Giving

“Generosity is giving more than you can, and pride is taking less than you need.” Khalil Gibran

A journalist friend of mine this week sent me an email asking for suggestions for Christmas gifts that disappear. An example would be a jar of jam that would be eaten and enjoyed or a certificate to a restaurant. Lots of food ideas. She is writing her usual Christmas column and asked a bunch of us to think of suggestions.

“These gifts are really out of the ordinary. They are cool and interesting gifts that aren't made of plastic which later end up in the landfill.” 

She went on to say, “You are eclectic and far-flung, as I hope your ideas will be, so fire away.”

Far flung is one way to describe me. I suppose there have been other less flattering things said about me too, but I digress.

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Spread the Word

“A book is a dream you hold in your hand.” Neil Gaiman

I ran into a friend of mine at a meeting last week. She said she was eager to read my new novel, The Brink of Freedom. I’m honoured and grateful people want to read what I’ve written and it’s high time I said thank you.

Thanks to all of you who have read The Brink, bought it for your friends, bought it as a Christmas gift, told everyone you know about the novel, written to me to tell me how much you enjoyed it, invited me to your book clubs and included my novel as part of school curriculum reading both in the Sea to Sky corridor and in Edmonton. I’m so grateful that my novel has resonated with so many. Thank YOU!

If you’re looking for other ways to support The Brink or any other book or author, consider spreading the word by writing and posting a review on Good Reads, Amazon.com or Amazon.ca. When you write a review on one of these sites, or blog about a novel, people everywhere see it. It’s a great way to share with others what you loved about a book. And it gets the word out.

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People Helping People

“We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” Winston S. Churchill

I tell friends and strangers alike that holding my novel, The Brink of Freedom in my hands in early October was an incredibly emotional experience. It wasn’t my first novel, but still the tears flowed, uncontrollably at times.

Months after returning from Greece, I remain an obsessed follower of any news of the plight of refugees. I grieve every death, cry with every image of a refugee stuck in limbo in a camp or trudging along a road towards what they hope will be a better future.

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Reconciliation

“When complaints are freely heard, deeply considered and speedily reformed, then is the utmost bound of civil liberty attained that wise men look for.” John Milton

I mentioned my son in last week’s blog when I wrote about Catherine Hunter’s book, After Light. I’ve been thinking about how we do things, or rather how I do things, particularly those things I think I’m doing in the name of love.

Like all kids, my son would, from time to time, grumble about school or a teacher or tell me he didn’t understand his latest math assignment.

I’d double my efforts to help him succeed. “Let’s do your homework together. We’ll figure it out. We have to work harder. That’s all.”

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After Light By Catherine Hunter

“A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit.” John Milton

A friend of mine called me just as I finished Catherine Hunter’s latest novel, After Light. I was a mess. Crying my eyes out. I couldn’t talk. What a book!

When I was able to collect my thoughts I sent Catherine what I hoped was an intelligent commentary. Here is a brief excerpt of the note I sent Catherine. I’ve taken out the bits that would give away any key elements of the story. Suffice to say my note to Catherine was much longer, but hopefully you’ll understand how I felt about this novel from my note below. 

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Questions - Part 2

“Questions are never indiscreet, answers sometimes are.” Oscar Wilde

The nightmares I wrote about last week haven’t let up. I’ve explored what I think is triggering them. If you read last week’s blog, you know it’s complicated and has many tentacles. Perhaps, it’s me. I could be making things worse than they need be. In fact, I’m sure I am. 

If I just settle back into some routine, maybe these recurring dreams will stop. But that would be a simple solution and I’ve never done simple.  

Maybe it has nothing to do with me at all. Audiences and journalists alike have asked me some great questions about The Brink of Freedom. This probably has my brain working over time so rather than focus on my nightmares, I’m going to share with you the number one most popular question I’ve been asked after my readings and my typical response. Then you can see me tackle the same question in an interview I did with Tracy Koga of Shaw TV Winnipeg.

The single most asked question: what can we do as individuals to help refugees.

It’s such a hopeful question, isn’t it?

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Questions - Part 1

“The answers you get from literature depend on the questions you pose.” Margaret Atwood

I wake with a start. I’m expected somewhere. Where am I supposed to be? Who knows? Nothing around me is recognizable. The fog gets thicker and I feel myself drift away into nothingness. Again.

The mist lifts. Momentarily. This time, I can see where I’m meant to be. I see the restless audience, my publisher pacing and eyeing her watch. I struggle with the door. It refuses to give. Then miraculously it does. I run toward my publisher. But the stage has shifted. The audience and publisher are across from me in another building. I can see them in the distance. I fan my arms; jump up and down as a four year old, in need of attention, might.  I’m sure I’ve caught someone’s eye, but then it passes over me as though I’m not even there.

