Monday, June 8, 2009

The vampire country

As many of you now, I am now living on the island of Mytilene, working (?) as a general practitioner. It is an exciting experience, and I will come back with photos of the beautiful island and my everyday life as soon as possible. But today's post is about how I ended up on this island of Northern Aegean Sea, just a few miles west of Turkey.

But before we start, here is a picture of Mytilene's port. There are many more amazing photos to show you, so be patient until my next posts.

And here is Mytilene on the map of Greece. For the record, I had been living on Crete before, which is the biggest island of Greece, located on its southernmost end.

I wouldn't be here, if I hadn't chosen to become a doctor. And I wouldn't have chosen to become a doctor, if I weren't completely nuts. And naive. And with no sense of self - preservation whatsoever.

When I was little, I used to watch ER on tv. I couldn't get enough of the brave, self sacrifising doctors, who managed to save lives and look extra cute at the same time! No matter the time, or the extreme circumstances, they fought to do good. The adrenaline was intoxicating, and the sense of accomplishment was hypnotizing.

Unfortunately for me, I relied too much on tv, and didn't have any doctors in my family to wake me up and introduce me to reality. So, while I was studying Ancient History, Ancient Greek, Latin and Literature, (and not having a clue in Math, Biology, Physics and Chemistry that are essential for Med School), I applied for the latter. It was more of a joke, actually. I was going to become a Literature teacher, like my parents, and didn't stand a single chance to be accepted. Well, wrong...
So, I entered Med school, wanting to learn new and exciting things, in order to help people and take away as much pain and suffering as possible. And then, I had to wake up.

Before I continue, it is important to explain a bit about universities in Greece. In my country, it is obligatory to attend school for 9 years (starting at the age of 6). You can then choose to go to a technical school and learn a craft, or continue to high school for another 3 years. At the age of 18, you take exams. These exams are the same for every Greek student. The subjects are the same, the questions are identical, and they all start at the same date and time. So basically, you compete with every other Greek student all over the country simultaneously. Once you get your grades, you are free to apply to any school you like. The school will accept a given number of candidates, depending on their grades only, from highest to lowest.

Example: If you apply for Med school and your University of choice admits 50 students per year, you have to be in the top 50 students that applied for the same position at the same time to be accepted. Even if you have done extraordinarily, you won't get accepted if 50 students did better than you. On the contrary, you may have had a few misses, but if everyone else did as well, it won't matter. As long as you are in the top 50 / 100 / 150, depending on the number of students the school accepts, you are ok. So having good grades alone doesn't matter. The whole idea is the competition - where others stand and where you stand. And it is a matter of supply and demand. Getting into a much wanted school is a whole lot more difficult than getting to one few people apply to.

Anyway, it is difficult to get into university (and it costs a lot of money, since all kids pay for private education in the afternoon along with public education that is offered for free at schools in the mornings). But once you get there, a different era begins. The era of enjoying yourself and simply doing nothing. Because university education is public in Greece - that means you don't pay a thing for your studies. There are no teaching fees and no book fees. Also, there is no limit to the years you can study. You can fail in the same course zillions of times, and it's ok. You can be 35 and still studying after 20 years - nobody tells you anything, and of course nobody throws you out of school. But what makes student life amazing, is the concept of "Greek parents".

You may have heard about this rare species, watched it on National Geographic documentaries, or laughed at it watching "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" on tv. Oh, "Greek parents" are strange creatures indeed, and they deserve a little analyzing. Their whole existence is based on the concept that children don't grow up. The years may pass by, but their babies remain babies. Like vampires or something, time does not touch them.

So, no matter if they are 10, 20 or 40, you still have to fuss about them eating their dinner, dressing in a certain way, and playing / going out / getting married to people you like and approve of. And of course, they never ever go away. In the most extreme circumstances, they may move to a house that is right next to their parents'. But even then, having a spare key and being able to come and go to your children's house as you please is a given.

Having this kind of parents may be a pain in the gluteus maximus, if you get my drift. It is suffocating and infuriating. But it has its benefits as well. One of which is the fact that Greek parents are adamant about their children going to university. To achieve this goal, no expense is too great and no effort is too big. And once their offspring get this much-wanted place, the proud parents continue to provide for them. And they never stop giving, unless their "kid" graduates and finds a job.

So, this attitude is the reason why the image of students selling lemonade as a part-time job in the summer seemed more strange to me, than Paris Hilton actually settling down. Greek parents don't ever get that. To them, a kid having to earn his pocket money by working would be insulting. It would mean that they themselves cannot provide for him. Don't get me wrong, I get the whole "being independent" and "learning how hard it is to earn your own money" idea. I actually applaud the concept. If more kids did that here, we would have less brats that couldn't stop being dependent on their parents. But that doesn't happen here often.

Still, not earning your own pocket money at 15 is not dramatic. But depending on your parents to pay for your cigarettes at 30 is pathetic. Because, as I told you earlier, parents don't stop giving until their "kid" graduates and finds a job. And let's face it - finding a job isn't easy nowadays. And the recent economic crisis is not the only reason for that. It is all a fault of the species of Greek parents, actually. Being so persistent about their kids going to university, they created a country where every kid has a university degree. The result? There are far too many unemployed doctors and lawyers here, while it is painfully difficult to find a plumber or an electrician!

And here comes the last and most important characteristic of Greek parents: Pride. They are immensely proud of their children. To them, they represent all that is good and right in this world. And, having worked so hard to get them to university, they refuse to see them getting a job that is "beneath them". So no, it is not ok to find any job in order to earn a living. You have to find a job that you "deserve". Until then, "you have your family to turn to"!

