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Monday, 3 August 2015

Urban shift

I bumped into a friend from Athens the other day, one of so many friends I have seen this summer, from beyond the borders of my island and indeed my country: it seems that everyone is coming to Crete for their holiday. He looked very relaxed sitting on the roadside outside his son's office. His son moved to Crete, where his father was born, about two years ago from Athens, for employment opportunities. The road was busy and noisy, but this didn't seem to bother my friend. He was taking in the sweet breeze that descends on the island after sunset on a hot summer's day.

"Καλά είστε εδώ," he said, meaning something like 'you've got it good here', something I've never denied. In Crete, we live well, with good food and a more relaxed lifestyle. But I wanted him to explain what HE meant by this. What did he see?

"It's not a jungle here," he said. "You don't feel like you are in danger, you can live peacefully, without so much stress." He began to tell me about the problems of burglaries in Athens. But we also have an increased crime rate in the area. "Ah, but do burglaries happen at night, too, while you are in the house?" I think not. We generally feel safe at night, behind locked doors. I began to understand what he meant. The impoverishment of Greek citizens has given rise to many problems in Greek society. The rate of burglaries rose during the crisis, as has suicide. Desperation has caused many problems. These problems occur all over the country, but they will naturally be more visible in large urban conglomerations.

My friend lives in one of the areas of Athens that is considered very poor, in terms of median levels of incomes. When we want to measure poverty, income level is one of the most often used indicators. But this is completely misleading, in my opinion. I know the area of Athens where my friend lives, and I would never consider it poor, despite the fact that income levels are low. The concept of poverty has been confused by the media, both Greek and global, and we are led to believe that it has to do with a lack of money. But the media rarely explains how it is that there exist a significant number of people living in impoverished areas without their actually being poor. I usually dismiss news stories appearing in Bloomberg and Financial Times about the Greek economic crisis, because they are very skewed to analyses of figures - but these figures rarely show up the facts, one of which is that Greeks are managing to survive with less money. It's not a fact that the global world wants to become widely known about Greece, for obvious reasons: capitalism thrives on wanting more, not making less.

My friend knows my family well. He's in his seventies, and he grew up with my mother's family in a mountainous remote village. Homes were remotely located, but his family home was the closest to my mother's family home, so the 6 children in his family played with the 5 children in my mother's family. We have always maintained a friendship, even among our children. "You haven't been up there recently, have you? " I admitted that I hadn't. The family property was sold in the late 1950s (or early 1960s?) and my mother's family moved to lower ground. They never ever wanted to talk about it or even to return to the village. When my mother died, I tried to find out more about where she came from, but one of my relatives refused to discuss it, muttering something about πολύ δύσκολοι καιροί (very hard times) and μεγάλη φτώχεια (great poverty). And this is pretty much how my friend described living int he village: great poverty, in very hard times. That's mainly what they remember of their village.

 Although the area where Zorba the Greek was shot on location is not a mountainous village (the villages of Akrotiri and Apokoronas), it was considered very remote and difficult terrain to live in because the area had no water reserves and the land was very rocky. The houses shown in this segment of the film are similar to the rough houses that my parents lived in before they left Greece for New Zealand. Zorba's dance was shot in Stavros, Akrotiri, Hania, Crete. To watch the whole film, click here

For a start, it should be noted that living in a mountain village in Crete was never easy in pre-1970s Crete. Water came from wells and had to be carried to houses. Electricity was non-existent. Houses were rough structures, and animals had to be accommodated too. Families were big and houses small. Most food was produced on hilly slopes; planting and harvesting was a difficult job. People walked to the town starting from the wee hours of the night in order to get to the town in the morning to sell their produce - it took about four hours. They sold produce in exchange for staples that they did not grow, eg rice and sugar. Then there was the walk back home in the afternoon.  This is what people like my friend remember when they think about mountain village life. It was never easy. In contrast, life on the lower slopes was much easier in every respect. But to live on lower ground in Crete, you had to earn money, and since paying jobs weren't plentiful, my friend moved to the city.

In World War 2, Greek village life was destroyed. The Nazis burned houses, confiscated food and killed men. This destruction eroded village life and it was not possible to continue to live in the villages without great hardship. My friend was born in 1940; although he was too young to remember what happened in the village during the war, he lived through the crisis that followed. He eventually moved to Athens in the early 1960s as a young man, where rapid industrialisation was taking place and many labourers' jobs were opening up. He found work in the shipyards of Scaramanga. But he also needed a to live somewhere.

The Greek government did not provide housing for the migrants coming from the rural-urban shift. It could never provide enough housing to accommodate all the people in need: in 1922, the population exchange between Greece and Turkey meant that half a million people left Greece and moved to Turkey, and one-and-a-half million people left Turkey and moved to Greece.  The the second world war struck, and many homes were destroyed and many more were needed once again. Greeks were left to their own devices - they had to sort out their housing needs themselves.

If Greece were a richer nation, perhaps people would plead to the government to build them homes while they slept on the streets or in community spaces until a home was found. But this is not the Greek way. What people did instead was to build their own homes on whatever vacant land they found close to their workplace. This is how Anafiotika was built in the early 1800s, on the slopes behind the rock of the Acropolis in central Athens. Anafiotika is a name taken from the area's original inhabitants who came from the island of Anafi, neighbouring Santorini. Legend has it that their fame in masonry was so well known that they were invited in the mid-1800s by the newly-appointed German King of Greece to build the palaces and grand mansions that Athens was lacking when she became the capital of the newly established Hellenic Republic. Their own island homes had been ravaged by an earthquake, hence the need to move away, or rebuild. They hastily erected their Athens homes overnight, taking advantage of an Ottoman law which stated: "if you could put up a structure between sunset and sunrise, the property was yours." The paradox was that during the day, the Anafiotes built palaces for the rich and powerful, but at night they built simple island dwellings for their poor needy selves.