I fall again, only to wake to the same recurring feeling: I’ve been left behind. I’ve been unable to do what was expected, what I set out to do.

When the light seeps in through the curtains I see where I am. Looking around I try to figure out what day it is. Did I fulfill my commitments? What have I missed?

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Refuge

“Education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity.” Aristotle

Fiction makes sense of a situation in a way that eludes facts and figures. It’s difficult to fathom the kinds of numbers we’ve seen reported about the refugee movements in Europe. Over 3,000 dead in the Mediterranean this year alone. 100 dead in the last two days. 700,000 have reached European shores so far this year and more keep coming despite the risks. The majority, well over 500,000, have come via Greece, and the small island of Lesbos.

Here is a Shaw TV interview I did recently that explores the genesis of my novel, The Brink of Freedom and my passion for this issue:

© All Rights Reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content copyright Stella L Harvey

Beginnings – Part 2

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” Seneca

Last week you saw the trailer for my novel, The Brink of Freedom. Here is a short excerpt of the reading I’ve been giving audiences on the tour. Hope you like it.

“Sanjit is so small, so sickly. How could we possibly leave him?”

“How will he ever become a man? You baby him too much. He wants to become a man. You see how he carries large scrap pieces to help me. You refuse to let him. You want him tied to your sari forever. It cannot be this way.”

“He is six years old.”

“My mother abandoned me when I was younger than that. And I became a man without her,” Vijay said with pride. Yes, he’d been a product of a rape. And his mother had thrown him to the streets as soon as she could. But somehow he’d survived. By the time he was five, he was sweeping streets. Later, he heaved out garbage for a restaurant owner. That owner taught him how to read and write, allowed him to go to school, and showed him how to apply for scholarships. That’s where he fell in love with the bustle of a busy restaurant, dared to dream he’d have one of his own. He’d accomplished a lot, but there was still more to do.

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Beginnings – Part 1

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” Seneca

I have just started promoting my new novel, The Brink of Freedom, first with the launch at the Whistler Writers Festival, then with a reading at the Vancouver Writers Festival. Now I’m on the road, touring the novel and meeting new people. I love the meeting new people part.

At the Whistler Writers Festival, I used my book trailer as an introduction to my reading. It says so much in such a short time. Take a look for yourself. Here it is:

The number of refugees listed in the trailer is difficult to fathom. That’s where fiction can help make a story real. In The Brink of Freedom the reader need only follow the lives of two families fleeing their countries. Understanding their plight will hopefully allow the reader to make some sense of those big numbers that are so difficult to grasp.

© All Rights Reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, all blog content copyright Stella L Harvey

Thanks Again for Another Incredible Festival

Silent gratitude isn’t very much to anyone.” Gertrude Stein

This morning after the closing brunch event at the 2015 Whistler Writers Festival, everyone will pack up and head home. Only the memories will remain. Well, that and a whole bunch of final reports. Yes, they still have to be written. But this is not the time to think about reports. This is the time to raise my voice and express my gratitude to all those who make this festival along with the Writer in Residence and the Authors in Schools programs possible. Without their support, there is nothing.

Whistler is a very special community. When the festival was in its infancy so many of you came out to see what we were up to. You liked what you saw, and told your friends. And you kept coming back. Your support helped expand our base. And we have grown ever since. Thank you for sticking with us.

The festival could not get off the ground without the single-minded focus of our small, but mighty organizational team.

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The Road to The Brink – Part 3

“At the best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst.” Aristotle

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed the various quotes I’ve used over the past three weeks in this blog and wondered about them. They are all quotes at the beginning of my novel, The Brink of Freedom. Each provides some insight into the themes of the novel or at least that was my thinking when I chose them. But enough about that.

Last week I left you hanging: two officers pointing at me, a paddy wagon just behind them. I did wonder for the umpteenth time, what the heck I was doing. Here’s the rest of the story.

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The Road to The Brink – Part 2 

“When an elephant is in trouble, even a frog will kick him.” Hindi proverb

When I left you last week I was starting to explain some of the factors that led me to write The Brink. Here’s some more of the genesis of my novel.

As I mentioned in last week’s blog, I lived in the neighbourhood in Athens in 2012, I describe in my novel.

I saw refugees and Roma from various countries on the streets of Athens and what struck me was the attitude of Greeks towards them. Some wanted to help and did so. Others saw the refugees as a threat to their already fragile country. You’ll recall that Greece was in its fourth year of recession by 2012.

