Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Greek provincial (Επαρχιώτης)

Enjoy what you can now, for tomorrow, it may not still be there.
And know your roots - you may need them in the future.

I lived in Athens for a few years independently in the early 90s. I came to love the city for what it offered me, but I knew it wasn't where I could foresee my own future. I lived in one of the western suburbs (never a likeable part of Athens) and feel grateful for having the chance to have seen and lived in the capital city of Greece in her better days. Even then, Athens was not in her best form, but at least she felt safe. For my children, it will be quite a different story. For the first few years of their young lives, they will have got to know Athens only from the inferno that they often see of her on TV: "a fitting sacrifice – a symbol of our rush to destroy because we cannot create, an expression of our need to abandon memories and pass into the future, blackened with ashes and rage".

It is not the first time that the historic Athenian centre has been burnt down by vandals: the Minion department store at Omonoia Square was razed in 1980 by political extremists.

On the aftermath of the most recent razing of the Greek capital (I do not need to link to this, as the event became the first-page story on all major news services), I tried to find some snippet of evidence on the web to show me that the burning of the capital had to happen, in the name of justice, for the common good. I can't say I found any. Instead, I was bombarded by the same photos, taken from different angles, of the burning buildings and the mass destruction that the vandals were able to cause as soon as they were given the opportunity. The common opinion is thus:
"Those who wanted to destroy were not the demonstrators who came down to Syntagma to protest the austerity. The ones who wanted to destroy were thugs, pure and simple. Spontaneous or planted, they came to the centre with intent to destroy, armed with molotov cocktails, crowbars, screwdrivers and hammers, ball bearings, transparent rope and even dynamite. They weren't protesters."

Some minor damage was caused to a couple of banks in the centre of Hania during the 'scheduled' Sunday night riots that took place all over Greece.

Organised chaos: of those arrested, 53 were Greek nationals and 26 foreigners, while 41 were 19-29 years old; the destruction agents were nothing less than vandals, aimlessly destroying (and looting) because they are useless at creating, always blaming the state as having an effect on their lack of creativity. It is not a coincidence that the Greeks invented the concept of chaos, and coined the word that has filtered through to many other languages. Nowhere is it more apparent these days than in Athens, which is often confused with being representative of the whole Greek state.

the acropolis athens
My last visit to the centre of Athens was nearly three years ago.

The city that once constituted a magnet for rural Greeks is now in disarray. Provincials dreamed of going to Athens for a better life. Athens was where you were could make your dreams come true, as the goat shepherds who came to Greece's big cities (Athens and Thessaloniki) in the 1950s were often told. You could shed your country bumpkiness and aspire to climb as high as you could dream. You could shake off your rural identity, and become an urban Greek in an instant, just by renting an apartment and buying your food from the λαϊκή (laiki - street market) instead of growing it yourself. The dream of the self-styled modern Greek was to get a job in Athens, to the point of absurdity: up until the beginning of the crisis, even trained agriculturalists were looking for agricultural work in the heart of the chaos of the concrete jungle.

After spending a fortnight with relatives in the most oppressed suburb of Athens, both socially and economically, I took the ferry boat from Pireas to Hania, my parents' birthplace, ending up in a village close to the sea. Needless to say, I was mesmerised by the area, and thought I had come to a sustainable paradise. My family members were all involved in some kind of agricultural work. A number were always farmers by profession (ie they have no other income).

- I like it so much here that I'd like to live here, I told my uncle.
- You really wouldn't want that, he said.
- Why?
- Because that's not progress.
- What's not progress?
- Living here, like this. By this, he meant living in a village, in a stone-cold unheated Greek rural house with an outside toilet.
- Why do you live like this, then? I asked him.
- Never mind why I'm still here, he replied dismissively, it's you who shouldn't have to feel that you should live like this.

I'd heard of and read about many bored urbanites who were looking for more excitement in their life, and ended up living in a small rural community, in a foreign country, away from the trappings of urban life and the materialistic world of creature comforts that they had come from. This idea had not quite reached Greek people's minds at the time; for a start, they were still catching up with the modern lifestyle that others, even in 1991, were trying to break away from. How can you know that you want a life away from the trappings of urban life and the materialistic world of creature comforts if you have not yet experienced them? At the time, Greece had been a member of the EU for not much more than a decade.

ermou st athens
The trappings of a big city are mainly found in the way one can spend money: no money, no fun.

Rural Greece has always been viewed (up until some time last year, when the crisis had set in) by Greeks - but not the rest of the world, which did not know or understand Greece, except through enticing travel brochures, up until only just recently - as the 'wrong' place to be, for one simple reason: rural life did not signify 'progress'. Progress means different things to different people, but in Greece, it used to signify the Greek dream of having a job, and therefore a monthly salary, somewhere close to a town, allowing you to break the shackles of your origins, which undoubtedly had to do with αγροτιά and επαρχία.

