One small Greek island’s relentless struggle to get by

Chris Jones on what Greece's crisis means for daily life on the island of Samos

December 2, 2011 · 15 min read

Photo: Giorgos Michalogiorgakis/Flickr

The sun continues to shine over Samos, despite it being November. Thank goodness the prolonged rains of winter have not yet arrived – for the sun is about the only thing that shines here.

Evidence of the crisis, the lack of jobs and the absence of money in people’s pockets is everywhere. In the two major towns of the island, Vathi and Karlovassi, approximately a quarter of the shops are now closed. Most of those that remain open are offering such discounts that we assume it is a matter of time before they shut too.

A friend who has a tourist shop in Vathi thinks at least another six shops will close by Christmas, with more to follow soon after. In our village we have two tavernas – and they only survive because their owners take no income. What income can you take from only selling a few Greek coffees and some beer and ouzo in the evening?

We try and help by eating a meal in at least one of them every week. It is unusual now for us to find anyone from the village eating with us. They simply can’t afford to anymore. The public life of the village, which centres on the tavernas, is now much diminished as more and more people stay in their own homes. This always happens to some extent in the winter months, but this is different. It is economics, not climate, which is responsible.

For sale

The other sign of the times is the proliferation of ‘for sale’ notices on cars, pick-ups, houses and plots of land. This is the new growth industry here. The signs are like our mushrooms in the autumn. They are sprouting everywhere and every day as those who can attempt to raise income by selling off pieces of land and properties that they have acquired through their families over generations.

I cycled through Agios Konstantinos last week and counted over ten for sale notices in this small village – and this number does not include many other empty properties that have no estate agent but are nevertheless on the market.

And for the first time over the weekend I noticed three hotels for sale on the outskirts of Karlovassi. Tourism – which employs one in five Greeks and is considered by many to be one of the areas which is critical to any future for the country – is currently experiencing severe degradation in its core infrastructure. I don’t have precise figures, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that up to 30 significant hotels have closed on Samos in the past 12 months.

Back in the village, the crisis has meant that people have severely cut back on travel. Petrol here is around 1.75 euros per litre for unleaded – the third most expensive petrol in the EU. Virtually every round of austerity measures to date has increased taxes on everyday commodities, from petrol to cigarettes to food and drink. As these taxes have escalated, incomes have fallen.

Last week I was talking with striking administrators, lawyers and judges who were in the midst of rolling partial strikes – striking from 7.30am to 11am. The three office workers I met had all seen their salaries reduced, slice by slice, over the past 18 months. They now estimate that their salaries have been cut by 50 per cent – and they were never high in the first instance.

Fili, a school teacher friend in Athens, has seen her salary fall to 950 euros a month – from 1,450 euros a year ago. Dora, another friend working in the TEI (polytechnic) in Patras, has just landed a lecturing job. She tells me that teaching hours have doubled, as have class sizes, and that she has no idea when she will be paid.

It is this pincer movement – higher taxes and prices, and declining incomes, pensions and employment – that leads to cars and pick-ups never leaving the village square from one week to the next. We have no bus service and taxi fares have gone through the roof. For Dimitri and Aleni – the pensioner couple who have the land next to ours – their monthly visit to Vathi to shop and get their pensions costs them 55 euros! I can fly to London from Athens for a similar price. Their pension is around 450 euros a month.

Vegetable plots

But it is the overwhelming sense of the people here that whilst things are hard and getting harder, at least it is better than Athens, or life in any of the other major cities. Why? Principally because on the islands and in the countryside most people here have access to or own land. Land means gardens and hence food. So just as the for sale signs proliferate, so do the number of vegetable plots.

There are scraps of land in our village which for years were neglected and overgrown but are now cleared and planted. At the beginning of September it was virtually impossible to find seed potatoes for sale. I suspect that the landscape is changing in many villages all over Greece as more and more land is cleared and workers with no waged work turn to self-cultivation and food production. We know of many families in Ambelos who now have chickens, goats, rabbits as well as vegetable gardens in their endeavour to survive. (I would suggest that tracking the sales of rabbit and chicken food would give a vivid sense of these developments.)

At least those who spend their time on the land are busy and active, and the work is often deeply satisfying. This is not the case for many of the jobless in the cities, and nor is it the case for many of the refugee and migrant workers on Samos too.

