fact is, there are people in offices all over Athens (and Greece as a whole, I expect) who are getting paid government money for doing nothing. Oh no, wait, they don’t do nothing. They make their customers angry and upset and they make them jump through hoops to get a simple piece of paper. But they do nothing that is actually in their job description. (Unless, of course, their job description is “drink coffee, smoke, make people want to strangle you, then knock off at 1.30 and go home for a nap”).

Ideas abound for weeding out these people. Appraisal schemes. An independent inspection body. The leader of Drasi even said, make 150,000 or them redundant immediately, but keep them on 70% salary for 3 years to cushion the blow (to them and to the system). But nothing has been done. Reasons for this abound, too. The unions have too much power, many public sector workers got their jobs in exchange for votes, etc.

But OAED works. OAED is really nice. Which just shows the Greeks can do it when they want to. Which, in a way, is worse. The fact is, this stressful, messed-up, behind-the-times system benefits somebody somewhere, and until something is done about that, we will all be waiting in the wrong queue with the wrong ticket number and the wrong papers indefinitely.

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A Trip to the Circus

Last weekend I went to see Cirque du Soleil (who were brilliant, by the way, and if you ever get the chance to go, you should). It was the first time they had come to Athens and the performance took place in the old Olympic Park. I had never been to the Olympic Park. In fact, I never even saw any of the Athens Olympics in 2004 because we didn’t have a TV at that time, so it was all completely new for me.

We took the electric train to Irini station and, when we got outside the station, there were a few men with carts selling hot snacks and drinks. The Olympic Park is right in front of the station exit and, when you walk in, it’s like going into a building made by giants. It must have looked very impressive in 2004 when it was new. Now there is grass growing up between the stones and litter blowing about the place. It’s a shame it’s not kept in better condition, but these things cost money.

At least they were still using the building though (the old basketball stadium, I believe) as a theatre. Our tickets had barcodes on, which were read by a machine, which in turn activated a turnstile to let us in. Pretty snazzy. Inside, the set up was pretty much like a theatre, except the seats were plastic sports-stadium seats in different coloured blocks. The only thing that upset me was the disabled seating. This was a little fenced-off area above the last row of seats at the top of the stands. So, in the corridor, really. My husband was outraged, as he used to care for someone who used a wheelchair and he said, in UK theatres and cinemas, disabled seating is usually at the front. At the very least, it should have been with the other seats. I’m sure it wouldn’t have taken much to install a lift somewhere.

I won’t talk about the performance, as the show has been on in London already, and probably many other cities too. Everyone seemed to love it though, and I think we were a pretty good crowd. Sadly, there were quite a few empty seats, all of them in the cheaper stands. I can only assume this is because, like everywhere else these days, Athens has people with a lot and people with little, and very few people in between. Therefore, the rich people buy tickets for the expensive seats (why would they do otherwise?) and the people with less money can’t afford to go at all. It’s sad because I believe doing something like seeing Cirque du Soleil on a Sunday can make everything seem better for a while. However, our council (Ilion) at least know this. All through the summer they have been showing free films at the outdoor cinema on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, as well as free (or cheap) music concerts and theatre shows.

In other news, summer ended last night with terrific thunderstorms rolling around the city and torrential rain. A public transport strike is planned for Tuesday (unhelpfully and, I suspect, uselessly). But life goes on as usual. We went to the cafeteria on Saturday night where my father-in-law is a regular and, while the rain pattered down outside, we sat inside with our beers and free mezedes. The place was far from packed, but there were several groups of people about the place, out for coffee and, in some cases, food. We talked about the crisis, but we talked about lots of other things, too. We laughed and, on the way home, we bought souvlakia for dinner. (The souvlatziliko was packed, by the way, because a souvlaki only costs €1.80).

It’s not 2004 anymore. The Olympics have been and gone (although they did leave some good legacies in Athens, such as the tram system and other improvements). The low taxes, cheap taverna prices and minimal public transport costs have risen rapidly while the wages have been cut mercilessly. Still, I know several Greek families who, in the full knowledge of the crisis situation, have moved back to Greece from the UK this year. Why did they do it? The same reason we did, the same answer I always give when people look at me like I’m crazy when I say I moved here in 2011: the economic situation is difficult now, but the life is better.

And people who have never lived in the UK, or left there a long time ago, have no idea what I’m talking about.

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48 hours

These pictures were taken over two days in Athens. They show images from my day-to-day life (no political protests, no trips to the Acropolis), just 48 hours of normal life. (If you click on the first picture, you can also view a slideshow).

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To kalokairaki

A cute little summer song from Fatme … καλό καλοκαίρι!


In summer, on the beach,

In the water, we’re sailing in a hug.

