Sunday, 15 July 2012

Inheritance (Κληρονομιά)

Δηλώστε και σώστε περιουσία και καταθέσεις - Τελευταίος συμβιβασμός με την Εφορία για "μάυρα" εισδήματα, so reads today's front page headline on ToVima's Sunday paper edition today; for good or for bad, Greece is changing, forever... 

I once inherited some money after the death of one of my mother's uncles. He had no children, his wife had a child from a previous marriage, and when he died, he left behind a very old dilapidated house (he lived in it till his death) to be divided among his next of kin. His wife had died before him, so when he died, her son (from a previous marriage) inherited her 50% share of the property, while his immediate next of kin was awarded the remaining 50%. As he was my mother's uncle, and the last of his brothers and sisters to pass away, the children of his siblings inherited this share of the house. Each one had between two and four children, so that the money was further subdivided. My mother's sister and brothers were all given their share, but since my mother had passed away, her share was divided among her children I received the princely sum of 50,000 drachmas (~€150). I had recently moved into my own home, and needed some furniture, which is where that money went. other than that, all my inheritance is tied up with unregistered land.
 Our orange grove at Ahladolakko ('pear hole'): an uneven strip of land with small trees bordered by a road and surrounded by olive groves, in the middle of a growing neighbourhood; despite the fact that the area has been built up recently (even swimming pools have sprouted on the foothills of the Lefka Ori), building regulations do not permit us to build on it because our field is smaller than 2 hectares. 

In the past, the trading of land parcels (with no buildings on them) in Crete (and most of rural Greece, I presume) was conducted orally, sometimes accompanied by a written note that stated where a piece of land was situated and who it neighboured. This is still done today on an informal basis concerning small land parcels that have still not been reigistered with the state. The agreement was deemed the 'contract'. For the most part, written contracts did not exist. To formalise ownership of property and land, the Greek government created the Enthniko Ktimatologio (the Hellenic Cadastre), the Greek Property Registry. Dates have been established for each area or alphabetically according to the owner's name (where there is a high population) for owners to register their land and property. If a property isn't registered, the owner runs the risk of not being able to sell it legally, and it may even be confiscated by the state.

 Our orange grove at Xiloporta ('wooden door'): the small dense-looking patch of land located across from the building with the white-bordered concrete roof (a fruit packing station), on the left-hand side of the dirt road (which it borders), running into the groves. Although it is within the building zone, the total land area is smaller than where we live now; the view we would have from the entrance to a potential home there (see photograph below) is not exactly enticing. 

Most rural land ownership has been handed down from one generation to another, by the common system of sharing a piece of land among one's offspring, so that patches of land in one agricultural stretch of land are owned by different members of the same family. As my husband is an only child, his parents gave him all the pieces of land they owned, and they too all border another relative's property. When there is no will, Greek inheritance laws still favour the children of the owner, with a certain part allotted to the spouse. If there are no children, the property is divided among next of kin. This land forms one of the many hidden economies of Greek people, which allow them to survive through harsh socio-economic conditions. This land is often handed down to later generations with no strings attached or money exchanged.

Our olive grove at Mesomouri ('middle face'): the oblong shape that forms the field (outlined in black) starts from the road on top of a hill and runs down a steep incline to a stream. The forested area in the filed is actually overgrown olive tress that began growing after they were burnt in a fire. The cultivated part has been heavily re-landscaped after the fire to allow easier harvesting of the crops. The housing settlement of the village can be seen on the left at the bottom of the photo. The area affords spectacular views; we are currently in the process of legalising it for building purposes.

My husband's parents were both from the same village, which carries both advantages and disadvantages. The various patches of land that they each owned are spread all over the village, which means that we can't park our car in one area, water all our fields and then leave. We have to go to each individual field to work the land. Eventually, it becomes too much for all of us as we also have our day jobs, so some fields are now neglected. At least they are all found in the same general area, so we don't need to travel far from one field to another to get jobs done. It also means that we can swap similar-sized land parcels to neighbouring land owners, who may have another piece of land neighbouring our other properties; in this way, a small piece of land becomes bigger and more manageable. Land parcels can be all sorts of sizes: On one plot, we own just 15 olive trees. A neighbour has his eye on the land parcel, but isn't offering enough money or a decent swap for it. Hence, we have to be on our guard that it doesn't get tresspassed (he may plant trees right on the border, or move the boundaries - often denoted by a stake - without our knowing).

If we did not live close to our land parcels, some of them would no longer be there for us - they would now be in another person's hands. Καταπάτηση (ka-ta-PA-ti-si, treepassing on another person's land) was especially common in the past when people emigrated. The remaining relatives would find ways to divide up properties according to the descendants that lived in Greece, not including those who had left. This is understandable in some ways, but it is often the cause of bitter resentment among the family who was left out. One of the primary reasons for family feuds in Greece is property division, even amongst siblings who may even live in the same neighbourhood. My husband has a very funny example of this kind of feuding: he happened to be a bystander when his two uncles who were not on speaking terms attempted to pass a narrow concrete overbridge with a 20m drop (pictured above) that was wide enough for a single person to walk over at a time. They could see each other as they each started trekking across it from opposite sides, but they refused to acknowledge each other. Apparently, they both crossed the bridge by standing on its veryedge, without touching each other. My husband was tempted to shout out a greeting to them (they had not noticed them), but he didn't want to break their concentration...

Our uncultivated field at Koukouliana ('hooded neighbourhood'): The area marked in the round circle was once a patch of undulating hills, planted with orange and olive trees, like the surrounding area. It was not one land parcel, but rather a number of unconnected patches, due to the different heights of each field. In terms of function, however, they were difficult pieces of land to maintain: before the landscaping, there was no public road to access them, so my husband harvested any crops from the fields there, he had to carry all the produce on his back and walk to the nearest public access - a narrow concrete overbridge wide enough for a single person to walk over at one time (the long strip labeled in the photo) with a 20-metre drop (the neighbouring landowners - most of whom are related to him - would refuse access to him from the public roads that bordered their properties. To create access to the fields, we had to buy bits of land from various relatives, which meant that we sometimes had to haggle over the price of a lemon tree that had to be cut down, or a 10mx2m strip of land that had to be bought. The whole area was then relandscaped by moving earth to raise or lower the hills accordingly. The bottom left hand corner shows photovoltaic panels, a possible use for our own field in the future. In the photo below, the panels and the bridge are both visible.

If you do not take care of your land, you risk having boundary trespassers abusing it (known as καταπατητές, katapa-ti-TES, in Greece); this is a problem when owners don't live close to their ancestral land. When you can't care for your own land, you can hire help to tend it and keep it weed-free, as a number of our field neighbours do who live in Australia and the US. Whatever you do, you need to know where its borders are (there is no law yet stating that all land must be fenced), and what's happening on it, otherwise it may be trespassed, and you just might find cannabis plants growing on it on your once-in-a-blue-moon visit. On the one piece of land I inhertied from my father, a cousin informed me that someone was growing hashish on it (so we cut off the water supply); on one of my husband's lesser used fields, he found 'leaning stakes', very young olive trees planted right beside them, and someone had even sown beans on the land!

We've gone two steps further by registering all our land parcels legally and devising ways of fencing each property. This has involved digging up old paperwork, getting affidavits and signing testimonials, thankfully all with a positive outcome; at the same time, it is not a cheap process - lawyers, land assessors, builders and government officials have all been involved. Now this land can be passed on to our children fairly without the worry of family feuds breaking out. It's easy to let things slip by as they did before, but the world catches up with you eventually, and when you realise that you don't have the energy to catch up with the world, it's too late to do anything about it.

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