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Samos Diary 15


Here is my diary for the week beginning the 5th November 2012. The week in which parliament voted on first the latest round of cuts and austerity measures (Wednesday) and then consolidated that set of policies in the budget vote on Sunday night. The anniversary of Samos’ union with Greece on November 11th 1912 also falls on Sunday of this week.
 
Monday November 5th
 
 
Heavy gales continue today as they have the entire weekend. The wind is from the south which is the most damaging direction for Ambelos. They are characterised by sudden variations in force with some of the gusts causing structural damage to both homes and gardens.
 
The damage is widespread and the road to the village is covered with debris from the surrounding trees. The olive and citrus trees have been especially hard hit. None of this fruit is yet ripe. The annual olive harvest is about to start. And this year, is our ‘on’ year with good crops of olives on the trees.
 
The wind damage was compounded by the long hot and dry summer. To date we have still had little rain compared with other years. As a consequence many of the olive trees are parched. This was the condition of many fruit trees when the gales struck causing a huge fall of under ripe fruit.
 
Much of today has been spent starting the clean up. We picked up 3 buckets of under ripe oranges from our 2 trees. The sweeping up of the fallen olives will take longer. It is depressing to be raking up piles of the fruit which is of no use. If we had had 3 more weeks these would have been collected for oil. Our garden is small by village standards. Most of the farmers here have lost much more.
 
Vegetable gardens were also badly damaged. Dimitri tells me that he has lost half of his potato crop as the plants were smashed. Cabbages and other brassicas were similarly battered and damaged.
 
Sofia, a neighbour had similarly been out cleaning up on the family land. ‘What’ she asked me this afternoon, ‘have we done wrong? Why are we being punished like this?’ I suspect that many share this view as so little goes well these days.
 
But interestingly, this is not the most common response. “Shit happens” is by far the more common reaction. This is an agricultural village and storms and the like happen with all their consequences. You just hope that the timing is not too devastating. About 8 years ago I recall huge damage to vegetables and vines as a result of a brief but violent hale storm in late June that literally shredded the plants and crops. If you farm the land this is what you have to expect and come to terms with. Rolling with the body blows of nature is something that those who have moved from urban to rural Greece to take up farming as a means of survival can find difficult. Recently, the principal of a farm school in northern Greece which was filled with urban returnees undertaking a one year ‘back to the land course’ remarked that he thought only 1% of the students would succeed. Loneliness and isolation, physical graft and total commitment were all cited as factors. It is an all enveloping way of life.
 
Stoicism is one of the core characteristics of a farming community. It extends to political and social life as well as the farm and the garden. It is reflected in Maritsa’s comment to Tony when she says ‘we have been starved before and survived and we will again’. Shit happens.
 
 
 
Tuesday November 6th
 
 
Cleaning up continues. Huge drifts of leaves need to be shifted which have been shredded  by the gales. No wind today and the sea are calmer. Again there are no ferries as today marks the first of a 2 day General Strike against the government’s new austerity measures which are to be voted on tomorrow. The strike means the schools are closed as are most of the public sector services and banks. At least there are more people on hand to help clean up the mess for a couple of days.
 
The gales and the strikes have severely disrupted the links between the island and Athens. There have been no ferries for over a week and the consequences are evident on the under stocked shelves of the supermarkets and the uncertainty over the supply of fresh milk. The peripheral status of Samos is highlighted at such times. Already the journey time to the island from Piraeus is between 12- 14 hours. It is set to become even longer as ferries reduce their speeds from the end of November to save on fuel. This will add a further 2-3 hours to the journey time.
 
 There is little or no discussion in the village about the general strike. Gale damage still the central concern.
 
Today I had an e mail from Patras. In it my close friend Dora relayed that there were many diverse grass roots initiatives emerging in Patras. Many were still fragile and unsure of their direction, but there were some promising signs such as the coming together in some of the projects of undocumented people and refugees (of whom there are many in Patras given the port link to Italy) with other poor Greeks. Groups of women were forming responding to the massive pressure they face as they try to keep, mainly in isolation from one another, their households afloat.
 
Dora along with other progressive social workers, have recently formed a group which rejects the top down pathologising and surveillance role of what passed for ‘official’ social work. Instead they are committed to working alongside and in solidarity with the community and neighbourhood impulses under way. They want to use their skills and knowledge in the service of the people according to priorities determined collectively.
 
