/ 21 September 2012

Greeks return to the hard life they tried to escape

Fishing provides a lifeline.
Fishing provides a lifeline.

The result is that growth is in freefall – the International Monetary Fund expects Greece's economy to contract by 10% this year, unemployment is at a record 25% and youth unemployment is 55%.

In dire economic times people start adapting, reverting back to the land, bartering and the simple life. This is not new in a country that in the past century has been invaded by Turkey, Germany and Italy, and has suffered hunger and a civil war.

The generations of Greeks who endured much of it are not a lost breed – they are very much alive to tell their story of adversity and ingenuity. Older Greeks are familiar with hard work, having no holidays and working from dawn to dusk to put enough food on the table. Shoes in the 1950s were a luxury.

Mostly, their generation did not have any formal education and many of them recall gruelling stories of the German invasion, the Greek civil war and spells of hunger.

Their children, now about 45 years  old, had some education, followed by a life of tough labour. Some got away from it. Islanders left for the capital Athens, some went to Germany and New York, and today, many live in South Africa. Their dream: a better life for their children and an education.

But these dreams have been shattered by the Greek debt crisis, which was spurred on by the mismanagement of funds, tax evasion and a generally corrupt system.

Alekos Kafaltis
Alekos Kafaltis (52) wakes up every day to the strong smell of cheese. He sleeps on a makeshift bed in a small office next to his cheese factory. His clothes are piled neatly on chairs at the entrance of his office – and now bedroom.

Villagers say Kafaltis makes the best cheese in Limnos, the largest island in the northeastern Medit­erranean and home of the god of fire. Kafaltis's factory is in Plaka, a small village with about 300 inhabitants.

"The smell of cheese seems to disappear when I look at the beautiful view of the ocean from my factory … and, if you look closely, you can see Asia Minor glimmering under the clear skies."

He sheds a tear while he tells that he has mortgaged all his land to keep his business running. He owes the bank €300 000. He also owes €5000 in electricity bills. The land he inherited will be repossessed soon – he has not paid the instalments on his debts in months.

Kafaltis is one of eight children, all of whom inherited land on the island, although most have left this tough life behind. All have an education equivalent to grade six. High school was 50km away in the capital of Limnos, Myrina, and too far to go without a car.

They all worked in the fields, some herded sheep, walking for many kilometres. Others planted vegetables and legumes to stock up for the dry winter months. There were no tractors, only donkeys and horses.

"If you wanted tomatoes in winter, you needed to sun-dry tomatoes in the summer, using sea water. We also went to Alik, a natural salt deposit on the island 15km from Plaka, to collect salt. It doesn't sound far, but when it's you, a donkey and sacks of salt, it's a difficult trip.

"That's why we pushed for a different life for our children. We wanted them to get an education.

"Now their education means nothing. Children with degrees are now returning to the life we worked so hard to get away from."

His 500 sheep graze over a four kilometre area of land to survive and produce enough milk for Kafaltis to make cheese. They produce 200 litres of milk a day, and he says he cannot afford to buy grain to feed them.

"One 50kg sack of grain costs €14. I need 40 sacks a day to feed 500 sheep. That's €560 a day."

He sleeps only four hours a day and has no help. Every day he usually walks 8km, and produces 100 500g cheeses from organic milk. He has three months in which he can produce cheese. As winter approaches, he will have to find other ways to feed his sheep.

He started "renting" land from his neighbours to plant more grain. In return for the land, he pays them with cheese. Who would have thought that bartering would return as a viable financial transaction?

"Sadly, I will have no choice but to slaughter about 100 sheep this year. The bank won't fund my business until I pay up."

He prays for rain – and watches television where he hears economists talking about unproductive Greeks. "Since the age of eight, I have worked in the fields producing goods and making cheese. I am not unproductive."

Bad rainfall this year hurt his business, and the drop in demand for his cheese because of the financial crisis and the increase in taxes have added to his plight.

Kafaltis is one of many Greeks suffering because of the debt crisis. But in many ways he is better off than most Greeks who live in the cities. He has access to land and food.

Vasilis Rodos
Meet Vasilis Rodos, an electrical engineer. "I worked in Athens for many years, leaving my mother in Limnos. We used to send her money from Athens. We always had work. In fact, we turned business away before the 2008 crisis."

Embarrassed, he admitted to calling his mother when he was desperate for cash. "I started asking my mother to send me €20 and every now and again €50 to survive."

His business collapsed and, at the age of 27, he returned to the island. He now helps his mother in her small grocery store in Plaka, where you will find him with his legs on the counter watching television and waiting for a customer.