So, in this vampire country I live, kids don't ever grow up. They live with their parents instead, bargaining for more pocket money at 35, having their mother wash their underwear and cook their favourite dinner. Waiting for the "right" job to come, hoping to get their own place some time - as long as it is close to their parents' house, of course. In the end, getting married to "appropriate" people and giving birth to "extraordinary" children. And this vicious circle continues...

I started this post wanting to tell you about how and why I got into university. I talked about all Greek students instead. As much as this got out of hand, I think this is even better. And while it may seem I detest my country, I actually love it very much. Because only if you really love something or someone, you can accept it with all its flaws and weaknesses.

And to be fair, the species of Greek parents is an amazing species by all means. It is one that never ever lets you down, and always looks out for you - no matter what. It is a species that always makes you a priority, and sacrifises itself for you without a second thought. It is a species we all love and respect. Do you want proof for that?

In Greece, kids selling lemonade is an unknown concept. But old parents staying in nursery homes is an unknown concept as well... :)

PS: I would love to hear your comments and also your own experiences from your own country / community / family.


  1. I have always wanted to go to Italy and Greece.

    I moved out on my own when I was 21. I only lived at home until then to save money when I was in college.

  2. Another awesome post, Gracey!

    It's funny how different that is to here, where sometimes people frown on 19- or 20-year-olds who still live at home, let alone a 35-year-old...

    I moved out when I was 22 and I always felt strange about living at home. It didn't matter to me but I know people tried to make an issue out of things like that so I didn't really bring it up in college or whatever. But I always thought it was ridiculous to move out and spend hundreds (now, thousands) of dollars to move out and live in your own apartment but still live in the same city are general area as your parents. Waste of money! If you live on a college campus near home, that's different, but why bother with the extra expense when you are first starting out? I don't know, I guess I still don't understand the concept.

    And I wish more people valued college educations here. Better to have unemployed college graduates than to have unemployed (and unskilled) high school graduates. I was the first in my family (my extended family, including uncles, aunts, cousins, etc., and we're of Mexican descent so you know there's many :) ) to graduate from college. Not that nobody in the extended clan values college, but it just wasn't a part of growing up. Like, I'm going to try and make it so that my daughters each grow up expecting to attend college, as if it's an extension of their education. If they tell me at some point they don't want to go to college, I'm going to have to understand and see what else is going on at that point in time (10 years or so from now at least; they can't tell me now at 5 and 3 that they don't want to go to college) but I value college a lot and want them to as well.

    Oh yeah, Mytilene looks awesome! I'll be patient if it means more awesome pictures and/or great commentary :)

  3. great post!
    your story is so interesting to me because it has been so very different from my own!
    My sister is a doctor. All of my extended family are farmers.... but I did not grow up that way. My father was in the army so I traveled all over the country and spent my first four years in Germany. My sister always had a dream of helping people too. She was very idealistic when she was in Medical school. Now that she is older we both see what her job takes.... it is very intense and emotionally draining because she does care. You are a strong person to be able to do what you do. Thank you for sharing your story.I always enjoy reading it! : )

  4. I want Greek parents!!!

    What would be REALLY awesome is if you struggle to get through college as fast as possible, and get a job, and work your way up and THEN get assigned Greek parents to babysit and help pay off the house. That would be the best of both worlds.

  5. I always love your posts, Gracey. This one was really good. It's interesting to see the differences in Greek culture versus American culture.

    I lived with my parents until the day I got married (I was 21). They didn't charge me for rent or food while I was living there. I bought my car with my own money and my husband and I paid for our own wedding.

    I can't wait to see your pictures of Mytilene!

  6. Thanks for all of your comments, guys! It is really interesting to read about different ways of thinking and living.

    honeypiehorse, once again, you had a brilliant idea. This combo rocks indeed. :) It seems to me that you have a pretty good idea of Greek mentality. Greek parents do babysit. A lot. All the time, actually. And of course they make the same mistakes they made with their own children.

    As for paying off the house, hmmmm... that gives me an idea for a future post, about how the matter of accommodation is really settled.

  7. This was a wonderful glimpse into the Greek culture! I'll give you a glimpse into my personal history: In high school, when I wanted a fancy new clarinet my dad said "Sure, but you will get a job, take out a loan (which he co-signed) and make your own payments." And I did just that. The clarinet was paid off within a year and I was developing excellent credit at a very young age. Later, in college, Dad helped subsidize my living arrangements (dorm/food/gas/insurance) and I paid for tuition and books through student loans. I also worked my way through college to fund the "extra" expenses such as clothing and weekend partying. I was on my own, however, upon college graduation. The best thing my father ever gave me was my sense of responsibility and the ability to take care of myself. On the other hand, my parents were emotionally absent and devoid of demonstrative love. Because of that, a part of me would have loved to have had "Greek parents" to shower me with affection, to take care of me, to take my worries away and show me that I am loved.

  8. I really liked this post and learning more about the Greek culture. It was all Greek to me until you explained it like this!
    The parent-kid culture seems exactly like the one in Singapore. I lived there for more than 10 years, and didn't know until I moved to America that still living off your parents when you're still over 30 is not the norm.
    The education is also quite similar. It's all abt the competition. But the grades is also important...only because of the competition. I know of kids who got beaten up by their parents because they got a 99 on their test while the neighbor's kids got a 100.
    Oh, and in Korea (I'm Korean), you study your ass off JUST to get into college. Once you're in college, you party. VERY different from the education in America (where I live now).

  9. Ok, so now I want to visit - just beautiful!

    There are some good kids out there who work their tails off - my niece is one of them! So, so proud of her. She's got a student loan balance the size of a small mortgage, but she's set her goals, and one by one she's attaining them. And there are some that feel they are OTHER niece is one of those! Let's not talk abut her! ;)