It is early days, as Dora never fails to tell me. For myself, I am nourished by her news. “Digging where they stand” as social workers they are committed to developing and creating wholly new forms of welfare practice. They are drawing on experiences from elsewhere, especially the work of Freire in Brazil, and looking at the ways in which over years of community and social engagement in poor and oppressed neighbourhoods organisations such as Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank, and the Zapatistas in Mexico built their support. We need more of these initiatives.
 
The sense of movement, of emergent grass roots initiatives from health provision by teams of doctors and nurses, to food banks, clothing exchanges, markets, cafes and cultural events, is simply not reflected or covered in the Greek mainstream media. If there is any coverage it is episodic like the farmers’ initiative earlier in the year with the free distribution of potatoes and onions.
 
There is a pressing need for this information to be widely known and circulated for this is where our future lies.
 
Later I dropped off air tickets to a friend who goes for a minor operation in Athens tomorrow. One aspect of living under austerity is that nearly all the people we know have got rid of their credit cards. So as holders of a debit card we often get asked if we can order things over the internet. Hence the air tickets. This is another new routine aspect of daily living- sharing a credit card.
 
Bad news from Dimitria and Georgos. This morning their electricity was disconnected. They have not been able to pay their bills for over a year now. They have no regular income and get by on occasional days of manual work. We make plans to go through to Samos town to see the electricity company to see what can be done. Whilst there, a neighbour arrives to tell Georgos that their hot water system on the roof is leaking. The tank by the ‘sun catcher’ is the problem. So now no electricity and no hot water. With no income, each of these events is catastrophic. And it is happening to tens of thousands of people.
 
Wednesday 7th November
 
Tonight is the parliamentary vote on the latest round of cuts to meet the demands of the troika. It is the second day of the general strike. In Ambelos it is like any other day except the children and young people are at home.
 
Just read a report about the explosion of illegal logging in Greece as a result of people turning to wood for household heat given the rise of over 40% in central heating fuel this autumn.
 
Katy is in Athens at the moment to buy a replacement car. She has just called to say that life is incredibly difficult this week as there is no public transport due to the strikes. She is walking kilometers every day to look at cars!
 
For the first time I saw an old lady in Karlovassi sorting through discarded food in one of the rubbish bins near to Dimitria and Georgos’ house. She was taking the defrosted packets of vegetables thrown out by the nearby mini market.
 
Our friend Maria texted from the big demo in Athens taking place outside parliament as the MPs prepare to vote. She says she is in a war zone with tear gas and water cannon being used against the people (yet again).
 
Thursday 8th November
 
As expected the austerity measures were passed. Nobody here seems to know much about the details but everyone knows it can only mean more problems, worries and pain. Paniotis told me this morning that he now has major fears for his job as a school teacher. He is one of thousands of teachers in Greece who are ‘temporary’ appointments who are contracted for a school year at a time. The latest austerity measures include draconian cuts in public employment and according to Paniotis it looks likely that the state hopes to dismiss 2,000 teachers every 3 months for the next year.
 
There are no strikes today so went with Georgos to discuss with the electricity company what they can do about the disconnection. Just before leaving for Samos town from Karlovassi a couple of electricity workers called at the house to check that the meter had not been tampered with and illegally re-connected. We later learnt from the manager in the central office that these checks would be made randomly and regularly and if they should re-connect illegally they could expect a prison sentence.
 
In some parts of Greece there have been successful community campaigns both preventing disconnections and reconnecting where it has been cut. YouTube even has a do it yourself video guide of how to reconnect your supply. The response of the company has been to remove the cable to the house following a fixed time period after disconnection making it much more difficult to restore the supply.
 
A small group proposing similar action on Samos made contact with them yesterday offering to reconnect their supply. Georgos discovered that none of the group had been disconnected themselves and contrary to their previous statements that they would refuse to pay their electricity bills in protest and solidarity with those who couldn’t pay none had taken this action. He wasn’t confident in the group, and he felt that he and Dimitria would be exposed without sufficient protection especially as the electricity company had already made it clear that they were under surveillance.
 
Without any fuss we got to see the manager. He was a young guy, very sympathetic but bound by regulations that offered little. Even with the property tax element (now included with the electricity bill) removed, the company would need 75% of the debt to be repaid before reconnecting and making any arrangements for the collection of the remaining debt. In this case it amounts to 760 euros. It may as well be 10 million euros as far as Georgos and Dimitria are concerned.
 