Sofian and his brother Tufik are both refugees from Algeria. Like many who stayed on Samos – increasing numbers as the situation in Athens deteriorated – they get by on the lowest rung of the local labour market, as day labourers either on building sites or on the land. There are few working building sites now and the local farmers are either not able to afford the wages or have family members to help. Either way, no work.

As Sofian tells us, the absence of paid work follows months of ever-decreasing daily wage rates, which have fallen from around 40 euros a day to 15 or 10 or at times even less. These workers – and there are tens of thousands through out Greece – are increasingly vulnerable and desperate.

A pervasive crisis

One English broadsheet talked of the crisis leading to a ‘lost generation’ of young people, but the crisis is far more pervasive than that. It sweeps through all those who lack independent and sufficient means of support. And the most vulnerable of this large sector of the population – refugees, migrants, gypsies, people with enduring mental and physical health problems – are at acute risk. In fact, their current survival is little short of miraculous.

We have heard many stories from the refugees that they only survive because of the help they receive, usually from people only slightly better off than they themselves. Sofian told of his middle aged refugee friend from the Ivory Coast who lives in a small rundown studio let to him rent free by the mother of a local shopkeeper. He told of stores that give food, and above all the development of mutual support systems amongst the refugees themselves.

But these developments also reflect some deeper issues about how people assess the situation. Everybody we know, or happen to meet, tells us that they expect ‘things’ to get worse. There is virtually no hope for any improvement in the foreseeable future. There is a deep sense of abandonment – abandoned by their own government and political class generally and also by the EU. They expect nothing but shit from these quarters and so turn inwards towards family self-reliance and self-help.

This has long been a feature of Greek social life. An EU survey recently found Greeks spend more time willingly with their families than any other EU population, twice the average. The significance of the family reflects in part long-term fundamental weaknesses in the Greek state and civil society, both of which have been mired in corruption, favouritism and patronage, and are characterised by alienated and alienating working systems. (A visit to any public agency here will confirm this by just looking at the faces and body language of the workers!)

With weak welfare systems and poor public facilities, those without means use their families and their personal networks to get by. This is happening with a vengeance now. Young graduates who would have expected to be living independent lives are now back in the village living with their parents. Our old friend Katrinio has moved out of her home in the village to live with her son and his family in Vathi, partly because of her age and partly because she can no longer live on her pension. And so it goes on.

Barter re-emerges as cash retreats

Last week we were discussing the situation with Thanasis, the mayor of the village. He talked of his concern over the prevailing sense of depression and hopelessness in the village. Of how people had stopped coming out to the kafenio, the pressure on those who had debts with the banks, and just the relentless struggle to get by. Like others here, he talked about how at least we had our gardens and orchards, our vinyards and olive trees. Of how we had the forest for fuel and mushrooms and nuts. That whatever comes, that we will at least survive. And then, of course, there is that common characteristic of villages the world over – that we all look out for each other in difficult times.

It feels at times like the village is preparing for a long siege. For the 16 years we have lived in Samos, we have seen every summer the women of the village, drying, bottling and preserving fruits and vegetables. Now it is more so. Every year we watched our neighbours share their harvests and their homemade products, from wine to ouzo. This too is now evolving into a more extensive barter system.

Sami from Agios Konstantinos told me last week that she has arranged to get a turkey for Christmas in return for wood and olive oil. Maria, who teaches art classes to kids, now receives ‘stuff’ (food, olive oil, wine, wood) in lieu of a class fee. As cash retreats, systems built on traditional village practices are emerging once more.

The mechanic who repaired my bikes last week thought all these kinds of developments were a positive thing and that the Greeks would be happier and more fulfilled if they returned to the land. We have been conned, he said, into thinking that surrounding ourselves with consumer stuff would make us happy. I suspect that his sentiments are shared by many – at least in terms of the con that has been pulled on the people.

Tempered militancy

Notwithstanding these developments, there is an overwhelming sense of precariousness at many levels. As strikes have intensified you never know whether you will be able to travel, whether government offices and schools and so on will be open. Lots of things can heighten this sense of living on a knife edge. Two weeks ago it was a strike of dock workers which saw no ferries coming to the island for five days, with the result that fresh milk virtually disappeared and supermarkets shelves emptied. Is this the future? What happens when the ferries stop and the airlines reduce their skeleton services to the islands even further?

