The State Of Greece - Riots, Migration & Hope
Posted Feb. 25, 2012, 12:14 p.m.
The State Of Greece – Riots, Migration & Hope
By Rosemary Pavlatou
Everywhere I travel people ask me the same thing, "What is really happening in Greece at the moment?"
Most of what is going on in Greece is actually very similar to what is going on in most of the western world, people trying to get on with their lives as well as they possibly can in the circumstances. Due to the countries financial circumstances, which have been well documented, there have been a great many redundancies which have resulted in a great deal of personal distress. The government seems unable to offer almost any support at the moment and the constant demands for more and new taxes have worn most people's nerves quite thin. The impression that no one pays tax in Greece is rather erroneous.
People do of course pay tax although evasion is and has been for many years wide spread. Those who pay tax however, and are on record, are now being pressed ever harder whilst those who have never really contributed are left in peace. This dichotomy is one of the many reasons for the strikes and the disturbances as so frequently featured in the news.
Protest has been a national past-time in Greece for years. Street processions are staged for all major celebrations from Easter and national remembrance days to historical events and saint’s days. People have for generations traditionally taken an airing or ‘βόλτα’ as it is known in the streets on a Sunday. Cafes are mostly outside as well, so perhaps the Greek population take to the streets more naturally than other nations.
Syntagma Square in Athens has been shown ablaze with hordes of violent protesters on the streets prompting the often asked question of whether it is any longer safe to visit Greece at all. Well the answer to that is a resounding yes, it is safe. Of course there are times and places where caution needs to be employed, as in any large city. The centre of Athens is an expanding, multicultural area and bares all obvious consequences of that, both positive and negative. There are without doubt some places in Athens today where it is probably better not to visit. These, however, are not on the usual tourist map. The main areas through which you might venture to visit the Acropolis or the shopping areas of the city with the main hotels and restaurants are as safe as anywhere in Europe. As to the violence seen in Athens, I was there a short while ago with my husband, who, I noticed, began consulting his watch during our shopping trip. I thought it was for him to remind me to stop burning the plastic but it turned out that he was keeping tabs on time to ensure we were out of the centre before the riots began for that day. It was expected that some group or other were going to gather in the centre and he wisely wanted us out of the way before they got started. Sure enough, as we left, the groups were forming and later in the evening the news reported the violence. It was though very simple to avoid. Another time I was shopping - well I like shopping - with a friend and we saw a procession at the end of the road we were going down. We turned around and went for a welcome cup of coffee elsewhere.
One should remember that almost all of the demonstrations so far have affected just four or five streets in the capital and the rioters tend to attack buildings and the police rather than passers by, so although not pleasant, it seems that there is relatively little gratuitous violence to be feared.
Yachting by the way, in the islands, has not been affected at all, any yachts visiting this summer will, as always, be afforded a generous welcome. Yachting, along with tourism in general, is seen as one of Greece’s successful money earners and in today’s troubled times we need the support of visiting yachtsmen more than ever. Every indication so far is that during the summer of 2012 Greece will again be a popular destination for luxury yachts and no problems for visitors are anticipated.
There have however, been devastating consequences for businesses in the area. Very badly affected have been some of the best and most well known hotels in the city that are situated on the main square. They have been hit time and again; windows have been broken by shouting hordes and several have had encampments on their doorsteps, they must have been thrilled! There has been a consequent cancellation in hotel bookings in the capital but the hoteliers have proudly pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and are carrying on. Business as usual. What else can they do?
Business in general is however ‘not as usual’ as witnessed by the many empty shops in every area. In spite of this, the hotels and shops carry on offering a service to their clients. There are some bargains on offer but the huge cost of constantly repairing and trying to recover the losses make discounts unsustainable.
There have of course been many job losses which have caused a great deal of distress to many. This has sadly increased the numbers to be found on the streets, which makes for uncomfortable moments at times. It has however decreased the number of immigrant workers around the city, many of whom have taken an opportunity offered by the EU to accept financial incentives to be repatriated. One supposes unemployment is easier to live with at home amongst ones own people than elsewhere. For similar reasons, many Greeks are leaving the cities for their ancestral homes. This is not as grand as it might sound however. The history of migration in Greece included a huge post war, government orchestrated, move from outlying islands and villages to two centers of population, one being Athens and the other Thessalonika. The intention was to capitalise on a large workforce and create two industrial centres in order to rescue the post war Greek economy.
As is clear, this industrialization never materialised significantly, leaving large numbers of displaced people in newly populated areas, many of whom yearned for home. Some were forced to leave Greece altogether to seek their fortune in Australia, the US, Canada and Germany. Whether they stayed in a home grown city, or left the country, in almost every case the dream was to return to their home village, which many did and still do during retirement.
Athens is most pleasant in August when a huge portion of the population migrate for the summer to their village. Easter is also not a time to celebrate in a Greek city if you want to keep up local tradition and cook your lamb on a spit, this again creates a huge exodus. Ties with their birthplace is strong within the Greek community and great pride is taken in one's origins.
All of this makes it simple to understand the Greek population and the current trend to return to the land. Many city dwellers maintained their family home in the country and so naturally in this time of crises many are now looking to return to their country idyll. Escaping rents, being able to sow and reap food for free and a more livable existence makes this a desirable option to them.
A recent tv program followed the fortunes of a group of people who had relocated to the country as they discovered that there is a good living to be made there. One family were farming Crocuses, which yield saffron, this has become a huge crop in some areas of Greece, others were involved in fishing, animal husbandry and many other traditional products of Greece. The hope of those living and working already in these country areas is that returning members of the community will have some country skills and some idea of what to do and even possibly bring new modern skills that can be developed for the good of all. Logically this is not an easy option. A short stay is one thing and keeping a chicken for the odd egg does not feed a family long term. Having myself spent the past 25 years trying with, mixed results, to grow fruit and vegetables in my incredibly fertile, sheltered and well watered garden, I know only too well how difficult it would be to do this seriously. Let us say that it is a good thing I have something else to buy a crust with!
However in general It is a very positive. Decentralization and the repopulation of villages and islands will breathe new life into some of the very beautiful and remoter areas of the country. Human nature being what it is, new ventures are bound to evolve. A revival of Greek agriculture would be a hugely positive step for the country's economy.
Although there is huge hardship in Greece at the moment and the news is so depressing with what seems like an endless list of cuts and new taxes, there is still some hope, as Kazanzakis would have it " Hope dies last". We remain ever hopeful that Greece will resolve it's financial woes and will return to some kind of growth in the foreseeable future without too much further hardship.
There is a great wish for change amongst the people here but there is no true direction at the moment. Government representatives are out of favor as witnessed when members of parliament were forced to leave recent celebrations for the return to democracy after the dictatorship of the 70's. The crowds only allowed members of the armed forces to remain on the podia, which was Interesting as the dictatorship in question had been orchestrated by the military. Stories abound of ministers and MP's being jeered and even asked to leave restaurants where they were hither too, most heartily welcome. There is a very strong feeling of their culpability in the dilemma the country now faces but no real suggestion of what should replace the current order or the current incumbents should they be forced to leave.
Like most of the other European governments, Greece's leaders are being asked for a plan for growth which they seem unable to tackle at the same time as making the necessary changes to deal with repayments. So growth feels a long way off at the moment and this at a time when the country is crying out for it.