Saturday, 3 August 2013

Semi-rural very poor

Most of my extended Greek family in Crete is, by western standards, 'rural poor', which often means that they live in a rudimentary kind of house, living off a small income made by selling their own produce, combined with a pension of some sort if they are senior citizens; their daily routine involves subsistence farming to a certain extent. My parents came from such a category of people.

My remaining Cretan family is, according to western standards again, mainly 'urban skilled upper working class-lower middle class' - the men are employed in some kind of trade (eg mechanic, engineer) while their wives may or may not work outside the home. Most of those that work outside the home are not insured, while the others are often registered as 'farmer', due to the pension scheme they belong to (people who own some kind of land - usually having inherited it - and live in the countryside can be registered as farmers, paying into the OGA pension scheme for health insurance purposes). Then there are my Athenian relatives, who were always very difficult to classify because the western social class classification system never really applied for them anyway (Greece has never really had an established middle class). These days, in the pervading socio-political climate, it is even harder to classify them into established social strata - their property ownership does not match their income or occupational status.
The worst thing that can be said about the Greek bourgeoisie is that it doesn't exist. The Greek self-called 'aristocracy' are in reality the few real bourgeois - from well-to-do families. The nouveaux-bourgeois are in actual fact European-costumed (and bewildered) peasants. And the few remaining peasants are perhaps the only genuine Greeks. 
The word 'poor' does not have a standard global meaning; it all depends on what kind of country you are talking about: western industrialised, developing and undeveloped countries all have different definitions of poverty. Haridimos (H) and Yiouli (Y) are some of my poorest Cretan relatives with young children (the other poor ones no longer have dependent children). If I were to phrase the term in the Greek context, I would class H and Y as 'semi-rural very poor' (SRVP). They live in an urbanised village, which acts as a political centre for a large, predominantly rural area.

What does it mean to be SRVP in the Greek context? For a start, it doesn't mean that you go hungry. In Crete, that's hardly likely. Y keeps a garden in the back yard of their rented home and also raises chickens on inherited land. Secondly, to be SRVP does not necessarily entail debt; rural poor Greeks generally don't use loans, let alone credit cards. They are, generally speaking, money-poor and resource-rich. H's work has now been reduced to 2 or 3 days a week (alternately) at a small private enterprise. Y never really entered the work force; apart form irregular stints in cleaning and packing jobs, she has been, for the most part, a housewife.
On the question of their heritage, I would separate the Greeks into three categories - the aware, the semi-aware and the unaware. Those (very few) in the first category have first-hand knowledge. They have felt the awful burden of their heritage. They are aware of their ancestors' inhuman level of perfection in both word and form. And this crushes them... The second category (the majority) do not have direct knowledge. but they've 'heard say'. They are like the sons of the famous philosopher, who are unable to understand his works, but see that those who do know them respect them and prize them. It bothers them, yet the same fame flatters them. They always swell with pride - when talking to others... The third category - the unaware - are chaste and pure (meaning uneducated...) They've heard about the ancient Greeks in myths and legends that they have absorbed like popular folktales. It is these pure types who created the folk tradition and folk art. These alone lived without the anxiety of their heritage.
But SRVP does include notions often included in international standards that describe similarities among very poor people, eg 'low educational background'; neither H nor Y finished junior high school. H and Y also exhibit other features associated with the western notion of being very poor: they smoke a lot, they eat a lot (Y is now obese, which doesn't help her diabetes), and they like to drink, albeit their own home brew (but they are also food-and-drinkers - drinking is never just about the alcohol). They tend to have company on most nights at their home, or to be entertained in a similar way at someone else's home. They send their children to school, but admit they have problems keeping up with their schoolwork. They don't send them to extra-curricular activities, apart from afternoon English lessons (in Greece, private afternoon language lessons are generally regarded as just as compulsory as state school lessons - but special times call for special prices, and even these have fallen). They use the free public health services at all times, but don't necessarily maintain medical check-ups; dental work is delayed, postponed or simply cancelled, judging from Y's periodontitis, which the doctor blamed on her smoking (there are some habits you cannot stop, Y says). They don't own computers, and they don't have internet - this can be partly explained by the fact that they don't have a landline (to cut costs, they only have a cellphone, which is cheaper to maintain). They use one (old) car between them.
The wood-fired heater - knowing Y, she probably painted it to clean it up before she started using it.
Paying the rent is sometimes a struggle, Y told me, as H earns very little from his combined income from the (now) part-time job, together with some agriculture-related income (avocado and honey sales). They recently moved into a new rental home, because the previous landlord didn't want to lower their rent, nor would he let them drill holes into the walls to allow for the installation of a wood-fired heater. During the long harsh very cold winter of 2011-2012, they did not use heating oil (due to the high cost), and they had great trouble keeping themselves warm (the one electric radiator they had broke down). Their present ground-floor semi-detached home suffers in similar ways to other village houses: it is generally not well maintained, with cheap materials used in its construction. But the rent is cheaper, it is bigger and it contains a wood-fired heater (it came with the property), which uses the wood from their olive grove. Y uses it for all her cooking needs in the winter (it has both a top element and an oven). Holidays away from the island are non-existent of course, but they regularly go to the beach, treating themselves to a styrofoam coffee, and they visit friends and relatives on other parts of the island when the opportunity arises.

