NOT SO FRIGHTENED OF DYING
I suppose you ought to get used to something you see every day, but I am always amazed by the sheer brio and panache, as opposed to any shambling guilt, with which everyone on Kythnos lights up and puffs away at their cigarettes, usually as part of their cheerfully suicidal chain-smoking lifestyle. You wouldn’t think they were practising anything lethal, or even moderately harmful, and they whip out their fags/cigarettes with the suavity of those old 50s UK movies, you know the kind, where everyone, unlike the rest of us, has a comprehensive drinks cabinet at home, and every time they enter the posh sitting room full of Picasso prints, the first thing they do is help themselves to a Scotch and Soda, and then hand their partner a Gin and Tonic as a rule. They are always entering their sitting room, so they are always knocking back the S and S, and the G and T, then blithely stepping into their splendid Daimler saloon downstairs in the London SWI block of flats, and driving away with a skinful, in those sunny, palmy days before the breathalyser and the blood sample and the urine sample. In today’s prices the quantity of booze in their cabinet must have been worth about £300 or 400 euros, and as it was always being refilled, it was a costly little item of upkeep. The same now applies to cigarettes, which once upon a time were dirt cheap everywhere, but now even in Greece will set you back 5 euros a pack of 20. That is also the hourly rate for almost all waitering and waitressing jobs on Kythnos, so if you are run off your feet as a skivvy, you need to graft a full hour to pay for your snouts (North East English usage; see also ‘tabs’). As plenty of Greeks smoke 40 a day, that works out 70 euros a week or 300 a month ( = a live in Bulgarian or Moldovan waitress’s wage on Kythnos), or 3600 a year, and we are talking real money now, especially as in July 2015 a Greek can only access 60E a day from an ATM and half the time the bloody things are completely empty.
In terms of setting a good example, 2 out of the three 3 Kythnos doctors are heavy smokers who puff away happily in public and the only nurse on the island ditto. 2 of these medical professionals make roll ups conveyor-belt style, and as they have small children, presumably they are keen to economise rather than fritter money away on mirages of smoke. As health professionals they should, but clearly don’t reflect, that as smokers they might not be around to see those kids grow up, and this includes one in her early 40s, who has a persistent cough, as does her chain-smoking husband who is a waiter in one of the port bars. He tells me that when he takes a break and has a Greek coffee, he always smokes 5 roll ups, and I have watched him doing his factory work of continuous cigarette assembly, which of course always evaporates into the ether and never accumulates to anything enduring, as it were. Meanwhile one of the doctors, an elderly Rumanian, as I have already noted, likes to stand under the ‘No Smoking’ sign in the Health Centre, and puff his excellent smoke rings regardless, as if there is no tomorrow. Given that he must be in his late 60s, and knew what it was like to under the lunatic Ceausescu, the same who literally attempted to abolish by bulldozer the Rumanian countryside, so as to obliterate conservative rustic attitudes, presumably the old medic from Brasov, thinks he has had a good stint of it, and snuffing it tomorrow wouldn’t put him out one iota.
I have saved the statistics to this point, as if I had started with them, you would probably have found something urgent to watch on the telly, such as the health adverts. But I was genuinely astonished in the light of what I have written above, to learn that the total number of world smokers has increased considerably over the last 30 years. In 1980 it was 721 million, and in 2012 was 967 million, or a 33% rise. All that universal promotion of the frightening facts, all those grisly and sometimes puke-evoking pictures on the cigarette packets, all those price hikes, even in the smokers’ paradise aka the Third World, and yet the whole of the universe is puffing away at 4/3 of what it once was. Meanwhile in 2010 and it is probably true now, the biggest smokers in Europe were the Greeks, at 42% of the population. Next Bulgarians at 39%, the Latvians at 37%, and near the bottom of the league table, those play safe dullards the Swedes only had 25% of their citizens puffing away. More surprisingly Slovakia had the very lowest figures at 22%. Bemused, I ask myself what is so relaxing and/or mature about the Slovakian experience, that less than a quarter of them use the old gaspers? I thought Slovakia was supposed to be the poor and primitive and reactionary and Catholic cousin of the adjacent and progressive Czech Republic. Maybe they are so poverty stricken they can’t even afford roll ups, but I doubt that also. Back in 1973, in India, you could of course buy proper packet fags like anywhere else, but if you were an impoverished Indian, or if you were me (I smoked off and on till I was 23) you would buy a whole pack of shiv biris, or rolled tobacco leaves, for 1 rupee, which was then about 3 and a half UK pence.
In 2012, Greece also had the biggest percentage of female smokers in Europe, at 35%. In Kythnos I would pessimistically hazard it is more like 70%, and for males 95%, but possibly I am too close to my subject matter, and I don’t take account of e.g. the barely visible old folk and rural folk, who rarely leave their farms and smallholdings. I rack my brains now to think of all the women friends I have outside of Greece, and the only one I can think of who smokes, is in Malaysia, and I would say she chain-smokes, though she would say she does not, as she myopically computes the quantity at about a third of what it is. Things are completely the inverse here in Kythnos, compared with my last address, which was rural NE Cumbria, UK. Just as in Cumbria, I noted any conspicuous middle class educated woman who smoked, and observed that there were precisely none, I now notice the educated professional women on Kythnos who don’t smoke, as they are such a striking rarity. Clever Greek women with degrees in Italian or Economics or English, teachers, and accountants and travel agents and insurance specialists, and they all blast away regardless and completely unembarrassed. The age of them can be particularly mortifying, and at times I feel like wrenching the cigarettes out of the hands of some of these babes in arms. In January 2014 I was at a panagiri festival at the beautiful Stratolatissa chapel beyond Dryopida. The festival room was full to the gills, and at long trestle tables we tucked into copious free food and free ntopio krassi/local wine. I happened to be sat opposite 4 very nice young women teachers from the port, friends of mine as they had all been to my dinner parties at various times. They were aged between 25 and 30, but all of them looked about 10 years old to me, partly because I am 64, and therefore old enough to be their Dad. Unremarkably, if you know your Greece, all 4 of them were called Maria. 3 of those 4 Marias all smoked, and they all smoked between courses and all chain-smoked. I suspect the Maria who didn’t smoke, did not do so, as she was engaged to a leading Greek football player who plays internationally, and as far as I know even the most reckless Greek soccer players don’t smoke fags, nor do their girlfriends and fiancees.
But have you ever sat opposite three beautiful young women, who all look 10 years old, and watch them all act like jaunty idiots and chain-smoke all those carcinogens and tars down their handsome if heedless necks? It was all too much, and at times I simply had to look the other way.