The economy was shrinking further, unemployment was in the double-digit zone and young Greeks in particular had few opportunities. This was also the time when I saw the rise of the far right Nazi party, Golden Dawn (Chrysí Avgí) and attacks by this group’s followers on foreigners and the later murder of the Greek anti-fascist rapper, Pavlos Fyssas. I wondered what had happened to filoxenía (Greek for hospitality). The Greeks are famous for it. In 1989, among all the countries in Europe, Greece was awarded the Eurobarometer (a set of public opinion surveys completed for the European Commission) award as the country most tolerant and welcoming to migrants.

I kept asking myself what had happened. What had changed? I also wondered how I would feel if I were in a refugee’s shoes. What would I do? I was an immigrant to Canada myself, when my family left Egypt because the government of the day was nationalizing foreign businesses in an attempt to get rid of Europeans and other foreigners. We were not persecuted or threatened, but my father saw the writing on the wall and applied for immigration to Canada. We did come on a boat into Pier 21. But we weren’t mistreated and my parents felt, with few exceptions, that Canadian immigration authorities treated us in a respectful way. No people smugglers involved, no dangerous, life-threatening crossings.

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The Road to The Brink – Part 1 

“Bury me on my feet; I have spent my entire life on my knees.” Romani proverb

With my novel’s release date in sight, I have started to put some notes together about how the novel came to be. Holding it my hands this week when it arrived in the mail, I was very emotional. Actually, I sobbed.

Some of the tears had to do with the subject matter and the plight of the people I met along the way. As for the rest of the water works? I think they came from sheer exhaustion. As many of you know a great deal of effort goes into any writing project. To finally see it come to life is, well, in a word, emotional, and draining and a little bit sad too. I guess that’s more than one word.

Why sad, you ask. Well, I’m saying good-bye to friends who have kept me company for years. That’s one reason. Another reason: there’s no more tinkering with it or with the lives of my characters. Their lives are bound now inside a beautiful cover. As a writer, I only hope that I did justice to the stories I heard in real life and the one I created in The Brink of Freedom.

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The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Summer grasses/All that remains/of soldiers’ dreams.” Matsuo Bashō

I just finished reading The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. 

What a book! Incredible! I’d like to tell you more about why I liked it and how it impacted me, but I don’t know where to begin. I’m still heart and soul into it as if I’ve been hit by something massive and I’m disoriented, unsure what happened.

The title of the novel is derived from Matsuo Bashō’s poem of his travels to Japan’s remote north-eastern region, Tohoku. Bits of poetry are quoted throughout the novel, beautifully strengthening the character development and the scenes where they appear as well as foreshadowing each section of the book.

I can tell you that Flanagan wrote the book for his father, who was a prisoner of war during WWII. The book follows the lives of the Australian prisoners of war and their Japanese captors, both tasked with completing the Burma railway line.

But in telling you this, I’m stalling, still trying to find my way to what I want to say.

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The Little Boy In the Sea

One should be able to see things as hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.” F. Scott Fitzgerald

My nature is to be positive. Even in the most desperate of situations, I see light and simply focus on that, mostly to the exclusion of everything else. Some might call me naïve. Everyone is entitled to an opinion.

Despite my disposition, I tend to write about dark subjects. In fact, I’ve been worried that my new novel, The Brink of Freedom − about the plight of refugees in cash-strapped Greece − is far too gloomy. My critique group has read drafts of the novel and told me that the novel is hopeful too. I’m not so sure.

Seeing the developments last week regarding the refugee crisis, I’ve questioned whether there can ever be a positive resolution for the refugees. Alan Kurdi, the little boy who drowned in the sea along with his mother and brother, broke my heart and apparently opened the eyes of the world to this humanitarian crisis. News sources reported that Alan’s death was a wake up call for our world leaders.

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Facebook

The greater the difficulty the more glory in surmounting it. Skilful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests.” Epictetus 

Just last week there was a splashy headline about Facebook having one billion users on line in a single day. I’m not sure why this is worthy of news, but it certainly says something about what the company values, i.e., numbers. Any talk of quality is suspiciously missing.

As a user of Facebook, I care about the service provided. I’m not on Facebook to share my life. I have a business account. I use it to promote my business. Period. So when something went wrong with my Facebook account a few weeks ago, I went looking for answers and, silly me, a solution.

I couldn’t find anyone to call and it was nearly impossible to find someone I could write to. In my search, I discovered that every alley I followed (and there were lots) led to a dead end. It made me wonder what all the secrecy was about. I mean isn’t Facebook supposed to be about making connections?

