Thursday, 12 April 2018

Mountain village (Ψηλό χωριό)

Easter in Crete, spring in the village, the dream of many. Beautiful scenery compliments the aroma of slow-cooked lamb roasting in the open air: wild flowers fill the fields and roadsides, fresh foliage tops the canopies of the trees, the last remnants of the winter's snow are slowly melting away in the cool sunshine. The sheep bleat, the birds twitter, but the human presence is less this year - and the children almost non-existent. The village sounds very quiet. Even the permanent residents of the village - the staunchly proud villagers, γέννημα θρέμμα, who swear they will never leave this place, and they built three-story homes to prove it, filling it with spouses, babes and fitted kitchens - have gone elsewhere to celebrate this Holiest Day of Obligation. Easter came early this year, too early for the Athenians to tear themselves away from the warmth of their concrete homes, too early for the seasonal tourists to go swimming in the Mediterranean, too early even for the Cretan to set up the outdoor furniture, out of the fear of more Sahara dust and red rain: better to clean the patio, than to clean both the patio and the furniture.

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The neighbourhood is silent. No one lives here anymore. No one. At all. A dozen or so families live on the other side, but this part of the village feels like a ghost town. An area of exceptional beauty, it has become deserted over the years as the old generation died, or those remaining simply left, to be looked after by the younger generation who moved to the town. Despite the fact that it is a rural area with no source of cash income other than the dairy and the kafeneio down the road, it does not look derelict and neglected. But it cannot compete with modern life. The town is only half an hour's drive away; after the highway, the road winds up and down a rather steep hill. Internet is sketchy (better than nothing), but there is a regular source of water and electricity - as long as there is no disconnection, for whatever reason. (The water supply was cut off just after lunch on Easter Sunday.)

As Easter fell rather early this year, there were fewer visitors to the village, creating a rather gloomy atmosphere despite the good weather and the abundance of nature. Mountain village life is based on collective pre-WW2 memories. It's not the easiest of lives in modern times. Most people associated with villages of this type can't even afford to visit their birthplace on a regular basis due to rising petrol costs and lower incomes. The young people whose parents were born there are all working or studying in urban areas. Plenty of seasonal work is available in the town: why stay in a mountains village when living there is no longer feasible?

Despite the difficulties of mountain villages, there are still large communities living in them. (Just not here.) But their contact with humans is severely diminished, to the detriment of their cranial capacities. There are more sheep and goats to talk with than people. The only work available in these parts is based on agriculture, which is becoming increasingly more technical. Those that resisted know that they need to upgrade their skills and machinery - but they also know that they can't do that anyway. Who's going to teach them? Who's going to pay for it all? Nothing comes for free anymore. "Turn your home into a tourist residence!" the ads tell you. "Airbnb!" If only it were that easy.

(At one point, I noticed that my white socks had turned brown. I thought I was hitting my heels on them, but later relaised my socks had simply been subjected to the village dust that had accumulated in the yard, which had never been swept away since last summer. My socks were white inside the shoes, but brown above.)

Life in the lowlands is easier. That's fact, not fiction. Who can blame people for moving away? Mountains are inhospitable by their very nature. You run to the heights to get away from enemies and catastrophes, both of which have now been neutralised to some degree. Modern life makes mountain living expensive. But the houses remain mainly habitable, lovingly restored in the hope that one day, things will get better and be like they were before (the crisis). Hope dies last. But many former reisdents and their descendants still come to spend (a part of) the summer here. Summer makes mountain villages more bearable. Come autumn, and the walls of the house begin to feel cold. They are the first to feel the full brunt of the cooling weather and the northern wind. (It was rather cool on Easter Sunday, despite the sunshine.) Come winter and you're stuck there for who knows how long, until the snow plough clears the road. (I've been up there on Christmas day when we watched the snow falling on the mountains.) The general area is covered in grape vines and olive trees, a sign that humans do actually maintain contact in the area on a regular basis, to tend their crops and look after their ruminants. But to live here permanently? That's a different story.

(I remember the nonegenarian Afroditi, the sole permanent resident for a few years. She lived all alone in this part of the village. As soon as she heard voices, she would make her way to the place where the sounds were coming from. She ate a lot of potatoes, not much meat, and she liked fizzy drinks. She carried a permanent smile on her face. I don't remember her looking unhappy. She was recently discovered to be suffering from severe senility, so her relatives took her to the town to stay with them. She liked having company. She still had lucid thoughts. She told me a story about how important it was not to live alone completely. When her brother was alive she told him to give each other a key to their homes in case they needed help. She knocked on his door one day and found no one opening it. So she went home and took the key and returned. Her brother had suffered a fall. She kept saying how glad she was that she was able to help him at a moment when he needed here. he died a few days later.)

Mountain life hardens you. "Don't mind him, είναι από ψηλό χωριό," we say cagily. Mountain dwellers have a different mindset. They are aloof--- The adjectives required here are too obscure to pinpoint. To call them aloof is an understatement. But to call them unsocial is to show great ignorance of their ways.

