Thursday, 29 September 2011

Going away

Whilst Greece is sinking into the crisis, the sun keeps on shining, as if she wants to warm up the shadows in the hearts of the desperate people before the dark winter starts.

On the island international charter flights still arrive to disgorge loads of tourists: summer was so bad in the West-European countries that lots of people want to see some sun before they enter the cold winter.

However the largest groups of tourists have left the island: the small number of Greeks who could still afford a holiday and the masses of tourists who wanted to spend their holidays at the seaside. Now the island has regained its quietness and it is preparing for the winter. Grapes, figs, and walnuts are greedily harvested.

Spring was cool, wet and unpredictable, for a Greek summer we didn’t have many heat waves, but September was lovely, hot and warm. Last week a front with thunderstorms passed the island with loud concerts of thunder, splashing lightshows, only a short serious downfall and some small rain showers. In the West of the island only some droplets reached the dry earth.

In Soha, close to Leonidio on the Peloponnesus, this bad weather front hit full force, but it didn’t destroy, it left a present. The heavy rain unveiled an old Mycenean cemetery from the 14th century BC - or as the BBC likes to say: before common era - and in some graves were found various bits of old earthenware.

More days followed with happy white and gray clouds chasing each other across the blue sky. Then the sun picked up her dominant place in the sky and autumn seems still far away.

But hidden in the hearts of the people autumn has long started. The Greek people suffer from increasing prices and taxes, bankruptcies and unemployment. More and more retired people return to their villages in the country and on the islands where they came from ¬ because there they still can grow their own food.

Greeks from the mainland (and later the islands) have a long tradition of emigration. Since the Eighth Century BC (BCE) they left to settle on islands and foreign coasts as far as the Black Sea and Egypt. Later many fled back because of political mayhem after the fall of the Byzantine Empire in the Fifteenth century. Then they returned in the Nineteenth century to Egypt and Minor Asia to increase their commerce.

In the Twentieth century it was poverty and oppression that chased them even further into the world. In 1910 a quarter of Greek manpower left for faraway countries like America, where in 1914 more than 35.000 Greeks arrived. A beautiful movie about this emigration is America America made in 1963 by the Greek/American director Elia Kazan, who himself in 1913 emigrated with his parents to New York.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire (1923) it was not so easy to enter America because of stricter immigration laws. So lots of Greeks then went to Canada, Egypt, Australia, South Africa and South America. Between 1940 and 1974 more than one million Greeks took off with their suitcases. A large number of them however didn’t go that far; but went to work in other European countries. For instance, in 1973 there were over 430.000 Greeks working in West Germany.

Since the end of the Twentieth century Greece itself became a country for immigration. Along with lots of Greeks who returned to their country it was Albanians and Egyptians who came to fill low paid jobs. Now they can all return home, unemployment rises like a barometer going mad.

The history of the last centuries on Lesvos is all the same: in the Twentieth century poverty made lots of people leave the beautiful island, leaving semi-abandoned or empty villages behind, like Ambeliko or Milies.

The amateur historian Vasilis Vasilos became fascinated by stories of the immigrant Lesviot people in Australia, where most Greeks are gathering in clubs according from which Greek region they come from. You even have clubs with people from the same villages like Antissa, Agiasos or Mytilini. Vasilis started to collect their stories and photographs, which has resulted now in two books: Journeys of Uncertainty and Hope and Our Homeland: Lesvos.

His website Syndesmos (where you can find more information about the books) lists which people departed from which village. It is of course not the entire list of emigrants but it gives you an idea of how many families were broken because of the immigration. Some of them have written stories of their lives, which are also on the website. They’re success stories of people who had no future on Lesvos and by very hard work in Australia made new businesses and thus created a dignified existence.

It is fascinating to read these stories. But also it is sad to know why these people left their roots in the Lesviot soil to start a new life far away from their country. Children departed in order that their parents had less mouths to feed; boys were exploited on the tobacco fields or didn’t earn a dime keeping sheep, girls didn’t want to have to marry poor farmers and followed their brothers on the long travels to the unknown.

Greece is again at the border of a heavy crisis. Already on Lesvos, youngsters were leaving for a better future in the big cities of the mainland. Young people are now reaching even further: they try to go abroad for study and better work.

I am wondering if we are at the beginning of an era when bitter poverty will again force many Greeks to pack their bags to find a better life elsewhere. But wherever they will go, their hearts will remain in Greece.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

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