Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Family feud and the Iggleza

When Greeks fight among themselves, it's often about in-family issues. This is of course not the image projected abroad about the Greek family. But Greeks do fight quite a lot among their own kin. What is there to fight about in a family? Property rights. It's always been like this. And if you search deep enough, you will find a property-fuelled family feud in every Greek family. (People that claim they don't have one have either forgotten it, or are ignoring it, or possibly don't realise that they have been duped.)

The Iggleza* in me tells me that if I can prove that something is mine, then it's mine, but if I can't prove that something is mine - even though I may believe that it is - then I must never think of it as mine. But that's just me, and I'm an Iggleza. I was taught to think like this by my family... who raised me in New Zealand... where I was educated... to think like that. What is known in English as 'common law' is known in Greek as 'Αγγλικό δίκαιο' - literally, 'English justice'.

There's a heap of Greek land and property out there that I would like to lay claim to. But nothing is in my name, and more importantly, nothing is my parents' names either. But I know that it was rightfully mine. But I aslo know that I will not be able to claim this property because I don't have any documentation for it. I like to know what is mine, and I don't mind sharing it. But that does not extend to land and property. I'm an Eggleza, and my home is my castle, not a hotel. So if land or property is not mine and mine alone, then I don't want to have anything to do with it.

My husband Dimitri (an only child) has similar views. His parents were both born in the same village, which means that somewhere in that village, there were at least two family homes that he could have inherited something from. Instead, he got, in his words, από τα τρία το μακρύτερο ('the longest of the three', ie nothing). He has never asked for anything that he knew he couldn't prove to be his, not even that room in his father's home, where he used to store his tools for working in the fields, which had been 'promised' to him - ie a spoken word, with no documents finalising anything:

- Hi Uncle (he said, speaking on the phone to one of his father's five siblings), the key doesn't seem to be working for the door where I keep my tools.
- I changed it.
- You changed it?
- Yeah.
- Er, why?
- How am I supposed to know if you gonna steal anything of mine?
- Can I get my tools out?
- Yeah.
- How?
- When I come over, I'll take them out for you.

That particular uncle lived in Ohio at the time (yes, that Ohio - we aint got no Ohio in Crete). Eventually, my husband got his tools out of the room of his paternal family home, and never entered that house again. He passes the house every time he goes to his parents' village (we live only 10 kilometres from it) when he goes to his olive field. Not once has he shown bitterness towards his uncle who now lives here with his wife. They don't live in the paternal family home - their house was made with US dollars, somewhere in Hania. When you enter it, you think you're somewhere in Ohio (according to my idea of an American home, influenced by the glossy magazines of yesteryear which I used to browse through). There's a lot of glass in it, explained by the fact that they never had children.

Initially, Dimitri did feel some bitterness about this situation because he is the only offspring of those six siblings that never owned a house in the village. He has inherited many patches of land, but there is not a single piece of land - despite some patches being very big, in Cretan terms - that can legally be used to build a house on. He ended up having to buy land to build on. After 35 years of renting, he felt a sense of relief that one can only sense when they never lived in a home of their own. My parents also rented a home, but not for 35 years. I too have rented, but only for 3-4 years. 35 is quite a different story, especially when, while you are building a home, your father suddenly dies and leaves you with all the debts involved in the building costs, as well as a beat-up taxi that Dimitri almost torched (his mother stopped him) because it was causing him so many problems. Dimitri ended up selling a piece of the land where the house was built, which he and his parents had bought, in order to continue to build the home we now live in, making our garden smaller (I often refer to the neighbour's house as the chicken coop that never was). I was lucky, Dimitri once told me. I sold off one third of that piece of land for the same price that I paid for the whole piece. That's what EU entry brought - a higher perceived value of a piece of land that, up until Dimitri bought it, was seen as less valuable, and there was considerable difficulty in selling it (that's another equally juicy story, but for another time).

Since building his own home, and later creating a family that he is proud of showing off, he easily forgets his past troubles with his kin. But every once in a while, something happens, a word is spoken, and the shit hits the fan. This time, it hit via his latest pet project, the garden he created in one of his maternally-inherited fields, after I posted some photos of it on facebook:

our main garden has moved to one of our village fields this year
Posted by Maria Verivaki on Saturday, 22 August 2015
A lot of people use facebook to spy on others. I am aware of this, but I am also a long-time user of facebook and I generally know how to protect myself. I use the rules of the Iggleza to know where I stand. In this case, I know that I cannot make any comment on this situation because this field in the countryside belongs to my husband, not to me, and even though it is fully registered with the authorities under his name and we can also pass it on legally to our children, the family feud in question is not my concern. I will simply be one of the beneficiaries. If I didn't care, I would not even bother to learn the story behind a comment that appeared on the post.