The evening falls, it gets cooler,

Give me a little kiss and come a little closer.


Me and you, you and me,

Alone above the world,

Oh, alone in the world.


In Athens, the crowds were like a noose,

Smog and routine and lots of anxiety.

Give me a cigarette, and give me a light,

My God, I will take you on the hot sand.


Me and you, you and me,

Alone above the world,

Oh, alone in the world.


The phone rings, the island is sinking,

And the dream is fading into the hum of the office.

I jump, sweaty; you are working and laughing,

I hear you sing the chorus and it’s like I am lost.


Me and you, you and me,

Alone above the world,

Oh, alone in the world.

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The Cost of Austerity

Troika has visited Athens again, but whereas I demonised them in The Trouble with Troika back in February, I am beginning to feel increasingly sorry for them.  Dealing with Greek politicians, it seems, is like trying to reason with a toddler; there is no sense of consequence or foresight.  In the same way a two-year-old sees a tub of ice cream and wants to eat it, regardless of the fact that it is inside the freezer of a shop, you have no money and it’s an hour before tea, so the Greek government(s) see bailout money but refuse to comply with the conditions for getting it.  Of course, there are two main differences; these politicians are adults and should know better; and Greece already has the ice cream.

Don’t get me wrong, there is austerity everywhere in Athens.  For example, state nursery places (which have always been available for every child from the school year they turn three) have been slashed.  We applied for our daughter to start in September, but she didn’t get in.  No one did.  The extremely apologetic headmistress of the nursery explained to my husband that she had had plans to take 50 new children in September, but because of funding cuts she couldn’t hire the 4 members of staff required.  She’d even had a hard time keeping the children she currently had at the school.  She sent our appeal to the council, but it’s more than likely nothing can be done and we will have to continue to pay for a private nursery; an expense which we, and many other parents, had not counted on.

Yet on the same day I learnt that I would be minus €300 a month for the next year for nursery fees, I also learnt that all the admin staff in the parliament building (most of them related to the politicians) were being paid a ridiculous amount and received a €2000 bonus for each of the elections held in May and June this year!  And they do nothing all day; one of the full-time “jobs” is to fill MP’s water glasses when parliament is in session!  Thankfully, they will now be forced to return the bonuses and the ex-Speaker of the House recommended their wages be cut to €1000 a month (still more than most people earn these days).  What must Troika think when they come here and see things like that?  The words “piss up” and “brewery” spring to mind … but unfortunately it’s not plain stupidity, it’s greed.  It’s this attitude which has developed and spread through Athenian society in the last few decades, the attitude which says “as long as I’m OK, who cares about anyone else?”

So when did this happen to the Athenians?  (Because I have noticed and been told that this attitude is pretty much exclusive to Athens).  These people used to be famous for their generosity and hospitality.  My husband says he doesn’t remember people acting this way when he was growing up.  All this treating people as if they don’t matter (see Excuse me, please) is a fairly new development, but it’s not everyone who acts like this.  I have had plenty of experiences where strangers have done kind things for me and, while searching for information about the Athens Anti-Racism Festival, I came across an American photo journalists blog ( who visited Athens and was “utterly humbled by the generosity” she was met with.  Therefore I have reached the conclusion that this attitude belongs to a certain group of people, the ones my work colleague calls the nouveau riche – the people who became rich very quickly and, it now seems, artificially, back in the eighties and nineties.  These people have money, and yet they dodge tax and lie and cheat to get more.  They also don’t see why, in the current climate, they should give up any of their comforts, and they don’t feel in the least bit responsible for the crisis, global warming or anything.  They’re the ones who won’t give up their seat to an old man with crutches, who push in front of a pregnant woman in a queue at the bank (true stories).  And yet the strange thing is, most of these people probably grew up in a village somewhere, sharing meals with several brothers and sisters, helping out honest, hard-working parents who grew food in the fields.  The thing is, I believe, that Greece developed too quickly.  So quickly, so artificially, that the economic growth was based on nothing but loans and so the economy failed.  These nouveau riche lives are based on nothing but lies and they are becoming unliveable.  And these people’s attitude is based on nothing but Hollywood movies and magazines and a strange idea that selfishness is progress, that the “greater good” is a concept for the poor and ignorant.  Ignoring the big picture, having each man for himself, is the real reason this crisis is so severe.  It is firstly a social and political crisis and secondly an economic one.