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Changing the World

One is not born into the world to do everything but to do something.” Henry David Thoreau

I used to believe that an altruistic vision coupled with focused large-scale action and single-minded persistence would make the world a better place. In fact, I used to think that was the only way to shake things up. I’ve changed my mind a bit on this.

No, I haven’t given up on making a difference.

But I see more clearly now how to be more effective in even the smallest of my efforts. Persistence is certainly important. But so is being vocal.

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False Words

“False words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.” Socrates

I don’t watch a lot of television. Basically I watch the National and the Rick Mercer Report on CBC. You probably guessed, I’m not a Conservative and have no leanings in that direction.

I had read about the Conservative Party’s advertising campaign against Justin Trudeau, but thankfully hadn’t seen any of the commercials until this past week.

In these horribly condescending ads, the Conservatives have the audacity to discuss the Greek government’s economic woes, claiming that if Canada elected Justin Trudeau we would fall into the same financial troubles as Greece. Never mind that we’re in our own economic mess courtesy of the Conservatives, but Stephen Harper’s party also blames the current left-wing Greek government for that country’s financial crisis. They want us to infer that anything, but the chokehold of the right wing (and in my opinion far right when I’m talking about Harper) equates to disaster.

Except any intelligent, well-read person knows the facts: the left wing Syriza government in Greece has only been in power for seven months. They can hardly be blamed for the economic crisis in that country.

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Reverence

Let parents bequeath to their children not riches, but the spirit of reverence.” Plato

Several years ago I travelled extensively for work. Monday, Rome. Wednesday, Vienna. Friday, Birmingham. It felt exotic and glamorous to be on the move. Sitting still is not one of my strengths. It’s a wonder I’m a writer now. But that’s another story. Suffice to say, running has always been my raison d’être.

My pace hasn’t slowed down since I left Europe either. Anytime I complained about my workload and how I needed a vacation, my mother would say I couldn’t run away from myself. Wherever I went I’d bring my personality with me.

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Fledgling to Flight

Be as a bird perched on a frail branch that she feels bending beneath her, still she sings away all the same, knowing she has wings.” Victor Hugo

I have a new novel coming out this year. I say these words quietly because it seems so self-indulgent to say it any other way. In fact, I rarely say anything unless specifically asked. I have such hope for my novel, but faith alone will not be enough.

Like all artists, I’ve toiled away at this piece of work for years. The characters are as real to me as my neighbours and friends. I feel desperate when my characters make what I think are bad decisions. I hear myself shouting, please don’t do that. Yet, they persist in being their own masters. So I have no choice but to stand by them. I weep with them when they suffer the consequences of their decisions. And I cheer for them if they find their way out of their predicaments.

Long after the novel is complete and I’ve started a new project, my characters and their troubles and triumphs never leave me.

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Summer Time Reading Recommendations – Part 2

“Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.” Hypatia

Okay, so I can see I haven’t left Greece completely behind. I continue to quote Greek philosophers. Following on last week’s blog of my recommendations for works of short and long fiction, this week, I’ll recommend a few books of poetry and non-fiction I read and enjoyed very much. This list will be a little shorter as I typically read more fiction. Still I hope it helps.

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Summer Time Reading Recommendations – Part 1

“Time is the most valuable thing a man can spend.” Theophrastus

It seems to me that I’ve been blogging about Greece in one way or another for months now. Perhaps it’s time to write about something else. Typically I give my book recommendations at the end of the year, however for the sake of shaking things up, including my own one-track mind, I thought I’d share some of the books I’ve enjoyed over the past several months. When I’m not ranting or organizing or writing, I spend my time reading.

Here are some of my picks by category and in no particular order. Beside each title and author I’ve written some of the notes I wrote in my journal after I finished reading the book. I know I’m a bit obsessive (stop laughing), but yes, I do keep track of all the books I read. Sometimes I reread books too, but that’s another story.

I might as well warn you it will take a couple of blogs to document my recommendations. I’m nothing if not opinionated. I know you haven’t noticed. I try to be subtle. Okay, now really, stop laughing.

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Since You Asked

“I claim to be a simple individual liable to err like any other fellow mortal. I own, however, that I have humility enough to confess my errors and retrace my steps.” Mahatma Gandhi

I’ve been back in Canada for over two weeks and still the questions persist: what was it like in Greece, what do you think of what is going on. I like being asked. I’m nothing if not opinionated.

Life in Greece seemed fairly calm to me. The cafes were full, the shops were open, and people seemed to be going about their lives. Greeks have lived under the fear of a complete financial collapse for so long that it seemed to me that they’d become stoic about it. Whatever will happen, will happen. I heard the words uttered several times. But for now, we have to live our lives. We can’t live in fear.