On this particular occasion, I have lived through the story over the years, so I cannot claim to be a passive observer. I know what hurt and anger this has caused over the short period that the family feud developed. Like all Greek tragedies, it was avoidable. Like most Greek tragedies, there are solutions. It's all got to do with negotiation, a term rarely linked to any meaning in Greece. And so it goes on - but it can stop: if only both parties decide to negotiate. (And eventually, I believe that they will.)

In order to understand how this kind of issue can arise, you have to understand that the idea of καταπάτηση (literally, stepping onto someone else's land) is as old as the hills in Greece. Land is owned by someone or perhaps a family. The plot is divided among the inheritors once the original owner dies. This is most often the children, but it can also be other members of a family, in the case of those landowners who did not have children of their own. It is rare for documents to exist in these kinds of dealings; they are all done informally, mainly verbally, and if there is proof of ownership (ie documentation) in someone's possession, it probably didn't go through legal channels, but was simply written up between the parties. In some cases, one side could not even read it because they were illiterate. People have killed each other over land ownership. It was easy back then to pull the wool over another person's eyes.

Nowadays, purchases of land all require documentation because nowadays all land must be registered. But amongst villagers, the old transaction method for buying/selling land can still be used because not all land is registered. In the case of unregistered land, siblings, cousins, and others may own a piece of land that borders another sibling's, cousin's or other's piece. When one party wishes to sell (or to buy), they often inform the neighbour who may wish to buy it from (or sell it to) them in order to extend the land under their ownership (or get rid of it for monetary gain, because they no longer have any need for the land).

The original land in question was part of a bigger plot that was owned by... was it Dimitri's maternal grandfather, or his maternal grandmother? At any rate, it was divided in two: the 'upper' part (further away from the main village road) was given to the son (Dimitri's uncle), and the 'lower' part (close to the main village road) was given to the daughter, my mother-in-law, Dimitri's mother. (There were other children too, but they all died in infancy and one was killed in WW2 by being shot in the back by a Nazi while he was sitting in the local cafeneio. His father - Dimitri's grandfather - had been killed by execution only a short while before that.) The field was all planted with olive trees, and the upper part still is. Dimitri and his mother (his father had died by then) removed the olive trees form their part (the lower part) and planted orange trees instead.

This is not the only field that was passed on to my husband. Due to the piecemeal nature of land ownership in Crete, some patches of land that a person owns may never be used. You simply can't maintain everything you own when you end up with so many pieces here and there. So when Dimitri's uncle (the owner of the upper part) asked him if Dimitri would 'sell' another patch of land under Dimitri's ownership with just 7 olive trees on it, so that the uncle could extend his own 7-olive-tree patch (he would then have a total of 14 trees on one piece of land), Dimitri obliged, by being given a similar number of trees from the upper part, at the point where the upper and lower parts bordered each other. This seemed to be a fair deal on both sides, and was accepted by the uncle's children, Dimitri's cousins. The trees that Dimitri acquired in exchange for the trees that he handed over were planted in two πλάτες (singular: πλάτη) which we could translate as 'terraces' for the purposes of this post. Dimitri says that his uncle told him to take two terraces.

Now, here is where the παραξήγηση (misunderstanding) lies: what constitutes a terrace of trees? Before I explain that one, I have to explain why we put up a fence around our piece of land, despite the fact that no other piece of land in the area has a fence that rings right round the field. The Iggleza in me likes fences: fences make good neighbours. Most Cretans will not put up a border around their land patches, claiming high costs (yes, it is expensive). The most that anyone will do if they want to put up a fence is to place some chicken wire around their land supported by loosely planted posts. Chicken wire is flexible, it can break, it can be torn by force, etc, etc. Posts can also be 'transplanted'. The reason why we decided to put up a proper fence around the property is because Dimitri decided that he would like to own more fruit trees, and the olive-turned-orange grove was the perfect place to plant those trees. These trees have now borne fruit - apart from watermelon in the summer and bananas and apples int eh winter, we don't buy any fruit. Coupled with our vegetable garden (I don't buy vegetables except for leeks because we don't plant them), we save a lot of money by growing our own fruit and veg.