My friend lives in Paralia Aspropirgou in Athens, close to many of his Cretan friends who also left the island at about the same time as him, and went to work in the same kinds of jobs in the same general area.  The area is industrial in nature, with island communities found among the industrial buildings. The houses were also built at night so that the authorities would not see them sprouting up. They were built with any materials available to the inhabitants: plastic sheeting, wood from pallets, discarded hoardings, old barrels, the rocks from the land itself. The style of housing was similar to the houses that these people left behind in their villages - small and functional with a garden and yard. I know these houses well - my aunt lives in a similar house in the same area as my friend. I have always referred to their neighbourhood as Little Crete. These houses were slowly improved and modernised over time, so that they no longer resemble their origins. The housing communities in Paralia Aspropirgou were considered illegal, but eventually legalised - during my own time in Greece (which is not that long ago, after all!). I witnessed the change in the area when the streets were named and tarmac was laid on the roads. My aunt complained that they never got the plumbing right: whereas once the earth paths soaked up the rain, the water now created mini-floods atop the concrete.

My friend told me about his garden in Athens. "It's a hectare in size. My other son bought the land behind the family home, with a mind to building his own family home, but he decided to build elsewhere instead, and he left me the land, which has a well in it. I grow all my vegetables on it all year round and use the water in the well." Wells are now taxed with the new measures - if the authorities can find them, I guess. Whatever the case, being able to grow your own food and keep chickens for meat is considered very important to people with rural origins. It is a way of being able to control something in your life, which is constantly coming under others' control. And that's why it's important to have a home of your own in Greece, and why Syriza is going to protect the ownership rights of the first home, despite the new measures on foreclosures, which will allow banks to put homes up for auctions. It doesn't matter if your home is large or small, whether you cook using electricity or a wood fire, if you heat it with electricity or, again, the wood fire: it's yours, and will keep you safe during times of trouble.

The Greek urban migration in modern times (1950s) is portrayed poignantly in Alekos Alexandrakis' film Συνοικία το όνειρο (A neighbourhood called Dream). On first coming to the city, people lived in slums. The film shows grinding urban poverty in Athens when people who had recently moved to the city in search of a better life, employment opportunities, and a general moving away from the confines of village life. They established shanty towns. The neighbourhood of Assyrmatos where the film was shot on location was and is still is located on the foothills of Filopapou hill, close to the Acropolis. Some of the images contained in the film are highly disturbing - they show poverty and misery in its raw state. (No wonder my family can't and refuses to this day to talk about it.) The conclusion of the film is that the sense of belonging that one feels in a family is what stops a person from self-destruction.


The film is in Greek, but it is also intelligible to the non-Greek. There are also images in it which will melt the heart of anyone who has visited Athens. Start at point 0.20.00-0.22.00 and watch the young woman leaving the slum where she lives, and see where she ends up. (And if you have patience, you will see who she ended up with.) Another segment starting from 0.40.41 - where are we? There is also another great moment at 1:30:30 right at the end. Browse through the scenes and see the wretchedness of the living conditions of a Greek slum (the area continues to exist but it looks nothing like this now). 
Excerpt from the newspaper article "Ελευθερία" 4 - 8 - 1961, reporting on the censorship of the film "A neighbourhood called Dream" - because it showed 'too much poverty'. Its being banned from being played in Greek cinemas all over the country forced the economic ruin of the director/lead actor Alekos Alexandrakis, as well as his marriage breakdown (with the lead actress). The film was regarded as communistic propaganda by the government of the time.

The Greek films of the 1960s-1970s generally show happy glamorous people living in beautiful large glamorous houses and apartments; this film, made in 1961 with the musical score written by Mikis Theodorakis, was banned, only to be allowed to be shown in CENSORED form (!) due to public outcry among the Greek literati, and only in URBAN centres! Villagers would have been shocked to see the concept of grinding urban poverty that it showed - they thought that they, the rural dwellers, were the true poor. So the film still has resonance today when a severely impoverished Greece is trying to ward off further impoverishment.

Πολιτεία - City: music by Mikis Theodorakis, sung by two great Greek voices, Grigoris Bithikotsis and Stelios Kazantzakis. The album appeared in 1961. The lyrics describe, in its severest form, the feelings of deprivation of people who have recently moved from the village to the city's 'new' suburbs, which were in effect slums. Δραπετσώνα and Βρέχει στη φτωχογειονιά are two striking examples of such lyrics. (Use an online translator if you don't understand the Greek lyrics in the links.) 

Will the Greek city ever escape urban poverty? According to the writers of the new measures that have been enacted by law in the Greek Parliament, they will supposedly force us into the right direction. Perhaps... but most likely not. Greece will remain Greece and Greeks will remain Greeks. Greek city life offers more opportunities for entertainment these days than employment. For city living to be sustainable, we need to create work opportunities. Since Greece has no money at the moment for creation of any sort, state jobs are hard to come by, which means that the private sector will not flourish either. The state is owned by Brussels; we've been under foreign ownership for so long that we are used to it. And they are used to us. Some things don't change.

THE CITY Constantine P. Cavafy (1910)
You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world. 

For more information on the film Συνοικια το ονειρο¨
http://letterboxd.com/film/synoikia-to-oneiro/ for an English synopsis
http://mikros-romios.gr/asyrmatos/ for older photos of the area that the film was shot
http://www.tovima.gr/culture/article/?aid=404776 for a recent review
http://radicaldesire.blogspot.gr/2010/05/1961.html for a full critique

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