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Thursday, 3 November 2011

Poverty or hunger (Φτώχια ή πείνα)

Greek people are about to decide their future for themselves. Choices generally made by politicians - to be a part of the eurozone, to use the euro currency, to be bailed out by more loans - have now been dealt to us through an upcoming referendum. It feels a little like the meaning of 'democracy' has been put back into this good Greek word. According to "the (Greek Prime Minister's) announcement transfers directly to the citizens of Greece the political responsibility for dilemmas like, 'drachma or euro', 'eurozone or marginalisation', 'poverty or hunger'."

I put this dilemma up as my status update on my facebook page, and got some interesting reactions: Isn't poverty the same as hunger? Where's the choice involved there? Doesn't one cause the other? Aren't they interrelated? Are't they both really really bad? I didn't realise the possible confusion in the meaning of this phrase, most likely because I live in the Greek countryside. For me to be hungry here, even when I am poor, someone must be taking away my food, which was the case during WW2 when Greeks were hungry (the Nazis confiscated it to feed their army).

In Greece, you can be poor, but not hungry. Greece isn't like other poor countries with little or no resources; in fact, it is rich in resources, but simply lacking in money. This is basically the same situation that Greece was in in the 1960s. At that time, there was a lot of poverty, meaning people did not have much money. A lot of Greeks were living in rural poverty at a time when the urban drift began to take place. But they weren't hungry: in Crete, for example, most of the rural dwellers were producing their own food needs.

My mother lived in the Cretan countryside all her life until the early 1960s when she went to Athens where she spent a few weeks learning English and (kind of) training to be a hotel chambermaid, just before her departure to New Zealand, where she worked as a cleaning lady at Fielding Agricultural High School. Her previous job had been olive picking. She waited patiently to be paid by the landlord of the fields, who got himself declared bankrupt (does this ring a bell?) and she never got paid. Already in her early 30s, being the eldest of five children - three of them unmarried daughters, which was considered a curse at the time - she decided that she did not want to be poor any more. 


My father left the Cretan countryside for Athens at about the same time as my mother. Nota bene: he didn't want to leave Crete. He felt pushed into doing it because his sister's family had gone to Athens and they told him that there were jobs there. In a sense, he did not feel poor where he was - he felt happy, and just as importantly, he was definitely not hungry. But the concept of bettering oneself is very strong in rural societies, and in those days, right up to the present time, self-improvement was not seen in the production of one's own food: it was seen in the earning of money. The city meant money, while the countryside meant food. In a sense, this was a choice of poverty versus hunger. 


Afterliving in Athens for a few years, and being ripped off by employers (no helath insurance, little pay - does that ring another bell??), he decided that in order to see a better day in his life, he would take up the offer to marry a Cretan lady in New Zealand. It seemed like the right choice; returning to the Cretan countryside was not considered the right direction at the time.

This is basically what Greece was like in the 1960s; people were poor  but they were generally not hungry. The 1960s were in fact when a great flux of migration occurred (noth my parents left Greece at this time). It's the period when mothers and grandmothers told their children to eat everything on the plate (as they recalled the times during WW2 when there was no food on the plate) and gave them second helpings. If Greece were now to collapse completely, people will be faced with the choice of migrating to the countryside, where they will not be hungry, or moving abroad, where they will not be poor (at least, that's what they dream of, as in the case of most of the world's migrants). 

The political developments of Greece (and the whole world, all due to the Greek Prime Minister's recent announcement) are taking rapid turns now. The PM's announcement (if he indeed still is the Greek PM at the time this post is published) of a referendum on Greece's bailout (or is it whether Greece will remain in the eurozone, or the EU) is simply the outcome of his own identity crisis. When he became PM, the Greeks hailed him his father's son, and grandfather's grandson, since the Papandreou name was not a new one in politics. He was a Greek like the Greeks. But when he announced the first involvement of the IMF in the country's bailout, Greeks then labelled him American, the kind of Greek who was born and educated abroad (and whose mother isn't Greek, which doesn't help him in the least). Now that most Greeks can only see his 'abroad' side, he's sick and tired of them himself; he wants out. He can't get through to them; most Greeks don't have the ability to see both sides of an argument because they have only seen one. Those grecs miserables won't do, don't do, as they're told, and they refuse to listen; Greece for Greeks, they say, even though Greece has never ever made a decision that was in the interests for all Greeks (only a certain sector of them).

When crunch time comes (if indeed it will, because even the referendum is up in the air), I'm going to choose to be poor. I will remain in the countryside, where we may not have money, but we won't be hungry. I think it will be a long time before anyone takes away our right to grow vegetables, raise chickens, and pick olives. It's bad everywhere, so it's time to look on the bright side and count our blessings. 

One thing I'm glad about is that both my parents are not alive to see the mess the country they loved is in, because they will feel guilty for having helped their children to return to it. If my mother were still living in New Zealand, I can imagine her begging me to return. "It's bad everywhere, Mum," I would remind her. And I feel quite happy where I am.

The cartoon is a collage of different cartoonist's drawings, together with a Wikipedia map of Europe. In retrospect, I should have had Papandreou holding a euro note, not the Greek flag. Luxembourg is in there somewhere too; I think she slipped through the crevices in the dynamite, because of her size. 

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