There were nightly protests in the streets. So as they went about their business during the day, people came out in throngs at night to make sure their wishes were being heard. I think there’s hopefulness at the center of any protest: people are engaged and more importantly, they believe their voices can make a difference. Peaceful protest always buoys me.

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Where Is Home?

“It may be that the satisfaction I need depends on my going away, so that when I’m gone and come back, I’ll find it at home.” Rumi

When I was a kid, I daydreamed about living elsewhere. I’d only ever been to Greece on vacation. But anytime we were there, I felt as though I was home. Greece was my first love and I’ve always pined for her.

I kept my dreams and schemes a secret. I thought it would hurt my parents’ feelings if I told them of my intentions. They’d made so many sacrifices when we immigrated to Canada. They chose Canada. Not Greece. Even though they’d had the opportunity to move to Greece (we were Greeks) after we left Egypt. They had their reasons. I’ve heard them a million times. Better opportunities, brighter future.

Pride (and it’s opposite, shame), not hurting your parents (or anyone really) and keeping things to yourself (secrets) are all elements weaved so tightly into my family’s fabric, nothing could possibly unravel them. You might ask, isn’t that true of most families. Maybe. I don’t know.

But ask yourself, who invented the Greek tragedy and you might have your answer.

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Family Folklore – Part 3

“Be a voice, not an echo.” Albert Einstein

So I went looking for long-lost property in Greece, and found another arm of my family instead. I haven’t made sense of what I’ve discovered yet, but I’m trying.

On the way back from Alekos’s farm, we were all very quiet in the car. The sun was setting on the horizon, the sky a palette of pink. I suppose each of us was trying to process what we’d discovered about the other and what it meant. If anything.

Alekos piped up at this point and touched my father’s shoulder. “Remember we are family now. We share a name and a history. We are related.”

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Family Folklore – Part 2

“Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.” Democritus

Whenever we walked the seafront or streets of Kyparissia and we’d see an abandoned building or property, my husband would tease me. There’s the Leventoyannis mansion. I daydreamed of what I could do to these beyond-hope-fixer-uppers. I fantasized about returning to Greece to live. Permanently.

As I mentioned last week, I was stymied at every turn in my search for the property I was told was abandoned years ago by my paternal great-grandparents.

But on one of those walks after our visit to the land registry office, my husband noticed a large semi trailer truck making its way down the main street. It wasn’t so much the big white rig that caught his eye, but rather the bold black letters on its cab, just above the front windshield. LEVENTOYANNIS. Granted, spelled with a G, rather than a Y, but still my name.

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Family Folklore – Part 1

“It is a common saying, and on everyone’s mouth, that life is not a sojourn.” Plato

As a child, I was told my paternal grandfather’s roots were in the agriculturally rich village of Kyparissia in the Peloponnese. Family folklore has it that my great-grandfather had a lot of land there. It was left abandoned after he died and most of his children moved away. I have been back to Kyparissia many times to find some information about my great-grandfather and grandfather. This time I came back to see if there was any way to locate this discarded land.

My aunt said she found it once. Apparently there were too many back taxes owing on the land to do anything about it. My cousin, her son, told me he was here in 1984 and found an old woman who claimed to have known our family, the name Leventoyannis. This isn’t a surprise. That surname is associated with this region.

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There Are No Thieves In Greece

“We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark. The real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” Plato

My husband’s wallet was stolen a few weeks ago as we stood on a crowded subway in downtown Athens. Within the span of two stops, the wallet was gone, along with something else I didn’t notice right away.

We contacted our bank, the embassy and the local police. At the police station, we met a French woman who was waiting to report another theft. She’d been riding on a bus. She’d lost all her identification and money.

I remembered several years ago a friend of mine had reported her missing wallet to the Greek police. When she used the word, stolen, the officer corrected her, saying, “Madame, there are no thieves in Greece.” And in fact, she had left her wallet on a park bench. A citizen had returned it to the police station intact.

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Greek Voices

“Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” Oscar Wilde

Greece is in the news again, on the brink once more. The tit-for-tat political rhetoric is never ending and fervent, but it gives no voice to those dealing with the economic crisis day in, day out – Greek citizens. In the end, they will be the ones to pay for the sins of their governments.

“I can’t tell you what I think,” a man responded when I asked him about the financial situation in Greece and the current talks between Athens and the EU. “What I have to say would not be polite.” I met him fishing on the dock in Kyparissia. I saw him again in the small village of Kalo Nero (good water in English). He’s retired. His pension reduced recently as part of the government’s austerity program. He worries he may not get whatever is left of his pension at the end of June. “Medical benefits have also been cut,” he said. “What can you do?” He sipped his coffee and shrugged.

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