If anything goes really wrong, Y said, they can always move in with her mother in law, whose house is far from modern - it's more a cluster of rooms that don't connect with each other by a door, only by a wall. But it's a house with a roof, Y says, and it'll keep us dry and comfortable. Things can go wrong so easily, as the Greek saying forewarns: Υγεία πρώτ' απ'όλα. (Health before everything else.)

My recent visit to H and Y was on a happy occasion because Y had been asked by a neighbour to look after her toddler, now that childcare services have closed down for the remaining summer. It means a little extra money coming into the household to lighten the burden. I'll buy myself a new pair of flip-flops, Y said, laughing, as she showed me a hole in the pair she was wearing. We talked all night, over home-made 'fridge cake' (made with chocolate cream over custard cream, topped with jelly), crisp garden-fresh lightly salted cucumber and raki. We asked them to come over to our place one day too so that we can reciprocate their kindness. But my visit also left me with a sinking feeling of helplessness. H and Y can'o improve their lot; neither can the state help them at this period of time. There are hardly any state benefits available for the SRUP in Greece, apart from some tax relief (eg they don't pay property tax because they don't own a home, or any solidarity tax), a small family benefit and some kind of rent rebates.

Part of H's and Y's view - the neighbour's house isn't in a much better state than their own. The brown door is the main bathroom, an outside toilet next to the outdoor seating area, below the washing line.. The stark concrete walls are supporting columns that were built over the existing property to construct another level over the old house.
On the face of it, H and Y sound like other poor people around the world struggling to pay their bills. Cretan poverty could be said to be charactersed by an attempt to maintain a dignified lifestyle, in the same way that the very poor of the rural sector were raised in: the previous rural generation represents the transition in Greece from rural to semi-rural, when many villages were urbanised, or completely deserted as people moved from the countryside to the city. The Cretan poor still maintain and apply that set of skills, knowledge, practices and traditions involved in the Mediterranean lifestyle, which comprises diet to a large extent; many of these skills and traditions are centred around the way of growing, collecting and processing food, preparing and eating it communally. Bringing food from the landscape to the table, which encompasses the experience and transmission of this set of knowledge, involves a psychology that is inherent in the formation of the Mediterranean identity, ensuring the future of shared cultural heritage. Home cooking, whether using cheaply bought not-so-highly-processed ingredients or homegrown produce, is still a common practice.
The lack of any system in Greece prevented the proper development of even the class system. The abruptly urbanized peasant is the saddest creature in Greece. His life has completely degenerated. He has lost all his traditional patriarchal background – without having acquired anything in its place. Nor did the Greek bourgeois class have any tradition of note to offer him – and even if it had, a few thousand bourgeois couldn’t possibly absorb a few million peasants in the space of one generation. And so the urbanized peasant lives in a void... 
In the meantime, I can only offer a bit of help to H's and Y's kids in their English lessons, some short-term relief for a long-term problem. Some situations are irreversible.

All quotes taken from "On the Unhappiness of Being Greek", Nikos Dimou, 1975, reprinted in 2102, first in German, then English and French when writing about Greece and the Greeks came in vogue.

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