Jobs of this sort have never been easy to come by in rural Greece. The jobs available there (if one is not a public servant, and they are now about to become a rare breed) were not considered to signify progress. Planting, harvesting, caring for the land: such activities were not seen as jobs; they were viewed as drudgery, jobs for lesser mortals, as were other seasonal jobs in the tourist trade. Never mind the isolation in the rural areas and small islands: once the tourist season is over, what happens in the winter? Come mid-September (or late October in Crete, where it's warmer), when the tourist season is over, you'll then need to find yourself another job - or face unemployment. For young people, moving to the city, which for most people meant Athens, gave them a chance to find an office job with a monthly salary for twelve months a year (fourteen months, if you counted Easter, Christmas and summer bonuses). Now that's called progress. Added bonuses of a city job: your hands stay clean, you dress up in nice clothes, you press a button to heat (or cool) yourself, and you are surrounded by the many temptations that an urban centre has to offer, now all within your reach: cinema, theatre, restaurants, sports events, concerts, shopping malls, stores, branded fast food, you name it. Athens was no different from any other modern capital city in Europe:
Γοητευτικά σοκάκια στην Πλάκα, χώροι τέχνης στο Μοναστηράκι, γραφικά ταβερνάκια στο Θησείο, ρομαντικές βόλτες κάτω από το μεγαλείο της Ακρόπολης. (Picturesque alleyways in Plaka, Art spaces in Monastiraki, cosy little tavernas at Thiseio, romantic strolls below the grandeur of Acropolis)
Such an upgraded lifestyle culminated to the realisation that you were now in a position of power - you were no longer a χωρικό (otherwise known as χωριάτη in the slang form). When you went back home, people asked you: "Τί κάνει ο Αθηναίος΄" (How is the Athenian?).

sintagma athens
Looking on to Syntagma Square in more peaceful days.

Living in the city gave you the chance to take on an identity closer to that of the global urbanised world, an international identity not associated with fields and garden vegetables, far away from home-cooked food and village parks, at a distance from the επαρχία. More importantly, you could become nameless: no one knows you in the city, so you can be who you want to be. Until quite recently, the επαρχία was full of people with ordinary lives who did not often stray from the pre-defined unwritten norms of their small-minded communities. There were some things you could not be in the επαρχία, which often entailed that you could not express yourself in the way you wanted. The place to be to express yourself freely was the city. For artists, moving to the city was a vital step.

Ομόνοια 1980While searching for an answer to why the capital city of Greece had to be destroyed in so few hours, I came across the brilliant Athensville blog (sadly, in Greek only, but one of the best of the Athens blogs, even just for the photos). A link in it led me to another post discussing life in the 1980s, the way we were. Through a classic photographic collection portraying life in 1980s Athens, coupled with eloquent prosaic commentary, Andreas Belias (the photographer) and Yiorgos Ioannou (the writer) give us a glimpse of what the centre of Athens was like right at the time when Greece joined the EU. Omonoia Square, with all its transients, was Athens' central meeting place: all roads (and means of transport) led to Omonoia*:
"Έρχονται, εδώ όλοι οι καταπιεσμένοι και ρημαγμένοι, ανά το πανελλήνιο.... Βέβαια, εκεί πού συμβαίνουν τα τέρατα... είναι τα μικρά μέρη. Αυτά πρώτα τυραννούν και μετά αποδιώχνουν τους ανθρώπους με τις ερωτικές, ιδίως, παραλλαγές.... Τους αναγκάζουν να φύγουν προς τα μεγάλα αστικά κέντρα και κυρίως στην Αθήνα. Και όταν έρθουν στην Αθήνα, πολύ γρήγορα θα έρθουν και από την Ομόνοια, όπου ένα ποσοστό τους θα κολλήσει."
All roads lead to Omonoia - a strike in 1980 on Panepistimiou Street, starting from Syntagma and ending at Omonoia Square 
"They come, all the oppressed and ruined, from the whole of Greece... Indeed, where the monsters grow... they are small places. They first tyrannize and then ostracise those people with erotic variations, in particular. They force them to leave, to go to the large urban centres, and mainly to Athens. And when they arrive in Athens, very quickly they will come by Omonoia Square too, where a certain percentage will stick around."
In effect, Athens centre became one huge village, growing like a monster, bursting at its seams, all the time filling up with provincials. In later years, they came both from Greece and abroad, once the communist bloc countries opened their borders. Throughout its history, Omonoia Square took on the the role of welcoming these newcomers to Athens, attracting not just the temporary traveller, but also the permanently disabled, sick and paralysed, people with various ailments which prevent them from living independently, even in the επαρχία if they do not have the right support:
"Το ίδιο συμβαίνει και με τους ανάπηρους, τους τυφλούς, τους παράλυτους, τους ραιβούς, τους μουγκούς, τους κρετίνους, τους χαζούς, τους τρελούς. H άγια επαρχία τους, η πεσμένη στα θεία και στα παραδοσιακά, τους αποδιώκει. Όχι μονάχα για λόγους οικονομικούς, αλλά και για λόγους κοινωνικούς. Δεν μπορούν να τους υποφέρουν, οι υγιείς ψυχές τους, δεν τους ανέχονται, ενώ η αμαρτωλή Αθήνα, και η αμαρτωλότερη Ομόνοια, τους δέχεται κι αυτούς ταπεινά και αγόγγυστα."
The NEON kafeneion was viewed as the meeting point at Omonoia: after coming off the underground train (only one line, linking Kiffisia with Pireas, with its midpoint at Omonoia), Greek provincial newcomer to the city would make their way to NEON to find their new future. On my first visit to Omonoia with my father, this is where he wanted to go: I remember him telling me that we might meet up with someone we know there...
"The same thing happens with the disabled, the blind, the paralysed, the raped, the mute, the cretins, the dumb, the lunatics. Their holy province, suffocating in her divinity and tradition, shoos them out. Not just for economic but also for social reasons. The province cannot suffer their healthy souls, the province does not tolerate them. But the sinful Athens, and the more sinful Omonia, accepts them, humbly and uncomplainingly."
The treatment of such people by the 'locals' reminds us once again of the humble origins of both locals and newcomers that turned to Athens to express themselves:
"Και αν καμιά φορά γίνεται στην Ομόνοια πλάκα σε κανέναν τρελό, πάλι από αργόσχολους επαρχιώτες γίνεται, πού κατέχουνε την ενδιαφέρουσα αυτή τέχνη"
Remember the days when Omonoia Square was still a roundabout?.
"And even though, at Omonia, crude jokes may be played on those misfits, once again they will be played out by some idlers who are provincials themselves; only they know well this very interesting art form."