He apologises, with a smile, saying his legs hurt from the physical labour he endured all day. He then proudly points to the vegetables in the store. Bright red tomatoes, potatoes and watermelons spread across a wooden table.

Rodos says he had no choice but to revert to fishing and cultivating land. "I am 28 years old now; I know I will want to get married someday. Who will marry me? I don't have money. How will I feed my children and give them a decent life?

"The truth is I am lucky. At least I have land. People in the cities have fewer options."

Athina Dimitriadou
Athina Dimitriadou is 33 years old and lives with her retired parents in Athens. She has a master's degree in industrial psychology. Most Greek youths have degrees, sponsored by the government, thanks to their parent's tax contributions.

"I've never worked as a psychologist. I couldn't find work so I carried on studying, doing odd jobs to survive. I painted my neighbour's gate to fund this trip to the island and, luckily, I'm staying with a friend so I don't have many expenses while I'm here."

She is surprised that I have been working for seven years in South Africa and am already reasonably successful at 29. She is even more surprised that I worked to pay my university fees.

While we are searching for shells on the beach, she says she makes necklaces using an old fishing net. She stole into an old man's vegetable garden and helped herself to it, which was keeping the fowls out. He laughed when she told him what she had done.

 There is a big demand in Plaka for her rustic necklaces, and eventually she started bartering her necklaces in return for a drink and sometimes even for a euro.

"Are there jobs in South Africa? I would even move to Tanzania or the Congo to find work.

"When the crisis is over, I will be almost 40 with no work experience … who will hire me then? Corporates will prefer fresh graduates."

Eliza Vlachou
From the United Kingdom, Eliza Vlachou (29) makes a long-distance call to Plaka to her friends. She cries on the phone, saying she wishes she could have joined them for the summer holidays. She moved to the UK in January and within three months found a work at a marketing firm.

But her sister Kiki (25) was unemployed for a year in the UK before returning home. She now goes to Moscow and does window displays for a Greek clothing brand.

This is not the first time Greeks have left to find better opportunities. In fact, history tells us that, every 30 years, Greeks leave for economic and political reasons.

Dimitris Daniil
Dimitris Daniil is a strong, solid man barely giving away his 76 years of age. His clothes still wet from the sea, he carefully cuts open a sea urchin and offers it to me with homemade vinegar and freshly baked bread.

He swims 300m with goggles and flippers and uses a handcrafted stick to collect the sea urchins. They are a welcome-home gift for his grandson, Giorgos, who moved to South Africa last year and is visiting Limnos.

At the age of 13, Daniil went to herd sheep for a farmer 40km from Plaka. At night he slept with the flock in their shelter. He worked for an entire year without seeing his family and, in return for his hard work, the farmer gave him a suit and one sheep. He did this year after year until he was 19.

He then worked at a coal mine in northern Greece. At the age of 21, he left for the United Arab Emirates. It was 1956. He worked on industrial ships for 25 years and as a diver, going to dangerous depths, to build thick concrete sea walls. He was  working at least 13 hours a day.

He left his wife and two children behind, visiting them only once a year. He religiously paid into the state pension scheme. Now his pension has been cut by 40%.

He also saved money to build a "big house" – in fact, four small two-bedroomed flats. His family now has to pay €2 000 a year in tax on this property, besides the rates and taxes he has been paying for years.

Daniil left Greece for the same reason as his grandson – for a better life. Giorgos is lucky; as a civil engineer he found work in Johannesburg within three weeks.

He grumbles: "My work permit took nine months to be approved. It was a difficult piece of paper to get. South Africa doesn't make it easy for foreigners even if you have a master's degree in engineering."

While we sat in the living room, I recounted how fortunate I am that my parents left Limnos in 1987 or else I would be just another unemployed 29-year-old without any work experience. I proudly tell them about the opportunities in South Africa.

I am interrupted by Giorgos, who points at the television, carrying a report on the Marikana massacre. I watch in horror while the police shoot at miners. It is August 16.

Daniil says people, young and old, are returning to the islands to cushion the effects of the crisis.

Pantelis Kafaltis
Kafaltis's father, 93-year-old Pantelis, says: "This is how we lived – with no finance and no banks that took our money. We survived and we weren't in debt."

As he walks to the top of a hill, surprisingly fast for his age, he shows me his family's "wealth" and says: "Now my son has mortgaged all our land. He wanted funding for the cheese factory and now we will lose it all."

Pantelis tells me how my mother Anastacia was known in the village for her hard work and her ability to take on labour done only by men.

I now understand why she yells at me when I waste food.

Our quality of life has improved greatly – but not even a generation ago it was our parents who were having it tough.

Now it is the turn of the younger generation, returning and reverting to a life of hardship to survive.