For a Cretan beachbum used to the NHS, the Greek health system comes as a bit of a shock. The good news though, is that the European Health Insurance card system does work admirably well when dealing with emergencies and the level of clinical care offered is every bit as good as in the UK. I know this because I had to accompany my friend Simon to the A&E in the nearest (2 hours over the mountains) hospital just after Christmas. On arrival I was surprised to see so many people milling around outside the clinic and I initially thought there had been some major disaster. It turns out though, that custom and practice in Crete dictates that if you have to go to the A&E, you take your whole family, grandmothers and babes in arms included, with you.
The first thing to bear in mind is that they charge you the princely sum of 8.10 Euros to register at the admin desk; no major shock there, but why the 10 cents? Anyway, the next thing to remember, should you ever have the need, is that nearly every procedure carried out has to be approved by admin before it can go ahead and each procedure requires a trip to admin to get the appropriate piece of paper stamped. Since Simon was stretched out on the inspection table and in no position to go anywhere, I began to see why it was necessary to be accompanied. On the strength of Simon’s EHI card, the tests were all approved, but since one of them was a blood test, the question then arose as to who was going to get the samples from the clinic to the lab and the results back to the clinic, for I should mention that the AS&E is staffed by Doctors and a few nurses but no porters or auxiliary staff. The answer is that the patient’s friends/family takes the samples to the lab and the results in this case were delivered by a pneumatic tube system. The same system arises with X-Rays, the patient’s family/ friend has to scrounge a chair/bed and wheel the patient to the X-Ray suite and, since the patient clearly cannot fit into the pneumatic delivery tube without severe distress or bending the tube and/or the bed, then wheel them back to the clinic with the results. While this is clearly not too difficult a task, to those conditioned to the concerns for privacy and secrecy in the NHS, it’s somewhat disconcerting to see people standing around the hospital corridors holding their X-Ray images up to the window and earnestly discussing them with their friends, family and the neighbour from across the road who wasn’t going to miss out on the fun. I thought at one stage I was going to be asked my opinion of an X-Ray of someone’s leg but fortunately the people concerned though the better of it.
Finally if the patient has to be admitted, as Simon was, guess who has to wheel them to the ward and get them into bed?
About three weeks after all this, with Simon still in hospital, on a sunny Sunday the memsahib and I went out for a jolly to the hills about 3 hours away from where we live. The village we went to is in a spectacular position on an isolated spur on the very edge of the mountains, about 600 metres above floor of a valley along which runs the only road to a small fishing village. From this natural viewpoint, the port, the whole of the valley and the plains behind it can be seen. The reality of the village’s strategic location is really only appreciated though when you look at the village war memorial and the graveyard. While it’s a sad fact that many of the local villages have memorials to those who were executed by the Germans between 1941 and 1945 and a few villages have memorials to those who died in the major rebellion against the Ottomans in 1866, this village had memorials to named villagers who had died fighting the Venetians in 1527 (in a rebellion lead by a villager known affectionately as ‘Rabid George), the Ottomans from 1669 onwards, Bulgarians in the late nineteenth century,* Bulgarians again in the Second Balkan War of 1913 and finally Germans in the Second World War.
In spite of these depressing historical reminders, on looking at the graves, the memsahib an unnamed botanist with me was heard to remark:
“Well, they all seemed to live to a ripe old age; unless of course they were killed by somebody.”
The day being bright and sunny, we sat and had a picnic lunch on the wall just outside the Byzantine church in the middle of the village. All was going well until the memsahib unnamed botanist looked over the wall and remarked that there was a large skeleton behind us. When I finished choking on my kalitsounia, I looked and there was indeed a large skeleton on the edge of the graveyard immediately behind us. Fortunately for the sake of my digestion it was the skeleton of a sheep.
We returned eventually to the middle of the village where we had parked the car and were packing up ready for the trip back when, suddenly, from a group of men who were loading olives onto a lorry,** one came running across the square towards us waving his arms and shouting;
My first thought was that we were in trouble for eating our lunch in a holy place or desecrating a sacred skeleton or some such and given the obvious history of the villagers’ resistance to outsiders and the fact that we were 3 hours from home, high up in the mountains in an isolated spot, I was feeling a bit apprehensive. Instead he came running up to me and though I’d never seen him before in my life, he shook my hand, greeted me like a long lost cousin and in fractured English asked:
“How is Simon? I hear you took him to hospital? Give him my best thoughts if you see him soon.”
As my friend Spiros once remarked:
“It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t fancy the job painting it.”