So when Dimitri decided to build a fence around his property, he had to work out the borders. We actually do have documentation showing proof of ownership (and we think the cousin does too, but we don't know for sure, because we don't ask other people about their business - the Iggleza in me just minds her own business - and people don't offer to tell you either), but a piece of paper (or even  a GIS screenshot) just gives you the theory. You need to see how borders are actually marked in order to understand how land is claimed. Some people use a pile of stones. Others have built stones to resemble a wall. Other plant a stake in the ground, others use specific trees as markers. There is also the method described above, with chicken wire.

But all the above-mentioned forms of demarcation are subject to 'changes'. Dimitri has related many funny incidents that he has seen over the years, of 'moving borders' (which give way to the καταπάτηση described above). On another piece of land, he noticed that another uncle had planted baby olive trees right against the chicken wire on the uncle's side of the fence. As the trees grew, the chicken wire bent, and... lo and behold, his uncle's field grew larger, because he kept moving the chicken wire to accommodate the trees. Being the nice guy he is, Dimitri didn't say anything to the uncle. He asked his cousin to deal with the situation, and to this day, he has no problem with the cousin in question. When Dimitri wasn't using one of his fields, he drove to it one day to find it planted with broad beans. Knowing that the broad beans needed to be watered, he hid his car one day and waited to pounce on the planter - who turned out to be none other than his uncle. And so on, and so forth. Every Greek has a funny story to tell about cases of καταπάτηση.

Getting back to our issue: what constitutes a terrace of trees? He had told his cousin at various times that he was thinking about placing a fence around the land. There was no question that he owned two terraces of trees. By terrace, Dimitri took that as meaning something resembling a step on a staircase. The upper part of the field is located on a slight gradient, which requires the land where olive trees are planted to resemble a staircase, for ease of harvesting the olives. So when he marked out where to place the fence, he used the end of the staircase as the point where the border would be placed; in other words, the border was located at the point where the next step would start.

Sounds simple. So where's the catch? According to his cousin, the word πλάτη (terrace) means something else. It's not defined by the place where one row ends and another begins. It's defined by... I couldn't understand that one. At any rate, her meaning of the word gives the idea that that we have committed the ultimate land crime: καταπάτηση. We are transgressors! How much land have we stolen? Apparently, it's 25 metres (the length of the border, by 1m (the width believed by the cousin to have been transgressed), divided by 2 because on one side of the field, we have not transgressed. In other words, we are talking about a triangle of land totalling a 12.5 square metres. Rather than argue with his cousins about the meaning of the word πλάτη, my husband (in close consultation with the preceding owner of the land - his mother), decided to accept the transgression, which was caused not just by our not understanding her definition of πλάτη, but also because we pulled a straight line from one end to the other. In other words, it was also due to a mistake.

You may wonder why Dimitri didn't warn his cousin that a fence was going to go up. I want you right this minute to pretend that Zoe Konstantopoulou is his cousin. By the time she decides what the accurate definition of πλάτη is, πολλοί γαϊδάροι θα έχουνε ψοφήσει, as my mother used to say (literally, 'many donkeys will have died'; figuratively, we can't waste time waiting); we didn't have the luxury of so much time. One could say we pulled a fast one over her, but was that really our intention? We had told her we were intending to build a fence around our property, and she could have come to see it for herself... if only she actually lived here (she lives elsewhere in Greece). So many Greek landowners live far away from their land, and they treat the land as if they own it, despite not having any documentation for it. They are just waiting for a chance to sell it at a high price. The owner of another field next to ours lives in Australia. He hires local help to maintain his olive grove, and (I think) he gets some of the olive oil produced from the harvest sent to him in Australia, but he too hasn't fenced his field. Why he hasn't done this, I cannot answer. It's just very provocative to think that you can be an absentee landowner and expect everyone to keep off your land just because it isn't theirs. That's not the way the real world works. That's why we put up a fence around our orange orchard: there were apricots on the tree one day, and the next day there weren't.

The cousin discovered that the fence had been put up when she came one day to visit her field. It just happened to be the day that the builder was there. So the deed was almost done. I suppose she came to see the end result. While the builder was laying the initial foundations for the retaining wall that was going to support the πλάτη, he called my husband:

- Hi Dimitri.
- Hi Yani. How's the building going?
- It was going fine until a few minutes ago.
- Why? What's wrong?
- Do you know where I am?
- You're not at the field?
- No.
- You're not in the hospital? (Dimitri was terrified that the builder had had an accident.)
- No.
- The where the bloody hell are you?
- I'm at the police station. Someone's reported you for building without a licence. 