"Μας σπρώχνουν σε εμφύλιο" 
Athens centre today, as depicted in yesterday's To Vima.
Athens grew from the flight of the provincial who wanted to go up in life. Now that the provincials are returning to the provinces or fleeing to other urban centres abroad, Athens' fate is destined to be that of a city sheltering the souls of the living dead, those that have nowhere to return to.

*I've kept the Greek and provided translations because Ioannou's writing style is simply magical. All Greek quotes originally found in Athensville.

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  1. message from a friend who wishes to remain anonymous:

    "even trained agriculturalists were looking for agricultural work in the heart of the chaos of the concrete jungle": As I see it Athens is a self sustaining entity. It has half the population of Greece, but how many young people are there in Athens? I would say an even bigger percentage because the countryside is full of old people. These generations of young Athenians irrespective of what they study, can't live in the countryside, they don't know how. The loneliness of the countryside scares them away even if they are public servants with a secure job and they could go and live there.

    The farming and forestry studies by tradition used to draw students from agricultrural areas. Nowdays more than 1/2 of their students are from Athens because this is where young people live, and during field work they are afraid to step on dirt roads in case they are bitten by snakes.

    Moreover Athens probably manages 3/4 of the economic activity of the country and has all the well paid, high profile jobs, from the art and media sector which are non existent outside Athens, to government officials (all the ministries are in Athens, in the UK they are scattered around the country). So the same reason applies all these decades why people are still drawn to Athens, it is where the money is. The more qualifications we acquire the more specialised jobs we seek.

    No money is poured in the countryside for true development. Crete is the only exception, that's why it sustains a big local population. But no other area in Greece has seen such a development. The needs of the Athenians still use up all the available state funding. The Olympic games is the best example of public money waste. An example is the abandoned villages all over mainland Greece, inhabited only in the summer by the Athenians. What do the summer residents need? Water, roads, sewage, electricity, rubbish collection. We spend money for their needs and built infrastructure that is used only 1-2 months per yr. Public works that keep the local contractors happy but do not bring true development in the countryside, like safe roads that could make make trips to the countrsude faster and attract more tourism. The summer tourist business is also managed by the Athenians in the Aegean and even the Ionian islands. They just return to Athens in September with their earnings. Even Zante, Cephallonnia are empty in winter. Only Crete is full.

    I truly pity the Athenians. It can't offer you an urban life like London and NY unless you want to see the NY Opera on the screen of the megaro mousikis. It is a big provinvial town with all its problems exaggerated but not a trully urban city. But people won't leave Athens unless they are starving to death as on WW2. They will huddle together in family homes with their parents for survival until things get better.

    I often say that the countryside has reached a level of abandonment that is irreversible. Even if you give young people gold plated farms in villages and ask them to go and live there they won't do it. Because there are no people there any more. And people go where people are. Young people who went to villages with 100 old people and 1-2 families can't survive there. They have so many practical problems with their children education and socialising that they move to bigger places once their children go to school. I say you need a minimum of 10-20 families with young children to sustain an active village life.

    To develop the countryside you need proper planning, if you let things follow their own way you get the favelas of Latin America, Constantinople with 20 M people, etc.

  2. " Suddenly it was like if you still live in the small village where you were born, you must be retarded. So Greeks left their islands and their villages and moved to the city, and they became maniacs. They started expecting loans and handouts.”

    that's what people made me think in the mid-90s when i made the move to crete from athens: i felt as though i was being treated like a social retard