greece: anatomy of a ‘crisis’

words & images anastasia miari

As usual, I stepped off the plane and into a balmy evening, waited for more than an hour for the laissez-faire lady with my hire car to show up, and then drove along the coast to south of the island, to the sleepy village where I had grown up.

Arriving in Greece on the eve of what had been touted as a momentous day in European history—hyperbolized to the point of being described as a day that would ‘go down in history’—I was surprised by Corfu's tranquility upon my arrival.

That night, I ate with my brother at my cousin’s taverna by the beach. The television was on, tuned to a live commentary on the results of the "Yes/No" referendum (to even more austerity, cuts in pensions, and higher tax rates). But the television was on mute and instead life, laughter, and a steady stream of piling up plates were taking priority.

Expecting chaos, I found calm—in Corfu at least. The islanders go about their daily business: buying bread from the local bakery at seven in the morning, spending evenings on porches with family, celebrating Saints' days, prepping bars and restaurants for the busy month of August, shopping, farming: living.

It’s not that the people of Corfu are oblivious to the precipice of economic collapse that they’re currently facing. ‘Crisis’ or ‘Kρίση’ is the word on everyone’s lips. It’s a conversation that is played on repeat, overheard on the beach, in kafeneions and gas stations. Still, the precipice doesn’t appear to be a threat. On an island, there’s a safety net to soften the blow.

“You buy a goat and then you have your milk, plant your vegetables and you have courgettes, aubergines, and potatoes to see you through,” says my godfather, coaching me on the methods of sustainability. Here, the land is rich, and people own their houses because they have built them. They feed themselves with the food that they farm.

“I’ll plant my potatoes; I’ll plant my aubergines and my tomatoes; and I’ll feed my kids that way. I have my house and my family and that’s all I need,” says Maria, mother of twin four-year-old boys. Across the table at this family gathering, curly haired and wild eyebrow-ed Kostas chimes in: “I remember when I was a kid, there was a time that I didn’t own a single pair of shoes. I remember those days and think, as long as our kids are okay—that’s what’s most important.”

For older generations, the memory of war reminds them of the real meaning of the word ‘Kρίση.’ “You don’t know what we saw here with the Germans,” says seventy-nine year-old Tasia. “We used to run and hide when planes crossed over our heads. With the Italians we were okay, but with the Germans we didn’t get along at all. We were only children, but we saw things that you won’t ever see. My brother once found the body of a Greek spy with his eyes poked out by the Germans.”

She sighs. “And now the Germans are asking us to pay them what is owed.”

‘Kρίση’ is on everyone’s lips, but a word is nothing in comparison with the sense of family, community, and togetherness that the Greeks here foster. The economy may be shot, but the nation is proud and united.

“You can’t erase 4,000 years of history,” says Sotiris, a policeman living and working in Athens. He's lounging at a beach bar in Corfu when I stop to talk to him. “We’re arrogant—perhaps the most arrogant—but that’s because the Greeks are the most resilient people," he tells me. "We live all over the world and yet we’re a country where—no matter what happens—we continue being proud of our nation and our joint history. The crisis just doesn’t worry me.”

Of course, it’s not the same for everyone. I’ve heard stories of young mothers borrowing money for baby formula, of friends being owed money for three months of work—unable to leave their job in fear that they may never see that money again—working seven-day weeks for four months straight, not knowing if their work will amount to a paycheck. Yet, there is always a friend or family member ready and willing to help out.

“If you don’t have money to pay the rent, you return back to your village and just don’t go out,” says Odysseas, 34, from Corfu. He runs his own business in Thessaloniki with a friend. Together, they deliver a sports program to schools, teaching physical education to children under the age of seven that would not receive it through the conservative national curriculum here. It costs parents eight euro a month per child to participate in Odysseas’ program, which is the equivalent of two coffees here, and yet Odysseas hasn’t been paid in months. “The only option," he says, "really is for the country to become cheaper and for foreigners to come in and buy us all out. So Greece will belong to others, basically.”

Further up the beach, Tassos and Stathis insist on a positive outcome. “If we didn’t have TVs, we’d all be okay,” says Tassos, who lives in Athens. “Our life hasn’t changed a lot. I just want Greece to be its own country again—autonomous from the rest of Europe. I want us to have our own laws and to govern our own land. We don't all have to be sheep, herded into the same field. We're Greeks, not sheep."

‘Kρίση’ is met with resistance and resilience.

“In the winter, I worked for twelve euros a day at a bakery in Athens, but I liked it there," says thirty-one-year-old Paulos, smiling. "It was a good job." He’s back in Corfu now to run Sirens, his idyllic beach bar. Stathis and Tassos from Athens have come to visit him on holiday and, on the day of the launch party, they step up to work behind the bar.

Here, everyone is willing to help: An aubergine for six eggs, a day in the bakery for a hand behind the bar, a lift to work for a coffee on the house. ‘Krisi’ is just a word in Corfu. Here, actions speak louder than words.

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