Friday 9th November
 
Firas came to visit this morning. He has been on Samos for six years and arrived as a refugee from north Africa. We sat and listened to an interview with an Irish journalist Damian Mac Co Uladh who had followed the story of the 29 year old Egyptian bakery worker who had been held and beaten by his employer on the small island of Salamina (close by Athens) (http://news.radiobubble.gr/2012/11/rbnews-international-weekly-show-10.html). It is an horrendous story of sadistic torture, eighteen hours of which involved Talib Walid being chained to the ground from a collar round his neck and systematically beaten and threatened in a stable close to the bakery where he worked. As Damian remarked this was being done to Walid by people who knew him. Even when he managed to release himself the story gets no better. First he wandered for 3 hours in the village and even when he collapsed it seemed that the first people who stopped did so to take photographs! When he eventually got to the hospital the doctors assessed him as not needing hospitalization and discharged him despite the fact that his injuries included evidence of internal bleeding. And on it goes, including spending 3 nights in a police cell. The case is ongoing.
 
Just what is happening to people that they can behave with such inhumanity to a fellow human?
 
It seems too easy just to explain all these things by reference to the ‘crisis’ without attempting to unpick the steps and journey that takes someone to a point where they commit the most horrendous of atrocities. In the Salamina case, the baker, his son and 2 accomplices punctuated their 18 hours of torture by sitting around and having a drink and a smoke in the stable as they planned when to kill Walid. It was as if they were at some social event.
 
Everyone we knew was shocked by this outrage and also many were troubled about what it may imply for themselves and their society. And ‘being troubled’ is an aspect of life under austerity that is rarely discussed and yet is almost daily reinforced in often horrifying ways. For Firas, this was graphically illustrated by the emergence of public suicides in a country that traditionally had one of the lowest suicide rates in Europe.” But now, there were 350 suicide attempts and 50 deaths in Athens in June alone. Most of the suicides were among members of the middle class and, in many cases, the act itself was carried out in public, almost as if it were a theatrical performance“ (http://www.democraticunderground.com/10021136262). 
 
As Firas noted, such a regular diet of horror stories whether they be of especially dramatic suicides such as that of the retired pharmacist who shot himself in Syntagma Square in the spring of this year or of the daily terrors perpetrated by Golden Dawn and the police which now embrace attacks on disabled people, gays, Jews and Romany people as well as undocumented migrants and refugees are literally disturbing as we struggle to come to terms with this unfolding human catastrophe.
 
Saturday 10th November
 
A chance meeting with Ghia who lives with her family on the south coast of Samos. She and some friends were starting out on a project to develop and promote the foods of Samos. It is an idea that has been floating around for some months as people search out new routes for survival and sustainability for as many recognize Samos has much potential given its richness and fertility of the land. Ghia and her friends are looking to create amongst other things a co-operative of artisanal food producers to promote and sell natural Samos foods.
 
Alongside our shared enthusiasm for this initiative which led us to dream of how it could unfold in so many diverse ways, Ghia also bemoaned how the state’s endless bureaucratic demands made the process of launching anything here so frustrating, time consuming and unnecessary.
 
I drove back to the village and saw that many families were out today gathering olives.. It is clear to me now that these routines of the agricultural year, whether it is pruning the vines, picking the grapes, making the wine, then later the suma, then the olives and then ….. give the village a structure/framework that you will never find in a city. But in these times of crisis it also provides a form of protection in so many ways I have yet to make sense of. It provides for any number of shared connections within the village community; it is a deeply rooted set calendar which stretches back and links generations; it is about a relationship with the land and the trees which whilst affected by the crisis is also above the crisis in so many ways; it provides a constancy at a time of endless tumult in so many other parts of our lives. There are still many good things to life in Ambelos.
 
Sunday 11th November
 
Sad day in many ways sorting out the tickets so that Tariq can leave for France in a couple of weeks. He has been here for five years and will be leaving his Greek partner behind. He is going to look for work, for some income. He does not want to go but there is absolutely nothing available on the island that will support them through this winter. With the help of family and friends Tariq has this opportunity to leave and although he does not know what he will find when he gets to France he feels that it has to be better than Samos in terms of finding work.
 
Later in the week Kosta will be calling by so we can order his and his partner’s tickets for East Europe. Deeply committed to the village and their land they too are leaving against their will as they can’t survive here any longer. 5 years of unprecedented economic decline now layered by cruel austerity measures are bringing more and more people to their knees. So many good people are leaving.
 
Tonight Parliament approved the budget which will deliver the 13 billion euro cuts programme over the next two years.
 

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