It is my view, from Samos at least, that the prevailing feelings at this point in time are more related to anxiety and fear than to anger – although there is plenty of that around as well. The recent general strike, for example, saw more people on the demonstrations in Vathi and Karlovassi than we had ever seen before. We too had the Oxi Day marches (October 28) disrupted with the ‘VIPs’ being booed and heckled as the bands marched by – events which were replicated throughout Greece and were seen by many as the precipitating factor behind Papandreou’s referendum decision.

But while some of the media relish the reporting of the strikes and demonstrations here, it gives an over-inflated sense of the militancy of the working class. Yes, Greece still has a significant organized labour movement and Communist Party, but class rage and fury is deeply tempered by the feelings of anxiety, fear and desperation which are so clearly manifested in the 40 per cent increase in suicides this year.

Moreover, the Greek labour movement is full of paradoxes, with some unions mired in the corruption systems endemic throughout the country. And despite the depth of the crisis, factionalism and division still diminish and confuse working class politics here. So what we saw during the general strike demonstration in Vathi, where a group of students and teachers were not allowed to speak at the main rally in the square and had to set up their sound system some 100 metres away, is replicated a thousand times across Greece. These divisions drive people crazy. They are not interested in the finer points of their doctrinal differences – they want to see collective and unified action by all those who are against the vicious austerity programme.

Back to the junta?

There is now no faith whatsoever in the political class as a whole. Papandreou has no credibility, but this applies to all of them. This too has contributed to the sense of abandonment, especially as so as many here feel that the situation needs strong and decisive leadership. Sofia, a young student friend of ours in the village, came for coffee three days ago. She was very upset that some people in the kafenio were arguing that what Greece needed now was a return to the junta. They had said that at least things worked then – and unlike today, the country had not lost its sovereignty to the troika.

Usually any mention of the junta brings revulsion, and many people feel that it can’t and won’t ever happen again. That the government changed the entire leadership of the armed services a few weeks ago was taken as a sign of the government’s hold over the military. I am in no position to judge, but I think history tells us that it is not shuffling generals around that matters but what is happening to the colonels!

Even so, I believe that the current talk about the junta is more a reflection of some people’s growing panic over the evident chaos in government. Younger people, we have discovered, are much more open-minded and less fixated on leadership, arguing that the time has come to take matters into the hands of the people and to trust to their talents, knowledge and perspectives.

A sense of solidarity

This is the downside to being on Samos at this time and not being in one of the large urban settings. We are constantly receiving information on exciting developments in Athens, Thessaloniki and Patras, where neighbourhoods, groups and activists are developing free medical centres, community cafes and restaurants, clothing and food exchanges, transport co-ops, squats and occupations, organising boycotts, refusing to pay transport fares and so on. There is nothing like this on Samos as yet, although a clothing exchange has just started where you can pick up clothes for free. Who knows where all this will lead – but without doubt we on Samos could do with some initiatives to lift our spirits and to bring us together.

What also adds to the turmoil of feelings is that we are fortunate to be living in such a beautiful part of the world. This could be a heaven on earth, and yet it has been transformed into a place of deep suffering and dismay. All the joy and pride that came with a successful Olympics in 2004 and the winning of the European football championship in the same year has vanished. Some are clearly traumatised by Greece’s decline and above all the loss of control over its own affairs.

But for the majority, at least in the village here, the fundamental question is survival. There is no expectation that any meaningful help will come from outside. Even if it were available, Samos, they say, being so far from Athens, will not be a high priority. But at the same time we are not so far away to be unaffected.

Samos is currently a turmoil of emotions. Apart from getting by there is little other sense of direction at the moment. But that is not to say there won’t be. The inequalities on the island are not as dramatic and self-evident as they are in the cities and suburbs. We don’t have class-segregated neighbourhoods, shops, schools, hospitals and eating places. These are all shared spaces here. The island’s population of around 25,000 (all-year residents) means that there are lots of personal ties. All these lend a sense of solidarity. This is a powerful attribute – and we fervently hope that it will become one of the factors that will enable all of us not only to get by but also to build something that is worthy of the people.

Chris Jones is the co-author of Voices from the West Bank

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