The builder was eventually released without any other incident taking place, and Dimitri was also not bothered by anyone else about this incident. Planning permission states that any time when concrete is poured onto land, a licence must be requested to do this. We never requested a licence. We knew that a licence was required but we decided to risk it. It was considered an archaic law and not always followed to the letter. When it was ascertained that we were building a fence and not a house, and the documentation for land ownership was shown, the matter was dropped. We did not request a licence because it would have cost 1,500 euro to get one (!) and we would have to wait for at least 6 months (more likely longer) till it was issued (!!), and the construction budget was calculated to at least 10,000 euro (!!!) - the fence cost us close to 15,000 euro in the final count. Sometimes you do what you gotta do.

Who might have 'planted' us to the police? We have our suspicions. Dimitri was friendly with another builder who sometimes did odd jobs for him. When he saw someone else doing building work on our land, he ----. I was going to say he got jealous. That fence looked big, and expensive, and above all, nice. The other builder had lost his privileged position with my husband: there were better builders out there, after all.

Since we accepted the transgression that we had stepped on someone's land, even if by accident and unintentionally, we tried to make up for it by offering trees from another piece of land that bordered with theirs. After some humming and hawing, the matter was left to lie. The outcome of that was - and here the feud begins - that the families cut ties with one another after being as thick as thieves for nearly 60 years. All for the sake of 12.5 square metres of land that no one is doing anything with (we haven't planted anything in that disputed piece of land - it just supports the wall). That facebook comment was the first time in - how many years? - that the transgression has resurfaced. Via the Iggleza who should not have anything to do with the matter - because both the land and the transgression do not belong to her.

I showed the comment to my husband. I showed the comment to our children. They in turn took a laptop downstairs to the grandmother and showed it all to her too. She kept a cool disposition throughout the explanations of what had taken place. I expect that she will eventually hold the key to the resolution of this crisis. She's 91, and she has seen many more serious crises in her life. This one will be child's play for her. I am sure it will be played out soon. Let's wait and see.

In the meantime, I am enjoying the fruits of our labours on that field. We have all contributed to our new garden. My 13 and 14 year old children pulled out a wheelbarrow full of rocks from each hole that was dug in that land and is now growing a tomato or pepper plant in it. We have oranges, peach, nectarine, fig, mango, lychee, plum, lemon trees which gives us a wide variety of fruit. We grew a zillion green beans on it this year, as well as peppers, tomatos, corn, zucchini and cucumber. The field gives my husband a chance to get away from suburbia. By cajoling the children to come and help him with the field work, they have subconsciously learnt how to be farmers. More importantly, they have attached themselves to the land. If you don't live near your land, you will be unable to nurture a relationship with it, except as a memory. I have no intention of letting anyone take that joy away from my family. Accusations are one thing, sabotaging our daily life with other people's misery is quite another, in this rather selfish world that we are all living in.

*** *** ***

*Iggleza = Cretan pronunciation of Engleza (Εγγλέζα); - literally, 'English woman'; figuratively, 'someone who thinks like an English person', a term Greeks often use to describe me (ie when they think I am not acting/thinking like a 'real' Greek). 

Έλα απόψε, σαν Εγγλέζα, φως μου να φερθείς (1940)
Έλα απόψε, σαν Εγγλέζα, φως μου να φερθείς,  Come tonight, like an English woman, be my light
στις οχτώμιση το βράδυ, ραντεβού να `ρθεις, at eight thirty in the evening, come to see me on a date
Στο στενόμακρο δρομάκι, τ’ ανηφορικό, To the long and narrow path, the steep one,
θα σε περιμένω να `ρθεις, κάτι να σου πω, I will be waiting for you, to tell you something
Θέλω πια να σου μιλήσω, σκέτα, παστρικά, I just want to talk to you, nice and neat,
όλα της καρδιάς μου, να σου πω τα μυστικά, everything in my heart, to tell you my secrets

The reference to the time (8.30) is what differentiates the Greek from the English woman. The English woman will be on time.

On another note, the English accent continues to mesmerize Greeks. You may be speaking a heap of BS, but they just love to hear that accent. It's like listening to the Queen and they think she is speaking to them.

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