(Malamo - younger than me by a decade - told me how she liked going out for a souvlaki once a week. "Don't you like going out for souvlaki too?" Of course, I said, but we usually bring our takeout home because after a hard day's work in the town, we feel the need to get away from its hustle and bustle. "I never do that!" Malamo said. You don't want to do the dishes afterwards, I joked. "That too," she said. "I just want to be near other people." For years, she looked after her invalid parents in law. "I get a chance to see my kids too."  Alekos makes fresh pasta for a restaurant in the old town, Marina is studying physiotherapy, and Vaggelio is a chambermaid in a hotel. They still go back to the village to help their parents, in the fields as well as financially.) 

The roast, the kokoretsi, the sausages, the pancetta, the potatoes - it all tastes delicious. The wine - straight from the barrel - is pure ambrosia. And the beautiful scenery hides all the pains and sorrows of winter past. For that one day, they will not be discussed. They will come back to haunt you another day.

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Friday, 6 April 2018

Easter charity

In a highly depersonalised world, it is easy to shut society out of your own world and to live in your own bubble. It takes some level of courage to connect the more privileged world with the disadvantaged. Hania is a good example of a society where the two sides have more opportunities to come together without prejudice, a testament to Hania's (znd Crete's) long history of multi-culturalism and multi-religionism.

Every year, the (mainly foreign) students of MAICh leave clothes and shoes behind when they leave the institute, stuff in good condition but not able to be taken with them due to lack of suitcase space. They asked me to help them find a way to donate these items to people in need, instead of placing them in the red bins around the town for recycling clothes. The bins are great for recycling, but like all such ventures, the items are collected for profit. This is a classic problem when trying to get rid of old clothes which are in good condition: charities lack space to store them, and they cant coordinate efficient distribution networks: you need vehicles, drivers, petrol, and this does not come for free anywhere. (Same goes for food distribution: it needs planning.) The items were lovingly washed and stored in five clean cases by the students themselves.

Yesterday I drove one of my students to a local well-established well-known charity in the town centre, serving both Greeks and foreigners. The space was being renovated when we turned up. We were asked if the clothes were mainly men's clothes (a clear hint as to what kind of people are in need). They said it would be difficult to store things in their facilities due to lack of space.
Clothes are appreciated but not actually lacking for people in need in my town, because locals regularly update their wardrobes with the latest cheap fashion, so old clothes are often discarded, recylced or given away. You dont need to buy clothes on a daily basis, unlike with food, which is a more imminent need, but there is also plenty of food available in Crete, and locals are very generous when it comes to sharing food, but again, there are certain segments in society that have more immediate needs for food and clothing than other groups: this mainly concerns undocumented male foreigners in our town.

Luckily for us, a Mahgreb (= North African: another hint as to the kind of immigrants in need that live in Hania) happened to be volunteering at the charity when we turned up. I explained in private that the shoes and clothes were all donations from many North Africans like himself, who are studying at MAICh. He was glad to take it all and distribute it among his compatriots here. It is not a coincidence that we met him at Splantzia, close to the church of St Nikolaos, the only one in Greece with a bell tower built on one side and a Muslim minaret on the other, which was restored a few years ago when there were fears it would fall in an earthquake: more evidence of the multiculturalism and tolerance of the town's inhabitants for others' differences. Historically, Splantzia has been the focus of that role in Hania for many centuries.

La chiesa di Agios Nikolaos Splantzi, Chania - Creta, Grecia
The church of Agios Nikolaos in Splantzia, Hania

It was a blessing to have my Mahgreb student with me to hand over, because as in all societies, there are the haves and the not-haves, as well as the lucky and the not-so-lucky, and the two sides rarely meet given that life takes different turns for them: this was a good opportunity for them to do just that. Charity does after all begin in the home.

Easter in the western world is pretty much over for the western world, but Greek Easter is something else, and it seems that the world is taking note of this too. In the reawakening of the modern Greek identity since Greece's troubles were exposed to the world (which is catching up with the ROW, it seems), Greek Easter is regarded even more prominently than it used to be as a form of rebirth. Remember: Christmas in Greece is for children. Easter to Greeks is what Eid is to Muslims. Easter takes on the star role in terms of the festive calendar for people of Greek heritage all over the world, even in the more secular world that Greece has become:
"What is it about this feast that moves even the many atheists and agnostics among us? ... Easter is, above all, a woven cloth of our childhood memories that awaken towards the end of each person's life, bringing with them the mysticism of the candles that burned and blinded our eyes during long-winded family- or school-driven ecclesiastics. Easter still preserves within us the faces of old men who we identified from their chants, women who tried to show that they were more 'religiously correct' than others, the well-dressed and perfectly coiffed genuflectors of the temples. Finally, Easter recalls all the dramatics of our faith, our own ones or our acquaintances'."
Advice for tourists:
"If you haven’t got a Greek family, you’d be well advised to adopt one for the duration, as tavernas do what they can ... but nothing compares with the home-made version." 
Pluck up some courage and invite yourself in. Smile, show some curiosity, and see what happens.

Happy Easter to all.

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