Monday, 13 May 2013

Identity crisis (Κρίση ταυτότητας)

The desire for upward mobility usually entails moving to a city. The countryside is seen as backward and old-fashioned, not the right place for young modern people. It is also lacking in employment opportunities that are desirable. Greeks don't aspire for their children to become strawberry pickers or pesticide sprayers; they want jobs that will provide some measure of security and cleanliness. So it's a very awkward moment when a person suddenly realises that they didn't make it in the city, and they have to turn back to the country. Since the crisis broke out, we hear of many people doing just this. What does this tell us about Greeks?
An inner city puddle
For a start, it tells us that these people had another place to fall back on. Having a house, no matter how small or basic, in another part of the same country could be considered a luxury, like having one foot in each door. A house in a village often entails land, hence it is possible to have a patch of garden to grow vegetables and keep a few chickens. Contrary to what is being said about the expenses involved in daily life, having your own food source is of immense importance because it helps you to save a lot of money. Staples can be bought very cheaply when bought in bulk and they last a long time - this is not the case with your meat, eggs, cheese, fruit and vegetables.
A sprouting potato left on a tree branch in the inner city
Moving back to the country also tells us that these people weren't really urbanites to begin with. They were still attached to their origins, while the city was simply acting as an extension of their village. In fact, you get a lot of people from the same region residing in the same area of Athens. This is rather telling: it makes Athens sound like a mini-Greece, where all regions descend and come together. But it doesn't make it particularly urban, which is what is expected of a capital city.
The owners might have had high hopes of building a summer house in Crete one day - now there is not enough money to maintain the one that they live in.
Perhaps this is also part of the 'schizophrenic state of mind' that Papachelas was referring in his eKathimierini article discussing the people's return to the land:
"Many of our fellow citizens are going back to the land seeking temporary refuge from the devastating daily routine of unemployment, or as a silent retreat, away from the stress of work in the years of the Greek crisis. To be sure, many of these decisions and reactions may well be products of despair. Nevertheless, something seems to be changing in our relationship with our land. This shift probably has to do with the existence of a fresh generation of educated people but also with the ways in which the ongoing financial crisis has turned the lives of thousands of people upside down. I would like to believe that in the coming years this reconnection with the land will bring tangible results in a wide range of things, from small quality tourist units to fresh farming methods."
I don't share his optimism. The return to the land is the only recourse, because there is little else to fall back on in a crisis-ridden Greece. Whatever is being created is still not enough for the many people searching for something away from the land. We don't really want to work the land because it's hard to do so. You get dirty, you get tired, the profit is small, it involves weather risks, and it only works in the sense that you can provide yourself and you won't starve. In most cases, the land will remain undeveloped, it will be used purely for a subsistence economy, it may be used garishly for tourism, or it may be sold for a song. We are only living off the land because we have no other way to survive. That does not provide so much solace to people with unemployed children.
Urban graffiti in the old town of Hania
Speaking of unemployment, the latest figures released for Greece show an unemployment rate of more than 64% among 15-24-year-olds. That's such a depressing figure that it should make any Greek with children in this age group stop and think seriously about the future employment opportunities of their children. They are hopeless, despite the miracles of the 'Grecovery' that is supposedly taking place, according to financial analysts. It's difficult to convince the average Greek that any recovery is taking place, since no jobs are being created.
A crumbling building in the old town - architecturally interesting, or simply an earthquake risk?
My son is 12 years old, so he's still at school. Schooling is compulsory in Greece until the age of 15. Let's pretend he were three years older, and he felt like leaving school. By law he is allowed to do this, despite still being considered a minor, and not being able to drive, vote or marry. What's the point of leaving school then? Perhaps it's because he is bored of school and he doesn't like it. He could then be registered as unemployed, at the same time as being completely unskilled, unqualified and inexperienced at anything.
Recycling in Greece suffers from non-education: people still make the (innocent?) mistake of placing organic waste in bins that are specifically colour-coded and illustrated as recycling bins. 
But let's look at this issue more realistically. Although it isn't compulsory to stay on at school, which parents are those that encourage a child to leave school if they know that they will not be able to find a job? If my son were 15 and he chose to stay on at school, he would be better off than being unemployed, since in the former case he would be learning something and he would have something to do, while in the latter case he would be learning nothing and he'd have nothing to do. What's more, it doesn't cost parents anything to keep their children in school; no one is suggesting that they send them to frontistirio or that the child shows any kind of above-average intelligence in getting good grades. A school leaver's certificate showing that they finished all the grades at school is better than an early leaver's certificate. So, in my opinion, it is kind of misleading to tell me that 15-19 year olds can be considered as being registered as unemployed. What's more, boys are called up to do army service at age 18; students and military cadets are not counted in unemployment figures. So the figure as it stands is not telling us anything that should shock us, except that some children are not attending school - it simply points to an uneducated race.
Your own food supply involves sacrificing modern comforts
Even if this age group were to 'run away' from the unemployment problem in their own country, which other country would accept them? They won't find anything of value to them abroad (except perhaps benefits, if they hold valid passports for another country...) because they will unskilled, unqualified and inexperienced. As for the 20-somethings in the same age category, they could only be fresh out of their studies. It's a catch-22 situation.

Walking through the town in the last few days, I got dazed with the number of new businesses that are opening. I can't quite catch up with them. Many of those shops don't seem to be selling anything novel or even necessary. Another strange phenomenon is the high number of cafes and bars replacing the empty shop windows. They all seem to be doing some sort of trade, enough perhaps to keep them open. The sunny weather we are having is helping of course - I see a lot of people enjoying their al fresco coffees (and plenty drinking from a styrofoam on the go). It makes me wonder where that crisis is hiding.
 'Crete is a mother with heavy and aching breasts, yet her children prefer canned milk.' Original quote attributed to Patrick Henot in various books; but just when he originally said it is unknown - my earliest reference is date pre-1993.
For me, this all points to a crisis of identity, rather than a crisis in the economy. People are re-evaluating their spending habits and learning to maintain a standard of living that suits them, using less money. It's much easier for people who don't live in cities to learn to do this. As a reader mentioned on my blog:
"It's hard for people who, in terms of the generations, are not so far removed from peasant life to consider giving up the "luxuries" of modern, urban life. By which I mean that most of the Athenians I know are only one or two generations away from real village life."
This is how I see most Athenians too - the generation that moved away from rural Greece to urban life is still alive in many cases and lives close to its descendants. It is like saying that Athens hasn't 'matured' to the point needed to begin encompassing ideas common in other European cities. We see a kind of 'renovation' of sorts taking place now in Athens, and I think it is catching on, but the crisis (which helped this reconsideration of ideas) is also slowing this process down as it forces people to move away and re-think their life in the city; in other words, their identity.

All photos taken during the recent Easter break.

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