If everyone in Greece (politicians and the public) had told the truth, about their wages, about their taxes, I believe this crisis could, in part, have been averted.  If people had worked for things instead of borrowing and lying in order to live what they believe is a “modern” life, they would have less, but we would not be in the mess we are today.  Now austerity is going to strip us bare, starting, of course, with those who have always been honest and therefore have less.*  But slowly, slowly (hopefully) it will work it’s way up the chain to the nouveau riche and the politicians.  And then perhaps they will go back to what they once were; people with fewer comforts and bigger hearts.  People who knew happiness is not designer baby clothes, over-priced cocktails and expensive resorts, but spending time with your family, good food and going to the sea on a Sunday.  People who put others before themselves.


Perhaps not….

*The parallels between this and UK Benefit Culture have not escaped me :).  But more on that another time.

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The Good Life

I’m beginning to think that all this palaver of Lucas Papademos’ interim government and two waves of elections could have been avoided, because it seems Adonis Samaras (the new Prime Minister) is pretty much the same as Giorgos Papandreou (Prime Minister 2009 – 2011), except that he cares less about the Greek people and more about his votes.  To illustrate: what is one of Greece’s biggest problems?  The enormous public sector, of course.

  • Troika says … we have to fire 200,000 public sector workers.  OK, there is a very good reason for this.  In 2009, when they first came here, they said “wow, your public sector is huge, this won’t do,” but they cut Greece some slack.  They said there would be no forced firings, just for every 5 people that left the public sector, only one new employee would be hired.  Imagine their surprise when, in 2010, they returned to find the public sector had 120,000 more workers than the year before.  “Alright, Greeks,” they said, “you clearly haven’t done what we said, so now if you want to hire somebody, ten people have to leave first.”  They came back in 2011 to find 70,000 more public sector workers.  (Can you believe this?)  So now they say fire 200,000.  I totally get that.
  • Tsipras (of Siriza) says … let’s form an independent body to inspect the workforce and fire anyone who got their job illegally (i.e. was given it in exchange for a vote) and anyone who can’t do their job / has a pointless job.  I understand that this would cost a bit of money and take a bit of time, but it makes sense.  But the EU doesn’t like Tsipras because he’s a leftie, and so they put the fear of being kicked out of the EU into the Greeks and Siriza didn’t win the elections.  We got Samaras instead.
  • What does Samaras say about the public sector workers?  His first declaration as Prime Minister: “there will be no public sector firings.”  Is he crazy?  Is he trying to make Merkel and Troika crazy?  IS he trying to keep Greece in the red forevermore?  Oh no, he knows where his votes came from and he wants to keep them.

The fact is, this government is ridiculous.  Samaras was one of the people who signed the bailout agreement, and now it looks like he’s refusing to honour it.  Further talks are being held on 28th June, but Samaras himself can’t go because he’s had an eye operation, and the leaders of the other two coalition parties (Venizelos and Kouvelis) are refusing to go without him.  This coalition is Nea Demokratia, PASOK and Dimar.  The only thing PASOK and Nea Demokratia have ever agreed on before was a law to erase politicians’ criminal records after 5 years.  That just shows what kind of people they are.

Not that the Greek people are worrying too much about the Eurogroup Summit or criminal politicians right now, having just been royally stung by the tax office.  If you remember, we all had to pay property tax in September and January, so everyone’s savings (if they had any) have already taken a hit.  Now, everyone has received their tax forms with some new invented tax (backdated to 2009).  For example, my grandfather (aged 84) has to pay €1,000 on his state pension, my father-in-law €1,300.  A young couple I know owe €2,200.  Even unemployed people have to pay about €400 on their unemployment benefit (which is €365 monthly for one year only, then you’re on your own).  Bear in mind, too, that the minimum wage is €500 for under 25s and €600 for over 25s and you’ll see these amounts are off the scale.  But this is how it works.  Greece owes money and instead of systematically going after the tax evaders and real criminals, they are just flailing wildly, grabbing at any money they can.  A friend of ours works for the tax office, in a high-risk job raiding businesses in order to try and catch tax evaders.  His wages have been cut by 65% since 2011 and now he earns less than I do (even though he has the responsibility of carrying a firearm).  Last month, he was told that a benefit he used to receive monthly in 2009-2010 has now become illegal and, to repay the money, he wouldn’t be getting his wages for the next two months.  Half the people I know are living from paycheck to paycheck; they can’t just do that to people.

Yet I met a woman at the bus stop this morning and (after discovering I wasn’t Polish) she asked me how long I’d been in Greece and if I liked it.  “It’s hard now,” I said, “we don’t have money, but the life is better for our child.”

“Yes,” she said, “we have a good life.  We have the sunshine and any time you want you can get on the bus and go to the sea for swimming.  We have the islands and our villages.  The life here is good.”

I don’t mind working hard, I can even come to terms with paying crazy taxes, but I hope that austerity and greed and downright stupidity don’t squeeze the good life out of Greece.

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